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Richard's Writings > The Birth of Rome > Chapter 23: Murder in the Grove of Ferentina

Synopsis of Chapter 23: Murder in the Grove of Ferentina

The Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus is finished at last, and Superbus commissions a palace for himself on the Arx designed along similar lines. A strange portent at his palace motivates him to send his sons and Brutus to the Oracle of Delphi for advice. Superbus invites the leaders of the Latin Confederation to a meeting to discuss forming a legion for their mutual defense. He accuses one of their number of treachery and the group condemns the innocent man. The Roman/Latin legion is called to defend a Latin city from Aequi raiders.

Excerpt from Chapter 23: Murder in the Grove of Ferentina

"It's the Aequi," said the Princeps of Alatrium. "They live in the highlands beyond Lake Fucinus, and bring their herds down to the upper valleys in the winter. But they want to expand into our valley and down into Latium. They have attacked us many times in the past."

"Are you sure it is them?" asked Publius Valerius, who won his command by pretending to support Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, a man he despised. "This is Hernici country; it might be them."

"The Sabines have been very cooperative for several generations. Most of them have integrated themselves into our cities. But here is proof." The Princeps held up spear. He pointed to the spear head, a flat leaf of bronze that was inserted into a split in the shaft and then bound by braided yarn. "The Aequi cannot afford to dye their wool. This is plain. Then they braid the yarn to make it stronger before wrapping it around the shaft. You can plainly see the braid. There is no question this is an Aequi spear."

Late that evening the general held a council of war, attended by the six phalanx commanders and the decurions commanding the cavalry, Romans all. The shield wall of the phalanx would only prevail against the undisciplined hordes on level ground, but up on the slopes they would be easily outmaneuvered. They had to employ some stratagem that would bring the enemy en masse down into the valley. They decided they had no choice but to take the war to the Aequi homeland, and force them to defend themselves. Under the cover of darkness they sent ten maniples into hiding within the city of Alatrium, and secreted another five maniples inside the camp. Those left in the camp were instructed to remain in their tents, out of sight, with just a token guard protecting the palisade.

The next morning the remaining fifteen maniples, twenty four hundred warriors and six hundred non-combatants, marched out of their camp and threaded their way up the valley. They were escorted by all the cavalry. Their destination was clear to every Aequi warrior who watched from the ridge overlooking the valley: the column was aiming straight for the Aequi city of Treba. The valley twisted off to the left, to the northwest, and by noon the column had marched out of sight.

A ram's horn sounded, its hollow moan echoing across the valley and picked up by a dozen more ram's horns, the signal for attack. The tribesmen intended to destroy the camp and let the Latin-Roman allies return to a smoking ruin. Hundreds of warriors left their hidden positions on the ridge and ran down the slope towards the undefended camp. Several hundred more came down the valley from the north; these men had been screening the allies' advance up the valley, and now returned to partake of the spoils. Like a sea wave they swept over the fallow fields and flowed around the ditch and palisade. Seeing the camp sparsely defended, many of the warriors made for the Latin city and tried their luck at the city gates. Then the crisp, clear tone of a cornu rose above the shouts of the tribesmen. A trumpeter echoed the call of the commander's cornu, and suddenly the long lines of leather tents produced a thousand armed men, hungry for battle.

The Aequi who made it across the ditch and over the palisade now found themselves trapped within the perimeter and were quickly dispatched. The Roman and Latin allies smoothly assumed their positions along the palisade, every man knowing his place. Soldiers defended their portion of the wall fiercely, pulling extra javelins from the cache hidden along the perimeter and killing at a distance. Heavy spears kept the enemy from climbing out of the ditch, but any warriors who made the top of the palisade were dispatched by swords.

Meanwhile another fourteen hundred soldiers swarmed out of Alatrium and took the tribesmen from the rear. They were assisted by the Latin citizens of the city, using whatever weapons had been handed down as treasured heirlooms to the current generation. Naturally, the Aequi tried to retreat back up the slope, but they were tired and struggled to climb up-hill. Their backs made perfect targets for the javelins and they fell in great numbers.

As planned, the column that had left the camp that morning returned by nightfall, in time to finish the battle and pursue any survivors over the crest of the hill. The cavalry had been left at the head of the valley, to guard against any reinforcements from Treba coming to the support of their tribesmen. They would spend an uncomfortable night under the crisp autumn stars and return the next morning.

Allied losses were minimal, and the Princeps of Alatrium felt confident that they would be troubled no more for the rest of the season, perhaps for many years to come. The alliance of Roma and the Latin Confederation proved to be a great success. More importantly, the men who served in the ranks were united in a brotherhood that would last a lifetime. As these young men came to age and grew into positions of power and responsibility in their own cities, they would remember these bonds and their friends in arms, and act accordingly. On top of a common language, heritage and religion, these men were united by the fires of battle.


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