Authors: Peter Darman
by Peter Darman
he sun was high in the sky now and the air was hot and filled with dust. From our vantage point on the hill, the drama being played out on the plain below could be seen clearly. Clouds of choking dust were being kicked up all around the square of Roman legionaries, which stood as a rock, against which waves of horse archers unleashed swarms of arrows against the leather-clad Roman shields. The Roman legion, now immobile and alone, was slowly being ground down, ground down on the rock-hard earth of Mesopotamia. We had caught them early, just before dawn, my father’s bodyguard smashing into their auxiliary cavalry at the head of a thousand cataphracts. The lightly armed enemy cavalry had been swept aside with ease, as the heavy spears of our fully armoured horsemen impaled their targets, cutting through wooden shields and mail shirts to skewer enemy riders. Within minutes dozens were dead and the rest were fleeing across the plain.
The Roman legionaries, their officers screaming orders, had formed an all-round defensive formation after their cavalry had disappeared, the front ranks kneeling and locking their shields before them while those behind also knelt and hoisted their shields above their heads. The legion thus formed a giant hollow square, edge with red as five thousand shields were locked outwards to face us.
As our heavy cavalry finished off the remnants of the Roman horsemen with their swords in a series of violent but brief melees, our horse archers took up position on all four sides of the legion, constantly lapping round the enemy and pouring volley after volley into their densely packed ranks. Our arrows, fired from powerful Scythian bows, made of layers wood, sinew and bone, pierced their shields and armour to slice into flesh and bone. Gradually, as the time passed, dead legionaries could be seen along all four sides of the square. The dead were left where they fell, their place immediately taken by a new legionnaire. The wounded were dragged back into the relative safety of the square, to be placed under wagons or makeshift shelters roofed with canvas. But all the time the hail of arrows was taking a steady toll of the defenders. The Romans had only one defence against our horse archers: to maintain their discipline and cohesion long enough in the hope that they would run out of arrows.
Like the rest of our army, the horse archers were organised into thousand-man units called dragons, each one commanded by a general. Each dragon was further divided into hundred-man companies for ease of command in battle. The dragons had their own six-foot square banners, upon which were emblazoned boars, eagles, lions, tigers, gazelles, and elephants. Mythical beasts such as the
, a kindly creature with the head of a dog and the body of a peacock, and fire-breathing dragons could also be seen.
The horse archers would approach the enemy at a slow trot, always being careful to remain out of range of the Romans’ own arrows and javelins. This was not hard, as our bows had a range of at least five hundred feet, whereas Roman bows were effective at under half that distance. Then the horsemen would move into a canter, stringing their bows with arrows as they approached the enemy, before breaking into a gallop as they got within firing range. Then they would suddenly wheel left or right, loosing their arrows as their mounts guided them away from the enemy line. The most proficient archer would be able to string and loose a second arrow as his horse retraced its steps back to our own lines, the man twisting round in the saddle and almost firing over the horse’s hind quarters.
‘This lot are professionals, it’s going to be along day.’ Bozan pulled another chunk of bread from the loaf he was holding and stuffed it into his mouth as he stared intently at the scene being played out below. Squat, barrel chested and crop-haired, he had been my father’s second-in-command for over twenty years, and my tutor for the last ten. I stood next to him under the large sunshade that had been erected on the hill by our servants, but he was not speaking to me. His words were directed at my father, King Varaz of Hatra, who was watching the battle with as keen an interest.
My father waved forward one of his officers. ‘Pass a message on to the dragon commanders that they are to conserve their men’s arrows.’
The man saluted. ‘Yes, majesty.’
My father turned to Bozan. ‘The camels should be here soon, and then we can turn up the pressure. I want this over before nightfall, otherwise they’ll get away.’
‘That’s why they’ve stood still,’ replied Bozan. ‘Trading casualties for time. Clever bastards, these Romans. What do you think, Pacorus?’
Pride swelled up inside me. Bozan, who had taken part in countless battles, was asking my advice. I decided that now was not the time for timidity. ‘We should attack with the cataphracts immediately. Smash straight through them. Show them no mercy.’
Bozan threw back his head and roared with laughter, while my father eyed me, frowned and shook his head slightly. As I felt my cheeks burn as I blushed, I shot glances left and right towards the officers of my father’s bodyguard who stood nearby — all attired in scale armor made from overlapping plates of bronze sewn onto an undergarment of leather. Several were smiling, though not in mockery, at least I hoped, but at my youthful enthusiasm.
‘That should get us all killed, sure enough,’ Bozan strode past me and patted me on the shoulder. ‘Come on. Let’s get something to eat.’
My father took my arm as we walked towards his long table that was being prepared with meats, bread, fruits and flagons of wine.
‘We must be sure that the enemy has been sufficiently weakened before we send in our heavy cavalry, otherwise the result will be a lot of Parthian dead for nothing.’
‘But father,’ I said, ‘surely they have been weakened enough? We have been pelting them with arrows for nearly two hours now; and under this sun they must be tired and ready to run.’
We sat down at the table, my father in the middle flanked by Bozan and myself. He held up his silver goblet, which was filled with wine by a servant. He took a sip and ran his fingers over the gleaming vessel.
‘The Romans are among the finest soldiers in the world. It takes them about five years to train a legion, and the end result is five thousand men who can march all day, fight a battle at the end of it and then build a wood and earth stockade before they lay down their heads to sleep. Every man knows his place, what his duty is, and how to die if necessary.’ He paused as the rumble of battle filled the air. ‘Their drills are bloodless battles and their battles are bloody drills. We had one piece of luck when we surprised and routed their light cavalry, but that’s the only luck we’ll have. From now on we’ll have to use better tactics against the best tacticians on earth. So we wait.’
I was chafing at the bit, though, eager to prove myself in the cauldron of combat. All my life had been preparation in for this day, when I could prove myself in battle. Here I was, with my father facing the Parthian Empire’s greatest enemy, the Romans. My father had brought three thousand horse archers and a thousand cataphracts to this place; a barren, arid stretch of land thirty miles from the city of Zeugma. It was a professional standing army paid for by the wealth of the Kingdom of Hatra, my home, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. In times of emergency the army’s ranks could be swelled by thousands more horsemen raised from the kingdom’s lords and landowners and their servants who paid homage to my father, their king, but this meant nothing to me. All knew that he had, for the first time, brought me on campaign with him, for only one purpose: to fight beside him. But today all I had done was stand around like a servant boy. I had been elated when he had brought me with him on this campaign, which came about when we received intelligence that a Roman legion was marching from Syria to the city of Zeugma. We always paid spies to give us information about what was happening beyond our kingdom’s borders, which often turned out to be money wasted. But this time the intelligence was correct, and we were waiting for the Romans when they marched though Hatran territory on their way to Zeugma.
How I envied my mentor, Bozan, the man who had taught me to fight with a sword, to wield a lance from horseback, and to command heavy cavalry. The large scar he had down his right cheek was, to me, a mark of honour, the badge of a warrior, and I wanted one. I had no appetite for the sumptuous meal that was laid before me.
As my mind mulled over the possibilities of what might happen, I hardly noticed an officer race up to where my father sat, kneel and convey a message. At once my father stood and addressed his officers seated at the table. ‘Gentlemen, the camels have arrived. It is time to put these Romans to the test.’
As one the officers stood, saluted and scattered to join their commands. Bozan turned to me. ‘You’d better get your armour on, you will have need of it.’
Where before there had been calm and polite conversation, suddenly there was bustle and excitement as companies of cataphracts began to form up. I was nervous, but tried not to let it show. Bozan, ever vigilant, recognised the change in me.
He slapped me on the shoulder. ‘Go and get your horse ready. The two hundred camels have finally got here, each carrying dozens of fresh arrows. I reckon it’ll take about an hour to get them distributed, another to soften up the Romans, then your father will launch his heavies, so you’ve got plenty of time. Report to me when you’re mounted up.’
In the next valley to where the battle was taking place, hundreds of horsemen were preparing their mounts and equipment. Each man was carefully checking his horse’s armour and saddle straps, before moving on to his personal weapons and armour. Servants fussed round, helping when instructed, but it was a Parthian tradition that each soldier checked his own equipment. No one placed his life in the hands of another. As I checked my horse over, Bozan’s words, drilled into me countless times, filled my head. ‘Never trust anyone else with your own life. In some armies slaves or servants prepare a man’s arms and armour, but not in Parthia and certainly not in Hatra’s army. Would you trust someone who might despise you, might wish you dead, with sharpening your sword or saddling your horse? When preparing to fight do even the most menial things yourself, so in battle you can think about killing the enemy and not worrying if your saddle straps are tight enough, or have been cut through by a resentful servant.’
My horse, a white mare of six summers, was called Sura, meaning ‘strong’. She nuzzled her head in my chest as I strapped on the reins and bridle. Then came the saddle, built around a wooden frame with four horns, two at the front and two at the back, each wrapped with bronze plates and padded, they and the rest of the saddle covered in leather. The horns held the rider firmly in place once mounted. I checked Sura’s horseshoes, before covering her head and body with armour. The latter comprised rawhide covered with small, overlapping steel scales, and was able to withstand powerful blows. Even her eyes were protected by small steel grills, those these did limit her vision somewhat.
Each cataphract had two squires to pack his equipment and tend to his horse, but the royal bodyguard was more lavishly provided for. My weapons and armour had been laid on a wooden table beside the temporary canvas and wood stable that had been erected for Sura. To one side stood a rack holding twelve-foot lances, each one tipped with a long, iron blade.
I picked up my suit of scale armour and put it on. The hide was covered with square-shaped segments of steel, which covered my chest, back, shoulders, arms and the front of my thighs. It was heavy and I began to sweat, though whether from the heat and armour or from fear I did not know. I picked up my helmet and examined it. It was steel with cheek and neck guards and a single strand of steel that covered the nose. A long white plume, worn by all of my father’s heavy cavalry, tipped it.
Startled, I turned to see Vistaspa standing before me. Tall, slim, with cold, dark eyes, the commander of my father’s bodyguard expressed no emotion as he examined my appearance. He had yet to don his armour, being dressed in a simple white silk tunic with loose-fitting leggings.
‘Lord Vistaspa,’ I answered.
‘So, your first battle. Let us hope that all the time and effort invested in your military education has not been wasted’
I sensed a slight note of disdain in his voice. I confess I had very little affection for Vistaspa, finding him cool and aloof at the best of times. This coolness served him well in battle, and twenty years ago he had saved my father’s life in a battle with the Armenians. Vistaspa had been a prince in his own land then, in a city called Silvan on the Armenian border, but the Armenians had destroyed the city and killed his family when his father, the king, had entered into an alliance with Parthia. My father had been part of the army sent to strengthen Silvan’s forces, but had ended up being worsted in battle, along with the Silvan host. So Vistaspa had come to Hatra, a man without a home or a family. His dedication to my father had been rewarded by him being made commander of my father’s bodyguard — five hundred of the best warriors in the army. My father adored the man, at fifty being five years his senior, and would not have a word said against him. In response, Vistaspa gave unqualified loyalty to my father. But it was like the adoration of a vicious dog towards his master. Everyone else was viewed with suspicion. Whereas Bozan was feared by his enemies but loved by his friends, Vistaspa was feared, or at the very least disliked, by all. I doubted he had any friends, which also seemed to suit him. This made him all the more cold and remote in my eyes.