THE ROMAN ARMY’S DARKEST DAYS III

HOW TACFARINAS HUMILIATED ROME

Tacfarinas was a Numidian Berber leader who had once fought for the Roman army as an auxiliary. He turned out, like Spartacus, to be one of many men trained in Roman military skills who subsequently became major threats. In 17, during the reign of Tiberius, he deserted. Using his Roman military training he formed a band of rebels in North Africa, organizing them into ‘detachments and squadrons’. He used Roman discipline and gave his men Roman-type weapons, though that same year he was routed by a Roman army led by the governor of Africa, Furius Camillus.

Three years later Tacfarinas reappeared, though his plans to fight with trained men seem to have gone awry. He started with a guerrilla war, burning villages, but then ‘blockaded a Roman cohort’ in its fort. This must have been an auxiliary infantry unit in an outpost. Its commander was an officer called Decrius, a brave and experienced man who regarded being besieged as shameful. He drew his men up outside the fort so they could fight a battle in the open when Tacfarinas attacked. Unfortunately the cohort crumbled at the first attack, leaving Decrius to race around under a hail of projectiles chasing after the men who were running away and cursing his standard-bearers for standing by while that happened. Decrius was wounded in the chest and hit in one eye but he fought on singlehandedly until he was killed, completely forsaken by his men.

The engagement showed how a Roman force, albeit an auxiliary one, could give up on the spot when confronted with an unexpected and frightening foe. The fallout was devastating for the cohort. The new proconsular governor of Africa, Lucius Apronius, was disgusted at the dishonour the men had done the Roman army and ordered a decimation of the unit. ‘In a rare deed for that time and of ancient memory he chose by lot every tenth man of the disgraced cohort, and executed them by cudgel.’ In other words the men were beaten to death by their comrades. The brutal punishment seems to have motivated other troops. Shortly afterwards a force of 500 veterans routed Tacfarinas’ army, and a soldier called Rufus Helvius who saved a Roman citizen was decorated for his bravery.

THE IGNOMINY OF LEGIO XII FULMINATA

In 62, following several years of war in Armenia, violence started up again when the Parthians under Vologaeses attacked. Lucius Caesennius Paetus, the governor of Cappadocia, had Legio V and Legio XII at his disposal but had been rather too lax in authorizing leave applications from soldiers, with the result that the legions were not up to strength. In the Battle of Rhandeia that followed the Romans were severely beaten, and Paetus had to send a desperate request to Corbulo in Syria for help. The legions fled, even allegedly being forced to go through the humiliation of walking under the yoke. Corbulo was forced to withdraw the demoralized Legio XII and send it to Syria, its best men lost ‘and the rest terrified’.

Just four years after that humiliating defeat, Legio XII found itself once more confronted with a challenge, and an opportunity to recover its dignity. During the Jewish War then being prosecuted by Vespasian, a general at the time, and his son Titus, the legion was involved in an another ignominious defeat. Tension, which had existed for centuries between the Greek inhabitants of Alexandria and the Jewish colonists, had erupted into violence. The Jews of Alexandria had been given their own quarter in the city, along with various legal privileges that allowed them to pursue their way of life without harassment. A particularly ugly incident took place when the Jews tried to join in a public assembly discussing a proposed embassy to Nero. Three Jews were captured and taken off by the Greeks to be burned alive. The Jewish population rose up in outrage and attacked the Greeks. The Roman governor of Alexandria, Tiberius Alexander, tried to ease the tension with negotiation but his plan failed.

Unfortunately, Tiberius Alexander then decided to order Legio III Cyrenaica and Legio XXII Deiotariana, both based in Alexandria at the time, along with 2,000 additional troops recently arrived from Libya, to attack the Jewish colony. According to Josephus, 50,000 (a figure unlikely to be accurate) lay dead before Alexander called off his men, but the Greek mob continued the violence against the Jews until they were forced to back off.

Cestius was governor of Syria between 63 and 67. When the news from Alexandria reached him in Antioch he decided he would have to intervene. He took a substantial army with him: Legio XII Fulminata, 2,000 soldiers each from the three other legions based in Syria, six auxiliary infantry cohorts (about 3,000 men), and four cavalry wings (at least 2,000 troopers), alongside another 11,000 men supplied by client kings in the region, as well as soldiers from the legions stationed in Judaea (VI Ferrata and X Fretensis). With an army numbering at least 27,000, Cestius headed south into Judaea to punish the Jews. He started by sacking Acre (Akko in modern Israel) before dividing up his army so that he could widen his impact. This started badly. When Cestius left Acre he installed 2,000 men there, but they were killed by a Jewish attack. Cestius was not swayed from his plans. One of his detachments sacked Joppa successfully, and another ravaged territory near Caesarea.

At that point Cestius detached Legio XII Fulminata with its commander Caesennius Gallus and sent him into Galilee. All went well for the Romans to begin with. Cities in the region offered no resistance, while any rebels had melted away into a mountainous region near the city of Sepphoris. Caesennius Gallus decided to attack the rebels even though it ought to have been obvious that they were in an advantageous position. They managed to kill 200 Romans before Gallus’ men positioned themselves on even higher land. After killing 2,000 rebels in return, Gallus returned to Cestius in Caesarea convinced that Galilee was under control. Cestius believed he could now advance his army towards Jerusalem.

In Jerusalem, the Jews abandoned their celebrations of the Feast of the Tabernacle and attacked Cestius’ army. A near-disaster occurred when the Roman front line was broken, being averted only when some cavalry and infantry managed to regroup and plug the gap. The Jews lost a trivial number of men compared to the several hundred Romans who died, managing to escape back to the hills with some of the Roman baggage animals. Cestius had to take refuge in his camp for three days while the Jews watched for any sign of further attacks or movements. Attempts at diplomatic negotiations to resolve the impasse failed when the most extreme rebels refused to cooperate and attacked the Roman ambassadors.

Cestius ordered a full-scale attack on Jerusalem, for which he spent three days preparing. On the fourth day his men fought their way towards the city, but Cestius made a crucial error. On the advice of some of his officers, Cestius did not tell his men to attack the Upper City, instead ordering them to pitch camp outside its walls. The assault, when it came, was protracted and dangerous. The Romans organized a testudo (tortoise) formation which would allow them to undermine the walls without being battered by stones thrown down on them. The most extreme rebels began abandoning the city, believing all was lost. That meant the more moderate citizens were able to start planning to surrender and save themselves. Thinking his assault was going nowhere, Cestius told his men to stand down, with the effect that the rebels suddenly realized they had a chance of victory after all. During the lull they burst out of the Upper City and attacked the Romans. Cestius was chased back to his camp pursued by the Jewish rebels, who attacked and killed numerous men. Among the casualties was the legate commanding Legio VI Ferrata. Cestius decided he would have to withdraw.

The retreat needed to be conducted as fast as possible. Cestius knew his men were in a tight corner. Except those that carried ammunition or pulled the artillery machines, the baggage animals were all killed. The route meant having to pass down through a narrow ravine which trapped the Romans beneath an ambush by the Jews, who hurled down missiles. It was impossible for the Romans to defend themselves and they were only saved when night fell and they could make their way to Beth-horon.

Here Cestius came up with a plan. While 400 men were posted to make it look as if his whole army was still at Beth-horon, the rest crept out under cover of darkness and relocated 3-1/2 miles (5 km) away. When the sun rose the Jews realized they had been tricked. They broke into Beth-horon and killed the 400 men left behind. Next they set off after Cestius, who was still on the move and accelerating as he ordered his siege and artillery equipment to be abandoned. The Jews failed to catch him but helped themselves to the free gifts, which they would subsequently use against the Romans.

Cestius’ campaign and the humiliating midnight retreat from Beth-horon had been a shameful affair. Legio XII was singled out for humiliation as the principal legion involved. Josephus reported that 5,300 infantry had been lost, along with 480 cavalry. The losses were huge for a Roman army and seem to have been the largest ever incurred in a province that was supposed to have been under Roman control. More alarming still was the relatively small number of enemy casualties. No doubt bearing in mind the defeat the legion had suffered in 62 under Caesennius Paetus at Rhandeia, Titus ordered Legio XII to leave Syria permanently when the Jewish war ended in 73. It had to abandon its base at Raphanaeae and was relocated far to the east at Melitene by the Euphrates, on the border between Armenia and Cappadocia. There it stayed until it disappeared from history after the late fourth century.

There was a gruesome aftermath to Cestius’ experiences. In 67 Vespasian ordered an attack on the town of Gabara. His soldiers, filled with loathing for the Jewish people after what had happened to Cestius, massacred all the inhabitants, regardless of their age. Gabara was burned to the ground, as were the nearby settlements, their inhabitants being sold into slavery if they had not already fled.

SELF-INTEREST IN THE JEWISH WAR

In 70, during the Jewish War, the general and future emperor Titus threw a legionary cavalryman out of the army. He was one of two soldiers captured alive during the assault on the royal palace and temple in Jerusalem. The other was an infantryman whom the Jews killed immediately by cutting his throat and dragging his body through the city. The cavalryman faced the same fate as his fellow captive but claimed he had information which would help the Jews survive. Brought before the leader Simon bar Giora, it turned out he had nothing to say, so he was promptly handed over to a Jewish commander called Ardalas for punishment. Ardalas had the cavalryman bound and blindfolded and took him out where the Romans could see him, so that he could be publicly executed as an example. However, as the executioner was drawing his sword, the cavalryman broke away and dashed back to the Roman ranks. This put Titus in a difficult position. He could not execute the man himself, yet the trooper had disgraced himself by being captured alive in the first place. Titus therefore cashiered him. His arms were taken away and he was expelled from his legion, a fate generally considered worse than death. His treatment was officially known as missio ignominiosa, ‘dishonourable discharge’, a sanction that could be applied to any soldier for committing a misdemeanour of similar significance.

During the same assault the Jews decided to use fire as a weapon against the Romans, who were building ramps up to the building. They lured Roman soldiers up to the west colonnade by pretending to withdraw, but had packed it with wood and pitch. The soldiers clambered up without an order being given, only to find themselves engulfed in flames. Many were killed, or jumped and broke their limbs. A few managed to dodge the fire and held out against the Jews, who picked them off one by one. The last man standing, a soldier called Longus, did as a Roman soldier was supposed to do under the circumstances. Another soldier, Artorius, turned out to be rather less heroic:

At the last a young man among them, whose name was Longus, became a decoration to this sad affair. While every one of them that died was worthy of a memorial, this man appeared to deserve it beyond all the rest. Now the Jews admired this man for his courage but were unable to kill him. They persuaded him to come down to them, promising him his life. From the other side his brother Cornelius persuaded him not to tarnish his own glory, or that of the Roman army. Longus followed this last advice. Lifting up his sword so both armies could see he killed himself. There was one called Artorius among those surrounded with the fire, who escaped by an underhand trick. For when he had with a loud voice called to him Lucius, one of his mess-mate fellow soldiers, and said to him, ‘I will make you heir of all my possessions if you will come up and rescue me.’ Lucius came running up to receive him readily. Artorius then threw himself down on Lucius, and saved his own life but his weight crushed Lucius on the stone pavement, who died immediately. This disaster demoralized the Romans for a while.

CONQUERING CALEDONIA

Around 150 years later, the emperor Septimius Severus embarked on a vast campaign into Caledonia in northern Britain. The land beyond Hadrian’s Wall had proved an intractable issue ever since the earliest days of the province. Despite a short-lived attempt to build a new frontier (the Antonine Wall) beyond Hadrian’s Wall, the Romans seem to have resigned themselves to Hadrian’s frontier as marking the end of Britannia, apart from a hinterland beyond which some outpost forts were built. Severus, however, had other ideas. Severus was keen to toughen up his indolent and swaggering sons Caracalla and Geta and give them proper experience of a military campaign. He, his sons, his empress Julia Domna and a vast army, set out for Britain in 208.

Severus took care to do everything he could to ensure the campaign’s success. He ordered the construction of supply forts and preparation of logistics and communications to service the war. As the contemporary historians Cassius Dio and Herodian reported, the plans soon started to go wrong. The Severan army in Britain ‘experienced countless hardships in cutting down the forests, levelling the heights, filling the swamps, and bridging rivers’, said Dio. Even worse, Severus could do nothing to bring the Caledonians to battle. They declined to play by the same rules, avoiding a confrontation and never organizing themselves into battle formation. Instead, the Caledonians left sheep and cattle out to attract the Romans and encourage them to advance ever further into the unknown. These were not enemy tactics the Roman army could cope with. The soldiers became trapped in the swamps, despite their efforts to use pontoons to provide a firmer footing. Rome was not the first superpower to be sucked into a war with an enemy that knew the land and was able to melt into the shadows, and nor would it be the last.

The Caledonians swam in the swamps virtually naked, carrying a small shield, a sword and a spear, and spurning the use of armour which they knew would prevent them from making headway through the marshes. ‘The enemy finds it easy to escape and hide in the woods and marshes’, said Herodian. Bogged down in every sense and disoriented by the mist which hung over the marshland, the Roman soldiers were easy meat for the Caledonians, who were of course in their element. The idea was that the Romans would end up killing their own incapacitated and injured so they could beat a hastier retreat. According to Cassius Dio, 50,000 Romans died in the guerrilla war, an implausibly high figure since it equates to ten legions, but it is clear the losses must still have been enormous. In reality, Severus’ soldiers faced an enemy that harried and persecuted the Roman columns as they marched into the highlands of what we call Scotland.

The war went from bad to worse. In 210 Severus was infuriated by yet another tribal revolt. Dio said that he not only ordered total annihilation but had the wit to do so by quoting (and adapting) Agamemnon’s words to Menelaos in Homer’s Iliad:

‘Let no one escape sheer destruction at our hands,

Not even the babe in its mother’s womb; if it be male,

Let it nevertheless not escape sheer destruction.’

It was an optimistic instruction. The reality for the average legionary or auxiliary was a terrifying ordeal that made the war last longer than had ever been planned. The hostilities continued inconclusively until early 211, when Severus died of illness and old age at York. One of the unlucky men who participated in the war was Gaius Cesennius Senecio, a centurion serving with Cohors II Praetoria. According to his tombstone in Rome, his body (which presumably means his cremated ashes) was brought all the way back from Britain for burial.

THE MYSTERY OF LEGIO VIIII HISPANA

Some legions had very mixed stories, experiencing successes and disasters. A few disappeared completely, their fates shrouded in mystery. The strange case of Legio VIIII Hispana remains an enigma. Its history dated back at least to Augustus’ time, when it served in Spain. Next it was relocated to Aquileia, at the head of the Adriatic Sea in north-eastern Italy, and then, by the time of Augustus’ death in 14, to Pannonia, where it was garrisoned in one fortress with two other legions (VIII Augusta and XV Apollinaris). All three were involved that year in a dangerous mutiny about pay and conditions. The legion remained in Pannonia for a generation, apart from being sent in 20–22 with Legio III Augusta to fight in Africa against the rebellion of Tacfarinas in Numidia. In 42 Aulus Plautius was governor of Pannonia; he seems to have brought the legion with him when he invaded Britain the next year. After its drubbing in the Boudican Revolt when it lost around 40 per cent at least of its manpower, it built two legionary fortresses, first at Lincoln and then at York. During that time, between c. 78 and 84 the legion played a major part in the governor Agricola’s invasion of northern Britain; it was nearly destroyed when the Caledonians attacked it in the middle of the night,65 until Agricola sent cavalry and infantry to save the day, which they did in the nick of time as the sun rose. Legio VIIII Hispana fought well and recovered its dignity. The legion went on to participate in the victory over the Caledonian tribes at Mons Graupius in 84 and was last attested in York on a major building inscription in around 107, during the reign of Trajan.

Crucially, however, Legio VIIII Hispana was absent from the building of Hadrian’s Wall 15 years later and seems to have been replaced by Legio VI Victrix, which Hadrian brought with him during his visit in about 119. One of the VIIII’s commanding officers around this time, Titus Aninius Sextus Florentinus, went on to govern Gallia Narbonensis and Arabia, where he is known to have been in post in 127. By 130 Florentinus was dead, buried at Petra in Arabia, where his tomb inscription records most of the major stages of his career. Working backwards, he appears to have commanded VIIII Hispana around 120–2, although unfortunately we do not know where the legion was that year.

The mystery of what happened to VIIII Hispana endures to this day. It may have been destroyed in fighting in Britain at that period, going down in a blaze of heroic glory, but Florentinus’ career suggests the legion was still in one piece around the time Hadrian arrived in Britain, and could even have lasted to take part in the Jewish revolt that broke out under Hadrian in 132–5. It may therefore have been transferred from Britain and lost somewhere else. Alternatively, given its slightly chequered career, it may have been cashiered after failing to live up to expectations. Either way, it was never heard of again.

Oddly, Legio XXII Deiotariana disappeared from the records around the same time. Last attested in 119, it is completely absent from any later papyri or documents in Egypt, where it had previously been recorded on numerous occasions. Like VIIII Hispana it may have been destroyed in Judaea, but no unequivocal evidence has yet been found for its presence there either.

The stories covered show how poor leadership, bad or inappropriate planning, reckless ambition, the selfishness of an ordinary soldier or sheer bad luck could compromise the mighty Roman army. There are many other examples of campaigns and battles that went badly for the Romans. Fortunately for the Romans, resilience and resourcefulness on the part of many soldiers, and the timely presence of some of the greatest military leaders in history, more often than not brought astonishing success – sometimes in the aftermath of occasions when it must have seemed that all was lost.

1 thought on “THE ROMAN ARMY’S DARKEST DAYS III

  1. Pingback: THE ROMAN ARMY’S DARKEST DAYS III – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

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