The Earliest Gothic Incursions

Because of this complicated problem of names in the sources, we cannot say with any certainty when the Goths began to impinge upon the life of the Roman empire, let alone precisely why they did so. The first securely attested Gothic raid into the empire took place in 238, when Goths attacked Histria on the Black Sea coast and sacked it; an offer of imperial subsidy encouraged their withdrawal. In 249, two kings called Argaith and Guntheric (or possibly a single king called Argunt) sacked Marcianople, a strategically important city and road junction very near the Black Sea. In 250, a Gothic king called Cniva crossed the Danube at the city of Oescus and sacked several Balkan cities, Philippopolis – modern Plovdiv in Bulgaria – the most significant. Philippopolis lies to the south of the Haemus range, the chain of mountains which runs roughly east-west and separates the Aegean coast and the open plains of Thrace from the Danube valley. The fact that Cniva and his army could spend the winter ensconced in the Roman province south of the mountains gives us some sense of his strength, which is confirmed by the events of 251. In that year, Cniva routed the army of the emperor Decius at Abrittus. Decius had persecuted Christians, and Lactantius, a Christian apologist of the early fourth century, recounts with great relish how Decius ‘was at once surrounded by barbarians and destroyed with a large part of his army. He could not even be honoured with burial, but – despoiled and abandoned as befitted an enemy of God – he lay there, food for beasts and carrion-birds’.

The Black Sea Raids

Gothic raids in Thrace continued in the 250s, and seaborne raids, launched from the northern Black Sea against coastal Asia Minor, began for the first time. What role Goths played in these latter attacks is unclear, as is their precise chronology. The first seaborne incursions, which took place at an uncertain date between 253 and 256, are attributed to Boranoi. This previously unknown Greek word may not refer to an ethnic or political group at all, but may instead mean simply ‘people from the north’. Goths did certainly take part in a third year’s seaborne raids, the most destructive yet. Whereas the Boranoi had damaged sites like Pityus and Trapezus that were easily accessible from the sea, the attacks of the third year reached deep into the provinces of Pontus and Bithynia, affecting famous centres of Greek culture like Prusa and Apamea, and major administrative sites like Nicomedia. A letter by Gregory Thaumaturgus – the ‘Wonderworker’ – casts unexpected light on these attacks. Gregory was bishop of Neocaesarea, a large city in the province of Pontus, and his letter sets out to answer the questions church leaders must confront in the face of war’s calamities: can the good Christian still pray with a woman who has been kidnapped and raped by barbarians? Should those who use the invasions as cover to loot their neighbours’ property be excommunicated? What about those who simply appropriate the belongings of those who have disappeared? Those who seize prisoners who have escaped their barbarian captors and put them to work? Or, worse still, those who ‘have been enrolled amongst the barbarians, forgetting that they were men of Pontus and Christians’, those, in other words, who have ‘become Goths and Boradoi to others’ because ‘the Boradoi and Goths have committed acts of war upon them’.

Ten years later, these assaults were repeated. Cities around the coast of the Black Sea were assaulted, not just those on the coast of Asia Minor, but Balkan sites like Tomi and Marcianople. With skillful seamanship, a barbarian fleet was able to pass from the Black Sea into the Aegean, carrying out lightning raids on islands as far south as Cyprus and Rhodes. Landings on the Aegean coasts of mainland Greece led to fighting around Thessalonica and in Attica, where Athens was besieged but defended successfully by the historian Dexippus, who would later write an account of these Gothic wars called the Scythica. Though only fragments of this work survive, Dexippus was a major source for the fifth- or early sixth-century New History of Zosimus, which survives in full and is now our best evidence for the third-century Gothic wars. As Zosimus shows us, several imperial generals and emperors – Gallienus, his general Aureolus, the emperors Claudius and Aurelian – launched counterattacks which eventually brought this phase of Gothic violence to an end. Gothic defeat in 268 ended the northern Greek raids, while Claudius won a smashing and much celebrated victory at Naissus, modern Niš, in 270.


Caesar’s Legions at Alesia I

It is not a simple matter to elucidate the number and types of Roman troops involved in the Battle of Alesia. Caesar fails to provide us with even the basic information, let alone give specific mention to the legions involved. We are left, therefore, to supposition and speculation for the most part. Caesar mentions eleven legions specifically in his commentaries on the Gallic campaigns, namely: the First, Sixth, and Seventh to Fifteenth Legions. Suetonius provides another legion, the Fifth, which he says Caesar specifically raised for the battles in Gaul. The Fifth Legion seems to have replaced the First Legion during the Alesia campaign. Armies in Caesar’s legions often had the bull as their emblem, although the adoption of individual emblems was also practised. The following is a brief summary of Caesar’s legions known to have taken part in the Gallic campaigns, and an account of their more important later actions.

Legio V Alaudae – Fifth Legion (‘The Larks’)

This legion was founded in Transalpine Gaul in the 50s BC. Suetonius states that it was raised specifically for the Gallic campaigns. Paid for by Caesar himself, it was only recognized by the Senate afterwards.

‘he added to the legions which he had received from the state others at his own cost, one actually composed of men of Transalpine Gaul and bearing a Gallic name too (for it was called Alauda), which he trained in the Roman tactics and equipped with Roman arms; and later on he gave every man of it citizenship.’

[Suetonius, Lives of the Twelve Caesars, 24]

By including provincials in a Roman legion, Caesar had begun the process of Romanization of the provinces, a practice that continued to the end of the Empire. By allowing provincial citizens to fight he was conferring on them the same rights as those of Roman citizens from mainland Italy. It is interesting to note that the nickname ‘The Larks’ has, at its root, a Gallic term and not a Latin one. This must have emphasized the provincial character of the unit to the rest of the army. The term has been associated with the wearing of feathers, sticking up on the helmet, reminiscent of the feathers on the head of the crested Lark. Then again, it may refer to Gallic-like wings or a crest on the helmet, or even to specifically pointed helmets. It is possible the legion was originally entitled the V Gallica and this might suggest that a distinctive physical characteristic of the legion may have led to a nickname that stuck. Whatever the physical manifestation of the cognomen, the unit certainly seems to have been conspicuous from the first. Following Alesia, the Fifth Legion fought well in the Civil Wars, its role being particularly noted at Thrapsus (Tunisia) in 45BC and Munda (Spain) the following year. The Fifth Legion fought across North Africa and the quality of the men of Caesar’s Fifth Legion is evident from one quote from the battle at Thrapsus:

‘And here we must not omit to notice the bravery of a veteran soldier of the Fifth Legion. For when an elephant which had been wounded and, roused to fury by the pain, ran against an unarmed camp follower, threw him under his feet, and kneeling on him with his whole weight, and brandishing his uplifted trunk, with hideous cries, crushed him to death, the soldier could not refrain from attacking the animal. The elephant, seeing him advance with his javelin in his hand, quitted the dead body of the camp follower, and seizing him with his trunk, wheeled him round in the air. But he, amid all the danger, preserving his presence of mind, ceased not with his sword to strike at the elephant’s trunk, which enwrapped him, and the animal, at last overcome with the pain, quitted the soldier, and fled to the rest with hideous cries.’

[Caesar, The African Wars, 84]

It was this event that won the legion the emblem of the elephant. In the Civil Wars both Caesar’s and Pompey’s armies fought with prolonged lines of fortifications, each attempting to gain a better position to strike out at the other. On one such occasion men of the Fifth Legion are again mentioned. Caesar’s forces were attacked while undertaking construction of the fortifications and so two centurions from the Fifth Legion made an attempt to stabilize the situation:

‘two centurions of the Fifth Legion passed the river, and restored the battle; when, pressing upon the enemy with astonishing bravery, one of them fell overwhelmed by the multitude of darts discharged from above. The other continued the combat for some time, but seeing himself in danger of being surrounded, endeavoured to make good his retreat, but stumbled and fell. His death being known, the enemy crowded together in still greater numbers, upon which our cavalry passed the river, and drove them back to their entrenchments.’

[Caesar, The Spanish Wars, 23]

After the Civil Wars the Fifth Legion may have been disbanded, but it was reformed later under the control of Marcus Antonius in the 30s BC, possibly fighting at Actium. In the empire Augustus created in the wake of the Republic, the Fifth Legion fought in the Western Empire until their defeat and disbandment in the Batavian revolt of AD69.

Legio VI Ferrata – Sixth Legion (‘Ironclad’)

Another legion created for the Gallic War in 52BC, it was possibly raised in Cisalpine Gaul, although little is known about its origins. The title Ferrata refers to either the legion’s iron will or some form of iron equipment. The term might be equated with the more modern term Cuirassier. Metallic armour of the period was usually mail links, so using the distinguishing term ‘Ferrata’ may have been a deliberate attempt to mark the unit out for its individualistic style of armour. Caesar mentions that the Sixth Legion was stationed at Saône, along with the Fourteenth, through the winter of 51BC, so its presence there means it was likely to have previously taken part in the Battle of Alesia. After the Gallic campaigns a ‘Sixth Legion’ is mentioned fighting in the Civil War on Pompey’s side. In Africa this legion deserted to Caesar, along with the Fourth Legion, so may have been Caesar’s old legion reverting to their old commander. Later, the Sixth Legion is identified as fighting in both Egypt and Syria. At Zela (now in modern-day Turkey) the Sixth Legion, although under strength from fighting in Egypt, fought well against a surprise attack by Pharnaces:

‘After a sharp and obstinate conflict, victory began to declare for us on the right wing, where the Sixth Legion was posted. The enemy there were totally overthrown, but, in the centre and left, the battle was long and doubtful; however, with the assistance of the gods, we at last prevailed there also, and drove them with the utmost precipitation down the hill which they had so easily ascended before.’

[Caesar, The Alexandrian War, 76]

Caesar later ordered the Sixth Legion to return to Italy to receive the honours and rewards it had won. In the Spanish War the Sixth Legion was again caught in a surprise attack, this time from Pompey’s forces:

‘About nine at night, the besieged, according to custom, spent a considerable time in casting fire and darts upon our soldiers, and wounded a great number of men. At daybreak they sallied upon the Sixth Legion, while we were busy at the works, and began a sharp contest, in which, however, our men got the better, though the besieged had the advantage of the higher ground. Those who had begun the attack, being vigorously opposed on our side, notwithstanding all the inconveniences we fought under, were at length obliged to retire into the town, with many wounds.’

[Caesar, The Spanish War, 12]

After the Civil Wars the Sixth Legion remained in the east and was commanded by Marcus Antonius in the 30s BC. During the Empire the legion returned to the east, where it ended its days in the third century AD. The legion’s emblem was the she-wolf and twins – symbolic of the Romulus and Remus myth.

Legio VII – Seventh Legion

Caesar often mentions the Seventh Legion, confirming its presence in the invasion of Gaul in 58BC, fighting against the Nervii in 57BC, again in the Veneti campaign of 56BC and also its involvement in both the British campaigns in 55BC and 54BC. During Vercingetorix’s revolt the Seventh Legion fought under Labienus at Paris:

‘But when the issue of the victory was still uncertain, and the circumstances which were taking place on the left wing were announced to the tribunes of the Seventh Legion, they faced about their legion to the enemy’s rear and attacked it: not even then did any one retreat, but all were surrounded and slain.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, VII. 62]

After the defeat of the Parisii, the remnants of the Seventh followed Labienus and united with Caesar before the march to Alesia. It is likely that they were in the heavy fighting with Labienus on the foot of Mont Réa. Following Alesia, the legion took part in the Bellovaci Campaign of 51BC, where Caesar marks it out along with the Eighth and Ninth Legions as having outstanding fighting ability. The legion went on to fight in the Civil War, being disbanded in 46BC. Reconstituted in 44BC by Augustus, the unit seems to have fought against Marcus Antonius. The Seventh Legion first won the title Claudia Pia Fidelis for being loyal to Claudius during Scribonianus’ rebellion in AD42, finally winning it for a sixth time in the third century AD Pia VI Fidelis VI (‘Six Times Faithful, Six Times Loyal’). The unit was still in existence in the fourth century AD on the middle Danube frontier. Its emblem was the Bull.

Legio VIII – Eighth Legion

This legion was raised around 59BC and fought in the Gallic War, where Caesar mentions it engaged in the fighting against the Nervii in 57BC and at Gergovia in 52BC. At Gergovia Caesar picks out the legion and cites the bravery of its centurions:

‘Lucius Fabius, a centurion of the Eighth Legion, who, it was ascertained, had said that day among his fellow soldiers that he was excited by the plunder won at Bourges, and would not allow any one to mount the wall before him, finding three men of his own company, and being raised up by them, scaled the wall. He himself, in turn, taking hold of them one by one, drew them up to the wall.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, VII. 47]

‘Marcus Petreius, a centurion of the same legion, after attempting to hew down the gates, was overpowered by numbers, and, despairing of his safety, having already received many wounds, said to the soldiers of his own company who followed him: “Since I cannot save you as well as myself, I shall at least provide for your safety, since I allured by the love of glory, led you into this danger, do you save yourselves when an opportunity is given.” At the same time he rushed into the midst of the enemy, and slaying two of them, drove back the rest a little from the gate. When his men attempted to aid him, in vain, he says, “you endeavour to procure my safety since blood and strength are now failing me, therefore leave this, while you have the opportunity, and retreat to the legion.” Thus he fell fighting a few moments after, and saved his men by his own death.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, VII. 50]

Given the legion was in Gaul, it is likely to have been one of those that fought at Alesia, particularly as it is mentioned in relation to the Bellovacan Campaign of 51BC. In that campaign Caesar again marks it out for comment, along with the Seventh and Ninth Legions, as having outstanding fighting ability. After the Gallic Campaign the legion was given the title Gallica, following which the Eighth Legion crossed into Italy with Caesar and continued to fight with him in the Civil War. The legion fought at Ilerda in Spain, in 49BC, where the fighting techniques of the Spanish were disconcerting for Caesar’s troops:

‘Almost the whole army being daunted at this, because it had occurred contrary to their expectations and custom, Caesar encouraged his men and led the Ninth Legion to their relief, and checked the insolent and eager pursuit of the enemy, and obliged them, in their turn, to show their backs, and retreat to Ilerda, and take post under the walls. But the soldiers of the Ninth Legion, being overzealous to repair the dishonour which had been sustained, having rashly pursued the fleeing enemy, advanced into disadvantageous ground and went up to the foot of the mountain on which the town Ilerda was built …’

[Caesar, The Civil War, I. 45]

Soon after Ilerda, the legion was commanded by Marcus Antonius at the battles of Dyrrachium (Albania) and Pharsalus (Greece) in 48BC. At Pharsalus the Eighth Legion, still under strength from the fighting previously at Dyrrachium, was placed alongside the Ninth on the left wing, in an attempt to bolster them both. This formation proved successful and was repeated again in Africa against Scipio’s forces. Following its disbandment, after the Civil War, the legion was reconstituted in 44BC by Augustus, and fought with him against Marcus Antonius as the ‘Gallic Augustan’ legion. The legion went on to be attested along the Rhine–Danube frontier until the fourth century AD, and can possibly be identified as the ‘Octaviani. Legio Palatina’ (derived from the conjoining of Augustus’ original name Octavian and Palatina, denoting a senior unit) in the late fourth century AD manuscript the Notitia Dignitatum.


Caesar’s Legions at Alesia II

Legio IX (possibly titled ‘Hispana’) – Ninth Legion (‘Spanish’)

Probably raised by Caesar before 58BC, little is known of this legion, although given its cognomen it is likely to have been either constituted or stationed in Spain. It fought against the Nervii in 57BC and is likely to have also fought at Alesia. After Alesia the legion took part in the Bellovacan Campaign of 51BC, where Caesar remarked on its outstanding fighting ability, along with the Seventh and Eighth Legions. The Ninth Hispana fought on Caesar’s side in the Civil War and was allied with the Eighth Legion on at least two occasions, in Africa and Greece. The Ninth is mentioned as coming under attack during the skirmishes around Dyrrachium (Albania) in 48BC. In response the Ninth replied bravely:

‘The soldiers of the Ninth Legion suddenly closing their files, threw their javelins, and advancing impetuously from the low ground up the steep, drove Pompey’s men precipitately before them, and obliged them to turn their backs; but their retreat was greatly impeded by the hurdles that lay in a long line before them, and the palisades which were in their way, and the trenches that were sunk. But our men being contented to retreat without injury, having killed several of the enemy, and lost but five of their own, very quietly retired, and having seized some other hills somewhat on this side of that place, completed their fortifications.’

[Caesar, The Civil War, III. 46]

Later, Pompey tried again to break through the fortifications that were surrounding his camp and again he met with solid resistance from the Ninth Legion, only this time a multi-pronged attack led to success for Pompey:

‘For when our cohorts of the Ninth Legion were on guard by the seaside, Pompey’s army arrived suddenly by break of day, and their approach was a surprise to our men, and at the same time, the soldiers that came by sea, cast their darts on the front rampart; and the ditches were filled with fascines: and the legionary soldiers terrified those that defended the inner rampart, by applying the scaling-ladders, and by engines and weapons of all sorts, and a vast multitude of archers poured round upon them from every side. Besides, the coverings of osiers, which they had laid over their helmets, were a great security to them against the blows of stones that were the only weapons that our soldiers had. And therefore, when our men were oppressed in every manner, and were scarcely able to make resistance, the defect in our works was observed, and Pompey’s soldiers, landing between the two ramparts, where the work was unfinished, attacked our men in the rear, and having beat them from both sides of the fortification, obliged them to flee.’

[Caesar, The Civil War, III. 63]

Later that year, at Pharsalus, the Eighth Legion – still under strength from the fighting at Dyrrachium – was placed alongside the Ninth on the left wing, in an attempt to bolster them both. This formation was repeated again in Africa against Scipio’s forces. The earlier valour of the Ninth Legion was not reflected by its behaviour at Placentia (Greece). Here its soldiers mutinied, saying they had served too long and demanding back pay. Caesar’s response was swift: he threatened decimation (the execution of one in ten men). This threat seems to have worked, with Caesar ultimately conceding that only the twelve instigators should be executed. After the Civil War the legion was disbanded, but later reconstituted by Augustus in 41BC. The legion went on to fight in Germany and in the invasion of Britain in AD43. Up until recently, this legion was last attested in the historical record in second century AD Britain, the account of its destruction inspiring a number of books, such as Rosemary Sutcliff’s Eagle of the Ninth. More recent evidence has shown its presence on the Danube frontier in the third century AD and so now it is thought that the legion may have been destroyed either there or during the Second Jewish War.

Legio X Equestris – Tenth Legion (‘Mounted’)

The Tenth Equestris was one of four legions Caesar inherited as governor of Cisalpine Gaul, and quickly rose to become one of Caesar’s favourites. This legion was possibly raised in 61BC. Caesar mentions it in the Gallic campaigns, in the battle against the Nervii, taking part in the invasion of Britain and fighting at the Siege of Gergovia. It is very likely that this legion was at also Alesia, as Caesar singles it out a number of times, and on one occasion mentions that he placed his faith in the Tenth Legion.

‘But that, if no one else should follow, yet he [Caesar] would go with only the Tenth Legion, of which he had no misgivings, and it should be his praetorian cohort. This legion Caesar had both greatly favoured, and in it, on account of its valour, placed the greatest confidence.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, II. 40]

The legion went on to win the title ‘Equestris’, due to an unusual event from Caesar’s conflict with Ariovistus, the so-called ‘King of the Germans’ in 58BC. Caesar had set out to stop Ariovistus’ control of the Aedui and Sequani, a Roman client kingdom. Caesar openly writes that he was concerned that Ariovistus’ intrusion into Gaul would end in the expansion of Germanic rule, and ultimately to the invasion of the Italian peninsula, as the Cimbri and Teutoni had previously done. Memories of Rome’s failure when tested by the Germans galvanized Caesar to act. After lengthy negotiations, Caesar managed to bring Ariovistus to a meeting. Ariovistus had stipulated that no infantry attend the meeting, as he did not wish to be ambushed. Knowing Caesar had mainly Gallic cavalry, Ariovistus had tried to put Caesar on the back foot with this demand.

‘Caesar, as he neither wished that the conference should, by an excuse thrown in the way, be set aside, nor durst trust his life to the cavalry of the Gauls, decided that it would be most expedient to take away from the Gallic cavalry all their horses, and thereon to mount the legionary soldiers of the Tenth Legion, in which he placed the greatest confidence; in order that he might have a bodyguard as trustworthy as possible, should there be any need for action. And when this was done, one of the soldiers of the Tenth Legion said, not without a touch of humour, that Caesar did more for them than he had promised; he had promised to have the Tenth Legion in place of his praetorian cohort; but he now converted them into knights …’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, II. 42]

The Tenth went on to fight with Caesar in the Civil War, taking the prestigious place on his right wing at Pharsalus in 48BC. The valour of one of its centurions prompted Caesar to comment:

‘There was in Caesar’s army, a volunteer of the name of Crastinus, who the year before had been first centurion of the Tenth Legion, a man of pre-eminent bravery. He, when the signal was given, says, “Follow me, my old comrades, and display such exertions in behalf of your general as you have determined to do: this is our last battle, and when it shall be won, he will recover his dignity, and we our liberty.” At the same time he looked back to Caesar, and said, “General, I will act in such a manner today, that you will feel grateful to me living or dead.” After uttering these words he charged first on the right wing, and about 120 chosen volunteers of the same century followed.’

[Caesar, The Civil War, III. 91]

Later that year the Tenth were in Africa and Caesar relates how they came into contact with one of Caesar’s old generals, Labienus.

‘Labienus, with his head uncovered, advanced on horseback to the front of the battle, sometimes encouraging his own men, sometimes addressing Caesar’s legions thus: “So ho! You raw soldiers there!” says he, “Why so fierce? Has he infatuated you too with his words? Truly he has brought you into a fine condition! I pity you sincerely.” Upon this, one of the soldiers said: “I am none of your raw warriors, Labienus, but a veteran of the Tenth Legion.” “Where’s your standard?” replied Labienus. “I’ll soon make you sensible who I am,” answered the soldier. Then pulling off his helmet, to discover himself, he threw a javelin, with all his strength at Labienus, which wounding his horse severely in the breast “Know, Labienus,” says he, “that this dart was thrown by a soldier of the Tenth Legion …”’

[Caesar, The African Wars, 16]

Two years later the Tenth Legion mutinied, asking for discharge and back pay. To the legionaries’ surprise, Caesar acknowledged their petition, granting them discharge and addressing them as ordinary citizens. After realizing they were now defenceless civilians the legionaries were soon asking to be taken back into service, fighting on Caesar’s right wing at Munda in 45BC. Finally disbanded after the Civil War in 45BC, the Tenth Legion was later reconstituted by Augustus as the X Gemina (‘Twin’). Well attested through the Roman Empire, the legion won the title Pia VI Fidelis VI (‘Six Times Faithful, Six Times Loyal’) in the third century AD and is finally mentioned as being stationed at Vindobona (Vienna) in the fourth century AD. The legion’s emblem was the bull – typical of Caesar’s legions.

Legio XI – Eleventh Legion

One of the two legions recruited specifically to fight against the Helvetii in 58BC, the Eleventh Legion also fought the Nervii in 57BC, at the Siege of Bourges in 52BC, after which it was likely to have followed Caesar to Alesia. In the Civil War the Eleventh was sent to Macedonia but no further information is forthcoming. Disbanded in 45BC, it was reconstituted by Augustus and is attested until the early fifth century AD. Reasonably well attested throughout the Roman Empire, the legion won the titles Claudia Pia Fidelis for being loyal to Claudius during Scribonianus’ rebellion in AD42, and went on to be awarded the title for the sixth time in the third century AD Pia VI Fidelis VI (‘Six Times Faithful, Six Times Loyal’). Vexillations (detachments of the legion) are attested around the Empire during the third century AD and the legion is last mentioned in the fifth century AD, guarding the lower Danube frontier at Durostorum (modern-day Silistra, Bulgaria). Its emblem seems to have been either the she-wolf and twins or the sea-god Neptune.

Legio XII Fulminata – Twelfth Legion (‘Wielders of the Thunderbolt’)

The second of the two legions recruited specifically to fight against the Helvetii in 58BC, the Twelfth Legion also fought against the Nervii in 57BC. In 56BC Caesar describes the Twelfth Legion as opening the route through the Alps under Servius Galba and encamping near Geneva. Suddenly the camp was overrun with a mixed army of Seduni and Veragri and for the under strength legion the onslaught was almost too much to bear:

‘When they had now been fighting for more than six hours, without cessation, and not only strength, but even weapons were failing our men, and the enemy were pressing on more rigorously, and had begun to demolish the rampart and to fill up the trench, while our men were becoming exhausted, and the matter was now brought to the last extremity, P. Sextius Baculus, a centurion of the first rank, whom we have related to have been disabled by severe wounds in the engagement with the Nervii, and also Q. Volusenus, a tribune of the soldiers, a man of great skill and valour, hasten to Galba, and assure him that the only hope of safety lay in making a sally, and trying the last resource. Whereupon, assembling the centurions, he quickly gives orders to the soldiers to discontinue the fight a short time, and only collect the weapons flung [at them], and recruit themselves after their fatigue, and afterwards, upon the signal being given, sally forth from the camp, and place in their valour all their hope of safety.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, III. 5]

‘They do what they were ordered; and, making a sudden sally from all the gates [of the camp], leave the enemy the means neither of knowing what was taking place, nor of collecting themselves. Fortune thus taking a turn, [our men] surround on every side, and slay those who had entertained the hope of gaining the camp, and having killed more than the third part of an army of more than 30,000 men (which number of the barbarians it appeared certain had come up to our camp), put to flight the rest when panic-stricken, and do not suffer them to halt even upon the higher grounds. All the forces of the enemy being thus routed, and stripped of their arms, our men betake themselves to their camp and fortifications.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, III. 6]

The Twelfth fought with Labienus against the Parisii in 52BC, where it was hard-pressed by the attacking Gauls.

‘on the left wing, which position the Twelfth Legion held, although the first ranks fell transfixed by the javelins of the Romans, yet the rest resisted most bravely; nor did any one of them show the slightest intention of flying. Camulogenus, the general of the enemy, was present and encouraged his troops.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, VII. 62]

The Twelfth held on until further legions could turn the assault. The legion’s brave fighting at Paris meant it undoubtedly was with Caesar at Alesia. It is likely the Twelfth Legion was part of Labienus’ tough fight on the foot of Mont Réa. In the year following Alesia the Twelfth Legion was given to Marcus Antonius, who commanded it under Caesar at the Siege of Uxellodunum. The legion went on to fight with Caesar in the Civil War and later with Marcus Antonius in the East from the 40s BC. From then on the Twelfth Legion saw all of its service in the East, finally being recorded guarding the banks of the Euphrates in the fifth century AD. With its service mainly in the East of the Empire, some authors even suggest that Legio XII has been mentioned as far from Rome as Azerbaijan. Although its emblem was Caesar’s bull, it is thought that the thunderbolt was a more commonly used symbol.

Legio XIII Gemina – Thirteenth Legion (‘Twin’)

One of the two legions recruited specifically to fight against the Belgae in 57BC, hence its cognomen ‘Twin’. It is also mentioned in the battle against the Nervii and at Gergovia and so we could expect it to be at Alesia. The following year it was at winter quarters in the territory of the Bituriges, after which it was summoned to Caesar for the Bellovacan Campaign of 51BC, where it took part in the Siege of Uxellodunum. In 55BC the legion was to be found protecting the north of Italy, and later it had the honour of crossing the Rubicon with Caesar in 49BC. The legion fought alongside Caesar during the Civil War, in Egypt, Tunisia and at Munda in Spain, after which it was disbanded. Reconstituted by Augustus as the Legio XIII Gemina (‘Twin Legion’), it was celebrated on coins at least twice during the third century, finally being attested in the fifth century AD in Egypt. The emblem of the legion was the lion, symbol of Jupiter.

Legio XIIII – Fourteenth Legion

Possibly the second of the two legions recruited specifically to fight against the Belgae, there is no mention of the cognomen ‘Gemina’ at this date but if the Fourteenth was recruited along with the Thirteenth, then the ‘Twin’ nickname might be appropriate. Caesar refers to the legion in Gaul in 53BC, during his conflict with Ambiorix and the Sugambri.

‘Then, having divided his forces into three parts, he sent the baggage of all the legions to Aduatuca. That is the name of a fort. This is nearly in the middle of the Eburones, where Titurius and Aurunculeius had been quartered for the purpose of wintering. This place he selected as well on other accounts as because the fortifications of the previous year remained, in order that he might relieve the labour of the soldiers. He left the Fourteenth Legion as a guard for the baggage, one of those three which he had lately raised in Italy and brought over.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, VI. 32]

Given Caesar’s seeming lack of confidence in the fresh unit, its place at the Battle of Alesia may have been marginalized somewhat in favour of other veteran legions. There seems no doubt that the legion was at Alesia, as the Fourteenth is mentioned as being stationed with the Sixth, on the Saône, through the following winter. The legion fought in the Civil War with Caesar and was fighting at Thrapsus in 46BC. The Fourteenth fought with particular note in Spain, at Ilerda.

‘In the first encounter about seventy of our men fell: among them Quintus Fulgenius, first centurion of the second line of the Fourteenth Legion, who, for his extraordinary valour, had been promoted from the lower ranks to that post.’

[Caesar, The Civil War, I. 45]

Caesar once more recounted the bravery of the officers of the Fourteenth Legion, this time in the African Wars. A group of Caesar’s soldiers had been captured, and Scipio had them brought to him and asked them to join him against Caesar:

‘Scipio having ended his speech, and expecting a thankful return to so gracious an offer, permitted them to reply; one of their number, a centurion of the Fourteenth Legion, thus addressed him: “Scipio,” says he “for I cannot give you the appellation of general. I return you my hearty thanks for the good treatment you are willing to show to prisoners of war; and perhaps I might accept of your kindness were it not to be purchased at the expense of a horrible crime. What! Shall I carry arms, and fight against Caesar, my general, under whom I have served as centurion; and against his victorious army, to whose renown I have for more than thirty-six years endeavoured to contribute by my valour? It is what I will never do, and even advise you not to push the war any further. You know not what troops you have to deal with, nor the difference betwixt them and yours: of which, if you please, I will give you an indisputable instance. Do you pick out the best cohort you have in your army, and give me only ten of my comrades, who are now your prisoners, to engage them: you shall see by the success, what you are to expect from your soldiers.”’

[Caesar, The African Wars, 45]

‘When the centurion had courageously made this reply, Scipio, incensed at his boldness, and resenting the affront, made a sign to some of his officers to kill him on the spot, which was immediately put in execution.’

[Caesar, The African Wars, 45–6]

The legion went on to fight in Tunisia, and after the Civil War the Fourteenth Legion seems likely to have been reconstituted, together with another legion as the Legio XIIII Gemina (‘Twin’) in the 40s BC. The legion was given the titles Martia Victrix (Victorious in Battle) by Nero after its victory over Boudicca in AD61. The legion then passed on to be stationed along the Rhine–Danube frontier, where it is attested in the fourth century at Carnuntum (in lower Austria). The emblem of the later legion was the Capricorn, like many of Augustus’ legions, although it may be anticipated that the emblem of the legion at Alesia was Caesar’s bull.

Legio XV – Fifteenth Legion

Little is known about this legion. It is possible that the legion fought at Alesia with Caesar. It did not serve in the Siege of Uxellodunum, Caesar preferring to send it to protect the Roman colonies in northern Italy. Subsequently, in 55BC, when Caesar was ordered by the Senate to send a legion to the conflict in Parthia, it was the Fifteenth he chose. It is possible that he chose the weakest of his units, as the rest of his legions were left to protect Gaul, which he had high personal interest in retaining. The Fifteenth Legion went on to become embroiled in Caesar’s dispute with Pompey. On returning to Italy he discovered the Fifteenth still in Italy. The legion, along with the First (another of Caesar’s legions), had not been sent to Parthia, but had been handed to Pompey and kept in Italy. At this point Caesar’s fears over the political wrangling that had gone on in Rome while he campaigned in Gaul had come to fruition. At the Battle of Pharsalus in 48BC, Pompey used Caesar’s old legions, the Fifteenth (now numbered the Third) and First, against him. These should have been some of Pompey’s most experienced units in the battle, but they faced Caesar’s favourite, the Tenth Legion. Whether because they lacked fighting ability or had split loyalties, Pompey’s legions fought nowhere near as effectively as Caesar’s. The result was a rout and disaster for Pompey. Caesar permitted the legionaries to surrender but the auxiliaries were slaughtered. It is likely the unit was reconstituted after the Civil War by Augustus (in 40BC) as the Legio XV Apollinaris (‘Devoted to Apollo’), although there is no direct connection between the two units and the Augustan unit may simply have taken the number of a legion that had previously been disbanded. The Fifteenth Legion is attested throughout the Empire and seems to have finished in the east at Satala (Turkey).


Roman Emperors: Gordian III to Valerian Part I

Shapur I as he may have appeared during his campaigns against the Roman armies in the 3rd century AD.

The bloodletting of summer 238 ended, in Italy at least, in a relatively stable peace. The 12-year-old emperor Gordian III, acclaimed caesar in February, and then augustus in May or June, was watched over by a cabal of mainly equestrian officials who determined imperial policy. These men were led by C. Furius Sabinius Timesitheus, the praetorian prefect, whose power was such that he married his daughter Tranquillina to the emperor himself in May 241, as soon as she was old enough. But whatever stability had accompanied the end of the civil war proved illusory. The proconsul of Africa, M. Asinius Sabinianus, who had replaced old Gordian, revolted soon after the new regime had settled. He was an old Severan, having been consul in 225, and it may be that he objected to the sidelining of the consular elites after the failure of Pupienus and Balbinus’s regime. Sabinianus’s putsch failed, put down by the procurator of Mauretania, Faltonius Restitutianus. He was replaced as proconsul by L. Caesonius Lucillus Macer Rufinianus, who had been one of the vigintiviri alongside Balbinus and Pupienus, which suggests that we must not read events in terms of senatorial and equestrian factions at court, but instead as rival factions within equestrian and senatorial ordines.

Nevertheless, with Timesitheus at the centre of things, the government continued to have the professional, systematising outlook of the bureaucratic classes – among the equestrians known to have prospered greatly during the reign we find M. Gnaius Licinius Rufinus, as a libellis; C. Attius Alcimus Felicianus, whose career had begun under Elagabalus and whose financial posts clearly made him something of an expert in the field; Gnaeus Domitius Philippus, who was prefect of the vigiles at the start of the reign; Faltonius Restitutianus, who put down the revolt of Sabinianus in Africa; and two brothers from Arabia, Julius Priscus and Julius Philippus, the latter becoming emperor within a few years: by the early 240s, the world in which the accession of Macrinus had been resisted because he was not a senator no longer existed.

In 238, the regime’s first order of business was Persia. The Sasanian kings who replaced the Arsacids in Persia and Mesopotamia were much more expansionary than their predecessors had been, bringing to heel the semi-independent satraps of Mesopotamia and the Caucasus, in part provoked by the survival of the Arsacids in Armenia, where kings like Tiridates II (r. 217–52) attempted to rally other frontier dynasts as far away as India against Ardashir. By the time the regime of the young Gordian had settled, much of Roman Mesopotamia was exposed to Persian invasion, Nisibis, Carrhae and Hatra had all fallen, and other fortress cities like Singara could not be re-enforced. The prestige of the new regime at Rome would be much enhanced if it could secure the eastern frontiers in a way that Maximinus had failed entirely to do.

Leaving behind Alcimus Felicianus to run Rome, and having appointed Julius Priscus as his fellow praetorian prefect, Timesitheus and the young emperor marched east in 242, evidently having found it difficult to muster a campaign army. They signalled the gravity of their intentions by opening the doors of the temple of Janus in Rome itself, probably the last time in history that this archaic ritual declaration of war was performed. They then progressed overland through Moesia and Thrace, their crossing from Europe to Asia, probably early in the summer of 242, being commemorated with an issue of gold medallions with the legend traiectus, ‘crossed over’, to important courtiers. Antioch in Syria served, as it usually did, as the staging point for the campaign against Persia, but delays were endemic. The year 243 was spent in Syria, but not until the winter of 243–4 do we find the army fighting along the Euphrates. It may be that the death of Timesitheus sometime in 243 had contributed to the delay. His successor as prefect was Julius Philippus, brother of the other prefect Julius Priscus. The joint prefecture of two brothers was unheard of, but in the circumstances, the two men had become indispensable: they came from Shaba in Arabia, had risen through the equestrian grades (Priscus, at least, had once been a fiscal procurator), and their local connections made them a good conduit to the region’s elites whose cooperation was necessary if the campaign was to go smoothly and the army was to be properly supplied.

Egypt and Cyrene

At first, the fighting went the Romans’ way and a victory over Persian forces is recorded in the sources, perhaps at Resaina in Osrhoene, and possibly in battle against the Persian shah himself. This was now Shapur I, ruling alone after the death of Ardashir in 242, though he had been effectively in charge since 240, when he was crowned co-ruler with his father. Shapur, even more than Ardashir, was the true architect of Sasanian power. Though he had not yet articulated an ambition to recreate the Persian empire of the Achaemenids, there is no question that he embraced an Achaemenid more than a Parthian model of display. What is more, he took to new levels his father’s militance, campaigning on every frontier of his empire and imposing Sasanian governors, often members of his own house.

Much of what we know about Shapur’s early reign comes from the monumental inscription he put up to commemorate his victories at Naqsh-e Rustam. The site is significant, for it lies a few miles outside the ancient Achaemenid city of Persepolis and houses the rock-cut tombs of several Achaemenid kings, including Darius the Great and probably Xerxes I. By appropriating for his own display the necropolis of the last conquering dynasty to come from Fars, Shapur was perhaps implying a continuity with them, and certainly displaying himself firmly in a Persian rather than a Mesopotamian or Parthian light.

Of the two earliest Sasanian reliefs at Naqsh-e Rustam, one shows Shapur on horseback, with a Roman emperor kneeling in supplication before him. The other shows Shapur’s father Ardashir being invested with his crown by the supreme Zoroastrian divinity Ohrmazd. A more elaborate version of the Shapur monument appears at Bishapur, a town that served as a staging post between the Sasanian dynastic centre at Istakhr and the old Parthian capital at Ctesiphon in Mesopotamia. Back at Naqsh-e Rustam, a square tower known as the Ka’ba-i Zardusht (or the Kaaba of Zoroaster) stood opposite the rock-cut tombs of the Achaemenids, and had served as a Zoroastrian fire sanctuary since the reign of the Achaemenid Darius. On it, Shapur’s son Ohrmazd I had inscribed a text in three languages – Parthian, Middle Persian and Greek – that his father had composed in the last years of his long reign, outlining an official version of his glorious deeds and his piety. The inscription gives Shapur’s title as His Mazdayasnian Majesty Shapur, King of Kings of Iran and not-Iran (or of the Aryans and the non-Aryans) Whose Seed is from the Gods. Shapur’s father Ardashir had already revived the Achaemenid title of shahanshah (‘king of kings’) and asserted a personal connection to Ohrmazd, but Shapur now added an explicit claim to universal rulership that matched that of the Roman emperors. The rest of the text gives us the Persian account of Shapur’s struggles with his neighbours and is often strikingly different from what we find in the Greek and Latin sources, sometimes completely contradicting them. It also, to some extent, confirms the strong focus of Shapur on his conflicts with the Romans, rather than with other parts of his realm, for the battles that he commemorates on his inscription are all those that he fought against the Romans, rather than on his eastern and north-eastern frontiers.

And yet we also know that Shapur inherited the same problems his Arsacid predecessors had faced on the eastern frontier. Early in his reign, he may have subjugated Khwarezm, the northernmost of the Central Asian oases, at the delta of the Amu Darya beside what was then still the Aral sea, though it never became a province of the empire. It was also Shapur, though when in his reign we do not know, who reduced the Kushanshahr to a client state of his dynasty, marked by a series of coinages that we know as Kushano-Sasanian. Here, as elsewhere, we continue to learn a great deal that is new in Sasanian history from the numismatic evidence – much of it, sadly, coming to light from the clandestine excavation and looting made possible by conflict in present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan. Most significantly, the heavy concentration of Sasanian minting in places like Merv and elsewhere in the east, some of it by die-workers clearly trained in the metropolitan mint at Ctesiphon, demonstrates how much military force was needed to control the east under Shapur and how many campaigns he must have fought there.

In his inscription, he lays claim to Sind and ‘the Kushanshahr up to Peshawar and up to Kashgar, Sogdiana and the mountains of Tashkent’, but he does not tell us about the fighting that was clearly necessary to control that region. Instead, he focuses on his Roman victories – reciprocating the kind of focus that Roman emperors had for their eastern neighbours. This Sasanian focus on Rome marks a change from the Arsacids’ more balanced division of attention between their eastern and western frontiers, although Shapur did continue the Arsacid policy of farming out control of the Syrian and northern Arabian deserts to clients, most particularly the Lakhmid king of Hira, Imru’ulqais, who had succeeded his father some years before and went on to serve not just Shapur but also his successors Ohrmazd I and Varahran I as satrap of Iraq and the Hijaz.

For historians of the Roman empire, this Sasanian interest in Rome offers a valuable counterpoint to the sparse imperial evidence. On the Naqsh-e Rustam monument, Shapur claims to have defeated and killed the emperor Gordian at Misiche (or, in Persian, Mishik) on the middle Euphrates. Of the three Roman emperors depicted on the victory monument, one lies dead on the ground, one is supplicant and the third has been taken captive – Gordian, Philip and Valerian, respectively. Shapur also renamed Misiche Peroz-Shapur, or ‘victorious is Shapur’. By contrast with Shapur’s explicit claims, the Roman sources are ambiguous. None straightforwardly attests Gordian’s death in battle. Indeed, the best Roman evidence suggests that Gordian died further north than Misiche, at Zaitha, sometime between mid January and mid March 244. He was certainly buried there, at least temporarily, in a massive tumulus that could still be seen more than a hundred years later, when another Roman army was invading the region.

What actually happened will never be known, but Gordian was a teenager and had little military experience. Few can have expected great things of him on the battlefield. It may be that a mid-winter defeat by Shapur on the edge of Persian territory, one in which the emperor himself was perhaps badly wounded, prompted a disgruntled soldiery to assassinate him at Zaitha. An opaque passage in the life of the philosopher Plotinus, who had been accompanying the imperial expedition on a sort of research trip for esoteric knowledge, suggests that there was rioting in the Roman camp when Gordian was killed. As one would expect, many sources – from the near-contemporary apocalyptic text known as the Thirteenth Sybilline Oracle to the fourth-century Latin tradition of abbreviated histories – blame the man who profited from Gordian’s death for causing it, Julius Philippus, the praetorian prefect who had succeeded Timesitheus. But Philippus (or Philip the Arab, as he is conventionally known) was not with the army at the time of Gordian’s death, though his brother Priscus may have been. That fact could explain why the older and presumably predominant brother did not himself take the throne – throughout late Roman history, councils of army officers sometimes chose an imperial candidate who could achieve consensus precisely because he was not present on the spot to take part in debate about the succession.

Regardless of how Gordian died, it took a lot of negotiation for the army to extricate itself from disputed territory, and the new emperor had to act personally as a supplicant in the peace talks. The settlement, which was all Philip could have hoped for in the circumstances, was the root of endless further conflict between Persian and Roman monarchs. According to the Roman sources, Philip ‘betrayed’ Armenia to the Persians, which must mean that he acknowledged Shapur’s right to determine that kingdom’s succession, as the Arsacids had done for centuries. Shapur, in his victory inscription from Naqsh-e Rustam, claims both that Philip became his tributary and that he was made to pay an indemnity of half a million gold aurei, a seemingly impossible sum, but at the very least an approximation of the scale: to get his army out of Persia safely, Philip mortgaged his throne. In all likelihood, along with acknowledging Sasanian hegemony in Armenian affairs, he also transferred the traditional supplementary payments for guarding the Caucasian passes against nomadic incursions from the Armenians to the Persians themselves, hence the shahanshah’s willingness to claim that Philip was offering him tribute – and hence, too, the reason the Roman sources are silent on such details.

Philip, for his part, put as happy a face on things as he plausibly could. Back in Antioch, he struck antoniniani with the legend pax fundata cum Persis (‘peace made with Persia’), took for himself the titles Parthicus and Persicus Maximus, and began to establish the dynastic image of his family. His wife, Marcia Otacilia Severa, was made augusta and named mater castrorum, a direct assertion of the regime’s concern for its soldiers. Then, on two key frontiers, Philip installed relatives as his representatives: his brother Julius Priscus in Syria and their brother-in-law Severianus (Otacilia Severa’s brother) on the Danube in Moesia. He himself returned to Rome as quickly as possible, taking the sea route up the coast of Asia Minor, reaching the imperial capital early in the summer of 244. Severianus’s command shows the growing importance, in these years, of the Danubian armies by contrast to those of the Rhine frontier; it may also be an early sign of the increasingly assertive Roman self-consciousness in a region that was one of the last Latin-speaking parts of the empire to gain widespread access to the Roman citizenship – certainly men from the Danube would come to dominate politics in the latter half of the century.

The Syrian command of Julius Priscus, meanwhile, demonstrates Philip’s determination to keep an eye on Persian developments and to maintain the family’s close connections to their native east. The reconstruction of the dynastic home town of Shahba under the new name of Philippopolis was a truly massive endeavour, one financed in part by stricter financial exactions under the supervision of Priscus. Priscus’s role is also significant: he was not merely the governor of Syria but also corrector, a nebulous word that signalled his precedence over other officials. He possessed, in other words, supra-regional jurisdiction over the other governors of the east, an important precedent for later third-century experiments in government. Priscus was, to all practical purposes, Philip’s co-ruler in the east. Severianus probably disposed of a similar authority in the Balkans, though his title is not explicitly attested in the way that Priscus’s is.

At the same time that Philip was securing his familial power in this way, he was also ensuring that he had no challenges to his own legitimacy – he had not forgotten how popular the young Gordian had been with the people of Rome, and so he put about word that Gordian had died of an illness and brought his body back to Rome, burying it with honours. He also asked the senate to approve the dead boy’s consecration as Divus Gordianus, which it did, and though Tranquillina disappears from the historical record, she is likely to have enjoyed an honourable retirement, since she and Gordian had lacked any worrisome heirs. Philip’s own son, born around 237/238 and thus five years old, was now made caesar. Because of the poor documentation for this period, we do not know how long this relative tranquillity lasted, or how popular Philip was in Rome itself. But trouble at the frontiers occupied the middle of his reign.

Just as the earlier 200s had seen upheavals among the barbarian polities of the upper Rhine and Danube, so the middle years of the century brought major cultural and political change beyond the lower Danube and the northern Black Sea coast. Scholars have traditionally associated these changes with the arrival in the region of Goths migrating from their former homes in what is now Poland. This narrative is shaped around what we find in the Getica of Jordanes, a tale of ethnic origins composed hundreds of years later, in sixth-century Constantinople, by a Latin-speaking Roman of Gothic descent. Archaeological evidence has been consistently distorted to fit a legendary saga of mass migration and Scandinavian origins. But this simplistic model is not well supported by the evidence.


Roman Emperors: Gordian III to Valerian Part II

Lanciarii (javelin-armed infantrymen) of Legio II Parthica, mid-III c. AD.

It is true that a new and relatively homogeneous archaeological culture developed between the Carpathians and the Donets river in the second half of the third century, and that by the 320s this region was ruled by a number of tribal polities whose main language was Gothic and whose military elites are lumped together as ‘Goths’ in the Roman sources. This archaeological culture, which we call Sântana-de-Mures/Černjachov, is named for two cemeteries, one in modern Rumania, one in modern Ukraine, that share characteristic types of grave goods and burial ritual. New forms of settlement appear in this region during the second half of the third century as well, with farming villages clustered along the arable river valleys, large compounds for the elites dominating the landscape, a predilection for high-value Roman imports and a symbiotic relationship with nomadic pastoralists where agricultural lands bordered the grassy steppe. The decorative and dress styles revealed in the grave goods share some affinities with those found a century or so earlier in northern Poland, but they also show elements of central European origin, and quite a lot of influence from the nomadic art of the Eurasian steppe.

Rather than shoehorning this evidence into a narrative of mass migration from the north in order to fit our late literary evidence, responsible scholars recognise a local development, involving migration from both the steppes and parts of northern Europe, reshaping the more fragmented and less hierarchical agricultural societies that had preceded them. The formation of new, and often socially more complex, societies on the fringes of empires is well known from comparative evidence, both from antiquity – such as the Alamanni, and from such modern examples as Tsarist Russia in its expansionist phase or the frontiers of the British Raj. The existence of the imperial power gave tribal military leaders a powerful structure against which to fight, but also something to learn from, and a supply of resources – either in loot, subsidy or trade – which they could distribute to increase their own power. Given time, and the consolidation of new tribal polities, a new and more or less uniform material culture developed out of numerous different antecedents, and a common language among the elite population in the form of Gothic.

Somewhat ironically, one of the first pieces of evidence we have for Goths and their relationship with the Roman empire is Shapur’s monumental inscription at Naqsh-e Rustam, which lists Goths among the nations he defeated in Rome’s armies and thus demonstrates that by the middle of the century the emperors were recruiting men from beyond the Danube into units that they could designate as Gothic. That said, the consolidation of the lower Danube and Black Sea regions under Gothic hegemony is really only apparent in the fourth century, when it was already complete. During the third century, all we see are its by-products – invasions from beyond the Danube and the Black Sea that were a constant problem for third-century emperors, whether led by assertive new rulers seeking plunder or their defeated opponents looking for greener pastures. In what follows, we will refer to the various third-century invaders from this region not as Goths but as ‘Scythians’, the generic word used in our Greek sources, rather than making presumptions about how they identified themselves or retrojecting Gothic hegemony into a period when it cannot be documented. These Danubian ‘Scythians’ joined the Persians and Alamanni as the most formidable of Rome’s neighbours from Philip’s reign onwards.

By mid 245, Philip had marched with an army to Dacia, and he is known to have been at Aquae in November of that year. Trajan’s Dacian provinces had always been an experiment and Roman civic life never put down roots in Dacia, as it had begun to do south of the Danube from the time of Marcus Aurelius onwards. Pannonia and Moesia, and the Balkans more generally, began to look more and more like the rest of the Latin provinces as the later second century turned into the third. Civilian population followed in the wake of the huge military investment of the Marcomannic wars and three generations later, at mid third century, civilian life flourished both in the great military cities that led from the Alps to Asia and in rich villas where the topography was suitable to agriculture. Dacia, by contrast, had been built up hastily after Trajan’s defeat of the last Dacian king Decebalus, with few monumental cities and a network of roads and way stations that primarily served a military presence needed to protect the mineral resources of the province.

Even though the Sarmatians and Carpi, whose territories neighboured the province to the west and east respectively, were relatively easy to control compared to the more powerful Alamanni, it does not seem that Roman-style living penetrated very deeply into the cultural fabric of the Dacian provinces, or that a civilian infrastructure developed save to cater for the direct needs of the military and the mines. Things might, of course, have changed – Pannonia and Moesia did not really start to develop into fully Romanised provinces until the time of Marcus, a hundred years or more after their conquest – but the upheaval to the east of Dacia, and in particular its challenge to the local hegemony of the Carpi, meant that the very real revenues from the Dacian mines can hardly have been worth the expense of keeping the region garrisoned.

Perhaps disturbed by events among the ‘Scythians’ north of the Black Sea, the Carpi began causing trouble on the Dacian frontier in 245, and Philip continued fighting there in 246, probably well beyond the imperial borders. Late in the summer of 247, he returned to Rome and celebrated a triumph, taking the official title Carpicus Maximus and perhaps also being hailed as Germanicus Maximus. The imperial family stayed in Rome for the winter of 247–8 and the following spring Philip celebrated the completion of the thousandth anniversary of Rome’s history, on 21 April of that year.  There was some confusion among the Romans themselves about their secular games, and so two rather different sequences of them developed. One was the supposedly archaic and Etruscan celebrations revived by Augustus in 17 BC, which were conducted every 110 years, supervised by the quindecimviri of the official priesthood and celebrated over a triduum from the nights of 31 May to 3 June. The others were centenary celebrations to commemorate centuries (saecula) since the foundation of Rome, which took place on her dies natalis, 21 April – the feast of the Parilia (or Natalis Urbis, as it was uniformly referred to in our period). In their different ways both sorts of ‘secular’ games publicly performed a link between the past and the present of the Roman state, asserting an essential continuity in Rome’s identity over the years. Domitian and Septimius Severus had celebrated games in the Augustan sequence, Antoninus Pius in the second, and Philip’s would continue that of Pius.

There can be no doubt that Philip’s millennial games were even more symbolically significant for those purposes. We do not have an involved description of Philip’s games, but one (not very reliable) source reports that he used the gladiators and animals that had been intended for the Persian victory of Gordian, a victory that of course never came. We do, however, have epigraphic attestations of the importance of these millennial games, and they are noted in the various strands of Greek and Latin chronicling from late antiquity. Philip’s coinage is particularly rich in references to their celebration. Struck both in commemorative aurei and regular antoniniani and sestertii, in the name not just of Philip himself but also of the young Philip II and Otacilia Severa, they depict various animals killed in the Circus Maximus: lions, antelopes, hippopotami, ibexes, stags and gazelles, as well as pictures of a temple to Roma with her statue among the columns. We also see depictions of the chariot races – ludi circenses – that had been a regular part of the annual celebration of the Natalis Urbis since the time of Hadrian. But to the beast hunts and races, Philip added the rituals of the ‘authentic’ secular games in the Augustan sequence, with a triduum of theatrical spectacles on the Campus Martius, as well as singing competitions and other events whose victors are recorded in surviving inscriptions. This wide variety of attestation – particularly by contrast to the games of Antoninus Pius – is a marker of the celebration’s millennial importance.

Perhaps the most surprising evidence of this is also the strangest: common terra sigillata – the red-slip tableware that graced every Roman table – decorated with medallions honouring Philip’s games rather in the manner of today’s painted place settings commemorating royal weddings or presidential inaugurations (and perhaps just as kitschy then as now). The pomp and circumstance of Philip’s games was clearly felt out in distant provinces, but scholars remain divided about whether the sort of ‘millennial fever’ that was felt in Christian Europe around AD 1000 was there in Philip’s time as well. The Latin sources are ambiguous at best, but there is one eastern source that does seem to make the case: a collection of Greek texts that came to be known as the Oracula Sybillina. These had nothing whatsoever to do with the original Sybilline oracles of the republican era, but were both a response to the crises of third-century politics and genuinely apocalyptic in outlook – in the Thirteenth Oracle, much the most famous in the collection, the millenarian expectations of Rome’s thousandth anniversary meets with a fierce sense that the Roman empire needed to end.

Yet despite any such currents of unease, Philip’s lavish celebrations seem to have been a propaganda success. The completion of one millennium could also be seen as the start of another, just as glorious: certainly successors of Philip continued to strike secular coins a full half decade after his games had been celebrated. In general, however, Philip’s government was not faring well. In 248, in Cappadocia or Syria, a nobleman from Commagene named Iotapianus was proclaimed emperor, supposedly to protect the provinces from the heavy-handed exactions of Julius Priscus. There may also have been a revolt on the Rhine, led by one Marinus Silbanniccus, although the date of this revolt is uncertain and only two coins of the usurper are known to exist. More dangerously, the consular governor of Moesia, Claudius Marinus Pacatianus, was proclaimed emperor, possibly in April 248, probably at Viminacium where his coins were minted. But he was swiftly killed by his own soldiers when the neighbouring provincial governor led his army into Moesia.

It is possible that the senator Pacatianus represented the hostility of his order towards the junta of bureaucrats that surrounded Philip, one that resented the supra-regional commands awarded to men like Severianus and Priscus. It is also possible that Philip’s celebration of the Roman millennium, with its heavy freighting of tradition, contributed to his decision to rise up. Regardless, Pacatianus’s rebellion was put down. Unfortunately for Philip, the commander who suppressed him immediately allowed himself to be proclaimed emperor in turn. C. Messius Quintus Decius Valerinus was a senatorial commander in his mid-forties who came from the region, having been born near Sirmium. Under Severus Alexander he had governed both Moesia and Germania Inferior, while he held the prestigious command of Hispania Citerior under Maximinus and remained loyal to that emperor in the face of the senatorial revolt. In 249, he was serving as a legate of both Moesia and Pannonia, in one of the extraordinary commands that Philip so favoured. It was in Pannonia that his rebellion was declared, the mint at Viminacium striking issues in his name almost at once. He also changed his name to C. Messius Quintus Traianus Decius, reflecting the glory of the emperor Trajan who had conquered the Dacians, in what may have been a reference to Decius’s own Balkan origins.

A bigger puzzle surrounds the whereabouts and actions of Philip himself. He was either still in Italy, where he mustered an army to personally confront this latest usurper, or he was deep in Thrace, marching eastwards to deal with the rebellion of Iotapianus, having thought it safe to leave Decius to deal with the Danube frontier. Either way, having suppressed a brief mutiny at Viminacium, Decius either advanced from Pannonia at the head of the Balkan legions, crossed the Julian Alps and defeated Philip at Verona in September 249, or else he marched down the main Balkan highway in the opposite direction and defeated Philip at Beroea in Thrace. Philip was killed by his own soldiers, the young Philip was put to death in Rome by the praetorians when news of his father’s defeat reached them, and the emperor’s other relatives are never heard from again.

After defeating Philip, wherever he did so, Decius advanced to Rome, and was by September recognised as pontifex maximus and pater patriae. He immediately launched a programme of great ambition. His ostentatious traditionalism was obvious from the outset, starting with his decision to change his name to include that of a conquering emperor remembered for his goodness as much as his prowess. The names he gave his children by the Roman matron Herennia Cupressenia Etruscilla are equally redolent of the past: Q. Herennius Etruscus Messius Decius and C. Valens Hostilianus Messius Quintus. Just as extraordinary were his numismatic initiatives. Coins were, of course, among the most widely seen and handled items to emanate from the imperial court and the emperor’s circle. While we should not presume that emperors were personally responsible for every change and fillip in the numismatic iconography, when a major programmatic initiative in the coinage differs distinctly from what has gone before, we should take notice, as is the case with Decius.

After the new emperor had reached Italy, the mints at Milan and Rome began to issue not just the expected sorts of coins honouring Dacia, Pannonia and the genius exercitum illyriciani (‘the genius of the Illyrian armies’) but also an unprecedented series of antoniniani celebrating the deified emperors of Rome. These coins showed an altar on their reverse with the legend consecratio, while on their obverses there appeared a series of imperial portraits of the divi, beginning with Augustus and taking in Vespasian, Titus, Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius. That imperial pantheon is standard and to be expected, but the selection of names that follows is more interesting: Commodus, Septimius Severus and Severus Alexander. No Pertinax and no divus Gordianus, the latter having been deified a mere five years previously. Now to be sure, false genealogies and the retrospective ascription of dynastic ties are something we have become used to already in this book – from Severus’s shifting decisions about which ‘ancestors’ to honour, to the sedulously cultivated rumours of a filial connection between Caracalla and the two young cousins who succeeded him. Equally, Greek and Roman viewers were used to the periodic erasing of emperors from official memory, the physical chiselling away of names from monuments both effacing memories and simultaneously forcing remembrance, the better to damage the reputation of the one thus effaced. But the ‘virtual’ erasure of memory as we see it enacted here is something different and new. Because the remembrances with which it so visibly tampers were so recent, it can only be read as a deliberate rejection of the previous decade. Decius was asserting his direct succession to Severus Alexander and retaining none of the intervening emperors, not even the youngest Gordian whose consecratio was a matter of living and public knowledge. The miserable decade of invasion and civil war, it was meant to be clear, had ended.


Roman Emperors: Gordian III to Valerian Part III

Bust of Trajan Decius

In the end, Decius did not reign long. Yet he is one of the most famous emperors of the third century, not on account of his extraordinary coinage but for another measure altogether: an order for universal sacrifice to the gods, for the good of the Roman state. Like the new coin types, it was meant to signal a new beginning, the return of prosperity to the empire, but for it to work, everyone would need to sacrifice. The plan for carrying out the new emperor’s order was modelled on the collection of taxes and registration for the census, and the evidence for it survives to a remarkable degree in the papyri of Egypt. These papyri are libelli that record a citizen’s act of sacrifice to the ‘ancestral gods’ before public officials, who are named in the documents as having presided over the act of sacrifice and the consumption of sacrificial food. As with census registration for tax purposes, the inhabitants of each province were assigned a day on which they were required to appear before their municipal magistrates to perform sacrifice by burning incense to the gods, and were then issued with a chit proving that they had done so – with failure to comply carrying serious consequences. This devolution of imperial directives on to local authorities is entirely characteristic of the way regional administration worked in the early empire, but we know much more about Decius’s edict than most others, for two reasons: one being the survival of the Egyptian libelli; the other being the impact it had on Christians.

Although the edict’s wording was vague, and did not specify which or whose ancestral gods were being referred to, Christians seem to have interpreted the order as requiring them to sacrifice to the gods of the Roman state. Christian monotheism rejected any distinction between belief and cultic acts. Christians were prohibited from worshipping any gods but their own one god, and they regarded the many other gods they saw all around them as demons. Most Christians, that is to say, believed full well in the gods of the Roman state, knew them to be quite real, but regarded their reality as demonic rather than divine. An order to sacrifice along the lines of the Decian edict could not help but challenge them. Choosing to comply meant not just sinning, but exposing their souls to eternal damnation. Failure to comply, by contrast, meant exposing each one individually to the more immediate bodily vengeance of the Roman state. Thus, whether or not Decius had intended it as such, it was impossible for Christians to interpret his edict as anything other than a deliberate attack on them and their beliefs. Decius is duly remembered by Christians as the second of the great Roman persecutors after Nero, the scale of whose persecution is much exaggerated.

Decius’s intentions have long provoked debate. Some elements of his plan are uncontroversial. He clearly believed that a single, unifying ritual act was necessary to please the gods and ensure the state’s safety. Perhaps he was mainly concerned with shoring up his own rather weak claims to the purple. Perhaps he was responding to millenarianism provoked by Philip’s celebration of Rome’s thousandth anniversary. He may also have been influenced by the outbreak of a new and frightening disease that was taking hold in the eastern parts of the empire: beginning in 249 in Alexandria, a severely contagious illness that caused high fever and conjunctival bleeding had begun to spread across the empire. Fading away in high summer, it returned in autumn, reaching Rome and Carthage by 251 at the latest and recurring periodically for at least a decade thereafter. The precise virus responsible cannot be determined, but scholars have recently begun to recognise just how serious it was, affecting town and country, rich and poor, and killing off as much as two-thirds of the population in some cities, if our better sources are to be believed. Haemorrhagic fever similar to the Ebola virus has been hypothesised: the combination of seasonality with high morbidity and mortality makes a filovirus of that sort a likely candidate. As the recent Ebola outbreak shows, the sudden impact of a new epidemic can prompt hysteria and the demand that our leaders take drastic measures to save us. We should not be surprised if ancient people, lacking modern epidemiological knowledge, thought it necessary to propitiate angered divinities, and worried that those who habitually refused to honour the gods were responsible for their anger.

Whatever the admixture of foresight and reaction, or of reason and hysteria, that lay behind the Decian measure, we also need to understand it as an early fruit of the equestrianisation of the empire – the increasing dominance of men of equestrian rank with bureaucratic careers, and the type of ‘governmentality’ that went with that. Decius undoubtedly remembered Caracalla’s citizenship edict, with its universalising rhetoric and still-more universalising impact in extending Roman law to the whole imperial population. Almost forty years after the Antonine constitution, a whole generation whose parents had been born as non-citizen peregrini was having to negotiate an adherence to Roman laws that were entirely outside the customary behaviours of their locales. Experienced administrators like Decius were aware of this before and after, and will have seen an ideological value in this universal conformity. We should thus think in terms of two governmental impulses, each functioning in parallel to the other: Caracalla’s grandiose edict had made it possible to imagine the whole of the empire as a single world in which all could and should do things the same way; at the same time, equestrianisation and the relentless expansion of governmental routine made the aspiration to enforcing such uniformity seem both possible and achievable.

The ad hoc nature of early Roman government had stemmed from a recognition that ruling the empire could be done most cheaply, peacefully and efficiently if local customs and local ways of keeping the peace and extracting tribute were maintained – and also from the incapacity of a polity that had developed out of the familia and clientela of Augustus to administer an empire of such scale according to uniform rules. Two centuries of expanding government and structural stability had altered that picture, so that what was once both inconceivable and unnecessary could now seem both possible and worth having. Whatever else we see in Decius’s edict to sacrifice – and it is clear that later emperors who ordered the deliberate persecution of Christians did see his edict as a model – we should also see it as an important stage in the development of a specifically late imperial approach to government, one that reached its fullest expression in the fourth century, and was thereafter sustained for a century or more in the west, and for a full three centuries in the east.

Decius’s assertiveness extended to more than matters of religious practice or the power of the state. He seems also to have been intent upon asserting himself as a more effective military leader than Philip had been. We have already seen how changes north of the Black Sea and east of the Carpathians had seriously altered the balance of power there, with the imposition on a settled agricultural society of a new military elite whose culture combined elements of central European dress and language with fighting styles and decorative schemata from the steppe. By 249, Roman military planners were conscious enough of these changes that Decius sent soldiers to the Bosporus to report on developments, the rump of the Hellenistic Bosporan kingdom still hanging on as the world changed around it. Along the lower Danube, meanwhile, Philip had exacerbated an already bad situation by stopping traditional subsidies to the Carpi and campaigning against them, alleging that they had broken the peace with Rome. But the withdrawal of imperial subsidy was rarely a successful technique of frontier management: Decius had personally to lead an army to Moesia Inferior against barbarians who are variously called Carpi, Borani, Ourogundoi and Goths by sources with some limited claims to authenticity, and are generically known as Scythians by the contemporary classicising authors. The confusion of names attested in the sources is a fact of prime historical importance: contemporaries on both sides of the frontier had little real idea of what was going on. Only with hindsight can we understand these events as the by-product of a developing Gothic hegemony in the whole region, in consequence of which the barbarian polities along the fourth-century Danube bore little traceable relationship to those of the third.

We need to resist the temptation to paste our disconnected pieces of evidence into a single, neat narrative, but the one thing we can say with certainty is that Decius faced a truly disastrous situation when he led his army into Moesia Inferior, where an invading army of Scythians had placed Marcianopolis under siege. Newly discovered fragments of the Athenian historian Dexippus have confirmed details known from much later sources whose authenticity has been doubted, and it is now clear that several groups of Scythians were led by commanders named Ostrogotha and Cniva, and that they inflicted heavy losses on the emperor himself at Beroea. News of this debacle probably triggered a short-lived coup in Rome by the senator Iulius Valens Licinianus, but that appears to have been suppressed almost instantly, perhaps by the praetorians, for no coins were struck in Valens’s name. Then, back in the Balkans at either the end of 250 or early in 251, Philippopolis did fall to Cniva’s invaders, after a short-lived usurpation by the governor of Thrace, T. Julius Priscus, had taken place there. Finally, in the first half of June, Decius confronted the invaders at Abrittus, north-west of Marcianopolis, in a pitched battle that went disastrously wrong. His opponents had dug themselves in across treacherous, marshy terrain ill suited to the mass infantry engagements at which Roman armies generally excelled. In a monumentally foolish move, Decius personally led his forces into battle across the marsh, where they became entangled and were massacred. The emperor himself died, as did his son Herennius Etruscus, and his body was never recovered. Later Christian authors could gleefully imagine this as the condign fate that awaited persecutors: ‘as an enemy of God deserved, he lay stripped and naked, food for the beasts and the carrion birds’.

News of the disaster reached Rome in mid June, as did word that the troops had raised C. Vibius Trebonianus Gallus, governor of Moesia Inferior, to the purple. He negotiated the withdrawal of the Scythians back across the Danube, though it appears that they took a large part of Decius’ imperial treasury with them: what had been a silver-based economy north of the imperial frontiers was rapidly transformed into one based on gold, with aurei of Decius seized at Abrittus its primary model. As soon as the Scythians departed, Gallus returned to Rome with great haste, arriving there in late summer. Gallus was an Italian of high rank – that we even know the name of his father, whose career was underway during the reign of Septimius Severus, is rare enough in this period to mark the family’s distinction. Despite ongoing trouble on the eastern front, Gallus’s hasty journey to Rome was a wise idea: the symbolic conciliation of senate and plebs remained a necessary duty if an imperial acclamation was to win any long-lasting acceptance, and Gallus issued adventus coins to commemorate his arrival. The senate swiftly consecrated the dead emperor as divus Decius, and Gallus at first accepted the latter’s younger son Hostilianus as a caesar alongside his own son Volusianus. It is unclear whether or for how long this situation lasted: there is some evidence that Decius suffered damnatio memoriae along with his sons, but it is not widespread enough for us to be sure and may instead reflect later Christian defacement of the hated persecutor’s name. Certainly, the surviving son Hostilianus was either put to death or died of natural causes before the year was out. At any rate, before the middle of 251, only two emperors were recognised by the senate, C. Vibius Trebonianus Gallus and his son, C. Vibius Volusianus, the caesar and princeps iuventutis. Senatorial approval or acquiescence having been vouchsafed, however, more pressing matters needed attention.

The revolt of Iotapianus had been suppressed either at the end of Philip’s reign or at the beginning of Decius’s, in circumstances that remain unknown to us, but a new revolt had broken out led by an Antiochene notable with the Syrian name of Mariades. By the time imperial troops loyal to the Italian regime got properly involved, Mariades determined to flee to Persia and seek refuge with Shapur. Shapur, in his victory inscription, claims that Rome had violated the peace that Philip made in 244 by sheltering the Arsacid heir Tiridates of Armenia, who had sought refuge with the Romans after his father Khusrau II had been assassinated, probably at Shapur’s instigation. In response, Shapur annexed Armenia, eliminating its Arsacid rulers and placing it under the rule of his son Ohrmazd.

Much more elaborate versions of these events survive in the Armenian tradition, with added folkloric elements of subversion, betrayal and massacre. One detail they preserve that may have some value is the extent to which the elder Tiridates and Khusrau had been irritants to Ardashir and then Shapur, promoting rebellions as far away as the Kushanshahr – which would help to explain the amount of time Shapur had to spend fighting in the east. Now, with the strategic mountain kingdom of Armenia in his possession and his eastern frontiers secure, Shapur again turned against the Romans, assisted by the rebel Mariades. In 252 or 253, the shahanshah attacked the Syrian provinces, not by the usual approach via Singara, Resaina and Carrhae, but by an unexpected route that caught by surprise the whole Roman garrison of Syria, which was being brought together in anticipation of a Persian campaign.

Shapur claimed that in this victory, at Barbalissos on the Euphrates, he defeated a full 60,000 Romans – a number that, even if wildly exaggerated, speaks to a major Persian victory. Antioch itself, along with other important Syrian cities like Hierapolis, were taken in this campaign or campaigns, Persian armies advanced as far as Cappadocia, and the Italian government of Trebonianus Gallus was powerless to do anything about it. Shapur deported a great many captives to Khuzistan, where he founded a new city that he called Veh Antiok Shapur (‘Better than Antioch Has Shapur Founded This’), a name that was later corrupted into Gundeshapur, an important town in the zone between the Zagros and the Tigris. Shapur’s motives went beyond military glory: Khuzistan was to become the economic engine of the Sasanian state, peppered with industrial centres, many populated by deported captives, specialising in production that enhanced the royal revenue and paid for further conquest. By suppressing older towns – perhaps most importantly Susa – with traditions of independent government and favouring instead royal centres governed directly by the imperial administration, Shapur inaugurated a long-standing policy that made the Sasanian dynasty the richest and most powerful of the ancient Near Eastern empires

In the third-century moment, however, the failure of the Roman emperors to act meant local easterners were compelled to take matters into their own hands. It may be at this time that Odaenathus, a nobleman from the flourishing caravan city of Palmyra, and an intermittently important figure in eastern affairs until his assassination in 267, came on the scene, but the chronology of events in this period is almost hopelessly tangled: some would attribute to this Odaenathus the defeat of a part of the Persian army that others attribute to one Uranius Antoninus of Emesa. That obscure figure’s full titulature – Iulius Aurelius Sulpicius Severus Uranius Antoninus – clearly proclaimed his kinship with the Severan house. He may have been a devotee and priest of Elagabal, the god of Emesa, and if so he was perhaps a relative of the family of Julia Domna. Given that he minted coins, which are the best evidence we have for his existence and his sphere of activity, it seems clear that Uranius was actively challenging Gallus’s claim to the imperial throne. In the later romanticised version of John Malalas, a sixth-century author who related a great deal of local Antiochene lore of varying reliability, Shapur himself is said to have been killed in this Emesene encounter, although the usurper Uranius has been blotted out and replaced by a noble priest named Sampsigeramus. While the story is clearly fiction, Emesa is conspicuously missing from the list of cities Shapur claims to have conquered in his inscription at Naqsh-e Rustam, and it seems very likely that he suffered a substantial defeat there. The fact that it took place at the hands of a local ruler, rather than an army even putatively loyal to the legitimate emperor, reminds us of the ongoing difficulty western emperors faced in retaining control of the east, in part because of their inability to protect the eastern provinces from Persian threats: it was not that they did not want to act, but that other threats constrained them. Thus Trebonianus Gallus could not, in 253, have acted upon the devastating news from the east even if he had wanted to, because he was facing the threat of another rebellion, closer to home and thus more immediately dangerous.

This new challenge was triggered by events that should now be numbingly familiar to the reader: a general on the frontier wins a battle against some barbarians, takes the purple, marches against the reigning emperor, and both would rather allow the provincials to suffer than let their rival gather momentum. As so often, the state of the sources leaves us guessing about details, but it is pretty clear that although Gallus had neutralised the group of Scythians that had taken Philippopolis and killed Decius, these were just one small part of a larger problem: because there were as yet no organised polities beyond the Danube with whom to treat, no single ethnic or tribal group responsible for the problems the empire was facing, the suppression of one challenge meant nothing for the status of many others. Thus the Scythians with whom Gallus had dealt might very well have respected their treaty with him, but that left dozens of opportunistic raiders happy to take advantage of imperial distraction and weakness. So it was that in 252 there were major seaborne raids into the Aegean from the Black Sea, presumably by barbarians who had joined with, or conquered and seized the resources of, the remaining Bosporan Greeks. The raiders were successful and elusive and, although it is hard to gauge the actual level of damage, some of what they did was quite shocking to contemporary sensibilities, for instance, the burning of the temple of Artemis at Ephesus in Asia Minor, one of the most famous shrines of antiquity.

Then, in 253, Moesia Inferior was invaded by a different group of Scythians, who this time met with effective resistance from a general named Aemilius Aemilianus, about whom precious little is known. He was probably born in the first decade of the century, starting a career under Severus Alexander and rising through the ranks, but that is about all we can say. Now he demonstrated a fact that was becoming obvious to everyone – the loyalty of provincial armies to a distant emperor was impossible to guarantee. Aemilian’s victorious troops declared him emperor and, though there was no way the Balkan frontier could yet be considered secure, he turned immediately to the march on Italy, necessary if he was to secure his hold on the purple. Crossing into Italy, he met and defeated Gallus at Interamna in Umbria. Gallus and the caesar Volusian were killed by their own troops and Aemilian won the recognition of the senate, who also acclaimed his wife Cornelia Supera the augusta. But Aemilian’s reign was to prove a short one. As soon as Gallus received news of the uprising, he sent word to Gaul to summon support from Publius Licinius Valerianus, more generally known as Valerian. The latter heard of Gallus’s death while still en route to Italy, and in Raetia he was proclaimed emperor in turn. In September 253, during the same campaigning season in which he had first been proclaimed, Aemilian was killed in battle with Valerian’s army at Spoletium in central Italy. The rapid turnover of emperors had become bewildering. The reign of Valerian would last somewhat longer, but would be no less traumatic for the high politics of empire.



BRITANNIA Official Clip “Battlefield” (HD) David Morrissey Amazon Series

Dio Cassius reported Verica’s appeal to Claudius but gave the name of Berikos. Whatever the name the situation suited Claudius who had recently been created emperor by the actions of the Praetorian Guard. In describing Claudius’s childhood Suetonius said that he was so troubled by illness that he grew up half-witted and with little physical strength. Unprepossessing and with a club foot he was contemptuously despised by his mother as a man whom Mother Nature had begun to work on and cast aside. This was doing Claudius an injustice. He was certainly not a fool and made some astute choices in selecting his generals. Suetonius dismissed Claudius’s future campaign as being of no great importance but he does state that the emperor saw attacking Britain, an island which no one had attempted to invade since Caesar’s time, as a much needed chance for military glory. Claudius’s argument was that Britain was in turmoil as a result of the driving out of Verica, and its refusal to return fugitives from Gaul was provocative and a diplomatic breach. He might also impress the Romans by crossing Oceanus to bring this isolated island into the Roman Empire.

Claudius did not intend to lead the invasion as Caesar had done. He selected Aulus Plautius, whom Dio describes as a senator of distinction. He had been governor of Pannonia, a province probably not unlike Britain in its mountainous areas. A cousin of Claudius’s ex-wife Urgulanilla, he was well known to the emperor. Other senior men chosen for the invasion included those tried and trusted in warfare. One of the legionary commanders was extremely competent: he was the future emperor Vespasian. Another was the future emperor Sulpicius Galba. This invasion was obviously to be treated as a serious campaign.

Plautius chose 4 legions, probably about 20,000 men, to accompany him – Legion II Augusta, Legion IX Hispana, Legion XIV Gemina and Legion XX. Three had been brought from the Rhineland; Legion IX had been in Pannonia and therefore was well known to him. In addition, a large number of auxiliary regiments were allocated to the invasion, bringing the force up to about 40,000. This would be a major expense but there would be an advantage if Britain were to prove to be a source of mineral wealth. Above all, it would keep the legions and the auxiliaries occupied and in a position where Claudius could control them.

There was again restlessness on the part of the legionaries who were still reluctant to cross Oceanus, but Plautius in a shrewd move sent a freedman Narcissus, who was on Claudius’s staff, to address them. When he started speaking the troops roared ‘Io Saturnalia’, referring to the winter festival when masters and slaves changed places. The troops were either putting Narcissus in his place or may have resented being addressed by a man of lowly rank. They may also have felt that their courage was being impugned. Whatever the reason they lost their obduracy and preparations for the invasion were swiftly resumed.

Plautius probably sailed from Boulogne and, as in the case of Caesar’s invasions, there were problems with the tides and the weather because the ships were driven back on their course. The Romans had yet again failed to understand the tidal system and had miscalculated the winds, as indeed other invading forces were to do in British history. The Romans, with their superstitious nature according to Dio, were encouraged when a flash of light shot across the sky from east to west, pointing in the direction in which they were travelling. This is a curious statement because if they were to land in Kent they would have been travelling north-westwards. The flash of light can be explained as a shooting star. The discrepancy in direction may be explained by the fact that the fleet had been blown very far to the east and therefore was turning back to land in the Richborough area.

Dio said that the fleet had sailed in three divisions, possibly one after the other. It is not certain how many ships were entailed. Frere calculated a fleet of 800 ships. John Peddie in 1977 estimated that 933 ships would be needed to carry the large numbers of troops, cavalry horses, baggage animals, equipments and supplies but if the expedition did sail in three divisions this would mean between 200–300 per group and that not all the fleet might have been driven off course. They could have been strung out along the Channel. The passage might take from ten to twenty hours, implying that they could have been at sea overnight, which the Romans hated to do, especially as the animals would have to be fed and watered.

Dio reported that the landing was unopposed but his comment on three divisions could indicate a dividing of the fleet and that there were several landings. It is uncertain where these might have taken place. Suggestions have ranged from Hampshire to Essex. The time limit would have been feasible to reach any of these areas. One of the complicating factors is that the first tribe that capitulated was named by Dio as the Bodunni. As mentioned, this must be the Dobunni who inhabited the Gloucestershire area and possibly one division landed west of the Solent in the Hampshire region. From there one Roman legion could have moved swiftly north-westwards to secure the submission of the Dobunni.

Modern interpretations, however, have hardened on East Kent with a main landing place either at Dover or in the Wantsum Channel, where the Romans were to establish the fort of Richborough. Excavations there have revealed two parallel ditches dated to the Claudian period, but even more important has been the recent discovery of a shingle harbour buried beneath 1.83 m (6 ft) of soil near Richborough. The fort was situated at the southern end of the Wantsum Channel that separated the Isle of Thanet from the mainland. Over the centuries this channel has silted up but in AD 43 this would have provided a sheltered lagoon and a perfectly safe anchorage for a fleet.

Dio’s account, which is the most detailed though the most problematical, said that the Romans advanced to a river, probably the Medway, where a huge battle took place lasting two days. Eventually the Romans were victorious and crossed the river. They then advanced to the Thames where in another skirmish Togidubnus was killed but this made the Britons even more determined to resist. Dio said that Plautius was worried about the situation, as he was unsure of the numbers of the British tribes and about crossing the Thames. It was more likely that once he realized that the Thames was fordable he hesitated so that he could obey his orders to bring Claudius to Britain and allow him to claim the victory.

Claudius had already sailed from Ostia to Marseilles, almost being shipwrecked by furious north-westerly storms. He marched through Gaul to Boulogne and embarked for Britain, bringing reinforcements and an entourage that included elephants. Their appearance must have startled the Britons. Dio said that Claudius took command although this must have been nominal given the military experience of Plautius. The Romans crossed the Thames – suggestions for the location range along the Thames between the City and Brentford – and advanced to the capital of the Trinovantes at Camulodunum, which was quickly taken.

Claudius stayed only sixteen days in Britain. He returned more leisurely to Rome, probably travelling along the Rhone and crossing the Alps before proceeding south through Italy and taking nearly five months on the journey. During this time no move had been made against his rule and on his return to Rome a compliant Senate granted him the title Britannicus, which was passed to his son, awarded him a triumph and an annual festival to commemorate the event, and ordered the building of two triumphal arches, one in Rome and one in Gaul. All this was what Claudius would have wished. On his triumph he rode in a decorated chariot followed by his wife Messalina and the officers who had ensured his glory. This must imply that some legionary officers had been withdrawn from Britain. In addition, on the Campus Martius he ordered the representation of the storming and sacking of a British town as well as replicating the surrender of British kings.

Suetonius said that Claudius had fought no battles and suffered no casualties, which was probably true as he had left all this to Plautius, but that he had reduced a large part of the island to submission. According to an inscription from the Roman arch dedicated in AD 52, now partly preserved in the courtyard of the Musei Capitolini, Rome, Claudius received the surrender of eleven British kings and ‘was the first to bring the barbarian people across the Ocean under the power of the Roman state’. Caesar’s exploits were conveniently ignored. Three of these kings must have been Togidubnus, Cogidubnus and an ancestor of Prasutagus, King of the Iceni. Others might have been kings in Kent and those ruling the Dobunni and the Coritani and possibly Cartimandua or her predecessor as ruler of the Brigantes, although it is doubtful that Roman intelligence had reached so far north. Suetonius said that Claudius placed a naval crown on the gable of his palace as well as a civic crown as a ‘sign as it were, that he had subdued Oceanus’. Tacitus laconically summed it up: ‘tribes were conquered, kings captured and destiny introduced Vespasian to the world’.

Tiberius Claudius Cogidubnus ruled the Chichester area and Tacitus, in the Agricola, said that ‘he had remained totally loyal down to our own times in accordance with the long-standing policy of making kings even their agents to enslave peoples’. As Tacitus was writing in the AD 90s this implies that Cogidubnus had a long reign. On an inscription found in the area, dedicating a temple to Neptune and Minerva by the guild of smiths, he is called Tiberius Claudius Cogidubnus, which suggests that Tiberius had given Roman citizenship to him. He is also named Rex and Legatus Augusti in Britain, an astonishing title but which may indicate that Cogidubnus had calculatedly decided to throw in his lot with superior forces and become a suppliant client king. He may also have realized that allying with Rome provided protection against an attack by Catuvellaunian power. The kings of the Cantii and the Iceni may also have realized this, which would account for the ease of Roman conquest in the south. The Romans had long experience in wooing individual tribal leaders by a series of inducements, rewards and threats. Client kings could keep their independence and privileges provided they pledged their loyalty to Rome and ensured that of their followers. This tactic was to succeed in the north. It was in the west of Britain, especially in Wales, where the most hostile tribes might be found.

Before he left Britain Claudius had sensibly given command of the army back to Plautius instructing him to subdue the rest of the island. This Plautius proceeded to do, sending the Legion II Augusta along the southern coast under its commander, the future emperor Vespasian. This legion swept through the country, possibly aided by Cogidubnus’s loyalty in providing a base. Suetonius succinctly reports in his life of Vespasian that the future emperor fought thirty battles, subdued two warlike tribes and captured more than twenty oppida as well as the Isle of Wight.

The tribes were possibly the Durotriges and either the Belgae or the Dumnonii. Amongst the oppida were certainly two in Dorset, Hod Hill and Maiden Castle. Others are probably Hembury (Devon), Spettisbury Rings (Dorset) and the Somerset sites of Worlebury, South Cadbury and Ham Hill. Excavations at Hod Hill revealed that one particular hut seemed to have been bombarded by ballistae (weapons for projecting missiles such as bolts). This was assumed to be the chieftain’s hut as it was situated on the main street near the most important gate. A Roman fort was established in one corner of Hod Hill thus securing that area. The Britons at Maiden Castle may have put up equal resistance to the Romans. A vast hoard of sling stones had been prepared to repel any attack and the hillfort’s complicated arrangement of ramparts and ditches could have repelled attacks by neighbouring tribes. These defences, however, were useless against the firepower of Roman catapults and an onslaught by disciplined troops. Telling evidence on the uselessness of resistance was the finding of a body of a British victim, buried quickly in a mass grave, with a ballista bolt cut into his spine. The hillfort was overrun and eventually the inhabitants were moved into the ordered civilization of the Roman town of Dorchester. A mass grave of over forty-five headless bodies dating to the early first century found recently near Weymouth (Dorset) may also have been the burial place of victims of the invading force. Sweeping aside any resistance it continued into Cornwall, establishing a base at Nanstallon. Later it swung north and centred the headquarters of Legion II Augusta at Exeter in about AD 55.

Vespasian also seems to have laid out a series of bases, which could be used by the fleet. Evidence of Roman occupation was found at Fishbourne, Hamworthy in Poole Harbour (Dorset) and Topsham (Devon) on the estuary of the River Exe. Coastal stations giving wide views were situated at Abbotsbury (Dorset), tacked on to a huge Iron Age fort (presumably another of the captured oppida), and High Peak, west of Sidmouth. Military bases were added at Dorchester, Ilchester, Camerton and Sea Mills. These soon attracted people who gathered there for security and thus developed into small towns.

Meanwhile, Plautius proceeded with an advance to the north. The Iceni quickly went over to Rome, possibly as a check to Catuvellaunian advance into their territory and allowing their king to become head of a client state. East Anglia therefore seemed relatively safe. Legion XX established Colchester, a base adjacent to Camulodunum, which was chosen to indicate that Roman power had superseded British power. Colchester could be also be used as a port for landing supplies from the Rhineland and Gaul and shipping them along the eastern coast.

Legion IX was sent north to subdue the Catuvellauni and soon established a fort at Longthorpe on the River Nene. Little resistance seems to have been shown and troops pressed on, eventually siting their main base at Lincoln, probably in the AD 50s. A network of garrisons was linked by roads, the most important of these being Ermine Street leading directly north. Possibly a fleet also moved along the coast establishing supply bases. One seems to have been situated at Kirmington and another at Old Winterington on the River Humber. From here it would have been easy to send supplies along the River Trent to camps as far as Newark and Margidunum (Nottinghamshire). Forts were also sited at Leicester, Broxtowe (Nottinghamshire) and Strutt’s Park near Derby to control the midland area. Plautius’s policy seems to have been to establish camps and forts at important river crossings, on high ground or near to native settlements, so that a watch could be kept to determine opposition. This policy seems to have succeeded and for the next fifteen years there was little sign of trouble.

Legion XIV was sent towards the midland region along a line later developed as Watling Street, although none of the forts on that road date to the early period. It established a base at Alchester (Warwickshire). Detachments moving along the Thames established a fort at Dorchester-on-Thames. The strategy seems to have been a swift movement to convince the Britons that resistance was futile and in this Plautius was successful, for as far as is known there was no considerable show of force.

When Plautius returned to Rome in AD 47 he could faithfully claim that the invasion had created a new province for Rome. For this he was given an ovatio, a lesser honour than a triumph but with the additional honour of the Emperor Claudius going out to meet Plautius when he entered the city and walking with him to the Capitol.