Before I left home for working a few weeks 'abroad', I had prepared postings for the last few centurions. Now, since there's some spare time now and then, I'll try to draw this series to an end over the next couple of days. Hopefully it won't bore you or, even more dangerous, mislead you to believe that's a pace I can stick to. ;-)
Closing in on the Early Imperial era, we are now travelling on calm waters. No decent coverage of the Roman centurion would be complete without THE image created by a certain literarily talented general, particularly well-known (and well-hated) among countless students of Latin. Therefore the next one is Marcus Petronius, centurion of 8th legion, on campaign with C. Iulius Caesar in Gaul, c. 52 BC.
Those who had to translate Caesar's De bello Gallico in school might remember Petronius. In fact, he's one of the few centurions Caesar mentions by name. Today the arguably best-known are Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo, due to their appearance in the TV-show "Rome". However, only the very first scene slightly resembles what Caesar actually tells us about the certamen centurionum (cf. book 5, chapter 44): a "contest between the centurions", first, a show of prowess in single combat and, finally, of comradeship and mutual aid.
Petronius' story comes in a similar vein. In early 52 BC things were not going well for Caesar. Amongst other things he had to deal with rebellious allies, whereas Vercingetorix, leader of Gallic resistance, was gathering support while just sitting in his hideout, the hilltop castle of Gergovia. Unable to confront his opponent in open battle, Caesar tried to at least interrupt the stream of supporters by attacking their camps. However, the plan didn't work out, as the 8th legion ignored Caesar's command to fall back before the Gauls' counterattack. Pushing forward instead and even scaling the city walls, they became soon overwhelmed by the Gauls. One of those leading their men into trouble was Marcus Petronius, and I'll give my - quite literal - translation of Caesar's description (cf. 7, 50).
"M. Petronius, centurion of the same legion [the 8th, as mentioned before], after he had tried to break open the gates, was repelled by a multitude [of enemies]. And, as he had already been wounded several times, he abandoned hope for himself and said to the soldiers of his maniple, who had followed him: 'For I cannot, at the same time, save you and myself, at least I shall fend for your lives, that I, seduced by a desire for glory, have put in jeopardy. Look after yourselves, whilst there's a chance.' Instantly, he threw himself amidst the enemies, killing two and driving the rest back a little from the entrance. To those, who tried to support him, he said: 'To no avail you're trying to aid my life, which's already lost all blood and vigour. Hence, back off, while you can, and withdraw to the legion!' Thus he fell battling and saved his men."
Caesar tells us that 46 (!) centurions were killed at this incident. If a bit 'larger than life', thereby some aspects of the 'Caesarian' centurions are revealed as well: On the one hand they show a strong "desire for glory", thus embodying an ancient ideal of Roman nobility. Military service, like never before, is now a possibility for advancement, for social rise: Attract your commander's attention and he'll back you up by all means! On the other hand, centurions develop a certain esprit de corps, both among each other and with those being in their custody. It's no longer of importance, if you belong to the same district, tribe or to the same constituency. Centurions in particular are professionals, who can be deployed wherever necessary, and who are the most reliable source of military experience for a politician made general - or, for that matter, a general who wants to make politics. So it's understandable that Caesar was disappointed by and, at the same time, quite proud of their performance at Gergovia: Men like Petronius got carried away by their "virtue", but they didn't spare themselves in order to save the day at least for their men - and their commander as well.
In the 1st century BC the combination of the army's ever-growing professionalism and its use as a political factor is becoming explosive. For instance, in 52 BC, with Crassus dead and family bonds with Pompeius dissolved, Caesar's foothold in Roman politics was at risk. The Senate could order him to disband his army and return from Gaul any time. Expressing his support Petronius scribbled CAES(ar) VIC(tor), "Caesar (shall be the) winner", onto his shield. The 8th legion - their actual symbol unknown, but a bull might be more likely - was to become a firm ally of Caesar and his political heir, Octavian, in the following civil wars. In fact, during its whole existence (up to the 5th century AD!) the 8th seems to have chosen the - retrospectively - 'rightful' side almost every time, e.g. opposing Nero or supporting Septimius Severus early on.
Lately there's been some debate what Late Republican soldiers actually looked like. New finds and re-interpretations have doubted the omnipresence of Montefortino helmets (the cooking pot-shaped ones) and chain mail shirts in the 'Caesarian' army, with leather or linen armour, Gallic or Greek helmet designs seemingly being common as well. However, for Petronius I chose a quite traditional looking model - okay, mainly because I wanted to include one of Marc Copplestone's excellent sculpts. (After the demise of Companion Miniatures, despite their short-lived reappearance at Aventine's, one is left with Foundry's part of it.) This particular model also wields a vitis (vine-stick), another item I wanted portrayed at least once, for it was a centurion's distinct sign of rank throughout the Roman period. If the vitis was carried into battle is yet rather dubious, as it was more useful to chastise stragglers on march and sluggards in camp. Lastly, I gave Petronius tunic and crest dyed red, even as there's evidence for shades of blue and white as well. His only 'experimental' feature is the yellow-coloured shield, which adds some contrast.
Now, only two centurions to go…
Painted August 2011. Miniature by Wargames Foundry.