Authors: Jack Ludlow
To Roy and Trish David,
the creative and academic
heart of Nantwich
ighting on the Persian frontier was about containment, which had frustrated Flavius Belisarius ever since he arrived. Just eighteen summers in age yet in command of a half
of light cavalry, he thirsted for the kind of fight in which reputations were made and deeds attained of which people would speak in decades and centuries to come: he wanted glory and with the impatience of youth he wanted it right away.
This attitude he maintained while serving alongside men who had experienced proper battle, soldiers far from happy at the prospect that conflict on a large scale might break out once more. Many had previously faced the might of the Sassanid Persian Empire and were wary of doing so again. The Romans had enjoyed little success against an enemy that generally outnumbered them and one that could rapidly gather its forces given the frontier was closer to their heartlands.
If Sassanid Persia sent forth a heterogeneous army, made up of many different tribal groups, then that too applied to the troops raised and paid for by Constantinople. Centuries had passed since Rome could
field an army made up of its own citizens or indeed men recruited from within its own territories. The empire relied on mercenary barbarians to fight its battles, and given the Emperor Anastasius was a parsimonious ruler, such troops were numerically too low in the uneasy times of peace and late to arrive in proper quantities when real danger threatened.
The mainstay of the policy of containment was the great fortress at Dara, a massive effort at construction begun after the last conflict, one in which the Romans had been forced to buy a truce by paying a huge sum in gold to the Sassanid King Kavadh. Dara was a stronghold designed to ensure that no such bribes would ever be needed again but it was not a springboard for attack: likewise enterprising officers were discouraged from poking at the Sassanid hornet’s nest lest some small action provoke a less containable response.
‘It is like fighting with one arm tied behind your back.’
This opinion was imparted to the eunuch Narses, the man who commanded the force of which Belisarius was a part, sent out from Dara to patrol borderlands that were porous and always under threat of raids by small bodies of tribal forces in search of easy plunder. The forward screen had seen smoke hanging in the sky, which often indicated an incursion; the fact that had still been rising suggested it might still be in progress.
Flavius Belisarius had been strongly for Narses to cross into Persian territory and cut off the raiders from their homelands so they could be properly chastised. This meant annihilated and their bones left to rot, which would serve as a warning to others. Narses, who carried the greater responsibility, while acknowledging the temptation, had demurred at this. He feared the possibility of the kind of retaliation
that could get out of hand, for the imperial edicts were perfectly clear: hold our territory but do not provoke.
Thus the Romans marched straight for the column of smoke, even the cavalry, which could have ridden to seal the route of escape, so surprise was sacrificed. However engaged the raiders were in their robbery and rapine none could miss the signs of such a force marching across a dry and arid landscape, especially the clouds of dust sent up by the horses’ hooves.
Frustration that had been barely disguised now came near to boiling over. Narses would not release Flavius to at least get amongst the enemy as they began to retire, waiting until they were well away from the burning homesteads of a fertile valley before initiating the chase and that came with a parting command.
‘You know where the border is, Flavius Belisarius. The marking posts you cannot miss. Do not cross it at a peril from which your high and mighty connections will struggle to protect you.’
That was maddening; worse was the quality of the unit he led. The establishment of a
was set at three hundred fighting men, yet there was not a unit in the imperial armies that had that as its true strength. Flavius was deficient by a full quarter of what should have been his command and, in addition, the provision of horses, the main source of mounted effectiveness, was far from perfect. Any kind of sustained and disciplined movement was constrained by the variety and fitness of what was being ridden.
Personally well mounted, nothing more than a fast canter was possible lest he wished to find himself isolated with only a rump of support; in short, most of those Flavius led could not keep up with him. So much for high connections, he thought, recalling the barbed comment of a commander keen to remind him that support
in Constantinople was no guarantee of survival in the face of failure.
Such thoughts were banished as the first of the short marble pillars marking the frontier came into view. His enemies had been well enough ahead of him to get across that first and what had been headlong flight ceased; such raiders knew of the restrictions on Roman actions as well as those who laboured under them. Perhaps if they had not jeered and bared their buttocks they would not have brought on such a furious response.
Flavius slowed his mount and issued a series of shouted commands to get his men into some form of order. To those observing them, far enough inside their home territory to be safe from the best cast spear, it must have looked like a display of useless impotence and they were vocal in their ridicule. Their loud jeers were stilled as, a hundred paces from the borderline, the man who led their enemies called for the horn to be blown that initiated an advance.
The shocked raiders failed to react fast enough to secure their escape; those on horses, the leaders, who had remained mounted, fled at speed, pursued by Flavius and those of his own cavalry on horses of matching quality, some fifty in total. But most of the marauders had been on foot and, having jogged for over a league while carrying that which they had plundered, they were now too short of wind to even scatter properly before the Romans got amongst them and slaughter ensued.
Concentrating on his own quarry Flavius was not witness to what ensued. He was riding flat out, his eye on a pair of marauders who, by their richer accoutrements, in reality decorated helmets and fine cloaks, could be the leaders of the raid. He had his reins in one hand and a spear in the other, this as he shouted commands he was unsure
would be heard, to get his subordinates to select a target and pursue it to the exclusion of anyone else.
‘None to live,’ was his last bellowed command.
A full gallop could not be maintained for long even on a fine animal and between his thighs Flavius could feel his horse beginning to tire. Yet if that applied to him it did so equally to those he was pursuing and the gap was closing as their mounts, harder worked by the trials of the day, visibly flagged. Always proud of his ability to cast a spear, Flavius took one of the riders ahead in the middle of his back as, raising himself from his hunched position to look over his shoulder, he presented a worthwhile target.
The way the man reared up as the spear sliced through his cloak, added to the scream that went with it, alerted his companion to the proximity of the fellow who had cast it. He too looked backwards as the mortally wounded rider alongside him slid out of his saddle to hit the ground. In doing so he obviously concluded that flight would not save him so he suddenly hauled hard on his reins and in a display of outstanding horsemanship, riding an animal that had reared up to send foaming flecks in all directions, he spun it round on its rear hooves to face the charging Roman.
The action, so sudden, caught Flavius off guard. Only by slipping a foot out of a stirrup and ducking along the outer flank of his own mount did he manage to avoid the swinging blade that would have removed his head. His assailant, sensing he was going to miss his main objective, sought to drive down with the sword in order to maim the horse, an act that removed a major portion of his mount’s flying tail.
Flavius swung round in order to engage, his newly drawn sword out and ready, and for the first time, as they closed, he could look into the face of his opponent, to see a pair of startlingly blue eyes
set in pallid skin that indicated the fellow might be Circassian. This registered along with the realisation that his opponent would likely be a doughty fighter for he came of a race of grassland dwellers allied to Sassanid Persia, famed for their horsemanship as well as their fighting skills.
Time for further speculation disappeared as one sword blade clashed against another as the two horsemen hastily passed each other by. Flavius too was a highly proficient rider, just as well, for he had been afforded a scant interval to wheel again and face a renewed onslaught from an enemy who was able to spin his horse with greater speed.
To fight with swords on horseback imposes dangers that do not exist on foot; the mounts, regardless of what the man in control wishes, do not always obey in a way that provides safety. They are as affected by the excitement of battle as their riders and they see themselves in contest with one of their own, so they buck continuously and as their shoulders barge or hooves collide, or when they seek to land a bite, there is an inevitable reaction.
It was Flavius’s round shield that made the difference. Hooked over his saddle horn he managed to get it into play by hauling his mount away from the fight for a fleeting instant. This meant the next swing of his opponent’s weapon was deflected by the hard leather and the metal boss, the feel of the heavy blow jarring up his arm. Having cut into the surface of the shield it took effort for the blade to be freed and that gave Flavius a chance to come under the rim and jab at his enemy’s belly. That the point of his sword caused a wound he knew, but it was not deep enough to prove telling and again the action of the horses broke fighting contact.
Closing once more, Flavius concentrated on those blue eyes,
they too fixed on his, for it was not bodily movements that a good fighter guards against but the flicker that alerts to a movement and its direction. All around men were acting likewise, with the clang of fighting blades echoing across the flatlands on which battle was taking place, with both Flavius and his opponent assailed by the ringing and screaming coming from other equally desperate contests taking place all around them.
Was it that which had caused his man to be distracted? Flavius was never to know, all he could say with certainty was that the Circassian let his attention become distracted for a moment. Brief as it was it proved enough to allow Flavius to strike, his sword swinging in a high arc that forced his opponent into a desperate act of defence that proved his undoing. With his blade stuck aloft he was too slow to get it down and stop the immediate thrust that followed, one that took him at the point of his neck, and because there was a swing to that too, had cut into his unprotected gullet with force enough to inflict a deep wound.
The Circassian’s free hand came off the reins by which he had exercised some control over his mount, to clutch at blood spilling through his fingers, leaving his horse free to pursue its own contest. It raised itself to kick out at Flavius’s mount, spinning slightly to get in a set of hooves. His already wounded opponent would have been skewered if the Roman’s horse had not reacted, but the way it shied took Flavius’s sword down on the enemy arm, into which it sliced deeply to render him defenceless.
The kill that followed was odd, for it seemed the fellow gave up and surrendered to a fate he knew was coming. His shoulders seemed to slump and if his lips moved it was not to cry for mercy but perhaps silently to pray. Even so his eyes never left sight of the
blow that finished him, a flat slicing sword that swept in as wide an arc as Flavius could manage to practically remove the fellow’s head from his trunk.
His mount span away of its own accord to canter clear. Not that it retired far, only a few paces, as slowly, like his companion before him, the dead enemy slipped to the ground spouting blood from his severed neck. The man who had killed him did not wait to watch, he kicked his own horse into motion in order to close with the nearest continuing fight, able to come up behind an engaged enemy and cut him down with a blow that sliced open his kidneys, the shock allowing his original opponent to finish him off.
The rest of the fighting was over very soon, leaving an area littered with bodies seeping blood into the dry earth. One or two severely wounded horses were lying on the ground and kicking their legs in distress, while others without riders either stood with heads bowed or trotted in confused circles. Exhaustion hit Flavius and he was not alone; all of his still-mounted men were hunched over haunches and a look at the field of the fight showed that not all the bodies were those of their enemies, which made no difference to the orders he could only issue in a near breathless voice.
‘Every dead body to be laid over a saddle, every wounded mount to be finished off and their bodies roped so they may be dragged back to Roman territory.’
The looks he got from men as drained as he were full of disbelief. What was this young madman talking about? It took time to dawn on slower minds. Hardly yet a fully grown man in anything but his way of behaviour, the tyro who led them had the wit to save them from a folly and imperial retribution they were only now beginning to sense. Seeing his orders put into practice, Flavius cantered back to the
ground just beyond the border pillars where an equally grim slaughter had taken place.
There, too, the earth was stained with blood, while the vultures were beginning to circle overhead awaiting the departure of humans so they could feed. There would be big cats as well as the carrion eaters sniffing the wind and sensing blood and Flavius had no desire that they should be denied their needs. His only concern was where they would gorge.
He would despatch a messenger to Narses to say that the pursuing cavalry had caught the raiding party within the confines of the empire, a lie and one the man selected to deliver it was obliged to rehearse with his commander several times before being sent on his way.