When Caesar dismounts from his horse and walks into training camp, he is dismayed at the sorry sight before him.
Despite the superb facilities at their disposal – Vitruvius himself would be proud1Caesar’s favourite civil engineer; the David Bowie of the ancient architectural world around 50 – 40 BC. Famously known as the four-armed, four-legged wheel man in Leonardo da Vinci’s famous fifteenth-century drawing. – the men are woefully out of shape, having spent the summer months relaxing, drinking and cavorting with WAGs. Even those who were campaigning north of Scythia came back in poor condition.2The Romans hadn’t ventured as far north as northern Russia; they just hung around by the Caspian Sea. By the looks of things, nobody did for another few hundred years, which was probably for the best. Some lacked energy; others had grown fat from the lavish banquets thrown in their honour. Diego Perottus appears to be afflicted with gout.3A combination of wine-based alcoholism and lead-based cookware meant that gout was pretty rampant during Roman times. If you’re drinking five litres of red a day and eating with poisonous utensils, it’s no surprise that you’re going to get ill.
Though every soldier should remain disciplined with regards to their fitness, even during periods of inaction , the merciful Caesar chooses not to punish the legion through decimation4The Romans had a fun form of punishment whereby cohorts were punished for their insubordination via the execution of one-tenth of their unit. All it takes is one chap to step out of line, and his whole unit will be playing Roman Roulette. The surviving nine-tenths would then get crap food – barley instead of wheat – and be forced to camp away from everyone else. – with 26 munifices sent out to other provinces for a full nine months,5Bogstandard, run-of-the-mill soldiers. he could scarcely spare the men. Instead, he opts for a more pragmatic form of punishment. The best way to get back to full march fitness is to march, and march a lot. A gruelling 108-day trek is vetoed by the Senate, so Caesar ships his men to the other side of Asia, where they will march almost non-stop in full uniform for ten whole days.
Not everyone will be boarding the ship. Ferrarius and Vizocus, two of the three previous fitness coaches, had already been released prior to Caesar’s assessment of the men, though Maurizio Franchinius remains. Despite the urging of his advisors, the dictator refuses to conscript the sole remaining perpetrator.6Caesar famously opted against conscripting all of his foes after winning the civil war, instead pursuing a policy of reconciliation. It worked (for a bit). Franchinius himself only arrived in Rome in July, three weeks before Caesar himself, and could not be held solely responsible for the squad’s lack of conditioning.
Clemency also plays well with the troops and the Senate, who had already spent £3m terminating other staff contracts – including those of the entire physiotherapy department.
The training camp on foreign soil does little to help boost fitness or morale. One lone indistinguishable voice speaks out mid-march, but the troops close ranks before the dissenter can be punished.7We could have lowered ourselves by making a Spartacus reference here, but that entire scene in the film is hogwash. In fact, an awful lot of that film is hogwash. (Still a classic, though.) Changing tack, Caesar rides hard to northern Germania, where the legion would test their sharpness in a mock skirmish with the Frisii villagers of Altijd Sterker Worden Hendrik-Ido-Ambacht.
The Germanic peasants put up little resistance and are routed by six clear goals. Despite being a training match, Cengiz Under is in no mood to go easy on the opposition, his hat-trick shattering the spirit (if not the body) of Anton Wiltjer; the broken and humiliated goalkeeper is hauled from the battlefield just after the hour mark.
Not content with the thoroughly expected triumph, Caesar drags his legion back across to east Asia, where they face the United men of Home.8Home United FC. There, the real issues are first laid bare. The oblong square is too pragmatic, too disciplined; though volley after volley of shots rain down on the Asians, they let slip just one goal per half, battening down the hatches and restricting their losses. Even a quick transition to the more aggressive Second Formation fails to yield more ground.
Another victory for Rome, but nowhere near as comprehensive as Caesar would have cared for.
Perhaps a sterner test than Frisiian serfs and uncultured beasts of the east would bring out the very best in the Roman army. Caesar arranges a skirmish with the friendly Ubbi of Monchengladbach,9Caesar entered into an alliance with the Ubii in order to advance his invasion of Britain. The Ubii tribe were scared of their neighbours, the Chatti, so the Romans kindly helped them move, and later set up a colony in Ubii territory for their veterans. It’s nice when everybody gets along instead of just battering one another. and, despite persisting with the oblong square, the strategy appears to pay off. Under and Pellegrinius afford Rome a commanding lead at the interval, and Caesar moves in for the kill, moving to the Second and deploying Javier Pastorius behind the main point of attack.
Again, it appears to work. Pastorius, an extravagant decurio10A commander of the cavalry unit. with a penchant for flair, fires a long-range free kick behind the lines and into the net. All is proceeding as planned, but with ten minutes to go, that renowned Roman discipline breaks down. Slack marking allows Gladbach back into the battle, and Caesar has no more substitutes with which to rally the faltering troops. Pastorius is the cavalryman once more, finding space through the centre to deliver the final telling blow.
Returning home three days later, Rome lays siege to the lowly settlement of Latina Calcio. What follows is a marble copy of the encounter in Asia. Patient attack versus steadfast defence; no real danger of defeat, but little glory in victory. The scoreline, once again, is two to zero. Schick missed a glorious opportunity to break the resistance from the spot, but made amends after regrouping at half-time. That a munifex11See #5. like Ivan Marcano had to finish the job – no finesse, bludgeoned home from six yards – says everything about the lacklustre performance.
With the new domestic campaign fast approaching, Caesar takes his men around the world one last time: same destination, different opposition. They call themselves Niigata Unicorn, worshipping a equine beast of spiralling horn; a wingless pegasus with an unsightly bone protrusion.
Same destination, same formation, different result. Rome run riot, smashing in five without reply. Reliable Slavic warrior Edin Dzeko helps himself to a brace, while two more alien recruits – Under of Anatolia and Justin Kluivert of Frisii make a strong case for citizenship. Caesar is satisfied, if not pleased, but nevertheless orders all maps of the Far East to be destroyed. They shan’t be visiting nor mentioning Sabana for a good while.12We had to retcon this, as it proved impossible to cancel a training camp to a country that hadn’t been discovered by Romans during Caesar’s reign. However, Ptolemy may have referenced it (‘Sabana’) in the second century AD, so that’s what we’re going with.
Twenty-four days, five games, almost forty-two thousand miles covered.13It’s actually forty-five thousand miles in modern terms, but it is generally accepted that a Roman mile was 0.92 of a modern mile. Caesar prefers to create rather than learn,14“It is better to create than to learn. Creating is the essence of life.” Caesar said this, again according to BrainyQuote / spurious management technique websites. which is convenient, as he has learned little that can be applied. Despite the cross-continental exercise and the skirmishes and the additional training sessions, many of the men remain well below march fitness; the performances on the field were dominant but without cruel subjugation; and the First Formation – the ‘oblong square’ – may prove too rigid to be deployed effectively.
There was, however, one interesting development. Should the Second be deployed in its stead, with a pre-eminent focus down the right flank, it will suit Rome’s rising star. Cengiz Under was quick, creative and delightfully brutal throughout the period, scoring six times in five encounters. He reminds Caesar of a young Mithridates VI; he too was a brash young upstart who became a formidable force and great leader.15Mithridates VI of Pontus ruled over Turkey (or rather, a part of what Turkey would ultimately become), hence the comparison.
(He also became one of Rome’s most dangerous opponents across three decades, waging war on three separate occasions. Caesar hopes it doesn’t come to that.)
In three days, the first wave of opposition will arrive at the Olimpico, and nine months of fighting will finally commence. Shots will be fired, bodies will crash into one another, men will roll about despairingly as if close to death, only to revive at the sound of a referee’s whistle.
Are the men of Rome ready for war? Perhaps not in terms of march sharpness, but they will meet Inter Milan on the battlefield all the same. After all, Caesar would rather sacrifice his men to hamstring tweaks and groin strains than face the ultimate penalty: a potential points deduction.