The Legacy of the Danubian Emperors


Some of the most prominent of the so-called “Illyrian” Emperors (from left to right):
Aurelian, Diocletian, Constantine, Valentinian, Valens, Gratian & Justinian.


Permanent damage caused during the third century

Notwithstanding the revulsion with which his name was held by later Roman writers, the emperor Gallienus had at least managed to prevent the complete disintegration of the Roman Empire. He had personally taken the field to withstand barbarian attacks, even though he had not been able to prevent the secession of large parts of the empire from his rule, and his reputation has been largely restored by modern historians.

Yet it had taken the actions of three super-human Danubian generals to stem the tide of anarchy, civil strife and barbarian invasions, each personally leading battle-hardened legions recruited predominantly from the Balkan areas.

Claudius had smashed the Gothic barbarians thoroughly when their ravages seemed to be unstoppable, but his premature death by plague had prevented him from following up his success.

Aurelian had similarly crushed all barbarian intruders and reunited the entire empire under his rule. He had also set in motion the economic reforms needed to restore the devastated Roman economy.

Probus, Aurelian’s loyal general and later emperor in his own right, had maintained his reputation as a destroyer of barbarians while also consolidating the fragile, newly restored empire. He had in addition perhaps settled an honourable peace with Persia.

These three rulers truly deserved the title of ‘Restorer of the World’ (awarded formally only to Aurelian and Probus) and their actions had checked serious barbarian incursions for decades. They had fostered a climate of stability, so important for the restoration of economic confidence, creating the background in which the administrative skills of Diocletian, also a Danubian general, could flourish.

Looking back, it can be seen that the Roman army staff, many of whom were fervent Roman patriots, had decided that they had had enough of incompetent rule by those without proper military training. After watching Gallienus’ inability to restore the empire, senior generals had arranged for his murder and replaced him with one of their own number, Claudius. After Claudius’ premature death from plague, the army ignored his self-appointed successor, his inexperienced brother Quintillus, and appointed Aurelian. Quintillus committed suicide.

When Aurelian was murdered by treachery, the army negotiated for at least two months for an acceptable substitute, Tacitus. Tacitus died, again against the army’s wishes, and again a self-appointed family member, Florian, was deserted in favour of the talented general Probus. After the latter was murdered, the army appeared to accept the self-appointed Carus, a lawyer who dealt competently with the Persians but, after his early death, both of Carus’ sons were eliminated in favour of the general Diocletian. Diocletian would attempt to ensure a proper succession of capable military appointees through the Tetrarchy system. Considering the extraordinary achievements of all the army appointees, it would appear that the army staff’s decision to select the emperors was correct.

Yet even our three supermen could not undo all the damage caused by the chaos of the mid-third century.

1. Poor discipline of the Roman legions

It had become very difficult for even an Aurelian or a Probus to impose strict discipline on the troops, and the latter had lost his life in the attempt. The army was now drawn primarily from the provinces and from the barbarians, so it had little commitment to the concept of supporting Rome. Few Italians, still fewer Romans, now served with the legions. The loyalty of the troops was generally bought with large handouts.

The new emperor Diocletian would be the first of some two dozen of his predecessors – and that tally excludes pretenders to the purple – to have died of natural old age since Septimius Severus 100 years previously. Indeed, if we except the premature death from plague of Claudius in 270, and the doubtful causes of death of Tacitus, Carus and Numerian, Diocletian was the first of these two dozen not to have died violently. However, Diocletian found it necessary to make a huge increase in the size of the Roman army, perhaps by as much as 50 per cent, and this inevitably led to a fresh decline in the standard of the recruits. The Latin historian Aurelius Victor, writing in 360, showed strong antipathy towards the contemporary Roman army, which he blamed for most of the troubles of his and recent times.

In passing, we find that the cavalry formations formed by Gallienus had been returned to the border legions by the time of Diocletian. In later years, Aurelian’s elite light Dalmatian and Moorish cavalry no longer serve as part of the emperor’s main mobile army, but have been stationed on the Danube and Euphrates frontiers. The originator of this change is unknown. Ultimately, the Roman clibanarii (heavy-armoured cavalry) were a flop. The armour was far too stiff for manoeuvrability, was also far too hot for use against the similarly attired Persians, and a mass cavalry charge could be countered easily by tripping up the horses or by slashing at the animal. The unseated rider could scarcely move! The named units of clibanarii known to have existed at the end of the fourth century are believed to have comprised lightly armoured cavalry units only.

2. Failure to eliminate enemies

Whenever a band of barbarians invaded, it was only rarely eliminated completely as an enemy. For example, the invasions by the Alamanni, the Juthungi, the Sarmatians/Vandals and the Goths were recurring disasters that seemed always to be contained by the most temporary of measures – frequently simply by relieving the barbarians of their booty and escorting them out of Roman territory. It was only when Aurelian carried the fight back into Gothic lands in 272 that the wars with those Goths were terminated for a generation. The difficulty was that it was always too dangerous to an emperor to permit a general to have sufficient forces for punitive actions, while the main mobile army under the emperor’s direct command was forever scuttling from one crisis to another.

3. Economic crisis

The need to fund the army had caused heavy taxation and the gross debasement of the coinage, resulting in severe inflation. This phenomenon was well recognized, but little understood at the time. It left an economic legacy that would baffle even Diocletian.

The discovery in later ages of many coin hoards buried during the third century reveals the general insecurity of the times and the need to store the few old coins, with a high proportion of silver or gold, which still possessed real intrinsic value. However, hoarding tended to make everyone less well off, by restricting the free circulation of precious metals.

Even the number of costly burial inscriptions fell steeply during this period of disorder, as evidenced by surviving examples. The trend was not reversed until the accession of Diocletian.

4. Loss of rights

The Romans had for centuries understood that in national emergencies it was necessary to appoint a dictator who would take severe steps as he thought appropriate – and for which he could not later be held accountable – but military necessity had turned every emperor into an outright dictator with the absolute right to pass laws, make civil and military appointments and command armies. Thus the old Roman spirit of seeking public office for personal honour and public benefit had all but died out. The Senate itself was largely abandoned by those qualified to sit in it, as it possessed virtually no real power. Moreover, the fiction by which the emperor referred to himself as Princeps (leading citizen) was vanishing. The emperor had become a sovereign in all but name, and it is now customary to refer to the empire during and after the time of Diocletian as a ‘Dominate’ (ruled by a lord) where previously it had been a ‘Principate’.

5. Walled cities

Another sign of the insecurity of the times was the number of towns and cities that now possessed their own surrounding walls for defence. Rome herself had to be similarly protected during Aurelian’s reign. The walls were built as quickly as possible from any materials that lay to hand; even tombstones were employed as part of the basic structure. The new walls enclosed generally a smaller area than the original town. This may have been for convenience in building the fortifications, but also reflected a steep decline in the Roman population. The smaller cities were cramped, and had no room for large monuments. The construction of an inner city wall at Athens has already been described.

6. Population decline

The population of the Roman world had fallen markedly as a natural consequence of the catastrophes of the third century. Wars, an endemic plague that had lasted for twenty years, causing at one point 7,000 deaths each day at Rome, and general insecurity, which has long been known to reduce birth rates, had all taken their toll. One interesting by-product from the disturbances in Gaul was that many wealthy landowners sold up their estates and fled to the relatively safer province of Britain, where they established the large villas whose remains survive to this day.

7. Collapse of agriculture and of trade

The lands had been ravaged and the population killed or fled. Inevitably there were fewer lands under cultivation, fewer farm hands and fewer mouths to feed. One solution to the shortage of unskilled agricultural labour was to ask cities to send out their idle occupants. The luxury of bread and circuses for the unemployed could no longer be afforded by most towns. Equally, there were fewer markets in which to sell goods. Manufacturers found that their distant markets were inaccessible, due to dangerous communications, or the local people too poor to afford the wares. The glass and pottery industries are known to have been very hard hit in the mid-third century.

The consequence was that the emperors themselves had increasingly to sponsor their own industries, particularly for military goods, and this created unfair competition for any would-be entrepreneurs trying to start their own businesses.

8. Loss of skills

The most intractable problem was the loss of basic skills. The armies themselves had lost large numbers of men in the interminable civil wars, although there was an increasing tendency for the legions on both sides to count their numbers first and for the weaker to murder their own emperor before he led them into a hopeless battle. Worse still was the loss of skilled artisans who had died or been killed, and simply could not be replaced.

The advanced Greek sciences and philosophies virtually dried up in the mid-third century. The last great exponent of pagan philosophy, the Egyptian-Greek Plotinus (205–270), who taught at Rome from 245 after an apprenticeship in Alexandria, produced late in life several books intended to explain the workings of the universe and especially to explain the concept of evil. The writer Porphyry, who was his pupil, attempted to popularize the Neo-Platonism of Plotinus, but it soon fell into disuse. The cultured emperor Gallienus, however, had been much impressed by the philosopher’s work.

The extent and standard of art, as measured by sculptures, books and paintings, and of public buildings, declined markedly over this period. There are virtually no original written works excepting novels, most notably the lengthy Aethiopica by the Greek author Heliodorus. There are no useful histories, save those of Dexippus, and no major poets known from the mid-third century. Fragments of the lesser Latin poets Reposianus and Nemesianus have survived from 280–290. The later emperor Constantine the Great would celebrate his victory over Maxentius (312) with a standard triumphal arch in Rome, for which some of the sculptures had to be removed from a second-century monument. Constantine’s arch still stands next to the famous Colosseum. Mosaics remained of good quality, as can be seen even in Britain, and the standard of engravature on Aurelian’s new coins had much improved.

9. Serfdom

Some of the few remaining wealthy landowners within the empire, such as those in the undisturbed provinces of southern Italy and northern Africa, were in the happy position of being able to purchase large chunks of devastated farmland at knockdown prices from those who had fled. At the same time, the later emperors issued many ordinances to force surplus city dwellers onto the land, to which they were bound by other laws that obliged sons to take up the occupations of their fathers.

The embattled emperors depended heavily on land taxes to pay their armies, and connived – by the passage of legislation – at an arrangement with the landowners whereby the freemen, the clients, on the giant new estates were tied to the land, unable to leave. Thus they became serfs in a system recognizable as the forerunner of the medieval feudal system. Another part of the deal between landlord and emperor was that the estates should provide conscripts for the armies, and this burden also fell on the former clients. The net effect of these changes was that the flight from the land had been arrested, areas under cultivation increased – and the clients had become serfs. This section of the Roman community had involuntarily given up its freedom in order to avoid enslavement by the barbarians.

10. Settlement of barbarians within the empire

One solution to make good the population loss in the shattered areas was to settle captured barbarian tribesmen within the areas that they had devastated, providing a robust new workforce and enabling them to make good the damage they had caused. This was always a dubious policy, as was recognized even by contemporary writers. Many tribesmen were glad of the chance to contribute to Roman civilization, with the attendant benefits for themselves, while the Roman army found them a useful source for hardy recruits. However, some of the barbarians went through the motions of settlement before using their new territory as a convenient base from which to plunder their neighbours. The loyalty of the newly settled tribes must always have been uncertain; less so when the new settlers were themselves fleeing from more violent barbarians in their rear.

11. Degeneration of language

While the empire had remained a strong, cohesive unit, its standard of Latin had remained remarkably homogeneous in all the provinces, as evidenced by surviving inscriptions. The invasions of the mid-third century, and the separation of the breakaway Roman empires, caused the degeneration of Latin speech and grammar into regional accents and variations. In later centuries, these variants would form the foundation of the modern Romance (Latin-derived) languages, French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese.

12. Failure of the pagan religions and philosophy

Worship of the emperor, or of his genius, was never very convincing and adoption of the title of ‘Lord and God’ did not save any of the bearers (Aurelian, Probus and perhaps Carus) from assassination.

Sun worship offered ultimately nothing to humanity struggling under the burdens of barbarian invasions, plague and oppressive taxation. It implied no rules for behaviour and failed to explain the only too obvious struggle between good and evil. Philosophy was also a disappointment; a policy of ascension from the Body to the Soul to the Divine Mind to a godlike state (the ‘One’) by yearning and self-contemplation had little appeal or even challenge. Neither could stand up against the fast-rising movement of Christianity that offered so much more: salvation by Grace and immortality of the soul coupled with strict rules for conduct towards your neighbour and God.

The final legacy

The most enduring achievement of our Danubian supermen may therefore be simply that they allowed the empire to survive; to survive long enough for Christianity to become widespread even among the barbarians and thereby, in Gibbon’s words, ‘[Christianity] broke the violence of the fall [of the Roman Empire], and mollified the ferocious temper of the conquerors.’ Ironically, none of our supermen showed much enthusiasm for Christianity.


Late Roman Decline I


Army of Diocletian by JohnnyShumate


The new emperor, Diocletian, was yet another former Danubian general who was to prove to be as outstanding an administrator as his predecessors had been military exponents. Diocletian realized early on that the empire simply could not any longer be handled by one man; whenever he was in any one part of it, pretenders arose or barbarians invaded in another. Carausius, given a fleet to combat the pirate menace in the North Sea, had fled with it in 286 to Britain. The Bagaudae tribe had rebelled once the former emperor Carinus had left Gaul, and barbarians had invaded in 286. Therefore he divided the empire into two (286), appointing an old army friend and general, Maximian, as his coemperor in the west; Diocletian took the wealthier east. Both in turn appointed successors as emperors designate, known as caesars, to provide a system of rule known as the Tetrarchy (293). It meant that the most capable generals were assured a share of the imperial power, while the presence of effectively four rulers enabled a much closer guarding of the frontiers and posed an almost insuperable problem to any usurpers. The tetrarchs built magnificent palaces for themselves in their self-selected capitals of government. They also launched a savage new attack (303–304) on the fast-growing Christian Church that would prove to be both the last and also the fiercest of all the Church’s persecutions, and would persist in the eastern empire until 311.

Diocletian raised the manpower of the army from some 300,000–400,000 in the time of Severus to more than half a million men under arms, and again favoured the concept of a frontier defence where barbarians were to be checked at the empire’s perimeter and not within it. He continued the separation of the frontier garrisons, comprising mostly ex-barbarian soldiers, from the mobile ‘rapid-response’ units of infantry and cavalry that were generally made up from conscripts from the empire reinforced with barbarian special troops. This rapid expansion of the army must have caused a deterioration in the quality of the recruits.

Diocletian also reorganized the provinces into dioceses for better management and defence. The number of provinces within each diocese was approximately doubled from the original number, with extra provincial governors and their administrations, partly with a view to making rebellion harder for would-be usurpers. Each provincial governor now commanded about half the number of soldiers that he might have called upon to support a rebellion before the division of the provinces.

The Tetrarchy also had the effect that the numbers of senior administrative staff were perhaps quadrupled, the dioceses doubled the number of civil servants and the army had also been greatly increased. All had to be paid for; taxation was changed from an erratic collection when needed to a regular levy. Aurelius Victor claims that the new tax burden to pay for all this had been fair as first imposed by Diocletian, but that later emperors became greedy. The Christian writer Lactantius, a contemporary of Diocletian, paints a grim picture of the cost of the new bureaucracy and armies.

Diocletian tried again to reform the currency after Aurelian’s partial success in the 270s. He reminted the gold coin at sixty to a Roman pound of gold and a high-grade silver coin was issued at ninety-six to the pound weight of silver. Aurelian’s old reformed antoninianus was standardized now at 3 per cent silver content, including face wash, and about 10 grams weight. The name of the new coin is unknown; it is today referred to by numismatists as a follis, although a very similar coin described in the ancient sources as a nummus appears in the fourth century. Again, the silver content of the follis drifted down over succeeding years to about 1.5 per cent silver before Constantine the Great introduced new reforms. Diocletian also took giant steps to improve the economy, but his attempts to control inflation by mandate (prices were not allowed to rise – by order) proved to be a failure despite the most stringent penalties.

On Rome’s eastern front, Diocletian established numerous fortresses to watch over the Persians. The Strata Diocletiana provided a fortified main Roman road connecting many of the strategic points on the eastern frontier, and ran from Sura on the river Euphrates to the caravan city of Damascus. The new Persian king Narses (293–302) tried to renew hostilities against Rome with the invasion of Mesopotamia and Armenia in 296, followed by an incursion into Syria. The nearest tetrarch, Galerius, lost a battle in 297, but the new forts held firm and Galerius defeated Narses heavily in the following year, seizing the Persian ruler’s family and harem. Diocletian was able to dictate terms to Narses, resulting in a pact in 299 that ended some fifty years of hostility between the two kingdoms and enabled trade to resume. The peace lasted for forty years.

After twenty years of rule (305) Diocletian committed the unique act of resigning as emperor, and forced his reluctant colleague to do the same, so that the caesars now stepped into power and appointed in turn their successors. Unfortunately, squabbles began as to the appointments, another dreary cycle of civil wars began and finally the empire was reunited (324) under the sole reign of Constantine, who was joint or sole emperor from 306 to 337.

The individual rule of Constantine ushered in a new era, described variously as ‘the Police State’, ‘the beginning of the Middle Ages’ or ‘the end of the Roman Empire’. At first the new emperor was an ardent adherent to the Sun god, and Sol Invictus appears on his coins as late as 318. However, Constantine attributed his military victories in the civil war of 312 to a vision of Christianity, made it the official religion and received the title ‘The Great’, bestowed by a grateful Church. He created what we would today recognize as a medieval court, which he moved from Rome to a new capital on the Bosporus that he named modestly ‘Constantinople’. The new capital was furnished by removing valuables from other parts of the empire, particularly from pagan temples, and it possessed its own senate so that the ancient centre of power in Rome was greatly diminished. At the same time, all power was concentrated completely into the hands of the emperor, who served as head of state and head of the Church. Constantine was a king in all but name.

Because Christianity was now the official Roman religion, Constantine was in the happy position of being able to grab gold from the richly ornamented pagan temples in order to institute another revision of the currency. He introduced the new solidus, a gold coin minted at seventy-two to a pound weight of gold, and this high-quality coin would be retained as the standard gold issue for centuries to come – well into the Middle Ages. He also minted a new, high-quality silver coin at ninety-six to the pound weight. The follis continued to deteriorate and its production had largely ended by 353. Simple silver-less coins of base metals still provided the small change for day-to-day transactions.

Constantine extended Diocletian’s laws creating hereditary classes of citizens so that members could not move into any of the (many) occupations, such as the clergy, that were exempt from taxes. They could not even join the army. These changes resulted in widespread, overt hostility to the rule of the State. He also formalized the distinction between the frontier army and the better-paid mobile army, a decision that Zosimus would claim in the next century to have been responsible ultimately for the collapse of the Roman Empire. Worse, increasing use was made of barbarians within the army at all levels up to the top officers, while higher levels of immigration were permitted. The size of the legion, which had remained fairly constant at some 5,000–6,000 men for centuries, was reduced to 1,000 infantry and/or cavalry for flexibility of deployment. There were accordingly far more legions than previously.

The relative freedom from external enemies and civil wars allowed a final flourishing of Roman art in the middle of the fourth century. For a while pagan and Christian cultures coexisted comfortably in a nominally Christian empire, and this was when several historical works and the illustrated ‘Calendar of 354’ were produced. The latter shows that the birthdays of several of the ‘good’ emperors were still celebrated officially as public holidays, with circus races in their honour. Present in the list are the birthdays of Augustus, the first true emperor, Trajan, Hadrian, the Antonine emperors, Severus and, more recently, Claudius II Gothicus, Aurelian and Probus, followed by Constantine and his successors. Remarkable omissions from the feast days are the names of Diocletian, Carus and his sons, Valerian and Tacitus. Less remarkable are the omissions of the despised Commodus, Caracalla and Gallienus. The immediate successors of Augustus are also absent. The list of feast days includes the celebration of several pagan gods, including Sol Invictus, but lacks the celebration of the pagan god Mithras, still very popular but significantly never adopted by an emperor. Christian feast days are not yet commemorated. It was at about this time that the emperor Constantius II transferred the celebration of Christmas to 25 December, allegedly in order to counter the worship of the Sun.

There was a brief pagan revival under the last non-Christian emperor Julian (361–363) who, wisely, contented himself with encouraging pagan rituals rather than active persecution of Christians. While still a general, Julian had crossed the Rhine in 359 to harass the Alamanni after repelling their earlier invasion. In the east, the Persians again became aggressive under the rule of a new Shapur II. In the years from 337 to 350 Shapur made three raids into Mesopotamia and in 359 the Persians made a full-scale invasion, seizing several of the key fortress cities. Julian moved his armies to the east, but died in action; his Christian successor Jovian abandoned the Roman conquests so hard-won by Galerius in 298.

Again the empire had to be divided for defence, and the last strong emperor of the western empire, Valentinian (364–375), not only repelled a barbarian invasion but decided on a policy that had not been seen for decades. He carried the war back into the barbarians’ territory across the Rhine and ravaged their lands intermittently for the next seven years. Undoubtedly this strategy was made possible by the fact that Valentinian had appointed his loyal younger brother, Valens, as emperor in the east, so that Valentinian could deploy safely the great part of his army for reprisals. Valentinian seems to have impressed Jerome, who described him thus: ‘Valentinian in another time would have been an exceptional emperor, and was similar to Aurelian in his behaviour, except that his undue strictness and a certain frugality were interpreted as cruelty and greed.’ Valentinian died of apoplexy at the height of his triumph over the German tribesmen, and in the east Valens and his legions were overrun by the resurgent Goths – who had been allowed to settle within the Roman frontier – at the battle of Adrianople in 378. The army was almost wiped out after faulty tactics (probably part of the Roman cavalry engaged the enemy before the complete army was properly deployed) and then smoke from blazing fires blowing into Roman faces, and Valens was never seen again.

The victorious barbarians swarmed over Thrace but were unable to break into its walled cities. The new emperors of west and east, respectively Gratian and Theodosius, settled the Goths within the Roman frontier and recruited heavily from them to replace the vanished legions. Yet the barbarians served under their own chieftains and could be persuaded to adopt Roman military tactics only with difficulty, while they were also reluctant to wear their heavy Roman armour. Even the famous Roman curved, rectangular shield gave way to a lighter, circular type. The imposition of strict discipline on Roman armies had become troublesome from the early third century, with their propensity to make and unmake emperors; now it would be well-nigh impossible. Although neither the bravery nor, surprisingly, the loyalty to Rome of the new recruits could be criticized, the fact remains that by the end of the fourth century the ‘Roman’ army amounted largely to just another barbarian force. Less surprisingly, the new army was not successful against the numerically superior waves of other barbarians pouring in across the frontiers.

As the situation deteriorated, the increasingly Christian rulers and leaders of the empire took firmer steps to prevent its superstitious population from reverting to pagan worship in the hope of averting the barbarian onslaught. The use of public funds to pay for pagan ceremonies was halted in 384. In 389 all pagan festivals were stopped, excepting those deemed to be innocuous, such as the celebration of Roma Aeterna. Pagan temples were to be preserved as ‘ornaments’. Six years later, all pagan holidays were removed from the calendar but the games that once celebrated them were allowed to continue. The gladiatorial schools were closed in 399 and the last gladiatorial games were held in 404, being then replaced by wild beast hunts. The barbarian army, however, remained predominantly pagan.

Late Roman Decline II


Aetius surveys the Catalaunian fields. Aetius was still generalissimo of the west, and as we know from Merobaudes’ second panegyric, he had been anticipating the possibility of a Hunnic assault on the west from at least 443.

The first intimation of the end of empire came in 405–406, when swarms of tribesmen crossed the frozen Rhine and devastated Gaul. The Goths under their chieftain Alaric again rebelled, crossed the Alps and finally sacked Rome herself in 410. The last stupendous achievement by a western Roman general, Aetius, was to ally with the Goths in Gaul to inflict a decisive defeat on the fearsome Attila and his Huns (451) – the only time that Attila was ever defeated and a crucial victory that held the west for civilization.

Thereafter the end came swiftly, and the last Roman emperor of the west was deposed by a Gothic king ruling from Gaul in 476. This is the date traditionally given for the fall of Rome. A lot of nonsense has been written about the reasons for the fall of Rome; Gibbon famously attributed the fall to the triumph of the barbarians and Christianity. It would be fairer to argue that the Church had defended and salvaged Roman culture. Modern historians have imputed a huge number of reasons, while some have even denied that anything unusual happened at all, arguing that Constantine’s medieval court progressed simply to a German medieval court. It is unlikely that it felt that way to the citizens of Italy. The truth is that Rome’s barbarian armies could not withstand the larger numbers of barbarians from across the frontiers.

By now the Roman Empire had been divided permanently into two. In the east a series of dynastic emperors ruled from Constantinople over what was effectively a Greek dominion, in speech and in culture, later called the Byzantine Empire. At the beginning of the sixth century, the emperor Justinian decided that it was time to restore the Roman Empire to its old entirety. Troops were despatched to Africa to oust or rule the Vandal invaders, and then to Italy under the command of a very talented general, Belisarius. The armies of the latter, like those of Aurelian, were greeted with huge enthusiasm after they had driven out the barbarians occupying both lands. The local citizens had already had their fill of barbaric standards of justice, with lands seized and the violence and insolence of the invaders.

Justinian recovered ultimately most of the Roman Empire, excepting the north-western provinces (Germany, Britain, Gaul and Spain), yet the reconquered areas of the west proved to be impossible to hold. The emperor had assumed that the restoration of taxes from the west would pay to maintain the necessary garrisons there. But the lands had been so devastated by the constant fighting, and the peoples so impoverished, that the armies could not be paid properly. Locally recruited garrisons faded away slowly for lack of pay. The eastern troops were withdrawn to stabilize other frontiers and to meet the Persian threat.

It was the Lombards who finally wrecked any hope of reuniting the two halves of the Roman Empire. Originally a North Germanic people known to the Romans of the first century, they began a massive migration westwards towards the end of the fifth century. It is thought that the migration was motivated by poor harvests in their own lands. They reached Italy in about 569, and the city of Ticinum (Pavia) had fallen to them by 572. All of Italy had been weakened by the interminable struggles for control between the previous Gothic invaders and the Byzantine newcomers, now the government. The small garrison army of the latter could do little in the face of the Lombardian locusts, and was driven back to a handful of coastal towns. These towns could be supplied by the Byzantine navy, which ruled the waters of the Mediterranean.

The new Roman Empire controlled all the old eastern Roman Empire, northern Africa and the Mediterranean islands, and even added to the east, annexing all of Armenia from the Persians in 590. The Balkan provinces had been severely ravaged by incessant invasions heading west, but the eastern Balkan province of Moesia remained largely untouched, and was also held by the Byzantines. After thirty years of war, the exhausted Byzantine and Persian empires signed a peace treaty in 630.

But by now the Arabs were mobilizing under Islam and they swept suddenly eastwards and westwards. The Persian Empire collapsed completely. The old capital city of the Persians, Ctesiphon, and its counterpart across the Tigris, Seleucia (or Coche), were both destroyed by the Arabs when the Persian Empire fell. The Arabs built a new capital city some 12.4 miles (20 kilometres) to the north, which they named Baghdad.

The main Byzantine army was heavily defeated in 636 by the Arabs in the north of Jordan, and after that the Arabs swarmed all over the Middle East and northern Africa. It required only a 4,000-strong Arab army to take Egypt against weak Byzantine resistance in 639 or 640. Thus, within just ten years, ‘a combination of incompetence and apathy, disaffected soldiers and inadequate defensive arrangements resulted in a series of disastrous Roman defeats.’ Only the rump of the old empire remained, and the Byzantines had lost all the tax revenue and grain from Egypt. By 698, the old Roman town of Carthage in north-western Africa had fallen, at which time virtually no Latin-speaking lands remained to the Byzantines. Meanwhile, the Balkans had been lost to the Bulgars by 679.

Thus Justinian’s expanded eastern empire lasted fewer than 150 years, although the Byzantines retained Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica for centuries to come – long after all of northern Africa had been lost to the Arabs. The immediate Byzantine reaction was to hold fortified centres while avoiding set-piece battles with the Arabs. But finally the energetic emperor Leo III (717–741), and then his son Constantine V (741–775), managed to stop the rot. They checked the advance of the Arabs in open battles and recovered much of the Balkans from the Bulgars.

The Christian Byzantines, in slow decline, withstood the onslaught of Islam from the east for centuries, with the intermittent help, or hindrance, of the Crusaders. The last Roman emperor, Constantine XI, died in action at Constantinople when that great city fell in 1453 to the Turks, who were aided by gunpowder and cannon provided by rogue western traders. It was Gibbon who defined the 1,000-year period between the fall of Rome and the fall of Constantinople as the ‘Middle Ages’.

Aurelian’s original wall had not made a full circuit of the city, and this was completed in 402–403 under the emperor Honorius. It was rebuilt, perhaps after the earthquake of 502, by Theodoric the Goth as part of the general Gothic rebuilding programme in Rome. After little more than three decades, during the attempts by the eastern emperor Justinian to recapture Italy, his general Belisarius besieged Rome. The city would be taken and retaken at least three times. In 536 Belisarius overhauled the walls for defence against the Goths, but the Byzantines were ejected. Ten years later, having been damaged by the departing Goths, the walls were again repaired by Belisarius. The last recorded races at the Circus Maximus were run in 549.

Once more, the walls were repaired in the eighth and ninth centuries, against threats from seagoing Arabs and the intruding Lombard peoples, by the Christian popes who now provided virtually the only stable government in Rome. After St Peter’s Basilica had been looted by the Arabs in 846, the old wall was extended to provide protection to the Vatican (848–852).

The legacy that the fallen Roman Empire left to its European successors comprised Christianity and Roman Law. The latter was written down finally in definitive form as a digest under the great emperor Justinian (527–565), and was abridged separately by the Gothic kings for reuse in Italy in about 500. It was the rediscovery of a copy of Justinian’s Digest in northern Italy in about the year 1100 that invigorated the readoption of Roman Law within Europe. Roman Law is currently the basis of most European law, but not in England, where Saxon Law prevailed and was passed on to the majority of countries of the British Empire, including North America.

Christianity, with its central tenet of ‘love thy neighbour’, had a strong civilizing effect on the conquering barbarians that overthrew the western empire. The Goths, for example, had already largely adopted the religion by the time they settled in Gaul. Later medieval nobles would create ‘rules of war’ incorporating Christian elements into the age of chivalry and heraldry, providing a strong influence to tame actions even in this field.

And what was the legacy of the barbarians? What do you do when you have stolen everything from the civilized peoples of the Roman world, ruined their lands, destroyed their buildings and given nothing back? You have to start fending for yourself, that’s what. In the former province of Britain, the invading Anglo-Saxons built their mud huts amid the ruins of the greatest civilization that the ancient world had ever known. The structures of Rome and other cities were knocked down deliberately to furnish building materials for churches or farmsteads. Europe entered the Dark Ages.

Finally, what of the Sibylline Books? The last known consultation by the Senate of the genuine Sibylline Books was in 363, during the reign of the pagan emperor Julian. When the barbarians reached northern Italy, following their mass invasion across the Rhine in 405–406, the Christian emperor of the west, Honorius, ordered that the books be burned by his general Stilicho. They have never been seen again.


Europe in 477 CE. Highlighted areas are Roman lands that survived the deposition of Romulus Augustulus.


‘Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it’ (G. Santayana, philosopher, 1863–1952).

The barbarians had overthrown the western Roman Empire, but they could offer nothing to replace it. The Saxons who invaded Britain violently in the fifth century, destroying the remnants of Romano–British society, dwelt in hovels while they watched the collapse of great, but unmaintained, Roman buildings and aqueducts. The ‘Dark Ages’ lasted for hundreds of years, say from 500 to about 1100 in the more distant parts of Europe. When Gibbon finished his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire at the end of the eighteenth century, many parts of the world were still unexplored. Gibbon therefore considered whether a new race of barbarians, hitherto unknown, could undo the civilization in Europe in the same way that Roman society had been ruined. He reasoned that technological developments in Europe, predominantly in weapons, ensured that no undiscovered race of barbarians could conquer Europe without first learning how to master the same or equivalent technologies. In other words, the barbarians would have first to become civilized before they could encompass the downfall of European civilization. One wonders what Gibbon would have to say about a Western civilization that sells sophisticated armaments to (relatively) barbarian potential enemies.

The second great lesson from the decline of the Roman Empire is the importance of ensuring that soldiers and their generals are subject to proper control by their masters. The English Civil War occurred nearly as soon as a general had a professional army to do his bidding, while rebellions in Africa and South America have been almost endemic. The only long-term solution appears to be to ensure that soldiers are drawn from the society they are supposed to defend, so that they are subject to peer pressure.

The third great lesson comes from the middle of the third century. Populations will take steps to find local solutions to pressing problems if the central authority will not act. Both the western and the eastern parts of the Roman Empire created their own governments, under Postumus in the west and Macrianus or Odaenathus in the east, when the acknowledged emperor failed to respond to invasions in these territories. The emperor, Gallienus, was perceived to be more interested in the suppression of invasions or rebellions elsewhere than in protecting the peoples of the west and east. He was actually removing their frontier troops, reducing their protection.

Postscript – the Triumph of the Barbarians

It is not generally recognized today just how catastrophic for the future of civilization was the final collapse of the Roman Empire in the west. Contrary to general belief, it is prolonged periods of stability that result in the greatest human advancement, not the pressure of wars. Economic prosperity advances on all fronts when ordinary people can prepare long-range plans or can enjoy the luxury of leisured thought about life’s problems. The economic affluence of Britain, and the huge scientific advances of the nineteenth century, were greatly dependent upon the long period of unbroken peace under Queen Victoria.

The Pax Romana had created for about four centuries a settled condition – for most of the empire’s population – in which trade could flourish to the advantage of all, and new inventions could spread rapidly. The propagation of Christianity was perhaps the empire’s greatest achievement. When the barbarians marched in for the last time, trade collapsed and non-military inventions died.

The names of some of the invading tribes still echo through the ages as bywords for death and destruction – the Vandals and the Huns. The reputation of those old Roman foes, the Goths, has fared better. According to one of their own chieftains, he entered the remnant of the empire as a would-be plunderer, but recognized in time the value and the achievement of what he would destroy. And thus he stayed his hand. By now, constant contact between Romans and Goths had largely civilized the latter anyway, and many had converted to Christianity. Gothic kings ruled Rome herself after the last emperor had been deposed, and today we associate the Gothic name more with architecture than with pillage.

Even so, the areas controlled by the Goths were as uncertain of their futures as those held by the other barbarians, while the eastern Roman Empire lapsed into introspection and lethargy. Much Roman literature was lost, as were many Roman inventions from the old, great empire. Worst of all was the loss of economic efficiency with the collapse of international markets. Pottery and glassware were still manufactured, but were no longer of the old high standard, nor were they widely distributed. Glass would no longer appear in window frames. Tribes on the periphery of the empire would abandon even those advanced farming techniques that the Romans had taught them.

The collapse of trade routes and safe lines of communication reduced greatly the scale of building in brick or stone. The necessary raw materials simply could not be moved from quarries to building sites. In Rome herself, older monuments and buildings were knocked down to provide materials for new churches and new dwellings. The creation of the fine old country villa, with baths, mosaics and underfloor heating, ended and would not be seen again until the nineteenth century. The generally good hygiene practices of the Romans, engendered by flowing (piped) drinking and washing water, public baths and good medical treatment, had also gone, as had the plentiful supply of food known to be necessary to create resistance to illness.

The great public records were upheld no longer, and literacy was not now widespread. In the general collapse of law and order, the Roman attempts at early police and fire-fighting forces were seen no more. Roman roads and viaducts (for conveying fresh water) were allowed to disintegrate, where previously they had been maintained regularly. Again, it was not until the nineteenth century that these deficiencies were made good again.

And what of the loss of inventions? In more recent years, though, marine archaeology on the wrecks of Roman ships in the Mediterranean has discovered that each ship has a lump of rusted iron next to the steersman’s post. The Romans had the magnetic compass. The barbarians lost it. A similar fate befell the secrets of Roman concrete and mortar. It was necessary to analyse chemically the mortar in Hadrian’s Wall recently in order to discover the mystery of its extraordinary longevity. The Romans produced a concrete that could even be used underwater.

The Baths of Caracalla at Rome were one of the wonders of the medieval world. No one could understand how the long, unsupported concrete beams could stand up under their own weight. In the end, they collapsed. Subsequent investigation showed that the beams were made of iron-reinforced concrete. When the iron finally rusted, the concrete beams fell down. Today we use steel-reinforced concrete for much the same kind of purpose.

The Romans used water for power, as in water mills and various hydraulic machines. They employed springs in their carriages, again confirmed only from some recent archaeological finds in Germany. This technique had also to be rediscovered centuries later. The carriages were used on the impressive network of well-constructed Roman roads. Even Roman surveyors used methods subsequently forgotten and rediscovered, and they drew accurate maps. The Romans did not believe that the world was flat.

It is surprising to discover that the Romans never invented the printing press. They had advanced as far as putting several inked seals onto a wooden bar so as to make multiple official stamps on documents, but there is no evidence of printing. Despite their high levels of literacy, they never found it necessary to put individual letters, instead of seals, onto their wooden bar. When slave labour is cheap, the need for labour-saving devices becomes greatly reduced. Those who wanted a copy of a book simply asked their slaves to copy the original.

The barbarians are sometimes credited with bringing an end to slavery in the Roman Empire, but the Christian empire was improving the lot of the declining number of slaves and had already terminated gladiatorial contests. Europe did not recover the state of civilization enjoyed by the Roman peoples until the nineteenth century. Even today, many parts of the world remain more backward than the Roman era. That was the achievement of the barbarians.




The first battle of Philippi.


By the spring of 42 B.C., Cassius had joined his army with that of Brutus in Macedonia. With twenty legions they encamped at Philippi, today’s Filippoi, stretching entrenchments between their hilltop camps, which straddled the Agnatian Way, and all the way to their supply base of Neapolis, modern Kavala, eight miles away on the coast.

In the summer, Antony and Octavian landed in Greece with their army. With Octavian ill, Antony advanced into Macedonia with nineteen legions, and in mid-September built two camps facing the Liberators’ Philippi positions. Octavian, too weak to walk, arrived ten days later, in time for his twentieth birthday. Antony built entrenchments toward the Liberators’ lines. Then, one day at the beginning of October, with the armies of both sides lined up on the plain in battle order, Antony led nine legions in an unexpected assault on the defenses below Cassius’s camp.

The 4th Legion, which had fought against Antony at Mutina, now fought for him, on his left wing. It was soon overwhelmed by Brutus’s right wing. Two of Brutus’s legions broke through and took Octavian’s camp. Octavian escaped with his life, having just previously left the camp. Antony, meanwhile, led a breakthrough on his right wing that took Cassius’s camp, forcing Cassius to flee to a hilltop. From the hill, Cassius could see nothing of the hectic battle below because it was obscured by a huge dust cloud raised by the feet of the 250,000 infantry and cavalry involved in the largest battle to that time between Roman armies. Seeing his camp taken, Cassius thought the battle lost. At Cassius’s command, his armor bearer Pindarus killed him.

In fact, the battle ended in a stalemate. Once the dust had literally cleared, Antony had taken Cassius’s camp and Brutus had Octavian’s camp. The Triumvirs had lost 16,000 men; the Liberators, 8,000. That same day, a convoy bringing 2,000 Praetorians and 2 legions, including the Martia, to Greece as reinforcements for the Triumvirs was intercepted on the Adriatic by Statius Murcus with 130 Liberator warships and was almost entirely destroyed. Of the two sides, that of the Liberators had fared the better on both land and sea. But Cassius was by far the better of the republican generals, and his loss was sorely felt by Brutus and his subordinates.

For close to three weeks both sides now faced off, with Brutus prepared to wait it out until the Triumvirs’ growing supply problems weakened them. But his officers urged him to attack, warning him that his confident troops might mutiny if he did not lead them against the enemy. Brutus gave in to his officers, and on October 21 led his legions out to do battle a second time. Octavian and Antony accepted the challenge and also drew up their legions.

Both sides charged simultaneously. The troops on Octavian’s wing eventually drove the opposing line back until it gave way. While Octavian’s troops surrounded Brutus’s camp, Antony chased Brutus and several legions to the mountains. There, Brutus and fourteen thousand surviving Liberator troops were surrounded.

After Brutus’s legionaries refused to execute his plan for a breakout, calling instead for surrender terms from Antony, Brutus said to his friends, “I am no use to my country any longer if this is the attitude even these men take.” He ordered Strato of Epirus to kill him, and as Brutus looked the other way, Strato reluctantly plunged a sword into Brutus’s side, near the left nipple, piercing his heart.

So died the leader of the conspiracy to kill Julius Caesar. He and Cassius were men of “unchallenged virtue,” according to Appian, although Plutarch did not believe Cassius to be Brutus’s equal “in proved virtue and honor.” In the summation of Velleius, “Cassius was the much better general, as Brutus was the better man. Of the two, I would rather have Brutus as a friend, but would stand more in fear of Cassius as an enemy.” Brutus, he said, had “kept his soul free from corruption until this day”—the Ides of March—when “the rashness of a single act” robbed him of his virtue. Mark Antony had Brutus’s body reverently cremated and his remains sent to his mother, Servilia.

A number of Caesar’s assassins fought at Philippi alongside Brutus and Cassius. Labeo also committed suicide following the defeat, as did Quintillius Varus, father of the general of the same name who would famously lose three legions to the Germans in the Teutoburg Forest in A.D. 9. Other assassins, and leading supporters of the Liberators including Marcus Favonius, were taken prisoner. Most were immediately executed by Antony and Octavian, among them Quintus Hortensius; months before, after hearing of Cicero’s decapitation, Hortensius had executed Antony’s brother Gaius in reprisal.

Some Liberator supporters escaped and survived, including Cicero’s son Marcus, who, years later, was made a consul by Augustus. Of the men who had physically taken part in the assassination of Caesar, the last to die was another Cassius, Gaius Cassius Parmensis.

In the summer of 43 B.C., not long after Brutus fled Italy, his unhappy wife, Porcia, unable to bear separation from the husband she loved, had painfully committed suicide at Rome by swallowing hot coals. Junia Tertullia, Brutus’s sister and Cassius’s wife, lived at Rome for many more years, passing away in her eighties or nineties in A.D. 22. The emperor Tiberius permitted a funeral oration for her in the Forum and other honors, including a funeral procession in which the busts of twenty illustrious Romans were carried before the dead woman. But the busts of her famous husband and brother were banned. And for this very reason, said Tacitus, that day “Cassius and Brutus outshone them all, from the very fact that their likenesses were not to be seen.”

Gaius Asinius Pollio, who crossed the Rubicon at Caesar’s side and served under him faithfully until his death, also would claim that he did not approve of the Civil War. He said that he chose a side on which he had the least enemies, as an act of self-preservation, and was “forced along a path far from pleasing to myself” by Caesar.¹¹ In both these cases, the unspoken plea, the Caesar’s henchman plea, seems to have been one of “I know what Caesar did wasn’t right, but it was right for me at the time.”

Half a century after Caesar’s assassination, in August A.D. 14, his ultimate successor, Octavian, who became the emperor Augustus, also died, but from natural causes. As the day for Augustus’s funeral approached, his successor, Tiberius, issued a proclamation warning the Roman populace “not to indulge in that tumultuous enthusiasm which had distracted the funeral of the Divine Julius [Caesar].”

As leading Roman historian Tacitus, himself a closet republican, made it clear, half a century after Caesar’s murder the opinion of the people of Rome was split between those who thought his assassination justified and the assassins heroes, and those who reviled both the act and its perpetrators. Tacitus wrote, “On the day of the funeral [of Augustus], soldiers stood round as a guard, amid much ridicule from those who had either themselves witnessed or who had heard from their parents of the famous day when slavery [of Roman citizens] was still something fresh, and freedom had been resought in vain, when the slaying of Caesar, the Dictator, seemed to some the vilest, to others, the most glorious of deeds.”

There can be no escaping the fact that by any definition Caesar was a tyrant: he gained power via a bloody premeditated coup; employed brutal force; suppressed democracy; and, brooking no opposition, ruled through fear. Furthermore, he may have been a tyrant suffering from brain disease who had come to think of himself as immortal. However, at a distance of more than two thousand years, and without an accurate medical diagnosis, we can only speculate on the state of his mental health.

Yet, despite the fact that he was a tyrant and the possibility that he might have been mentally ill, what did the murder of Caesar achieve? Cicero wrote glumly to Cassius the year following the assassination,

“We seem to be rid of nothing except our detestation for a vile being and indignation under tyranny, while the country lies still prostrate amid the troubles into which he plunged her.”

Caesar opened historical floodgates, washing away the old democratic system. Modern scholars suggest that the republican ideal for which Brutus, Cassius, and Cicero gave their lives was an illusion, that one strongman or another would always rise to power within Rome’s republican system. Perhaps so. But after taking power, Sulla soon bowed to the system and retired, and Pompey was tamed by it. Only Caesar overthrew the system, and buried the ideal. And to this day many a patriot, misguided or not, still will give his or her life for an ideal.

The most striking thing about the more than sixty assassins is that in putting their lives on the line to join the conspiracy, none asked for anything; all were content simply to take the appointments that Caesar had laid out for the next five years. They merely wanted to be rid of Caesar, the man Cicero described as “odious.” Only a barely concealed hate of Caesar and a driving lust for his removal can explain why the assassins were blind to what would follow his death.

The Liberators were seasoned politicians, some were hardened generals, yet none properly thought through Caesar’s removal. Even if Brutus and Cassius had made more careful provision for the return to democracy, backed by the military—and it is astonishing that they thought the system would simply right itself once Caesar was removed—and even if they had murdered Antony at the same time, Caesar had shown that the legions were more powerful than the Constitution, that the man who commanded the loyalty of the legions could rule Rome.

All the evidence shows that Caesar precipitated his own violent death. Not only did he make some poorly calculated moves in the last weeks of his life, he also was a poor judge of character, trusting men who ultimately participated in his murder or who failed to warn him and allowed it to take place. Dolabella is said to have been aware of the assassination plot and done nothing to warn Caesar. It is possible that Antony likewise knew but did nothing, in hopes of himself taking power. Yet if that were the case, like Brutus and Cassius, Antony made no preparations to win the allegiance of the legions, as he must.

As Shakespeare was to write, Brutus was an honorable man. Brutus was also compassionate and well intentioned. Cassius was none of these things, and his brutal rule in the East during 43-42 B.C. suggests that had he and Brutus defeated Octavian and Antony, he may have rid himself of Brutus, taken sole power for himself, and been just as oppressive a ruler of Rome as Caesar, Antony, and Octavian.

In the end, Caesar’s murder achieved nothing more than opening the door to the next tyrant, Antony, and then the next, Octavian, and imperial rule. One hundred twenty years later, when the emperor Nero considered executing all potential claimants to his throne, Seneca dissuaded him with the reminder that a ruler can never kill his successor, for the line of successors waiting outside a tyrant’s door is endless.

The end of the Liberators spelled the end of the Republic. Octavian, Antony, and Lepidus jointly ruled the Roman Empire until 36 B.C., when Lepidus made a miscalculated grab for power. The legions deserted Lepidus, and Octavian exiled him to a remote Italian village for the rest of his days, permitting him to retain his post of pontiff maximus until he died in 13 or 12 B.C.


Octavian and Antony fell out several years later, after Antony allied himself with Cleopatra and deserted Octavian’s sister Octavia, whom he had married to cement their alliance. They went to war in 31 B.C., with Octavian emerging victorious at the Battle of Actium. After Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide in 30 B.C., Octavian ruled as Rome’s first emperor for the next forty-three years. Like Caesar, Octavian would be offered many honors by a compliant Senate after he became sole ruler, but unlike Caesar he wisely declined most of them. Most notably, he accepted the title of Augustus, or “revered,” rather than that of “king”; took the veto powers of the tribunes of the plebs for himself; and asserted the right to personally appoint all consuls.

Octavian’s rule and the end to hopes of restoring the Republic were inevitable. Julius Caesar had been grooming Octavian to be his successor, and it is not unlikely that had Caesar not been murdered in 44 B.C., Octavian would still have succeeded him, only some years later.


The Romans’ success in conquering and maintaining their enormous empire lay partly in their military culture, their weapons and their training. Rome’s ability to provision large armies at long distances was, however, equally as, or more important to its success. The military history of Rome is not one of continuous victory: indeed the Romans often won wars because, after losing battles—and sometimes entire armies and fleets—they could keep replacing them until the enemy was defeated. Polybius, a keen observer of the Roman military at its height, remarked that “the advantages of the Romans lay in inexhaustible supplies of provisions and men.”

A sophisticated logistical system allowed the Romans to exploit their military resources effectively. The Romans recognized the importance of supply and used it both as a strategic and a tactical weapon and the necessities of military supply influenced and often determined the decisions of the Roman commanders at war. Plutarch even mentions the military slang term for such tactics: “kicking in the stomach” (eis tên gastera enallonomenos). Frontinus cites Caesar, certainly Rome’s greatest general, on the use of logistics in military strategy:

I follow the same policy toward the enemy as did many doctors when dealing with physical ailments, namely, that of conquering the foe by hunger rather than by steel. Logistics in Campaign Planning Traditionally, Roman campaigns began on March 1st: in part to ensure the availability of fodder.

The Romans paid close attention both to raising armies and to the preparations for supplying them. Their habitually careful arrangements made a strong impression, and, given the general neglect of logistics in military history, our sources mention such planning remarkably often. For example, Polybius describes the large-scale Roman preparations for a Gallic invasion as early as 225 B. C.:

[The consuls] enroll[ed] their legions and ordered those of their allies to be in readiness. . . . Of grain, missiles and other war materiel, they laid in such a supply as no one could remember had been collected on any previous occasion.

There are many other examples both in the Republican and the Imperial periods.

Commanders naturally wanted to complete their logistical preparations before operations began. When Quinctius Flamininus was preparing his campaign against Nabis, the tyrant of Sparta, in 195 B. C., the arrival of allied troops, including Macedonians, completed his authorized force. Nevertheless, he still waited until the arrival of the supplies (commeatus) requisitioned from the neighboring Greek states before beginning his offensive. At times, troops were moved first and supplies sent after them. When Sulla had obtained the command of the First Mithridatic War, he marched his army over to Greece and then summoned money, auxiliary troops and supplies from Aetolia and Thessaly.

Some wars broke out unexpectedly and preparations had to be made in haste. Sallust notes that when the consul Spurius Postumius Albinus determined to reopen hostilities with Jugurtha, he “hastened to transport to Africa provisions (commeatus), money for paying the soldiers, and other apparatus of war.” The frequency of Roman conflict, and the experience of Roman officials with warfare, made such impromptu preparations much easier. Other times, military campaigns were planned years in advance.

The Security of Supply Lines

Ensuring that the army continued to receive supplies, despite an enemy’s attempts to interrupt them, remained an important priority in Roman warfare in every period. Provisions reached the army in a variety of ways: by sea and river, overland and through foraging and requisition. In each of these circumstances, enemy action was a threat, and the Romans had to deploy military forces, as well as the application of strategy and tactics, to meet this threat. Rome often found it necessary to prevent the enemy plundering Roman or allied territory: it is noteworthy that the fleet of Gaius Duilius, which won the first major Roman victory of the First Punic War at Mylae (260 B. C.), was sent out to prevent the Carthaginians from plundering the territory of a Roman ally.

Security of Waterborne Transport

Protecting sea-borne transport was vitally important in wartime: enemy action could seriously threaten the army’s supply shipments. There are many instances of such threats. In 217 B. C., for example, the Roman grain fleet supplying the army in Spain was captured by the Punic fleet. A Roman task force was immediately mobilized to set out in pursuit, but the damage had already been done. Plutarch notes that the Macedonian king Perseus during his war against the Romans (172–167 B. C.):

. . . made an unexpected attack upon the Roman fleet which was lying at anchor near Oreus, seized twenty ships of burden with their car- goes, and sank the rest together with the grain that filled them. . . .

The navy of Antiochus III, operating from the Hellespont and Abydos during the war of 192–189 B. C., made frequent raids (excursiones) against Roman cargo ships (onerariae) supplying their army in Greece. Later, Mithridates used his naval superiority in the eastern Mediterranean to cut off supplies to Sulla’s forces in Greece in 87–85 B. C. Attacks on sea-borne supply were important elements in the Civil Wars of the Late Republic. In 42 B. C., a Republican fleet under Statius defeated Dolabella’s fleet at Laodicea, cutting him off from supplies. When Octavian sent a large force by sea to reinforce and resupply the Caesarean army at Philippi, it was attacked and destroyed by the Republican navy.

The Romans routinely used their fleet to protect supply transports in wartime. As early as the First Punic War, the Romans assigned a fleet of 120 warships to provide a convoy for merchant ships bringing supplies for the siege of Lilybaeum (249 B. C.). When the commander of the fleet in 209 B. C., Marcus Valerius Laevinus turned some ships over to the consul Quintus Fabius Maximus for use in the assault on Tarentum, they are called by Livy “the ships which Laevinius had for protecting the supply lines (tutandis commeatibus).” Such protection continued in the late Republic: Sallust, in a speech attributed to the consul Gaius Cotta, and set in 75 B. C., refers to the fleet which “guarded our supplies (commeatus tuebatur).”

Such naval escorts were not always successful. The convoy protecting supplies going to Lilybaeum in 249 B. C., mentioned above, did not prevent the Carthaginians from attacking and seizing several of the merchant vessels. The threat of attack was sometimes more destructive than the attack itself: trying to avoid attack by Carthaginian warships, a Roman supply fleet placed its ships in a dangerous anchorage where a storm destroyed the entire fleet including all the army’s supplies. Whenever possible, a fleet put supplies put ashore before a battle. To prevent them from falling into enemy hands commanders of escorts might scuttle conveyed merchant ships, as the Pompeian admirals Lucretius and Minucius did during the Dyrrachium campaign of 48 B. C. 26 Despite the dangers of attack, supplies transported by sea were generally safer from attack than those sent overland, a point made by Tacitus.

Security of Overland Supply

The army provided escorts for supply convoys bringing provisions to troops in garrison even during peacetime, albeit on a limited scale. An incident from the anti-Roman uprising of Athrongaeus in Palestine around 4 B. C. illustrates the small size of such peace- time escorts. Josephus reports that a single century (80 men at full strength) was escorting a convoy of grain and arms to a legion stationed in Jerusalem, when the rebels ambushed the column near Emmaus. The Romans lost half the century and only the intervention of King Herod’s army saved the rest.

Obviously, moving provisions from the operational base to the army over supply lines provided ample opportunities for attack. Due to the increased danger in war, convoy escorts were, of course, considerably larger than in peacetime. A tribune commanded the forces that escorted a supply convoy bringing provisions to the army of Pompeius Aulus in Spain in 141 B. C. Appian does not give the size of the escort, but a tribune would have commanded at least several centuries and possibly a cohort or more.

An escort’s size was not the only factor in successful defense of a convoy. While accompanying a supply convoy to Lucullus’s army from Cappadocia in 71 B. C., a Roman force defeated an attack by Mithridates’s cavalry: the Pontic force had attacked the convoy in a defile, a more easily defensible position, instead of waiting until it reached open country. An escort also had to maintain a disciplined defense cordon, even if the column was proceeding to pick up sup- plies. Tacitus notes the lack of security in an unloaded supply column going to Novaesium from the Roman forces at Gelduba in 69 A. D., during the revolt of Julius Civilis. The troops assigned to defend it moved as if there were no danger:

. . . the cohorts escorting [the convoy] were proceeding as if in time of peace, that there were few soldiers with the standards, that their arms were being carried in carts (vehicula) while they all strolled along at will, he drew up his forces and attacked them, sending first some troops to occupy the bridges and narrow parts of roads.

The column was unable to make it to Novaesium and had to fight its way back to Gelduba without fulfilling its mission. In order to secure its supply lines, an army had to pacify the area between the operational base and the tactical base. This is why Vespasian did not immediately attack Jerusalem when he arrived on the scene in 67 A. D.: if he left hostile forces behind him, in Galilee and Samaria, the rebels would have been in a position to cut off his supply lines. Therefore, he spent an entire campaigning season taking important fortresses in the north of Palestine.

Providing a series of depots between the operational and tactical base was not only a question of “leap-frogging” supplies forward. Depots were generally placed within fortifications, as at Rödgen and South Shields and they served to secure provisions from enemy attack. Therefore, the sources often refer to them as “forts” (castella or phrouria). Vegetius describes this practice:

Among the things particularly incumbent upon a general . . . is to see that the transportation of grain and other provisions . . . is rendered secure from hostile attack. The only way to achieve this is to plant garrisons at suitable points through which our supply-trains pass. These may be cities or walled forts. If no old fortifications are available, temporary forts (castella) are established in favorable positions [and] a number of infantry and cavalry stationed in them on outpost duty provide a safe passage for supplies.

Brutus used fortified lines to protect his supply lines at Philippi (42 B. C.).

The use of fortified depots considerably reduced the risk of attack to supply lines. Once a rear area had been pacified, though, the danger of convoyed supplies, which at first glance seem very vulnerable, was actually rather small. Lacking firearms or explosives, the ambushing party in antiquity usually had to rely on superior numbers to overwhelm a convoy. Even if the enemy knew the likely route of a convoy, the exact time of its movement would not be predictable, so a large ambushing force would have had to wait in enemy territory, itself vulnerable to surprise attack.

Naturally, armies have a tendency to use their worst troops to garrison depots and operational bases, not to mention escort duty, leaving the best soldiers for combat. Livy explicitly states that after the consuls filled their legions with the best troops, they assigned the “surplus” (ceteri ) to garrison duty. In the Republican period, the Romans sometimes used their least reliable Italian allies to defend supply lines, sometimes with unfortunate results. In 218 B. C., Dasius of Brundisium commanded the garrison of Clastidium, in which a great quantity of grain had been stored for the Roman army. He betrayed the city to Hannibal for 400 gold pieces. The city’s capture not only hurt the Romans, but relieved the Carthaginians of considerable supply difficulties. When Manlius Vulso set up an operational base on the Lake of Timavus in his Istrian campaign of 178 B. C., he garrisoned it with a single reserve cohort (repentina cohors) and a few legionary centuries. The Istrians, seeing the weakness of the Roman defense, attacked the base and captured it. Only the barbarian drunkenness that followed, and the timely arrival of Gallic auxiliaries and of part of another legion (which had been foraging nearby) restored the situation, and the base, to the Romans.

Since Roman marching camps also functioned as supply bases, camp security was especially important. The Romans were justifiably famous for their security measures while encamping. Such measures involved both fortification and maintaining the discipline necessary to proper security. This system sometimes broke down, as it did in Albinus’s army in Numidia. Sallust notes that in this case:

. . . [his] camps were not fortified, nor was watch kept in a military fashion, men absented themselves from duty whenever they pleased.

It was no doubt at least partly for logistical reasons that the consul Caecilius Metellus reestablished security in his famous reform of the army in 109 B. C.

Military Strength and Weakness of the Imperial Roman Army




The gradual changes in the nature of the Roman army between the time of Tiberius and 235 certainly affected both Roman society and the empire’s internal power-struggles. Did they also affect Rome’s strength at the periphery? The really big changes were three, though they had all started well before Tiberius’ accession. The first was the regular organization of ‘auxiliary’ troops into quasi-permanent units in which they would normally serve for twenty-five years before being made Roman citizens on discharge, a system set up by Augustus and refined by his successors. As in centuries past, such troops often outnumbered the legionaries, and their effectiveness was of profound importance.

That leads, secondly, to the matter of recruitment. In the era of the civil wars of 49 to 31 bc, and under Augustus, provincials had entered the legions in large numbers. Recruits came from Roman-colonial or Romanized communities, but also from others: thus an inscription of the early Principate (ILS 2483) shows that almost all the soldiers in the two legions stationed in Egypt had been recruited in non-citizen communities in the eastern provinces (their lingua franca was Greek). All over the empire, the more Romanized provinces provided more and more of the legionaries, while Italians – who made up the bulk of the better-paid praetorian guard – provided fewer and fewer. The authorities were now quite willing in practice to recruit non-citizens, giving them citizenship when they were sworn in. This ‘provincialization’ probably reflected some Roman/Italian reluctance to serve (Italy was too prosperous) but also some intention on the emperors’ part to bring provincials into the mainstream. From Hadrian’s reign on, the normal pattern (though not in Britain) was to recruit legionaries in the provinces where they were needed, but from relatively Romanized/Hellenized elements (and legionaries were more likely than ‘auxiliaries’ to be literate). This was by and large a well-organized and disciplined force; and fighting spirit was probably not lacking either, at least down to Trajan’s time – when battle-commanders chose to entrust the initial impact of the fighting to ‘auxiliary’ units and keep the legionaries in reserve, a procedure that is first attested in a major battle at Idastaviso in Germany in AD 16 (Tacitus, Annals 2.16.3), there could be a variety of tactical reasons.

‘Auxiliary’ recruitment was quite different: the government concentrated on fringe areas such as Iberian Galicia and Thrace, simply supplying officers from the core area of the empire; such units were commonly posted away from their home areas, Britons for example in Upper Germany, while the auxilia in Britain itself might, for example, be Batavian or Syrian. Eventually, but unfortunately we do not know when, Rome also began to employ soldiers who are unlikely to have felt themselves to be Roman subjects: Marcus sent 5,500 cavalry of the Transdanubian Iazyges, whom he had just subdued, to serve in Britain (Dio 71.16). There were Goths garrisoning Arabia in 208, and Goths later took part in Valerian’s war against the Persians. This was probably an increasing trend, but it is hard to tell how much the armies of, say, Constantine and Licinius were really dependent on Goths or Arabs, whom they are known to have made use of.

The other military change of potentially great importance in the period prior to 235 was not so much that many units in the Roman army became ‘sedentary’ from generation to generation, becoming deeply involved in essentially administrative duties, but that many Roman soldiers never experienced battle. This army had never been invincible, but its deplorable failure to protect the Danube frontier in 170–1 suggests significant changes for the worse. Enemy forces reached northern Italy for the first time in some 270 years, while others, as already mentioned, raided as far south as Attica. Our sources on all this are poor, but it may be conjectured that a shortage of officers and soldiers seasoned by warfare had a great deal to do with Rome’s failure, and this in turn was the indirect result of conscious policy. In other respects, the Romans were normally at an advantage: throughout this period they were superior to their opponents in important areas such as artillery and engineering (‘the soldiers are always practising bridge-building’, Dio 71.3).

Temporary causes admittedly contributed, and the Danube line still had a long future. Marcus Aurelius, as we have seen, had had to raise two new legions about 165 to replace the three which his co-ruler Verus had taken from the Rhine and Danube to the east in order to fight the Parthians. Shortly thereafter, the Roman military in the north suffered seriously from the Great Pestilence, as recent studies have demonstrated. Marcus himself had had no military or even provincial experience before 168 – and it showed. Imperial coin-types furthermore had often exaggerated the emperors’ military achievements, and there was a risky deception involved when coin-types absurdly declared in 172–4 ‘Germania subacta’ – ‘Germany has been vanquished’.

Few historians have really tried to evaluate the Severan army, and the evidence is slippery. Even republican armies sometimes mutinied, and there were whole rhetorical topoi about undisciplined soldiery. But an army stationed in Mesopotamia that was mutinous enough to assassinate the provincial governor (about 227, Dio 80.4.2) was a very negative symptom (and see below on the year 235).

We have quite a lot of information about how the Roman army changed between Severan times and Constantine, but assessing its ability to do its job is nonetheless difficult. On the one hand it never, unlike the republican army, won battles it might well have lost, on the other it never, unlike the late-antique Roman army, lost battles that it ought to have won. We have little option but to judge it by its results, though these may be mainly attributable not to its own qualities but to those of its generals, or its logistics, or its enemies, or to any combination of these factors. Recent accounts of Rome’s military performance in this 100-year period are unsatisfactory, but our sources are admittedly tenuous to a degree, whether it is for the defeat at Abrittus in 251 or the battle nine years later in which, or after which, the Persians captured the emperor Valerian (some Roman sources naturally preferred to claim that he was captured by trickery).

Tiberius already knew that it was worth keeping two legions in Dalmatia partly in order to back up the legions on the Danube (Tacitus, Annals 4.5). Later Roman emperors eventually concluded that the long-standing dispositions of the Roman army, with the great majority of the soldiers stationed on or near the frontiers, were ill adapted to resisting major invasions that might come from different directions. It had always been necessary to balance the needs of the Danube frontier and the Euphrates frontier, but both became more dangerous in late-Severan times. Once Rome surrendered the initiative, the distances involved presented an almost insoluble problem: it took something over two months, for example, for troops to travel from Rome to Cologne. The best that could be done was to create a reserve army that could be sent wherever it was needed without weakening some vital garrison. It appears to have been Gallienus who created a central cavalry force (cf. Zosimus, New History 1.40, Cedrenus, i, p. 454 Bekker). The development of these comitatenses, as they came to be called, is impossible to follow in any detail, but Constantine apparently expanded their role (Zosimus 2.21.1 may refer to such troops), while also centralizing the command structure of the army by means of an overall infantry commander (the magister peditum) and a parallel cavalry commander (the magister equitum). Nonetheless it remained difficult to counter any large invasion once it had passed the northern or eastern frontiers. An enterprising governor might raise a local militia (populares: AÉ 1993 no. 1231b shows us a governor of Raetia doing this in 260), but they would be largely untrained and untried.

The reliefs on the Arch of Constantine distinguish between his Roman and his ‘barbarian’ troops, which raises again the complex question of whether Rome was now relying too much on troops who were merely mercenaries. According to the emperor Julian (Caesars 329a), Constantine ‘practically paid tribute’ to the barbarians, and modern accounts suppose that he and his rival Licinius made Rome significantly more reliant on German and other non-Roman troops than any previous ruler; but the ill effects do not yet seem to be visible.

The strength of the Roman Empire’s numerous and various neighbours to the north, east, and south can only be judged, once again, by the results, their aims likewise. From Tiberius’ time to Trajan’s, those who kept their freedom from Rome and their territorial integrity were doing well; this applies mainly to the Romans’ failure to advance far beyond the Rhine and to hold on to Mesopotamia. The incursions of the 160s–70s and of the 240s–60s showed a great deal of vigour. The invaders’ goal was often plunder, including human beings, which the Roman Empire offered in abundance. Dio (71.16) asserts that the Iazyges had taken far more than ‘ten myriads’ of prisoners in Roman territory – a five- rather than a six-digit number, one might think. (Some of the third-century booty has been recovered from the bed of the Rhine, rafts having apparently sunk). Not even Sasanian Persia, the most powerful external enemy Rome faced in this period, showed any determination to hold on to any Roman province, and in fact it had no reliable means of protecting its own core area against Roman forces that were always relatively near. But northern peoples had already in the second century extracted territorial concessions of a sort, obtaining lands within the Roman frontier. This practice went back to Julio-Claudian times. Initially the advantages to Rome probably outweighed the disadvantages; whether that continued to hold true in and after Marcus Aurelius’ time we shall consider in a moment. It certainly looks like a major surrender to strong outside pres- sure. Purchasing the docility of outside enemies by means of payments, unless it was a short-lived tactical expedient, was likewise a recognition of real enemy strength: this started with Domitian, but involved Trajan, Hadrian, and many later emperors. Yet from a Roman point of view, this was by no means an irrational policy, within limits.

Fundamental changes had taken place by the time the conglomeration of Germans known as the Alamanni (‘All Men’), who are first attested in a Roman source in 213, inflicted quite serious harm in 232–3. This was nothing less perhaps than the birth of a new national formation. What made a difference here was probably in the end quite simple: such a new grouping, like the Franks from about 260, could put larger forces into the field than any single German people. But the tetrarchs and Constantine could always, it seems, defeat the northern peoples on the battlefield.

Roman Auxilia


Warrior auxiliary cohort of Batavia , the second half of the 1st century AD.



Batavian auxiliary cavalry – Pablo Outeiral


The Roman Auxilia constituted the standing non-citizen corps of the Imperial Roman army during the Principate era (30 BC–284 AD), alongside the citizen legions. By the 2nd century, the Auxilia contained the same number of infantry as the legions and in addition provided almost all of the Roman army’s cavalry and more specialised troops, especially light cavalry and archers. The auxilia thus represented three-fifths of Rome’s regular land forces at that time. These soldiers were mainly recruited from the peregrini, i.e. free provincial subjects of the Roman Empire who did not hold Roman citizenship and constituted the vast majority of the empire’s population. The Auxilia also included some Roman citizens, and in times of great need, even freed slaves and barbarians from beyond the Empire’s borders. This was in contrast to the legions, which admitted Roman citizens only.

Roman auxiliary units developed from the varied contingents of non-Italian troops, especially cavalry, that the Roman Republic used in increasing numbers to support its legions after 200 BC. The Julio-Claudian period (30 BC–68 AD) saw the transformation of these motley temporary levies into a standing corps of regiments with standardised structure, equipment and conditions of service. By the end of this period, there were no significant differences between legionaries and most auxiliaries in terms of training, or thus combat capability.

At the start of Augustus’ sole rule (30 BC), the original core auxiliary units in the West were composed of warlike tribesmen from the Gallic provinces (especially Gallia Belgica, which then included the regions later separated to form the provinces Germania Inferior and Germania Superior), and from the Illyrian provinces (Dalmatia and Illyricum). By 19 BC, the Cantabrian and Asturian Wars were concluded, leading to the annexation of northern Hispania and Lusitania. Judging by the names of attested auxiliary regiments, these parts of the Iberian peninsula soon became a major source of recruits. Then the Danubian regions were annexed: Raetia (annexed 15 BC), Noricum (16 BC), Pannonia (9 BC) and Moesia (6 AD), becoming, with Illyricum, the Principate’s most important source of auxiliary recruits for its entire duration. In the East, where the Syrians already provided the bulk of the Roman army’s archers, Augustus annexed Galatia (25 BC) and Judaea: the former, a region in central Anatolia with a Celtic-speaking people, became an important source of recruits. In N. Africa, Egypt, Cyrene, and Numidia (25 BC) were added to the empire. Numidia (modern day Eastern Algeria) was home to the Mauri, the ancestors of today’s Berber people. Their light cavalry (equites Maurorum) was highly prized and had alternately fought and assisted the Romans for well over two centuries: they now started to be recruited into the regular auxilia. Even more Mauri units were formed after the annexation of Mauretania (NW Algeria, Morocco), the rest of the Berber homeland, in 44 AD by emperor Claudius. Additionally, independent auxiliary units were often the only Roman military force present in the inermes provinciae, or unarmed provinces, such as Mauretania.

Recruitment was thus heavy throughout the Augustan period, with a steady increase in the number of units formed. By 23 AD, the Roman historian Tacitus records that there were roughly the same numbers of auxiliaries in service as there were legionaries. Since at this time there were 25 legions of 5,000 men each, the auxilia thus amounted to 125,000 men.


The Batavi were accounted indisputably not merely as the best riders and swimmers of the army, but also as the model of true soldiers. In this case certainly the good pay of the bodyguard, as well as the privilege of the nobles to serve as officers, considerably confirmed their loyalty to the Empire.

The Batavians, according to Tacitus, were the most noble and brave of all the Germans. The Chatti, of whom they formed a portion, were a pre-eminently warlike race. “Others go to battle,” says the historian, “these go to war.” Their bodies were more hardy, their minds more vigorous, than those of other tribes. In times of war their young men cut neither hair nor beard till they had slain an enemy.

On the field of battle, in the midst of carnage and plunder, they, for the first time, bared their faces. The cowardly and sluggish, only, remained unshorn. They wore an iron ring upon their necks until they had performed the same achievement, a symbol that they then threw away, as the emblem of sloth. The Batavians were always spoken of by the Romans with entire respect. They conquered the Belgians, they forced the free Frisians to pay tribute, but they called the Batavi their friends. The tax-gatherer never invaded their island. Honorable alliance united them with the Romans.

“The barbarians thought the Romans would not be able to cross this [the River Medway] without a bridge, and as a result had pitched camp in a rather careless fashion on the opposite bank. Aulus Plautius, however, sent across some Celts who were practised in swimming with ease fully armed across even the fastest of rivers. These fell unexpectedly on the enemy”.

Cassius Dio ‘ The History of Rome’.

One of the Batavians most renowned skills was the method they employed to cross wide bodies of water en-masse, such as the Ems during Germanicus’ campaigns in Germany and the Po in the civil wars of A.D.69 where several foot soldiers would swim alongside a single cavalry soldier and his horse, presumably keeping their weapons above water by using the horse as a kind of living raft. Their tactics have been identified in use under Aulus Plautius during the Battle of the Medway in AD43 and also under the governor G. Suetonius Paulinus. The auxiliary troops who crossed the Menai Straits onto the Isle of Anglesey to destroy the Druid stronghold there were in all likelihood Batavian units. It is thought that in the army of Plautius there were eight Batavian units, each five hundred strong.

The historian Cornelius Tacitus (c.55-c.120) refers to the Batavians;

“He therefore prepared to attack the island of Mona which had a powerful population and was a refuge for fugitives. He built flat-bottomed vessels to cope with the shallows, and uncertain depths of the sea. Thus the infantry crossed, while the cavalry followed by fording, or, where the water was deep, swam by the side of their horses.”

Cornelius Tacitus ‘The Annals of Imperial Rome’..

”Depositis omnis sarcinis lectissimos auxiliarium quibus nota vada et patrius nandi usus, quo simul seque et arma et equos regunt, ita repente inmisit, ut obstupefacti hostes, qui classem, qui navis, qui mare expectabant, nihil arduum aut invictum crediderint sic ad bellum venientibus”.

”After dropping all baggage he quickly sent the most elite of the auxiliaries, who were familiar with shallows and traditionally used to swimming in such a manner that they kept control over arms and horses, to the effect that the flabbergasted barbarians, who expected a fleet, who expected a ship across the sea believed that nothing was hard or insurmountable to those who went to war in this fashion”.

Tacitus ‘Agricola’ 18.4

Vegetius gives us some insight as to how the Batavians achieved such a feat:

“Expediti vero equites fasces de cannis aridis vel facere consueverunt, super quos loricas et arma, ne udentur, inponunt; ipsi equique natando transeunt colligatosque secum fasces pertrahunt loris”.

“Battle ready horsemen though have been accustomed to make bundles from dry reeds or, on these they put the body armours and weapons, in order that they do not get wet; they themselves and their horses cross by swimming and they draw the packed bundles along with them with leather straps”.

Vegetius, Epitoma rei militaris 3.7

Dio Cassius Comments upon Hadrian and the rigorous training that he insisted his troops be tutored in. In one passage he refers to the Batavians (Presumably the emperor’s personal horse guards) and their river-crossing abilities.

“So excellently, indeed, had his soldiery been trained that the cavalry of the Batavians, as they were called, swam the Ister with their arms. Seeing all this, the barbarians stood in terror of the Romans, they employed Hadrian as an arbitrator of their differences”.

(Dio Cassius Liber LXIX 9.6)

The implication is that the Batavians possessed a unique skill. However, there is a gravestone of a certain Soranus, a Syrian trooper in a Batavian milliary cohort, again, possibly the emperor’s personal horseguard. Soranus’ epitaph records that in AD118 he, before the Emperor Hadrian, swam the Danube and performed the following feats..

CIL 03, 03676 (AE 1958, 0151).

Ille ego Pannoniis quondam notissimus orisinter mille viros fortis primusq(ue) BatavosHadriano potui qui iudice vasta profundiaequora Danuvii cunctis transnare sub armisemissumq(ue) arcu dum pendet in aere telumac redit ex alia fixi fregique sagittaquem neque Romanus potuit nec barbarus unquamnon iaculo miles non arcu vincere Parthushic situs hic memori saxo mea facta sacravividerit an ne aliquis post me mea facta sequ[a]turexemplo mihi sum primus qui talia gessi

“I am the man who, once very well known to the ranks in Pannonia, brave and foremost among one thousand Batavians, was able, with Hadrian as judge, to swim the wide waters of the deep Danube in full battle kit. From my bow I fired an arrow, and while it quivered still in the air and was falling back, with a second arrow I hit and broke it. No Roman or foreigner has ever managed to better this feat, no soldier with a javelin, no Parthian with a bow. Here I lie, here I have immortalised my deeds on an ever-mindful stone which will see if anyone after me will rival my deeds. I set a precedent for myself in being the first to achieve such feats”.

The Batavians were a notable addition to the forces of the Roman army from the reign of Caesar, until the reign of Romulus Augustulus. They played an important role in the successes of – and supplementation to – the Legions of the Roman army. Our Batavian unit honours these men and perpetuates their fine tradition.