ࡱ> ]_\G ^vbjbjَ ^r] ,g$$$$$$$$,......$R$$$$$R$$$$v$$,$,t,,$ w{, C H R O N I C L E O F T H E F O R T Y M A R T Y R S A N N O S T E L L A E 3 2 0 The Thundering Legionnaires of Earth II The far-flung Roman Empire, stretching from barbaric Caledonias border in the Scottish north of Britannia to the ancient metropolis of Babel on the Euphrates in Mesopotamia, and from Vindelicia in southwestern Germania to Mauritania, Numidia, Africa, Cyrenaica, and Egypt to the Third Cataract, and from Hispania to Armenia, could ill-afford to squander its thin line of legions. Quartered in strategic sites all over this vast expanse of the Earth, the Army sought to be ready at a moments notice to march to meet the invader, wherever he had been reported to penetrate the Empire on a raid or attempt to seize land or territory. Never numbering more than 300,000, the Armys legions were the Empires only means to ward off its foes, which were mainly barbaric tribes ringing the civilized Roman world on all sides. Roma kept a vigilant eye on all its borders, with posts of horsemen carrying postal pouches running continuously along the thirty thousand miles of Roman roads with reports to the imperial office and emperor(s) from spies and commanders of and border forts and walls such as were built in the deserts of Egypt and Mesopotamia and in the northern forests of Britain and Belgica and Vindelicia. to fend off unwanted intruders. Keeping up such elaborate surveillance was the part of the price of Empire. It had to be paid, or lose all, usually bit by bit, as this tribe and that nibbled away at the ages, until, cumulatively, the whole cheese was nibbled away. Sebaste was one strategic site, located in the northeast, beyond the coastal province of Asia, in a land called Pontus that bordered the Black Sea. Down through this land bridge connecting Europa with Asia and Africa, barbaric Scythians had poured in past ages to engulf Assyria, Syria, some say all the Middle East down to the borders of Egypt, where the king bought them off. Even before the Scythians, the Peoples of the Sea had done the same thing, destroying the Hittite Empire, nearly doing so to the Assyrian Empire, and nearly sweeping down the Eastern coast as far as Egypts delta, where they were at last defeated in sea and land battles and thrown back. Now the Romans had to worry about Goths, Burgundians, Sarmatians, Dacians, and other Eastern tribes of the northern deserts above and between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea and beyond to the far mountains and plains extending to India and Serica. The northern tribes were a particularly bad headache. They were constantly on the move, pushing on each others territory until the one at the head of the line pushed down south against Romes eastern border. Sebaste, like Caesarea, and Iconium were gateway posts of border defense, protecting the door to Europa and able to stop an even more daring penetration toward Syria and Egypt, and so an entire legion was stationed in each city. Only the Roman-administered land of ancient Armenia lay between them and the hostile Parthian Empire, a vital marchland that gave the more settled, Romanized provinces a breathing space and time to respond to the Parthian intrusions. Bordering Bithynia and Cappadocia, neighboring provinces in the land bridge that most called Asia, Pontus was a rump kingdom that now served to protect just that, the rump of the Empire. There was only hard duty time to be expected by any soldier for a tour of duty in Pontus. The city was Roman enough, supplied with the usual amenities of baths, gaming houses, prostitute houses, and eateries, but the weather and climate was very harsh, too hot in summer and too cold in winter ever to become comfortable. No one relished life on the border. But no one was expected to like it. It was a thankless duty. If sent there, a soldier could expect several years at least of steeling his body and will in the performance of his army duties. He might even have to go to war and fight, if a tribe was pressing too hard on the border and making raids. A major invasion by the Parthians emperor was not expected, but it could not be ruled out. If that happened, they would the first to be sacrificed to the lions, of course. Set in Sebaste and such places to hold the enemy back at all costs, they were given no option. For them there could be no retreat. Supplying the city and the Romans in it, neighboring farms were hard put to scratch up enough meat and grain and vegetables. Mostly, the farmland supplied a coarse but hearty grain, which made a chewy, sustaining bread. Livestock did not do so well, so good meat was scarce in the soldiers diet, but they made up for it by drinking more wine. Wine was plentiful, brought in from Asias lush vineyards on the coast and in the coastal mountains. Vegetables, being so perishable, were almost non-existent on their plates, however. It made for a very monotonous diet and a lot of drunkenness. Drunken soldiery made in turn for many fights and a commanders harsh grasp on his reins of authority. Punishment was usually swift, and usually mortal. Any time the commander felt his authority challenged, he would respond with execution of all involved. The means were brutal but effective, a sword thrust down into the heart through the upper chestthe quickest way to kill a man. The body was not honored with burial. It was thrown out to the wild dogs that prowled the outskirts of Sebaste, hoping for some such meal. They made short work of any corpse they were thrown. A river called the Halys flowed through the city, where the wind never ceased throwing dust in peoples faces. It was an important river, quite long, flowing a long ways east and then circling to the north, where it emptied into the Black Sea. Because of this river they had plentiful water, fortunately, though the water had too much mineral content to suit Roman taste. No barbarian tribe could cut their vital water supply by attacking an aqueduct. Roma itself was and many other cities were vulnerable to such attacks, but Sebaste was not one of those. As long as they held the banks of the Halys, they wouldnt die of thirst or go without bathwater. But Sebaste was, in short, a lonely place, set at the edge of the Roman world. Britain was just as bad, for the same reason. Letters were military correspondence, posted between commanders and headquarters in far distant cities and the capital, so there could be nothing personal communicated, unless bribes were given to the right couriers, who would take a message and relay it along, hopefully to its destination. No, it was better to bring ones wife along, or get married among the local people, if one hoped to beat the overwhelming strangeness of the country and the stark loneliness of the post. Still, most men in the legions maintained no contacts with families, if they had them. It was just too hard, and they werent paid enough to afford bribes for couriers. Rather, they frequented the sorry prostitutes that followed the Army even to the ends of the earth, and though poor comfort, they were all these lonely men knew when they could stand their passions no longer. No, virtually without civil and loving womanhood, the border legions survived the isolation and harsh countryside as well as the threat of going mad in such places by drawing closer together in brotherhood. Brotherhood was assiduously cultivated. Men found ways to accommodate each others moods and short-comings, with a grace, commitment, and long-suffering you would never find in the cities of the Roman heartland. Grace, loyalty to the brother soldiery, and long-suffering were not necessary to survival in such places, where life was relatively easy. Here in Sebaste they were a matter of life and death, on a daily basis. Without the cultivation of brotherhood and other good traits, the Legion was not workable on the bordersmen either went mad, or drank themselves into an early execution due to insubordination, or fled posts and vanished in hostile territory, probably hunted down by barbarian tribesmen for sport. Commanders understood this mechanism that kept the men under their authority reasonably sane and obedient to commands. They learned how to use it too, if challenged. The men knew how to discipline their own in a better way than execution. It was a loss to the Legion to have to execute any one of them, so group discipline and group punishment was far preferable. How did commanders turn this to their advantage? They simply appealed to the honor of the Legion, and that always pulled unruly members into line, either by their own good sense or fear of punishment, or by fear of their brother soldiers taking the matter in their own hands. It was a poor Legion that did not learn to love and care for itself in this manner. Sebaste was particularly close-knit in unity and brotherhood. The brotherhood was thorough-going, welding everyone together like a family, but the unity was Christian. As many as forty of the best soldiers in the Legion were Christiansand though knownthe commander left them alone, for they all proved to be his best, and everybody looked up to them. The forty Christians seemed to lead the entire Legion, even with a commander who threw his pinch of incense on the Emperors altar, proclaiming allegiance to his divinity whenever called by his superiors to do so. The Sebaste Legion was unique in another way. They had earned the name, The Thundering Legion. Dating back to Caesar Augustus, they emblazoned their shields with a lightning emblem. Some said that in the reign of Marcus Aurelius the pagan and philsophical Soldier Emperor, the Legion found itself trapped in a dry valley and was about to perish from thirst. A propitious thunderstorm broke above their heads, slaking their terrible thirst and confounding their foes, who fled in panic at this sign of heavens favor. Christians writing about this incident gave praise to God, saying it was a miracle prayed for by Christians in the Legion, while pagan authors credited sorcery or even the pagan prayers of Marcus Aurelius. No wonder, enjoying the reputation of having enjoyed providential care by the gods, the Thundering Legion was stationed at a point where it could confront challenges from the North and East. They were the Empires best stationed where the danger to the Empire was greatest. Mostly pagan but seasoned with Christians, the Legion stood guard. But then the day came that every Christian in it dreaded: an imperial decree to worship the Emperor as a god. The decree delivered to Sebastes governor by mounted couriers was the Provincial Governors, not the Legion commanders, but was just as binding. Every citizen, every soldier, must throw incense on the imperial altar, performing ritual sacrifice in honor of the divine Emperor Licinius. Word soon reached the commander Agricola the governor that forty legionaires refused to bow and throw incense on the imperial altar before the image of Licinius. He was afraid of this very thing happening. They were such good soldiers. His chief city and province needed such men desperately for defense. It would be a great pity to have to execute them for impiety and insubordination. So, hoping it would turn out for the best, he called the lot inall forty who had been named to him by his informers. I was informed you refused to offer the sacrifice ordered by Emperor Licinius, he said to the assembled men. Who will speak for you? I cant speak to forty at once. Well? Speak up! There was a certain stir in the ranks, and a tall, noble-looking man stepped forward, saluting the governor and commander and bowing to them. Acknowledged, the interview continued. Well? the governor prompted the leader of the rebels. The mans voice, when he spoke, sounded neither defiant or harsh. He spoke mildly but firmly, when he said, We will not sacrifice. To do so is to betray our holy faith. Well spoken! The governor was highly impressed. But this made his job that much harder. He would have to use all his powers, he realized, to get round so entrenched an opinion as the one he heard expressed. But how? Of course, the old appeal to brotherhood would work! So he started with that. But what about your comrades, the governor replied. Consideryou alone of Caesars troops defy him! Think of the disgrace you bring upon your Legion. How can you do it? This should have made even the strongest of the group waver, in any ordinary dispute. But, no, though he thought he detected a flushing in the face of the leader, he saw the mans jaws set in more determined lines than before. To disgrace the name of our Lord Jesus Christ is more terrible still. At this response, the governor himself wavered momentarily. Who could have been prepared for that? Imagine! Hearing that name, Lord Jesus Christ, appealed to as though it were more sacred than the Emperor Liciniuss! It seemed blasphemy to a pious worshiper of the gods, such as the governor liked to think himself, but obviously the blasphemy was lost on this rebel Christian standing before him. He only cared for his god, at the expense of all others. How close-minded, how hard-hearted, how unRoman! What to do now? The confounded governor paused, glancing at the commander, but the expression on his face gave him no assurance he would fare any better with this man and his followers. Growing angry, he could not help that his anger showed in his voice. Give up this stubborn folly, he threatened the man. You have no lord but Caesar! Then, recalling that threats only provoked more rebellion, he reined himself in quickly, thinking of a plum he could offer instead. I promise promotion to the first of you who steps forward and does his duty. The governor was pleased with himself, and crossed his arms as he waited for men to break ranks with the rebels and step forward as loyal subjects of the Emperor. But not one took the lure. Not one! He was forced to try something entirely differentsometimes fear worked, and sometimes it didnt. But he had to choice now but to try it. You persist in your rebellion? This is your last chance. Will you obey your Emperor? Nobody stirred in the ranks. All stood firm, though all knew the governor would carry out their executions. Finally, tension was broken when another soldier spoke. Nothing you can offer us would replace what we would lose in the next world. As for your threats, weve learned to deny our bodies where the welfare of our souls is at stake. With barely enough piety of his own to give a divine emperor his due (and nothing left over for the other gods of Roma), Agricola hated high-sounding, religious talk. Sacrifice, welfare of our souls, the next world, enraged him, and he decided he would see to it they gained nothing from departing this life and entering the next world, as they called it. Flog them, he ordered. The forty were seized by pairs of guards, as each man was dragged out into the cold, stripped naked, and tied to posts. The air filled with groanings as the whips flew at their bare bodies, tearing off chunk after chunk of flesh from backs and legs until they were left bloodied from head to foot. The governor and commander stepped forth, when the floggings were finished, to view the men. They were amazed. Not one of the men surrendered. All right! Agricola thought, throwing aside all pity. Chain them in my dungeons! he roared. Well see what Lysias has to say about this! Now Lysias was the commander of the 12th Legion at Antioch in Pisidia, in the central part of the country. It was no whit better in winter climate, so the ride from Antioch was hard and long. Arriving in a foul humor, Lysias had the Christian soldiers hauled before him soon after his arrival. Himself commander of a border Legion, he could not afford an insurrection among the legionaires, and this group must be made an example of, before the contagion of Christian rebellion spread through the ranks, endangering the security of the entire border North to South and East to West. Stamping it out was his duty as a Roman officer. And stamp it out, he would! You will obey me, he told the soldier, or you will pay a sharp penalty. The men answered him just as they had previously answered Agricola. Lysias had never been known to coddle traitors, and he was not going to ruin his reputation now with these men. But what means could he use? They had already been flogged to an inch from death. They had next been thrown in prison, naked as newborns, and exposed to starvation and cold. Yet they remained unbending in their defiance. Not sure how best to proceed, he motioned to Agricola, and the governor drew close to him for consultation. Lysiass arched eyebrows threw the problem back in Agricolas court. The governor was at his wits end. If not outright execution, then what? He desperately wanted to break the rebellion without having to sacrifice the mens lives if he possibly could. Just as he drew close to Lysias a particularly brutal, cold gust of wind blew and separated them. It came straight up from the icy pond below, a pond that the river had made in overflowing its banks in late autumn. The wind stabbed their cheeks, and it made him took in the direction of the frozen pond. Ah! Thats it! he thought, suddenly seizing upon a solution to his dilemma. Take them down to the pond! he ordered. He then spoke directly to the soldiers. You will stand naked on the ice until you agree to sacrifice to the gods. Now in the press of his duties he had forgotten that the Emperor had only commanded his subjects to sacrifice to his imperial divinity. That would be enough to prove their piety, and the gods would accept allegiance to the Emperor in their stead, as the protocol attached to the decree would have it. But in his hard-pressed state, the commander forgot the protocol, and demanded sacrifice to all the gods. Hearing this demand, there was no hesitation among the rebels. They began stripping off their clothes as the ran toward the pond. Agricola and Lysias could hardly believe their eyes as they watched, the whole Legion standing with their mouths agape too. It was March, and the winter was at its most extreme in cold. From the pond a voice shouted, loud and clear to all those who stood beyond the ponds banks, We are soldiers of the Lord and fear no hardship. What is death but entrance into eternal life. The whole Legion shook as if a sword had gone through it, the words were so cutting in the consciences of the hardened Legionaires. Some found tears in their eyes, thinking of their brothers out on the ice freezing to death. The whole Legion was shaken, from the least in the ranks to the commander. But what could the commander do. And both the governor and Lysias stood, unsure how to proceed. They watched the Christian Legionaires begin to march on the ice, and then, wonder of wonders, heard them singing a song! It seemed to Agricola that a praise to their god, this Jesus Christ they spoke of, was being praised by them. What could such a god do for them now? Yet they stubbornly, insanely, persisted in praising them, though they were in the midst of a icy pond, naked, and freezing to death in frigid March gales of wind. The sun now was falling, it was growing even colder, if that was possible. The governor gathered heart, thinking the severity of the evening cold would change their minds. He posted guards around the pond and waited for the men to give up to reason. But another clever thought occurred to him. Heat baths of warm water, he ordered his men. Place them around the waters edge. That will lure them out quickly enough, he laughed. The sun sank behind the hills. Night lay upon the scene, and the watching Legion and its comander and the governor and Lysias heard a prayer issue forth from the besieged and dying rebels. Lord, there are forty of us engaged in this battle. Grant that forty may be crowned and not one be missing from this sacred number. Agricola looked at Lysias, and Lysias looked at Agricola. Sacred number? That was what they called themselves, a sacred number. Remembering their hard-pressed brothers, guards began to show more pity than their commanders could reasonably betray to inferiors. Dont be simpletons! they cried to the men on the ice. What is the point of perishing? Come on out. Warm yourself, brothers! The guards, shivering, waited, but not one of the rebels gave up. Something happened to make one guard look up. Look, he exclaimed to a guard nearest him as he pointed to the sky. What is it? the other man replied, peering into the darkness of a foul, cold, windy night. I cant see a thing in this dark. By Jupiter, I wish this were over. I am freezing out here! Dont you see them? cried the guard to his grumbling companion. I see spirits, hovering over those men on the ice, holding golden crows over their heads, and carrying rich robes for them too! Are you mad? cried his soldier friend. Its pitch black. Oh! Theres someone coming our way. Its one of them! The two ran toward the crawling form on the ice, and grabbing the mans arms pulled him from the pond. They helped him into the warm water of the tub bath, and the man no sooner entered the water then he shook and collapsed, dying right before their eyes. The moment the man died, the guard who had pointed to the sky and said he had seen bright spirits holding crowns and rich robes over the forty, suddenly stripped down, running naked out on the ice to take the dead mans place. The sacred number of forty was again complete! Hours stretched like foregleams of eternity, but finally the new day dawned. Agricola, back in his town house, was informed that the forty were dead. Well, get them off the ice! Burn the bodies. And dump the ashes in the river. Why he didnt order them thrown to the wild dogs, no one knew. But this was at least a shred of dignity thrown the dead men. The soldiers obeyed, backing a wagon to the ;pond. They began stacking the stiff corpses onto the wagon. Suddenly, a guard shouted. By Mars backside! Theres a live one here. Its Melito. Hes just a boy, the youngest of the lot. Everyone knew Melito, he was so young as to be considered the pet of the Legion, and now he was discovered to be alive! What a discovery for these hardened men! It seemed to bring back some cheer into the cold, hard world they had to endure. Could they save Melito at least? Right then someone noticed the boys mother trudging forward, dressed in the peasants clothes of a coat of rags pulled over rough-woven wool undergarments that made her look more like a beast of burden, a donkey, than a female. A soldier beckoned to her, and she came down to the pond. Listen, mother, the soldier said. Take your boy home, save his life if you can. Well look the other way. Melitos mother, Cybele, looked at him crossly as if she could scarcely believe her ears. What kind of talk is that? she cried sharply. She grew even more visibly upset and tore her thin, ragged coat open, revealing the crude, wooden cross she kept on a string around her neck, on which she had somehow contrived to sew a few precious golden threads. This cross she plucked from the string and held up to them as if it were the greatest treasure. The guards were astonished. See, the Master we serve and adore died on such a cross! Would you cheat my son of his crown for suffering a little for the Lord Christ? Ill never let that happen! Then, before she could be stopped, she pressed the cross into her sons frozen hands. And she herself, with no help, hoisted Melito onto the wagon as it began to roll away with its load of corpses for burning and distributing as ash into the river. Go, son, she cried after the departing wagon. Go to the end of this happy journey with your comrades, so that you wont be the last to present yourself before God. One of the guards tapped his head, and screwed his eyes upwards in a familiar sign that the woman was mad. Christians! he cried in disgust. How can you understand such crazy people! The guard whose companion had sacrificed himself in place of a failed martyr could not reply. He felt sick to his stomach as he saw his companion loaded on the wagon with the rest of the glorious martyrs. What kind of man am I? he thought. I am lower than any animal! He filed back to the barracks with the others, once the burning was completed and the ashes thrown into the river. Slowly, he warmed himself up in the building before the earthen stove, and thought to himself, not daring to tell anyone, about what else his companion had said to him just before leaping out on the ice to share death and glory with his thirty nine comrades. What had he said? He had mentioned he saw not only angels and robes and crowns. He also claimed to see a bridge, all blue, glowing like many jewelsand he and his comrades were standing upon one half of it, defending it with their swords against attacking foes. How strange! A bridge? Where was it? How could he defend anything, when he was now dead, reduced to ashes and being swept in the strong currents downriver toward the distant sea? It was all so strange and impossible a dream, if dream it was. But all the events of the rebellion were strange. Sebastenay, even Romahad never seen the like. Nor would they see such brave men as these again stand such a terrible test of their resolve to hold true to their god. Shaking his head, the soldier crept on shaking legs and numb feet toward the mess, hoping a good meal would warm the numbness he felt inside. He was halfway through his meal when he threw down his piece of muttonwhich was an extra reward ordered by the governor for their faithful performance of duty during the late ordeal. He couldnt eat it. His insides refused the mealand he bent over with cramps, retching. Stumbling out of the building, he stood in the cold, bitter-cold air, and then his eyes caught something glowing in the sky. It was morning, but the darkness was still holding beneath the thickly-clouded sky. What was that glint of gold then? And those sounds? He clapped his ears. But it was too late. He heard singing, singing voices from among the clouds! Impossible! He spun around, and lunged back indoors. The following day the same soldier was pulled from the river, drowned by a fall or by his own hand. It was never recorded just what had been the cause. His brothers, asked by the commander, could only say the man had been acting strangely, ever since the men sacrificed themselves on the ice. That seemingly had set him off in his mind. Poor brute! the commander muttered, and shrugged. When the mind goes that way, it is only a matter of time before he throws himself in the river. But Sebastewell, it was to be expected in such an outpost. Not every man could hold strong enough not to break in an unguarded moment of weakness. He gave orders. The body was given proper and full military burial. For the maneven if by his own handwas accorded honor in death. What no one could prevent happened. Dogs, fearing not man nor Divine Emperor Licinius, dug up the body and consumed it. All there was left afterwards were the hands and feet. Even the skull was dragged away to be gnawed someplace else. The commander, who heard everything, good or bad, learned of the soldiers fate. Such is Sebaste! he said, with another Latin shrug. a place fit only for dirty sheep and dogs! 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