Author: James Mace
In the year 66 A.D. the Roman province of Judea exploded in rebellion. Far from being a revolution of unified peoples, the various Jewish factions of Sadducees, Zealots, Sicarii, and Edomites are in a state of civil war; as anxious to spill the blood of each other as they are to fight the Romans. The Judeans find hope when the Romans commit a serious tactical blunder and allow their forces to be ambushed and nearly destroyed in the mountain pass of Beth Horon. Following the disaster, Emperor Nero recalls to active service Flavius Vespasian, the legendary general who had been instrumental in the conquest of Britannia twenty-three years before. In the northern region of Galilee, a young Judean commander named Josephus ben Matthias readies his forces to face the coming onslaught. A social and political moderate, he fears the extremely violent Zealot fanatics, who threaten to overthrow the newly-established government in Jerusalem, as much as he does the Romans. Soon Vespasian, a tactical and strategic genius who had never been defeated in battle, unleashes his huge army upon Galilee. His orders are to crush the rebellion and exact the harshest of punishments upon those who would violate the Peace of Rome. Lacking the manpower and resources to face the legions in open battle, Josephus knows he will need plenty of cunning, ingenuity, and, perhaps, even the intervention of God Himself, lest the once proud Kingdoms of Judah and Israel should become a kingdom of the damned.
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Chapter XXIII: Know Your Enemy
Ptolemais, Northern Judea
March, 67 A.D.
While Placidus commenced his campaign of terror in Galilee, Titus arrived in Ptolemais with the Fifteenth Legion. It had taken a couple of days to ready the legion ready to march, seeing as how they had remained static near Alexandria for so long. He also delayed a couple of days in Ascalon in order to see, firsthand, just how bad the rebel losses were following the assault, as well as to make an assessment of the defenses, should the Jews attempt to take it once more. A few times they spotted mounted scouts, but no actual resistance materialized to face the legion. In all, it had taken them eighteen days to reach Ptolemais, three days faster than Titus first reckoned.
Vespasian was sitting just inside his principia tent, counting and sorting a pile of coins, when he heard the sounds of trumpets and cheering men. As officers were often transferred between the various legions, a number of centurions from the Fifth and Tenth Legions came out to greet their friends within the Fifteenth. The men in the ranks were elated to have more legionaries joining the fight, rather than having to place so much trust in the auxilia and notoriously unreliable eastern allies.
“General!” Titus said, as he entered the tent and removed his helmet. His hair was matted with sweat, and his entire body filthy from the dusty roads. He looked exhausted, yet he still sharply saluted his father and commander-in-chief. “Fifteenth Legion reporting for orders; all present and accounted for!”
He then walked over to a table that had a pitcher of water and goblets, thirstily downing two cups full.
“Well done,” Vespasian replied, making a couple of notes on a wax tablet. “You made good time. Any news to report from the south?”
“We did a lot of forced marches,” his son noted, taking a seat across from him. “I did take a thorough look at the carnage around Ascalon that I’m sure you heard about.”
“Yes, I hear it was quite the slaughter.”
“It was,” Titus remarked. “The pyre of enemy dead who attacked the city was still smoldering when we arrived. And their commanding centurion told me where his force attacked the enemy camp the next day. It was a gutsy move, but it paid off and then some. I dare say the stench of the rebel dead will linger for months.”
“The smell of a dead enemy is always sweet,” his father replied with macabre humor.
Titus then nodded towards the pile of money Vespasian was counting and gave him a puzzled look. “What have you there?” he asked.
“Well, I didn’t want the entire army sitting idle while waiting for the arrival of the Fifteenth,” Vespasian explained. “I sent Placidus to Sepphoris to reinforce the garrison and reassure the loyal citizens that Rome stands by them. I also directed his forces to begin scorching the surrounding villages. He has been rather…busy, you might say.” He chuckled at his last remark.
“Has he now.”
Titus and Placidus were not on the friendliest of terms. It wasn’t that they were enemies; Placidus felt Titus was far too young to be in command of a legion and only got his posting because of who his father was. Whereas Titus believed the auxilia corps commander was oftentimes reckless and put his troops at unneeded risks. Each man was, to a degree, both right and wrong about the other. Yet they were able to put their differences aside, if for no other reason than out of respect for their commanding general.
“A dozen villages are now piles of ash,” Vespasian said. “Thousands of rebellious Jews lie dead, and best of all, Placidus has netted us nearly ten thousand slaves, who are fetching a good price. I’m just making some notes on what we sold this latest lot for, then dividing the shares up amongst Placidus, his officers and men, and of course their commanding general.”
“Good,” Titus replied, finally matching his father’s grin. “Well, you said so yourself; a bit of warfare is a good way to make some real money.”
“It’s a lot more profitable than beekeeping or selling mules,” Vespasian observed.
“I don’t suppose I’ve missed all the action,” Titus said.
“Not at all,” his father replied, making a final note on his tablet. He then leaned back in his chair and folded his hands across his chest. “We’ve sold a few slaves and burned a handful of villages, but that is nothing to these Jews. They are very tough and will not break easily. There has been little in the way of resistance, which tells me that all of their fighting men are headed for the major cities. We suspect that whoever is in command in Galilee is rallying his forces in a single place, we just aren’t sure where yet.”
“You think they want to stand and fight us?” Titus asked. “They’d be foolish to do so, especially after what happened at Ascalon.”
“I doubt we will be so fortunate to face such a witless and foolish commander,” Vespasian conjectured. “If they were that reckless, they would have attacked Placidus by now. As it is, they’ve let him rampage everything within ten miles of Sepphoris.”
Their conversation was interrupted as an auxiliary cavalryman quickly dismounted outside the principia and stepped into the tent. He gave a quick salute before producing a small scroll. “Message for General Vespasian from General Placidus,” he said, handing the parchment to the commander-in-chief. “He asks that you come with the main army at once to Saab.”
“So I can see,” Vespasian replied, reading the short note. He then told the trooper, “Have Placidus leave two cohorts of infantry at Sepphoris. He is to take the rest of his corps and meet us at Saab in four days. I want a thorough reconnaissance sweep from Chabulon to Jotapata, all the way to Selame.”
“Yes, sir.” The soldier saluted and left the tent.
Titus had his head cocked to one side. “News from Placidus?”
“It would seem the main Judean army in Galilee found them,” his father replied. “Between thirty and forty thousand men, all well-armed, sought to take Sepphoris by negotiation. They were rebuffed by the city council, and when they saw our soldiers manning the ramparts, they withdrew.”
“I hope Placidus keeps his reconnaissance cavalry right on their backside,” Titus remarked. “If they scatter, so be it, we’ll just continue the purge of Galilee. But if they concentrate on a single stronghold, then we will know where to strike.”
“And that, my boy, is why you have the makings of a fine commanding general.” Vespasian did not readily hand out compliments, and so his words meant much to his son.
Titus found it to be an added privilege, if one with a lot of added pressure, serving as a legate under his own father. He constantly felt the need to perform equal to or better than his peers, lest good order and discipline suffer because rumors spread that he only got his command due to nepotism. It mattered not that Consul Paulinus had secured his appointment well before Vespasian was recalled to active service. Perception was everything when it came to morale within the ranks. Titus knew his own potential, and he certainly did not lack in combat experience. However, he had yet to fight his first action as a commanding legate. Soon enough he would be able to prove his mettle, for good or ill.
“There’s something else in this message,” Vespasian noted. “At least one of the Judean commanders is named Josephus ben Mathias. Have you heard of him?”
“No,” Titus replied, “but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t those within the army who have.”
“I want to find out whatever we can about this man,” Vespasian said. “In any campaign it is crucial to know one’s enemy as much as it is to know one’s self.” He turned to an aid. “Send word throughout the army, if anyone has knowledge regarding one Josephus ben Mathias, they are to report to me at once.”
“Sir.” The aid saluted and left.
Vespasian appeared to be lost in thought once more. “Josephus,” he muttered. “Somehow, I think I will get to know this name intimately.”
The wait while encamped at Ptolemais was almost as bad for Gaius’ legionaries as when they had been stuck in Ascalon. Rumors had been spreading that they would soon be breaking camp and invading Galilee. It was almost maddening, for the nearest rebel villages were barely ten miles from where the army was cantoned. That a corps of auxiliary troops was already laying waste to the countryside, while profiting off the sale of thousands of slaves, irritated the legionaries immensely. To keep their men occupied, Nicanor and Gaius set up training stakes and continued to drill their men on a continuous basis. When they weren’t practicing individual close combat, they trained in employing various formations; moving from column to battle formation, conducting passages-of-lines, covering down when individual soldiers were killed or wounded and, of course, the famous testudo.
It was during such practice that Centurion Antonius found them. “Nicanor!” he shouted.
“At ease, men,” Nicanor said to his century as he and Gaius walked quickly over to their cohort commander. “Sir?”
“General Vespasian just received a bit of intelligence that he’s hoping some of our men who’ve been stationed in the east can elaborate on. Check with your men, see if any of them are familiar with one named Josephus ben Mathias.” Antonius’ words hit Nicanor like a dagger in the heart.
“No,” he whispered, closing his eyes. “Please, not him…”
“You know him?” Antonius asked, raising an eyebrow.
“All too well,” Nicanor replied with a nod.
“I’ll inform General Trajan,” the pilus prior said. “You’d best get your ass over to Vespasian’s principia and report to him at once.”
“Yes, sir.” Nicanor’s face was pale, and he looked as if he might be ill. Antonius simply nodded and made his way to where another of his centuries was training.
“I’ll go with you,” Gaius offered.
“Because you look like shit, and I figure you might need a little friendly support,” his optio replied. “Besides, I’ve never met General Vespasian, and this may be my one chance.”
The two men shared a nervous laugh before directing the signifier to dismiss the century.
“Why did it have to be him?” Nicanor sighed, as they made their way through the camp towards Vespasian’s headquarters.
“Is he the Jew you told me about that you were friends with before the war?” Gaius asked.
“That’d be him. Damn it all, I’ve known Josephus most of my life; he is like a brother to me. I had hoped we would not have to fight each other…”
It took them about twenty minutes to find their way to the center of the massive camp. Gaius wondered aloud if they’d be able to find their way back. His attempts at levity did not help his friend, as much as he tried. The commander-in-chief’s tent was easy to spot. It was much larger than any of the others, at least twice the size of a legion’s principia. Several legionaries stood guard outside, and they came to attention as the two officers approached. Nicanor let them know who he was, and one of the men stepped inside to announce them. After about a minute he came out and said, “You can go in, centurion.”
The inside of Vespasian’s headquarters was a lot more austere than Nicanor and Gaius had expected, for the commanding general was not one for useless clutter and pomp. The only statuary was a single pedestal with a bust of the emperor. There was nothing else in the way of décor. Towards the back of the tent was a long table, used to conduct meetings with the legates and auxiliary commanders. Vespasian sat behind the table, his son, General Titus, stood behind him, hands clasped behind his back. The centurion and optio strode across the way, stopped in front of the table, and saluted.
“Centurion Nicanor reporting, sir!”
Vespasian stood and returned the courtesy. “At ease, men,” he said. He then glanced over at Gaius. “And who are you?”
“My optio, sir,” Nicanor explained, “Gaius Artorius Armiger.”
“Artorius,” Vespasian said, furrowing his brow. “I feel I should know that name.”
“My father and grandfather both served with the Twentieth Legion during the Britannic Conquest, sir,” Gaius said. “Grandfather was the Twentieth’s master centurion.”
“Of course,” Vespasian said with a chuckle. “Can’t say I knew your father, but I knew your grandfather quite well. We fought beside each other during the assault on the barbarian fortress of Mai Dun. I hope you continue to do honor to his valiant name.”
“Now, centurion,” Vespasian said, looking once more at Nicanor. “I understand you know this Josephus, who it appears is a key leader of the resistance in Galilee.”
“Yes, sir,” Nicanor replied. “I was raised in the east. Josephus and I have known each other since we were boys.”
“You two are friends then,” the commanding general observed.
“We were,” Nicanor replied.
“Were?” Vespasian said, raising an eyebrow. “You mean you’re not still?”
“Well, there is a war going on, sir.”
“Yes, well, Julius Caesar still considered Pompey Magnus to be one of his closest friends, even when they were locked in a bloody civil war with each other. Have a seat, both of you.” Vespasian snapped his fingers and aids brought a pair of camp chairs over for the men.
Nicanor noticed that Titus remained silent the entire time, simply observing and taking in all that was said.
“Now,” Vespasian said, once the men were seated, “what can you tell me about this Josephus? Tell me everything that a soldier needs to know about his adversary.”
“He’s very clever,” Nicanor replied. “He’s foremost an intellectual and a scholar, but that does not mean he doesn’t know how to fight.”
“The mind is the most powerful weapon a man has,” Titus said, speaking up at last.
“Quite,” his father concurred. “Elaborate for me.”
“Even when we were young he read all the time, and not just Jewish histories. He told me once that he read Caesars, The Conquest of Gaul at least four times. I know he’s also read up on Tiberius’ campaigns in Raetia, as well as other Roman military works.”
“So he’s at least somewhat familiar with our tactics,” Titus noted, folding his arms across his chest.
“I would say so, sir,” Nicanor remarked. “He’s also been to Rome. A couple of years ago he was sent to negotiate the release of Jewish political prisoners.”
“And was he successful?” Vespasian asked, to which the centurion nodded. “Then he, no doubt, has an orator’s tongue.”
“That he does,” Nicanor said, continuing. “And if he’s studied Julius Caesar, then he knows more than just our tactics; he understands how logistics and supply lines work. It would explain why he has been given an independent command so far away from the central government.”
“And how he was able to field such a large force, even for the short march to Sepphoris,” Vespasian noted.
“Sir, if I may add,” Gaius said, “at Ascalon we saw that the rebels were trying to raise a permanent standing army. They know the only way to fight professional soldiers is with professionals of their own. It would not surprise me if Josephus was sent to Galilee to raise such a force here.”
“A sound observation, optio,” Vespasian acknowledged. He then said to Nicanor, “If Josephus is able to raise a standing army, where do you think he would deploy it?”
“He’s no fool, so I doubt he would concentrate in only one place,” the centurion said. “There are various factions of seditionists in the region, and I doubt that he’s been able to control all of them. One thing you’ll note about the peoples of this region is that many of their sects hate each other even more than they do us. They’ll face annihilation before they ever join together.”
“So where then?” the general persisted.
“He may try and use terrain to his advantage, strike us with the occasional ambush. As long as we take our time, cover the flanks of our approach, and not make the same mistakes as Gallus, this should not be an issue. Our army is also double the size of the previous invasion force, so he may not even bother attempting to fight us in the open. Most likely he’ll hold up in the various walled cities around Galilee and dare us to come to him.”
Titus then asked, “If he were able to unite with the seditionists, or receive reinforcements from Jerusalem, would that embolden him to fight us beyond his strongholds?”
“I believe so,” Nicanor nodded. “But after we slaughtered their forces at Ascalon, they may be hard pressed to find reinforcements. Judea has sufficient manpower to fight us, but like I said, they are very much divided. The psychological damage was far greater than the loss of life.”
“At least we know we’re not facing some mindless barbarian,” Vespasian observed. “This Josephus appears to be a worthy opponent.”
“I would say so, sir,” Nicanor agreed.
“That will be all for now,” Vespasian said. “I’ll let Trajan know that I may need your input the closer we get to cornering our adversary and so will keep you close. Dismissed.”
“Sir!” Nicanor and Gaius both said, as they stood and saluted.
They were just about to the entrance of the tent when Vespasian called out, “Centurion!”
“I understand if this man still means a lot to you,” the general remarked. “It’s never easy, having to go to war against one’s closest friends.”
“I’m still ready to do my duty, sir,” Nicanor asserted.
Vespasian gave a hard grin of determination and nodded. “I expect nothing less.”
James Mace is the author of twelve books and the CEO and Founder of Legionary Books, which he started in 2006. He developed his passion for history at a young age and has made Ancient Rome a life's study. He penned the initial draft of his first novel, Soldier of Rome: The Legionary, as a cathartic means of escapism while serving with the U.S. Army in Iraq. He spent a career as a Soldier, and in 2011 left his full-time position with the Army National Guard to devote himself to writing.
His well received series, Soldier of Rome - The Artorian Chronicles, is a perennial best-seller in ancient history on Amazon. With his other favourite period in history being the British Empire, his writing has branched into the Napoleonic Wars. He is currently working on a new trilogy about the Roman-Jewish War of 66 to 73 A.D., along with a side project about the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879.
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