A full nine days lie between the stalemate with Internazionale and the assault on Atalanta B.C.; time aplenty for Caesar to ponder what went wrong against a mediocre band of pan-continental militia. Where was the penetration? Why didn’t possession of the field serve as the foundation of a convincing victory? How could the men fail to exploit a unit which stationed Kwadwo Asamoah against Rome’s strongest flank?1If a soldier claims to be an adept infantryman, cavalryman, artillery operator and standard bearer, he’s probably terrible at them all.
Deep in post-coital contemplation, Caesar decides to stay true to the course; the strategy has served Rome well in recent centuries, and should not be discarded off the back of one result.2A continuation of his uncle Gaius Marius’ recruitment policies, widening out recruitment, but the Romans had previously been using their tried-and-tested tactics for centuries; the formations are laid out by Greek scribe Polybius, who predominantly covered the rise of the Republic (264 – 146 BC). The same cannot be said of his latest mistress, who is left behind in the capital as he prepares to march on Bergamo.3Caesar had a lot of mistresses. He was the kind of man Britney Spears wrote songs about.
Rome considers the Lombardy force as fierce rivals, though the feeling is not mutual.4The rivalry could stem from Rome’s annexation of Cisalpine Gaul from 190 BC. The Nerazzurri have traversed thousands of miles before their first domestic campaign, trudging across Dacia, Parthia and Macedonia in the space of just three weeks,5Atalanta had to play Moldova’s Milsami, Azerbaijan’s Neftci and Greece’s Olympiakos in the Europa League EURO Cup qualifying rounds. chasing an inferior form of European triumph. A narrow but nonetheless humbling defeat at the hands of Thrylos is not the ideal prelude to domestic war for Gasperinius and his men.
The visiting army are smarting from their own recent result, and look keen to make amends from the outset. Bryan Cristantius, technically still a man of Atalanta and with a point to prove,6Cristantius is on loan from the province, but will soon be joining Rome on a permanent deal. fires the first warning shot wide just ten minutes into the battle. He makes no mistake seven minutes later, crashing a shot high into the net from five paces out.725 yards in modern parlance. 1 pace = 5 yards (approx.)
The hosts strike back before the half hour mark, but the playing field is level for less than two minutes. The Romans’ set piece artillery, so effective in the past,8The Romans were rather good at siege warfare, adopting a rather aggressive approach to great success, particularly during the Gallic Wars. yields its first result of the campaign as Edin Dzeko converts from a corner. The Kolarov siege engine causes more havoc soon after, putting Atalanta goalscorer Masiello under pressure. His untimely mistake allows Cristantius to break through the ranks once more, giving Rome the upper hand at the interval.
The hosts fail to regroup adequately at half time, and find themselves besieged again within minutes of the restart, this time from the other flank. Lorenzo Pellegrinius loops a perfectly-placed projectile into the box, where it is converted by Patrick Schick. Victory is all but assured.
However, Atalanta rally, thanks in no small part to skilful warrior Musa Barrow. A rare solo sally sees the young African leader fend off two Roman decani to give the hosts fleeting hope. Undaunted, Rome continues to bombard the Atalanta fortifications from set piece scenarios, exploiting that weakness once more. Pellegrinius is the ballistarius,9An artillery operator. Juan Jesus the beneficiary.
Still the natives would not surrender, as the triumvirate of Barrow, Gomez and Rigoni punished Cengiz Under for his unconvincing header. With the battle still not won, an increasingly irate Caesar demanded even more from his men. Pellegrinius, impressive in siege scenarios, struck the killing blow, finding space in an increasingly ragged defensive line to score from a distance of four paces.1020 yards.
Privately, Caesar has concerns about the complacent elements of the performance; a better enemy might have exploited those lapses to more devastating effect. However, these thoughts are not betrayed to the soldiers for fear of damaging morale. Instead, Caesar bestows platitudes on the men – particularly Cristantius and Pellegrinius, who utterly dominated the central column – and gave his consent to plunder wine from the city.11Caesar did this after the Battle of Dyrrachium; the ensuing march effectively became a drunken orgy, which served to boost morale.
Six days later, the vino is far from flowing: they are back on a diet of posca and hard biscuits.12Roman soldiers (and the poor) drank posca, which was essentially just sour wine or vinegar combined with water and various herbs. Adding water to vinegar was an effective way of extending low rations, but the legionaries would certainly have preferred a nice bottle of red and a custard cream. The march to Sassuolo is undertaken in good spirit, and Caesar is emboldened by the presence of sword-for-hire Kevin-Prince Boateng, a talented but inconsistent decurio, in the relatively unfamiliar role of aquilifer.13Decurio is a commander of the cavalry unit (for these purposes, a midfielder), while an aquiliferi is a very important standard bearer (a forward).
It soon becomes apparent that Sassuolo are not the only army fighting with blunted blades. Despite making marginal gains in key areas of the field, Rome cannot break through the two deep, disciplined lines that stand before them. Only the Slavs, Kolarov and Dzeko, perform with distinction and retain their honour; Schick, on the other hand, is a huge disappointment to his leader.
This time, Caesar pulls no punches, expecting a more clinical performance in the next engagement. He references the Ninth Legion; the message is subtle but understood.14Caesar threatened to decimate the Ninth whilst serving in Gaul, but didn’t carry it through (not properly, anyway: he just executed the main ringleaders of the dissent).
The Romans duly see off Bologna in ferocious fashion; Pellegrinius and Dzeko are once again key to good fortune on the battlefield, and a resurgent performance from the otherwise quiet Stephen El Shaarawian – adopted son of Rome15Why is El Shaarawian suffixed differently to others? Caesar had a child with Cleopatra, born in Egypt, named Caesarion. Caesar never officially acknowledged him as his son, but it was assumed that Caesarion was to be his heir. – catches Caesar’s eye.
The same tactics secure another comfortable victory over weaker visitors from Turin,16Torino. Not Juventus. but there is no comfort to be found on the isle of Sardinia. In Caralis,17Cagliari’s name in Roman times. Caesar once commanded a strong degree of favour and support;18The people of Caralis were amongst the first to pledge support to Caesar during the civil war against Pompey, and resisted (unsuccessfully) a siege from Sextus Pompey. now, he is disappointed to see his former municipium bringing itself into disrepute, the Sardegna Arena a safe haven for racists and bigots.
The dictator abhors such behaviour; he is keen to remind all and sundry – including Rome’s own people – that to discriminate based on skin colour is simply not the Roman way.19There is no historical evidence of any form of racial discrimination based on skin colour within Roman society. In later centuries, Rome would be ruled by black emperors such as Septimus Severus and Caracalla.
Unlike every other foe faced thus far, the islanders matched their Roman visitors man-for-man, Rolando Maran deployed his own oblong square formation. This takes Caesar aback – his scouts had reported that the Red and Blues almost always lined up in 4-3-1-2 Narrow formation – but he nevertheless remains confident in his army’s ability to win the day.
The battle is closely fought, until Caralis break the deadlock six minutes prior to the halfway point. Caesar sends on his young cavalryman Justin Kluivert in place of El Shaarawian, who is close to falling from favour,20Caesarion was assassinated by Octavian in 30 BC, having been perceived as a threat by the new emperor. Octavian’s advisor Arius Didymus famously suggested that ‘too many Caesars is not good’. Just the one El Shaarawian isn’t particularly good, either. but the hosts strike again soon after, veteran Marco Sau completing his brace. However, the schemer’s changes soon bear fruit. Kluivert wins a spot kick, converted by Schick, then claims glory for himself two minutes hence, linking with his fellow Friisian Rick Karsdorp to restore parity.
As the fighting headed into the last fifteen minutes, who would step forward to become the saviour of Rome? Diego Perrottius, introduced in the final throes of the engagement, completes a six-pace exchange with Kluivert, sending the ball behind the enemy line. There to supply the glancing touch is none other than Stefano Okakus, returning hero, towering above the defence to claim all three crucial points.
What started as an insignificant skirmish had become a defining moment in the Italian campaign, a combination of gutsy determination and timely tactical adjustments.
Perrottius would become the villain of the piece at Genoa, spurning a penalty in a 1-1 draw. In recent encounters, only three regular soldiers have a rating below VII: Diego Perrottius and Stephan El Shaarawian. In line with tradition, the left flank is truly the weakest after all.21The left side of an army was considered the weakest, as it “had to support the weight of the shield”. Perrottius and El Shaarawian don’t have a shield to carry, so what’s their excuse?
Though the frustration of two stalemates weigh heavy on Caesar’s conscience, Rome stands undefeated after seven battles. Only one provincial army has matched that record: Massimiliano Allgerius’ fearsome Juventus outfit. I Giallorossi will march on Turin in five weeks’ time; once Caesar crosses the Po, the die will be cast ahead of a momentous showdown.22The Po isn’t exactly the Rubicon, but the sentiment remains the same (or similar, at least).