Ben Kane

The Forgotten Legion

(The Forgotten Legion Chronicles – 1)

The Forgotten Legion


Crassus at the Euphrate lost his eagles, his son and his soldiers, And was the last himself to perish.

'Parthian, why do you rejoice?' said the goddess. 'You shall return the standards, While there shall be an avenger who shall take vengeance for the death of Crassus.'

Ovid, Fasti

In his Natural History narrative, Pliny the Elder described how Roman survivors of the battle of Carrhae in 53 BC were sent to Margiana.

Situated in modern-day Turkmenistan, this area is more than fifteen hundred miles from where the men were taken captive. Used as border guards, the ten thousand legionaries would have journeyed farther east than most Romans in history.

But their story does not end there.

In 36 BC, the Chinese historian Ban Gu recorded that soldiers in the army of Jzh-jzh, a Hun warlord and ruler of a city on the Silk Road, fought in a 'fish-scale formation'. The term used to describe their formation is unique in Chinese literature and many historians assert that it refers to a shield wall. At that time only the Macedonians and Romans fought in such a way. Greek military training would need to have endured in the area for more than a century to influence those men. Interestingly this battle took place only seventeen years after Carrhae and less than five hundred miles from the border of Margiana.

Further to the east, in China, lies the modern settlement of Liqian. The origins of its name are uncertain, but scholars consider it to have been founded between 79 BC and AD 5 under the name of Li-jien, meaning 'Rome' in ancient Chinese. An unusually large number of its present-day inhabitants have Caucasian features – blond hair, hooked noses and green eyes. DNA samples are currently being studied by a local university to see if these people are the descendants of the ten thousand legionaries who marched east from Carrhae and into history.

The Forgotten Legion.


Rome, 70 BC

It was hora undecima, the eleventh hour, and the sprawling city was bathed by the red glow of sunset. A rare breeze moved air between the densely packed buildings, passing relief from the stifling summer heat. Men emerged from their houses and flats to finish the day's business, chat outside shops and stand drinking at open-fronted street taverns. The eager cries of merchants competed for the attention of passers-by while children played on doorsteps under the watchful eyes of their mothers. From somewhere in the centre, near the Forum, came the rhythmic sound of chanting in a temple.

This was a sociable and safe hour, but shade was already lengthening in the alleyways and small courtyards. Sunlight fell away from the tall stone columns and statues of the gods, returning the streets to a darker and less friendly grey colour. The seven hills that formed Rome's heart would be the last parts to remain lit, until darkness claimed the capital once more.

Despite the time, the Forum Romanum was still thronged with people. Flanked by temples and the Senate, the basilicae, the huge covered markets, were filled with shopkeepers, soothsayers, lawyers and scribes plying their trade from little stalls. It was late in the day, but someone might want a will drawn up, a prophecy made, a writ issued against an enemy. Mobile vendors made circuits of the area, trying to sell fruit juices that had been warm for hours. Politicians who had been working late in the Senate hurried outside, only stopping to talk if an ally's eyes could not be avoided. Seeing their masters, groups of slaves jumped up from board games scratched on to the steps. Trying to avoid the blisters on their sunburnt shoulders, they swiftly lifted their litters and moved off.

A handful of determined beggars remained on the temple steps, hoping for alms. Several were crippled but proud veterans of the legions, the invincible army which had provided the Republic's wealth and status. They wore tattered remnants of uniform – mail shirts more rust than rings of iron, brown tunics held together by patches. For a copper coin they would recount their martial stories – the blood shed, limbs lost, comrades buried in foreign lands.

All for the glory of Rome.

Despite dwindling light, the Forum Boarium, where beasts were traded, was also full of citizens. Unsold cattle bellowed with thirst after a day in constant sunshine. Sheep and goats huddled together, terrified by the smell of blood from the butchers' blocks only a few steps away. Their owners, small farmers from the surrounding countryside, prepared to drive them to night pasture beyond the walls. On the Forum Olitorium too, stalls selling foodstuffs were bustling with customers. Ripe melons, peaches and plums added their aromas to spices from the Orient, fresh fish and what remained of the day's bread. Keen to sell all their fruit and vegetables, vendors offered bargains to anyone who caught their eye. Plebeian women gossiped as they finished their shopping and went into shrines to offer a swift prayer. Slaves who had been sent to buy ingredients for last-minute feasts cursed as the light disappeared from the sky.

But away from these open spaces, anyone who was still out scuttled faster to reach the safety of their houses. No decent Roman wanted to be outside after sunset, especially in the dismal alleyways between the insulae, the cramped blocks of flats in which most citizens lived. By night the unlit streets were populated by thieves and murderers.

Chapter I: Tarquinius

Northern Italy, 70 BC

The raven hopped on to the dead lamb's head and stared at Tarquinius. He was still more than fifty paces away. It croaked scornfully and pecked at the staring eyeball with its powerful beak. The lamb was no more than three days old, its meagre flesh already devoured by mountain wolves.

Tarquinius stooped, picked up a small rock and fitted it to his sling. A slight figure with blond hair, he wore a loose thigh-length tunic, belted at the waist. Sturdy sandals clad his feet.

'Spare the bird. He did not kill the lamb.' Olenus Aesar adjusted his worn leather hat, flattening the blunt peak. 'Corvus is only taking what remains.'

'I don't like it eating the eyes.' Preparing to release, Tarquinius swung the hide strap in a slow circle.

The old man fell silent, shielding his eyes from the sun. He spent a long time gazing at the broad wingtips of buzzards hanging on the warm thermals and the clouds further above.

Tarquinius watched intently, holding back the stone. Since the soothsayer had picked him as a student years before, the young Etruscan had learned to pay attention to everything he said and did.

Olenus shrugged bony shoulders under his rough woollen cloak. 'Not a good day to kill a sacred bird.'

'Why not?' With a sigh, he let the sling drop to his side. 'What is it now?'

'Go right ahead, boy.' Olenus smiled, infuriating Tarquinius. 'Do what you want.' He waved expansively at the raven. 'Your path is your own.'

'I am not a boy.' Tarquinius scowled and let the rock fall. 'I'm twentyfive!'

He scowled briefly, then let out a piercing whistle and gestured with one arm. A black and white dog lying close by sprinted off in a wide arc up the steep hillside, eyes fixed on a group of sheep and goats nibbling short grass far above. They spotted him immediately and began moving further up.