Luguvalium’s Story: Dateline: AD 122: Luguvalium. Alexander was a Syrian by birth, from Mesopotamia: the land lying between the rivers of the Tigris and Euphrates. His country had been under Roman rule since 64 BC. In the beginning, Alexander’s ancestors had settled on the north bank of ‘al-furat’ – the Euphrates, and made their home in Ar Raqqah. Alexander’s predecessors learnt from their Roman masters. Indeed, a century earlier, before Jesus Christ was born, Gaius Julius Caesar built the bedrock of Roman Imperialism that was to last three hundred years. Not surprisingly, Alexander’s broad family counted many who had served under Rome. When he reached maturity, when he finally determined upon his life, Alexander left his home and walked alone south through the Syrian Desert. He walked as a boy and became a man. As Alexander grew, so did the Roman Empire. Emperor Claudius crossed the plains of Belgica and conquered the distant green island of Britannia. The Roman Empire spread across a continent: Baetica, Lusitania and Tarraconensis: south of the Pyrenees, fell. Aquitania, Narbonensis and Lugdunensis: in the plains of the Garonne, and the Loire, and the Seine, succumbed to the Roman Senate. Alexander journeyed through barren plains in search of the riches he had dreamt of. Climbing Mount Hermon, he saw the Golan Heights and Damascus. It was in Damascus that Alexander enlisted with the Roman army under Emperor Trajan. He learnt of the Roman Gods, Fortuna, Jupiter and Mars, and abandoned his own religion in favour of the Roman icons. Alexander kept his own language but learnt the tongue of his fellow soldiers. Serving with distinction in Asia Minor and Germania, he was posted in AD 108 to Eboracum, Britannia, where the rivers of the Ouse and the Fosse meet. Alexander was respected by all around him. Tactics and strategy were his hallmarks but he was also a great fighter, valiant and bold in the family tradition. He gained promotion through the ranks to Chief Standard Bearer: ‘Optio ad Spem’. He was a centurion: one of sixty centurions, each of whom commanded a ‘century’ of eighty men. His century was the first century of the second cohort of the Ninth Legion. He was a senior centurion and had been appointed ‘primus pilus’: the chief centurion of his legion. As primus pilus, Alexander commanded his legion in the absence of the Legate. Alexander was of proven bravery; a man who was a leader of fighting men, a man respected by his century and cohort, and feared by his enemies. Each cohort contained six centuries, or four hundred and eighty men. Alexander’s century consisted of ten units of eight men. Each unit of eight men formed a ‘contubernium’ and they lived together in the same quarters. There were ten cohorts in the legion that was overseen by six ‘tribunes’. Tribunes were Roman citizens who each regulated the lives of eight hundred men. In addition, two or three hundred civilian workers supported each legion. They were generally engineers, surveyors, musicians and clerks. A ‘Legate’ commanded the legion and was a man of Senatorial class. The Legate spoke in the Senate at Rome and was a politician, a man who might be Emperor, and Alexander’s Legate was in overall command of the Ninth Legion.
The Legion had sworn to a man to be faithful to their Emperor, had sworn never to leave the line of battle except to save a comrade’s life, and had sworn allegiance to Rome, for that was the way of Rome. The Roman army that conquered the known world had structure, discipline and strength. It was formidable. It thought it was invincible.
As primus pilus, Alexander obeyed orders and led his men north to green and desolate lands where no discernible border existed. Under his Standard of the Ninth Legion, Alexander camped on the banks of the River Eden, in the town of Luguvalium. Governor Petillius Cerialis had defeated local Brigante tribes and built a fort at Luguvalium in AD 71. Governor Agricola then reinforced that fort with turf and stronger defences nine years later. As one of the most northerly forts in the Empire, Luguvalium proved one of the most important commands in the region. Ever since, occasional bands of marauding Picts had raided the settlement, damaged its fort umpteen times, and enraged Rome. About AD 80, the Romans abandoned any attempt to expand north of Luguvalium and withdrew from the frontier to consolidate their holdings. They strengthened their troublesome border by building another fort on twenty acres of land, by the River Caldew.
It was summer and Alexander’s Ninth Legion had ventured north towards the lands of the Picts, the north-westerly outpost of the Roman Empire. Once the year was through, Alexander expected to receive the Emperor’s Diploma of Discharge and return to Rome to live in peace.
Tired by his journey from Eboracum, Alexander rested by the Eden as twilight hovered and sand martins, ducks and kingfishers played amongst rustling reeds. He feasted on deer and hare, caught in nearby fields, and washed down the last of their raisins and dates with a superior red wine from a clay goblet. Guarding the perimeter of the camp, his sentries occupied high ground on the banks of Stanwix, north of the river, where the Legion’s surveyors plotted another fort. Further north, his scouts carried out reconnaissance and gathered military intelligence.
It had been a long week and a long hard march to these unfriendly lands. Fatigue became their final friend, a friend to be shunned with the welcome advent of rest. In coming days, the Ninth Legion would be joined by elements of the Second Augusta Legion, the Twentieth Valeria Victrix and the Sixth Legion. An important meeting on strategy was to be held. This meeting was to be held in council and was of such importance that all legions based in Britannia were to be represented. Many cohorts from these legions marched with celebrated pomp and grandeur to join the Ninth at Luguvalium. Once present, Rome’s military leaders would discuss orders received from the Senate: a great work was to be undertaken. Luguvalium was proud to be chosen for the great council for it was the most important centre in the north. The Legion would provide escort and security for the momentous assembly. The Ninth’s Legate was charged with ensuring that the council was not attacked by an errant band of Picts. Other legions would secure the surrounding countryside while their leaders spoke. Once the grand meeting was over and food had been eaten, and wines quaffed, the Ninth would return to Eboracum and prepare for their triumphant return to Rome. Their long tour of duty was nearly over; others would finish the project.
Alexander polished his Legion’s Standard, proudly arranged his armour, attended his tunic, smoothed out his leather shorts, and cleaned his coveted weapons. Beside him, on a small wooden stool, sat his uncle’s gift: the Tablet of Masada. It was Hussein’s astonishing present to the centurion. The tablet was small and handy-sized, measuring nine inches by six inches by three inches, and when the sun caught the handicraft, it occasionally glinted. Alexander had carried the tablet with him since the days of his youth, fascinated by its image and strangely drawn to the mystical rock. The legacy had been handed down from Hussein – the Syrian archer – to a beloved sister and mother and then promised to son and nephew, Alexander. The tablet had accompanied Alexander, man and boy, through every battle and skirmish he had fought. From his desert home in Ar Raqqah, to Damascus, to Asia Minor, to Germania, and now Britannia, the tablet had been his keepsake. Once the tablet had probably saved his life when a Briton had lunged at his stomach with a knife. Now the tablet bore a dull impression where a Briton’s blade had glanced from the stone missing Alexander’s belly and saving him from certain death in the process. The tablet rested next to Alexander’s vine wood staff: a staff that signified his rank. Alexander weighed his stone affectionately and placed the tablet in his bundle of blankets as he settled down to sleep. He felt tiredness in his legs and stiffness in his back. He felt black invade his eyelids as his mind drifted in fatigue and he fell into a dismal abyss of unconscious sleep.
Evening stars peeped out from behind far away clouds and sparkled over leather papilos as row upon row of the legion’s campsite drifted into sleep. Luguvalium closed its eyes and relaxed.
They were strange men, these men from the army of Rome. They were international, in the way of Rome. It was an army formed from conquered countries, fed and watered and trained in the ways of Rome. They spoke with a sharp tongue, the men of the Ninth: mainly Hispanic. Yet those understanding people of Luguvalium had welcomed their arrival, perhaps mindful of constant incursions from the Picts. It was rumoured in Luguvalium market place – some mile or so from the campsite – that a Roman Governor, Aulus Platorius Nepos, would soon arrive. It was whispered Governor Nepos planned to build a vast wall running from the mouth of the Eden, across Britannia. The wall would stretch to the mouth of a giant river in the east, the Tyne. At the mouth of the Tyne, the wall would end. This wall would be broad enough and strong enough to carry a marching army at four abreast and would define the boundary of the Roman Empire; thus preventing the Picts from pillaging the Border countryside.
Market traders and craftsmen spoke of a great general called Hadrian who was travelling to them from a place named Frankfurt in far-off lands near the rivers of the Rhine and Main. General Hadrian had been ordered by the Senate to supervise the construction of a wall. It was just rumour, they said, and then they had all laughed heartily. They’d gossiped no end. Townsfolk had tittle-tattled and shilly-shallied constantly. It was just speculation, wasn’t it? No one could possibly build a wall in the middle of nowhere, they’d cackled. In any case, how would they make such a wall meet in the middle? They would have to build it from either east to west or west to east. If they didn’t, then east and west must compromise somewhere in the middle of the moors and arrange to meet half way. They’d giggled at the prospect of a thousand Roman slaves building a wall that failed to meet in the middle. Would they build their wall close to the Stanegate Road, the road running across the Tyne – Solway isthmus? In any event, what name would they give their wall, the wall of Nepos? Some said it would be called Hadrian’s Dyke, and there had been laughter. Others named it Hadrian’s Folly, and there had been sniggering. Who would man the wall? Where would the guards live? How would they exist in the cruel wintry lands between east and west? And what was known of those strange people from east Britannia? Did they not speak with an accent warped beyond recognition? There had been whooping laughter again. It was just rumour, wasn’t it? Either way, the townsfolk of Luguvalium looked forward to many riches that would come from being a garrison of such importance….
The invaders were marching. Men had left their homes in the far north. They had gathered in huge numbers, walked due south, and flattened the ground before them. They had arrived.
North of the Eden, north of Stanwix, they assembled in a multitude during the night. Dangerous, hungry men with long unkempt hair, rugged faces and straggly untamed beards, had trudged through lowlands in search of riches. Their dress bore no resemblance to Roman uniforms. They originated from Caledonia: a distant country north of the Borderlands. They were Picts and wore heavy coloured robes to protect them from the cold. Their robes were a dull chequered garment skirting just above the knee. The kilt, as they called it, swished smoothly with a strong movement from the hips. The Picts carried axes, clubs, an occasional bow or a lethal slingshot. Yet they wore no particular armour to speak of. They had crossed high mountains, great rivers, and deep valleys before the lowlands greeted them and a fresh, salty smell of a nearby Firth invaded their nostrils.
The men of Caledonia – all twelve thousand of them – crept cautiously towards an unmarked border that carried no wall to hinder them.
‘Duncan the Bold’ led the Caledonian Picts. His tall, rugged frame dominated those around him as he ordered three captured Roman scouts to be put to death by the sword. Once Alexander’s scouts had been tortured and interrogated, they were disposed of. They were butchered without a prayer. Duncan had neither time nor inclination to take prisoners now that the way was clear to strike south towards the River Eden and Luguvalium. The daring Caledonian planned to delight his eyes with a view of a settlement built on the southern flank of the Eden between the tributaries of the Petteril and Caldew. It was indeed a unique site maturing within the confines of three rivers. Its attraction was obvious since between the triad of bountiful rivers lay rich and luscious green lands. Luguvalium prospered from the wealth of fertile soils, unlike the rocky, heather-clad grounds of Caledonia. Once dawn broke, Duncan’s Picts would storm across the wooden bridge, which divided the fields of Stanwix and Luguvalium.
Duncan led the invasion.
Cautiously, the multitude tramped over cold barren moors until they found a deserted broken fort that had seen better days. Silently, they looked down on rows of sleeping tents below. Duncan disciplined his men, gathered his clans’ leaders about him, and planned his final assault.
The first welcome chink of piercing daylight broke through a grey night as Alexander turned in his slumbers. A frenzied hand shook the centurion’s broad shoulder.
‘Primus pilus! Primus pilus!’ A hushed but pained voice invaded Alexander’s ear. ‘Primus pilus, waken up! Our scouts have not returned. The God, Jupiter, has abandoned us.’