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Legiones Cannensis

June 9, 2008

Writing’s been going pretty well of late. I’m most of the way through my final round of revisions on The Scourge of Rome, and I’ve begun preliminary planning on my next novel, which will tell the story of Alaric and the Visigoths.

Or, well, maybe.

Yesterday, on the way to the grocery to pick up some eggs, I had another idea spring into my mind. One that parallels the events of The Scourge of Rome, but tells the story from a vastly different point of view. Instead of focusing on Scipio, Fabius, and other members of the Roman aristocracy, it would instead be a sort of Band of Brothers tale of eight legionnaires from the “Cannae legions”, or legiones Cannensis.

Why the Cannae legions? Because, to my mind, theirs is one of the greatest story arcs of the Second Punic War, if not the whole of Roman history.

In August 216 B.C., the Romans met Hannibal in battle near the abandoned town of Cannae, in southeastern Italy. Despite an overwhelming numerical advantage, the Romans were surrounded and slaughtered by Hannibal’s army. The number of dead is open to debate, but even by the lower estimates of 50,000, the day is one of the bloodiest in military history (by comparison, the British offensive at the Somme in WWI resulted in about 50,000 casualties in one day – but that’s casualties, not deaths). In the aftermath, the remnants of the shattered army coalesced at nearby Canusium under the leadership of the tribunes Publius Scipio and Appius Claudius.

Despite their heroism in fighting their way free of the slaughter and escaping capture by Hannibal’s victorious army, the survivors were punished by the Senate and exiled to Sicily for the duration of the war. Worse still, they were not permitted to winter near populated areas and were kept apart from other Roman soldiers.

Over the next several years, the war spread to Sicily, and the disgraced legions proved themselves in combat, helping Rome capture Syracuse and drive Carthaginian forces from the island. But even after these victories, they were left to rot. One can imagine their farms back in Italy being overrun with weeds. Their children growing up without them. Sweethearts marrying other men. I imagine the suicide rate was probably pretty high.

Then, in 205 B.C., everything changed. Publius Scipio, the 19-year-old tribune who led them from Cannae, returned from Spain, which he had managed to conquer in the space of four years. His victory was such that he was elected consul, despite being far too young for the office. Inspired by his successes, he devised a new strategy – to invade Africa and force the Carthaginians to recall Hannibal to defend the home territories.

The Senate was dubious. Hannibal had a knack for crushing the ambitious, and the last Roman invasion of Africa a generation before had resulted in absolute disaster. While they were unable to thwart Scipio’s plans, the Senate did frustrate them by denying him the men he needed. And so Scipio turned to the disgraced Cannae legions, and made them the core of his invasion force.

Three years later, on the barren plain of Zama, it was these disgraced legions, who had been living in exile for thirteen long years, who finally broke Hannibal’s army and brought the long war to a successful conclusion.

There’s something poetic, I think, in the fact that these disgraced legions were the ones who finally decided the war in Rome’s favor, and under the command of the same man who led them from Cannae, no less. Suffice to say, they returned to Rome in triumph, and lived out the remainder of their days as heroes and saviors of the Republic.

Now…all I have so far is the general idea. I haven’t started on devising characters, or even figuring out which class of legionnaires they would be. But, I think it’s a powerful story all the same. Who knows, it may even supplant the Alaric novel as the next story I write.

What do you think? Which would you find more compelling?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 9, 2008 9:07 am

    I personally think that your new idea would be OUTSTANDING! There would be so much to tell. It reminds me of the Lancelot – King Arthur story as told in Excalibur. Lancelot becomes Arthur’s greatest knight, does something wrong and is banished forever, then comes to save King Arthur sacrificing himself – you could have a true epic on your hands, and I bet it would be fun to write. I still can’t wait to read a copy of The Scourge of Rome…

  2. Matt permalink*
    June 9, 2008 9:35 am

    Well, that’s one vote!

    I’ll see what I can do about getting you a copy. The only ones I have right now are from back at the initial draft phase, and the writing – if not the story – has changed substantially since then.

  3. Daniel permalink
    June 9, 2008 5:35 pm

    Can’t wait for your book to come out

    wondered if you knew about Alfred Von Schliefen, WWI field marshall who worked for Kaiser Wilhelm

    There is a translation of his long essay on Cannae, the battle that is taught at every military school

    also, wonder if you are going to have graphics

    also, are you including anything on the use of elephants out of north africa for warfare

  4. Matt permalink*
    June 9, 2008 7:25 pm

    Well, still a ways to go before you’ll see TSOR in bookstores. I have to find an agent, first, which requires writing a query letter I’m happy with and a good amount of luck besides. Unfortunately, it’s not the sort of book you can break down into two or three sentences unless the person on the other end already knows something of the Second Punic War.

    As for Von Schliefen, yep, I’m aware of him. Cannae was one of his inspirations for the Schliefen plan. If I’m not mistaken, Guderain drew from it as well when formulating his panzer tactics ahead of WWII. Except in both cases it was applied in the offensive, rather than the defensive.

    Assuming I manage to get published, I’d like for the novel to have maps, but that’s down the road.

    Regarding Hannibal’s elephants, they show up briefly in TSOR, at the Battle of Trebbia River, but all of them die over the winter of 218/217 B.C., so they largely vanish from the stage after that point (TSOR ends in November 216). Assuming I write this Cannae legions novel, or carry the TSOR series through to its conclusion, you can be sure the elephants will feature prominently in the Battle of Zama.

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