Sertorian War (80-72 B. C. E.)


Sertorius was a disaffected Roman who fought successfully against Sulla and Pompey. He was a masterly tactician specialising in surprise and ambushes exploiting wooded hills and according to Plutarch introduced Roman weapons, formations and signals. The 53 cohorts of Roman exiles under the treacherous Paperna that joined him maintained a separate command and camp.


For a century the old Republic had creaked under the pressures of a series of brutal internecine conflicts. The gang warfare that had caused the deaths of the brothers Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus escalated into military strife. Romans fought Italians (the Social War), Sulla fought Marius and Marius’ supporters, the Senate crushed Lepidus, Pompey and Metellus fought Sertorius, Crassus (joined by Pompey) repressed the rebellious slaves of Spartacus, Cicero led the Senate against Catiline, Pompey was destroyed by Caesar, the triumviral successors of Caesar hunted down Caesar’s assassins, Sextus Pompeius and Octavian fought a series of naval engagements, and finally Octavian and Mark Antony disputed dominance over the empire. The Republic died in a welter of civil wars.

As in all such civil conflicts a crucial role was played by soldiers who showed themselves willing to engage in their generals’ political battles and to march against Rome in furtherance of political objectives. The new system of government created by Augustus transformed the military from a source of political instability and the instrument of conflict into one of the props of the new regime. Six decades of regular civil wars ushered in a period of two centuries in which, with the exception of ad 68-9, civil political conflicts did not escalate into war.

Quintus Sertorius (d. 72) was an able general who was appointed governor of Lusitania (Portugal and western Spain) in 83. He was forced to flee to North Africa in 81, when Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138-72) became Roman dictator and took vengeance upon all former enemies, among them Sertorius. A year later, the Lusitanians revolted against Rome and asked Sertorius to return to lead them, which he did. Rome’s legal governor in Lusitania was defeated by Sertorius at the Battle of the Baetis (Guadalquivir) River in 80. Sulla sent an army under Quintus Metellus Pius (d. c. 64) to squash the revolt, but it was overcome by Sertorius’s forces. By 77, Sertorius controlled most of what is now Spain and Portugal. A new Roman army under Pompey the Great (106-48) marched from Italy over the Pyrenees to join forces with Metellus, but Sertorius out-generaled them in a series of campaigns (76-73). After the arrival of reinforcements, the Romans gradually began to win the upper hand. Sertorius initiated strict discipline and severe punishments for infractions in his army, which roused dissension among his troops. Marcus Perperna (d. 72), his chief officer, stirred up more disaffection, helped murder Sertorius, and assumed command of the army. He was shortly thereafter defeated by Pompey, taken captive, and killed.

Quintus Sertorius

There was a certain Quintus Sertorius who served with distinction in the war against the Cimbri and Teutones. This man of great military and political talent was an associate of Marius and Cinna, and an adherent of their populist movement. His abilities incurred the jealousy and dislike of Cornelius Sulla. This hostile influence kept him from political office in 88 BC; but during the period when Marius was dominating Roman political life, the climate was more favourable to his ambitions, and he was elected praetor. In 83 BC, the year in which Sulla returned victorious over Mithridates and became dictator in Rome, Sertorius went as propraetor to govern Hither Spain. His aim was to establish a base for Marius’ populist party in Spain, from which it might be possible to launch an attack on the dictator in Rome. Sulla understandably wanted to replace Sertorius with an appointee of his own. Sertorius was forced out of Spain and sought refuge in Africa.

After a period devoted to wandering and to mystical contemplation, Sertorius returned to Spain in 80 BC and took the lead in a revolt of the Lusitani. With these formidable warriors, Sertorius and his lieutenants inflicted bloody defeats on the Roman forces. The senior Roman commander, Metellus, was incapable of eradicating an enemy who used guerilla tactics so skilfully in a terrain that suited them so well. Sertorius wore down Roman power sufficiently to enforce its withdrawal to the South, and gradually he increased his authority until it covered the greater part of Spain. He established his own government and among other constructive measures, set up a school for the sons of Celtic chieftains. He also developed a naval base at Denia to accommodate his other allies, the Mediterranean pirates. After the abortive attempt at revolution by the radical leader and consul of 78 BC, M. Aemilius Lepidus, the remnants of his forces which had been defeated by those of the other consul, Catulus, were taken to Spain. M. Perpenna, who was in command of them, added them to the forces of Sertorius, and himself became a lieutenant of Sertorius.

Gnaeus Pompeius, who was to become `the Great’, and C. Memmius were appointed in 76 BC by the Senate to the task of removing what was growing to the proportions of an international menace; for Sertorius had established friendly relations with Mithridates through the agency of the pirates, who themselves constituted a major problem which it was to be one of Pompeís most notable achievements ultimately to solve. Pompey and his colleagues were not able to destroy Sertorius’ forces in a set battle. When this was attempted in 75 BC, in the Sucro valley, Pompey would have been completely defeated if Metellus had not arrived with timely reinforcements.

In time, and with the aid of repeated additions of new troops, Pompey and Metellus were able to put increasingly severe pressure on the Sertorian forces. Many of the Lusitanian soldiers deserted and Sertorius felt obliged to inflict harsh punishments to discourage this. This policy further alienated the Lusitani, who already were sensitive to the tyrannical treatment they had received from some of the Romans on Sertorius’ staff, who themselves were involved in internecine squabbling. In this atmosphere it was not too difficult for the Roman high command to inspire Perpenna with the suggestion that he should murder Sertorius. He did so in 73 BC, but his army was defeated by the Romans under Pompey, and he was taken prisoner and executed. When Pompey returned to Rome in the following year, he seemed to have solved the Spanish problem.

Sertorius is said to have kept a white doe which enabled him to communicate with the divine world. We might surmise that the Lusitani and his other Celtic adherents respected this pet as the impersonation of the horned god whom we know elsewhere as Cernunnos. According to Plutarch (Sert. 11) the doe was supposed to be his medium of communication with the goddess Diana. This may have been a propaganda trick to bemuse simple natives, but I can see no reason why we should think so, or why we should not do him the honour of accepting that he believed what he said about the creature. He regarded it as a mascot of his success and he was greatly disturbed when it was lost for a time at the battle of the Sucro.

Sertorius had the combination of intuitive understanding of people and creative imagination which is often found in great commanders and major poets. He was a brilliant master of guerilla tactics: his devices for winning the loyalty of tribesmen were no less inventive. He recognised the necessity of holding a visible balance of justice between the native population and the Roman settlers. He also understood the need to give the Lusitanian warriors plenty of gold to adorn their armour. Plutarch’s life contains many other examples of his insight and leadership.

If Sertorius had enjoyed the good fortune to exploit the military possibilities of a country as rich in men and resources as `Gallia Comata’, he might have achieved success of comparable magnitude to that of Caesar. But he had no official standing in Spain and he had to rely upon Celtic soldiers who did not see themselves as soldiers, but as warriors who could go and come as they pleased. He had not enough Romans or Romans of good enough quality on his staff, and his cause was bedevilled by the presence of Roman settlers in the country who had already founded deep roots of resentment amongst the population. He was, however, an inspiration to Julius Caesar, and was himself an early example of the Roman man of power who in later times would intimidate Rome from a base in the provinces, when the `secret of power’, in Tacitus’ words, `got out that emperors could be made elsewhere than in Rome’.

Roman Success at Sea in 260–257 BC


In the 3rd century BC, Rome was not a naval power, and had little or no experience in war at sea. Before the First Punic War, the Roman Republic had not campaigned outside the Italian Peninsula. The Republic’s military strength was on land, and her greatest assets were the discipline and courage of her soldiers. The boarding-bridge allowed her to use her marines against the superior Carthaginian naval skills. The Romans’ application of boarding tactics worked; they won several battles, most notably those of Mylae, Sulci, Tyndaris, and Ecnomus.

Despite its advantages, the boarding bridge had a serious drawback: it could not be used in rough seas since the stable connection of two working ships endangered each other’s structure. Operating in rough seas, the device became useless and was abandoned. According to Bonebaker, Professor of Naval Architecture at Delft, with the estimated weight of one ton for the boarding bridge, it is “most probable that the stability of a quinquereme with a displacement of about 250 m3 (330 cu yd) would not be seriously upset”.

Some other historians believe that its weight on the prow compromised the ship’s navigability and the Romans lost almost two entire fleets to storms in 255 and in 249 BC, largely due to the instability caused by the device. These losses were probably the main reason for the abandonment of the boarding-bridge in ship design by the end of the war. As Roman naval tactics improved and the Roman crews became more experienced, the boarding-bridge was no longer used in battle. It is not mentioned in period sources after the battle of Ecnomus and apparently the Battle of the Aegates Islands that decided the first Punic war was won without it.

The intensification of the Punic war at sea was demonstrated when the new Roman fleet first approached Sicily and the Carthaginians made an effort to stop it from securing a position on the Sicilian coast.

The consul Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio had given orders to the captains to sail towards the Straits when the fleet was ready, while he put to sea with seventeen ships and proceeded to Messana to prepare for the arrival of the main fleet. However, Scipio was then taken prisoner at the Lipari Islands. Polybius describes how an opportunity came up to capture Lipara by treachery, and so Scipio sailed there with his seventeen ships. The Carthaginians at Panormus learned about Scipio’s presence at Lipara. Hannibal dispatched Boödes, a member of the senate, with twenty ships and he blockaded the Romans in the harbour. Scipio surrendered to Boödes, who took him and the captured ships to Hannibal.

Much has been made of this failed enterprise. The Romans gave Scipio the nickname ‘Asina’, she-ass, but he was released later in an exchange of prisoners and continued his career. Scipio was right to try to take Lipara. It was one of the ports that the Carthaginians could use to protect traffic in the Straits and interfere in Roman transports. If the Romans had captured it, the crossing of their main fleet would have been safer. While they already controlled the ports of Messana and Syracuse and could rely on the support of their ally Hiero along the east coast of the island, the rest of the Sicilian seaboard was dominated by the Punic fleet and was hostile to them. So, for the Romans, Lipara was an important target and the capture of it could have been their first success in the campaign to conquer the Punic ports.

Next, the Roman and Carthaginian fleets clashed off the coast of Bruttium, near a place called the Cape of Italy. This could well have been the Taurianum promontory, known today as Cape Vaticano. Polybius states that Hannibal came upon the main Roman fleet sailing southwards in good order and trim. He does not give details about the battle but claims that Hannibal lost most of his fifty ships before escaping with the remainder. The reasons for Hannibal’s voyage are not clear. According to Polybius, he wanted to discover the strength and the general disposition of the enemy and perhaps he intended to combine this reconnaissance with a plundering raid. It is possible that his motive was more ambitious than this. Since the Carthaginians had recently captured seventeen new Roman ships and their commander, he may have felt confident enough to stop the main Roman fleet and take over more of their ships.

When the Roman fleet arrived in Sicily, Gaius Duilius, the consul leading the Roman land forces on the island, was called in to command it. He handed over his legions to the military tribunes before leaving to join the ships. The Romans began to get ready for a sea battle. Polybius states that, since their ships were badly-built and slow-moving, it was suggested that they should equip them with boarding-bridges.

There is no doubt about the historicity of the boarding-bridge or corvus. Polybius gives a description of its structure that Wallinga has corrected on some points. It worked as follows: at ramming distance, a gangway located on the bow was lowered onto the enemy deck and the soldiers ran across it in order to fight. The mechanism consisted of a pole with a pulley at the top. A rope ran through the pulley to a gangway that could be raised and lowered. Under the end of the gangway was a pointed pestle that, when the gangway was lowered, pierced the deck of the enemy ship and kept the two vessels locked together.

For anyone who follows Polybius’ view that the Romans were novices in maritime warfare and operated with poor-quality ships, the boarding-bridge has come to be seen as the key to their success, especially as, in his description of the battle at Mylae, he states that this device made combat at sea like a fight on land. However, it is doubtful whether the corvus had such a decisive impact. The Romans won their first battle on their way to Sicily without it, capturing many Punic ships, and the device is only mentioned twice in the sources: in the sea battles of 260 and 256 – thereafter there is no reference to it.

In my opinion, the corvus should not be seen in the context of the Romans’ inexperience in maritime warfare; there is a precedent in naval history that points to its real significance. Thucydides describes how the Athenians used grappling irons when they tried to break out from the harbour at Syracuse in 413. They boarded the enemy ships with soldiers and drove their opponents off the deck. According to Thucydides, the sea battle changed into a battle on land. The mass of troops on board made the Athenian ships heavy and hampered their manoeuvres. The Athenian innovation started a new era in naval tactics.

The boarding-bridge was a typical device in the Hellenistic period, when armies and navies were familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of their opponents and experimented with new fighting methods in order to surprise them. Once the Carthaginians had recovered from their surprise, they must have come up with a defence against the corvus but the sources do not describe the measures they took. Some of the technical details concerning the operation of the corvus remain uncertain, such as the angle at which it could be revolved, and it is not clear why the Romans stopped using it.

As for the alleged slowness of Roman ships, knowledge about the comparative performance of Roman and Carthaginian vessels is based on the outcome of the battle at the Cape of Italy where the Romans captured around fifty Punic ships and the remainder fled. The excessive weight of the Roman ships may have been due to the fact that they were loaded with troops, equipment and supplies, rather than a consequence of poor shipbuilding. However, the Romans had been unable to take a few of the Punic ships. In this context perhaps the boarding-bridge should not be seen as a defensive tool but as a sign of the Roman determination to hunt down every enemy ship at every opportunity. By using the boarding-bridge, they could make sure that no Punic ships could escape.

We do not know how long the preparations for the battle took. Polybius states that the Carthaginians were ravaging the territory of Mylae and that Duilius sailed against them:

They all [the Carthaginians] sailed straight on the enemy, not even thinking it worthwhile to maintain order in the attack, but just as if they were falling on a prey that was obviously theirs … On approaching and seeing the ravens [corvi] nodding aloft on the prow of each ship, the Carthaginians were at first nonplussed, being surprised at the construction of the engines. However, as they entirely gave the enemy up for lost, the front ships attacked daringly. But when the ships that came into collision were in every case held fast by the machines, and the Roman crews boarded by means of the ravens and attacked them hand to hand on deck, some of the Carthaginians were cut down and others surrendered from dismay at what was happening, the battle having become just like a fight on land.

The first thirty ships were taken with their crews. Hannibal, who was commanding the fleet in the seven that had formerly belonged to Pyrrhus, managed to escape in the small boat. Trusting their swiftness, the Carthaginians sailed around the enemy in order to strike from the side or the stern but the Romans swung the boarding-bridges around so that they could grapple with ships that attacked them from any direction. Eventually the Carthaginians, shaken by this novel tactic, took flight. They lost fifty ships.

According to Polybius, Hannibal had 130 ships; according to Diodorus he had 200 ships involved in the battle. Diodorus says the Romans had 120 ships. Information about the type of ships that Scipio Asina lost at the Lipari Islands is not given in the sources but it seems probable that the Romans still had around 100 ships from their original fleet. Possibly they borrowed ships from their allies and made use of captured Carthaginian ships but no information is available. The brief description of the battle that has survived does not indicate whether the Romans arranged their ships in two lines or one. At first it seems the Carthaginians tried a diekplous attack. When that failed, they switched to a periplous attack but the Romans repulsed that too. If we accept Wallinga’s theory that the boarding-bridge could be revolved through 90 degrees, rather than freely in all directions as Polybius claims, then the Romans must have manoeuvred and regrouped their ships during the battle to defend themselves and to target the Punic ships as they approached. So, in practice, they continued to use the traditional tactics that were intended to sink enemy ships with rams and the deployment of the boarding-bridge did not make a significant difference to this aspect of the battle.

Duilius was given extraordinary honours by Rome. He was awarded the first naval triumph in the city’s history, ‘de Sicul(eis) et classe Poenica’, ‘over the Sicilians and the Punic fleet’. Two columns decorated with beaks were built, one in the Forum, probably close to the Rostra, and the other perhaps at the Circus Maximus, and a waxen torch was borne before him and a flautist made music whenever he returned from dining out. The Rostra and the Columna Rostrata C. Duilii were the two most important war monuments of Republican Rome.

Polybius sees the victory at Mylae as one of the important moments of the war; he states that the determination of the Romans to prosecute the war became twice as strong. This is plausible. The victory and the retreat of the Carthaginian navy opened the north coast of Sicily to the Romans, who used their fleet to take troops westwards when they raised the siege of Segesta and took Macella.

No figures are available for the size of the fleets of 259–257, when the Romans extended their operations to other islands and attacked important Punic harbours. The consul of 259, Gaius Aquillius Florus, operated in Sicily against Hamilcar and celebrated a triumph ‘de Poeneis’, ‘over the Carthaginians’. We do not know exactly what he accomplished. According to Polybius, Roman troops did nothing worthy of note in Sicily that year. Perhaps events on land were slow; as Lazenby puts it, it is most likely that Aquillius had two legions with him consisting of about 20,000 men. This was not a large enough force to take on Hamilcar’s army in which there might have been up to 50,000 men after the fall of Agrigentum. Diodorus, however, states that Hamilcar took Camarina and Enna and fortified Drepana on the north-west coast and that people were moved there from Eryx. Drepana was one of the most important Carthaginian harbours in Sicily. The Carthaginians reacted to the presence of the Roman navy and the threat it posed to them.

According to Polybius, the Romans – from the moment they concerned themselves with the sea – began to entertain designs on Sardinia. Sardinia and Corsica were strategically important and taking Sardinia would put a stop to Carthaginian attacks on the Italian coast from that direction. Moreover, the Romans had a long-standing interest in both islands, demonstrated by their attempts to found colonies on them.

The second consul of 259, Lucius Cornelius Scipio, brother to Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio Asina, was awarded a triumph for his campaign against the Carthaginians on both Corsica and Sardinia. His opponent was Hanno. Scipio started on the east coast of Corsica, capturing Aleria and other ports that are not named in the sources. While sailing towards Sardinia, he spotted a Carthaginian fleet, which turned and fled. He went on to Olbia on the north-east coast of Sardinia. There a Carthaginian fleet put in an appearance but Scipio decided to sail home, judging that his infantry was insufficient to give battle. Scipio’s funerary inscription records his success in Corsica:

He took Corsica and the city of Aleria

He dedicated a temple to the Storms as a just return.

The reference to ‘Storms’ in the dedication presumably alludes to a particular storm that Scipio was fortunate to escape and probably it was Hannibal’s Carthaginian fleet that caused him to turn back. Polybius does not record previous events in Corsica and Sardinia but he continues the story of Hannibal, who had sailed to Carthage after the Battle of Mylae. He collected additional ships and recruited some of the most celebrated Carthaginian naval officers, then returned to Sardinia. There he was blockaded in one of the harbours by the Romans and, after having lost many ships in a battle, he was arrested by his men and crucified in Sulci, in the south-west corner of the island. The Roman consul who defeated Hannibal was probably Scipio’s successor, Gaius Sulpicius Paterculus. He was awarded a triumph ‘over the Carthaginians and Sardinia’. We have no further information about subsequent events in Sardinia until the great mutiny of the Carthaginian mercenaries in the aftermath of the war and the consequent Roman annexation of the island.

The other consul of 258, Aulus Atilius Caiatinus, operated in Sicily. He attacked the Carthaginian winter quarters in Panormus but withdrew his forces when the Carthaginians refused to give battle. The Romans took Hippana, Mytistratus, Camarina and Enna and besieged Lipara. Surviving inhabitants were sold into slavery. Lipara and Panormus were important Punic naval bases and the Roman attacks demonstrate the powerful position the Roman fleet had gained on the north coast of Sicily. Atilius celebrated a triumph ‘over Sicily and the Carthaginians’.

In 257 both consuls operated in Sicily. Information about Gnaeus Cornelius Blasio’s campaign has not come down to us; Gaius Atilius Regulus, however, was awarded a naval triumph ‘over the Carthaginians’. It is hard to say what he achieved; Polybius states that, in a sea battle off Tyndaris on the north coast of Sicily, the Romans took ten Carthaginian ships with their crews, sinking eight. Details of the battle have been lost but he describes the consul’s ship as well-manned and swift. The rest of the Punic fleet withdrew to the Lipari Islands. A surviving fragment in the works of Naevius mentions the ravaging of Malta. Orosius, Zonaras and Polyainos state that Atilius operated against the Lipari Islands and Malta. Certainly, operations against these two islands helped to make the route safe for the invasion of Africa that began in the following year.64 Atilius’ triumph was the seventh that had been celebrated during the war and the second for naval operations. Once again, naval paraphernalia must have been displayed in the triumphal procession; there is no record of a monument being built to commemorate the victory.

What made a naval triumph? All the Roman operations of this period depended on cooperation between the army and the fleet, in particular on the rapid transport of troops, which could only take place in areas where the navy had cleared the coast of the enemy fleet and made safe landing possible. Scipio’s operations in Corsica, which included the capture of important Punic harbours, had not earned him a naval triumph. As for Atilius, we do not know exactly what he achieved but we must assume that he inflicted a serious loss on the Punic navy that could be counted in terms of booty and a significant number of captured or sunken ships. Perhaps his success at the Battle of Tyndaris fulfilled the criteria for a triumph and in addition he may have fought the Carthaginians at the Lipari Islands or Malta, in sea battles of which we know nothing.

Battle of Frigidus River, 5–6 September 394

Arbogastes’ continual high-handed treatment of the emperor Valentinian II caused the latter to give him publicly a letter that terminated his command. Arbogastes, however, after having read the letter simply tore up it and stated that Valentinian had not given him his command and therefore could not sack him. Now the rift had become public and could no longer be kept under wraps. Valentinian sent numerous letters to Theodosius in which he complained about Arbogastes’ behaviour and asked Theodosius to help him. Valentinian stated that he would flee to him immediately if the latter would just promise to help him. Theodosius turned a deaf ear to these, but then on 15 May 392 the unthinkable happened. Valentinian was found hanged in his quarters. The desperate Valentinian appears to have committed suicide, but this still aroused suspicions that Arbogastes had had him killed. Arbogastes attempted to prove himself innocent, but to no avail. Theodosius I immediately started to make preparations for war. He was married to Valentinian’s sister and had no other alternative in the circumstances. When it became apparent that there would be no reconciliation, Arbogastes appointed his trusted friend Eugenius as emperor at Lugdunum on 22 August 392. Eugenius was harmless enough to stand as Arbogastes’ figurehead. He was Arbogastes’ client (introduced to him by his uncle Richomeres) who was by profession a teacher of rhetoric who had become a civil servant. Most importantly Eugenius was native Roman and Christian while Arbogastes was a pagan Frank. The new rulers still attempted to court Theodosius and sent two embassies to him, but to no avail. Theodosius temporised because there was still the problem of the ongoing war in Macedonia and Thessaly, but the raising of Honorius to the position of Augustus in January 393 at the latest showed what was to come.

Arbogastes and Eugenius had their own problems. They also needed to secure their own backyard, the Rhine frontier, before they could move on into Italy. Consequently, Eugenius and Arbogastes led their army all the way up to the Rhine frontier in the winter of 392/3 to impress the barbarians with the huge size of their army as a result of which the Franks and Alamanni renewed their treaties.169 I would suggest that in practice this meant that the rulers raised Federate troops from among the barbarians for military service against Theodosius. In April 393 Eugenius and Arbogastes then marched to Italy where they were welcomed with open arms and recognised by the Senate. The pagan Praetorian Prefect Flavianus was particularly enthusiastic in his welcome of the new rulers. Before this the pagans of the Senate had already twice tried in vain to get the Altar of Victory restored back to the Senate because Arbogastes still attempted to reconcile himself with Theodosius, but now that it was clear there would be war, the new rulers were more cooperative. However, since Eugenius also needed to keep the Christians happy he did not officially re-establish the old religion like Julian had done, but restored the Altar out of his own pocket. The new rulers needed to play it on both sides of the fence, but Flavianus went overboard in his enthusiasm of pagan revival with the result that the Christian opponents of the regime could claim with good reason that the new rulers were working for Satan.

In the meantime, in 392 Theodosius had appointed his son-in-law Stilicho as Promotus’ successor. The appointment proved very fortuitous because Stilicho proved himself to be a competent general. The order in which he achieved his successes is not known with certainty, but we know that he managed to finish the wars that had been raging in the Balkans since 388. Stilicho’s first success was against the Bastarnae who had ‘killed’ Promotus. According to Claudian, Stilicho annihilated in a huge slaughter all the Bastarnae globi of cavalry and infantry at Promotus’ tomb. The likeliest date for this campaign is the summer of 392. This operation would have secured the Danube frontier and cut off the barbarian rebels of Thrace from any outside help. Stilicho’s campaign against the Visigoths, Alans, and Huns in Thrace to last from late 392 to the summer of 393. According to Claudian, Stilicho drove the savage Visigoths back to their wagons and then penned within the narrow confines of a single valley all of the barbarians, which consisted of the ‘charging Alans, fierce Nomadic Huns, falx-wielding Geloni (were there still falx-wielding ‘Dacians’ or Scythians from the Don, or is this an antiquarian comment?), Getae (Goths) with bows, and the Sarmatian contarii. All that was left for Stilicho to do was to kill them all, but then the ‘traitor’ Rufinus supposedly convinced Theodosius to grant them a treaty. his was actually a sound decision in the circumstances and symptomatic of Theodosius’ general policy of appeasement. It was better to harness the barbarians under the famous Alaric for useful service against the usurper Arbogastes than to waste valuable manpower in their destruction. The fact that Theodosius was willing to conclude a treaty with the rebels is highly suggestive of his urgent need to collect forces against the usurper. Now both sides could start to make their preparations for war.

According to Zosimus, Theodosius had intended to appoint the very experienced Richomeres as Magister Equitum and supreme commander of the army, but he died of disease in the spring before the campaign could start – or did the emperor poison Richomeres as a precaution because Arbogastes was his nephew? Once again Theodosius recruited large numbers of barbarians from within and without the borders, but the loyalty of the Goths was wavering. When the barbarian leaders were invited to the Emperor’s table in the spring of 393, the drunken Goths quarrelled amongst themselves and the dispute became public. When the emperor had learnt what each of the Goths thought he ended the banquet, after which Fravitta, who had stayed loyal, killed the disloyal Eriulphus (at the instigation of Theodosius?). When Eriulphus’ retinue attempted to kill Fravitta, the imperial bodyguards intervened on his behalf. After this, Theodosius did not intervene when the Goths fought against each other evidently because his side was winning. On 30 December 393 Eugenius and Arbogastes appointed Gildo as Magister Militum per Africam to secure at least his neutrality in the forthcoming conflict (CTh 9.7.9). Theodosius confirmed the decision, because it also suited his goals, but still failed to convince Gildo to support him.

Theodosius began his invasion of Italy in the spring of 394. He appointed Timasius and Stilicho as magistri, and Gainas (Gothic comes), Saul (Alan), and Comes Domesticorum Bacurius (former Prince of Iberia) as commanders of the foederati. The Federates included Goths, Alans, Huns (under their own phylarchoi), Caucasians, Armenians, Arabs, and others. As noted above, thanks to the destruction of the eastern field armies in 376–378 and thanks to the corruption, the regular eastern field army did not possess adequate numbers of high-quality soldiers. It was now absolutely necessary to obtain as many allies and mercenaries as possible to strengthen the army. Regardless, a significant portion of Theodosius’ eastern cavalry consisted of cataphracts in scale or lamellar armour (lamina) under the Dragon banners that must have belonged to the regular army (Claud. II Ruf. 353–365). After all, the cavalry had escaped the disaster at Adrianople almost unscathed. The prophetic services of the hermit John of Lycopolis were once again used to encourage the men. Just at the moment when Theodosius was about to begin his campaign horrible news arrived, his wife and child had died in childbirth. Theodosius could not mourn for more than a day, but one can imagine that he was grief-stricken.

After this, Theodosius marched his army rapidly through the provinces and crossed the Julian Alps (Emona, Nauportus, Longatium, Ad Pirum) with equal speed. This begs the question why Arbogastes had left the fortified passes undefended. The likeliest answer appears to be that Arbogastes had purposely left the route open because he wanted to lure Theodosius to the end of the pass so that he could then ambush and blockade the enemy within the pass itself. Before the arrival of Theodosius, Flavianus performed pagan rites in an effort to raise the morale of the army, but it is uncertain what the effect of this was because the bulk of the usurper’s forces probably consisted of Christians despite what the Christian propagandists claimed. In fact both forces resembled each other in outlook. Both had sizable barbarian contingents fighting alongside the Romans and both armies included men professing different kinds of beliefs and creeds.

Unfortunately, the sources for the Battle of Frigidus on 5–6 September are mutually contradictory even if most of them include the same details, and the following should be seen as just my attempt to make sense out of those. We use the accounts of Eunapius and Zosimus as the base around which other elements are added. Arbogastes’ plan appears to have been to let Theodosius come as far as the plain of Frigidus so that the ambushers that he had placed in hiding in the mountains under Comes Arbitio would take control of the heights and surround and cut off Theodosius’ route of retreat. Theodosius took the bait and advanced to the end of the pass. Arbogastes was by far the better general of the two. In addition Theodosius’ judgment may still have been clouded by his recent personal loss, as well as which he no longer had the able Promotus to advise him.

Arbogastes’ army, consisting of both infantry and cavalry, was fully deployed opposite the mouth of the pass and ready to engage anyone descending into it. Theodosius’ vanguard consisted of barbarians and he ordered Gainas to attack first the infantry phalanx blocking the way followed up by the other barbarian commanders with their cavalry, mounted archers, and infantry. Unsurprisingly the vanguard suffered heavily and was forced to give ground. According to Orosius 10,000 Goths were killed. The barbarians were on the point of breaking when Bacurius launched his attack (Federates with the Scholae and Equites Domestici?) that saved the day. He broke through the enemy ranks and enabled the rest of Theodosius’ army to deploy for combat. It is probable that Bacurius was helped by the ‘eclipse of the sun’ mentioned by Zosimus and Eunapius which we interpret to be the arrival of the storm with the famous Bora wind. The wind threw back the missiles thrown by Arbogastes’ men and dashed and threw their shields about with the result that their shield wall was broken. Contrary to what Christian apologists say this did not decide the battle. Arbogastes’ men were able to regroup and steady the situation, apparently with the help of the reserves and because their ambushers had become visible behind Theodosius’ army. Theodosius had no other alternative than to call off the attack and retreat his men back to the heights.

Arbogastes had won the first day and Eugenius rewarded his men and let them eat. The desperate Theodosius had no alternative but to pray for God. His prayers were answered. It was then that Arbitio’s envoys arrived. He and the other officers promised to betray Arbogastes in return for high positions in the army. Theodosius grasped the opportunity eagerly and gave his promises in writing, and the ambushers duly joined Theodosius’ army. Just before dawn Theodosius’ army repeated their attack and penetrated the enemy camp because the opposing army was still resting. This means that the deserters from the enemy army had also included the guards posted opposite Theodosius. Eugenius was caught and brought before Theodosius and then beheaded. Arbogastes managed to flee to the mountains where he hid for two days before committing suicide rather than be caught. Arbogastes had clearly been the better commander, but this did not help him when his probably Christian military commanders proved disloyal to the pagan Frank.

About 392–4 there happened an event on the Egyptian border which may have changed the balance of power in the area for a while. The Blemmyes were able to defeat the Nubians who had protected the Roman frontier in this area ever since their settlement as foederati by Diocletian. The Blemmyes took over at least five towns and established their capital at Kalabsha – notably the emerald mines were located right next to it. We do not know whether this resulted in hostilities between the Romans and Blemmyes, but this is probable because the Blemmyes became allies of Rome only in about 423. The Romans seem to have left the punishing of the Blemmyes to their Nubian allies. In fact, since the Romans did not conduct any major campaigns against the Blemmyes with their own forces, it is clear that the Blemmyes did not stop the trade with the Aksumites, even if it may have increased the costs of trading along the Nile.

Marcus Ulpius Traianus (AD 56–117) Part I

Marcus Ulpius Traianus (AD 56–117)

He always marched on foot with the rank and file of his army, and he attended to the ordering and disposition of the troops throughout the entire campaign, leading them sometimes in one order and sometimes in another; and he forded all rivers that they did. Sometimes he even caused his scouts to circulate false reports, in order that the soldiers might at one and the same time practise military manoeuvres and become fearless and ready for any dangers.

After the death of Augustus, the Roman Empire gained little new territory. Throughout the remainder of the first century AD a number of allied kingdoms were annexed to become directly ruled provinces, but the only major new conquest came when Claudius sent an army to invade Britain in AD 43. The great conquerors of the last decades of the Republic had also been the principal leaders in the civil wars which had torn the State apart, and it was simply too great a risk for an emperor to permit any of his commanders to win fame and glory in a similar way. It was absolutely vital that the military achievements of the princeps never be overshadowed by those of any other senator. Even Augustus had sacked a Prefect of Egypt who had celebrated his victories too boldly, and forced him to commit suicide, though the man in question had only been an equestrian and not a member of the Senate. Tiberius, Vespasian and Titus already had distinguished military records before they came to the throne, but Caligula, Claudius, Nero and Domitian had not this advantage and were thus even more reluctant to permit potential rivals to gain too much prestige. We have already seen how Claudius recalled Corbulo from beyond the Rhine rather than permit him to expand the war and reoccupy part of the German province lost in AD 9. The same emperor made sure that he was in at the kill for the culmination of the first campaign of his British expedition in AD 43.

Claudius spent less than a fortnight in Britain, but was present at a major defeat of the Britons north of the Thames and the capture and occupation of the tribal capital at Camulodunum (Colchester). How active a role he actually played in the running of any of these operations is questionable, but it is significant that he felt it was worth considerable travel and six months away from Rome to preside over the army’s success. Brief though the visit was, it helped to associate the emperor very personally with the subjugation of a mysterious island visited, but not conquered, by Julius Caesar. Claudius was then able to return to Rome and ride in triumph along the Sacra Via, something emperors did not normally do as a result of the victories won vicariously through their legates. In the flood of propaganda, which included games, the construction of a number of monuments, and both Claudius and his son adopting the name Britannicus, it was always made clear that this was the emperor’s victory. For a man whose reign had begun when he was discovered hiding behind a curtain in the chaos following Caligula’s murder and raised to power by the praetorian guard in spite of the wishes of the Senate, it was a great proof of his right and capacity to be Rome’s first citizen.

In the long run, the political system created by Augustus discouraged further expansion of the Empire. Most emperors were reluctant to spend the long periods of time on campaign carrying out fresh conquests and did not trust anyone else to do this for them. Some authors in Augustus’ day were in any case already proclaiming that Rome controlled all the best and most prosperous parts of the earth and that further expansion would prove more costly than any profits it might yield. There was some truth in this, although the suggestion put forward by some modern scholars that the Romans stopped expanding because they now bordered on peoples whom their military system could not readily defeat is not supported by the evidence. Yet it is certainly true that the professional army as constituted under the Julio-Claudians could not quickly or easily be expanded in size to provide troops for new military adventures. Conscription was deeply unpopular, as Augustus had found in AD 6 and 9, and avoided if at all possible by all subsequent emperors. The imperial army was on average a far more efficient fighting force than the pre-Marian militia, but it lacked the seemingly limitless pool of reserve manpower which had proved such a strength in the Punic Wars.

Under the Principate the army’s main roles were controlling the provinces – a task which involved them in everything from minor policing to putting down rebellions – and securing the frontiers, usually achieved by a combination of diplomacy and the aggressive domination of neighbouring peoples through real or threatened punitive expeditions against them. Wars of conquest were rare, although the ideology of the Empire and its rulers remained for centuries essentially one of expansion. It was still considered a fundamentally good thing for the imperium of Rome to increase, but as had always been the case, this did not necessarily require the acquisition of more territory. Roman power could be respected in a region even when it was not physically occupied by the army or governed by a Roman official, and many areas which were never controlled in this way were still felt by the Romans to be part of their empire. The determination to protect and increase Rome’s imperium provided the motivation for most of the wars fought under the Principate.

Domitian spent several years supervising his armies fighting on the Rhine and Danubian frontiers, although it seems unlikely that he ever exercised direct battlefield command. A line of frontier forts was established in Germany further forward than had been the case in the past, but only a relatively small area was annexed in this way. In the main these conflicts were especially large-scale versions of the frequent campaigns to maintain Roman dominance over the tribes bordering on her frontier provinces. Dacia was invaded in response to heavy raids on the province of Lower Moesia, but it is unlikely that permanent occupation was anticipated, and in the event the operations there met with little success. One army – commanded by the Praetorian Prefect Cornelius Fuscus, much to the annoyance of the Senate who felt that any army ought to be led by a member of their class and not a mere equestrian – was defeated, and perhaps annihilated, by the Dacians in AD 86. Domitian’s relationship with the senatorial class steadily worsened throughout his principate, denying him the popularity – and favourable treatment in our sources which were mainly written by senators for senators – of his father and brother. In the end he was murdered in AD 96 through a palace conspiracy and replaced by the Senate with one of their own members, the elderly Nerva.

Nerva was the first of what Edward Gibbon termed the ‘five good emperors’ who presided over the Roman Empire at the height of its power and prosperity in the second century AD. He was succeeded by Trajan, who devoted much of his efforts to renewed expansion. His conquest of Dacia grew from Domitian’s unsatisfactory campaigns in the area and had its root in frontier problems. In contrast the invasion of Parthia and the march to the Persian Gulf had little motive beyond the traditional desire of a Roman aristocrat to win glory by defeating powerful enemies.


Trajan was born and brought up at the city of Italica in Spain. His family claimed descent from some of the original Roman and Italian troops who formed this colony established by Scipio Africanus after his victory at Ilipa in 206 BC. Italica prospered and grew to be one of the largest and most important cities in Spain. Its citizens seem to have had Latin status, although the local aristocracy could gain full Roman citizenship through the holding of local magistracies. If they had sufficient wealth – and political success even at a local level always required money – then these families were able to become equestrians and send some of their sons into imperial service. Over time some gained the riches and favour to enter the Senate. In the first century BC, especially under Augustus, many Italian noblemen were made senators. Under his successors a growing number of men from the provinces joined the House. Some of these men were descendants of Roman colonists, but an increasing number were drawn from the indigenous aristocracy who had been granted citizenship. Claudius introduced a number of Gauls into the Senate. By the end of the first century there were also men from Spain, North Africa and the Greek east.

All of these men were Romans, both in law and in culture, regardless of their ethnic background, and their behaviour in public life differed in no significant way from that of senators of Italian or strictly Roman ancestry. Under the Principate Rome’s ruling élite gradually absorbed the rich and powerful of most of the provinces without losing its traditional ethos. This process did a great deal to make widespread rebellion extremely rare throughout most of the provinces, save for those where the local aristocracy remained outside the system. Trajan was the first emperor whose link with Italy was extremely distant. He was succeeded by his cousin Hadrian, another Spaniard whose provincial accent earned the scorn of many other senators when he first came to Rome. Near the end of the century the throne would be seized by Septimius Severus, a senator from Lepcis Magna in North Africa. Later there would be Syrian, Greek, Pannonian and Illyrian emperors.

Trajan’s father and namesake, Marcus Ulpius Traianus, had had a fairly distinguished senatorial career, although it is not clear whether he was the first of the family to enter the Senate. In AD 67 he was the legionary legate commanding X Fretensis under Vespasian during the campaign in Galilee, and supported him during the Civil War. This brought him a consulship, perhaps in AD 70, and appointment as legatus Augusti first of Cappadocia and then of Syria. During this time there appears to have been some friction with the Parthians and Traianus’ skilful handling of this affair led to his being awarded triumphal ornaments. It is uncertain whether the operations involved actual fighting or just vigorous diplomacy. During these years the family was granted patrician status. Scarcely any genuine patricians still survived by this time, for such prominent men had inevitably suffered much in the purges of successive emperors, and Vespasian had decided to create new patricians to add dignity to his Senate. Most of the beneficiaries were men who had shown themselves to be reliable during the Civil War, including the family of Tacitus’ future father-in-law, Julius Agricola.

Trajan’s own upbringing appears to have been fairly conventional by the standards of the senatorial class, although it was claimed that he proved no more than adequate at rhetoric and other academic pursuits. At an early age he developed a passion for hunting which persisted throughout his life, and excelled at physical and especially military exercises. At the end of his teens, probably around AD 75, he became a senatorial tribune (tribunus laticlavius) in one of the legions in Syria, serving under his father’s command in the manner of many young aristocrats. Later he transferred to a legion on the Rhine frontier and saw further service against the local tribes. Some tribunes were notorious for wasting their military tribunate, but Trajan embraced the military life with great enthusiasm and served for far longer than was usual. The Younger Pliny in his Panegyric – a written version of a speech praising the emperor and originally delivered in the Senate – claimed that he served for ten years, the traditional term required to make a man eligible for political office in the Republic. This may be an exaggeration, but his account of Trajan’s time as tribune may well give an accurate picture of the enthusiastic young officer:

As a tribune … you served and proved your manhood at the far-flung boundaries of the empire, for fortune set you to study closely, without haste, the lessons which you would later teach. It was not enough for you to take a distant look at the camp, stroll through a short period of duty: while a tribune you desired the qualifications for command, so that nothing was left to learn when the moment came for passing on your knowledge to others. Through ten years’ service you learnt the customs of peoples, the localities of countries, the opportunities of topography, and you accustomed yourself to cross all kinds of river and endure all kinds of weather … So many times you changed your steed, so many times your weapons, worn out in service!

A number of civil posts followed this spell in the army, until in the late 80s AD Trajan became the legate of Legio VII Gemina at the town of Legio (the root of its modern name, Léon) in the peaceful province of Hispania Tarraconensis. In AD 89 Lucius Antoninus Saturninus, the legate of Germania Superior, rebelled against Domitian. Trajan was ordered to march from Spain to confront the rebel army. In the event he did not arrive before Saturninus had been defeated, but his loyalty and prompt action won him the emperor’s trust. It seems that his legion remained on the Rhine and mounted a successful punitive expedition against a German tribe – perhaps the Chatti who had made an alliance with Saturninus. In the 90s he gained a further reputation as a commander, and served as a provincial legate, perhaps in both Germania Superior and Pannonia on the Danube. During his tenure in the latter he fought and defeated some of the Suebic tribes. When Domitian was murdered and Nerva elevated to the throne, Trajan was widely respected as one of the gifted generals of an age for active service – he was then in his fortieth year. Facing pressure from the praetorians who demanded the punishment of Domitian’s murderers, and probably nervous of rivals emerging from amongst the provincial legates, in AD 97 Nerva adopted Trajan, marking him out as his heir. The choice was a popular one, especially with the army, and did much to secure the new regime. A year later Nerva died and Trajan became emperor. Within a year he was touring the Danubian frontier, and in 101 he began a major campaign in this area, aimed at the defeat of King Decebalus of Dacia.


In 58 BC Julius Caesar had considered attacking Dacia (an area roughly equivalent to modern-day Transylvania) until the Helvetii gave him an even more attractive alternative opportunity for winning military glory. Only his murder in 44 BC prevented a revival of his original plan for such a war from being fulfilled. The Dacians were at that time united under the rule of Burebista, a charismatic war leader who controlled a far larger force of warriors than most tribal leaders. Not long after Caesar’s death the Dacian king was himself assassinated, and no comparably strong ruler emerged amongst his people for over a century. This changed when Decebalus rose to power in the last decades of the first century AD, once again massing a strong force of warriors – he was especially keen to recruit deserters from the Roman army – and subjecting many neighbouring peoples, such as the Sarmatians and Bastarnae, to his rule. Dio described him in conventional terms as the ideal commander, who was:

shrewd in his understanding of warfare and shrewd also in the waging of war; he judged well when to attack and chose the right moment to retreat; he was an expert in ambuscades and a master in pitched battles; he knew not only how to follow up a victory well, but also how to manage a defeat.

Under Decebalus’ aggressive leadership the Dacians had raided across the Danube, and inflicted serious defeats on the Romans. Domitian’s campaign against them ended in a deeply unsatisfactory way with a treaty by which the Romans paid Decebalus an annual indemnity and provided him with engineers and artillery to strengthen the fortifications of his realm. Such terms indicated that Rome had not won the war and even hinted that she had lost, and added to Domitian’s unpopularity with the Senate. When Trajan launched an invasion of Dacia in AD 101, its main aim was to achieve a far more satisfactory peace, based on a Roman victory which would allow the imposition of an appropriate treaty, making Rome’s superiority over Dacia obvious to all. At first he does not appear to have planned to annex the kingdom.

Trajan subsequently wrote Commentaries describing his Dacian Wars, but only a few tiny fragments of these have survived. Cassius Dio, a senator of Greek extraction who wrote in the early third century AD, provides our best narrative of these operations, but even this remains only in the form of epitomes produced centuries later and lacking detail. A few other sources provide a little information, but it is impossible to produce a narrative of this conflict in anything like the detail of the other campaigns examined so far. The spoils from the conquest of Dacia funded the great Forum complex later constructed by Trajan in Rome. Little of this has survived beyond its massive centrepiece, a column 100 Roman feet high (97 feet 9 inches), decorated with a sculpted spiral frieze telling the story of the wars. Several hundred scenes depicting thousands of individual figures of Roman soldiers and their enemies were laid out to form a clear narrative. Originally it was highly colourful, the figures painted and equipped with miniature bronze weapons, the sculpture incorporating levels of detail which cannot possibly have been visible to the observer at ground level.

Trajan’s Column tells a story, but it is a narrative which we can read only with difficulty. The task would be similar to looking at the Bayeux Tapestry, but without the captions and with only the haziest idea of the events and personalities of the Norman Conquest. Although many attempts have been made to relate the reliefs to the topography of Romania and to reconstruct the course of the wars in detail, none of these have ever carried much conviction and can never move beyond conjecture. Yet in another sense Trajan’s Column provides us with a fascinating glimpse of how Roman commanders liked to be depicted in art. A range of artistic conventions influenced its style, but much of it drew on a centuries-old tradition of Roman triumphal art, for generals riding in triumph through the city almost invariably included in their processions paintings showing their own and their armies’ deeds. Such pictures were often used to decorate temples or other monuments constructed with the spoils of war. The Trajan of the Column represents the ideal commander of Roman art, and it is interesting to compare this to the literary figure of the great general. Scenes from another monument at Adamklissi in Romania probably also show episodes from the war, but the story they tell is even harder to reconstruct. Trajan may be one of the officers depicted in the Adamklissi metopes, but these are too badly weathered to allow definite recognition.

Preparations for the campaign were extensive and probably occupied at least a year. Ultimately nine legions – at full strength or at least in the form of a substantial vexillation – were concentrated on the Danube to take part in or support the operations. Other legions sent smaller vexillations and the already substantial auxiliary forces of the region were augmented by whole units and detachments from other provinces. Perhaps a third of the Roman army as then constituted was to take part in the war, although these troops were never massed in a single field army but operated in a number of separate forces and in supporting roles. It was a formidable force, but the task ahead of them would not prove easy. Dacia was defended by the natural strength of the Carpathians. The kingdom was rich in gold deposits and Decebalus had used this wealth to create a large army and to establish well-fortified strongholds controlling the main passes through the mountains. Excavation at a number of these sites has confirmed their formidable nature, with walls and towers which combined native, Hellenistic and Roman methods of construction.

Dacian warriors were brave, though perhaps no more disciplined than those of other tribal peoples. Their religion, based around the worship of the god Zalmoxis, often prompted men to commit suicide rather than surrender. In battle few appear to have worn armour, apart from the allied Sarmatian cavalry who fought as cataphracts, with both horse and man covered in metal or horn armour. Weapons consisted of bows, javelins, Celtic-style swords, and also the scythe-like falx, a two-handed curved sword with the blade on the inner side and ending in a heavy point. This last weapon was capable of reaching past a shield to inflict terrible wounds, and appears to have encouraged some Roman legionaries to be equipped with greaves and an articulated guard to protect their exposed right arm.

Trajan’s Column begins with scenes showing the Roman frontier posts along the Danube and a force of legionaries marching behind their massed standards over a bridge laid across river barges – the Roman equivalent of a pontoon bridge. Then the emperor appears, holding a consilium of senior officers to discuss the forthcoming operations. Trajan usually appears to be slightly larger than the men around him, but he never dominates by sheer size in the manner of the monumental art of other ancient rulers, such as the pharaohs of Egypt. High-level planning and the issuing of orders to the army’s high command is followed by other preparations from the campaign. His head veiled in accordance with his office as pontifex maximus, Rome’s senior priest, the emperor puts a circular ritual cake, or popanum, on to the flames of an altar, as around him the rite of the suovetaurilia is performed with the sacrifice of a bull, a ram and a boar to Mars. This important ceremony was held outside the ramparts of the army’s camp near the start of any major campaign to purify the troops and ensure the support of Rome’s deities. Just as they did in political life in Rome itself, magistrates played a central part in the regular religious ceremonies of the army. There is then a curious scene which shows Trajan watching a peasant clutching a large circular object fall off a mule, and which may be connected with an anecdote in Dio in which allied tribes sent a message to the emperor written in Latin on an enormous mushroom. Then the commander mounts a tribunal and makes a speech to a parade of his legionaries, an address known as an adlocutio. Afterwards the soldiers fortify several positions – presumably on the enemy bank of the Danube – the emperor moving amongst them as they labour and supervising the work.

Its crossing place secure, the main army advances into the hills, probably moving towards the pass in the Carpathians known as the Iron Gates. Trajan and one of his officers are shown inspecting an enemy hill fort, which appears to have been abandoned, before he returns to oversee a group of legionaries clearing a path through the thick woodland. A prominent theme on the Column, as indeed in much literature, is the engineering skill and dogged perseverance of the citizen soldiers of the army, and very often Trajan and his officers are shown overseeing the labour. He is also shown interrogating a Dacian prisoner, just as Caesar and other commanders had done, before the action moves rapidly on to the first major battle. In this the legionaries are shown formed up in reserve, whilst the auxiliaries, who include amongst their number bare-chested barbarians – probably Germans or perhaps even Britons from the irregular units known as numeri – wielding wooden clubs, do the actual fighting.

The savagery of these non-citizen soldiers is emphasized in this and other scenes. One regular auxiliary infantryman grips in his clenched teeth the hair of an enemy’s severed head so that his hands are free to keep fighting. To the rear two more auxiliaries present severed heads to the emperor. In this scene Trajan appears to look away, but in a later, similar scene, he is shown reaching out to accept two such ghastly trophies. The Romans had outlawed headhunting in the provinces of the Empire, but it was evidently acceptable for soldiers to practise this when fighting against foreign enemies. Yet with one possible exception, only auxiliaries are shown on the Column taking heads and it seems likely that such behaviour was acceptable amongst these less civilized troops, but not amongst legionaries.

The bringing of trophies to the commander echoes incidents in the literature, such as the cavalryman at Jerusalem who picked up a rebel and brought him to Titus. The general, and even more the emperor, could reward such heroic feats and his role as witness to his men’s behaviour was vital. Such a task meant keeping relatively close to the fighting, so that the men believed that they could be seen as individuals. One of Domitian’s generals is supposed to have ordered his men to paint their names on their shields to make themselves feel more visible. Later on the Column Trajan is shown distributing rewards to auxiliary troops, although other evidence suggests that these men no longer received medals (dona) like the legionaries so that the awards must have taken another form. Auxiliary units gained battle honours, and sometimes an early grant of the citizenship which was normally given on discharge, so perhaps promotion and sums of money or plunder were the most common form of reward to an individual auxiliary soldier.

This first battle probably took place near Tapae, where in AD 88 one of Domitian’s generals had won a victory which did something to remove the shame of Cornelius Fuscus’ defeat. A god hurling thunderbolts at the Dacians is shown at the top of the frieze, but it is unclear whether this is simply intended to show Rome’s deities fighting on her behalf or indicates an action fought during, or perhaps terminated by, a storm. Some commentators have suggested that the reliance on auxiliaries to do the fighting whilst the legionaries remain in reserve reflected a Roman desire to win victories without the loss of citizen blood. Tacitus praised Agricola for winning the battle of Mons Graupius in this way, but in fact such a sentiment is rarely expressed.

Marcus Ulpius Traianus (AD 56–117) Part II

It does seem to have been fairly common by the late first century AD to form the first line of infantry from auxiliary troops, whilst the legions formed the second and subsequent lines. This was certainly logical, for the higher organization of the legions, with ten cohorts coming under the command of a legate and being used to operating together (unlike auxiliary cohorts which were all independent units), made them easier for the army commander to control. For this reason legionaries were more effective as reserve troops to be committed as and when the fighting line needed reinforcement. In some cases, the battle may have been won by the auxiliaries without the need for any reserves. It is impossible to tell whether this was the case at Tapae in AD 101. It is equally possible that the sculptors chose simply to represent the opening phase of the battle begun when auxiliary infantry and cavalry launched an attack on the enemy. Dio tells us that the fighting was extremely fierce and that victory cost the Romans heavy casualties. When the Roman medical aid stations – medics are shown treating soldiers in one of the later scenes on the Column – ran out of bandages, Trajan sent them much of his own store of clothes to cut into strips and make up the shortage. To commemorate the fallen, he also established an altar on the site of the battle.

Following up on their success, the Romans are shown continuing the advance and putting captured settlements to the torch. The parapet of one Dacian fort is shown decorated with a row of heads mounted on poles, whilst in front of the rampart are stakes concealed in pits, resembling the ‘lilies’ made by Caesar’s men at Alesia. Dio tells us that in one such captured fort the Romans found standards and equipment captured from Fuscus’ army. The Romans then cross a river, this time without the benefit of a bridge. One legionary is shown wading through the water with his armour and equipment carried in the rectangular shield raised over his head. After this Trajan addresses another parade, before meeting with a group of Dacian ambassadors, and subsequently a group of native women. Then the action moves to another area as the Column shows Dacian warriors and Sarmatian cataphracts swimming – and in some cases drowning in the attempt – across the Danube to attack some Roman garrisons held by auxiliary troops. One group of enemies employ a battering ram with an iron tip shaped like the animal’s head in an effort to breach a fort’s wall, and this may perhaps be an indication of the knowledge of siege techniques which Decebalus had acquired from deserters and the treaty with Domitian.

In response to this new threat, we see Trajan and a mixture of praetorian guardsmen and auxiliaries embarking on a warship and a barge. They are bareheaded, wearing travelling cloaks (paenulae) and burdened with bundles – perhaps folded tents or simply supplies. The force moves along the Danube, then disembarks. Trajan is always at their head, and rides with a group of auxiliary infantry, cavalry and barbarian irregulars to hunt for the enemy raiding force. Two auxiliary cavalrymen seem to report to the emperor – presumably scouts who have found the Dacians – and this is followed by a massed Roman cavalry attack. Surprise appears complete – the goddess of Night is shown at the top of the scene suggesting an attack under cover of darkness – and the Sarmatians and Dacians are routed and cut down around their four-wheeled wagons. Caesar noted that Gallic armies were always accompanied by carts carrying their families, and it is possible that the Dacians followed a similar practice. However, it may be that these scenes represent not a raiding force, but a migration by some of the local peoples, perhaps tribes allied to Decebalus.

The Adamklissi metopes also show fighting around barbarian wagons and a dramatic Roman cavalry charge led by a senior officer, perhaps Trajan himself. Although cruder in style, these reliefs are less stylized than those on the Column and appear to show three distinct types of barbarian, probably Sarmatians, Bastarnae and Dacians. It is possible that the Adamklissi metopes correspond with these scenes on the Column, but they might equally depict entirely different events.

After this Roman victory Trajan is seen receiving another Dacian embassy, this time consisting of aristocratic ‘cap-wearers’ (pileati) rather than the socially inferior warriors who were sent by Decebalus at the start of the war. Dio mentions several attempts at negotiation, which failed due to Decebalus’ mistrustful nature and, most likely, the uncompromising nature of Roman demands. This is followed by a major battle, in which legionaries are shown fighting alongside auxiliaries. The Roman troops are supported by a scorpion mounted in a cart drawn by a team of two mules and known as a carroballista. Trajan supervizes from behind the fighting line, an auxiliary presenting him with a captive – perhaps one he had captured personally. Behind him is the famous field dressing-station scene, which may mean that Dio’s story about the bandages should be associated with this battle rather than the earlier encounter. As always with the Column, we simply cannot know.

After the defeat of the Dacians – many of whom are shown held captive in a compound – Trajan mounts a tribunal to address his paraded soldiers, and then sits on a folding camp chair to dole out rewards to brave auxiliaries. Yet in the midst of these scenes of Roman celebration is a bleaker scene off to the side, where several bound, naked men are brutally tortured by women. The men are most probably captured Roman soldiers and the women Dacians – in many warrior societies the task of humiliating and killing with torture enemy captives has often been performed by the women of the tribe. The scene may well be intended to show that the war was still not finished, for such a savage enemy needed to be defeated utterly.

At this point the narrative of the Column contains a clear break, perhaps indicating the end of the first year’s campaigning, so that subsequent scenes should be assigned to AD 102. Another river journey is shown, then a column of legionaries marches across a bridge of boats and two Roman armies join together. In these and the following sections we see Trajan formally greeting arriving troops, making speeches to parades, taking part in another suovetaurilia sacrifice to Mars, receiving Dacian embassies, and accepting a prisoner or other trophies brought to him by soldiers. As the army advances through the mountains, making roads, building forts, fighting battles and besieging forts, the emperor is always with them, watching, directing and inspiring. He does not wield a tool or a weapon to join the soldiers in their tasks, for his role is to direct their efforts rather than share in them. Eventually the Romans overcome the difficult terrain and their stubborn and ferocious enemies. The First Dacian War ends with the formal surrender of Decebalus and the Dacians, kneeling or standing as suppliants before the emperor, who sits on a tribunal surrounded by the massed standards of his praetorian guard. Then Trajan stands on this or another tribunal to address his parading soldiers. Trophies and the goddess Victory mark the end of the conflict.

The peace was to prove temporary. Decebalus agreed to the loss of some territory, gave up his siege engines and engineers, handed over Roman deserters and promised not to recruit any more of these. In most respects the war had ended in an entirely satisfactory way for the Romans, with their enemy reduced to the status of a subordinate ally, and Trajan was justified in taking the honorary title Dacicus. Yet in the following years Decebalus broke most of the terms, beginning to rebuild his army and strengthen his power, occupying some of the lands of the Iazyges, a Sarmatian people, without seeking Roman approval for this expansion. The king was clearly not behaving in an appropriate manner for a Roman ally and war, which was threatened in 104, was openly renewed in 105 when the Dacians began to attack some Roman garrisons. The commander of the most important garrison, Cnaeus Pompeius Longinus – a former legatus Augusti who may still have been holding this rank – was treacherously imprisoned during negotiation. However, Decebalus’ attempts to use him as a hostage came to nothing when the Roman managed to obtain poison and committed suicide. At some point the Dacian also enlisted a group of deserters to assassinate the emperor, but this plan also failed.

Trajan was in Italy when the Second Dacian War erupted, and the Column’s narrative begins with his voyage across the Adriatic to be greeted by local dignitaries and the wider population. Two scenes of sacrifice follow. Even greater forces seem to have been mustered for the Second War. Trajan raised two new legions which were named after him, II Traiana Fortis and XXX Ulpia Victrix, both of which probably served in the Second War, although it is unclear whether they took part in the First. In the conventional Roman way the emperor combined force with vigorous diplomatic activity in AD 105, accepting the surrender of individual Dacian chieftains who abandoned their king, and negotiating with ambassadors from all neighbouring peoples. Decebalus appears to have had far fewer allies as a result. Even so the Column shows a heavy attack against some auxiliary outposts, which held out until relieved by a force led by Trajan himself.

The main Roman offensive may not have been launched until 106, and most probably followed a different route to the earlier campaign. It began with another sacrifice on the bank of the Danube, before the army crossed the river at Dobreta. This time they did so not on a temporary bridge of boats, but on a monumental arched bridge, built in stone and timber and supported by twenty piers each 150 feet high, 160 feet in width and 170 feet apart. It was designed by Apollodorus of Damascus – who would later plan Trajan’s Forum complex and presumably had much to do with the construction of the Column – and built by the soldiers. A roadway was cut into the cliffs of the Danube to permit easier approach to the bridge. Dio’s account describes this feat of engineering in loving detail strongly reminiscent of Caesar’s account of his bridge across the Rhine. It was a great and magnificent victory for Roman engineering, in its way as admirable to the Romans as any feat of arms. The Column provides a detailed, if stylized depiction of the bridge as the background to the scene of sacrifice.

After this Trajan joins the army – the soldiers are shown cheering him enthusiastically, much as Velleius described the legionaries welcoming Tiberius – takes part in another suovetaurilia purification ceremony, with the ritual processions walking round the camp, and then addresses legionaries and praetorians at a parade. At a consilium, Trajan briefs and discusses the campaign with his senior officers. The usual preliminaries over, the army advances, harvesting grain from the fields to supplement their supplies. The Column suggests some fighting, though not perhaps as much as in the First War, and Dio tells the story of an auxiliary cavalryman who, discovering that his wounds were mortal, left the camp to rejoin the battle and died after performing spectacular feats of heroism. The culmination of the campaign was the siege of Sarmizegethusa Regia, the religious and political centre of the Dacian kingdom set high in the Carpathians. After a stiff resistance, and it seems an unsuccessful Roman assault, the defenders despaired and set fire to the town before taking poison. The war was not quite over, but its issue was no longer in doubt as the Romans pursued the remaining Dacians. Decebalus was eventually cornered by a group of Roman cavalry scouts, but slit his own throat rather than be taken alive.

The leader of the Roman patrol was a certain Tiberius Claudius Maximus, who had joined the army as a legionary before becoming a junior officer in the auxilia. On the Column he is depicted reaching out to Decebalus, and by chance his tombstone has survived, carrying an inscription describing his career and giving another version of the scene. Decebalus was beheaded and the head taken back to Trajan, who ordered it to be paraded before the army. The war was over, and victory was completed by the discovery of the king’s treasure, buried in a river bed, after much labour by Roman prisoners.

A new province was created, guarded by two legions supported by auxiliaries and with its main centre at the newly founded colony of Sarmizegethusa Ulpia – a grand city built on fertile land at the foot of the Carpathians, unlike Decebalus’ mountain fastness. Settlers came from many parts of the Empire, but especially the eastern provinces, and Roman Dacia soon prospered. The fate of the Dacians, whether they were completely expelled or simply absorbed in the more normal way, has been the subject of fierce debate in recent centuries, most especially amongst the Romanians – contemporary politics has had a major influence on whether they believe their ancestors to be Romans or Dacians.


A massive programme of propaganda, of which the Forum complex was only a part, celebrated the victory in Dacia. Had Trajan simply wanted military glory to confirm his position as emperor, it is unlikely that he would have sought other opportunities for aggressive warfare. His rule was as popular as that of any emperor, and subsequent generations preserved his memory as the Optimus Princeps, the best of emperors, only rivalled in prestige by Augustus himself. His relations with the Senate – always the most critical factor in determining a ruler’s treatment in our literary sources – were generally very good, his rule considered both just and successful. Even Trajan’s vices – he was prone to infatuations with boys and youths – were pardoned, since his behaviour never reached a stage which Romans considered excessive or made him vicious. His decision to launch an invasion of Parthia in AD 114 was, according to Dio, motivated by a desire to win renown.

Trajan had spent more of his life with the army than most Roman aristocrats, and certainly appears to have enjoyed the military life. The pretext for war was, once again, a dispute over the relationship of the Armenian king to Rome, for a new monarch had been presented with his diadem of authority by the Parthian ruler and not by a Roman representative. The peace with Parthia had always been uneasy, since for the Romans their eastern neighbour represented a deeply unsatisfactory thing – the former enemy who had not been reduced to subordinate status and remained fully independent and strong. Trajan appears to have planned to win a permanent victory, for his campaign was from the beginning far more than simply a struggle to show dominance over Armenia. Massive Roman and allied forces – some seventeen of the thirty legions went in their entirety or as a substantial vexillation to the war – were backed by huge quantities of supplies which had been massed in the east for several years in preparation for the conflict. At the back of his mind the emperor was eager to emulate the great conquests of Alexander in the very region through which the Macedonian king had passed centuries before. The culture of the Roman Empire was firmly Greco-Roman and the heroes of the Hellenic world every bit as worthy of emulation as earlier generations of Romans.

Trajan’s eastern war began well, as in successive years he overran Armenia, Mesopotamia and most of Parthia itself. The Parthian capital of Ctesiphon and the major city of Seleucia were both captured, after which Trajan sailed down the Tigris to reach the Persian Gulf. If Trajan had any plans to follow further in the footsteps of Alexander – and it seems unlikely that he did – these were then dashed when major rebellions erupted throughout his newly acquired territories in AD 116. Roman columns had to operate throughout the new provinces, putting down insurrection. Matters were made worse by a major rebellion by the Jewish communities in Egypt and other provinces – though not Judaea itself – which required substantial numbers of troops to defeat. Trajan himself began a siege of the desert city of Hatra in Arabia. During the siege, when his own guard cavalry took part in at least one of the assaults, Trajan himself was almost struck by a missile as he rode past the walls. Dio notes that the emperor was not wearing any symbols of rank, hoping not to stand out amongst the other officers, but his age – he was now 60 – and grey hair made his seniority clear. He was missed, but a cavalryman riding beside him was killed. Hatra withstood the Roman onslaught until Trajan’s men, desperately short of water and other provisions, withdrew. The emperor was planning fresh operations when he suffered a stroke and died soon afterwards.

Trajan was succeeded by his relation Hadrian, but there was considerable doubt over whether in fact he had formally nominated him before he died. Thus, at the beginning of his reign, Hadrian’s position was somewhat insecure, making him reluctant to spend several years away from Rome fulfilling his predecessor’s eastern ambitions. This, combined perhaps with a feeling that Rome’s military resources were overstretched, led to the abandonment of the territories taken from the Parthians. Another casualty was Trajan’s great bridge across the Danube, which was partially demolished to prevent its ever being taken and used by an enemy. There were to be no wars of conquest during Hadrian’s reign from AD 117 to 138, and in most cases the wars which developed in response to rebellion or attack were fought by the emperor’s legates without his on-the-spot supervision. Lacking Trajan’s aggressive ambitions, Hadrian nevertheless spent much of his reign touring the provinces and in particular visiting and inspecting the army. Dio noted that he ‘subjected the legions to the strictest discipline, so that, though strong, they were neither insubordinate or intolerant’. A cult of Disciplina – one of a number of Roman deities personifying virtues – flourished in the army at this time, especially with the troops in Britain and Africa, and may well have been encouraged by Hadrian himself. Even when the army was not at war, the emperor could still conform to the ideal of the good general by ensuring that the troops were well trained and ready to fight if necessary. According to Dio:

He personally viewed and investigated absolutely everything, not merely the usual appurtenances of camps, such as weapons, engines, trenches, ramparts and palisades, but also the private affairs of the men serving in the ranks and of the officers themselves – their lives, their quarters and their habits – and he reformed and corrected in many cases practices and arrangements for living that had become too luxurious. He drilled the men for every kind of battle, honouring some and reproving others, and he taught them all what should be done. And in order that they should be benefited by observing him, he everywhere led a vigorous life and either walked or rode on horseback on all occasions … He covered his head neither in hot weather nor in cold, but alike amid German snows and under scorching Egyptian suns he went about with his head bare. In fine, both by his example and his precepts he so trained and disciplined the whole military force throughout the entire empire that even to-day [i.e. a century later] the methods introduced by him are the soldiers’ law of campaigning.

Hadrian watched the troops on exercise, just as a commander did in battle, praising and rewarding skill and criticizing and punishing poor performance. An inscription set up by an auxiliary soldier named Soranus survives, recording – albeit in rather poor Latin verse – an incident when the emperor commended his skill as an archer. Much fuller inscriptions found at Lambaesis in North Africa include selections from a number of speeches delivered at a parade of the provincial army as a culmination to a series of rigorous exercises. Hadrian’s style is very direct, referring to Legio III Augusta as ‘his’ legion and its commander as ‘his’ legate. He shows a detailed knowledge of the legion’s recent history, noting that it was seriously under strength through having detached a cohort for service in a neighbouring province. He also mentions that it had subsequently sent a cohort, strengthened by men drawn from the rest of the unit, to reinforce another legion. Stating that under such conditions it would have been understandable if III Augusta had failed to meet his high standards, he reinforces his praise by declaring that they had no need of any excuse. The centurions, especially the senior grades, are singled out for specific praise. Both in this section of the speech and in those parts delivered to individual auxiliary units, the emperor repeatedly pays tribute to the diligence of the legate Quintus Fabius Catullinus. His address to the cavalry element of a mixed cohort (cohors equitata) gives a good indication of the style of these speeches:

It is difficult for the cavalry of a cohort to put on a pleasing display anyway, and especially difficult not to displease after an exercise performed by an ala; the latter fills a greater expanse of plain, has more riders to throw javelins, makes frequent wheels to the right and performs the Cantabrian ride in close formation, and, in keeping with their higher pay, has superior horses and finer equipment. However, you have overcome these disadvantages by doing everything you have done energetically, in spite of the hot temperature; added to this, you have shot stones from slings and fought with javelins and everywhere mounted quickly. The special care taken by my legate Catullinus is very obvious…

Some criticism is contained in the speeches, for instance when a cavalry unit is reprimanded for pursuing too quickly and falling into disorder which would have made them vulnerable to a counter-attack. Yet overall Hadrian sought to encourage his soldiers and make them feel that they and their units were valued and respected. Apart from the specific details there is little that would seem out of place in a similar address by a modern general or manager.

Hadrian’s successor Antoninus Pius was not a military man, and spent no time on campaign. It was a mark of the security of the time that he was content to trust his legates to fight the major conflicts of the time. These were all in response to problems on the frontiers. From the late first century AD the military bases on the fringes of the Roman Empire had taken on more and more of an air of permanence, with old timber fortifications and internal buildings being replaced by stone. Hadrian had taken the process further in his visits to the provinces, ordering the construction of new installations and frontier boundaries. In Northern Britain the army laboured to construct the Wall which bears his name and stretched for 80 Roman miles from coast to coast. Such barriers were only ever intended to restrict outsiders, and never to hinder the movements of the Roman army, instead providing them with secure bases from which to launch aggressive operations. Rome sought to dominate its neighbours, not merely to repel any invasion or raid on the provinces, but attempts at permanent occupation of new territory were rare.

Roman Emperor Avitus (9 July 455–17 October 456)

Italy was ripe for the taking, but Avitus, the Visigoths, and the Gallic Field Army did not march straight into Rome, because, according to Sidonius (Pan.Av. 589–90), Avitus recovered the two Pannonias for the Empire at the very beginning of his rule. This means that Avitus advanced first against the territories held by the Ostrogoths on behalf of East Rome (see the reign of Marcian). Avitus was basically reacting to the settlement of foederati by the East Romans that had taken place in the previous year, 454, in which Marcian had effectively taken control of West Roman territory by settling the Ostrogoths in Pannonia. It is very unlikely that there would have been any fighting involved between the armies when Avitus reached Pannonia. Avitus had been chosen as Emperor by the Visigoths and Gauls and was accompanied by a Visigothic army and Visigothic bodyguards. This would have made him the ideal ruler also for the Ostrogoths. Therefore it is clear that the Ostrogoths were glad to become Avitus’s foederati and to recognize him as their Emperor, but we should not forget that they did this while still receiving payments from Marcian in return for being his foederati. This was to become one of the causes of quarrel between the Ostrogoths and the Eastern Empire. See the reigns of Marcian and Leo.

There was another question that needed to be taken care before advancing into Italy, which was referred to by Sidonius in the context of Maximus’ last days. The Burgundians needed to be pacified. It is probably in this context that we should see the referral in the so-called Auctar.Prosp.Haun (MGH AA Chron. Min. 1, p.304, a.455), which states that the Gepids attacked the Burgundians in 455. Katalin Escher (71–72) has suggested that the Gepids did this as allies of Rome, and this is indeed the likeliest reason. Avitus would have used the Gepids so that he could himself march with his Gallic army strengthened by the Visigoths first to Pannonia and from there to Italy. It is possible or even probable that Avitus stayed in Gaul until the Gepid attack had convinced the Burgundians to make a peace with him, but one cannot entirely rule out the possibility that he used the Gepid campaign as a diversion which allowed him to lead his forces to Pannonia while the attack against the Burgundians was still ongoing.

Even though there is no certainty regarding the dating of the appointment of Aegidius as MVM per Gallias I would suggest that Avitus kept Agrippinus as MVM per Gallias and that Aegidius was appointed as his successor by Majorian. See later. Avitus’s Mag. Ped. was Remistus who was probably a Visigoth and his Mag.Eq. was Ricimer. It was the latter who was destined to become Aetius’s successor as the power behind the throne. However, unlike Aetius, Ricimer was a pure-bred barbarian who was closely linked to three Germanic royal families. His father belonged to the royal family of the Suevi, his mother a Visigoth (daughter of Vallia) and his sister had married the Burgundian king Gundioc. In addition to this, he had had a long and distinguished military career under Aetius in the course of which he had befriended Majorian.

After having been confirmed as Emperor by the Roman people (i.e. the Senate), Avitus sent ambassadors to Constantinople to seek their acceptance. It is not known whether this was successful, but most historians think that the Eastern government did not recognize Avitus; but the fact that both halves of the Empire appear to have coordinated their actions towards the Vandals seems to contradict this. Similarly, it is possible to see Sidonius’s statement (Pan. 589–90) that Avitus recovered the two Pannonias merely with a march either as a sign of cooperation between the empires to subject the Ostrogoths under Roman rule, or as Avitus’s way to put pressure on the eastern empire by subjecting the Ostrogoths under his rule. The latter is actually more likely because we find the East Romans denying payments to the Ostrogoths after this. So there is no certainty about this, but in light of the presence of Marcian’s fleet close to Corsica (see below) I would suggest that it is more likely that the Eastern Empire did indeed lend its support, even if it was more modest than before. Avitus’s position was also precarious because the Italian nobility was very apprehensive of being ruled by a Gaul who brought with him his own supporters from Gaul, a Visigothic army and Visigothic bodyguards. In addition to this, Avitus had to prove himself a successful defender of Italy against the Vandals who had just sacked Rome. It was the Eastern Emperor who dispatched the first ambassador to Gaiseric with the demand that he was to stop his raids against Italy (this implies some cooperation between the courts) and to hand over the Empress and her daughters. This produced no results. It was then that Avitus dispatched his own envoys which reminded Gaiseric of his agreements; Avitus threatened to use his own army and allies if Gaiseric failed to abide by the treaty. Gaiseric’s response was to send his fleet to ravage Sicily and the areas (presumably Bruttium) close to it (Priscus).

Avitus dispatched Ricimer to Sicily with an army where Ricimer inflicted a crushing defeat on the Vandals on the plain of Agrigentum (Agrigento). The sources do not provide any details, but it seems probable that Ricimer cleared Bruttium of the Vandals before shipping his army across to Sicily at the Straits of Messina. Even though Sidonius refers only to the victorious land battle on the plains of Agrigentum, it is still probable that Ricimer would have used his fleet to transport supplies and simultaneously to attack the anchored Vandal fleet from the sea. The Roman war effort would have been aided by the fact that Agrigentum was one of the metropolises of the ancient world and on top of that well-fortified. According to modern estimates it had a population of 200,000–600,000, while Laertius claimed that it had a population of 800,000. Its urban area covered 456 hectares and the walls were 12.9 km long with nine gates. The city also had natural defences in the form of hills, gorges and hollows. In short, it is clear that the Vandals would have needed a huge army to besiege the place and even then they would have faced serious troubles.

It is no wonder that at this time both West and East Romans took the Vandal threat very seriously. They had not only sacked Rome, but Sidonius’s list of tribes (Pan.Maj. 335ff.) subjected by Gaiseric proves that the Vandals had conquered Mauretania Tingitana (Autololi), Mauretania Caesariensis, Numidia (Numidians, Gaetuli) and Tripolitania (Garamantes, Arzuges, Psylli, Nasamones, Marmaridae) by about 456/8. The last two (Nasamones and Marmaridae) suggest the possibility that the Vandals may have also invaded East Roman territory just south of Cyrenican Pentapolis. It is no wonder that even the Alexandrians felt threatened!

According to Hydatius (a.456), Avitus sent a message to Theoderic in Spain that Ricimer had destroyed through stratagem/encirclement/ambush a Vandal naval detachment consisting of sixty ships in Italy which had been advancing towards Gaul. The next sentence suggests that it was actually destroyed off Corsica because it states that a multitude of Vandals had died in Corsica at a time when Avitus had moved from Italy to Arles in Gaul. It is possible, however, that the Vandals had actually been destroyed by the East Roman fleet (or marines?) serving under Ricimer, because it was the Easterners who arrived in ships at Hispalis and reported a bloody victory by Marcian’s army. Still another possibility is that these are two separate incidents, so that in the former case Ricimer had destroyed sixty Vandal ships in Italy (possibly at Agrigento in Sicily), while in the latter case the East Romans had killed a multitude of Vandals at a time when Avitus had fled to Arles. This would have been the first example of Marcian’s changing attitude to the Vandals towards the end of his rule. The latter is true and that we are here dealing with two separate defeats suffered by the Vandals. MacGeorge notes that the vocabulary used by Hydatius doesn’t necessarily mean that the encounter was a naval battle. In her opinion, the Vandals could have been ambushed after they had embarked their forces. Considering that the news included the number of ships and the word meaning encirclement/ambush this is a distinct possibility,  that it is still very probable that the action included also the use of a Roman fleet, so that Roman ships were either able to surprise the Vandal ships at anchor or were able to encircle them from the seaside so that the Vandals had land behind them. These victories naturally strengthened Ricimer’s standing among the military.

In the meantime, the Suevi under their king Rechiarius had continued their ravaging of the Roman territory with the result that Avitus sent the comes Fronto and Mansuetus as his envoy to demand the immediate evacuation of the territories invaded at the same time as Theoderic II dispatched his own envoys to the Suevi for the same purpose (Hyd a.456.; Jord Get. 230ff.). The Suevi responded by invading Tarraconensis. Their attack met with success and they were able to take large numbers of captives and booty back to their own territory in Gallaecia. Avitus dispatched the angered Theoderic II to Spain.

Theoderic’s forces consisted of his own men and of the Burgundians under their kings Gundioc and Hilperic. The Burgundians had been promised Lyon and other territories in Gaul in return for their assistance.5 Rechiarius’s army opposed the allies at the River Urbicus/Ulbius twelve miles from the city of Asturica (Astorga) on Friday, 5 October 456. The deployment of the forces in defensive position behind a river was typical for those who feared the Gothic cavalry charge. The Burgundians were deployed on the left and the Visigoths on the right. The Visigoths crushed their opposition and annihilated almost the entire enemy force. Rechiarius was wounded by a javelin but still managed to flee via Bracara to Portus Cale (Oporto). The Visigoths were admitted into Bracara without opposition, but the Visigoths paid this kindness back by sacking it on Sunday, 28 October 456. Since Avitus had been overthrown on 17 October (see below), it is just possible that the sack of the city resulted from this if the news of this had been brought by relays of fast-moving horsemen to Theoderic. However, since Hydatius (a.457) states that Theoderic was in or close to Emerita (Merita) when he received the news of the death, it seems likelier that Theoderic just rewarded his men by allowing them to pillage. The Visigoths took many Roman captives from Bracara including nuns and children. The churches were turned into stables.

After this, the Visigoths continued their pursuit of the defeated foe and caught him at Portus Cale. Rechiarius had attempted to flee in a ship before the arrival of the Visigoths, but then unluckily for him the adverse wind forced his ship back into the harbour. Theoderic executed Rechiarius in December 456 and then continued his march to Lusitania with the result that Aiolfus deserted the Visigoths intending to become king of the Suevi in Gallaecia. But the Suevi of Gallaecia chose Maldras (or Masdra) as their new king. This resulted in a chaos which was exploited by some bandits who pillaged part of the assizes (conventus) of Bracara.

Ricimer knew that his opportunity to overthrow Avitus had come when Avitus’s supporters, the Visigoths, were preoccupied with the Suevic war. Avitus’s position in Italy was very weak because he had not been able to gather enough support for his cause among the Italian upper classes and among the field army posted there. In fact Avitus had managed to do the exact opposite, so he became even more hated. Avitus had appointed his Gallic supporters to high positions; the populace blamed him for the hunger they were facing thanks to the Vandalic war; he had been forced to strip the metal (mainly bronze) from public buildings to reward his Visigothic supporters and Visigothic bodyguards, which angered the senators in particular. The Italian senators demanded that Avitus send these Visigoths back to Gaul and when he did this after he had cashiered them with money, he sealed his own fate.

According to Gregory of Tours 2.11 and Fredegar 3.7, Avitus was overthrown by the senators because he was a libidinous debaucher of women. According to the latter, Avitus had raped senator Lucius’s wife with the result that Lucius betrayed his native city of Trier to the Franks. Fredegar’s account is not among the most reliable sources for this period, but if the account of the sack of Cologne and Trier by the Franks in the LHF 8 is dated to 456/7 then it is possible that Trier could have been betrayed by this Lucius as claimed by Fredegar. However, it is likelier that this actually occurred in 465 because the LHF connects this account with events of that year (see later) or even as early as 411 as suggested by Hodgkin (3.393–5) so that Fredegar would have mistaken Iovinus for Avitus. Nevertheless, it is by no means impossible that Gregory and Fredegar are right.

When Avitus could no longer hope to obtain help from the Visigoths, Ricimer decided to act. Two explanations have been put forth for the revolt of Ricimer. Firstly, it is possible that the principal reason for Ricimer’s revolts was his lust for power and that he intended from the start to make his friend Majorian emperor, because as a barbarian he could not become one. Since Majorian belonged to the Italian nobility and was supported by the former soldiers of Aetius this was a wise choice. The second of the reasons put forth by Ian Hughes (2015, 63–64) is that Ricimer and Majorian both acted because the hostility of the Roman senators of Italian origin was just too great towards Avitus and that both men just acted in the interest of the Italian nobility. The two men were indeed acting on behalf of the Roman Senate in this case. Furthermore, the fact that Avitus was not in the East Roman ‘good books’ after his Pannonian campaign, which is proven by the refusal of Marcian to recognize the West Roman consul, meant that both men could also expect to be rewarded by the East Roman emperor Marcian for their great services to the Roman Republic.

When the two men declared their revolt, Ricimer marched to Ravenna where he murdered Remistus and anyone else who supported Avitus. There are several different versions of what happened next. John of Antioch (fr. 202) states that the rebels attacked Avitus near Placentia when he was attempting to reach Gaul, but according to the more credible account of Hydatius (a.456), Avitus managed to flee to Arles from which he dispatched tribune Hesychius with gifts to ask Theoderic’s help. This same embassy brought the news of the naval victory off the coast of Corsica. The Visigoths were apparently unable to provide any assistance even if it appears likely that they sought to end their war with the Suevi immediately with the result that Avitus was forced to rely on the forces available to him near the city of Arles. These must have consisted primarily of the regular units posted in the cities and of the Alans settled nearby. Avitus appointed Messianus as MVM Praes. and marched his forces into Italy. The armies fought a decisive battle near Placentia on 17 October 456, which Ricimer and Majorian won. Messianus was killed while Avitus fled inside Placentia. Avitus was allowed to retire as Bishop of Placentia, but was then killed by Majorian’s men. According to Gregory of Tours’s version (2.11), when Avitus learnt that the ‘Senate’ still wanted to kill him, he decided to flee to the church of St.Julian in Clermont, but died en route. As noted by Ian Hughes, the truth of the matter must be that Avitus was attempting to flee to Clermont to raise a revolt against the usurpers and that Majorian’s forces caught up with him and then killed him.

The defeat of Avitus at Placentia brought with it a series of new troubles, not least of which was the fact that large numbers of regulars and Alans that had previously protected south-east Gaul had now been killed. The loss of these forces was very costly for the West Roman Empire when the Burgundians and Visigoths started to advance into this area, and the overthrow of Avitus naturally caused them to revolt.


In the 3rd century BC, Rome was not a naval power, and had little or no experience in war at sea. Before the First Punic War, the Roman Republic had not campaigned outside the Italian Peninsula. The Republic’s military strength was on land, and her greatest assets were the discipline and courage of her soldiers. The boarding-bridge allowed her to use her marines against the superior Carthaginian naval skills. The Romans’ application of boarding tactics worked; they won several battles, most notably those of Mylae, Sulci, Tyndaris, and Ecnomus.

Despite its advantages, the boarding bridge had a serious drawback: it could not be used in rough seas since the stable connection of two working ships endangered each other’s structure. Operating in rough seas, the device became useless and was abandoned. According to Bonebaker, Professor of Naval Architecture at Delft, with the estimated weight of one ton for the boarding bridge, it is “most probable that the stability of a quinquereme with a displacement of about 250 m3 (330 cu yd) would not be seriously upset”.

Some other historians believe that its weight on the prow compromised the ship’s navigability and the Romans lost almost two entire fleets to storms in 255 and in 249 BC, largely due to the instability caused by the device. These losses were probably the main reason for the abandonment of the boarding-bridge in ship design by the end of the war. As Roman naval tactics improved and the Roman crews became more experienced, the boarding-bridge was no longer used in battle. It is not mentioned in period sources after the battle of Ecnomus and apparently the Battle of the Aegates Islands that decided the first Punic war was won without it.

Fought in 256 bce between the fleets of Carthage and the Roman Republic, Cape Ecnomus was one of the largest naval battles in history, with almost 700 ships and 300,000 men engaged. The Romans emerged victorious, winning overall command of the western Mediterranean Sea.

The Battle of Cape Ecnomus By the year 256 BCE, the Roman fleet numbered 360 quinqueremes, a number that would have required a full staff of 99,000 rowers. If each ship also carried its maximum capacity of marines on board, the total number of men at sea would have reached nearly 140,000. The sheer magnitude of this naval effort must have required not only Romans from the capital city but also recruits from all of Italy. Historians have posited that to secure such a huge number of rowers and marines, the usual length of an individual’s naval service was probably just the summer season.

The main purpose of this unprecedented naval expansion was to launch a campaign directly to Africa, meeting the Carthaginians on their home territory. Certainly, this would have been helpful in extracting enemy forces from the lands surrounding Italy, which had been constantly under pressure for nearly a decade at that point. Furthermore, if Rome’s movements toward the south could help flush enough Carthaginians out of Sicily, remaining Republican troops could take advantage of the opportunity to claim large tracts of the island.

The Roman naval units at Messana set sail down the eastern coast of Sicily, around Cape Pachynus (Pachynum/Passero/Passaro), and to Ecnomus to rendezvous with the rest of the fleet. Concerned that the Carthaginians had ramped up their naval fleet and weaponry as well, Rome’s fleet traveled in an unorthodox wedge shape, with the two largest ships at the front. Each of these held one of the consuls and led what may have been the largest naval procession in all history.

For his part, Carthage’s new general, Hamilcar, knew that the Romans were planning something big and that the upcoming battle would have a serious impact on the future of the war. If Carthage won, the remainder of the war would be confined to Sicily. If Rome won, the fighting would spread into North Africa and potentially wreak havoc on Carthage itself.

The entire Roman fleet was divided into four squadrons, with the first two led by the consuls. These squadrons consisted of the two long sides of the wedge formation. The third squadron consisted of the back edge of the wedge, with the fourth squadron lined up in parallel behind them. The Carthaginians made a simple attacking line, intent on splitting the Roman squadrons into a multitude of small groups and engage in a series of smaller battles.

Carthage planned to encircle the Roman wedge within its line, and to facilitate this, the center of the line held back while the Roman navy approached. The left and right wings of the Carthaginian line plowed ahead, folding around the third and fourth Roman squadrons, while the consuls pressed on, hoping to take advantage of what looked like a sparse central line. It was a dynamic mash-up of offensive formations, but the Romans still had an important edge over their enemies thanks to the corvus. Carthage had no answer to the mechanical boarding anchor, meaning that, in hand-to-hand combat, Rome fared much better.

It was Hamilcar’s fleet that was forced to retreat as the consuls gathered up the occupied enemy ships and horse transports. Rome captured a total of sixty-four Carthaginian ships, fifty of which still had their crews on board. Twenty-four Roman ships and thirty of Hamilcar’s were sunk, but the overall victory went to Rome. The consuls ordered their fleet ashore for repairs, and when the ships were readied once more, they all set out toward Africa.

The invasion force of 256 B. C. was commanded by Marcus Atilius Regulus. The Romans landed in Africa, seized the coastal city of Aspis, and ravaged the neighboring area. Regulus advanced into the Carthaginian hinterland (apparently he intended to cut Carthage off from its allies and revenues and force it to come to terms). When he was confronted by a much larger Carthaginian army, well supplied with cavalry and elephants, he feigned retreat, lured the Carthaginian army after him into rugged terrain (where their cavalry could not operate), and smashed them. Regulus then went into winter quarters at Tunis, from which he ravaged Carthaginian territory and persuaded Carthage’s Numidian allies (or subjects) to join him in ravaging Carthaginian territory. Regulus had every reason to be confident. The Romans outside Africa had won all but two (minor) engagements against the Carthaginians, he himself had defeated them in Africa, and he expected to defeat them again in the spring. Consequently, when he offered them terms, he named terms so harsh that he seemed to be goading them to further resistence rather than trying to settle the war.

During the winter, therefore, the Carthaginians sought, and found, help in a mercenary general, Xanthippus of Sparta; Xanthippus retrained and reorganized their army to fight the legion, and in the spring he met Regulus in battle. Xanthippus used 100 elephants to break the Roman formation and trample the soldiers while his cavalry encircled the Roman army and forced Regulus to surrender. The Carthaginian army killed or captured all but 2,000 Romans.

The defeat was severe but need not have been decisive; the Romans still held Aspis and their fleet of 350 ships defeated a Carthaginian fleet off Aspis and captured, or destroyed, over a hundred ships, but chance, and the Roman unfamiliarity with the sea, wrecked their plans. As their fleet was returning to Rome by way of the Messana strait, an enormous storm struck, hurled almost 300 of their ships on the rocks, strewed wreckage for fifty miles, and drowned the crews, perhaps as many as 100,000 freeborn Italians, a large number of whom were Roman citizens.

The Romans raised taxes and in three months built and manned 200 new quinqueremes, but in the next ten years the Romans suffered one disaster after another. In 253 they lost another 150 ships in a storm off Africa, and they abandoned the campaign there. In 249 the consul Claudius ignored bad weather and the consequent ill omen that the sacred chickens wouldn’t eat (“let them drink, then,” he said, and had them thrown overboard), and he lost 100 ships and 20,000 men in an attack on the Carthaginian fleet at Drepana. Nonetheless, Roman tenacity, leadership, and their enormous resources drove the Carthaginian forces in Sicily to the westernmost reaches of the island where the Romans overcame storms, poor judgement, counterattacks, hunger, and the loss of naval support to cling to the siege of the great Carthaginian stronghold in the west, Lilybaeum. The Romans had suffered huge losses of men (the census of 247 B. C. shows a drop of 50,000 citizens) and materiel-a total of 1,500 warships and transports-and their treasury was depleted. The Carthaginians had suffered even more. They had lost their revenues from Africa and from their trading empire, they were about out of money to hire mercenaries (rumor had it that they had murdered Xanthippus because they could not afford to pay him), and they could no longer afford to man their fleet.

Roman Military Forces – Imperial Period I

The legion of the Imperial period, which had developed from the legion of the Marian reforms was, tactically and administratively, a self-contained military organization. Internally, the legion was divided in many ways. Duty rosters and administrative procedures were subject to strict regulations, as well as the complicated principles of promotion within a sometimes inscrutable hierarchy (v. Domaszewski 1967). After the military reforms of Marius around 100 BC, professional soldiers who already had Roman citizenship upon entry into the force served in the legion. From then onwards, the tactical basis was the cohort, a subunit of about 500 men, which was further divided into six centuries of 80 combat troops. Each legion consisted of ten cohorts, around 5500–6400 men, with (probably only from the Flavian period) the first cohort, as the leading subunit about twice the size of the others, with c.800 men. But the actual strength of a legion would rarely have matched the nominal strength. Following H. von Petrikovits (1975), the latter can be simplified as follows (* = pure estimates).


One should not assume that all soldiers of a legion always stayed in camp in peacetime, for several hundred soldiers were assigned to special duties and were often based far outside their garrison sites.

Among the soldiers of a legion, there were some 5,000 men serving as combat troops. Most were employed as ‘common’ infantrymen, as milites gregarii. They were enrolled in the legion between 17 and 20 years of age, most having previously learned a craft. They now had every chance to advance in the complicated promotion system of the Roman army. The normal period of service for legionary soldiers was 20 years; an honourably discharged veteran then remained with his unit for a further five years (veteranus sub vexillo). After 25 years of service, he was able to return to civilian life with a pension (praemia militiae), which consisted of cash and/or a land grant. At least in theory: in the early Imperial period there were repeated problems of mutiny, because soldiers were not released on time, but were forced to serve for longer. But it was also possible to continue to serve as a volunteer (voluntarius). The veteran with regular service proudly stressed that he was a missus honesta missione, ‘dismissed with an honourable discharge’. There were also premature retirements as a result of disease (missio causaria) or even dishonourable dismissal from the army (missio ignominiosa).

The common soldiers performed their daily duties within one of the ten cohorts. With the exception of the first, each cohort in turn consisted of six centuries (‘hundreds’) each commanded by a centurion. Eighty common soldiers served in every century; the remaining 20 were composed of specialists such as craftsmen, doctors, soldiers with administrative tasks, legionary riders, and so on. Two centuries formed a maniple in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, by then only important administratively and for the cohesion of the soldiers. Thus, each cohort had three maniples, the legion 30 of them; as the types of armament were named in the same way as in the early days of the Republic – triarii, principes and hastati – the maniples carried the same names. Each maniple had its own standard (signum).

Each legion possessed 120 horsemen (equites legionis). They probably served primarily as dispatch riders and messengers. In battle, they fought together with the legion’s auxiliary cavalry, separate from the legion itself.

Legionary commanders and military tribunes

The commander of a legion, the legatus Augusti pro praetore legionis, was appointed by the emperor. If only one legion was based in a province, he always also fulfilled the office of governor. He thus administered both the military and the civil administration of a province. The next highest-ranking officer after the legionary legate was a senatorial military tribune, the tribunus militum laticlavius. Since this officer, by birth or by the favour of the emperor, was a contender for the post of quaestor (minimum age requirement 25 years) and thus of senatorial rank, he was allowed to wear a broad purple border (latus clavus) on his tunic. He was very young, usually only 18 to 20 years old. Nevertheless, he was the highest ranking officer after the legionary commander. Lacking a fixed command role, he was a deputy in the event of war. Such a senatorial military tribune often had a brilliant career in the military and the administration before him.

From the second tier of Roman nobility came the equestrian military tribunes who, because of the narrow purple stripe on their tunics, were called tribuni militum angusticlavii. There were five of them in a legion. They too were often at the beginning of great careers in the procuratorial service, for which service as an equestrian officer was a precursor. These equestrian tribunes spent most of their time in administrative tasks. Sometimes they also led a cohort, commanded some special detachments, or helped the commander in other important tasks.

Legionary prefects

The military tribunes were serving in the army for only a relatively short term, quickly continuing their career path of mixed military and civilian postings. Accordingly, they cannot really be called professional soldiers. Their practical military experience was probably not very wide-ranging in most cases. However, there was at least one officer in the command structure of each legion who had worked his way up from recruit as a professional soldier in the army: the praefectus castrorum (legionis). In terms of rank, he was below the senatorial tribune, but above the equestrian tribunes. He belonged to the equestrian order. The area of responsibility of legionary prefects could be described as base commander and logistics officer. He was responsible for the camp and the associated legionary territory, also controlling the entire roster including guard duties. In the period from around the Emperor Domitian (AD 81–96) to Emperor Septimius Severus (AD 193–211), they were called praefectus castrorum with the occasional addition of legionis, but afterwards just praefectus legionis. This title they retained even when, after Gallienus (AD 253–68), they commanded the entire legion, because there were now no longer any senatorial officers in the legion, although they had already done so earlier in the absence of the legatus legionis and tribunus militum laticlavius. All the above-mentioned officers had their own administrations.


Centurions can be described as the military backbone of a legion. These officers – equivalent to the modern rank of captain – were professional soldiers through and through. They usually commanded the centuries, administratively and tactically the smallest subunits of a legion. Ultimately, they were responsible for ensuring that, in the event of war, military operations were performed successfully. Therefore, they had to pay particular attention to the maintenance of discipline in troops in time of peace. As part of this duty they enforced the commands of the legion’s high command with the ordinary soldiers. They also monitored the daily routine of the combat troops, drill as well as manoeuvres, preparation of parades, and inspections, and likewise the introduction of new recruits or the cleaning of accommodation. In battle, they were at the forefront. In more peaceful times, centurions also commanded work details of legionaries in mines, quarries, or brick kilns, generally on imperial and state possessions. Sometimes they were temporarily employed as commanders of building detachments, such as for the erection of forts or fort baths for auxiliary units.

As a sign of his disciplinary authority, the centurion carried a vine staff and wore greaves, a transverse crest, and a gold ring although, after Septimius Severus, non-commissioned officers (principales) also had these.

Most centurions had been promoted from the lower ranks and only achieved their position after 13 to 20 years of service. The evocati, veterans who voluntarily returned to the colours, also had good career opportunities, most of them being promoted directly to centurions.

According to the number of centuries, there were 60 centurions in a legion. They were allotted to the cohorts and again to the maniples. Since each of the three maniples in a cohort comprised two centuries, each had two centurions. Like military tribunes, these were divided between a prior (more experienced) and a posterior (less experienced). In pithy military language, therefore, the six centurions in each cohort were named according to the old manipular terms pilus prior and pilus posterior, princeps prior and princeps posterior, and hastatus prior and hastatus posterior. The commander of the entire cohort was the pilus prior. The cohorts in turn were numbered from the first (prima) to the tenth (decima), so that each centurion could be precisely identified. Of course, the difference in rank between the centurions of the second to the tenth cohort was not particularly serious. Only the centurions of the first cohort (primi ordines) occupied a special position.

This was because the entire first cohort significantly differed from the other nine in many ways. It was almost twice as strong, although it had only six centuries; but it had another 400 soldiers: mainly the ordinary soldiers and NCOs under the legionary prefect, as well as soldiers on long-term duty outside the garrison base. The most senior centurion, the primus pilus, also led two centuries (Dobson 1978). This position, apparently only held for one year, could even lead to elevation to equestrian rank. The primus pilus was first and foremost the centurions’ spokesman with the commander.

After his year in office, this officer (with a minimum age of 50 years) either retired and played a prominent role in his home region or was next promoted to praefectus castrorum legionis. With that, his military career was finally over. However, if – after the primipilate – he went to the capital city of Rome and served as a tribune in the fire service (cohortes vigilum), city cohorts (cohortes urbanae) or in the imperial bodyguard (cohortes praetoriae) as tribune, he could return to the legion as primipilus iterum (‘primus pilus returning for a second time’); then he occupied a special place on the staff of the legion commander and ranked immediately below the senatorial military tribune. Such men had a good chance of being entrusted with a post as an equestrian in command of a legion in Egypt or even with an imperial procuratorship, i.e. a high and well-paid administrative office. The majority of the men certainly never got so far and were discharged as centurions. However, during his active career, a centurion did not have to remain with the same legion. The reasons for transfers differed; they might be found on a personal level or could be a result of patronage. Technical specialists also often changed postings.

Principales and immunes

One group of soldiers, entrusted with special tasks, ranked above ordinary soldiers but below centurions. They were called immunes (exempt from fatigues, corresponding roughly to modern privates) and principales on a slightly higher level (ranking similar to modern NCOs). Since the two terms (the latter first appeared at the beginning of the 2nd century) were not always used unambiguously, it is often not possible to specify the exact rank of individual posts (it is even more difficult to determine possible career structures). In addition, it is to be expected that one or other was subjected to fluctuations in status over time, i.e. it would increase or decrease in status. These included the weapons orderlies (armorum custodes) assigned to each century. Although they were still among the immunes around AD 180, a few decades later they were definitely principales. The same was probably true for scribes and copyists, the librarii and exacti, who, if they worked in the office of the governor, belonged to the sesquiplicarii, especially in the 3rd century AD. The main difference between the immunes and the principales lay in their pay and that the principales were exempt from the duties of ordinary soldiers by virtue of rank, while it was granted to the immunes specifically to exercise their special duties. In turn, principales were further graded according to whether they received one-and-a-half times or twice the basic pay: whether one was a sesquiplicarius or dupl(ic)arius.

Whoever had achieved this ‘non-commissioned officer rank’, enjoyed further, additional privileges, such as more spacious accommodation and communal areas in camp. Nevertheless, there were differences even within this rank. For daily routine, it was important whether a principalis belonged to the combat troops, and thus served in a century (such as, for example, the optio, tubicen, and signifer) or on the staff. Among staff positions, another two groups are distinguishable: office posts (officiales), designated according to the rank of their officers, and tactical posts which – seconded from the centuries – served on the staff of the governor, like the eagle-bearer (aquilifer). He carried the standard of the whole legion, topped with a golden eagle. Apparently always a member of the first cohort, he was the highest-ranking NCO not in an office. This post was not always achieved after a long period of service. It seems that sometimes eagle-bearers (there were possibly two per legion) had previously been standard-bearers (signiferi) and were later even promoted to centurio.

The head of the administrative staff was called the cornicularius, both in military offices as well as in the civil administration of the relevant officium of the governor. He oversaw the lower-ranking clerical staff (e.g. the exacti and librarii), and even undertook clerical work himself, especially in the offices of the lower staff officers. If he worked for the legionary commander and governor, he could hope for promotion to centurion. The beneficiarii consularis reported directly to the governor. They were used for special tasks, for instance the financial and economic control along roads (Schallmayer 1990 and 1992). The signifer carried the signum, a standard with discs attached (Alexandrescu 2010). Apparently, two such standard-bearers belonged to each maniple. In addition, this rank was responsible for monitoring the cohort funds and the savings of the soldiers; he was also responsible for the burial fund. Until the 1st century AD, the frumentarii provided their units with grain; accordingly, they derived their name from it (frumentum = grain). Later, however, they were used for various tasks: as messengers and as a supervisory officers.

The optio commanded the century if the centurion was ill or otherwise incapacitated, also helping him with management tasks. As a kind of ‘sergeant’, he was waiting to join the centurionate. Each maniple had a tubicen, a tuba player (or other brass musician), as well as a cornicen (horn player) (Alexandrescu 2010).

Roman soldiers were given regular pay, which was differentiated according to the rank and service grade of the troops, in return for their by no means easy duties. However, there were deductions from pay for weapons and equipment. In addition, a part of the pay was withheld, to be paid out as a bonus upon honourable discharge from the army – here, something approximating one of the principles of modern national insurance was anticipated. A share of booty during war and one-off donatives upon the accession of a new emperor could on occasion supplement pay.

The total number of legions during the Imperial period repeatedly fluctuated due to losses and new formations, but there were never more than 28 units at the same time.