The attack did not come straight away. Unlike with their previous encounter with the Parthians, the riders initially kept their distance. Firing blindly into a town was far less likely to hit a Roman than firing into a more densely packed camp. And the town was nominally in Parthian territory, so they presumably had some obligation to minimise civilian casualties.
So they rode in a circle around the town, out of arrow shot, making noise, aiming to disconcert and demoralise. Quintillius kept the whole century standing to for two hours, until it became obvious that there would be no imminent attack. After this, he sent half of the reserve to go and get food, and to rest, though not to sleep.
On one occasion a small group of riders approached the main gate, but were chased away by a few arrows from the towers flanking the gate. Apart from that, there was no action the whole night, and Oclatinius felt that strange mix of anxiety and boredom common while waiting for a dangerous or stressful situation to materialise.
When it was his turn to be rotated out of line, he grabbed some soup from the mess. In contrast to the heat of the day, the nights in this country chilled to the bone, and he was grateful for the warm broth, even with its stodgy consistency and unidentifiable lumps of gristle. As soon as he had finished it and used the latrine, he went to check up on Bricius.
His friend was sitting up, holding a piece of bread that had a single bite taken from it. Oclatinius squatted down beside him.
“What’s happening?” asked Bricius. His voice was weak and Oclatinius had to lean in to catch what he was saying.
“The Parthians have come.”
“The same ones that have been shadowing us?”
Oclatinius shrugged. “Maybe. But a lot more have joined them now.”
Bricius mouthed a word that Oclatinius couldn’t quite lip read in the darkness, though he presumed he had just said, “Doomed.”
“How are you feeling?” asked Oclatinius.
“Like Hades shat in my stomach.”
Oclatinius tried to imagine what that might be like, and quickly gave up. “Is there anything I can get you?”
“That physician you mentioned? Galen? Can you fetch him?”
Oclatinius chuckled and slapped him on the shoulder. Bricius heaved and clapped a hand over his mouth, and Oclatinius backed up, preparing to be vomited on. Bricius managed to hold it down though. He swallowed hard and gave Oclatinius a half-smile. Oclatinius settled himself on the sandy ground to sit with his friend for the rest of his break.
The Parthians still hadn’t attacked by first light. Oclatinius had been reassigned to his guard post, and as the horizon turned a dark blue and then orange, the number of men arrayed against them became clear.
Oclatinius’ heart sank. On their march, he had only seen around a score of riders. Enough to be a bother, especially when they had no cavalry of their own, but not a serious threat. Now he looked out across rows of horses mounted by riders armed with bows and spears, and though he quickly lost count, he estimated their strength to be a couple of hundred.
The century was now besieged.
The Parthian commander approached the gates, flanked only by two other riders, and came to a halt just out of bowshot. There he waited, the only movement coming from the swishing tail of the exquisitely obedient horses.
“What do you think?” Quintillius asked Flaccus.
“It doesn’t look like a trap. They seem to be unarmed.”
“Maybe so, but with ten score mounted bowmen a short distance behind, they don’t lack protection.”
“I think they want to talk,” said Cominius.
Quintillius and Flaccus both turned a withering glance on the optio, who shrank back.
“I’ll go and parley,” said Quintillius.
“I should go, sir,” said Flaccus. “I’m more expendable.”
“Nonsense,” said Quintillius. “No one is expendable. Well.” He threw a sidelong glance at Cominius. “Almost no one.”
“Anyway, I’m in command, it’s my responsibility.”
“You aren’t going alone?”
“No. He has two escorts, I’ll take two. Not you, Flaccus, you take command if anything happens to me. Not the signifer either. We aren’t risking the standard. Cominius. You will come with me. And…” Quintillius looked around him, then spotted Oclatinius at his station on his guard tower. “You. Oclatinius,” he called. “You always seem to be in the middle of trouble. You can join me.”
Oclatinius looked at the guard on duty with him in the tower who gave him a sympathetic smile. He descended the ladder and hurried over to Quintillius. The centurion looked him up and down, then looked down at his own uniform.
“Not exactly Praetorians on parade are we? Well, a bit of dirt and grime never hurt a real soldier. Come one. Let’s see what these barbarians want.”
Oclatinius marched behind Quintillius’ left shoulder, Cominius behind his right. He kept his back straight and his face impassive, though his heart was pounding. As they neared, the Parthians became clearer. The two escorts flanking the commander wore tunics and trousers, like some of the northern barbarians preferred. Their pointy helmets seemed to be made of some sort of cloth. The commander by contrast had an iron helmet and a type of scale armour that covered his neck, chest, abdomen and legs. His horse too was covered with a similar armour, and Oclatinius wondered how you were supposed to bring someone like that down.
Quintillius came to a halt a dozen feet away.
“What do you want, Parthian?”
The Parthian commander regarded them for a moment, before replying in clear Greek.
“My name is Phraates. I command these horsemen you see behind me. You are in Parthian territory.”
“We’re leaving,” said Quintillius. “Let us pass peacefully, and there will be no trouble.”
“Peacefully? Did you pass peacefully on your way into our lands? Did you bring peace to Dura Europos? To Seleucia?”
Oclatinius felt a weight settle in the bottom of his stomach. He had hoped that they had outpaced the news of the sack of those cities. But it was a forlorn hope, he knew. They had been making a pathetically slow pace, and these men were on horseback. If they knew what had happened, especially at Seleucia, they would not let them go without punishment. And the century was in no shape to fight its way through them.
“Then why are we talking?” asked Quintillius.
“So I may accept your surrender.”
Quintillius actually laughed aloud at this. Oclatinius didn’t know if it was bravado, madness, or genuine hilarity, but Quintillius put his hands on his belly, tilted his head back to the sky and let out great guffaws. Phraates watched impassively, waiting for the seizure to pass.
Quintillius regained control of himself, shaking his head and wiping tears from his eyes.
“How stupid do you think we are, Parthian? Surrendering to you is death. We still remember how you treated Crassus and his legions.”
“Whether you live or die after your surrender will not be my decision, Roman. Though you are right that mercy may be in short supply after your actions in Parthia. Still, if your sentence is death, it will be swift if you have not prolonged this struggle unnecessarily.”
“If it is to be death, we would rather die like Romans, with swords in our hands. But I think you are getting ahead of yourselves. We are a full strength Roman century in a strong defensive position.”
Phraates sneered. “Full strength? Please, centurion. Don’t insult me. My men have been watching you. You are carrying cartloads of wounded soldiers.”
Wounded? Oclatinius realised they didn’t know about the sickness. Their scouts won’t have got close enough to realise what had afflicted so many of them, and would have assumed they were just the battle-injured who had been left behind by the main column. It was a small blessing. If the Parthians knew how weak they really were, they would be tempted into a full scale attack. They clearly felt that as things stood, that would be overly costly, even if probably successful.
“If you have no more to offer,” said Quintillius. “This parley is finished.” He turned on his heel abruptly and headed back to the town. Oclatinius and Cominius hurried to catch him up.