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«THE SUNDAY TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR PROLOGUE On the plain of Pydna, Macedonia, 168 BC Fabius Petronius Secundus picked up his legionary standard and ...»

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On the plain of Pydna, Macedonia, 168 BC

Fabius Petronius Secundus picked up his legionary standard and

stared out over the wide expanse of the plain towards the sea.

Behind him lay the foothills where the army had camped the

night before, and behind that the slopes that led up to Mount

Olympus, abode of the gods. He and Scipio had made the ascent

three days previously, vying with each other to be the first to the top, flushed with excitement at the prospect of their first experience of battle. From the snow-covered summit they had looked north across the wide expanse of Macedonia, once the homeland of Alexander the Great, and below them they had seen where Alexander’s successor Perseus had brought his fleet and deployed his army in readiness for a decisive confrontation with Rome. Up there, with the glare of the sun off the snow so bright that it had nearly blinded them, with the clouds racing below, they had indeed felt like gods, as if the might of Rome that had brought them so far from Italy was now unassailable, and nothing could now stand in the way of further conquest.

Back down here after a damp and sleepless night the peak of Olympus seemed a world away. Arranged in front of them was the Macedonian phalanx, more than forty thousand strong, a huge line bristling with spears that seemed to extend across the entire breadth of the plain. He could see the Thracians, their tunics black under shining breastplates, their greaves flashing on their legs and their great iron swords held flat over their right shoulders. In the centre of the phalanx were the Macedonians themselves, with gilt armour and scarlet tunics, their long sarissa TOTAL WAR: ROME spears black and shining in the sunlight, held so close together that they blocked out the view behind. Fabius glanced along their own lines: two legions in the middle, Italian and Greek allies on either side of that, and on the flanks the cavalry, with twenty-two elephants stomping and bellowing on the far right. It was a formidable force, battle-hardened after Aemilius Paullus’ long campaigns in Macedonia, with only the new draft of legionaries and junior officers yet to see action. But it was smaller than the Macedonian army, and its cavalry were far fewer. They would have a tough fight ahead.

The night before, there had been an eclipse of the moon, an event that had excited the soothsayers who followed the army, signalling a good omen for Rome and a bad one for the enemy.

Aemilius Paullus had been sensitive enough to the superstitions of his soldiery to order his standard-bearers to raise firebrands for the return of the moon, and to sacrifice eleven heifers to Hercules. But, while he had sat in his headquarters tent eating the meat from the sacrifice, the talk had not been of omens but of battle tactics and the day ahead. They had all been there, the junior tribunes who had been invited to share the meat of sacrice on the eve of their first experience of battle: Scipio Aemilianus, Paullus’ son and Fabius’ companion and master;

Ennius, a papyrus scroll with him as always, ready to jot down new ideas for siege engines and catapults; and Brutus, who had already fought wrestling matches with the best of the legionaries and was itching to lead his maniple into action. With them was Polybius, a former Greek cavalry commander who had the ear of Paullus and was close to Scipio – a friendship that had been forged in the months since Polybius had been brought as a captive to Rome and been appointed as an instructor to the young men, even teaching Fabius himself how to speak Greek and some of the wonders of science and geography.

That evening, Fabius had stood behind Scipio, listening keenly as he always did. Scipio had argued that the Macedonian phalanx


was outmoded, a tactic from the past that was over-reliant on the spear and left the men vulnerable if an enemy got within them.

Polybius had agreed, adding that the exposed flanks of the phalanx were its main weakness, but he had said that theory was one thing and seeing a phalanx in front of you was another: even the strongest enemy would baulk at the sight, and the phalanx had never been defeated before on level ground. Their chief hope was to shake the phalanx out of its formation, to create a weakness in its line. From his vantage point now, looking across at the reality, Fabius was inclined to side with Polybius. No Roman legionary would ever show it, but the phalanx was a terrifying sight and many of the men along the line girding themselves for battle must have felt as Fabius did, his breathing tight and a small flutter of fear in his stomach.

He looked at Scipio now, resplendent in the armour left to him by his adoptive grandfather Scipio Africanus, legendary conqueror of Hannibal the Carthaginian at the Battle of Zama thirty-four years before. He was the younger son of Aemilius Paullus, only seventeen years old, a year younger than Fabius, and this would be their first blooding in combat. The general stood among his staff officers and standard-bearers a few paces to the left, with Polybius among them. As a former hippolytos of the Greek cavalry, experienced in Macedonian tactics, Polybius was accorded a special place among the general’s staff, and Fabius knew he would be wasting no time telling Aemilius Paullus how he should run the battle.

The pendant on top of the standard fluttered in the breeze, and Fabius looked up at the bronze boar, symbol of the first legion. He gripped his standard tightly, and remembered what he had been taught by the old centurion Petraeus, the grizzled veteran who had also trained Scipio and the other new tribunes who were preparing for battle today. Your first responsibility is to your standard, he had growled. As standard-bearer of the first cohort of the first legion he was the most visible legionary in his TOTAL WAR: ROME unit, the one who provided a rallying point. Your standard must only fall if you fall. Secondly, he was to fight as a legionary, to close with the enemy and to kill. Thirdly, he was to look after Scipio Aemilianus. The old centurion had pulled him close before he had seen them off on the ship at Brundisium for the crossing to Greece. Scipio is the future, the centurion had growled. He is your future, and he is the future I have spent my life working for. He is the future of Rome. Keep him alive at all costs. Fabius had nodded; he knew it already. He had been watching out for Scipio ever since he had entered his household as a boy servant. But out here, in front of the phalanx, his promise seemed less assured. He knew that if Scipio survived the initial clash with the Macedonians he would go far ahead, fighting on his own, and that it would be the skills in combat and swordplay taught by the centurion that would keep him alive, not Fabius running after him and watching his back.

He gazed up at the sky, squinting. It was a hot June day, and he was parched. They were facing east, and Aemilius Paullus had wanted to wait until it was late enough in the day for the sun to be over them, not in the eyes of his troops. But up here on the ridge they were away from a good water supply, with the river Leucos behind enemy lines in the valley below. Perseus would have understood this as he ordered his phalanx to advance slowly through the day, knowing that the Romans would be tormented by thirst, waiting until his own troops did not have the sun in their eyes after it had passed over the mountains to the west.

Fabius stared at the spider in the long grass that he had been watching earlier to calm his mind, to keep his nerves for the coming battle. It was large, as wide as the palm of his hand, poised on its threads between the few yellow stalks of corn stubble that had not yet been trodden down by the soldiers. It seemed inconceivable that such a large spider should hang by such delicate threads on two stalks of corn, yet he knew that the threads had great strength and the stalks were dried and hardened


by the summer sun, making the stubble so rigid that it grazed the unprotected parts of their legs. Then he saw something, and knelt down, watching carefully. Something was different.

The web was shaking. The whole ground was shaking.

He stood up. ‘Scipio,’ he said urgently. ‘The phalanx is moving. I can feel it.’ Scipio nodded, and went over to his father. Fabius followed, careful to keep his standard high, and stood outside the group, listening while Polybius engaged the other staff officers in a heated discussion. ‘We must not engage the phalanx frontally,’ he said. ‘Their spears are too close together, and are designed to pierce the attackers’ shields and hold them fast. Once the attackers are without shields, then the second line of the phalanx will dart out and cut them down. But the strength of the phalanx is also its weakness. The sarissae spears are heavy and unwieldy and difficult to swivel in unison. Get among them when they are still massed together, and they are yours. The short Greek swords are no match for the longer Roman gladius’.

Aemilius Paullus squinted at the phalanx, shading his eyes.

‘That’s why our cavalry are on either wing, with the elephants.

Once the phalanx begins its final assault, I will order them to charge and outflank it.’ Polybius shook his head vehemently. ‘I advise against it. The Macedonian spearmen on the flanks will be ready for that. You need to go for the middle of the line, to break it up in several places, to create gaps and exposed flanks where it’s difficult for them to manoeuvre. Infantry alone can’t do that by frontal assault, as they’ll be stopped by the spears. You need to use your elephants, several of them together in four or five places a few hundred paces apart. The elephants have frontal armour and even if they’re pierced they’ll carry on for many paces with the momentum of their huge weight and smash through the line before they fall. If the legionaries follow closely behind, they will TOTAL WAR: ROME pour through the gaps and create four or five separate assaults, eating away at the exposed flanks. The phalanx will collapse.’ Aemilius Paullus shook his head. ‘It’s too late for that. The elephants are mustered in one squadron on the right flank, and that’s where they’ll attack. They have strength in numbers, and a massed elephant charge will terrorize the enemy. The cavalry will follow and sweep round the rear of the phalanx.’ ‘And the infantry?’ Polybius persisted. ‘Even if you order your infantry to follow after the cavalry at double pace they would never make it to the right flank and around the back of the phalanx in time to consolidate the gains made by the cavalry. The phalanx will have had time to form a defensive line to the rear.

Our own line will have been gravely weakened.’ ‘There can be no change of plan, Polybius,’ Aemilius Paullus said, squinting ahead. ‘The phalanx is beginning to move again.

And I promised the leader of the Paeligni in our front line that they would lead the assault. The die is cast.’ Polybius turned away, exasperated. Scipio went up to him and put a hand on his shoulder, pointing at the gap between the two armies. ‘Look at the terrain,’ he said quietly. ‘The phalanx is at the head of the valley leading up from the sea, on relatively level ground where they can form a continuous line. We’re in the foothills of the mountains. As the phalanx marches forward, the line will be broken up as they encounter the rough ground and gullies where the valley ends and the slope rises ahead of them.

As long as we are ready to pour legionaries into those gaps, all we have to do is keep our nerve and wait for them. The terrain will do the job for us.’ Polybius pursed his lips. ‘You may be right. But it will be too late to stop the Paeligni from making their charge. They are Latin allies and brave men, but they are not equipped or disciplined as legionaries and they will be cut down. And once your father sees the result, it may cause him to use restraint and keep the rest of the line from following.’


‘My father is an excellent reader of terrain,’ Scipio said pensively. ‘Your strategy is sound, but we cannot redeploy the elephants now. By waiting here for the phalanx to come to us, the same effect of breaking up the line will be achieved. A suicidal charge by the Paeligni may be a sacrifice worth making, as it will boost the confidence of the phalanx and make them less cautious about keeping their line tight as they encounter rough terrain.

And once we send legionaries into those gaps, my father can use the cavalry and elephants as he planned to outflank the phalanx and come up on their rear, at a time when they will be focused on confronting the incursions into their line from the front and will be less well organized for creating a rear defence. If the legionaries keep steady, the Macedonians will be routed.’ ‘The resolve of the legionaries is one thing that cannot be doubted,’ Polybius said. ‘This is the best army that Rome has ever fielded.’ Fabius saw a shimmer go along the spears of the phalanx as they locked together in close formation and moved slowly forward. He looked beyond the second legion to his right and saw the Paeligni, tough warriors from the mountain valleys to the east of Rome who were always given a loose rein to keep them loyal.

They wore bronze skullcaps and quilted linen chest armour and carried vicious wide-bellied slashing swords, and when they charged they bellowed like bulls. A rider appeared from their midst and galloped out of the line, straight towards the phalanx, pulling left just before reaching the spears and hurling a javelin with a banner into the midst of the Macedonians, then turning and galloping back towards the Roman lines. The charge was now inevitable. The Paeligni were sworn to recover their standard whatever the cost, and before a battle to prove their intentions to their Roman commanders they always threw it into the enemy lines.

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