7 August, 378
Thump thump thump
Equal parts feet and drums
audible for miles.
Rattle of sword, clatter of armor
sometimes drowned by
high, clear trumpet-notes
carried on the breeze.
The golden snake of the army
slithers along the mighty road.
The road belongs to all, but
mostly to the army.
Thump thump thump
they march as a powerful stream,
all others must scatter or drown.
A dull murmur rises:
“There is the greatest army in the world.
When they march to war,
the gods march with them.”
Soldier, sticky with mass-produced sweat
marching down face, back, arms,
keeps in step with the cadence.
Thump thump thump
eighty thousand armored feet
four thousand thudding drums
echo in his soul, overcoming all else.
Kicked up dust cakes to sodden skin.
The soldier stifles a cough.
One soldier marching wearily on,
though he knows not why.
On 9 August, 378 AD the Roman army, 40,000 men strong and led by Emperor Valens himself, fought a battle against the Visigoths at a place called Adrianople. At the end of the day, the Visigoths had completely annihilated the celebrated Roman foot soldiers and scattered or killed all the cavalry. Emperor Valens was killed in the battle.
Notes for “Before Adrianople”
This poem is significant to me because I believe it’s the only one I have ever actually tried to write. Mostly the poems just appear in my head and the only work I do is refining the words to match the vision. But the idea for this poem came when I was reading about the armies of David marching against the armies of Absalom. How this moved from the armies of Israel in the BC era to a Roman army near the fall of the Empire is not entirely clear. I didn’t say I successfully wrote the poem I tried to write….
My creative writing teacher at the time kept trying to make the soldier in the third stanza some sort of synecdoche for the Empire as a whole. She was convinced that writing “the soldier stifles a cough” was my way of implying that this one soldier’s weakness was indicative of the weakness of the entire Roman Empire. I understand the death of the author and all that, but being as I am not dead, I heartily maintain that this thought was not at all in my head as I wrote those words. Whether that is significant to you depends on what school of literary analysis you subscribe to. Though I suppose if the thoughts of the author don’t matter to you then you wouldn’t be reading these words.
In any case, when I wrote this poem I started with the image of an army as viewed from very high up. So high that individuals can’t be distinguished. As the army marches along, the view begins to swoop down, the thudding of the drums gets louder, and the golden thread becomes a stream of soldiers and centurions and cavalry. The view continues to zoom until it focuses on one particular soldier. He is no more special than any of the others, but he’s a grunt. The thudding of the feet and the drums is now so loud that it dominates the senses.
Translating this “movie” in my mind into words is the reason why the poem is structured and written the way that it is. The soldier is in no way significant. To my mind, attaching a special significance to him defeats the whole point.
The weird thing about creating art, though, is that you can be wrong even when you’re talking about the thing you created. Do with these words what you will.
(For the historians: I did nearly no research before writing this poem. I have no idea if Roman soldiers used drums or trumpets, and if they did I have no idea whether four thousand drums for forty thousand soldiers is even remotely close to the correct ratio. I also realize that the line “eighty thousand armored feet” is incorrect, as the army may have been up to one third cavalry. A quick glance at Wikipedia also questions my forty thousand number, suggesting that the real number was much lower than that. I don’t remember where I got my information from at the time.)