It all started when I, Lucius Aurelius Regillus and my fellow legionnaires were sent to join the Emperor Claudius’ latest campaign. The year was 43 AD and several legions followed our general, Aulus Plautius toward the large island of Britain. This was at least the third time that Roman legions had attempted to annex this place. Many of my comrades in the 9th Spanish Legion thought that we would all be killed and the Celtic barbarians would remain independent. As the youngest and least experienced in our legion, (if not the entire army) these negative speculations did not encourage me.
After several torturous days at sea, we landed at Rutupiae, in south-eastern Britain. We began to experience very strong resistance almost immediately after our feet touched the cold, muddy ground. We battled our way inland, through the cold and fog, each conflict leaving more and more of the men I knew dead, or wounded badly enough that we were forced to abandon them to death, either by starvation or by the Celts. I had already been wondering if this war was necessary, but now I knew how costly it really was.
By the year 108, our conquest began to come to an end. The many difficult years had gone by and now I was a seasoned veteran and had been promoted a few times. I was also getting on in age, and was looking forward to getting my retirement in the new Roman province of Britain that I had spent most of my life fighting, getting wounded, and watching others die for. No matter where I was given to live, I knew there would be some memory of death and destruction to accompany it. Still, I was ready to be done. Little did I know that my retirement would have to wait more than a few weeks.
We were stationed at Eboracum, the fortress-city in the north and the sun had just fallen below the horizon when we were attacked. The 9th legion had helped to subdue Boudica’s band of rebels in the year 61 and although we suffered many casualties, we survived. So that time we weren't too nervous when the alarm went up. However as we lined up at the walls in our defensive positions, what we saw quickly eroded our confidence. Slowly, the giant Celtic warriors emerged from the fog. The unusual part was the silence and speed at which this happened. Suddenly there were lines of the enemy covered in camouflage body paint as far as the eye could see. Before we could even react, the silent, ghostly army was upon us.
At first it was chaos, then our training kicked in and 1000 soldiers formed a wall with our broad shields designed just for this type of fortification, and put our spears in between to form a spiked barricade. To our dismay, the Celts were so tall that they simply leaped over our shields and spears, turned and began to run us through with their jagged blades that could tear a hole right through a person's torso. Soon our barricade was shattered. I was fighting for my life, stabbing anything not Roman that came near me with the short but strong gladius sword we all carried. Before I knew it, our ranks were decimated and the fort lit up the night with a blaze that could have been seen for miles. As I looked around in a daze I began to realize the ground was littered with blood soaked corpses, mostly Romans. The horn ordering us to retreat to a rendezvous point began to sound from a different area of the fort, but was cut off abruptly, most likely from a Celtic axe separating the captain’s head from his shoulders. A few of my fellow soldiers found me amidst the throngs of the dead, and together we tried to find survivors, unsuccessfully.
The four of us ran as fast as we could away from the carnage and fire to the rendezvous point as the horn had ordered. All we could do was hope to find the rest of our legion there. We traveled through the night and arrived, exhausted, at late morning two days later. Instead of the hundreds of soldiers we expected, there were less than 50 men there and half of them were covered in their own dried blood and on the brink of death. At first we were speechless, but then realized that not all the survivors would have been able to get there in the time we did. So we set up our tents and campfires and waited. However after five days only about 30 more men had joined us and nobody from the other legions had come. Rumors that we were presumed dead or captured, began to spread quickly through our small camp. We decided to wait one more night and leave for the other legion camps by midday the next day.
I was woken in the early morning, before the sun came up, by the men on watch duty. They ran through the camp, waking everyone quietly. Most of what they said was lost in ears bleary from sleep, but I was able to pick out the words “Celts” and “sneaking.” We all jumped up and as fast as possible, donned our armor and weapons, while trying to make no noise as to give the impression that we were still asleep and the enemy hadn’t been noticed. Unfortunately for us, someone dropped a pilum spear onto a shield and made a huge clatter. Our only hope was shattered with the silence we had been trying so desperately to preserve.
The battle didn’t last long. The Celts swept through our camp, butchering us. Those who could fight did so until they were killed. The wounded could only sit in the mud and hope to have a swift and painless death. By the end, there were eight of us, myself included, surrounded by a circle of over fifty Celtic barbarians. They took our weapons and armor, bound our hands and legs and dragged us off into the dense, foggy forest on the way to who knows where. It was only then that I realized I was missing a finger and a half.
As we were forced further and further from our territory we tried to notice any landmarks that might help us tell where we were if we ever got away, but the thick layers of foliage obscured the view of everything except the trees next to us. My hand soon began to swell from my injury. Our captors were ruthless and not at all kind to us, however they must have wanted us alive and conscious because one of them took the time to give my hand basic treatment.
After about a few weeks traveling in a northward direction, we finally reached our destination. There were a few large tents with several smaller ones all around them.
The Celts pushed us toward a lean-to tent too small for us. When we got right up to it, instead of a floor, there was a large pit. A ladder was lowered and we were forced down into the pit. Once our captors had left and our eyes adjusted to the darkness, we noticed several other figures. We immediately recognized them as other members of our legion.
It turned out that they had been captured immediately, during the first confrontation at the fort. In the few days they had been there, they had been able to find out the area where our weapons and armor were being kept.
It took us about a week before we were able to sneak out of the pit and pinpoint the exact location of our equipment and begin forming a plan for our eventual escape. As our terrible luck would have it our attempt failed because that was the moment that the Celts decided to move their camp even further north. We became the work-horses and had to fold up all the tents and carry all the food and equipment.
Eventually we arrived at our new location and set up the tents. Unfortunately, this was not the last time that we would move. It seemed that whenever we were able to sneak out of the pit at night, locate our stash of equipment, and start to make a plan we would move our camp several days north and have to begin our secret searches all over again. This incredibly aggravating cycle continued for a few months before we were able to break it.
One night, when we had just set up camp, we were searching for our belongings and immediately found them. By now we had come up with a plan for escape and waited for our guard to fall asleep as he usually did. Using a wall of the pit for support, we formed a human ladder with some of us while the others would climb up, and pull the ones forming the ladder up. When we were all out of the dark, disgusting pit, we snuck around the back of the tents, away from the fires keeping the sentries warm. Finally having retrieved our equipment, we no longer felt defeated and smothered. We were once again legionnaires of Rome!
For our escape to work, we would have to get from the cover of the tents, to the cover of the forest as fast as possible. The borders of the dense forest came closest to the Celtic officer’s tent, so we had to get there in order to maximize our chances of maintaining secrecy. However, when we got there, we failed to notice that there was an extra guard. Before any of us could do anything, he began to call out that we were escaping. I quickly slit his throat, but it was too late. Our enemy began to attack, first with rocks and slings, then with swords and axes.
Getting to the forest was our priority because the trees would block projectiles and the view of the enemy. As we ran into the forest with whoever hadn’t been shot, the Celtic barbarians were right on our tail. Every now and then we would stop and attack our attackers. This aggressive tactic began to work in our favor as we killed some and some simply were lost into the depths of the dark trees. By the time the darkness of the night began to fade away we were able to relax under the trees for the first time in months.
At that point we were months north of the nearest Roman settlement. There were eleven of us, six legionnaires, two cavalrymen, and three archers so we had a good range of weapons for defensive purposes. We knew that the Celts would be sending search parties after us. So we began to head in a southerly direction as fast as possible hoping that we would eventually find some landmark that we recognized. The first few days were not very eventful. We got our food from forest berries and animals. The hard part was that we couldn't light a fire because it would allow our pursuers to find us easily even through the trees. So with hard dirt as a bed and raw meat for food, we began our long journey south.
After almost two weeks we ran into enemy soldiers. Many of us were lulled into a false sense of security and we lit a fire. Sure enough, in the middle of the night we were attacked. They seemed to melt out of the forest. Luckily it was a scouting group and we were able to defeat them, but at the cost of a legionnaire's lower leg and the lives of four men. We found a clearing with a huge tree in the middle where we could bury them. The broken bodies of our Roman brothers were cremated and put to rest in this peaceful glade surrounded by the turmoil of the enemy forest.
The second attack came a few days later. There were more of them but we were ready. The barbarians broke on our spears and swords and with vengeance filling our thoughts, we destroyed them all. This no-casualty victory put us in better moods for several days. Unfortunately, our injured soldier began to succumb to his injuries and was dead before the week was over. Our bad luck continued when we were talking loudly and making a lot of noise and a party of Celts suddenly attacked. Although we were lucky we had only encountered a scouting group, this surprise attack claimed the lives of two more Romans. The remaining four soldiers were myself, two other legionnaires and one cavalryman. As we left the graves of our companions and continued south, the temperature began to rise from the cold of the forest, to a level closer to what we were used to.
The higher temperature was encouraging and soon the forest also began to thin out slightly, just enough for bits of sunlight to leak through the trees. The ground became less cold and rough while bird song was finally able to penetrate the walls of trees. Our only thoughts were of going home to the comforts of the Roman Empire. Every day we tried to remember how long we had been gone. We agreed that it couldn’t be too much more than six months.
Once a week or two had passed we began to recognize the landscape. The cold forest thinned and eventually stopped, giving way to familiar green plains. As we continued we saw Roman houses, buildings and villages. There were pastures of animals and long fields of crops. Aqueducts and new buildings were under construction. After a day in this area, we knew we were back in Roman lands when we passed Eboracum, the location of the original decimation of our legion. It seemed to be under Roman control again but it was still charred and partially demolished. There was a memorial where someone had described how we defended valiantly but we were all destroyed.
The four of us decided we must get the sign corrected. At that moment a group of Roman legionnaires came by on patrol. We called to them and tried to explain that the memorial was wrong. However to our surprise and chagrin, we were surrounded and ordered to surrender. Not wanting to fight our fellow soldiers we did so while attempting to explain that we were survivors of the 9th legion but we were interrupted with accusations of looting Roman armories and robbing the state of the equipment we carried. As we were arrested and locked up we requested an audience with the governor in charge of the area. Our captors laughed saying that the governor would refuse to see such rabble.
Despite the odds we were brought before the governor because he thought our story was entertaining. We told our story and explained how we had come to be there. At first the governor also laughed and told us that we would have to prove it. So we told him our commanders over the years. When we got to the few years of Lucius Neratius Marcellus’ command, the governor was suddenly no longer amused. He looked at us closely asked us our names and told us that he remembered us. It turned out that he was Lucius Neratius Marcellus.
Once he realized that we were telling the truth, he was shocked that there were any survivors from our legion. He traveled with us to Rome and arranged for us to appear before Emperor Trajan. We walked up to the Senate building and waited to be called in. After a few minutes, we were invited into the Imperial meeting chamber. It such an honor to meet the Emperor in person that we almost forgot why we were there.
We told Trajan our story, how we survived and then were captured and dragged to the far ends of Britain. Also, how we found the incorrect sign and were taken to the governor. Trajan was also very surprised that we had survived and had some surprising news for us. He explained that we had actually been gone for almost two years. When we had disappeared, many Romans demanded that there be punishment for such a heinous act. The anger of the people of Rome have fueled the British war and occupation effort ever since. If it became public knowledge that we had survived, our holdings might crumble. For the good of the Empire, we agreed to keep our existence a secret and retire to an area of our choosing.
I chose to retire in north-eastern Britain. I have lived here in peace for several years. The other survivors of the 9th legion settled close to me and we often meet, no longer as fellow soldiers, but as friends. Although we try to forget, we often discuss our journey. Even when I am alone in my house, I often remember those who were not as lucky as I was. I remember the slaughter at the fortress and the rendezvous camp. The ones killed far from home in the dark forest of Celts. At the same time I think about how after everything I have been through, we were victorious. Not only us who lived, but also our fallen friends. We helped to bring victory to our Roman Empire but even more so to ourselves.