Authors: R. W. Peake
“That’s easy to say,” said the other coolly.
“Easy boys,” this came from a previously unheard voice. “There'll be plenty of time enough for everyone to get as much fighting in as any man could want.”
This voice sounded older, more confident. The others seemed to sense it as well, and consequently there was no more bickering. Besides, the light was growing, so that what were indistinct shapes before took on more definite form, and the areas of the camp that were not illuminated by torchlight earlier could now be made out. At that, Vibius and I stood from where we were sitting completely silent, causing our new companions to yelp in alarm and jump away. I could not help noticing that the one who yelped the loudest was also the one bragging, but I held my peace. No need to make enemies so early, I thought. One day I might be fighting beside that man. Stepping forward, I called to the other men; I could now see that there were a total of six other men standing there.
, citizens,” I called with what I hoped was a tone of friendliness.
They returned the greeting in a ragged chorus.
As I got closer, one of the other men exclaimed, “Gods, you ARE a big one, aren’t you? Remind me to stand next to you Ajax.”
This brought laughter from the others, and I joined in since I had been teased about my size my whole life. The man I thought might be my height was tall, though nowhere near as tall as I was; I had a good two to three inches on him. Standing for a moment, we surveyed each other now that the light was strong enough, but before we could speak, we heard the sound of a call inside the camp, then the gates opened, each half pushed open by a man dressed in armor and full kit.
“Well,” I said, “I guess that means they’re ready to receive us.”
And without waiting, I began walking towards the gate, where a third man appeared, standing in the middle of the gateway, hands on his hips. As we drew closer, I could see that while he was in basically the same uniform as the other two, his helmet was different. He wore a crest of horsehair, transverse across the helmet, going from ear to ear. His face looked like wrinkled leather, the kind one sees after wearing a set of shoes for a long time in all types of weather. In one hand was clutched a stick of some sort, which he was slowly twitching against his leg as he watched us approach. He was short, but very stocky, and once I got close enough I could see that on one arm a livid scar ran from his elbow all the way down his forearm, slowly twisting until it stopped just above his wrist. I had trouble taking my eyes off of it, but when I did and looked the man in the eye, I saw no welcome in his expression. In fact, if I were to characterize the look on his face, the best I can conjure is to ask you to imagine that a
or other invisible shade is hovering just in front of him, holding a huge, steaming pile of
under his nose,
that only he can smell. That was how he looked at us, and I was soon to find out that my description was not far off from the truth, except that the pile of
was actually us.
“All of you fall in, in a single line starting right here, with the tallest first to my left,” he pointed to a spot with his stick, and I headed that way, knowing already that this would be my spot.
His voice sounded like he had eaten gravel for breakfast, with his tone matching the look on his face, and he obviously was not pleased with what he saw. We struggled to get into the proper order; my part was easy but the others had to gauge each other to determine exactly where they were supposed to be. After a couple of moments, we were more or less settled into a line, and I looked over to my left to see where Vibius ended up. Suddenly, I was slammed in the stomach by something that felt very much like a dagger, except it was blunt and the wind rushed out of my lungs as I dropped immediately to my knees, gasping for breath and clutching my stomach expecting to feel blood, so sure I was that I had been stabbed. Seeing a pair of boots in front of me, much like the pair that Cyclops wore, I looked up to see the Legionary with the stick in one hand, tapping the other end of it into the palm of his other hand as he looked down at me with a sneer on his face.
“Nobody told you to look around, did they you
?” he snarled, his voice even more gravelly than before because he pitched it loudly enough for all to hear.
Not sure what to say, I shook my head. Instantly, the stick lashed out, catching me just above my ear, causing stars to explode in my head.
“I asked you a question, boy,” he roared, and now more afraid than any time I could remember in my life, I answered quickly, “No, sir…..I mean, Your Excellency.”
WHAM! Another blow, this time on the top of my head, and now I felt something more than fear, as I began to get angry. Was there no pleasing this man?
“I work for a living, you
,” he bellowed at an even louder level, which I had not thought possible if I had not heard it. “I’m no Excellency! You’ll address me by my proper title.”
Suddenly, his voice dropped back to normal, and he continued talking, as if there was nothing untoward taking place an instant before.
“On your feet boy. And look straight ahead, you got that?”
I pulled myself to my feet, a little unsteadily, but before I could answer, he continued.
“Of course, none of you know what my proper title or my name is, because you haven’t been taught such things. So we’ll begin with that. My name is Lucius Favonius, and I’m the Primus Pilus of the Tenth Legion. I know that the title means nothing to you now, but you’ll learn what it means in time. Right now, all you need to know is that as far as you’re concerned, I and anyone who wears this,” he pointed to his helmet, “are to be considered on the same level as the gods you worship, because like the gods, we exercise the power of life and death over each of you.”
I gulped; this was not going exactly as I had seen it in my mind’s eye, and I wondered how Vibius was taking this. My gut was still throbbing, and my head still ringing, so it was hard to pay attention, but I knew that what I was being told was important.
“I’ll escort you to the
,” he turned and pointed at a huge tent, dead in the middle of the camp, several hundred feet away.
Without waiting for an answer, he turned to stride away, with all of us following quickly behind him. When we drew close, he stopped us several paces away from the entrance. Standing in front of it were two Legionaries, obviously on guard duty, and similarly to the Praetor’s residence, the area around the tent was a bustle of activity as soldiers and civilians came and went into it. As I was to learn, anywhere our commanding general, the Praetor Julius Caesar, was located, it was always like a beehive.
“You’ll hand in those tokens, and you’ll then return to that spot outside the
, where you’ll get into the exact same line you’re in now, facing the tent, and you’ll wait for me. Is that clear?”
“Yes, Primus Pilus,” I answered quickly, before anyone else had a chance to answer, catching him a bit by surprise.
He looked at me for a moment before giving a harsh chuckle.
“Maybe you’re not as stupid as you look, boy.”
You have no idea, I thought grimly, but I am going to take your job, old man.
Turning in our tokens to a clerk, we gave our name, which was matched up to the documents that were created as part of our records and sent from the Praetor’s residence the day before. On turning in our tokens, we were informed that we were now no longer
, but had achieved the lofty status of
as we were more commonly called, when of course we were not called all manner of other names. None of us had any idea what the distinction was, or why it mattered, although we would learn, and the difference was actually quite important. As
, while subject to some of the rules and regulations governing the army, it was not the complete set, so that if we ran afoul of one of those rules during our brief time in that status, the range of our punishment was limited. The status of
usually lasted longer because normally the
were out in the countryside and would march groups of new recruits to the training camp, but it was not necessary in our case. However, as
, we were now under the full authority of the Roman Legion, meaning that we could be flogged, or worse, executed for a breach of the rules, if deemed serious enough. We were then presented with another document that we were told to sign, something I found impossible to read because it seemed to be in some sort of language that I did not understand. I would come to master it and read it as easily as I read any document written in the normal fashion, but it would take some time. Back then, I just signed like everyone else and was informed that this involved our pay.
“So when do we get our pay?” piped up the one I had marked as being the loudmouthed great warrior.
His name was Spurius Didius, and he was also on the tall side, standing third from the end where I stood. He had a sly look about him, always peering about like he was searching for something to steal, which as it turned out, was exactly what he was doing, but that is for later. The clerk looked up in surprise at the question, then burst out laughing.
“Why don’t you ask the Primus Pilus about that?” he replied, and I sensed that this would not be a good idea, something that Didius obviously did not pick up on, as he exclaimed loudly, “I’ll do just that.”
Once we turned in our tokens and signed our documents, we went outside and fell into our positions in line more quickly than the first time. There was just enough time for Vibius to whisper a quick question about how I was doing, and I reassured him that I was fine, if still hurting a bit. However, I was determined that I learned my lesson and would let someone else make the mistakes from here on in. Standing in line again, we waited for what seemed like a full watch and I sensed, as did some of the others, that this was some sort of test, so I made sure to stand as still as I could and not look around.
The waiting turned out to be too much for some, and I heard someone whisper loudly, “Pluto’s cock, what are they waiting for?”
Instantly I heard quick footsteps, followed by the sound of what had to be a stick smashing into someone’s body, then a thud as the man fall to the ground, the unfortunate gasping for air much like I had.
“Did anyone tell you to speak,
?” it was the voice of the Primus Pilus.
“N-no, Primus Pilus,” the man managed to gasp.
“Then on your feet, you pathetic piece of
”, the Primus Pilus spoke scornfully. “I didn’t hit you near as hard as I did the oaf on the end, so get up and quit sniveling like a woman.”
The Primus Pilus reappeared in front of us, but instead of turning my head to look again, I watched him out of the corner of my eye. He wore the same expression on his face, except this time he was not alone. Standing next to him, in identical uniform, though without quite as many phalarae, torqs and arm rings, was a slightly taller, slender man, who also looked a bit younger. He bore a scar down the right side of his face, from the middle of his ear to midway down his jaw, giving him a look of wickedness, and he too was carrying the same kind of stick as Primus Pilus Favonius, although he stood slightly behind the Primus Pilus.
Indicating the second Centurion, Primus Pilus Favonius announced, “This is Secundus Pilus Prior Gaius Crastinus. He's the commander of the Second Cohort of the Tenth Legion. You’ll accompany him to the quartermaster, where you’ll be issued your equipment. You’ll obey him in the same manner you obey me, or you’ll wish you had never been born. Is that understood?”
This time, we responded in a more unified manner, although it still did not impress the Primus Pilus, or the Pilus Prior for that matter. The two Centurions exchanged a quiet word before the Primus Pilus disappeared into the
, leaving us to the tender mercy of Pilus Prior Crastinus.
“Right,” he called out, “the first thing we’re going to learn is how to go from one point to another without looking like a mob. Understood?”
“Yes, Pilus Prior,” we answered.
“The first thing you
need to know is how to stand correctly,” he continued.
I was somewhat surprised; I did not know until that moment that there was a right and wrong way to stand!
As if reading my mind, he said, “As you’ll learn, there are only two ways of doing things in the Legions. The Legion way and the wrong way. When you hear the command
, you’ll come to the position that I’m about to show you.”
He demonstrated; pulling himself erect, he looked straight ahead, pulling his chin in, with his chest out, his feet together and his arms straight down by his sides.
Holding that position for a moment so that we could see it, he broke the position then immediately snapped, “
Instantly we tried to emulate the position he had just shown us, as he walked up and down, inspecting us, correcting my comrades with a quick smack to the part of the body that was not in the proper position. His progress was punctuated by grunts and groans as he made his way to me, and I prayed to every god I knew that I had done it correctly because I was still sore from my earlier lesson. Once he reached me, I concentrated on looking straight ahead, despite my natural inclination to look at him. This was one time where my height actually helped, since I could look directly at his horsehair device and not in his eyes. Luckily, he just rapped my knuckles to make me put my hands into the correctly curled position before he returned to the front of our group.