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The Battle of Palamas - A.D. 400

fought 12 October 2002

by Eric Hall

 

As told by the monk Gildas, ambassador for the Bishop of Alexandria with the barbarian allies of his most holy majesty the Emperor Arcadius.

 

Exegi Monumentum Aere Perennius

 

ďI have raised a monument more durable than bronze.Ē

 

Such were the prideful words the Roman Prefect Niellios, general to the false western magnate Stilicho, had carved on the watchtower at Palamas, in Thessalia, after his forces repelled the barbarian alliance of the mercenary Dux Herberti the Hibernian on those pleasing but bloody plains.

 

I, Gildas, ambassador and scribe to the Bishop of Alexandria beheld these things and report to your grace.

 

On the fifth day of the fifth month, in the year 400 after the birth of our Lord, the second army of the invasion force of Stilicho under the General Niellios was camped outside Palamas near the old Imperial watchtower and around the rich villa of the famous horse trainer Jockius.

 

That false Roman, the Vandal Stilicho, was again laying waste the fine lands of  Greece to draw out those Lords of the Visigoths who had set their standards before the throne of his majesty Arcadius, in return for lands to the fifth generation in the wealthy parts of  the northern plains.

 

Arcadius had commanded the Visigoth Dukes under his favour to resist this latest invasion by Stilicho.

 

Hoping to shame them into battle and defeat them, so that he could press his claim as guardian of the Eastern Emperor, as well as of the Western one, Stilicho succeeded more than he at first hoped.

 

For the Visigothic lords, grown away from war after 10 years of settled peace in their new homes, contracted instead with the roving mercenary general and exiled Pictii King Herberti the Hibernian and his savage  barbarian bands to find and destroy the Roman armies.

    

The Approach

 

The land around Palamas is horse pasture with orchards and gardens near the villas, lines of  low and rolling hills, patches of ancient woodland, and the battle plain is cut with a small brook, which dives into a rocky gorge between the watchtower and the villa.

 

Your servant, Gildas, thinking not of the danger to his own poor body, climbed up and stood high on a bluff on the left of the barbarian line with the hearth guard of Herberti as the sun made a proper height and the morning dew had almost burned from the grass. It was a clear day, and the scent of dogswood, a sacred plant, hung in the air.

 

The blue men of the Pictii are a brave sight to see, but from a distance.  Nay, not even Noxios the Alexandrian hermit savoured so strong as these warriors, from a land where it is said even the children drink a water which burns like fire, and men eat only the full intestines of their sheep.

 

Around and about me, the warbands of the Pictii advanced in their sloping run over the hill, and straight for the Roman right wing.

 

Recognising him from my travels to Roma two years before, I could see on the rising ground in front, where the Roman troops were deploying, the distinctive tall green plumes on the helmet of the experienced Greek general Philo.  Renegade!  Had he not taken the salt of Arcadius before?


To the right, I saw spread out before me the rest of Herbertiís army.  The stern, secretive, and aloof Heruls marched towards the Imperial watchtower on the low hill in the centre, their thundering noble cavalry galloping behind, headed for a gap which Niellios seemed to have missed in his line between the watchtower hill and the brook.

 

Beyond the brook, the wild Saxon wyrd warriors of Wandering Weiyen raised their wailing warcry and waited for no one in a mad rush forward.  The advancing Roman line, still marshalling from camp, could not reach the garrison in the villa of Jockius before the first Saxon wave hit.

 

On the far right of the barbarian line, the Visigothic paymasters had sent a contingent under the wily Duke Dieter, to ensure their money was being well spent.  The Duke, alas, had chosen a battle front full of farmed land next to the villa and the heavy Visigoth horses were making poor progress through the close vineyards and orchards.

 

But the bold Barbarian advance had already been compromised the night before at the war meet of the mercenary chiefs when Duke Dieter, reluctant to commit all his countrymen before he saw the fighting skills and temper of Herbertiís bands, had proposed a long right flank march by half his own forces, around the Roman left flank.

 

Herbertiís spies had told him that the Roman left was strong in regular legionary foot and horse and under command of the fanatical schismatic General Kristos.

 

Hearing this, the Ostrogothic commander Eiricus , yelling that what was good for the western Goths was good for the eastern Goths, took his own large warbands in a long march off around the Roman right flank.

 

King Herberti, seeing that his reduced forces must win by terror what they had lost in numbers on the field, gave his only command of the fatal day:  ďCharge, and Iíll kill any bastardís son who doesnít!Ē


Alas, your grace, Niellios had by now had time to deploy along a line of hills connecting his left and right flanks through the watchtower at the centre of his line.

 

Behind the thin but determined lines of the Western legions, large numbers of cavalry Alae could be seen in reserve, ready to charge down any of our warriors who hacked through the lines.

 

It was only later that I heard from a good Christian officer of the Palatina, who I saw next day searching the field, that Niellios, at first sight of our clamouring hosts, had profaned God and complained that the rules of War were not always fair.  The Lord must have heard him.  He works in mysterious ways.

 

The Battle

 

As the sun rose toward noon , Favour seemed to smile on our warriors.  On the left, the wild Pictii smashed into the troops of Philo, hacking down legionary and auxiliary alike.     Not even a charge by what looked like Guard cavalry in their red cloaks could throw back the incensed men of the North.

 

Philo could be seen clearly, sending rider after rider back to Niellios in the centre and asking for aid, as all could discern in the distance an ominous dust cloud, which could only be the bands of Eiricus, Stilichoís main army being three days march away.

 

But Niellios himself was pinned by the brave Heruls who now flung themselves at the watchtower, as cruel darts from the Roman artillery swept away not one, but two or three warriors at a time.

 

On our right, the Saxons rolled ever onwards but one band, unable to resist the possibility of loot, went straight for the defended frontal gates of the villa, hurling themselves in barley besotted rage against the barred oak doors.

 

It was on the far right that the seeds of defeat first began to show.  The Visigothic knights, struggling nobly through the vines but hacking uselessly at the gnarled runners with their swords, spotted running towards them thousands of Roman archers.  Seeing their death approach, caught in a horsemanís trap, their courage counselled stay, but their hearts said turn.

 

Meanwhile, in the centre, the Herul nobility had also found that Roman resources were larger than they thought.  Looking to ride straight through the gap in Nielliosís line they saw to their dismay squadrons of  Honorii horse gallop round the foot of Watchtower hill and deploy, ready to charge.  God forgive me that I could not warn them, seeing it as I did from my height.

 

Yet, the Lord still seemed to look down kindly on his unshriven children as the first Ostrogoth warriors of Eiricus burst out of the woods on Philoís flank, just after the time of the midday prayer.

 

No sight could have been better for the Pictii as their long fight had exhausted them.  Herberti could be seen in the thick of it, roaring for more of his beloved Iberian beer and hewing around him.

 

Little did it strike the Pictii, besieged as they were, that Eiricusís advance was weak and confused as the plundering Ostrogoths had emptied the cellars and kitchens of Palamas town on their circuitous route to the battle, and now many straggled through miles of brush and pathway.

Yet still, on the Saxon flank a great cheer went up and I saw the first wisp of smoke rising from the villa and Saxon helms along the walled roofs.  The Roman garrison had been massacred and their fellows in the pastures beyond could not help them as Roman and Saxon slaughtered each other in piles along the meadows.

 

The day was growing old, and in the light breeze of the afternoon much Roman galloping about was seen behind the lines, but the courage of Herbertiís warriors had failed to cower the professional men of the legions.

 

Time was running out, and the Visigoths who had marched off on the flank the evening before were nowhere to be seen.  Their infantry warriors on the far right flank were stuck behind the battling Saxons, and many a Visigoth knight was laid over the vines with a Roman arrow in his neck, victims of their untutored advance into the farm lanes.

 

God had taken his hand away that day from the throne of Arcadius.

 

Niellius had released some lumbering cataphractii to help the hated Greek, Philo against the Ostrogoths.

 

But Fate struck where it hurt most.  Herberti was swigging down a massive draft, when a flight of arrows from the hill caught him in his middle and felled the bravest of the Picts.  Bloodied, wounded, dying, his men could take no more.  I saw a crew of their strongest warriors with his eldest son lift the King and carry his corpse from the field.  The Pictii melted away into the woods from whence they came.

 

The Ostrogothsís courage failed before it had arrived, as they saw the Picts retreat.  A charge down the hill by Roman skirmishers was enough to break their spirit, and the first wave fled, tumbling Eiricus from his horse and destroying all the remaining cohesion and force of their advance.

 

Opposite the watchtower, the Herul fight had run its course, disdaining flight, the harsh warriors from the mists died where they stood.  Their noble horse were too late and too occupied to help, and finally fled the field in despair.  Only their Chief, whose barbarous name remains unwritten, was left standing as the light started to fade, mourning his lost men, before turning and slowly walking away

 

The Romans on the watchtower ridge, themselves exhausted, watched in respect and let him go.

As the evening set in, I could see the flames from the villa lighting the scenes of horror in the fields opposite where Roman and Saxon had finally fought themselves to a standstill.  Nearby, the Visigothic bands milled around, as if they could not believe the defeat of their army and the loss of their mercenary gold.

 

On a hill far off to the right, I saw for an instant a blue standard flash.  Perhaps it was the fresh Visigothic army.  If it was, they did not come closer to the fields where more shades than men now wandered.

In the night, the last barbarians left the lines to the Roman victors and I was taken by roving saggitarii as I wrote these words by the light of a poor candle from a brother at the church in Palamas.  

 

These things have I seen and reported truthfully to your Grace and given into the hands of the Saxon man Ranald to deliver to you.

 

May you live and prosper, and remember your servant Gildas, now awaiting the judgement of the Vandal Stilicho.

 

May God have mercy on the dead.  Sic Transit Gloria Mundi.

 

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