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.
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
“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
“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
“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.
“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
“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,
Vespasian stood and returned the
courtesy. “At ease, men,” he said. He then glanced over at Gaius. “And who are
“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
“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,
“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
Nicanor noticed that Titus
remained silent the entire time, simply observing and taking in all that was
“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
“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
“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
“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
“I would say so, sir,” Nicanor
“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.”