Breakfast was impossible. Hard bread was never the most appetising of meals, but that morning I just could not find the courage to force it down. The sun was so hot and the bread so dry, my lips so chapped and my stomach so tight.
This unease had been building in me for weeks. At first I thought it was just seasickness, but we had reached land days ago and yet still it remained. I knew what was causing it, but I had so far refused to admit to such un-Roman weakness . Now, however, it had grown so strong that I could no longer ignore it; it was so much bigger than me.
I sat down on a dune and looked out over the bay. Despite the sickness of my mind, I tried to see things as I ought to.
So many ships. Such might. So many men. No city can withstand such a magnificent army. We are the Roman legion, the fear of all nations. The enemy shall flee in terror at our sheer number. They will see the folly of fighting such a force. And if they don’t, the Gods will. Our cause is just, righteous. I have been a good Roman. The Gods will not allow me to perish. I shall live on beyond this day!
Such great thoughts reassured me.
But only for a moment.
Then horrid, grotesque questions twisted in my stomach like a knife:
But what of the enemy? Do their deaths count for less than mine? Am I sure they deserve to die? Who am I to decide their fate? We have lost battles to them before, who is to say it will not occur again? Do the Gods love me so much to spare me? Or shall I be lost to martyrdom?
I looked around at the men, and some of them were like me, I knew. All colour had drained from their faces, great dark bags hanging below their eyes - they had not slept a wink. Young Plautus, a boy of no more than fifteen, was positively green, gazing blankly at the sand. A Priest of Mars came along and invited him to pray, but the boy turned away. Instead, he marched into his tent and emerged moments later with shield in hand, his sword sheathed in its scabbard and his helmet on his head, glinting in that African sun. He was still frightened, I knew, but it seemed he had accepted whatever the Fates had in store for him.
What I would give for such courage.
Then my attention turned to Flavius, our commander. He was by far the loudest of the men that morning. He had fought in countless battles, his body scarred from head to toe, but this was his first against the Carthaginians, and by Jupiter was he looking forward to it. His grandfather, his father and his two brothers had all fallen by the spears of Carthaginian soldiers - if any Roman had reason to want to drive his steel through Hannibal’s heart, it was him.
But not me, I realised. I did not know these people. I did not know their lands. They had never done me any harm. Their lives posed no threat to my little farm in Mediolanium.
Yet Scipio insisted they were a threat. They threatened all of Rome, the heralds claimed. We needed to take pre-emptive measures to ensure the safety and prosperity of Rome. What cause could be more righteous? Maybe we do need to go to war. Maybe these people do need to die. Maybe we do need to kill... Maybe WE need to die...
Neither option made full sense. And both inspired horror.
As we marched on the city, baking in our armour, I could not stop thinking about how men were soon going to try to kill me. They would send flaming arrows through the air, pour boiling oil from the battlements and, if it came to it, fight me one-on-one with sword and spear, attempting to disembowel me with each desperate thrust.
And the sick thing is I did not blame them for wanting me dead. I understood their motivation, but in those moments, the moments in which I needed that great Roman courage, I could not bring myself to understand our own.
This is not our land.
This grass we tread is not for our livestock.
This cannot be righteous.
I do not want to do this.
And yet still I kept marching on. I could do nothing else. To turn back would mean certain execution as a traitor, to go forward meant kill or be killed. I thought us Romans were above such barbarous dilemmas!
So, terrifically powerless in the middle of my cohort, I marched on, our war-drums booming with each step, the great walls of Carthage looming ever-larger before us. Even the Gods would shrink before such high walls! I looked to the siege towers at the head of the legion; they were swaying precariously as they trundled over the uneven African terrain. Are they feeling the same as I?
A great black bird soared through the blue above us, a serpent in its beak. The augurs knew that this signified either good or bad fortune, but I could not remember which. One thing I was sure of was that the Carthaginians would no doubt have their own interpretation of such an event.
Just as individual enemies became discernible atop the walls, their chanting became audible. Strong voices, like many Romans. The tune was even quite pleasant. Perhaps these aren’t so barbarous after all...
And yet still we marched forward, never breaking stride. Like good Romans. There was no escaping it: I was about to find myself in mortal combat.
But I still had not made my decision. Do I fight back? Or do I allow the enemy to slide his steel through my skin, rupture my organs, spew my blood all over this fertile land, and send my last breath from my lungs?
They loosed their first volley of arrows from the tops of the walls, impregnating the air with that dreadful silence that blares between action and consequence. A sharp intake of breath and we raised our hefty shields. The arrows thudded down on the wood with malicious force.
It had begun, and, yet still, I had not made my decision.
Bio: I'm a student of English at University College Dublin. I have set up a writing project called "StoryOak" which is a new format for writing short stories which involves several different authors who do not directly collaborate (the first iteration of it is due to be completed by the end of 2014). I've written several short film scripts, some of which have gone on to win awards, and I am now turning my attention to writing short stories and perhaps a novel in the near future.