Legionaries marched along the dusty hillside road, spears and shields in hand, the studs of their sandals clattering on the stones. As they passed Titus Labienus, sitting astride his horse with his senior officers, they looked at their general with pride. Titus returned that look, even as he discussed their next move.
“Caesar has troops in the next valley over,” said Cnaeus, the cavalry commander. “If we can catch them by surprise-”
“We won’t surprise Caesar,” Titus said. He knew his former friend and commander too well to ever believe that. “But if we can attack from the heights then we may have a chance.”
His officers galloped off to pass the orders along, as Titus set his heels to his horse’s flanks and joined his men on the march.
Not all defeats were disasters. Titus pulled his men back before they were fully surrounded. Most of them made it back out of the valley.
Though their losses were far fewer than he had feared, it was a broken army that set up camp that night. Titus could readily understand their feelings. Soldiers of Rome were not used to defeat. They were even less used to fighting their comrades in arms. Until today, “civil War” had just been a phrase they muttered darkly. Now it was something they had experienced, a bitter struggle against men who wore the same uniforms as them, who they had once fought alongside. Win or lose, that was a gruelling thing.
“Up!” Titus snapped at a group of men sat by what would be the gateway into their overnight camp. “You know your orders – dig the ditch then pitch your tents. Rest comes later.”
Reluctantly, the men reached for their picks and shovels. The pride with which they had marched hours before was replaced by a weary resentment. He needed to say something to bolster their spirits, but what?
“General.” Cnaeus strode over, cloak flapping behind him. “Come quickly.”
With relief rather than disappointment, Titus abandoned thoughts of raising morale and followed Cnaeus across the camp.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Some men tried to desert,” Cnaeus replied. “My outriders caught them on the way down the valley.”
A dozen men stood at the edge of camp, watched over by a cavalry troop. They had abandoned their armour and weapons, but their belted tunics marked them out as legionaries.
“You men were leaving?” Titus asked.
“You left Caesar,” one of them replied, his arms folded across his chest, expression defiant. His accent was that of Rome’s southern farmlands.
“I chose to fight for the senate and the good of Rome,” Titus replied. “That is not the same as desertion in the face of the enemy.”
He turned to Cnaeus and his men.
“Execute them,” he said. “We can’t have this spreading.”
The cavalrymen shifted uncomfortably in their saddles. More Romans killing Romans. More divisions in the army. More blood for politics. There was hesitation in their faces.
“You hypocritical bastard,” the southern soldier snarled. “You aristocrats get to decide what to fight for. You get to give up on your duty when it serves you. But if we start thinking for ourselves we get killed.”
“I gave you a choice before,” Titus said, setting his hand on the pommel of his sword. “You could have left me at the start of all this.”
“I still want that choice,” the man replied. “If you give up, no-one’s going to execute you. Why should it be different for me?”
The cavalrymen glanced at each other, looking even more uncertain. One of them started to back his horse away.
Titus thought of all the arguments he could use. About patriotism and the public good. About choosing paths. About discipline and the military life. About what soldiers were paid to accept.
If words could decide these things, there would be no war.
Drawing his sword, Titus stepped forward and ran the man through. With his last breath, the soldier gasped in surprise. Then he fell, blood pouring across Titus’s sandals.
“I don’t ask you to do anything I won’t,” Titus said, looking again at the cavalrymen. “I don’t ask you to take any risks I won’t. But the legion stands together or it falls to pieces, even now.
The cavalrymen swung from their saddles, drew their swords and closed in on the deserters.
Legionaries marched along the dusty hillside road, spears and shields in hand, the studs of their sandals clattering on the stones. The uncertainties of the night before were gone. Discipline had returned and they marched with determination.
As they passed Titus Labienus, sitting astride his horse with his senior officers, they kept their eyes on the road.
Sadness weighed on Titus’s heart at the change in his men. But he had done what was needed. Setting his heels to his horse, he joined the column, marching on to the next battle.
* * *
This return to the story of Titus Labienus comes courtesy of Steve, who asked for more after previous Friday story “Titus’s Choice“.
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