New Strategies of the Third Century Roman Empire II

Cavalry Strike Force

It has long been thought that Valerian’s son, Gallienus (reigned 260–268), created a powerful new, mobile and independent cavalry force that presaged the cavalry-dominated field armies of the fourth century. The new cavalry unit was named the equites Dalmatae and was recruited from the province of Dalmatia (located along the Adriatic coast) around 255. After fighting in Germany, it was based at Mediolanum (modern Milan) from where it was able to assist with the defence of the north Italian plain from an invasion by Alemanni or (more likely) pretenders to the throne.

With few reliable historical accounts from this period, evidence has to be gleaned from other fragmentary sources. The theory that Gallienius’ cavalry unit formed Rome’s first mobile field army was created by the eminent scholar Emil Ritterling in 1903, assisted by the work of the German numismatist Andreas Alföldi. Although once widely accepted, this theory has since been heavily criticised.6 More likely, the equites Dalmatae as well as two units of mounted Moorish javelin men (the equites Mauri) and Osrhoene horse archers, simply served as supporting cavalry forces. There is little evidence that they were at all independent or enjoyed the command of a senior general; they acted, as cavalry had always acted, as a powerful skirmishing force. Their creation shows that cavalry was being used in greater numbers, but not that it was independent. The cavalry was most successful operating in conjunction with the infantry and as lightly armoured skirmishers they could not conduct the kinds of pitched battles that the heavy fourth century cavalry would later do at the battles of Adrianople, Chrysopolis and Campus Ardiensis. Cavalry in the fourth century would focus on heavily armoured cataphracts capable of shock attacks; nothing like that existed in any number during the third century.

The nature of the threats to Roman security throughout the third century necessitated the development of the available cavalry forces. Gallienus expanded his cavalry and organised it into new units of equites charged with the job of finding out the whereabouts of the enemy and goading it into the path of the main imperial army. These equites formations were wide-ranging, and enjoyed the freedom of an extended security force, yet did not constitute anything like a fourth century field army. Their existence, however, illustrates the strategic problems faced by emperors of the day. Threats were emerging continually, on all the major frontiers with greater and greater frequency, wars and incursions overlapping so much that the legions were being worn thin, propped up by vexillations, unable to move to another danger area for fear of leaving their own borders defenceless.

The Threat

From 226 onwards, the kingdom of Persia became a major thorn in the side of Rome, bringing death and destruction to the eastern provinces on an unprecedented scale. Meanwhile, renewed pressure from the German tribes from across the Rhine threatened the safety of the city of Rome itself. The third century was becoming a turbulent time of frontier crises and internal struggles … and the fracas would be joined by the game-changers, the new people emerging from Russia: the Goths.

While the reasons behind the attacks on the frontiers are complex (and beyond the scope of this book) there is little doubt that Rome itself was in some measure to blame for their intensity. Ctesiphon, the Parthian capital, had been sacked twice in the second half of the 2nd century. Parthian military prestige and fighting ability had taken a hammering and had helped to create the perfect situation at home for Iranian ‘regime change’.

Along the Rhine frontier Rome had sought to keep the peace for centuries through tribal dissension and the promotion of client chiefs. After the Marcomannic Wars these smaller tribes had begun to co-operate, finding a new strength and bargaining power when allied, rather than divided, as Rome would have wished. It was clear that as soon as some of the tribes entered into mutual confederations, the remaining tribes would hurry to do the same. Tribes familiar to the earlier emperors, like the Cherusci, for example, were subsumed within these new confederations, the Franks, Alemanni, Saxons and Burgundians. Along the Danube equally powerful tribal alliances were being created. It had been the intensity and duration of Rome’s counter-attacks during the Marcomannic Wars that had forced the tribes to react in this way.

The Persians

On the thirtieth day of the month of Xandikus of the year 239, the Persians descended upon us.

Graffito from a house in Dura Europus.

Parthia had endured and thrived throughout the long rise of Rome. Heirs to the ancient Persian Empire of Darius and Xerxes and Alexander the Great, the Parthians had once been a tribe of steppe nomads that had crossed into Iran from the Kara Kum desert. The society ruled by the Parthian elite (the Arsacid dynasty) was feudal in nature, chieftains defending small regions who owed allegiance to provincial nobles who then looked to the king. All of these nobles fought on horseback during war, the richest as cataphracts, which were heavily armoured cavalrymen fighting with long spears, axes and swords and riding fully armoured horses. Poorer nobles fought as horse archers, a superb class of warrior that was fast moving, able to fight from a distance and that was difficult for the Roman legions to come to grips with. Cavalry defined the Parthian (and later Persian) method of waging war.

With no full time professional army available, military campaigns involved the mobilisation of local nobles who brought with them their own retinues, peasant levies and mercenary forces of hill-men and desert nomads. From time to time these nobles were at war with one another and civil war would split the feudal system, just as it had during Caracalla’s reign.

The ancient Persians who had once ruled the Iranian plateau and beyond were once again in control of the region following Ardashir’s victory over the Parthian king. This new dynasty, the Sassanian, would continue to challenge Rome in the east for another four centuries. Following the dynastic change would come a restoration of Persian noble families to power, a renewal of old Persian values, religion and art. Institutions like the unit of elite warriors, the Immortals, flickered into existence once again. In warfare the Persians inherited the Parthian feudal system and its reliance on cavalry as the main striking force. There is some suggestion of a professional and skilled military corps since the Persian army now begins to besiege enemy cities, something the Parthians could never attempt.

Of greatest worry to Rome was Persia’s new found aggression. The Arsacid dynasty of the Parthians had been happy to maintain a status quo, defending against Roman attack when necessary and attacking in retaliation. The new Sassanian dynasty had in mind to restore the Persian Empire to its ancient glory and that meant sweeping Rome’s eastern provinces away in order to replace them with Persian satrapies.

(Ardashir) became a source if fear to us; for he was encamped with a large army against not Mesopotamia only but Syria also and boasted that he would win back everything that the ancient Persians had once held as far as the Grecian Sea.

The Germans

‘(a German) thinks it spiritless and slack to gain by sweat what he can buy with blood.’

Tacitus, Germania 14

Occupying the lands on the far bank of the river Rhine, lands of swamp and trackless forest, dwelt the German tribes. For the Romans, Germania represented a region that could not be conquered. Attempts had been made of course, emperor Augustus had wanted to push the frontier forward, from the river Rhine to the Elbe. His generals made war on the Germans, pushed the Roman forces deep into the dark forests until in AD 9 three legions were destroyed in the Teutoburg Forest. It was a military disaster from which Roman morale never recovered. The frontier was pulled back to the Rhine and (further east) to the Danube and there it remained. Raids, punitive expeditions and outpost forts would carry Roman power into this wild region, but it always remained ‘beyond the frontier’.

German physique and martial spirit impressed and frightened the Romans. They were a tribal people, owing fealty to a local chief who led his warriors into battle to bring his tribe glory, wealth and security. His position was subject to change, the tribal assembly of elders (the thing) could always call for a new leader and so chiefs remained in power if they could secure success in war and the loyalty of their warriors. These chiefs or kings grew accustomed to allying together since large confederations could achieve more than one tribe alone. These super-tribes were the cause of the Marcomannic Wars that so threatened the empire in the 170s. Throughout the third century, German tribes like the Franks, Alemanni, Juthungi, Marcomanni, Quadi, Suebi, Burgundi, Chatti and others were poised to launch themselves against the Roman defences. Two factors drove the tribes onward, the first was booty and prestige that a king gained from raiding Roman territory and the second was the relentless pressure on tribal lands from tribes further east. The greatest threat from the German tribes was their relentless aggression. Year after year they would attack the Roman frontier, pushed onto the defences by the billiard ball-like repercussions caused by the movements of distant nomadic movements far away on the Asian steppe.

In battle the elite German warrior was a swordsman, protected by a shield but little, if any, armour. Poorer German fighting men were similarly unprotected but carried spears, javelins, axes or bows. Helmets and ringmail shirts were certainly available to members of the mounted nobility. From the second century onwards more and more Roman swords were being used by the tribes and a significant number have been found in ritual bog deposits, such as those at Vimose in Denmark and Thorsberg in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany.

The Sarmatians

The Marcomannic Wars heralded the very beginning of the barbarian attacks which resulted in the depredations of the third century and the eventual fall of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth. The term ‘Marcomannic War’ is a modern creation, those fighting it called the conflict the German and Sarmatian War (bellum Germanicum et Sarmaticum).

The Sarmatians were a federation of horse-riding nomad tribes that had occupied the southern Russian plains for several centuries. By the reign of Marcus Aurelius several sub-tribes, including the Iazyges and Roxolani, had moved westwards into Europe and settled in the lower Danube valley. Although they had established farming communities, it seems the Sarmatians retained a semi-nomadic lifestyle. Ammianus Marcellinus writes that they: ‘travel over very great distances chasing others or themselves turning their backs, being mounted on swift and obedient horses and leading one or sometimes two, so that changing may maintain the strength of their mounts and their vigour be renewed by alternate rests.

From the Danube region they joined with the German tribes in their attacks on Roman cities. Pressure from the southerly migration of east Germans (the Goths) moving south into the Black Sea region intensified the Sarmatian pressure on Rome. Sarmatian successes have been credited with the tactical innovation of the cataphract, where man and horse are completely covered in ring-mail or scale armour to create a heavy cavalry striking force.

An aristocratic warrior elite (the argaragantes) ruled the tribes, whilst the majority of the work was done by the serf-like limigantes. Tribes were nomadic, moving from place to place on horseback or on the covered steppe-wagons, the kibitkas; they were also warlike, structured according to client and vassal relationships, in a very similar way to the Germans. Powerful warlords could attract significant followers with smaller clans and sub-tribes eager to share in glory and gold. Continual warfare between the Sarmatian tribes and the Danubian legions of the late second century brought the two forces into close contact on a regular basis. There would be an inevitable exchange of fashion, weaponry and tactics because of this. It would not just be Romans that would emulate the expert horsemen of the Sarmatian tribes, the Goths too learnt much from these people.

The threat from the Roxolani and Iazyges came from their perfection of the heavy cavalryman, something relatively new to Roman warfare. A Sarmatian warrior noble wore a helmet and a coat of armour (either scale, ringmail or ‘locked scale’) that often covered his arms and legs. Not only that, but his horse was protected by a similarly armoured helmet (chamfron) and trapper. Equipped with a long and heavy two-handed lance, the rider could participate in a charge that would scatter light infantry or cavalry. This was an innovation that would later be perfected by the chivalric knights of the High Medieval period.

The Goths

From Scandinavia, centuries before the time of Septimius Severus, a number of east German tribes began a slow migration southward through Poland and Russia which eventually brought them into conflict with the Sarmatian tribes and, ultimately, Rome. Goths and Vandals would eventually carve up the Western Roman Empire between them, but, in the third century they were settling in Dacia and Thrace on the northern banks of the river Danube. With much in common with German tribes like the Quadi and Alemanni, the Goths fielded swordsmen and heroic noble warriors in battle, supported by an army of levy farmers carrying spears, javelins and axes. Just like their cousins on the Rhine, the Goths were known for their ferocity in battle.

Although there were many similarities in language, house building and in the gods they worshipped, the Gothic and Vandal tribes had spent many years on the Russian plain rubbing shoulders with the Sarmatians. They and some of the German tribes involved in the Marcomannic Wars (such as the Quadi) adopted Sarmatian ‘customs and arms’. Weapons decorated with Sarmatian animal art became popular amongst warriors; nomadic sword pommels, some be-jewelled with red garnets, became highly prized.

It was the famous horse-skills of the Sarmatians, though, that the Goths took for themselves. Although the German tribes of the Rhine and Danube had always utilised cavalry, it was in the time-honoured fashion: an unarmoured horseman throwing javelins or equipped with a spear and shield ready to ride down fleeing infantry or harass a formation of swordsmen. Gothic formations, in contrast, typically had a greater proportion of horsemen and consequently were far more mobile. Still, the Gothic economy was metal-poor, few warriors wore armour or helmets and few wielded swords and many of the swords found in barbarian graves differed little from the Roman long-sword (spatha).

In the third century the Goths reached the Black Sea coast and, determined to drive southward into rich Roman lands, they created an ad hoc naval force of commandeered ships to begin a campaign of piracy in the Aegean Sea (268). This was a shocking new development for the Roman military which had not seen seaborne raiding on this scale for centuries. The Aegean served as a highway that unfortunately brought the raiders deep into the vulnerable heart of the Roman Empire, the mare Nostrum (‘Our Sea’). These audacious attacks, as well as the raids of the Alemanni, Juthungi and Marcomanni into Italy, profoundly affected the strategic thinking of the Roman hierarchy.

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