When in Rome - Cover

When in Rome

Copyright© 2023 by FantasyLover

Chapter 14

After the ambush in the pass, Antiochus retreated to the city of Belen to reorganize and allow his troops to recover. He didn’t leave for three days. By then, he had troops on every hill we could have used for an ambush and reached Alexandria late in the afternoon. However, we’d abandoned the city, not interested in trying to hold it. Our scouts noted that none of the elephant cavalry arrived with him, and that he had less than half of the three thousand cataphract cavalry he started with.

Our pickets were alert all night, wary of a surprise attack. Our big catapults were loaded, ready to fire and one man remained on duty at each, rotating watch duty between each member of the catapult team so they were all able to sleep.

Well before dawn, our horses were saddled, bows were strung, and the men were armored and ready for battle. We ate a cold breakfast in the saddle, waiting for the Seleucid troops. I’d been surprised at the number of small statues of the goddess that I’d seen among our troops. At least one man in each company had one and most of the other men in his company stopped to touch the statue. When the Seleucids formed up into ranks, my cornicen sounded, “Prepare to attack,” and the men went on high alert.

I observed the remaining Seleucid heavy cavalry to our left, obviously not happy that they couldn’t use the beach because our navy was just offshore, and the beach was easily in range of their ship-based catapults. To our left was where I had hoped they would be unless they were stupid enough to try to use the beach.

Despite assurances I had received from the Goddess that this battle would be strictly a land-based attack by the Seleucids, most of our ships were standing off the coast watching to the south and west. If the Seleucid navy didn’t show up, they would sail for the Seleucian port of Seleucia, which supplied the Seleucid’s inland capital. With the usual onshore winds, they should be able to capture the port with a minimum of difficulty.

While waiting for Antiochus to recover from our ambush, we had spent the last three days surveying the battlefield, finally choosing a location that provided us a slight elevation advantage for our catapults. We assembled ten of the large catapults and thirty of the smaller ones in clusters that could dominate the battlefield. Aside from being much easier to transport, the smaller catapults had two other advantages. They were light enough that two men could rotate and aim them without the need for a team of horses or mules, and they were short enough that they could be hidden behind a row of cavalry.

We assembled the smaller catapults ahead of time. Lying them down, they were still low enough that they were hidden by the tall grass covering the area but could be stood upright in just a few minutes by the crew. When our scouts first reported the Seleucid army on the move from their capital, they had estimated sixty thousand infantry, three thousand cataphract cavalry, and a hundred elephant cavalry. The estimate for the infantry still looked right, but the elephant cavalry hadn’t arrived and the cataphract cavalry was down to about twelve hundred.

Having learned early on during my time in the Corps that the best battle plan involved both offense and defense, much like playing a game of soccer or basketball, I spent the day before their expected arrival reviewing our battle plan with my officers.

It’s important that members of the defense practice their response to what an opponent’s offense does. In football, if the opponent’s offense sends three receivers to one side, you can’t shift your entire defensive line. You shift linebackers or defensive backs to cover them.

Our plan was to do the same. Our reserve companies would respond when and where they were needed. The companies on the front line were to remain fixed in place and to focus on what was in front of them, not be distracted by any of the flanking maneuvers I was sure Antiochus would attempt. In the intervening months since our capture of Cilicia, I had learned as much as I could about the tactics Antiochus employed. Military officers from Pergamum and the Aetolian League had been eager to help, having faced him before. They had even given me examples of captured Seleucid weapons and armor.

We allocated four companies of mounted troops as a reserve to respond to either or both flanks if necessary. After seeing the cataphract cavalry avoid the beach after noting our catapult ships offshore this morning, the reserve troops were all positioned behind our left flank. The remaining mounted troops would face the Seleucids. Right behind them were the catapults, although the Seleucids would only be able to see the ten large catapults until it was too late for them. Even the large catapults had been covered with brush, hoping to hide them until the attack began. Once the attack began, our cavalry would separate and create lanes for the smaller catapults to fire.

The ten companies of trained and mounted Roman troops would be our tertiary defense, ready to move wherever they were needed. Four thousand Roman foot soldiers provided our last-ditch defense. Each of them was armed with a sword and four pikes. Those with previous experience with a bow were furnished the old-style bow they were trained with.

Our catapults had already been sighted in using concrete practice rounds and the landmarks on the battlefield at the farthest extent of their range had been noted. My untrained (in using our weapons and tactics) foot soldiers were aboard our ships, ready to land wherever they were needed; hopefully behind the Seleucids if they tried to flee.

On our left flank, we had prepared several nasty surprises for the Seleucid cavalry, well before they would reach our troops. That was the reason I’d hoped they’d choose that side. Three hundred feet of spears awaited them. The spears were tied to crosspieces, almost like a picket fence. Each section of fence was twenty feet wide, with a spear positioned every foot. The base of each section was secured, and three ropes were tied to the top of each section. Two men were assigned to pull each of the three ropes to pivot their assigned section up until the tips were four feet off the ground and pointed at the advancing enemy. We had assembled the sections in Puteoli and brought them with us.

The next obstacles the cavalry would face were trip ropes hidden in the tall grass and tied between the trunks of the few trees in the area between our two armies. The third surprise was four thousand caltrops scattered in front of our left flank in the path their cavalry was most likely to take to reach us. A short time ago, one of my men made sure the people in the nearby village knew where the caltrops were so they wouldn’t wander into the area and end up injured after we left. I gave them permission to pick up and keep any caltrops left after the battle, assuming that we won. The village’s indigent could sell the iron.

The battlefield I chose was purposely a narrow one, probably only eight hundred feet wide. Subtract three hundred feet along the coast where our fleet could bombard their army using the catapults, and the battlefield was barely five hundred feet wide. That meant their troops would be packed like sardines on the battlefield, with the rear ranks pressing the front ranks forward, just like happened when the Persians fought Alexander.

Our troops began the battle by releasing two flights of arrows once the Seleucid troops formed into ranks but before they began advancing. The front rank released their first flight of arrows in a high, parabolic arc and many of the Seleucid infantry raised their shields. The second rank released theirs a moment later, with as little elevation as possible so that the flight would catch any Seleucid troops who had their shields over their heads.

Our reserve troops targeted the Seleucid cavalry using a high parabolic arc, so the arrows carried as much force as possible as they descended. The tips of our arrows were Wootz steel, diamond shaped to help penetrate armor. Once the first flights of arrows were on the way, our horns sounded and the ten large catapults launched quicklime rounds, as did the ships just offshore.

Half of those ships came in dangerously close to the beach, so their rounds reached as far inland as possible, some rounds exploding nearly five hundred feet beyond the surf, more than halfway across the narrow battlefield. With the onshore breeze, the powder would drift inland instead of drifting back through the files of Seleucid infantry. The ships were able to target the infantry troops behind those our land-based catapults were able to cover with the quicklime.

When their infantry pulled out wet cloths to cover their faces, I laughed. They were still marching forward, unable to see where they were going. Many of them tripped over the man in front of them who had stopped to cover his face.

Our front rank of cavalry shifted to allow the smaller catapults to operate, and they began launching napalm into the swirling white cloud of quicklime. The four catapults nearest the left side of our lines targeted the Seleucid cataphract cavalry.

Three of the catapults launched napalm rounds. The fourth launched one filled with black powder. Between the fire and the huge explosion, the Seleucid cavalry’s horses panicked and bolted. A few ran towards us, finding our traps. Some rushed into the hilly area farther to the east, usually after dumping their riders. Most ran towards the rear, some only after finding any escape to the west blocked by the tightly packed Seleucid infantry.

I noted that our ships that had remained farther offshore were now gone. I assumed they were sending their infantry ashore south of the battlefield.

I motioned to my trumpeters and had them sound the “cease fire”. The only ones actually fighting at that moment were the catapults. Everyone else was waiting, wondering if the Seleucid troops would reach our lines or if they, too, would succumb to or flee from the devastating attacks from our catapults.

It took several minutes before the right half of the battlefield was visible, and it wasn’t pretty. As the remainder of the battlefield cleared, I could see that the Seleucid troops closest to our lines were down. The ones behind them remained upright, but had stopped, trying to help their comrades-in-arms.

Signaling companies one through six, the cavalry troops to my right, I sent them towards the beach and to the south, along with our four reserve companies. Since we didn’t have a horn signal for the maneuver, I had the horns signal for attention. I was on a slight rise where everyone could see me and motioned for the remaining troops to spread out along the front to cover the area vacated when the six companies were sent around the Seleucids.

Some of the remaining Seleucid troops started running to the south, pulling up short when they saw our ship-based infantry had debarked and were advancing northward.

It was well after dark before we finished treating all the Seleucid troops affected by the quicklime. We even paid two thousand people, some from the nearby village and the rest from the city of Alexandria, to help us, explaining to them how best to help the stricken Seleucid troops. Dealing with so many troops presented a logistical challenge due to our limited supply of clean cloth, so I paid people from the city to bring more. Groups of women washed the cloths thoroughly with seawater, and others rinsed the seawater out of the cloths in the shallow river that ran across our battlefield. Others gathered buckets of water from the same river.

I insisted that nobody rinse out cloths covered with quicklime in the river, and that they avoid any water right along the edges of the river as it might still have quicklime along the edges. I knew that quicklime reacted with water but didn’t know enough about what happened chemically when that happened or if the byproducts were dangerous.

Amazingly, fewer than five thousand of the Seleucid troops died. Most of those were either killed by the napalm, were cataphract cavalry who were thrown from their horses, or were infantry trampled by terrified horses trying to escape.

Antiochus was the first Seleucid that our ship-based infantry had encountered as they advanced from the south. The horses pulling his highly decorated chariot had stampeded, overturning the chariot, and dumping both Antiochus and the chariot driver. The driver was severely bruised and had a broken arm. Antiochus had a broken leg, a broken arm, and lots of bruises to show for his rough landing.

His bow had been located several feet from where he fell, but he still wore his sword with the jewel-encrusted hilt. When I sent troops to Alexandria for more help, they found his chariot and the four horses that had dragged it nearly a mile after it overturned. The horses had stopped at a stream well south of the battlefield.

Displaying the captured bow, sword, and chariot of a defeated king in this time period was equivalent to displaying his captured crown in later eras.

Nervous city leaders met me when we escorted their women who had helped us, to make sure they arrived home safely. “Thank you for the help,” I said cordially, and tried to reassure them that the city wouldn’t be punished a second time because they had admitted Antiochus into the city. One of the people helping us had told me that Antiochus had left his wife and children in the city.

“Please assure Antiochus’s wife and children that he is alive. He broke bones in his right arm and right leg when his chariot overturned. I set the bones and he should recover completely. See that they are comfortable and treated as befitting their station. Please escort them and their belongings to my tent tomorrow morning so they can join him aboard the ship taking him to Rome. Assure them that they will not be mistreated.

“Also, a great many of the cataphract cavalry’s horses ran off today. Please spread word that there is a reward for the armor. Whoever finds the horse is free to keep it, although I will gladly buy any they wish to sell. However, there will be a severe penalty for any person, as well as their entire community if we find they kept the armor,” I warned, and then rode away.

The next day, seven thousand uninjured or ambulatory wounded Seleucid troops began the trip to Puteoli. I sent only the professional soldiers, paying and releasing the conscripted troops once they had finished burying the dead troops and horses, and otherwise cleaning up the battlefield. We even let the conscripts keep their swords or spears for protection on the way home.

Those with more serious injuries were taken to Alexandria. We used pine oil and millet cakes impregnated with penicillin mold to treat their wounds as best we could. Both professional and conscripted troops who had been seriously wounded and survived would be released when they were well enough to walk home. Any who died would be buried honorably outside the city.

It was five days later before we were finally ready to leave. Some of the untrained Roman foot soldiers guarded the Seleucid troops being transported to Puteoli. The officer in charge of all the Roman troops had been through our training. He had also spoken extensively with the troops that had been in Macedon with me, as well as the troops who had battled the pirates.

Our warships were now to sail south along the coast and capture the six main port cities. Those cities included Seleucia, Laodicea, Aradus, Tripolis, Byblus, and Berytus. A thousand of our untrained troops accompanied them to supervise the looting. If the cities surrendered, they would take the single females and loot the usual buildings. No more than a hundred craftsmen, as well as their families, would be taken. If they resisted, the punishment would depend on the level of resistance. One sixth of the Roman troops would remain behind to secure each city.

Seleucia (modern Samandag) was the port city for Antiochus on the Orontes, the Seleucian capital, or as close to a permanent capital as they had.

Laodicea (modern Latakia) is the main port of modern Syria. Aradus (modern Arwad) was a major trading city built entirely on an island and had a strong navy. Tripolis (modern Tripoli, Lebanon) was a wealthy trading city renowned for the cedar they shipped and for their shipbuilding. Byblus was a major city, and Berytus (modern Beirut) was the final wealthy city our ships would attack.

My plan, which the Senate had approved, was to offer Ptolemy the area south of Berytus. Ptolemy and Antiochus had constantly clashed over the area, especially the inland city of Damascus. What the Senate expected in return was for Ptolemy to become an ally and allow unrestricted trade in goods, services, and ideas.

While our navy dealt with the port cities, I led most of our troops inland, retracing the route Antiochus had used to reach Alexandria. We recovered most of the surviving cataphract horses and confiscated horses from the city’s troops and wealthy citizens. A thousand of our infantry, those with the most experience riding, used the horses all day. The remainder would trade off during the day with four hundred of them riding for half the morning or afternoon before trading off. All of our large catapults were back aboard the ships.

The troops that were still afoot would follow us at their best speed. Our mounted troops should reach Antioch on the Orontes in two days. The infantry troops would probably need one more day.

When we arrived in Belen, where Antiochus had left the troops wounded in our ambush in the pass, the city opened the gates nervously. I ordered them to transport the cataphract armor and weapons to Alexandria where it would be shipped to Puteoli. I took the horses of the cataphract cavalry, as well as all the other horses in the city, for the rest of our infantry troops to ride.

Any slave who wanted their freedom was sent to Alexandria to catch one of our ships to Puteoli, which would probably be when the ships returned for another load. Then we pillaged the usual buildings, loading carts and mules, and sent everything to Alexandria. The freed slaves were happy to supervise transporting the plunder for us.

I noticed the injured cataphract troops in the city staring at our saddles in awe.

We left the city two days later, headed farther into the pass, my scouts guarding any potential ambush sites. When we finally exited the pass, we continued south while the Roman troops traveled eastward. They had a daunting task before them. First, they had to capture the large Seleucian cities to the east, and then down the Tigris and up the Euphrates. Next, they had to travel even farther east to the far reaches of the Seleucid Empire, which reached into modern India. They took half of our small catapults and the majority of the ammunition with them.

The Roman troops would have to deal with Armenia, Bactria, Parthia, Atropatene, Hindukush, Persia, and the Mauryan Empire. While nominally part of the Seleucid Empire, they required constant military reminders of the fact, something that had kept Seleucid King Antiochus III “on the road” constantly. It had been one of those “reminders” that had kept him from being ready to confront us for a year.

I had argued with the Roman Senate about the wisdom of trying to hold that huge area together by force of arms. Just to travel from one end of the Seleucid Empire to the other required traveling more than two thousand miles. Rome, and every country in the eastern Mediterranean, was aware of the number and frequency of battles that Antiochus III fought to preserve his empire. I reminded them that it could take a year to learn that there was a problem far to the east, and another year for troops to reach the area. I asked if they were willing to spend the vast sums of money required to train and maintain a large enough army to deal with those problems.

Grudgingly, they finally agreed with my suggestion. Each of the countries would become a vassal or client state of Rome and had to agree to five stipulations:

1. Do nothing to harm Rome

2. Respect the borders of the other vassal states

3. Allow unfettered trade of goods, services, and ideas

4. Pay Rome five silver Talents a year or the equivalent in trade goods

5. Allow worship of the Goddess

In return, Rome would leave them alone and would send troops to defend them if they were attacked.

If they refused the agreement or agreed and then broke it, Rome would send the troops necessary to conquer them, sending every man, woman, and child that survived to Rome as a slave. Aside from their clothing, everything else would be sent to Rome as spoils and their territory would be divided between nearby vassal states. By now, I was sure that even cities that far away would know about the fate of Pella and Amphipolis.

We reached Antioch mid-afternoon on the second day. Like Belen, they agreed to our terms and admitted us nervously. The first thing I did was to have the top government and military officials brought to me to prevent problems.

We took the single women, and asked slaves if they wanted to remain there as slaves or travel to Puteoli or Macedon where they would be freed. All but a handful chose freedom. After that, we selected the one in ten of the remaining population, including the craftsmen I wanted.

Then we told each wealthy person to surrender half of their wealth. We asked their former slaves if they felt the amount surrendered to us was close to half of their former master’s wealth. I was surprised that the vast majority complied but assumed that it was probably due to fear of the consequences if they didn’t. Only six wealthy families ended up joining us as slaves for trying to cheat.

After a day of rest, a hundred of our former foot soldiers were promoted to the cavalry and began shepherding the people and goods we were sending to the port of Seleucia for transport to Puteoli. Messengers had reported that the port had immediately surrendered and only suffered limited looting, along with us taking all the city’s single women and slaves, and a hundred craftsmen and their families. Belen was small enough that I hadn’t taken the craftsmen.

Estimating that our ships would take four to five weeks to make the trip to Puteoli, unload, and return, I made sure our men had enough money to buy food for everyone for a month, and we delivered grain and other food from Antioch to help feed everyone.

Ten days after our arrival in Antioch, we reached our second destination, the city of Apamea. There, city leaders met us at the gate and presented us with four trussed up men. “These men wanted to gather an army and fight against you, sure that they would win and regain the lost territory. We don’t want to end up like Pella,” the leaders explained.

“You did the right thing,” I replied.

Turning to the bound officers, I asked, “Not one of our men was injured in the battle against Antiochus. By now, he and his family have reached their new home, far from here. If we could defeat Antiochus and his main army, what chance does another army have?” Rather than answer, they just scowled at me.

Oh, my, what a surprise awaited us! Apamea was the Seleucian treasury. It was also where the royal stables were. I assumed that most of the Seleucian warhorses had been at the battle. Wrong! There were over thirty thousand mares and six hundred stallions here to breed more warhorses. In addition, they had two hundred more elephants. I had no idea what to do with the elephants. They looked impressive, but they required a shitload of forage and specially trained handlers. I almost wished that I had a big island like Madagascar where I could just turn them loose.

Then I had one of my rare brainstorms, one of my rare ones since I had enlisted in the Marines, not that enlisting in the Marines had anything to do with my lack of brainstorms. I’d had that problem long before enlisting. I’d bet that Ptolemy would like the elephants. Two hundred elephants would be one hell of a gift of friendship from the Republic.

The rest of our conquest of the Seleucids was anticlimactic. From Apamea, we continued south, looting Epiphania (modern Hama), Emesa (modern Homs), and Heliopolis (modern Baalbek). From Heliopolis, we headed for the coast and Berytus. Messengers had already arrived from each city letting me know that the city now belonged to Rome. Seeing our flags flying from the city walls just confirmed it. Celsus and Theodocio rode out to meet us, leading a hundred troops who were their personal guards. Both men grinned as they approached.

“Again, you have exceeded even the most optimistic expectations,” Theodocio exclaimed excitedly.

“The Senate is ecstatic about the armor for the cataphract cavalry that you sent back. The ships you sent loaded with the thousand best mares and two hundred best stallions went directly to your Valencia latifundium so you can continue breeding them. The sale of the remainder is bringing wealthy buyers from all over Rome and Greece. The Senate deeded you all the land you asked for in Sicily and the third latifundium you asked for in Iberia in exchange for one quarter of the horses. They took the best mares that we unloaded in Puteoli, planning to breed more horses for their new troops. They’re starting a huge latifundium north of the military training base where they intend to breed the horses.

“We spoke with Ptolemy and he’s both excited and nervous. He’s worried that you won’t stop your invasion until you reach his capital, Alexandria. He and his regent agreed that, if the treaty we outlined is real, they are excited.”

“Then let’s head for Alexandria and reassure him,” I replied.

“Captain,” I hollered to my second in command who was riding at the head of the first group of troops behind me. He hurried up to me to see what I wanted.

“I leave everything in your capable hands,” I told him. “These gentlemen want to take me to reassure Ptolemy.”

“Yes, Sir,” he replied with a smart salute, thumping his right fist on his chest. I returned his salute and then turned back to Theodocio and Celsus.

“Lead the way.”

Two days later, despite warnings from Theodocio and Celsus, it was all I could do to keep from gawking at the not-quite-twelve-year-old King. In spite of myself, I managed a passable genuflection.

“How do we know that you don’t intend to invade us?” his regent demanded.

“Quite simple,” I replied. “I’m here and my troops aren’t. If I intended to invade, my ships would have surrounded your ports and attacked. My other troops would have been just outside each of your largest coastal cities demanding their surrender.

“I’m sure that you have gathered as much information about our attacks on Macedonian, Cilician, and Seleucian cities as you could. At no point did we pretend to befriend them. We simply demanded that they surrender or fight.”

“Why do you want to give us part of the territory you just captured?” the regent continued, although he sounded less confrontational.

“Again, I’m sure that you learned all you could about our conquest of Macedon. We ended up giving parts of Macedon to our Greek allies to reassure them that they were not our next target. None of the cities in the area you are being offered have been attacked or looted.”

“What do you want from us?” the young king asked.

“Another ally,” I replied. “We want to increase trade with you, especially now that the pirates have been dealt with.”

“Will we be able to buy your new inventions?” the regent asked.

“Everything except the ammunition we use for the catapults. If you are attacked and need those, we will send troops to your aid. I even brought you one of our saddles as a gift,” I replied.

Showing his youthful exuberance, the King wanted to try the saddle right away. He was just as excited when I told him about the elephants. Just over an hour later, we were back inside and concluded a deal and signed a treaty. Everything south of a line through Damascus, all the way to the west bank of the Euphrates River, was now part of the Ptolemaic Empire.

As part of the formal agreement, I asked that my ships be granted unlimited access to the canal reaching from the Nile River to the Red Sea, and that I be allowed to buy a plot of land in the Red Sea Port of Berenike where I could build a latifundium that included a wharf and a warehouse, as well as living quarters for my workers and room to raise the food necessary to feed them. Both the King and the regent readily agreed.

As we talked over meals during the rest of the day, I learned that, while they appreciated how much easier the Nile canal made trade with countries to their south and east, they were concerned that it might be used as an invasion route. We haggled for most of the next morning, and they finally agreed to grant me fifty stadion square (about thirty-three square miles), along with allowing me to buy the same amount of land, giving me a bit more than eighty thousand acres along the canal’s north bank, just west of the city of Heroopolis. Heroopolis was the port city at the eastern terminus of the canal. On my new property, I would build a large fortification with high, thick walls wide enough that we could use the smaller catapults from the top of the walls and could easily reach any invader’s ships in the canal. I would provide a thousand men armed with our weapons, as well as catapults once the walls were complete.

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