The legions . . . dashed forward in wedge-shaped formation. The auxiliaries charged in the same way, and the cavalry with extended spears broke through what was powerful and in the way. The rest took flight, though escape was difficult . . .

The heavily outnumbered Roman army defeats the Boudican hordes in 61.

Despite the tales of epic defeats, the greatest prospect for many Roman soldiers was the chance to go on campaign, especially if that meant a war of conquest, with all the chances of glory and booty that might bring. It was also the most terrifying. This chapter traces some of Rome’s most remarkable warriors in republican and imperial times: artillery experts, those who committed acts of remarkable bravery in the heat of battle or who lived to tell the tale and dine off their heroic acts for the rest of their lives. These were the men who helped define Rome’s greatest military successes and slay the demons of past defeats. They also showed what superb training, discipline and well-maintained morale could achieve.

As Polybius described it, the Roman order of battle was almost impossible to break through. The Roman soldier could fight in it individually or collectively, with the result that a formation of troops could turn to offer a front in any direction. The individual soldier’s confidence was strengthened by the quality of his weapons. The result was, he said, that in battle the Romans were ‘very hard to beat’.

Josephus was staggered by the Roman war machine in action during the Jewish War, fascinated by the way the Romans never laid down their arms yet always thought and planned before they acted. As a huge admirer of the Romans, like Polybius he painted a very compelling and biased picture of an invincible force. He saw Vespasian, the future emperor, set out on campaign to invade Galilee and described how the legions went to war. The auxiliaries attached to the legions were sent out ahead to scout for ambushes and fight off any enemy attacks. Behind them came the legionaries, with a detail of ten men from every century carrying the unit’s equipment. Road engineers followed to take care of levelling the surface, straightening out bends and clearing trees. Behind them came the officers’ baggage train, guarded by Vespasian’s cavalry and his personal escort. The legion’s cavalry was next, followed by any artillery, the officers and their personal bodyguards, the standards and the legionaries’ personal servants and slaves, who brought their masters’ effects. At the back came the mercenaries who had joined that campaign, and finally a rear-guard to protect the rear of the column. The Roman army had reached this arrangement after centuries of experience that had also involved terrible defeats and lessons.

The great achievements were rarely commemorated at the site of battles or campaigns themselves, although to do so was not unique. Actium, unusually, had a monument at the location of the conflict. Trajan erected a memorial at Adamklissi (Tropaeum Traiani, ‘the Trophy of Trajan’) in Dacia in honour of his victory there in 107–8, while fragments of an inscription found in Jarrow church in Northumberland in Britain evidently once belonged to a huge monument built under Hadrian’s rule to commemorate the ‘dispersal [of the barbarians]’ and the construction of his Wall by ‘the Army of the Province’ of Britain. But more often Roman military successes were honoured with triumphal parades and monuments in Rome, the latter usually in the form of an arch, like those of Augustus, Claudius, Titus, Septimius Severus and Constantine I, or the columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius. Another stood at the port of Richborough in Britain, serving as a gateway to the province and commemorating the completion of its conquest in c. 85 under Domitian during the governorship of Agricola. There were many more in provincial cities throughout the Empire. Victories and conquest were a matter of Roman national prestige and the emperor’s standing with the mob was of the highest importance. Few ordinary people were ever likely to travel to the sites of former battles, so there was little point in going to great lengths to build monuments there.


No Roman general ever went to war without thinking about his celebrated forebears. In 202 BC, when Publius Cornelius Scipio was still only thirty-four years old, the fate of Rome hung in the balance. The Second Punic War had been dragging on since 218 BC. Scipio had carried a vast army across from Sicily to North Africa in 204 BC and had been slowly wearing the Carthaginians down ever since. The following year, a major defeat had cost the Carthaginians dear when Scipio attacked two of their camps near Utica. It was said that 40,000 men, taken completely by surprise and unarmed, had been killed and 5,000 captured, as well as six elephants. Scipio celebrated the victory by dedicating the captured arms to Vulcan and then ordering them burned.6 Polybius painted the picture of confusion, shouting, fear and raging fire caused by the assault and judged it to be ‘the most spectacular and daring’ of Scipio’s attacks.

The war, which Scipio had been ordered to bring to an end, was at this stage still far from over. During a storm shortly afterwards, a Carthaginian naval attack came close to wiping out his fleet. Sixty transports were seized by the Carthaginians and towed away. A little while later three Carthaginian triremes attacked a quinquereme carrying Roman envoys. Although the envoys were rescued, a large number of Roman troops on the quinquereme were killed. This renewed Roman determination to finish the Carthaginians off. When talks between Scipio and Hannibal broke down, fighting was inevitable. The stakes could not have been higher. Both Rome and Carthage were fighting for survival.

The battle opened with a Carthaginian charge, heavily reliant on Hannibal’s 80 elephants. This turned out to be a mistake. The animals were badly rattled by the noise of the Carthaginian trumpets, panicked and turned back to run into Hannibal’s Numidian cavalry. Some of the frightened elephants reached Roman lines, causing serious casualties before being forced off the battlefield by Roman javelins. Gaius Laelius, Scipio’s cavalry commander, took advantage of the opportunity to charge the Carthaginian cavalry and drive them into a retreat. Only then did the battle descend into close combat as the rival infantry forces advanced towards each other. Thanks to Roman discipline and organization, their infantry formations held and were backed up by their comrades, despite a vicious assault by Hannibal’s mercenaries. But the Carthaginian troops failed to support the mercenaries, who turned on the Carthaginians themselves. Only then did the Carthaginians start to show their mettle, fighting both mercenaries and Romans simultaneously, but the Romans managed to stand fast. Some of the Carthaginians fled from the battle, prevented by Hannibal from taking refuge with his veterans.

Thus far the battle’s confusion and the Carthaginians’ problems had been largely self-inflicted. The Romans had done well but had not yet managed to take control. Scipio was furthermore prevented from attacking because of the sheer number of corpses and the quantity of debris and abandoned weapons in the way. He had the wounded carried off before ordering his men to reorganize themselves into formation by treading their way over the dead bodies. It was effectively a second battle. Once they were in battle order they were able to advance on the Carthaginian infantry. The fighting proceeded inconclusively at first, since both sides were evenly matched; the attrition was only broken when the Roman cavalry returned from chasing away the Numidian horse and attacked Hannibal’s men from the rear. Many were killed as they fought, others as they tried to escape. It was a decisive moment. The Carthaginians lost 20,000, it was said, compared to 1,500 Romans. The exact figures were academic, and were unknown anyway. The point was the difference.

Hannibal had exhibited remarkable skill in how he had distributed his forces so as to counter the Romans’ advantage. He had hoped the elephants would disrupt the Roman formation and cause confusion from the outset, planning that the opening assault by mercenary infantry would exhaust the Romans before the main confrontation with his best and most experienced troops, who would have saved their energy. Until then Hannibal had been undefeated. Polybius believed that a Roman victory only came this time because Scipio’s conduct of the fight was better, yet his own description of the battle clearly described how luck had played a large part. There can be no question that it was a brilliant victory, one for which Scipio deservedly took credit. But whether it was really the result of his generalship, or of happenstance in the chaos of battle, is a moot point.

Regardless, the Battle of Zama ended Carthage’s role as a Mediterranean power and confirmed Rome’s primacy in the region. Not only did it earn Scipio immortality as one of the greatest Roman generals of all time but it also enhanced the reputation of the Roman army, as well as putting to bed the shame of Trasimene and Cannae. Scipio offered the Carthaginians remarkably moderate terms, based largely on the payment of reparations and the restriction on the numbers of their armed forces, though these had to be ratified by the Senate.

Of the ordinary men who fought that day none is known to us by name, and nor are the anonymous feats of any individual. Even the celebrated Republican veteran Spurius Ligustinus did not enlist until two years after the battle. In 201 BC, after settling the peace, Scipio took his men home via Sicily for a triumph in which many must have participated, and carrying epic quantities of booty. How he acquired the name Africanus had been lost to history by Livy’s time. Perhaps it was his men who gave it to him, or his friends, or even the mob – but he was the first Roman general to be named after a nation he had conquered, though none who came after, said Livy, were his equal. No wonder anecdotes about his skills, his views and his achievements were recounted for centuries.

There was an amusing postscript to Zama. Some years later, in 192 BC, Scipio Africanus and Hannibal met in the city of Ephesus, on the Ionian coast of Asia (Turkey). Scipio was there as a member of a diplomatic delegation investigating the Seleucid king Antiochus III, Hannibal as the king’s adviser. Allegedly they discussed generalship; Scipio asked Hannibal whom he regarded as the greatest general, privately hoping that Hannibal would name Scipio himself. Instead Hannibal gave first place to Alexander the Great and second to Pyrrhus. Scipio was sure Hannibal would name him third at least, but in fact Hannibal then named himself, citing his extraordinary march into Italy and the campaign that had followed. Scipio burst into laughter and asked Hannibal where he would have placed himself had he not been defeated at Zama. Hannibal said he would have been first, managing simultaneously to continue his self-flattery while implying that Scipio was greater than Alexander. The story is almost certainly fictional, but it added another to the range of tales and anecdotes about Scipio retold in later years.


A single soldier’s sharp eyes and quickness of wit could make all the difference at a crucial moment in a campaign. In the war against Jugurtha in North Africa (112–106 BC), the general Gaius Marius was engaged in the siege of a stronghold perched on a rocky outcrop that could only be approached from one direction down a narrow path. The track was far too narrow for siege engines to be moved up along it. On all the other sides there were steep precipices. The siege was starting to look impossible to maintain, not least because the stronghold was well stocked with food and even had a water supply from a spring. Marius began to believe he had made a serious mistake and considered giving up. But one of Marius’ soldiers, an anonymous Ligurian, was out looking for water. He was also picking up snails for food, had climbed higher and higher towards the fortress up one of the precipitous slopes until he found himself near the stronghold. He climbed a large oak tree to get a better view and realized that by working his way through the tree and the rocks he had solved the problem of the Roman assault. He climbed back down, noting the exact path and every obstacle along the way, and went to Marius to tell him he had found a way up.

Instead of dismissing advice from an ordinary soldier Marius realized this might be the break he needed. He sent some of his men to confirm what the Ligurian had said. Based on their reports he was convinced and sent five of his nimblest troops, who were also trumpeters, led by four centurions up the incline again with the Ligurian. The men, who had left their helmets and boots behind so they could see where they were going and be as agile as possible, followed the Ligurian up the hillside through the rocks. To make the climb easier they strapped their swords and spears to their backs, and used straps and staffs to help them up. The Ligurian led the way, sometimes carrying the men’s arms, and tying ropes to tree roots or rocks. When the trumpeters reached the rear of the fortress after their long and exhausting climb they found it undefended. No one inside had expected an attack from that direction.

In the meantime Marius was using long-range artillery to hit the fortress, but the defenders were not in the least concerned. They came out of the fortress accompanied by their women and children, who joined in as they taunted the Romans, convinced they were safe. At that moment the trumpeters at the rear of the fortress started up with their instruments. That was the signal to Marius to intensify his assault. The women and children fled at the sound of the trumpets, believing an attack from behind had taken place, and were soon followed by everyone else. The defence collapsed and Marius was able to press on and take the fortress, all thanks to the Ligurian.


Sometimes soldiers were confronted with terrifying prospects simply for the purpose of gratifying the conceits and ambitions of their commanding officers, generals or emperors. When in 55 BC Julius Caesar began the first of his two invasions of Britain, he was the first Roman to attempt to do so. He had 80 ships built to carry two legions over the Channel from Gaul, and another 18 to bring the cavalry, but when his force arrived off the coast of Britain they were faced with cliffs that could not possibly be scaled. The ships had to be sailed 7 miles (11 km) further on so they could land on a beach.

Well aware of what was happening, the Britons positioned cavalry and charioteers along the coast to prevent the Romans getting ashore. It was already difficult enough for the invaders. Caesar’s troop transports had to be beached in deep water, forcing the infantry to jump down into the water laden with their armour and weapons under a hail of missiles from the Britons. As a result the Romans became frightened and hesitant, not least because they had never experienced anything like it.

Caesar had to order his warships to move into position so his men could attack the Britons with artillery, arrows, and stones hurled from slings. ‘This movement proved of great service to our troops,’ he remembered. The Britons temporarily withdrew, but the Roman troops were still reluctant to risk all by jumping into the sea. Famously, at that moment ‘the aquilifer of Legio X, after praying to heaven to bless the legion by his deed, shouted, “leap down, soldiers, unless you want to betray your eagle to the enemy. It shall be told for certain that I did my duty to my nation and my general”.’ Caesar’s heroic aquilifer then jumped down from the beached transport into the foaming water and charged through the waves with his standard. The prospect of shame was too much for the others on the transport. They followed him, and one by one the men on the other transports followed suit.

Caesar went on to enjoy moderate success that year and the next, but the entire project had hung in the balance that day. His political career could have been destroyed by failure on that beach. The ignominy would have been too much to sustain, especially given the febrile politics of Rome at the time. One soldier had managed to turn the moment around in the nick of time.

At least Caesar’s standard-bearer had acted autonomously. Long before, in 386 BC, Marcus Furius Camillus, a military tribune, was also faced with his own troops holding back. He had physically to grab a signifer by the hand and lead him into the fray to get the others to follow, rather than be humiliated.



Playing tricks on the enemy was an excellent way of seizing the advantage, but it could have unforeseen consequences. In October 42 BC at Philippi, two years after the assassination of Julius Caesar, Antony and Octavian were determined to force Caesar’s killers Brutus and Cassius into fighting a battle. In the end they fought two. Antony’s idea was to have his men set up all their standards every day so it would look as if his entire army was in battle order, ready for the fight. It was a ruse. In reality an area of marshland lay between Antony and the enemy. Some of his troops were in the meantime working their way through the marshes to cut down reeds and build an earthen causeway embanked with stones, using piles to make their way across the deeper places. This all had to be done in complete silence, although Antony had the advantage that Brutus and Cassius’ men were prevented by the reeds from spotting what was going on. After ten days Antony was able to send part of his army through to take up position and build redoubts (small fortifications) to reinforce their positions.

This of course gave the game away. Now Cassius knew what was happening. He was impressed and came up with the idea of secretly building a wall and palisade at right angles across Antony’s causeway to cut off the advance force. It was an ingenious solution which enraged Antony when he discovered what had happened. He impulsively organized a charge, his men carrying tools and ladders, to bring the wall down and attack Cassius’ camp. Meanwhile, Brutus’ troops were watching, equally outraged ‘at the insolence’ of Antony’s attack. They dived in without orders and killed as many of Antony’s soldiers as possible, before turning on Octavian’s army and causing it to run away, destroying Legio IIII in the process. Shortly afterwards they had Antony and Octavian’s camp.

Antony kept up the attack in a reckless assault of exceptional bravery. He had Cassius’ palisade torn down and its accompanying ditch filled up, killing the men on its gates and dashing forward under a hail of missiles. The men who had been working on the wall for Cassius were driven off and Antony headed for their camp. Cassius had failed to put more than a token guard on his camp, so Antony’s men soon took it. The two sides both ended up in much the same position, but in the confusion neither was aware of what had happened. Antony had taken Cassius’ camp, while Brutus had taken Octavian’s. ‘There was great slaughter on both sides’, said Appian, Cassius losing 8,000 men and Octavian 16,000. In his shame Cassius ordered one of his freedmen to kill him. The First Battle of Philippi was over.

On the same day, reinforcements were being brought from Italy to bolster Octavian and Antony’s army against Brutus and Cassius. Domitius Calvinus was bringing two legions, including one known as Legio Martia, as well as 2,000 members of Octavian’s personal praetorians, four cavalry wings and other unspecified troops. As they sailed across the Adriatic in troop transports they ran into an enemy naval force of 130 ships led by Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus and Statius Murcus. The wind dropped and the transport ships were suddenly trapped. Ahenobarbus and Murcus sent their warships in and annihilated most of the transport ships. The beleaguered soldiers tried tying their ships together with ropes but Murcus ordered a hail of burning arrows to be fired, forcing the men to untie the ships again. Realizing there was no hope, the legionaries and other soldiers were furious at the thought of suffering pointless and humiliating deaths. Those of Legio Martia acted with particular bravery. Some took their own lives, others leapt across to the warships in suicidal attempts to fight back. In the event many men drowned or were washed up on the shore, while a large number capitulated and went over to the tyrannicides. But it was Legio Martia that was remembered that day.

Meanwhile Octavian and Antony were in a bad way. The naval disaster was bad enough, but they were also running short of food and were desperate to force Brutus to fight. Brutus had no intention of obliging – he knew he had the upper hand – but his soldiers disagreed. They wanted a battle, believing that being kept back amounted to being ‘idle and cowardly’. So did their officers, who thought the men were so whipped up that there was a good chance of victory. It was the officers who convinced Brutus he would have to fight, while Brutus was becoming worried that his men would go over to the enemy.

The battle, when it started, was a vicious close-combat affair with little in the way of missiles ‘which are customary in war’. Instead the men killed each other with swords: ‘The slaughter and the groans were terrible’. The dead were carried from the field to clear a space for reserves to march forward. When Octavian’s men eventually pushed Brutus’ army back into a steady, ordered and disciplined retreat which accelerated in speed, it was over. Brutus’ army was routed but he escaped with four legions. The following day he ordered his friend Strato to kill him.

Later judgements varied. Valerius Maximus said Brutus had ‘murdered his own virtues’ before assassinating Caesar and that he had permanently associated his family name with ‘abhorrence’ (Lucius Junius Brutus, his ancestor, had been one of the most prominent men who threw out the last Roman king and established the Republic in 509 BC). On the other hand, Appian called Brutus and Cassius ‘two most noble and illustrious Romans’ whose virtue was incomparable but for their one crime.

The same could be said of many of their men, and those of Octavian and Antony, who fought two extraordinary battles exhibiting remarkable bravery, fortitude and discipline. Their victory set Octavian on the path that would lead in 27 BC to his becoming Augustus Caesar.


Simply being on campaign could involve extraordinary levels of hardship, especially where remote territory and barbarians were part of the mix. In the reign of Nero two remarkable wars, only two years apart and on opposite sides of the Empire, found two of Rome’s greatest generals facing their greatest challenges. Both overcame adversity in different contexts by relying on their leadership skills and the training and discipline of the men under their command.

In 59 the general Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo was leading the III Gallica, VI Ferrata and X Fretensis legions and their auxiliaries into Armenia to recover Rome’s control over the region from the king Tiridates I. It was a bitter and piercing winter but the soldiers were camped out in tents made only of hide. To set the tents up the troops had had to cut through the ice that covered the ground and dig out pits into which they could erect them. The cold was so extreme that some died while standing out on watch. Tacitus alleged that ‘one soldier was seen carrying a wood bundle whose hands were so deeply frozen that they stuck to his load and dropped off from the stumps of his arms’. Corbulo was forced to go about his men wearing only light clothing and without any head covering in order to bolster their spirits. He was not entirely successful. The climate was so severe and the duties so onerous that some deserted. As a result Corbulo instituted a zero-tolerance policy: any deserter, even a first-time offender, would automatically be executed. The desertions did not stop, but they were markedly reduced.

Arrogance and a lack of discipline had nearly wrecked the campaign, but discipline and organization would later achieve great things. Corbulo decided that the legions would have to stay in camp until spring. He distributed his auxiliary troops in various strongholds and placed them under the command of a primus pilus called Paccius Orfitus. A man of Orfitus’ experience, who had gained Corbulo’s trust, ought to have been totally reliable. He turned out not to be. Keen to fight, he wrote to Corbulo to tell him that the enemy was being incautious and that the chances of a successful attack against the Armenians were therefore excellent. Corbulo to him to hold his fire and wait until reinforcements arrived. Orfitus took no notice. When auxiliary units turned up begging to be allowed to fight, he took them out to give battle. His defeat was total. Although he escaped, the remaining troops were completely demoralized and terrified. Corbulo was so angry he ordered Orfitus, the commanders of the auxiliary units and the men to camp outside the fortifications until the rest of the army pleaded for them to be let back in.

As the campaign progressed, Corbulo became frustrated by what Tacitus called a ‘roving enemy’ that avoided either negotiating peace or facing the Romans on a battlefield. This was the sort of foe the Romans, who always preferred set-piece battles, hated. Corbulo had managed to fend off Armenian attacks on his supply routes by placing forts at key spots. He decided that he would have to bring the war to the Armenian strongholds. The climax was to be an assault on the city of Artaxata (modern Artashat). Corbulo’s legions were unable to cross the river Araks by the nearest bridge because it was so close to the city they could be hit by Tiridates’ defenders, so they had to take a circuitous route via a ford some distance away.

But Tiridates too had a problem. The city was difficult to defend, and any attempt to prevent the Romans blockading Artaxata would result in his cavalry foundering on impassable ground. He decided therefore that he would have to present Corbulo with the opportunity for a battle. That would either mean confronting the Romans or pretending to retreat and tricking them into pursuit. Corbulo had organized the legions so that they could either march or fight. Tiridates surrounded the Roman column, which was arranged with the best of Legio X’s soldiers in the middle, the VI on the left and the III on the right, with 1,000 cavalry at the rear who had been given strict instructions not to be lured into chasing an Armenian retreat. Infantry archers and more cavalry were on the edges of the columns; these were presumably all auxiliaries.

Tiridates’ tactics were to harry the Romans in an attempt to break up the formation. He achieved nothing. The Romans were, ironically, helped when a cavalry officer, advancing too far on his own, was ‘transfixed by arrows’ fired by the Armenians. That focused the attention of the other Roman soldiers on staying where they were. The day’s fighting was ultimately inconclusive and Corbulo ordered his men to make camp where they were. He toyed with the idea of blockading Artaxata that night, believing that Tiridates was holed up there. However, his own scouts discovered that Tiridates had set out on a longer trip elsewhere. In the morning, when Corbulo surrounded Artaxata, the inhabitants realized their best chance was to surrender and save themselves. They opened the gates and let the Romans in. Knowing he could not commit enough troops to hold it, Corbulo ordered the city to be burned and razed to the ground.

Corbulo’s Armenian war was far from over. In 60 he headed for the capital Tigranocerta. Progress was a struggle because of the heat and a shortage of water, and Corbulo himself was nearly assassinated by an armed Armenian. Fortunately, when he reached Tigranocerta the city surrendered and he was able to place a Roman client (and puppet) king, Tigranes VI, on the Armenian throne. Hostilities were to resume only two years later when the Parthians arrived to attack the city, but for the moment Corbulo’s remarkable campaign had shown what the Roman army could achieve – and, in this instance, without ever fighting a pitched battle.


At almost exactly the same point of Nero’s reign another war broke out on the other side of the Roman Empire. Also involving several Roman legions, auxiliary forces, and a very experienced general, it came close to total disaster. The difference this time was that the Romans were caught unawares by a major rebellion when their garrison was widely dispersed. The setting was Britain, seventeen years after the conquest had begun in 43. Four legions – II Augusta, VIIII Hispana, XIIII Gemina and XX – were stationed in Britain at the time, as were at least the same number of auxiliaries, made up of infantry and cavalry. The legions were distributed around the province, such as it was by that early date: Legio II Augusta was at Exeter, VIIII Hispana at Lincoln, XIIII at Wroxeter and XX at Usk in south Wales. They and the auxiliaries amounted to one of the greatest concentrations of Roman forces in the entire Empire at any time. The distances between locations were not great, but Britain’s undeveloped state, its forests and numerous rivers, made it difficult to move fast, even though a road network radiating out from the new trading settlement of London was well under construction.

The governor, Suetonius Paulinus, who arrived in Britain or around the year 59, was determined to crush resistance once and for all. A highly experienced general, he was considered to be a rival of Corbulo’s, both in terms of his military skill and his popular reputation. Paulinus identified the source of the problem as the native Druid priesthood, to whom all the tribal leaders deferred, and who were provoking rebellions and risings from their headquarters on the island of Anglesey just off the north-west coast of Wales. To make the short and shallow crossing from the mainland, the Roman infantry needed flat-bottomed boats and fords had to be found for the cavalry. Doubtless Paulinus thought the campaign would be quick, brutal and easy.

Sailing across to the island was one thing. None of the Roman soldiers was, it seems, ready for what confronted them. They found armed warriors waiting, and mixed among them women dressed in black as furies, running around with torches, their hair streaming behind them. The Druids were also present, raising their hands to the sky and chanting incantations. This was so far outside the Romans’ experience, either hitherto in Britain or on the Continent, that they were paralysed with fear. Paulinus had to urge them on by pointing out that they should not be scared of ‘women and fanatics’. The Romans pulled themselves together and advanced. For all the Britons’ noise and dishevelled hair they were hopelessly outclassed. The Romans easily cut down the warriors, the Druids and the women, and used the Britons’ own torches to set them on fire. The island was garrisoned and ‘the groves sacred to their savage rites cut down’. What seems to have provoked the Romans’ disgust was the discovery that the Druids had indulged in human sacrifice of their prisoners in order to use the entrails to communicate with their gods. If the Romans thought they had exterminated the problem, they were wrong. Dispatches from the other side of Britain soon brought news of a major rising in the east of the province.

The Iceni tribe of East Anglia had always been a serious problem for the Romans, but relations had settled down under the client king Prasutagus, who had come to an accord with the Roman government of Britain. Prasutagus knew that the Romans were more powerful and believed that if he made Nero, along with his daughters, his heir, his kingdom would be safe after his death. He was wrong. Centurions had been placed in charge of the region’s civilian administration, performing tasks such as policing and the collection of tribute. Now these men spotted an opportunity to cash in when Prasutagus died, probably in 59. With the help of imperial slaves, they started ransacking the tribal lands, stealing estates and plundering property ‘as if they were spoils of war’. For good measure they flogged Prasutagus’ wife Boudica and raped her daughters, treating the family’s relatives as if they were slaves. The Iceni, not surprisingly, rose up in rebellion, almost certainly with backing from the Druids.

The Iceni were joined by a neighbouring tribe called the Trinovantes, whose ancestral lands were in the vicinity of a new colony at Colchester, formerly occupied by Legio XX. The soldiers had been moved out around 47 and the colony established among the remains of the short-lived legionary fortress. With the typical and tactless arrogance of an invading army that looked down on the defeated as lesser beings, the veterans had enthusiastically helped themselves to Trinovantian land, urged on by serving soldiers who were hoping to do the same when they were discharged. The Trinovantes were already under pressure. Before the Roman invasion another tribe, the Catuvellauni, had taken control of their territory. After the invasion some of the Trinovantes had also been forced to spend their estates on funding compulsory priesthoods in the cult of the deified Claudius, founded at Colchester after his death in 54, while others may have done so voluntarily in the belief they would gain an advantage under Roman rule. Either way, it appears that some of them had borrowed money from Roman speculators to finance these positions. When the loans had been abruptly called in, some of the senior tribesmen faced ruin.

It was not entirely surprising that the veterans behaved as they did. Roman legionaries had been encouraged to believe they were entitled to such privileges since the time of Augustus. Neither had the complacent colonists bothered to construct any new defences, an extraordinary oversight for military veterans for which they would pay dearly.

The notorious attack on Colchester soon followed. Knowing that Paulinus was too far away to help, and with time running out, the desperate colonists sent an emergency dispatch to the procurator of Britain, Catus Decianus, who was probably in London. His response turned out to be hopeless. He sent about 200 ill-equipped men to join the small unit of serving troops still based in Colchester. A few hundred Roman soldiers found themselves confronting a horde of tribal warriors that numbered thousands, without the slightest hope of relief. The soldiers, veterans, and colonists barricaded themselves inside the temple of Claudius, unable even to build a defensive ditch around the building and hoping that the structure would be enough to protect them. It was not. The Iceni and Trinovantes first burned the settlement to the ground and then turned their attention to the temple. The building and its terrified defenders held out for two days but the end was inevitable. The entire population of the colony was massacred.

Enough time had passed for news of the emergency to reach Petilius Cerealis, then commanding Legio VIIII Hispana somewhere near Lincoln to the north. Cerealis headed south-east to find the rebels, but there were so many that thousands of his infantry were wiped out on the spot. Only he and his cavalry escaped. With one legion effectively incapacitated, the effective garrison of Britain had suddenly been cut by around a quarter, while one of the gravest crises in Roman provincial and military history was still taking shape. With an eye to his own survival, Catus Decianus abandoned Britain and headed for Gaul. If the revolt really did involve around 120,000 rebels, as Dio claimed, then he could be forgiven for believing all was lost.

Paulinus immediately abandoned the campaign in Anglesey when he heard the news which must have been brought to him by mounted military messengers. He had with him Legio XIIII Gemina and all or part of Legio XX as he headed down Watling St towards London in an effort to cut off the rebels. He sent orders to Legio II Augusta in Exeter to join him. London had no official status at that date but it was a major river crossing over the Thames as well as a road junction, and was rapidly developing into an important commercial centre. Paulinus seems to have hastened ahead to find out what was going on. He realized he had no choice but to abandon London and St Albans (Verulamium: the next city along Watling St as he retreated to the north-west) and their inhabitants to their fate, apart from those who were mobile enough to join him. The rebels were focusing their attention on killing as many people as possible and on amassing loot. It was a fatal error. Their indulgences were beginning to slow them down, when it had been speed that had given them the initial advantage.

Paulinus had, according to Tacitus, around 10,000 men. Together with Legio XIIII and part of Legio XX he also had some auxiliaries, all of which had been with him in Anglesey. These men had been following on behind him when he took his advance mounted force to London. Having abandoned London and St Albans, Paulinus met up with them somewhere in the Midlands and prepared for a final battle. In order to compensate for his lack of numbers, he chose to station his forces in a narrow gap with higher ground on both sides, while a wood to the rear would inhibit the Britons’ chances of ambushing him. His men faced out across an open plain where the battle could be fought, with the cavalry on the edges. The Britons swaggered around, buoyed up with confidence and weighed down with loot. They brought their women with them and placed them and their booty-packed wagons around the edge of the plain. Remarkably it is only at this point in Tacitus’ account that Boudica appears as the leader of the Britons, rallying her army from her chariot with her daughters urging her fighters to vengeance which would have to be achieved if they were to avoid enslavement. Dio, however, said she led and directed the whole war.

Paulinus started the battle by ordering a launch of javelins, followed by a steady advance in wedge formation. If Tacitus can be believed, the Britons lost control almost immediately and started to beat a hasty retreat, only to run into their own wagons which prevented them escaping. The Romans had the day from that moment on, mowing down both warriors and women, and killing the baggage animals so the survivors could not dash away. The losses were colossal, though the figure of 80,000 Britons allegedly killed by the Romans is implausibly high; only 400 Romans were said to have died, with a few more wounded. This figure is a little more believable but neither total should be taken literally. They were supplied to provide the impression of a massive Roman victory, which indeed it was. Nevertheless, the battle was close-run, and even closer-run because Legio II Augusta had not joined in. The legion appears to have had no commanding officer at the time, and instead was in the charge of its praefectus castrorum, Poenius Postumus. Postumus had refused to march the legion from its base to join the war, probably out of fear. He committed suicide as the only reasonable course of action open to him, a humiliating end to what must have been a significant and successful career.

In the aftermath, said Tacitus, 2,000 legionaries were sent over from Germany, along with eight auxiliary cohorts and 1,000 cavalry. These helped bring Legio VIIII back up to strength so it could participate in a punitive campaign to punish the other tribes and crush any further resistance. Evidently it had not been wiped out as Tacitus had claimed earlier. Legio XIIII Gemina was awarded the title Martia Victrix and strutted into the future bearing that name for all time. Its ‘men had covered themselves with glory by crushing the rebellion in Britain’, said Tacitus. Nero decided they were his best troops. A few years later the legion would leave Britain and play a major part in the civil war of 69, returning briefly before being permanently reassigned in 70 to bases on the Continent. Legio XX may have been given the name Valeria Victrix on this occasion, though that is less certain. The sad fact is that virtually nothing is known for certain of the men who served in Legio XIIII at this time. The few tombstones that survive at the legion’s Wroxeter base all seem to precede the Boudican War, commemorating men carried off by death before the legion’s moment of glory.



One of the great strengths of the Roman army was the range of available troops, but circumstances dictated which were best in any given situation. Sarmatian cavalry had a reputation for being among the most dangerous and terrifying troops; when they were on their horses they were virtually invincible, unless they had been victorious and were encumbered with booty. ‘Scarcely a line of battle can stand up to them,’ said Tacitus. But when they had to fight on foot they were ‘utterly ineffective’. On one especially vile day in early 69 during the Civil War, 9,000 Sarmatian cavalry of the Rhoxolani tribe took advantage of the Roman civil war by invading Moesia. They were set upon by the experienced Legio III Gallica and its auxiliaries, then fighting for Otho. The frozen ground was becoming soft under a sudden thaw and it was raining. The enemy horses lost their footing. Forced to dismount, the Sarmatians were hopelessly weighed down by the leather body armour which made it impossible to wield their two-handed swords and lances. Trudging through the melting snow they were easy meat for Legio III, especially as the Sarmatians did not use shields. Most were cut down by javelins or by swords, while the rest died from their wounds or as a result of the severe winter weather. In this instance the Roman infantry had turned out to have an enormous advantage over a very dangerous force that might in different conditions have cut them to pieces.

In his account of the Civil War of 68–9, Tacitus provides us with some of the most specific information about how a Roman army might be formed at any given moment. In one example, in the lead-up to the First Battle of Bedriacum (Cremona) in early 69, Otho’s army was made up as follows as it marched towards his rival Vitellius’ forces:

A vexillation of Legio XIII, with four auxiliary cohorts and 500 cavalry, were placed on the left. Three praetorian cohorts in narrow formation held the high road. Legio I advanced with two auxiliary cohorts and 500 cavalry. In addition, 1,000 praetorian cavalry and auxiliaries accompanied them to add force if they won and to act as a reserve if they were in difficulties.

The opening skirmishes showed how unpredictable events could be. Some of the Vitellian forces were able to rush for cover in a vineyard, where the trellises made it extremely difficult for Otho’s men to attack them. They hid in a nearby wood, from which they were able to ambush Otho’s Praetorian cavalry and kill most of them. But the Othonian counter-attack, when it came, turned out to be a success. The Vitellian soldiers had not all been brought onto the battlefield at once; a number had been left in the camp and they mutinied. After the mutiny was suppressed and the forces had regrouped, however, battle was joined: Otho’s army was defeated and around 40,000 men were killed.


There was no sense in running into a fight without first taking precautions. Special tactics in the field, and opportunism, could work wonders. From early on the Romans had shown their capacity for brilliant pragmatic solutions in the field. During the Second Punic War in 213 BC the Roman general Fabius Maximus found the Italian city of Arpi occupied by Hannibal’s Carthaginian forces. Taking advantage of the noise of pouring rain, he sent 600 soldiers with ladders to scale the city walls at points where they were most heavily fortified and therefore least well guarded. Hannibal’s troops failed to hear the Romans, who were able to enter and break down the gates while Maximus attacked another part of the defences. The city soon fell.46

Later, in the Numantine War in Spain in 143–142 BC, Metellus Macedonicus ordered his men to divert a river, having spotted that there was an enemy fort on lower ground. When the river suddenly flooded the enemy camp, the enemy soldiers fled in panic straight into Metellus’ soldiers, who had been lying in wait to ambush them.

A marching army built whatever it needed as it went along. Quite apart from the camps, it also had to build roads and bridges to make sure the supply chain could be maintained. The most famous bridge in Roman military history was Caesar’s bridge over the Rhine, which he ordered to be constructed in 55 BC. Claiming that he had been invited to help the Ubi tribe in their conflict against the Suebi, Caesar decided it was ‘unworthy of his own and Roman dignity’ to cross the river in boats. Nevertheless, the challenge of spanning such a deep, wide and fast-running river was obviously considerable, and daunting.

The bridge Caesar built was a remarkable example of Roman military engineering. It was laid on pairs of timber baulks which were dropped into two parallel rows across the river, separated by the width of the intended roadway. The sides slanted in towards the roadway and were joined across the gap with transoms, braced underneath. The idea, as Caesar proudly claimed, was that the force of the water would actually push the timber more firmly together. Each opposed pair of baulks with its transoms and braces made a single trestle; these were joined together across the river and a roadway laid down on top. Finally Caesar ordered piles to be driven into the river upstream, so that if the enemy tried to throw tree trunks into the river to wreck the bridge these would be prevented from being carried further. Caesar claimed that the entire project took only ten days to complete from the moment the collection of wood began. His description is so precise that it is hard to dispute his version of events.

As soon as the bridge was finished, Caesar’s army marched over, leaving a garrison at either end. The Suebi were sufficiently intimidated to withdraw from all their settlements and prepared to fight a pitched battle. But Caesar said he had done all he needed to. He had ‘struck terror into the Germans’ and saved the Ubi. He pulled back over the bridge after eighteen days, avoiding any further fighting or a major showdown, and ordered it to be destroyed.

Caesar’s achievement sounds remarkable, but perhaps it was not so unusual. The Roman army did such things all the time. In the year 90, Legio III Cyrenaica built a bridge at Koptos in Egypt in the name of Domitian, the work being carried out by Quintus Licinius Ancotius Proculus, the praefectus castrorum, and Lucius Antistius Asiaticus, the prefect of Berenice, under the care of the centurion Gaius Julius Magnus. It was just one of the countless bridges built by the army for its own use and that of civilians. Over a century afterwards, Cassius Dio said that ‘rivers are bridged by the Romans with the greatest ease, because the soldiers are always practising bridge-building, which is carried on like any other warlike exercise’, although Vegetius later recommended though that learning to swim was essential for soldiers because some rivers were unbridgeable: a pursuing or fleeing army might need to cross one in haste.

Caesar’s imaginative solutions to logistical problems reached a particularly revolting height at Munda in 45 BC during his Spanish campaign. Short of timber when he needed to build a rampart, he had plenty of enemy corpses:

Shields and javelins taken from among the weapons of the enemy were placed to serve as a palisade, dead bodies as a rampart. On top, decapitated human heads, impaled on swords, were set out in a row facing the town, the purpose being not only to surround the enemy with a palisade, but also to give him an awe-inspiring spectacle by displaying before him this evidence of valour.

In 57 BC Caesar was assaulting the fortified stronghold of the Gaulish Aduatuci tribe. To begin with his soldiers were fought off. He therefore ordered his soldiers to start building siege machines. The Roman troops cut down trees, prepared the timber on the spot and assembled the machines before the enemy’s eyes. This single occasion shows the Roman army’s astonishing ability to create the equipment it needed to outclass an enemy from what was available in the immediate vicinity. Moreover, the men involved almost certainly knew what to do without having to resort to manuals. But such books certainly existed. Under Augustus, not many years later, Vitruvius wrote a treatise on architecture that included a section on how to build siege equipment such as mobile towers and the ‘ram tortoise’, following one devoted to the construction of artillery. He provided instructions and measurements of the components.

Not having the slightest idea what they were, the Aduatuci made fun of the sight of Caesar’s siege machines as they were manufactured. The smiles were wiped off their faces when they saw heavily armed Roman soldiers advancing towards the Aduatuci fortifications in the devices they had constructed. The result was panic. Attempts to appease the Romans followed, accompanied with offers of provisions. It was a trick. Waiting until they saw the siege machines standing idle and unmanned, the Aduatuci attacked the Roman forces at night. But Caesar was waiting. The Aduatuci were beaten and the whole population sold into slavery.


Great awards awaited soldiers who pulled off remarkable feats. Spurius Ligustinus, a loyal old soldier of the Republic, proudly told his fellows in speech in 171 BC how he had been decorated thirty-four times and received the corona civica (‘civic crown’) six times for saving the life of fellow Roman citizens. Such honours did, however, depend on the man’s background, and on who was giving out the decorations. In around 46 BC, during the Civil War an opponent of Caesar’s called Caecilius Metellus Scipio was handing out awards to soldiers who had excelled themselves. His associate, Titus Labienus, recommended that one particularly brave cavalryman deserved a gift of gold bracelets. Metellus Scipio declined on the grounds that the man had recently been a slave, and that the award would thus be degraded by giving it to someone of such lowly origins. When Labienus took gold from the booty captured in Gaul and gave it to the cavalryman concerned, Metellus was not to be outdone and said ‘you will have the gift of a rich man’. Enticed by this, the trooper threw the gold back at Labienus. Metellus then said he would give the cavalryman silver bracelets; the soldier was delighted, preferring the glory of a decoration awarded by the commander to the intrinsic value of the gold.

In the reign of Nero, one old soldier’s brilliant career was set down in stone. Marcus Vettius Valens was a successful Praetorian guardsman who had the opportunity to travel all the way from Rome to take part in the invasion of Britain in 43, while serving as a beneficiarius on the personal staff of the praetorian prefect. His career was recorded in an inscription set up at Rimini in Italy in 66, during his later life, proudly proclaiming that in Britain he had been awarded necklets, armlets and medals for his achievements. He seems to have stayed on, despite reaching the end of his 16-year service term, winning a gold crown too. Later in his career he rose to the rank of centurion in Legio XIIII, not long after its success in the war against Boudica in 60–1. He must therefore have met some of the legionaries who fought in the final battle that destroyed the most serious provincial rebellion in Britain’s history.

Gaius Velius Rufus, primus pilus of Legio XII Fulminata, was awarded the corona vallaris, the ‘rampart crown’, along with collars, medals and armlets, by Vespasian and Titus for being the first man over the walls during the Jewish War of 66–70, though this did nothing to repair the legion’s tarnished reputation. Nearly two decades later Velius Rufus was decorated again for his part in sieges during the war against Central European tribes including the Marcomanni. His remarkable career, which included other honours and military commands, was commemorated on an inscription set up at Baalbek in Syria.

During the assault on the temple in Jerusalem towards the end of the Jewish War several Roman soldiers individually performed remarkable deeds. Pedanius was an auxiliary cavalryman in pursuit of retreating Jewish fighters who had attacked the Roman camp, He leaned down as he rode into them and managed to grab a fully armoured soldier and pull him up. With the prisoner grasped in his hand, Pedanius presented him to Titus, who ordered the captive’s execution.

The Jews were able to field their own heroes. A man called Jonathan once presented himself in front of the Romans and challenged them to single combat. One of the other auxiliary cavalrymen, named Poudes, stepped out and ran to fight Jonathan until he fell and was killed. The triumphant Jonathan mocked the Romans, swaggering over his kill, until an arrow fired by a centurion called Priscus killed him too.

Another hero of the Jewish War was a Syrian auxiliary called Sabinus. He was so small and lean it was a surprise to everyone that he was a solder. His size was completely out of proportion to the heroism he showed. After the Jewish stronghold of Antonia was attacked, Titus exhorted the army to face the challenge ahead, pointing out that the first man to scale the wall – if he survived – would be ‘envied by others’ thanks to the rewards that he, Titus, would give him. Sabinus was the only one to speak up:

‘I readily surrender up myself to you, Caesar. I will ascend the wall first. And I heartily wish that your fortune may follow my courage, and my resolution. And if some ill fortune grudge me the success of my undertaking, take notice, that my ill success will not be unexpected; but that I choose death voluntarily for your sake.’

Eleven men were inspired to follow Sabinus as he led the way, his shield over his head, while missiles were fired at them and stones rolled down the slope. Three of the eleven were knocked over and killed but Sabinus kept going. He reached the top of the wall and maintained his attack, to the amazement of the Jews. Eventually he was isolated; having fallen over, he struggled back up, held his shield aloft and fended off his attackers, continuing to wound some of them until finally he was overwhelmed and killed. The other eight, all wounded, were rescued and carried back to the Roman camp.



The tradition of holding triumphs was well established in the Republic, and especially so during the period of heavy fighting following the Second Punic War. When a triumph was awarded, a major public celebration followed in which the general, now hailed imperator, decorated the best performing and bravest soldiers, handing out the booty to his men and sometimes also to the general public, any surplus paying for public works. Then the general would ride into Rome in his chariot with his family on horseback, followed by the rest of the army on foot. The climax was the execution of prisoners and religious ceremonies of thanksgiving at the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Hill.

Thirty-nine such events were celebrated between 200 and 167 BC, an average of more than one a year, and a further 46 from then till 91 BC.64 The consul Gnaeus Manlius Vulso was one recipient. He committed the outrageous act of going to war on his own accord on the Galatian Gauls in Asia so that he had the chance of a prestigious victory to brag about. And that was exactly what he got. Though he was censured for his actions, Vulso’s opponents soon relented when he was voted a triumph by the Senate in 187 BC and was able to parade vast quantities of gold and silver through Rome while his soldiers sang songs in his praise.

In 168 BC Aemilius Paullus held a three-day triumph to celebrate his defeat of Perseus of Macedon at Pydna that year. It was a particularly pointed gesture since he was the son of the consul of the same name killed at Cannae: he had restored his family’s reputation. Enormous quantities of gold and silver seized from the defeated king were paraded before the Romans, after which Perseus’ children and their attendants were forced to walk along and hold out their hands in supplication, followed by the bewildered and humiliated Perseus himself. The climax was the sight of Aemilius in his chariot, accompanied by his army, the soldiers singing traditional ballads interspersed with bouts of mockery, as well as songs celebrating their victory and Aemilius’ leadership. One can easily imagine the raucous and noisy exultation of Aemilius’ troops as they pranced through Rome boasting of their achievements.

Some generals had an eye for a more permanent monument. In 119 BC the moneyer Marcus Furius issued an unusual silver denarius. Instead of the customary bust of Roma, the coin bore the head of Janus, and on the reverse a figure of Roma crowning a trophy. It commemorated a victory won over the Gaulish Allobroges and Arverni tribes in 121 BC by the consuls Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus (consul in 122 BC) and Quintus Fabius Maximus (121 BC), the latter completing the campaign the following year and being awarded a triumph and the name Allobrogicus. Out of the booty Fabius Maximus paid for a triumphal arch known as the Fornix Fabianus to span the Via Sacra in the Roman forum. Fragments of the arch are still visible in the forum today, close to the remains of the later temple of the deified Julius Caesar. It was an interesting turnaround for Fabius Maximus. As a youth he had been considered the ‘most disreputable’ member of his generation, yet military success transformed his status. He ended up a ‘most distinguished and respectable’ old man.

The prospect of a triumph was so attractive that every Roman general was desperate to have one to add to his own and his family’s glory. In the aftermath of the Second Punic War so many were staged that eventually, at some point between 180 and 143 BC, a law was passed to place a minimum requirement that 5,000 enemy soldiers be killed before a triumph could be voted. Triumphs were also expensive – hugely so. No wonder Suetonius said that Caesar paid for his with ‘barefaced pillage’. Some prisoners made a great show of their capitulation in advance of these great events. Vercingetorix, the Gaulish king who had led the war against Caesar’s conquest of Gaul, surrendered at Alesia. In 46 BC, after ‘putting on his most beautiful armour and decorating his horse [he] rode out through the gate. He made a circuit around Caesar, who remained seated, and leaped down from his horse, stripping off his suit of armour’, well aware that because of his height ‘he made an extremely imposing figure’. Vercingetorix then sat quite still beside Caesar until he was led off to await the triumph in Rome, where he was publicly executed.

The Gaulish triumph turned out to be the first of five held by the vainglorious Caesar, four of them in little more than a month. The occasion was almost a disaster because he nearly fell from his chariot after the axle broke. Caesar’s triumph celebrating his defeat of Pharnaces II of Pontus climaxed with 40 elephants carrying lamps to light his way, and his famously alliterative showcase inscription veni, vidi, vici (‘I came, I saw, I conquered’) which was displayed during the procession. During the triumph to celebrate the war in Gaul one of the most memorable moments came when his soldiers burst into song:

All the Gauls did Caesar vanquish, Nicomedes vanquished him;

Lo! now Caesar rides in triumph, victor over all the Gauls,

Nicomedes does not triumph, who subdued the conqueror.

This was a salacious reference to rumours that as a young man Caesar had had a sexual relationship with Nicomedes IV of Bithynia. Such jibes seem to have been a common occurrence during triumphs.

One of the greatest descriptions of a Roman triumph comes from Josephus, who saw the festivities put on by the emperor Vespasian and his son Titus in Rome in 71 to commemorate the Jewish War after Titus’ return to the capital. Josephus depicts a scene like that from an epic motion picture, and the comparison is not inappropriate. The occasion was designed to be as magnificent and as theatrical a spectacle as possible. The two men spent the night in the temple of Isis, near the upper palace on the Palatine Hill. In the morning they donned robes of purple silk and laurel wreaths before going out to be greeted by the senators and the equestrians. The two men were seated on ivory chairs as the army hailed them, before Vespasian raised his hand as the sign for them to fall silent. He drew a robe over his head in the manner of a priest and said the appropriate prayers, followed by Titus. Vespasian made a speech – which must realistically have been almost inaudible to the assembled troops – and sent the men off to a celebratory breakfast. He and Titus then left to have breakfast themselves before changing into triumphal robes, and made sacrifices to the gods. Next they walked through the theatres of Marcellus, Balbus and Pompey in the Field of Mars so that the crowds gathered in the buildings could get a better look at them.

The proceedings had of course barely started. Josephus said it was difficult to find words that could possibly describe the magnificence on display. He saw works of art and all manner of riches that provided a graphic illustration of the power and wealth of the Roman Empire. Given that, only a few years previously, Rome had been badly damaged by the fighting during the Civil War, the visual impact must have been even greater. Josephus compared the parade to a flowing river of floats laden with gold, silver and ivory as jewels, artefacts and statues of gods were carried past. As Vespasian and Titus had started the day wearing purple robes, so did purple feature prominently because of the enormous expense involved in antiquity in manufacturing the dye. There were tapestries of purple, and the men driving the animals in the parade wore purple uniforms. Even the prisoners had been dressed in expensive clothing, with the distasteful purpose of diverting attention from their injuries.

Josephus was more intrigued by the way the floats had been constructed. Some had four levels, one above another, and curtains with gold and ivory fittings. The purpose was to provide a mobile depiction of the progress of the war. In this respect it too was almost cinematic, recreating in visual form the sort of scenes and events more normally experienced by ordinary Romans in the epic poetry of Virgil and Homer. These included battles, images of ravaged enemy territory and of people being captured and imprisoned, cities under siege, the Roman army bursting in through the walls and massacring the inhabitants, the destruction of houses and temples, and rivers flowing through a devastated land on fire. The crowd would have recognized instantly the echoes of the imagery of Rome’s past wars, climaxing in Augustus’ victory over Antony and Cleopatra and ending on civil war, on the mythical shield fashioned by Vulcan for Aeneas and described in book 8 of Virgil’s Aeneid.

In the contemporary setting, the triumph was designed to celebrate and showcase the success of the new regime that had followed the Civil War of 68–9 and before that the chaotic and disastrous reign of Nero. It also bought into the Romans’ vision of themselves as the divinely ordained conquerors of the world. The graphic depictions of brutality were entirely in harmony with the way the Romans venerated and enjoyed violence. Josephus, despite being a Jew himself, unhesitatingly blamed the Jews for bringing this all upon themselves.

The centrepiece of Vespasian and Titus’ triumphal procession was the treasure seized from the temple at Jerusalem, including a gold table and seven menorah candelabras. One of these at least was made of gold and was designed to hold lamps on each of its seven branches. The final component in the display of spoils was a book of Jewish laws. At the rear came figures of Victory made of ivory and gold, and finally Vespasian and Titus themselves in chariots, with Vespasian’s younger son Domitian riding alongside. The procession’s destination was the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, which had been rebuilt since it was set on fire during the Civil War in 69 (it would be burned again in 80). The triumph had now reached its climax. Simon bar Giora, the principal leader of the Jewish forces, was beaten and dragged into the forum where he was executed. With this done, and sacrifices performed, Vespasian and his sons returned to the palace while the rest of the city enjoyed what remained of the day.

Ironically, the war was not even yet over. Legio X Fretensis had been left behind to mop up any remaining Jewish strongholds, and it was not until the siege and fall of Masada in 74 that the conflict ended. Moreover, it would be a mistake to assume the soldiers were automatically cheering on Titus and his father. Soldiers were known habitually to poke fun at their generals during triumphs, as Caesar’s men had done. In around 84, during the reign of Domitian, the poet Martial described how the new emperor had been subjected to jests during his own triumphs, and asserted that it was no bad thing for a general to be the butt of jokes.

Vespasian followed up the triumph with the construction of a temple of Pax on a large site across the forum from the Palatine Hill and close to Augustus’ temple of Mars Ultor (‘the Avenger’). The temple became an art gallery but also displayed some of the Jewish treasures. Several years later, after Vespasian died and Titus succeeded him, the Arch of Titus was erected on the Via Sacra leading south from the forum, recalling Fabius Maximus’ arch from two centuries before. Today its reliefs depicting the triumph of 71, including the Jewish booty being carried in the procession, and Titus in his chariot, are still in situ.


Some campaigns risked humiliating the emperor and his army. Caligula’s notorious attempt to invade Britain in 40 – something Augustus had also considered – was recalled in Roman military lore as an occasion like no other. By that point in Caligula’s reign a serious illness and a complete psychological inability to cope with the extent of his power were beginning to have a dramatic effect. Caligula arrived at the English Channel on the north coast of Gaul and ordered his soldiers to line up on the sand, equipped with ballistas and other artillery. He boarded a trireme which sailed out to sea and then returned. Once back on the shore he instructed his soldiers to attack by gathering up shells from the beach. These were his ‘booty’, which would be taken back to Rome. He was delighted, believing he had ‘enslaved the ocean’, and in celebration set up a lighthouse to guide ships. The soldiers must have been not only incredulous but appalled at the lack of any opportunity to seize real booty, a blow doubtless softened by a gift of 100 denarii each (about five months’ pay at the time). The episode was of course an absurdity – but at some point serious preparations must have been put together, because after Caligula’s assassination in 41 it was possible for his successor Claudius to carry out a real invasion.

However, the Claudian invasion of Britain in 43 also came close to falling apart before it had even started. Anxious to throw off his reputation as the family idiot and the stooge of the praetorians who had made him emperor two years earlier, Claudius had ordered the expedition because he was keen to show the Roman army and the Roman people that he was worthy of being emperor. Almost a century earlier Julius Caesar had invaded Britain twice, but had not succeeded in holding on to the island, if indeed he had ever intended to. Claudius believed a military triumph would be the best way of achieving the necessary prestige to consolidate his hold on power. Matching, and exceeding, his glorious forebear’s achievements (Claudius was descended from Caesar’s great-niece Octavia, sister of Augustus) would be an excellent means of doing that.

Claudius was handed a pretext on a plate when a tribal leader called Verica, ousted by his rivals, turned up in Rome asking him to intervene. Claudius placed the invading army under the command of Aulus Plautius, ‘a senator of great renown’, but despite the man’s reputation he struggled to persuade the soldiers to take to the ships and cross over to Britain. Working back from later evidence dating to the time of the Boudican Revolt, it is possible to be reasonably sure that all or most of the II Augusta, VIIII Hispana, XIIII Gemina and XX legions were involved, together with vexillations of other legions, detachments of praetorians and about the same number of auxiliaries. This amounted to in total roughly 40–50,000 men, all of whom had to be gathered on the Gaulish coast to make the voyage. Roman soldiers were notoriously superstitious and the occasion could not, in their eyes, have been more inauspicious. They were, said Dio, ‘indignant at the thought of carrying on a campaign beyond the limits of the known world’ and refused to embark. Fortunately, Plautius’ entourage included an imperial freedman called Narcissus, one of Claudius’ closest advisers.

Claudius was still in Rome, waiting for news that the invasion had been successful, at which point he would travel to Britain to lead the army into the Britons’ principal settlement at Colchester. In the meantime his freedman Narcissus loyally stood in for the emperor and decided to address the gathered force. This appalled the soldiers, who were disgusted at the thought of a former slave exhorting them to do their duty. They barracked and heckled Narcissus, who was unable to get a single word out. The climax came when they remembered that at the festival of the Saturnalia in December it was customary for slaves and masters to swap roles. They promptly saw the amusing side of the incident and began chanting ‘Io Saturnalia’, before deciding that they had better decide for themselves to get on with the job, rather than endure any more humiliation. They abandoned their protests and agreed to cross the Channel to Britain. The delay caused by their complaining had pushed the invasion back until late in the summer, but the soldiers were emboldened when a flash of lightning rose ‘in the east and shot across to the west’. It seemed to be showing them the way to Britain, and since lightning bolts were thought to be sent down by Jupiter, it was all they needed to feel optimistic. The invasion went ahead and Britain, or at least most of it, would remain a province of Rome until 410.


Although the later Empire is outside the scope of most of this book, there were incidents where Rome’s soldiers managed remarkable feats in the face of adversity honouring the grand tradition of their forebears. From the mid-second century on Rome was increasingly on the back foot. Conquest and the opportunity for glory belonged mainly to the past, replaced by defensive and civil wars.

Ammianus Marcellinus is our best source for events in the third quarter of the fourth century. He recounted how in 359, during the siege of the city of Amida in Mesopotamia by Shapur II of Persia and where he was present, two Gallic legions were enraged by the way the Persians were carrying off Roman captives to their camp. They demanded to be allowed to attack the Persians, threatening to kill their own officers if refused. An agreement was reached and the Gallic soldiers burst out through a gate, and caused mayhem in the Persian camp, killing the sleeping enemy. Even when the remaining Persians woke up and fought back, the Gauls fought back bravely and with absolute determination. Despite their losses they only retreated slowly, and re-entered the city at dawn. The emperor Constantius II (337–61) ordered that statues of the Gallic officers in full armour were to be erected in their honour at Edessa. The siege, however, ended in disaster when the Persians captured it, and killed everyone left.

A few years later Constantius’ successor, Julian the Apostate (360– 3), took the war into Persia, initially with great success. After crossing the Tigris with his army in 363, he soon after met the Persians in battle. Showing brilliant leadership Julian kept encouraging his men until the Persian line broke. The Persians broke into retreat and fled back to the city of Ctesiphon, the Roman soldiers having to be restrained from following them through the gates. Ammianus compared their heroics to those of Hector and Achilles, and recorded the Persian losses at 2,500 for the cost of only 70 Romans.

Roman soldiers, under the right circumstances and leadership, were capable of extraordinary achievements and rightfully gained an unsurpassed reputation for resilience and resourcefulness. These were qualities that belonged to a tradition stretching back to Rome’s earliest days, and explained how the city had risen from obscurity to unmatched power and success. Inspired by the feats of his predecessors, every Roman soldier knew he had a great deal to live up to, and many met the challenge. However, nothing could alter the fact that military glory and success were only won with violence, sometimes on a horrific scale. The Roman army’s history was punctuated by innumerable tales of extreme brutality.

Head for the Meuse! Part I

General der Panzertruppe Hasso von Manteuffel was angry. Several matters irritated the baron on 20 December, but no more so than his subordinate’s failure to take Bastogne on the evening of the 18th. He came over to Panzer Lehr’s HQ in person and berated Fritz Bayerlein for his stupidity in choosing a muddy track to Mageret ‘like an officer cadet who couldn’t read a map’. He blamed him for undue caution throughout the 19th and a ‘lack of fighting spirit’ within the division – accusations which could get a commander shot in the Third Reich of late 1944. Lüttwitz had little doubt that, had Bayerlein chosen an alternative route, he would have broken through the roadblocks of Teams Desobry or O’Hara, neither of whom were fully deployed, and gained the town easily – the 101st being off-balance, in the process of arriving and short of ammunition. Kokott’s Volksgrenadiers would have assisted in mopping up many of the straggling GIs in the vicinity. History suggests that Manteuffel and Lüttwitz were probably correct.

On the other hand, Heinz Kokott’s 26th Volksgrenadiers, struggling through the mud on foot with wagons and artillery drawn by 3,000 horses, had done a magnificent job of keeping up with the tanks. Henceforth their task would be to stay and subdue Bastogne, in place of the panzers which had by then begun to hurry westwards. In fact, Lüttwitz and Manteuffel had already recommended Kokott for promotion to Generalmajor, which came through on 1 January. Meanwhile, Bayerlein was instructed to leave one of his Panzergrenadier Regiments, the 901st, to stay behind with Kokott, while the rest of the division moved on. Part of Heilmann’s 5th Fallschirmjäger Division was also sent to Bastogne, but for the panzers – next stop, the Meuse!

The most northerly of Manteuffel’s three panzer divisions was Siegfried von Waldenburg’s 116th Panzer Division (the Windhund, or Greyhounds), which, accompanied by Oberst Rudolf Langhäuser’s 560th Volksgrenadiers, belonged to Krüger’s LVIII Panzer Corps. The Windhund Division had fought hard at Lützkampen to the north of the 2nd Panzer in the initial assault on the 16th. Despite attempts to build a bridge at Ouren, on the night of 16–17 December and throughout the 17th, they crossed the River Our using 2nd Panzer’s bridge at Dasburg, captured Heinerscheid and Hupperdange on 17 December, destroying sixteen tanks and taking 373 prisoners (from Nelson’s 112th Regiment), for similar losses of their own. They were under constant pressure from their superiors, Fifth Army and LVIII Corps, to get westwards as quickly as possible, using the opportunity of the ‘German-friendly weather – fog and drizzle’, but a heavy mortar shell exploded in the middle of a circle of commanders, the division’s War Diary noted, killing twelve including ‘our excellent Division physician, Professor Bickert’.

By late on 18 December the 116th Panzer’s advance guard had entered Houffalize, capturing or destroying ‘many trucks and vehicles and one Sherman’ and seizing the Ourthe river bridges undamaged. Langhäuser’s 560th Volksgrenadiers were making ‘quite an effort’ to keep pace with them, though at this stage, aware of the clock ticking, Army Group ‘B’ ordered the pace of advance accelerated. Manteuffel, meanwhile, was concerned about the division’s order of march. ‘Spearheads [are] too thin and narrow. When [you are] near the enemy, attack him from broader formations with fire. Heavy weapons throughout [are] much too far back. Armoured groups [must be] to the front everywhere, not just Panzergrenadiers by themselves.’ On this day the first complaints about fuel shortages surfaced in the war diary, ‘No fuel’, reported some of the artillery formations. ‘All units that have arrived have enough for 20 kilometres, the advance battalion for 10 kilometres. Roads in the back jammed. [Which prevented trucks bearing fuel from moving forward.] Nothing coming in. Some tanks usable only by siphoning.’

Just as Bayerlein was grinding down his atrociously muddy track into Mageret, Major Fritz Vogelsang, the 116th Division’s IIa (Adjutant for officers), with supreme optimism, reflected their experience of Belgian roads. He noted, ‘Now, everything is rolling smoothly in both directions, but above all, into the area of the breach … The weather is again misty, damp, cold and rainy. For our offensive it could not be any better! However, mud and dirt on the ruined roads and in the torn-up terrain almost remind one of Russian conditions! In most cases the grey of our uniforms show only in a few places between the layers of mud … The hole in the enemy front now finally seems to have been bored through. Merrily, the attack rolls west – hopefully for long!’

South of Houffalize, 116th Panzer came up against American units, where ‘a large number of tanks and motor vehicles were captured or destroyed’ along with 400 prisoners taken. There was, however, a cautionary note that ‘the division attack on the morning of 19 December suffered considerable delays due to lack of fuel’. Fortunately that evening they overran Gives-Givroule, where a large fuel and supply depot was captured, enabling vehicles to top up – but petrol was becoming an ever-present concern for the 116th’s commanders. By the evening of the 19th, Generalmajor Waldenburg had established his HQ near Bertogne, seven miles north-west of Bastogne, but the division was having to sideslip south-west to find intact bridges over the rivers. His formation was becoming dangerously spread out, a situation governed by centres of opposition, destroyed bridges and the road network.

The enthusiasm of the initial advance was caught in Adjutant Vogelsang’s record for 20 December, which also reflected the deprivations all German soldiers had suffered during the preceding couple of years. ‘The Americans are completely surprised and in constant turmoil. Long columns of prisoners march toward the east, many tanks were destroyed or captured. Our Landsers are loaded with cigarettes, chocolates, and canned food, and are smiling from ear to ear. The combat units were able to fill the gaps caused by missing vehicles in their convoys with captured ones. Along the roads are immense piles of artillery ammunition. I estimate the amount to be 25,000 rounds. How wonderful that this blessing will not fall on our heads!’

Even though his advance looked promising, Waldenburg had already run out of intact bridges west and south of the Ourthe, with no time and few facilities to build replacements. Risking the loss of a whole day, he reluctantly ordered his division to turn around, retrace their steps to Houffalize and cross to the north and east bank of the Ourthe river, and thence head for La Roche and Noiseux. These are journeys of a few minutes today, with scarcely a blink of the eye when a small local river is crossed. Back in 1944 the loss of a single bridge could send a whole division scurrying hither and thither, wasting their two most precious resources in short supply – time and fuel. This gave the Americans time to strengthen their defences, for example at La Roche, where twenty-four tanks were observed on the morning of 20 December, when before there had been none.

There was some compensation when at 4.00 p.m., in Samrée, when Waldenburg destroyed twelve tanks guarding a supply depot containing 26,400 gallons of fuel, neatly stacked in five-gallon jerrycans for ready use. The 16th Panzer Regiment’s War Diary recorded, ‘The successes of the last past days create great enthusiasm among our soldiers, especially since many prisoners were brought in …’ A beaming Manteuffel congratulated Waldenburg by radio on the 21st: ‘Appreciation and gratitude to your magnificent men, your commanders and to you. Your successes adhere to proud tradition.’ More succinctly, as the divisional adjutant put it, ‘The faces of the prisoners are full of disbelief and amazement’.

Yet the loss of time was crucial, for it allowed Major-General Maurice Rose’s 3rd Armored Division to deploy opposite the 116th on the 20th, followed by General Alex Bolling’s 84th ‘Railsplitters’ Infantry Division (also known as the ‘Hatchet Men’) on the 21st – both units of J. Lawton Collins’ US VII Corps. With the 84th were Harold P. ‘Bud’ Leinbaugh and John D. Campbell, both with Company ‘K’ of the 333rd Infantry Regiment (not connected with the artillery unit of the same number). As they arrived in Serinchamps, a hamlet due west of Marche, the local mayor told them, ‘this was 1940 all over again; he seemed sure of it. He seemed to take perverse pride in explaining that Rommel had personally led his panzers through the region en route to the Meuse four years earlier’. Looking at Company ‘K’s weaponry, the mayor asked about American tanks, clearly anxious they had more than rifles to halt the German armour. ‘The local phones were working’, the mayor told them, ‘and he’d received calls an hour earlier reporting panzers rolling through villages ten miles away.’ Behind them, along the west bank of the Meuse, Montgomery had started to position the British XXX Corps, with fifty tanks of the 29th Armoured Brigade defending the bridges at Namur, Dinant and Givet. Lieutenant D.H. Clark of the Royal Army Medical Corps remembered their Sherman tanks ‘rumbling past, massive and effective-looking; the drivers were Hussars who had fought in them all the way up from Normandy. The tanks looked like tinkers’ caravans, with cooking pots, wine flagons, bed rolls and miscellaneous loot dangling from the camouflage netting.’

On the shortest day of the year, 21 December, the Windhund Division lunged for the little bridge over the Ourthe at Hotton, which is where this study of the Bulge campaign began. There, the mixed bag of defenders, numbering no more than 200, armed with one 57mm anti-tank and two 40mm anti-aircraft guns, were now wiser and perhaps the attackers over-confident. The Americans were fortunate to have present some combat engineers, who not only prepared the bridge for destruction but hastily laid mines and overturned vehicles to make roadblocks.

Using the cover of a forest that came close to the town, at 08.30 a.m. seven of the Windhund’s tanks and half-tracks suddenly hit Hotton after the briefest of artillery barrages. The 116th Division’s War Diary noted that ‘Nobody was expecting an attack, though the village, especially the bridge, was well secured by enemy tanks [in fact there were only two present to begin with], anti-tank guns and sharpshooters. A platoon was guarding a pedestrian footbridge upriver at Hampteau. Due to the loss of Oberleutnant Köhn’s leading Panther and the wounding of several commanders by headshots, the attack, which was only escorted by weak infantry units, came to a halt. Köhn lost an eye and three men from his crew were killed. There was heavy fighting with enemy tanks, in which the opponent suffered heavy losses … our units in Hotton were under heavy fire all day.’

Although the Windhund had the advantage of surprise, and the two US tanks were destroyed, the assault came to a halt because the Germans were too cocky. Had the attack been properly coordinated between tanks and Panzergrenadiers, Waldenburg would have got his bridge. However, his panzers went in without a proper reconnaissance and pretty much alone, and were picked off one by one. The town was not well defended at all, though the Germans perceived it to be. A strong, well-planned attack would have removed the defenders in a trice and one is left with the impression of a botched attempt to take Hotton on 21 December. Failure to take the town in the morning led to US reinforcements from 638th Tank Destroyer Battalion and Bolling’s 84th Infantry Division arriving from Soy, to the north-east, at exactly the right moment in the afternoon, as the Germans tired, and eventually they began to outnumber the attackers.

The US defenders also dominated the terrain north-east of Hotton as far as Soy, and constantly threatened to outflank their attackers, who were compelled to use their armour in defence. Using up fuel by manoeuvring off-road remained a concern, although the almost empty panzer regiment had been able to refuel completely with the petrol captured at Samrée. Oberfeldwebel Pichler, commanding three Panthers, destroyed five Shermans at Soy, but the arrival of the 1st Battalion, 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment (to which the future Medal of Honor-winner Melvin E. Biddle was attached), and a company of tank destroyers on 22 December emphasised the fact that any further German advance by way of Hotton was out of the question.

By 22 December the 116th Division’s attack at Hotton had culminated, although the Fifth Army orders received that night commanded ‘Bypass resistance, only [lightly] cover the flanks, bulk [effort] remains the advance towards Maas [the Meuse]. Continue to confuse, split up, surround, reconnoitre in force, and deceive [the Americans]’. However, the reality of the campaign was already apparent. The assault was hopelessly behind schedule. The Hotton attack emphasised just how alert the US Army in the once-sleepy Ardennes had become.

To the 116th Division’s north, the Sixth Panzer Army remained stuck on the Elsenborn Ridge, and General Lücht’s LXVI Corps on their immediate right had just finished fighting for St Vith (it was captured on the night of 21–22 December). On their left, Panzer Lehr had reached Rochefort (south-west of Marche) and 2nd Panzer Division, Bande (between Marche and La Roche); part of Lüttwitz’s XLVII Panzer Corps was still delayed at Bastogne. Behind them, Langhäuser’s 560th Volksgrenadiers were attacking at Dochamps, midway between Manhay and Marche, while reinforcements in the form of the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich were attacking the Baraque de Fraiture crossroads, north-east of La Roche.

At the same time, 2nd Panzer Division was pulling away on its dash to the Meuse, largely because it had managed to avoid American strongpoints after Bastogne. Viewed from the air (which was not yet possible), Lauchert’s division would have looked like a finger, stretching for seven miles north-westwards, from Bastogne towards Dinant. However, there were no units to guard its flanks, for both Panzer Lehr to its left and 116th Panzer on its right had encountered tougher opposition and fallen behind. The 2nd Panzer was having to use some of its own combat power to protect its flanks, which inevitably slowed its advance. The further it lunged towards the Meuse, the weaker its spearhead became. The freezing weather took its toll on vehicles as well as people.

Hans Behrens, a wireless operator in a Panzer IV following behind with Generalleutnant Harald Freiherr von Elverfeldt’s 9th Panzer Division, recalled of his opponents, ‘The Americans came amiss as they had rubber pads on their tank tracks, and when the roads were icy, they just slid all over the place … Roads were just six inches of solid frozen gleaming ice … One saw an unending succession of lorries that had crashed out of control … On the camber of a road two men could slide one [panzer] sideways by merely pushing it.’ Due to widespread American knowledge of the massacre of GIs by Waffen-SS soldiers at Malmedy on 17 December, panzer crewmen like Behrens also learned that US troops had taken to shooting SS men automatically on capture. This often extended to tank crews, whose black panzer uniform and death’s head badge was frequently mistaken for membership of Himmler’s legions. Behrens spent the Bulge dreading capture. The reaction of Company ‘K’ of the 333rd Infantry was that ‘the SS was going to have to pay, and pay heavily’. They ‘just wanted to start killing Germans’.

Already it was apparent that the Americans were reacting far quicker than expected, both in terms of delaying the advance but also in terms of flooding the area with reinforcements. The daily report from Army Group ‘B’, Model’s headquarters, acknowledged that ‘the continuous action of the 116th Panzer Division and the 2nd Panzer Division, under difficult terrain conditions and heavy enemy resistance, has caused combat effectiveness to drop heavily’. In fact, the Windhund Division started 22 December with no battle-worthy tanks at all, but six replacement panzers arrived at midday, with twenty-seven soon following from the repair workshops. Some personnel began to trickle through to replace casualties, but shortages of fuel and ammunition still concerned the divisional staff.

Two last (and largely pointless) attempts were made to seize the bridge at Hotton at midnight on the 22nd and 02.15 a.m. on 23 December, using a battalion of Panzergrenadiers supported by tanks, after which responsibility for Hotton was handed to Oberst Rudolf Langhäuser’s 560th Volksgrenadiers (in whose ranks sixteen-year-old Grenadier Werner Klippel was serving) and the 116th Windhund disengaged. The latter were now weak from casualties, equipment losses and lack of fuel, but some troops slipped south towards Marche, discovering that US blocking forces were in place, ready to meet them.

On Saturday, 23 December, Manteuffel had his three panzer divisions ready to strike for the Meuse; on the left, Panzer Lehr was about to attack Rochefort. In the centre, 2nd Panzer was closest to the Meuse, though strung out and not concentrated, with its advance guard four miles east of Celles and only eleven miles from the river line. The 116th Panzer was still fixed in the Hotton–Marche area. Behind these three panzer divisions, the second echelon of von Elverfeldt’s 9th Panzer Division, in company with Remer’s Führer-Begleit-Brigade and part of the 15th Panzergrenadier Division, were struggling forward, but all of these formations suffered from the same afflictions – superior Allied numbers, lack of fuel and ammunition and the crushing weight of hostile air power when the weather permitted.

Just as Manteuffel had skilfully rebalanced his forces and was poised to strike at the Meuse, the weather changed. The 23rd saw the first good flying conditions since the campaign began and the skies soon filled with Allied aircraft. The 116th War Diary lamented, ‘continuous air raids on supply roads and towns of the rearward areas. No Luftwaffe.’ They were there, but perhaps not visible to the 116th on the ground.

Men of the US 333rd Infantry Regiment recorded, ‘Hundreds of planes, German and American, but mostly American as far as we could tell, crisscrossed the sky, leaving long contrails from horizon to horizon. The dogfights were fascinating. Near noontime five smoking planes went down simultaneously. Flight after flight of low-flying Thunderbolts, Mustangs and Lightnings roared overhead toward the German lines. The planes gave a big boost to our morale … They were like geese in the sky.’ Lloyd Swenson was a twenty-year-old B-26 bomber pilot whose squadron had been getting ready to abandon its airbase on the Franco-Belgian border ‘because the Germans were getting so close. We couldn’t take anything with us, except our uniform and a toothbrush. Then on the twenty-third the fog lifted and it was a bright, clear day.’ In the morning his squadron of twin-engined B-26 Marauders, ‘a medium-range bomber, fast and very maneuvrable with a crew of five’, was assigned a mission to destroy a vital rail bridge supplying the Bulge. Thirty-six aircraft from the 387th Bomb Group set out with Swenson, who remembered ‘a few miles off Bastogne about twenty-five Messerschmitt 109s hurtled into our formation. As they did some of our P-51s [Mustang fighters] responded to our Mayday call. Over the intercom the tail gunner described the dogfight but I had to keep my eyes on flying the plane.’

Down below, the Windhund Division noted, ‘Across the entire western horizon the countless streaks of white vapour trails moved across the sky, an impressive, but scary show. The air was filled with uninterrupted humming. The number of bombers, fighter-bombers and fighters could not be counted!’ No sooner had Swenson returned from his bombing mission (in which five from his group of thirty-six were shot down) than he was assigned another in the afternoon to hit a communications centre at Prüm, just behind the German lines. Flak and fighters took a heavy toll of Allied aircraft that day and forty-one Ninth Air Force B-26s were shot down – ‘by far the blackest day in Marauder history,’ added Swenson. The following day, equally good for flying, he added another two missions over the Ardennes and eventually accumulated sixty-one before returning home.

Despite air attacks, Bayerlein’s Panzer Lehr ground forward through that Saturday and when darkness fell he and fifteen panzers had reached the outskirts of Rochefort, where Companies ‘K’ and ‘I’ of the US 335th Regiment (belonging to the Railsplitters’ 84th Division) were waiting in defence. Few of the inhabitants had fled and numbers were swollen with refugees; none of the 4,000 civilians had anywhere to go but huddle in their cellars. The Lehr assaulted the town through the night of 23–24 December, as Obergefreiter Schüssler recalled: ‘Dismount! The panzer we had been riding on rolled forward a bit, hit a low garden wall and knocked it over. The enemy machine-gun which had fired at us disappeared with a crunching impact … An arrow of tracers turned on us and threw us behind the cover of another wall. My machine-gun shuddered in my hands. The bolt ate the belt of ammo and spat out the empty cases. It fell quiet abruptly … We reached a back courtyard. As I was running I saw the brilliant flashes of bursting mortar rounds; I saw the “dark mice” [as he dubbed the mortar rounds] descend and impact on the roof. A hand grenade flew over our heads into the room where the Americans were. Its ear-deafening blast made us hit the deck. The enemy guns, set up on sandbags along the windows, fell silent.’

Head for the Meuse! Part II

The Americans in Rochefort put up a tough fight, but the town fell an hour after first light, with fewer than 150 of the two US infantry companies escaping. During the 24th, Panzer Lehr found themselves following the march route of 2nd Panzer Division; around Humain (north of Rochefort) they found the burned-out half-tracks of an entire Panzergrenadier company; ‘the battle-group directed to Buissonville encountered ten knocked-out German tanks right outside the village,’ recorded the Division. Christmas Day found the headquarters of Panzer Lehr in St Hubert (south-east of Rochefort), a town of 3,500, where they received a concerted Allied bombing campaign from noon. ‘The wrecks of divisional vehicles smouldered after the attacks … Through his binoculars the commander [Bayerlein] could see gliders heading in towards Bastogne, which was being supplied by air.’ Meanwhile, an American patrol watched a Panzer Lehr convoy heading towards Rochefort, which reflected a typical mix of German and impressed US vehicles, including ‘one company of infantry, five German tanks, two Sherman tanks, fifteen half-tracks, two American Jeeps, one American 2½ ton truck, and three German ambulances’.

By 24–25 December, the 116th Panzer Division was essentially fixed along the terrain between Hotton and Marche by General Alex Bolling’s US 84th Infantry Division and its accompanying 771st Tank Battalion. In continuous skirmishes, the latter were able to split the panzer division into separate battlegroups and sub-units, around the villages of Verdenne, Marenne, Menil-Favay and Hampteau south of the Marche–Hotton road. The panzers were unable to fight as larger formations because of the strength of US troops in the vicinity, minefields and air support the GIs had on call. Early on 24 December the hamlet of Verdenne and its château were attacked and taken by Major Gerhardt Tebbe’s 16th Panzer Regiment with a platoon (five) of Panzer IVs under Leutnant Grzonka, and another of four Panthers, led by Hauptmann Kuchenbach, supported by a weak battalion of Panzergrenadiers. Major Tebbe, an Ostfront veteran, who would be awarded a German Cross in Gold for his leadership in the Bulge and command panzers again in the future Bundeswehr, had already been obliged to abandon one of his Panthers along his line of march, in Houffalize. It is still there, mounted on a concrete plinth overlooking the right side of the road as you drive in from the direction of Bastogne and Noville.

Company ‘K’ of the 84th Division was detailed to investigate the Verdenne area, for the German incursion threatened to sever the important Marche–Hotton road, running south-west to north-east, effectively the 84th’s front line and crucial to their scheme of defence. Assured of support from Shermans of the 771st Tank Battalion, and under a clear Christmas Eve sky with ‘the feel of snow in the air, the ground lightly frozen and covered with frost’, they set off down a track which connected Verdenne with Bourdon, a mile to the north. ‘Just ahead a tank loomed out of the darkness, its huge bulk filling the narrow road, branches pressing in on either side brushing its steel plates. Sergeant Don Phelps went forward to liaise with the tankers, pounding on the side of the hull with his rifle, “Hey, you guys, open up!” The hatch opened slowly, a creak of metal, and the head and shoulders of a man appeared. “Was ist los?” Machine-guns started to chatter, tracers lit up the sky, tank guns fired, mortar rounds exploded, and Company ‘K’ scattered – and leapt straight into the foxholes of the Panzergrenadier battalion protecting their tanks. Major Tebbe reckoned he may have had around forty panzers and half-tracks hidden in the woods at this point. The German salient near Verdenne “had been discovered in a curious way”.’

When this began, Major Gerhardt Tebbe, the panzer commander, recalled to me that on Christmas Eve he was in his Befehlspanzer (command tank), studying his maps. The radio relayed a programme from Cologne Cathedral where the bells were ringing in the festive season. Suddenly his reverie was broken by gunfire nearby, and he slammed shut his turret hatch.24 On Christmas morning, some of the Railsplitters noticed ‘Two German soldiers came stumbling forward toward our positions in the half-light, hands held high, yelling “Nicht schiessen!” (“don’t shoot!”). We discovered that they actually understood very little German, and they finally made us understand they were Ukrainians, drafted into the German army.’

Their appearance in this sector puzzled intelligence staff, but they turned out to be from Oberst Rudolf Langhäuser’s 560th Volksgrenadiers, by far the weakest German formation in Herbstnebel, whose ranks included many older men from garrisons in Norway, with waif and strays from Russia and Ukraine. It is a sad reflection that many East European Volksgrenadier ‘volunteers’ never got the opportunity to surrender in this way. When suddenly faced with a figure in field grey waving his arms about and shouting incoherently (few Volksdeutsche had a good grasp of German, much less English), most nervous, trigger-happy GIs tended to shoot first and ask questions later.

At the end of Christmas Day, Verdenne had been cleared and 289 Windhund prisoners taken, though nine panzers counter-attacked in the afternoon, each one of which was destroyed by waiting Shermans. By then, many of the Windhund’s sub-units were scattered and encircled by stronger US forces in the Verdenne area. On 26 December, the 84th Hatchet Men went on to ambush an armoured column at Menil-Favay. The leading panzer ran over a pile of anti-tank mines which exploded with such force so as to blow the tank on to its side, ripping a hole in its belly armour, and killing the crew; this blocked the advance of the vehicles behind, leading to the destruction of twenty-six Windhund vehicles, including six tanks.

With US infantry and tank attacks proving too costly to subdue the 116th Panzer Division, the Americans used artillery instead. Their opponents noted, ‘the deployment of American guns was overwhelming’ – there were about 150 US cannon of varying calibres, including 155mm guns and eight-inch howitzers – which broke up every German attempt to break out. The 84th Division thought it ‘the heaviest, most devastating bombardment we had ever witnessed. When the fire stopped, the cries for help from wounded and dying Germans carried clearly to our lines. We admitted to ourselves that we were sorry for the poor bastards up there.’ Eventually, on hearing that further reinforcement or relief of the Windhund was not possible, Waldenburg ordered the vehicles in the Verdenne pocket abandoned and the division went over to the defensive. Remer’s Führer-Begleit-Brigade had almost reached him and the Hotton area, with Elverfeldt’s 9th Panzer trailing behind – both with a view to continuing the push westwards – when Berlin switched Remer back to Bastogne on Hitler’s personal whim.

There is nothing remarkable about the Verdenne woods today, except that they are full of the defensive trenches and foxholes dug by both sides, where old ammunition boxes, mortar fragments and shrapnel still litter the forest floor.

The 2nd Panzer Division, which had advanced further, was in a similar predicament, being spread out in scattered battlegroups between an area south-west of Marche and as far as Foy-Notre-Dame, near the Meuse, which Hauptmann von Böhm’s Reconnaissance Battalion reached at midnight on 23 December. At the same moment a jeep manned by three Americans failed to stop at a joint Anglo-US manned checkpoint on the east bank of Meuse, at Dinant. When the vehicle careered through the Rocher Bayard feature – a narrow slit in the rock through which a Sherman could just squeeze – by a prearranged signal Sergeant Baldwin of the 8th Rifle Brigade (a British infantry battalion), a few hundred yards further on, pulled a necklace of anti-tank mines across the road, blowing up the jeep and killing its occupants. All three were found to be wearing US helmets and greatcoats over German uniforms; in their pockets were found very detailed plans of the Allied defences. These were almost certainly not Skorzeny commandos, but a scouting patrol of 2nd Panzer Division sent on ahead in an improvised disguise.

Lauchert immediately pushed forward another battlegroup of Panzergrenadiers, tanks, artillery and engineers under Major Ernst von Cochenhausen, which reach Celles soon after. As with the Windhund along the Marche–Hotton line, 2nd Panzer was, in the words of its War Diary, ‘hindered in its mobility through lack of fuel’. In other words, the Germans could advance no further. In two groups, Böhm at Foy and Cochenhausen at Celles, they dug in and virtually waited to be counter-attacked, but all the while hoping that 9th Panzer Division would break through behind them, or Panzer Lehr or the Windhund Division to their left and right flanks. The Germans’ right flank was unguarded because 116th Panzer had not been able to move forward beyond Hotton, and the left was similarly unprotected because Panzer Lehr also lagged behind.

Thanks to intelligence gathered by two former Belgian army officers, Baron Capitaine Jacques de Villenfagne and his cousin, Lieutenant Philippe le Hardy de Beaulieu, who, dressed in white from head to toe and wearing white gloves, trekked through the crystal-clear night in minus 30 degrees of frost to map the panzers’ positions, British troops in nearby Sorinnes were furnished with the exact locations and precise strengths of Kampfgruppe von Böhm. During 24 December, Shermans of Lieutenant-Colonel Alan Brown’s British 3rd Royal Tank Regiment (3 RTR) stationed on the east bank of the Meuse duelled cautiously with the forward tanks of Böhm’s Kampfgruppe; at the same time rocket-firing Typhoons and P-51s harassed the Germans. Aerial observers also appeared in the skies, directing ground artillery onto targets with great accuracy. It was also obvious the latter were short of fuel as each Panther was seen to be towing up to three trucks.

Hitler spent Christmas Eve, der Heilige Abend, in the Führerbunker at the Ziegenberg Adlerhorst complex, elated that 2nd Panzer was so close to the Meuse. The flag noting their position was duly moved on the situations map. He disregarded the fact that they were out of fuel and under air attack. In the afternoon, his staff remembered, he had stood outside the command bunker, watching as thousands of tiny specks glittered in the winter sky overhead. They were American bombers, heading eastwards to bomb the heartland of the Reich.

Knowing that two battlegroups of his division were dangerously exposed, Lauchert asked for permission to withdraw his forward elements and regroup. His request did not get beyond Manteuffel, who knew that neither Model nor Hitler would permit it. Afterwards, Lauchert’s chief of staff, Oberstleutnant Rüdiger Weitz, recorded, ‘During the night the front line elements sent urgent calls for reinforcements and supplies of ammunition and fuel. More and more reports came in stating that the enemy was constantly reinforcing and was, in some cases, on our own supply road. The process of marching on Dinant had come to a halt.’

On Christmas Day, Major-General Ernest N. Harmon’s US 2nd Armored Division attacked Lauchert’s exposed right flank at Foy-Notre-Dame, squeezing it between two task forces to the north and south. The US 82nd Armored Reconnaissance Battalion and 3 RTR also attacked from the west, forward of the Meuse. Major Noël Bell, serving with the British 8th Rifle Brigade, watched from a nearby vantage point. ‘A squadron of P-38 Lightnings roared over us and circled low, determined to have a festive Christmas Day. Three Panthers, a certain amount of transport and a large number of entrenched infantry … were subjected to merciless and incessant attack from the Lightnings which soon began to dive to rooftop height with machine-guns blazing, dropping bombs at the same time.’

The result was that Kampfgruppe von Böhm was surrounded, smashed and the survivors forced to surrender. After the Christmas Day battle, General Harmon reported that he ‘destroyed or captured eighty-two tanks, sixteen other armoured vehicles, eighty-three guns, and 280 motor vehicles. Twenty vehicles were captured and pressed into Allied service, including seven US trucks seized only days earlier. Harmon had taken the “panzer” out of the 2nd Panzer Division.’ The fact that only 148 men, including Böhm himself, were taken prisoner out of the thousand-plus personnel illustrated the crushing blow that had descended on the Reconnaissance Battalion of the 2nd Panzer Division. It had ceased to exist.

For the Führer’s last Christmas, Oberscharführer Rochus Misch told me in 1993, Hitler’s staff at the Adlerhorst conjured up a small Weihnachtsbaum (Christmas tree) complete with candles, under which lay modest gifts of cigarettes, of which the Führer disapproved, Stollen (fruit cake) and chocolates (he had a sweet tooth), wrapped in newsprint or bright paper. All present realised that any wistful references to the Christkind (Christ Child), a Krippenspiel (nativity play) or the Weihnachtsmann (St Nicholas or Santa Claus), who delivered a sack full of presents to good children, belonged to a different era, and were banned. The headquarters staff, secretaries and generals toasted one another with champagne; Hitler shared the intoxication of the moment, although he had not drunk alcohol: he was already high on the success of his armies. Yet the only Christmas present for which the Führer wished, victory in the Ardennes, was already unattainable.

‘That evening the Americans occupied the Farm Mayenne (formerly home to a Panther platoon)’, wrote Noël Bell. ‘Foy Notre Dame was a smouldering ruin in which half of “B” Squadron 3 RTR and the Americans leaguered for the night, after going round the village and getting Germans out of cellars, like ferrets after rats.’ Several Catholic GIs were recorded as lining up to confess their sins – with the aid of a pocket dictionary – to Father Coussin, a veteran of the Great War and the priest of Celles.

Tactically, Lauchert had overstretched 2nd Panzer, which was in any case out of fuel. The unrelenting pressure for progress came from General von Lüttwitz, who hovered nearby, protective of the division he had commanded from February to September in 1944, and forever breathing down Lauchert’s neck. Today, one of the 2nd Panzer Division’s Panther tanks has survived the attentions of the post-war scrap dealers, and – minus its road wheels and tracks – stands guard outside the crossroads in Celles, where a series of signboards with maps explain the battle in detail, reminding passing motorists how close the Fifth Panzer Army came to their goal of reaching the Meuse.

Thus the spearhead of the entire Herbstnebel campaign had been halted and blunted. The Army Group War Diary noted, ‘On 25 December, the attack by Army Group “B” was the target of strong enemy counter-attacks from the north and west against spearheads of the Fifth Panzer Army. The back-and-forth battles lasted the whole day.’ Panzer Lehr observed that their divisional logistics elements suffered terribly over 24–25 December. Every drop of gasoline had to be brought forward by vehicle and the division lost thirty fuel trucks during their march to the front, not including those bogged down in the mud, broken down or caught in accidents. ‘A Flak battery that attempted to reply to an attack of P-38 Lightnings simply disappeared under a hail of bombs. Hardly any men of the battery survived and the division’s armoured maintenance workshops were swept up in a maelstrom of fire.’

By the time Army Group ‘B’ ordered the Sixth Panzer Army to disengage from the Elsenborn Ridge and strengthen the effort of Fifth Army on 25 December, it was too late. On his own initiative, Bayerlein withdrew the forward elements of Panzer Lehr back into Rochefort during the night of 25–26 December. This was an acknowledgement that Hitler’s original plan of putting most weight on the German right, favouring the Waffen-SS, had been a disaster, and that Manteuffel’s Fifth Panzer Army sector had always shown the greatest promise.

This was not just because of Manteuffel’s fighting qualities and judgement as a commander, but because the terrain was far better suited and offered more alternatives to fast-moving armoured troops. Surprise was the major advantage the Germans possessed and that had largely been thrown away by the length of time the panzer formations took to bridge their river lines during the first couple of days. Had the Fifth Army possessed Dietrich’s bridging equipment, engineering assets and weight of artillery support, enabling it to bridge efficiently and effectively on 16–17 December, it might have made the Meuse, but even then would not have managed to get much beyond.

On 26 December, 116th Panzer Division was ordered ‘onto the defensive’, in theory to await the arrival of second echelon relief units, but in reality acknowledging that the offensive was over. The battle would thenceforth be to retain whatever gains had been made. ‘The Other Fellow’, as Bradley habitually referred to his opponents, ‘reached his high-water mark today’, he reported to Bedell Smith at Ike’s headquarters. On this day Major Fritz Vogelsang, the 116th’s Divisional Adjutant, noted, ‘This morning, fighter-bombers and bombers turned La Roche into a smoking pile of rubble. Our anti-aircraft guns were able to shoot down some of the attackers … if only the weather would turn bad again!’ Vogelsang also assessed the accumulated personnel losses since the 16th, as at least 1,907 killed or wounded, 1,278 taken prisoner and an unspecified number missing; a total of 113 armoured vehicles of all types had been destroyed – only seven tanks and four tank destroyers were still battleworthy.

‘The Division lost much of its combat value, inner strength, quality, speed and flexibility of leadership. It will be able to compensate for these losses through its reserves, but not for those valuable officers, including a large number of battalion commanders, adjutants and company commanders and most of the junior leaders … of special impact is the loss of fifteen radio and three other armoured communications vehicles … Losses are so high that the two Panzergrenadier regiments, where all four battalion commanders became casualties, have to be considered as nearly destroyed.’ The combined battle strength on 29 December of the two Panzergrenadier regiments totalled 1,184 out of the nearly 5,000 who started the campaign. Divisional headquarters came in for some harsh treatment on the same day; in despair, as Major Vogelsang recorded, ‘Fighter-bombers appeared and took care of some of the few houses … Then artillery planes began to circle and directed well-controlled fire from heavy guns. Explosions everywhere! Finally it became too uncomfortable; nobody can conduct a paper war from a foxhole!’


Fort at Vindolanda, AD 105. The fort housed the First Tungrian cohort and a Batavian cohort.


By far the most famous defensive barrier in the Roman Empire; served for nearly 300 years as one of the major dividing lines between Roman Britain and the barbarians of Caledonia. With the exception of the Wall of Antonius, built just to the north, the Wall of Hadrian was unique in all of the imperial provinces. Emperor Hadrian ordered its construction in 122 A. D., and work was begun by Platorius Nepos, governor of Britain, who completed it around 126. The wall extended some 73 miles (80 Roman miles) from Wallsend (Segedunum) to Bowness-on-Solway (or the Solway Firth). It was intended not as a formidable bastion but as a base from which Rome’s presence could be maintained. Roman troops, mainly auxiliaries, manned its turrets and were to fight any large enemy force in the field while keeping watch on the frontier. In the event of a direct assault, the defenses were only adequate, perhaps explaining the collapse of Roman power in Britain from time to time.

The original plans were probably drawn by Hadrian. The barrier was to extend some 70 miles and be made mostly of stone, 10 feet thick, while the rest would be constructed of turf, 20 feet thick. The turf wall was completed, but the stone sections had only just begun when the plan was extended several miles to ensure that the barrier covered the area from sea to sea. Further, the stone portions were to be only 8 feet thick, instead of 10, and approximately 20 feet in height; the turf portions, 13 feet high. Forts were distanced some 5 miles from each other, with so-called mile-castles spread out every Roman mile, connected by watch-towers. Two ditches were dug. The one in front was approximately 30 feet wide and 15 feet deep, designed for defense and V-shaped. The ditch behind the wall has caused considerable archaeological debate. Called the Vallum (trench), it was straight and flat-bottomed, 20 feet wide, 10 feet deep and 10 feet across at the bottom, fortified on both sides by earthen walls (but then filled in). Scholars have speculated that it was once used for some other, non-military purpose.

Until the construction of the Antonine Wall in 142, Hadrian’s Wall was the only frontier marker in Britain. With the Antonine Wall in the north, its importance decreased briefly until 180, when the Antonine Wall was destroyed. In 196-197, Clodius Albinus took with him every available soldier in Britain for his bid for the throne, thus allowing the wall to be ruined, Septimius Severus repaired it from 205 to 207. Peace was maintained until the late 3rd century A. D., when the chaotic situation in Roman Britain following the deaths of the usurpers Carausius and Allectus brought the Picts down from Caledonia, Constantius I launched a restorative campaign but throughout the 4th century barbarian inroads put pressure upon the wall as Roman influence diminished. More invasions poured over the wall, only to be repulsed by Count Flavius Theodosius in 369. The last garrison on the wall withdrew around 400 as the barrier became a monument to Rome’s past.


A typical Roman fort of the Imperial period was shaped like a modern playing card, with two short sides and two long sides, and rounded corners. This is the evolved version of a Roman fort, since the earlier fortified camps of the early Empire were not so regularly shaped and were not generally designed as permanent bases for troops. The fort and supply depot at Rödgen in Germany was ovoid in shape, and while the fortress of Haltern was more regular in plan, it does not compare with the later permanent forts of the Empire.

Typically, early Roman forts were built of earth and turf ramparts (called murus caespiticus), topped by a timber breastwork, with access by timber gateways with towers on either side. There were usually interval towers ranged along the walls and at each corner. Forts were usually surrounded by one or more ditches, shaped like a letter V but with an aptly labelled “ankle-breaker” drainage channel at the bottom. The Romans usually took this drainage feature seriously, judging by the number of excavations that show that the ditch had been cleaned out and squared off. In the second century AD from the reign of Trajan onward, when the majority of forts had become permanent bases rather than semipermanent ones while the provinces were pacified and Romanized, forts and fortresses were generally, but not universally, built of stone. In some cases this meant refronting existing forts by cutting back the turf rampart, and in others building in stone from the outset.

Depending on the type of unit stationed in them, forts varied in size from 0.6 hectares for the small numerous forts in Germany and Dacia, to 20 hectares for a legion. There were a few double legionary fortresses such as Vetera (modern Xanten, Germany) and Mogontiacum (modern Mainz, Germany) until the failed revolt of Saturninus, who gathered the combined savings of his legionaries to attempt a coup against the Emperor Domitian. After this, Domitian decreed that no two legions were to be housed together.

The internal arrangements of fortresses and forts was on the whole standardized, but with regional or local variations. The center range usually housed the headquarters building (principia), flanked by the commander’s house (praetorium) and the granaries (horreae). There were four main streets within the fort, and the orientation of the fort was taken from the direction that headquarters faced. The road running across the fort in front of the headquarters was the via principalis, with its two gates labeled for the right and left sides (porta principalis dextra and porta principalis sinistra). The road that connected the principia to the front gate (porta praetoria) was the via praetoria, and behind the headquarters another road, the via decumana, ran to the rear gate (porta decumana).

In several forts archaeological evidence shows that there were other communal buildings, for example the workshop (fabrica) where metalworking, woodworking, and repair of equipment and weapons would take place. There was also a hospital (valetudinarium). It should be acknowledged that from the ground plans alone, the workshops and the hospitals might have been confused, each consisting of small rooms off a central courtyard, but in a few cases medical instruments have been found, which strongly supports the label “hospital.” The forts on Hadrian’s Wall at Wallsend and Housesteads, and the fortresses at Vetera (modern Xanten, Germany) and Novaesium (modern Neuss, Germany) are among examples where hospitals have been found. The majority of the buildings inside the fort would be the barrack blocks. For the infantry in legionary fortresses and auxiliary forts, barracks were normally laid out with ten rooms subdivided into two parts, one for sleeping and eating and one for storage, each room accommodating eight men, and therefore housing one complete century of eighty men. A verandah ran the full length of the ten rooms, and at the end of the barrack block there was usually a suite of rooms for the centurion. Cavalry barracks were different, reflecting the organization of the turma. From the evidence at the fort at Dormagen on the Rhine, and Wallsend on Hadrian’s Wall, it seems that the men and their horses were housed together. In at least three of the Dormagen stable blocks, there were double cubicles, with soakaway pits in those along one side, and hearths in those on the other, indicating that men and mounts shared the blocks (Müller, 1979; Dixon and Southern, 1992).

Roman Watchtowers

There is no real consensus as to what such monumental linear boundaries as the walls in northern Britain or between the Rhine and Danube in Germany were for and how they functioned. Almost as puzzling are cases where Roman soldiers were distributed in very small detachments, often less than ten men, manning watchtowers, constructed in lines following roads or along ridges. Such deployments seem to make little sense if the primary aim of the Roman army was to defend the provinces since any serious attack would surely have overwhelmed these weak defences.

Neither the view of the Roman Empire during the Principate as essentially defensive, nor the view that it was aggressive and still hoping to expand, explains properly what the army was actually doing. Mattern has recently suggested that the defensive-offensive distinction is anachronistic, and that we should view Roman foreign relations more in terms of concepts of honour and power. The theme of her book was essentially the ideology of empire, and it did not really explain how the army operated or whether or not its activities were effective. The shift in emphasis was very useful, for it is important to understand how the Romans conceived of their relations with other peoples, and it is within this framework that we should attempt to understand what their armed forces were actually doing.

For all the insights generated by this debate, the question remains of whether or not the Romans developed something which could reasonably be described as grand strategy. As with so many labels, there is a tendency for each contributor in the debate to provide his own definition for this term, making it easier to prove that the Romans either did or did not have one. The term was created in the twentieth century, and most of the definitions employed by modern strategic literature assume the existence of institutions and ideas utterly alien to the Roman Empire. For most modern states the ideal of international affairs is peaceful coexistence with their neighbours. Each state is considered to have a right to govern itself in its own way and by its own laws. In the modern world war is the anomaly, shattering the natural state of peace. For many societies in the ancient world the reverse was true, and peace was an interruption of the normal international hostility. The Romans were inclined to think of peace as the product of an enemy’s utter defeat, hence the verb `to pacify’ (pacare) was a euphemism for `to defeat’.

Peaceful coexistence with other nations, and most of all former enemies, was never a Roman aspiration. In some way we must relate our understanding of Roman ideology to the reality of military deployment in the frontier zones, many areas of which were constantly occupied for centuries on end. It is therefore worth considering the army’s deployment in these areas and trying to reconstruct what it was doing. In doing so we must try to look at the fringes of the Roman Empire from both directions.

Raiding does appear to have been endemic in the tribal societies of Spain, Britain, Gaul, Germany, Thrace, Illyria and Africa. Caesar claimed that the Helvetii migrated to occupy lands which would give them more opportunity to raid their neighbours (B Gall. 1.2).We are told that German tribes tried to keep a strip of depopulated land around their borders as a protection against enemy raids. This was also a measure of a tribe’s martial prowess and thus a deterrent to attacks. The Belgian tribes grew thick thorn hedges as boundary markers that were intended to delay raiding groups. They may also have been a sign that crossing them would be met with force, and it was probably no coincidence that Caesar’s army had to fight a battle at the Sambre soon after passing such a barrier (B Gall. 2.17, 6.23). The archaeological record of weapons burials in many regions of Europe confirms a picture of societies in which martial symbols were very important, and it is implausible to suggest that many Celtic tribes were not warlike warrior societies.

Our sources inevitably only report raids carried out on a large scale, usually by thousands of warriors. Only well-established leaders in reasonably united tribes could ever have mustered such forces. The warriors in many societies were strongly independent, choosing whether or not to join a leader who proclaimed that he was to lead a raid. Most raiding bands were probably much smaller. Even Ammianus, who provides far more detailed accounts of activities in the frontier provinces than any earlier source, never specifically mentions groups of fewer than 400 marauders. The distribution of Roman troops in penny packets to man lines of watchtowers might make a lot more sense if they were facing raids by equally small or smaller groups of warriors. The distinction between warfare and banditry blurs at this level, but there are many hints that small-scale violence was common in the empire.

Conspiracy Theory

The British security situation deteriorated in the 360s. At the start of the decade we are told that `savage tribes of the Scots and Picts, who had broken the peace that had been agreed upon, were laying waste the regions near the frontiers’. Worse followed in 367, when a crisis known as the `barbarian conspiracy’ unfolded. Raids by Franks and Saxons targeting Gaul, and Picts, Attacotti, and Scots striking Britain brought devastation and suspicions of collusion. In Britain, one high-ranking Roman commander was slain and another, by the name of Fullofaudes, was `cut off by enemy ambush’. Fullofaudes was a dux, and therefore quite possibly the dux Britanniarum responsible for the Wall zone. His fate is not clear, but potentially he, too, was killed. Meanwhile, the attackers were `ranging widely and causing great devastation’ as far south as London, while scores of surviving Roman soldiers aggravated the catastrophe by deserting. In response, a force perhaps 2,000-strong under the command of Theodosius – the father of a future emperor with the same name – was dispatched from the Continent.

By the time Theodosius arrived, the enemy forces had splintered and were seeking out booty. To restore the situation, his soldiers adopted tactics once considered borderline banditry. They `secured beforehand the places suitable for ambushing the savages’, rather than – so far as we can tell – fighting setpiece battles. This approach proved provident and, after the danger had passed, Theodosius is credited with protecting `the frontiers with watch-posts and defence works’, and disbanding a group referred to as the areani. Its members reportedly ranged far and wide to gather information, making it likely they were a late incarnation of the Wall’s intelligence-gathering apparatus. If so, they expose an inherent danger of such outfits, as the areani were reportedly turned by the enemy and bribed into betraying Roman secrets. That assumes, of course, they were not simply singled out as a convenient scapegoat for a spectacular military catastrophe.

Although we do not know whether the 367 invaders directly targeted the Wall garrisons, or sought to bypass them, the killing of one senior Roman commander, and ambushing of another, emphasises that the attackers were powerful enough to inflict serious losses. There is no sign in the written sources that the Roman forces in Britain could have salvaged the situation without aid from overseas. If securing booty was the attackers’ principal aim, attempting to bypass the Wall garrisons would have an obvious appeal. Theodosius’ strengthening of the frontier defences may be relevant here. There is no sign of major upgrades to the Wall, but a chain of fortifications was raised along the north-east Yorkshire coast at around this time. These small installations are recognisable as a variant of a fortification type popular on the Continent and comprise stout stone towers set within high masonry ramparts boasting projecting bastions. Creating such a cordon could fit with the 367 conspirators simply sailing past the Wall and landing to its south. One complication is that the garrisons of these new coastal stations are unlikely to exceed about eighty soldiers, which would leave them wellsuited to counter small-scale incursions, but powerless to repulse a fullblown invasion. They do, though, perfectly match the implication of the western coastal forts at Maryport and Lancaster: it was securing the shore that warranted heightened protective measures during this era. Even so, this developing threat may be partially attributable to Hadrian’s Wall curtailing overland raiding so effectively it incentivised striking by sea.

Religious practices were also changing during the final decades of Roman Britain. At Corbridge, temples were torn down after 370, with elements reused in the road. Offerings at Coventina’s shrine seemingly cease sometime around 388, while broken fragments of superstructure were reportedly found in her well, which would fit with a deconsecration ceremony analogous to those sometimes found in fort headquarters buildings. This suppression of longstanding ritual sites can presumably be attributed to Christianity. With occasional exceptions, official tolerance for the religion had grown since Constantine’s victory at the Milvian bridge. In 391, an edict made sacrifice illegal and closed the temples. The degree to which Christianity penetrated the Wall communities remains unclear, and some see the military garrisons as bastions of the old gods. However, the evidence for a military uptake of Christianity seems reasonably good. A few overtly Christian objects have been found, perhaps most obviously those bearing the chi-rho emblem. This device superimposes the first two Greek letters for Christos and is sometimes set within a circle. On such occasions it evokes a six-spoke wheel, which would surely have elicited knowing smiles from any remining adherents of the Celtic sky god. Recent excavations at Maryport revealed a cluster of graves, some of which might have a Christian origin. These lay near an enigmatic concentration of large pits, many of which contained earlier altars reused as packing to support sizeable timber uprights for some sort of monumental structure erected during the twilight of Roman control. As this complex occupied the highest point of the local topography, it was presumably intended to be as visible as possible. Churches are suspected within South Shields, Housesteads, Vindolanda, and Birdoswald forts, while Christianstyle gravestones are known at Vindolanda and Maryport. Although these memorials probably date to the century or so after the end of Roman Britain, if Christianity was being practised by the descendants of fort garrisons, it seems reasonable to propose that the religion took root during the Roman era.

Magnus Maximus, an important commander in Britain and possibly another dux Britanniarum, is known to have been baptised in 383. He is also credited with successes against the Picts and Scots, but in 383 was proclaimed emperor by his troops. Maximus initially proved a proficient usurper, and successfully took Gaul and Spain, before invading Italy in 387, where he was captured and executed. It is likely that his continental adventures were powered in part by troops withdrawn from Britain. Thereafter, pressure on the island continued to mount. In around 398, reinforcements were sent against perils including a sea that `foamed with hostile oarsmen’. Less than a decade later, the army in Britain mutinied in 406 or 407, setting up a succession of usurpers as the situation on the Continent steadily deteriorated. In around 409, it was either invaders from beyond the Rhine frontier or perhaps even a desire to remove unwelcome military units brought in by the army that sounded the death knell for Roman Britain. Zosimus records that they `made it necessary for the inhabitants of Britain and some of the nations among the Celts to revolt from Roman rule and live on their own, no longer obedient to Roman laws. The Britons therefore took up arms, and braving danger for their own independence, freed the cities from the barbarians threatening [or billeted in] them’. While this passage implies that Roman Britain came to a neatly defined end, archaeology demonstrates the reality was less clear cut.

Rather than the Wall garrisons being withdrawn and the forts abandoned around 409, evidence for continued occupation is mounting. The classic sequence was teased out at Birdoswald during Tony Wilmott’s trailblazing 1987-1992 excavations. There, important changes to the two fort granaries began c. 350, when the subfloor spaces in the southern structure were filled in, while its northern counterpart collapsed at around this time. That the refurbishing of the southern granary marks a shift from storage to highstatus activity is implied by what is probably either a foundation or abandonment deposit: a gold earring, glass ring, and silver coin of 388-395, found near hearths. The last two continue the round objects theme, while the earring is hexagonal, but features a decorative scheme vaguely evocative of wheel spokes. Sometime afterwards, a new floor surface was laid on top, before the south granary was seemingly abandoned in favour of a timber building inserted into the shell of the northern granary. This was, in turn, superseded by a sizeable timber hall, which stood on postpads. Wilmott observed that the adapted granaries are explicable as venues where the unit commander could address his troops, while the final timber edifice resembles an early medieval chieftain’s feasting hall. The chronology fits this, with the adapted southern granary probably not abandoned until 420, the first quasi-timber structure lasting to perhaps 470, and the timber hall standing until 520 or later. This puts us over a century beyond the end date of Roman Britain. Crucially, though, no break in occupation was detected at the fort. Instead of marching away, the Roman garrison seemingly stayed put, gradually mutating from a regular army unit into an early medieval warband.

The centre cannot hold

The Wall changed immensely over the course of the 4th century. Failure to upgrade the military posts with cutting-edge new defences left them resembling relics from a bygone era. But inside, change was underway. Fort layouts designed to reinforce a hierarchy stretching all the way to the emperor, and hold storage and workshop facilities commensurate with sophisticated long-distance supply lines, were morphing into something new. Ruined or redundant monumental architecture could be quarried to patch humdrum but essential structures, such as defences and roads, or surrendered to industry, thereby helping to tackle the immense logistical challenges associated with becoming more self-sufficient. This shift surely involved local producers in the vicinity of forts supplying more goods for the military market, suggesting close links with rural communities. Currently, we can only see hints of this, but in the west, it is likely that some late Roman sites south of the Wall were successors to longstanding settlements with prehistoric origins. In the east, the endurance of Local Traditional Ware also supports a degree of continuity. A chronic reduction in overseas imports, and indeed products from southern Britain, robbed Wall life of a distinctive facet over the course of the 4th century. Yet transitioning to regional supply probably enabled soldiers to weather the early-5th-century turmoil. Rather than the end of Rome’s financial and material support forcing an abandonment of the forts, local suppliers offered a lifeline. In turn, the protection fort garrisons could extend provided an incentive for rural producers to nurture this relationship.

Severing links with Rome spelled fundamental change for existing power structures. No longer were unit commanders beholden to a distant dux, probably based in York, who was in turn just another cog in the imperial hierarchy. Instead, individual unit commanders would have had greater autonomy than ever before. Even this development, though, seemingly has its roots in the later 4th century. If the refurbishment of the southern granary at Birdoswald was designed to create a venue where a commander could address his men, it marked an important shift from the arrangement in previous centuries. Once, such gatherings occurred in the headquarters building, beside the unit shrine and the trappings of imperial power. The new arrangement at Birdoswald would have increased the focus on individual commanders. By this reading, the eventual shift to a timber feasting hall symbolises how regular military commanders gradually transformed into early medieval chieftains. The end of Roman authority over the Wall, then, was not accompanied by an evacuation of the heavily armed soldiers manning its forts. Instead they remained, to become part of the region’s future.