The Homullus

17 Oct

There had never been anyone as strongly muscled in ancient Samnium as Scaevola.

Enormously tall and sinewy, the umber-skinned athlete was the champion thrower of javelins at the great Samnite festival at Maleventum.

All the important tribes of south-central Italy were represented here: Hirpini, Caudini, Careini, and Pentri. They possessed the best javelinists on the peninsula. There were tough competitors from the Apennines and freemen of Samnium. Resistance to the growing power of Rome was common to all the mountain men present for the games.

Throwers from many places vied for public honor at this assembly of people. Youths from Aquilonia, Caudium, Maronea, Saticula, Venafrum, and Aesernia dreamed of winning fame and glory. A final duel had a pair of contenders: a stocky figure from Morgentia and mighty Scaevola of Maleventum. The joy of victory went to the latter for a record-breaking toss. He was rewarded with a crown of flowers at the end of the lengthy competition.

The winner had no family or relatives to share his success. There was only a single companion for him to celebrate with. Gaurus, an ironmaster, accompanied the new champion back to the tiny tugurium where he lived. At the outer edge of Maleventum stood this hut where the hurler of javelins dwelled, adjacent to the workshop of the small man with the reputation of being the most skilled ferrarius within the Hirpine tribe.

“You threw quite well today,” said Gaurus, his dark brown eyes aglow. “I am immensely proud of you.”

The hard, rock-like face of the athlete remained as expressionless as always.

“Yours is the true victory, dominus. I know what my debt to you is. Without you, I would not have such strength and skill.”

Gaurus, continuing his forward pace beside the victor, looked sideways at the profile of Scaevola.

Indeed, without him, the homullus who threw javelins would not even be there.

The ironsmith began to meditate aloud. “The earliest inhabitants from whom the people of Italy are descended, the Ausones, predicted that some day fabricators would become skilled enough to produce a new type of human.

“It has been my fate to be the first opifex able to construct a living homullus,” whispered Gaurus.

Scaevola, still walking briskly, turned his head and eyes toward his companion.

“You used fine argilla clay when you molded and baked my torso and limbs,” he noted. “I thank you for the care and thought you put into my creation.”

Gaurus nodded his head. “I made a formative lutum of mud and caenum, adding vitrum crystals from a glass maker. From the far north, I purchased amber to use as a binding substance throughout your body. Tectorium plaster and gypsum, bitumen carbo, ferrum, and caementum went into the composition of your organs. Building your body was a difficult, complicated task.

“Your eyes were formed of isinglass. I made your bones out of mica, selenite, gypsum, and caementum. Secret arrangements with grave robbers resulted in the purchase of many of your organs from fresh cadavers removed out of local sepulchra.

“Organ by organ, your body formed out of these viscera. Venae and arteriae were inserted to connect the many parts. A heart beat began and your cerebrum started to function. Musculi and nervi were trained to move you about.

“On the summer morning when I finished you, my Scaevola, your life had its birth.”

“I can not repay you for all you have done,” coldly said the winning athlete.

Skilled in the use of the heavy pilium, the long sarisa, and the hasta spear, Scaevola won the reputation of being a potential bellator, a valuable warrior. A contubernium of ten men invited him to join their group. In a very short time, he became a decurion in charge of his own squad. From this lower officer rank, he rapidly climbed up. Proving himself in scattered small battles with the Romans, his superiors promoted him to the post of centurion in charge of one hundred fighters.

Gaurus glowed with pride at the rise of what he had conceived and put together. He foresaw his construct one day serving as legatus to the commander of all Samnite forces, the famed general and ductor named Rosius. After several years, the elevation to aide to the general came to Scaevola.

Rosius soon showed himself to be the first personal enemy the creature had ever faced. From the start, the two were at odds over how to defend Samnium from invasion by the Romans. The general did not accept the offensive strategy proposed by his adjutant legatus. Forward movements of units seemed too hazardous to the older veteran who served as top commander.

When at home with Gaurus, Scaevola criticized the ductor’s caution and passivity. “Our side must at all times take the active part and not merely react to what the Romans do,” he told the man who had made him. The two were eating an early morning jentaculum together in the workshop.

Gaurus stared at him for a time, then asked a direct, meaningful question.

“What do you have in mind as your goal? I suspect that there is a clever scheme for Samnite victory you have conceived in your mind.”

Indeed, the homullus had many times proven himself astute and quick-thinking in everything he focused his attention on.

How would he attempt to outsmart the clever Roman commanders? wondered Gaurus.

“We have to keep them away from our towns and oppida. The Romans are expert in the mounting of sieges. They have engines they call tormenta that can throw missiles at the walls and buildings of enemy cities. I have heard of these mechanisms from veterans who witnessed their destructive effects. And they also know how to construct catapultae that can hurl arrows over defenses.

” I have heard of Roman ballistaria that strike targets with large, heavy rocks,” continued Gaurus. “All that our side has is the old, small scorpius that cannot match the tormenta of our Roman foes. We have not built our artificia to the extent that they have. Yes, I can understand why you prefer to meet the Romans in the open, away from towns where they can entrap us. But how can we defeat these cruel invaders, my son?”

Scaevola replied in a cool, level tone of voice.

“We have to set a trap the way a hunter does, where it is least expected. The shape of our land tells us the location for the best possible insidiae.”

“An ambush?” said the fabricator with surprise. “How can we do that?”

“First, we will need the eyes and ears of exploratori. Scouts and spies will inform us of the route taken by the Roman legions. We must know where they are and where they seem to be headed. Then, we have to anticipate their movements before they come near any town of ours. The narrow angustiae in the mountains seem the best places to catch hold of and corner the enemy.”

“But will the ductor, Rosius, approve such an unusual plan of battle?”

Scaevola considered for a moment. “I must discuss the plan thoroughly with him. Yes, it will be hard to convince the old warrior, but I must make that attempt,” he thoughtfully replied.

The general of all Samnite forces was an elderly man with white hair and hazel eyes. The tentorium he occupied was a little way outside Maleventum. It took Scaevola only a short walk to reach it.

“What you propose is a simple, old-fashioned insidiae,” asserted the commander after hearing the legatus outline his plan. “The idea goes back far in time and has always been a big gamble. So much can go wrong in the execution! It is possible for the enemy to uncover and defeat the ambush and those involved in it. The result can be a military disaster.

“I am doubtful that anything like that can succeed against the nimble forces of Rome.”

Scaevola drew himself up and leaned forward. “It is all possible, I assure you, sir. This ambush will be different from earlier ones. In the past, the only forces used in such instances were pedites on foot. I plan to add mounted equites to our infantry. And I intend to arm our cavalry with a secret weapon that the Romans lack.”

“Secret weapon?” reacted the general with surprise. “What secret weapon?”

“Long range sagittari armed with bows and arrows like those of our mountain huntsmen. This weapon and adept bowmen will ensure our victory in any ambush we lay.”

The ductor thought for a while before giving a final decision.

“No, I cannot agree to such a wild scheme. It is very dangerous to advance units of men so far forward, so far from any other forces. Our towns would lose their immediate protection. There is no way I can agree to such insanity. The strategy you propose would surely end in defeat.”

Silence fell over the tentarium. Scaevola excused himself and left.

That night the homullus told Gaurus what he intended to do once the Romans entered the territory of Samnium.

“I must take my cohors north and west, toward the route that the enemy is certain to take. My action, of course, will be called disobedience. It will be seen as disloyalty and contumacia. But there is no alternative for me, I believe. The success of the ambush will be my primary argument of defense. I am certain that the Romans will be beaten, that will save me.”

Gaurus turned pale. “It is a terrible risk you will be taking. Your maneuver sounds like alea, a throw of the dice. No one can know for sure how they will land.”

“I have worked out the details of how it must be done. Every possible action by the Romans has been pictured in my mind. It was you who granted me the thinking capacity I enjoy. That is what makes me confident about the outcome of my plan.”

The ironmaster revealed a sad smile. “My prayer to the gods is that they watch over and keep you safe,” solemnly said Gaurus.

The two exchanged looks of complete mutual understanding.

Scaevola, in his position as legatus, ordered his cohors of infantrymen on a forced march to a position called the Caudine Fork. Cavalry and archers accompanied the unit, guarding the flanks.

A hidden ambush was soon placed in position at this strategic point between two mountains. The advancing Roman legion did not perceive the trap ahead of them. The deception by the Samnites under the homullus was successful. A sudden surprise attack found the invaders unprepared.

Caught in the clutches of the insidiae, the Romans reacted in panic.Their pedites and equites both quickly succumbed to the forward thrust of the Samnites led by Scaevola. A few individual warriors tried to stand and fight back, but most of the Romans decided to flee and save themselves.

There was no way out for the surrounded aggressors. The Samnites poured down into the narrow Furculae Caudiae from all sides, in all directions. Every Roman soldier marching or riding through the mountain gap was either killed or captured. The crowded augustiae became a scene of mass slaughter. There were no Romans able to get away, not a single one.

Scaevola stood by himself on a high scopulus overlooking the battle. Without emotion, he witnessed the bloody drama below. His cold brain considered the dimensions and implications of the accomplished victory that day. The ambition of Rome to dominate the peninsula had been thwarted in a serious way. An imperium of supreme power had been put out of reach. His Samite fighters had humiliated the Roman army. The tribes of the region had successfully defended their ancient independence.

The homullus was so focused on the dead bodies down below that he failed to notice a squad of men who came up to him from behind.

A familiar voice addressed the legatus, forcing him to turn around.

“You have disobeyed my commands today,” shouted an angry Rosius, the top Samnite general. “This battle was irregular and unauthorized. Whatever the result may have been, there must now be a restoration of military order and regularity. The one who incited this massacre must be made an example of. So, I order you demoted and expelled from any rank or position whatever. You are no longer to enjoy the office of legatus under me.

“I also order your immediate expulsion from the soil of beloved Samnium. This is a judgment of permanent exile for your evil perfidy. Never are you to return to our land. An unalterable ban is to be placed on you for life. That is the summary punishment I give you for your treachery.

Be gone and never again show yourself in my presence. There can be no future for you in this country.”

His brain in a whirl, the homullus ran from the high crag where he had been watching the great ambush.

Like the rest of Samnium, Gaurus heard the lie that the victory was planned and led by Rosius. It was supposedly his military genius that conceived of and carried out the ambush.

But the ironmaster clearly understood what the truth was.

With tears in his eyes, he learned of the banning of Scaevola on unspecified charges. He alone realized the reason for such unjust punishment.

Gaurus never found out what the fate of the homullus he had crafted was. Nor did he ever make a second object like Scaevola, fearing what might happen to it in Samnium.



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