Tuesday, September 13, 2016

On this day in history, September 13 -- The Battle of Ad Decimum

On September 13 in the year of Our Lord 533 -- 1483 years ago today -- was fought the Battle of Ad Decimum, wherein the Roman general Belisarius and his army defeated the formidable Vandalic host of King Gelimer. This battle paved the way for the Roman reconquest of the rich provinces of north Africa which had been lost to the Vandals some 80 years before.

Here is an excerpt from my novel, Belisarius: Glory of the Romans, describing the initial action of this battle, where a scout force under the heroic Roman general John of Armenia inflicts a catastrophic loss upon the Vandals....

Riding at the head of his small scouting column, Armenian John knew immediately how vulnerable he was in the narrow valley of Decimum. For that reason, he ordered his men to draw their bows and advance at a gallop, and so they traversed the defile armed and with speed. When they emerged, John immediately spotted something that took his breath away—an armed contingent of Vandals about equal in strength to his own force.

What John did not discern was that this small squad was commanded by Ammatas himself who had ventured out of Carthage to scout the lay of the land ahead of his main army. He had commanded the rest of the troops to follow along behind him as soon as they could. Once they arrived, he would line them up in ranks at the mouth of the valley, dig a ditch, and thus act as an impassible obstacle to the Romans on their way to Carthage. As it was, the bulk of the Vandal army of Carthage now advanced haphazardly along the road toward Deciumum with no great urgency in disordered bands of fifty or less.

As soon as Ammatas spied the Romans emerging from the valley, he moved his men to reconnoiter. Realizing that they formed a party no greater than his own, his heart became inflamed with the desire to spill their blood. "Vandals, behold! The invaders are at hand who would take all that is rightfully yours away from you!" he cried to his men. "Let us kill them all and make them regret their mad desire to challenge us!"

Wild with bloodlust, the Vandals gave a fearsome battlecry and followed their commander who charged ahead at full speed.

When John saw the enemy surging toward him, the imminent danger of battle awoke in him a strange and urgent desire to retreat. Eudocia! his heart screamed. If I am killed here...

But the instant this weakness arose, he crushed it. Belisarius would not retreat from an equal fight, his mind rejoined. He would show courage and meet the enemy head-on, trusting in God's help. Furthermore, John knew that he could not safely withdraw without causing his troops to panic and rout. For better or worse, battle was at hand and John decided to engage at once and try the enemy's strength. "Arrows!" he shouted, pulling his helm down securely on his head. "Behind me, to the flank, by fours! Eyes on the standard!"

John's superbly trained horse archers fell in behind him and all were soon galloping toward the Vandals, but at an oblique angle. Once the enemy was in range, John drew his bow and loosed. Every man behind him followed his lead.

The volley hit the Vandal line with devastating results, slaying twenty men outright and toppling another forty from their mounts. The carnage only served to further madden Ammatas, who pressed home his attack, wheeling his column about to smash into the center of the Roman line.

"Swords!" John cried. "Change front to the left!" His bandifer waved the signal and his men immediately complied.

Ammatas hit them in a frenzy, he himself spearing one of John's best fighters with his lance on the first rush. But to the Vandals' surprise, the Romans held their ground and fought back with equal vigor. Ammatas had expected the Romans to flee as soon as the first blows were struck and his anger grew white hot as he realized that the enemy were dropping many of his men to the ground.

"Will you let these worthless Greeklings stand forth against us, O Vandals?" the prince bellowed. "It would be a disgrace to our invincible heritage, for the wretched Romans have never defeated us in battle!"

His men cheered lustily, and with the added impetus, huge Ammatas slew another five Romans in rapid succession with his two-handed greatsword. "Come and taste death!" he screamed, his mount's heaving flanks now stained with the blood of his enemies. Two more Romans fought their way toward him, but before they could even aim a blow, Ammatas had slain them both.

"The men are wavering!" Boriades shouted breathlessly to John who was beside him at the end of the battle line. "Their commander cuts through us like an all-slaughtering Achilles. Behold, another three have fallen before him."

John could not respond immediately as he was engaged with a Vandal rider. With deft swordplay, he quickly unhorsed the man, and turned his attention to the center of the battle where Ammatas and his henchmen were killing all who dared challenge them. "You recall how Achilles was slain?" he asked.

Boriades nodded and both men drew their bows. With anxious energy, Boriades loosed his shaft first and though it flew with power, it clanged harmlessly off the barding of a Vandal horse.

John carefully selected a straight shaft with undamaged fletching. O God, he prayed as he notched it on the string, if it be Your will, let this arrow fly true and seek out him most deserving of justice. He pulled the bowstring back behind his ear and let fly. The dart hissed through the air and thudded home in Ammatas's chest, penetrating armor, flesh and bone.

At first, the powerful Vandal chieftan was unaware he had been hit. He decapitated yet another Roman, though with the stroke, his right arm tingled and felt weak. His head began to spin and he became aware of a terrible burning pain in his chest.

"O Prince!" one of his henchmen groaned, his face white. "A dart..."

Ammatas couldn't respond. His sword now seemed too heavy to lift and he felt himself drifting, sagging, falling. The next thing he knew, his face was in the dust—after that, only darkness.

A tremendous cheer went up from the Romans and a simultaneous cry of dread shattered the Vandals. With their commander slain—the king's own brother—none of them thought about fighting a moment longer. All immediately disengaged and began to flee back toward Carthage.

"After them!" John cried, throwing caution to the wind. "Let none escape!"

Read more in Belisarius, Book II, Glory of the Romans.

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