The first step in recovering Rome, obviously, was to fight my way across the Urals to the Caspian sea, against Persia. I tried doing so. It did not go well.
Can you see them, in your mind’s eye?
Do you see the young men, in their thousands and tens of thousands, the thunder of their horses’ hooves shaking the steppe?
Do you see the horsetail banners streaming in the wind of their passage, under the golden Eagles?
Can you hear them singing? Do you hear their songs of war, and of love left behind?
If you can, then hold them thus, in your mind’s eye; and do not let them go. For they will not come back to us, the young men.
It is easy to laugh, or to sneer. The question comes readily to the lips, “Did they think it would be easy?” Had they thought, perhaps, that their grandparents fled mere shadows and night-fears? Perhaps they had imagined themselves as heroes out of stories, had thought that all that went before, all the millennial history of Rome, had existed only so they themselves could exist, and could win glory by defying the Shahanshah. It is necessary, in a story, that the villain seem victorious in the first half, so the hero may overcome a true threat; and the greater the villainy, the darker the gloom at the halfway point, the better the story. But history is not a narrative; or if it is, it is not given to any man to know that he is its protagonist. The men who held the walls of doomed Carthage, and for three years defied the power of Rome at arms, they thought themselves heroes too; but for them there was no rescue and no relief. Their walls were torn down and the place where their city had stood was sown with salt. For though Calliope loves the beleaguered garrison, and often sends unexpected allies to their aid, her sister Clio has a heart of stone, and loves only the big battalions.
It is easy to be cynical; easy, and wrong. They were young men; of course they thought themselves equal to any task they undertook. Of course they believed that their grandparents had exaggerated, that hard-won victory at Jvris Ugheltekili had been inevitable, that if only they themselves had been there, Anatolia could have been held and the Persians driven from the Holy Land. When have young men believed the war stories of their elders? They see men who move with the caution of aged bones and creaking joints, and think, down in their marrow where beliefs form, that the Persians need not have been so formidable as all that, to overcome these shriveled ancients. They look around, and see young men like themselves, moving with easy muscular grace, faster and smoother than any grandfather. And so they come to believe that an empire older even than Rome will be cast down at the first storm from the steppes, that they have merely to ride west and all will collapse before them.
Young men will always believe in easy victories; that is not the yardstick to measure them by. The mettle of a man is found in what he does when his easy victory recedes into the distant horizon; when the enemy shows that he is indeed formidable, and comrades fall on every side.
Perhaps you did not see these soldiers before; perhaps you have yourself born arms, and no longer believe in glory and the dramatic dash of ten thousand lances. Perhaps your sight is blurred by the ghosts of your own fallen. Well then: Do you see them now? Do you see the host riding slowly eastward through winter winds? Do you see the men, not so young now, leading strings of horses with empty saddles? Do you see the trail of shallow graves they leave behind, each with a lance thrust into the ground to mark the place? You cannot hear them singing, now; they are too tired. Perhaps, if you listen, you can hear the howl of wolves drifting through the snow that blows in their east-turned faces. But if you see them thus, turn away; do not cherish that image, in your mind’s eye. For it is not the true one; and these men, too, shall not return to us, though they yet live.
Still a third time: Do you see them, the soldiers of Rome? Do you see them transformed by the hard alchemy of defeat, no longer cobbled-together tribal militias but disciplined legions? Do you see them, turning at bay against the pursuit that snaps at their heels, and sending the veteran troops of the Shahanshah reeling back in defeat? Do you hear the sound of twenty thousand men shouting together, “Victory!”?
If you do, then there is no need to hold on to the image, in your mind’s eye. For these men shall return to us, no longer young, but grown to full adulthood in the harsh school of war. And winged Nika shall ensure that their memory lives while Rome stands.