AD 400. The Legio Praesidiensis was in Eboracum [York], but the legionary fortress was straining to hold so many infantry and cavalry units at one time. The Duke of the Britains, who had his headquarters within the fortress, decided to billet the men of the Praesidiensis out amongst the population of the town, a common practice amongst the elite comitatenses field armies. Talk was rife that the build-up at Eboracum heralded the formation of a new and improved British field army to replace the one shipped across to Gaul in AD 398. That meant greater prestige, better pay, more chance of promotion and, most importantly of all, more reliable supplies.
York, with its crucial river-crossing in the heart of enemy territory, had been founded by the Roman military eager to subdue the local tribes. The legionary fortress was established in AD 71 on the northern bank of the River Ouse. It was soon accompanied by a civilian settlement to the south-west, immediately between the fortress and the river. The town also spread across the River Ouse and this southern section was linked to the fort by the all-important bridge. By the early third century, the settlement had been granted the status of colonia by the Emperor. This was an important legal distinction that enabled the city to govern itself through a senate (curia) of local aristocrats (decurions) elected to office. A century later York was a thriving and cosmopolitan city of perhaps 3,000 inhabitants (contrast that to Roman London’s 10,000) with its own city walls (probably built-in stone), its own forum, temples, wharves and warehouses, smart town-houses with mosaic floors and under-floor heating, shops, public baths, and street fountains – all laid out to a neat, rectangular plan. York had become the impressive second city of the British provinces, and one of the four provincial capitals.
In AD 400 the fortress was still occupied and maintained, although there was now some industrial activity occurring within the walls. The local garrison, the Sixth Legion, was significantly reduced in numbers but the fort continued to operate in a military capacity (plate 43). The civilian settlements north of the river around the fortress seem to have been abandoned by the late fourth century, yet the colonia south of the River Ouse continued in existence through to the end of Roman rule in the early fifth century. Perhaps the locals immediately outside the fortress sought shelter within the walls during the barbarian crises of the 360s and then remained there. The colonia had its own stone wall defences.
Other changes had occurred. The main road leading from the south, across the bridge and into the fortress had been narrowed during the fourth century. Timber booths or stalls had been erected on either side, perhaps to catch passing trade with food or other saleable items. Large and impressive houses had been built in various locations throughout the city during the early part of the century, and these houses, with mosaic floors, hypocausts and courtyards were probably the smart residences of administrators, wealthy merchants and retired military officers.
Archaeologists have identified several building remains that have been overlain with deposits that have become known as ‘dark earth’. A stone building on Wellington Row as well as a house excavated at Bishophill Senior and at 5 Rougier Street were overlain with this dark, silty deposit made up of decayed plant material mixed with domestic refuse, often finely broken up. Layers of this ‘dark earth’ have been discovered at other Roman town sites in Britain, and they seem to have become more common after the departure of the Romans in AD 410. There is no consensus of opinion as to what ‘dark earth’ actually represents. To some, the deposits are evidence of decay and abandonment, of roofless buildings overgrowing with vegetation and used as refuse pits by locals who can no longer rely on the struggling urban authorities to remove their waste. To others, the dark earth represents a new phase of timber dwellings with thatched roofs that spring up within the cities – signs not of decay but of a post-Roman survival.86 For others still, the earth is brought in from the fields to either support urban agriculture or to beautify the fortified area of the city with prestigious gardens.
The trend in Romano-British towns is for falling population levels and declining local economies. Some of the urban buildings uncovered by archaeologists in towns like Verulamium (modern St Albans) were obviously neglected and ruinous, some public areas were clogged with rubble or refuse. Buildings destroyed by fire during the late fourth century seem never to have been rebuilt, wooden lean-tos and huts were constructed either within or against empty town houses, and mosaics that formed the centre-piece of a Roman dining room have been covered over with gravel floors or scorched by the cooking fires of later tenants. Domestic rubbish has been found piled up in adjacent rooms.
The city was an invention imposed upon the British people by the Roman state shortly after the invasion of AD 43. More used to living in scattered farmsteads and upon fortified hill-forts, the British were induced to live within the newly established urban areas. For Rome the cities acted as administrative centres for the gathering of taxes and as economic powerhouses for the maintenance and feeding of the legions. In the time-honoured tradition, local aristocrats were encouraged to sponsor the construction and maintenance of public buildings. Rome did not fund the growth of cities directly; this was a local provincial concern. There was certainly no free-market economy fuelling construction by demand. In the third and fourth centuries the financial pressures on the landed gentry became intolerable, and many fled the cities for their villas in the country. Here they could lavish their fortunes on extensions and wall paintings, hypocausts and mosaic floors. The cities began their inevitable decline once the aristocracy had turned their energies, and their wealth, toward the country estates.
Eboracum had changed since Gaius had been there last. He had been forced to close his cowhide import business in AD 394 which had necessitated a trip to the city in that year. Many buildings had been boarded up, although many thought it a temporary measure. Some of the houses that had been neglected a long while had been torn down. Gaius remembered seeing a gang of workmen pulling down a wall with chains and iron hooks. A bystander told him the gang were artisans that had once toured the province installing mosaics in all the great villas. That was 394, when the sewers had still worked and the streets had still been clean. Now no-one paid for the necessities. In AD 400, less than six years later, Gaius was shocked at the difference. The streets had taken over from the choked sewers, filth ran freely down toward the river. There were large piles of animal dung at every crossroads. Many of the wooden boards had come off the abandoned town houses. Where the roof had collapsed the rooms had become rubble-strewn and weed-infested refuse piles. Plenty of high-class buildings were now home to the less well-off inhabitants of Eboracum: petty traders, criminals, labourers, prostitutes, refugees from the countryside, and out-of-work artisans. All were eager to live rent-free and close to the main thoroughfares.
Threading his way down a street choked with wooden houses and lean-tos, Gaius gazed on poor craftsmen and petty artisans desperate for work and unable to afford the customary rents. He suddenly spotted Claudius, the owner of the grand villa at Red Stone that he and his men had turfed out and bought off. The rich man and his family were now lowly refugees, buying food at high prices, without land, wealth or skills to sustain them. The timbers used to build this street of shanty-houses came from the roofs of the buildings on either side. The Sixth Legion had been through here last year and stripped off all the roof tiles as soon as regular deliveries of fresh tiles stopped arriving. Now flooded and useless for habitation, the town houses at least afforded good timber for the shanty huts
To ease the cramped conditions within the fortress, the Dux Britanniarum had ordered that the troops from Praesidium be billeted with local families. Gaius and Modesta followed the legionary clerk to their new billet; it was the river-side house of a wagon-driver and his family. Looking over the cramped conditions, Gaius turned back to the street. Within the hour, he and Modesta, Flavius and their two slaves were making the best of things in a townhouse. Recently abandoned and boarded up, Gaius had kicked in some of the hoardings and lit a cooking fire on the floor. The family members now had four rooms between them!
From summer AD 400 through to autumn AD 401, Gaius and his family lived reasonably comfortably within the town house. Flavius was now nine years old and helped his father re-establish his butchery business in Eboracum. The family still received army pay (although a great deal was still owed to them) and some of this helped to pay rent on a shop front along the main street. The business helped them survive their year in Eboracum, a strange year where Gaius spent more time at the butcher’s chopping block than the fortress fencing post. Customers always asked Gaius’ how he had lost his two missing fingers, but he never told the same story twice!
When his presence at the fortress headquarters was suddenly ordered, Gaius feared that he had unwittingly broken some military law. In his smartest tunic and cloak he stood waiting in the echoing hall, over 20m across and almost 70m long. Eight huge columns stood on either side of the hall, and light filtered in from glass windows high above. This was the largest building Gaius would ever stand in. While he leaned easily on a fat column base, legionary officials and soldiers on business hurried about looking anxious and over-worked. To his horror, Gaius was then led into the private chamber of the Dux Britanniarum, Caelius, Old Coel Hen, the Duke of the Britains who commanded the military forces of northern Britain. The duke was a bald-headed man, dressed in sumptuous white linen, embroidered with gold and silver. He wore a purple Pannonian hat and sat with his advisors at a desk covered with scrolls and wax tablets. The wall behind the duke was beautifully painted; one colourful panel depicted a columned shrine topped by a grimacing actor’s mask.
The meeting was short and direct. It had come to the duke’s notice that a centenarius once attached to his staff was now serving as a common foot-soldier in Gaius’ contubernium. This Justinus, a loyal man, no matter what the previous emperor had to say, was to be re-instated as a centenarius and given command of a cohort within the Legio Praesidiensis. Gaius was given credit by the duke for treating the disgraced officer fairly and without bitterness.
Despite the number of advisors in the room, and the maps and plans that littered the desks, there was no hint of the immense changes about to take place. A re-deployment was about to change the lives of every soldier in Eboracum, yet the Dux Britanniarum himself had no knowledge of it. Momentous events were taking place over in the Alps…
‘As for you wretched Syria, I weep for you with great pity. To you too will come a fearful attack by bow-shooting men, which you never expected to befall you. The fugitive of Rome will come, brandishing a great spear, crossing the Euphrates with many thousands, who will put you to the torch and maltreat everything….Having despoiled you and stripped you of everything, he will leave you roofless and uninhabited. Suddenly anyone who sees you will weep for you.’
The Thirteenth Sibylline Oracle (c. AD 253)
In 253 Roman forces had marched against one another in order to defend their choice of emperor. Valerian and his son, Gallienus, had been the victors in that relatively bloodless showdown, north of Rome. Bloodless it may have been, but Valerian had marched into Italy at the head of an army that he had been ordered to raise for a campaign on the upper Danube. Valerian had been given that job by emperor Trebonianus Gallus and once news of Gallus’ assassination reached Valerian, he had decided to move the Danube legions into Italy – he planned to take the throne away from the usurper, Aemilianus.
This crisis of succession and of legitimacy in 253 obscured the real danger. Not only had the Danube frontier been weakened by the removal of its troops to support Valerian’s claim on Rome, but in the east the ruin and destruction wrought by the energetic Shapur, ruler of Sassanid Persia, still smouldered.
Shapur Takes the East
The wicked Shapur of whom I have spoken succeeded him (Ardashir) and lived on for thirty-one years more, doing great harm to the Romans
Valerian was not a young man, he was already fifty-eight when he took the throne and his son, Gallienus, was forty. In a way this provided the new emperor with a nominated successor and a loyal co-emperor from day one of his reign. This situation might have been able to provide the stability that the empire desperately needed, but Fate would cruelly intervene. Leaving his son to organise the defence of the west, the emperor set out immediately for Syria in order to restore the situation there. He would never return.
Antioch was the second city of the Roman Empire and the shock of its fall and destruction resonates in the writings from the time. Although Roman forces had been soundly beaten at the battle of Barbalissos in 252 and much of Syria then occupied and plundered by Persian raiding forces, it seems that its jewel, Antioch, fell to King Shapur a year later. The city was offered to the Persians by the traitor, Myriades. This man had been a wealthy senator who had been expelled from the city for embezzling funds that were destined for the chariot races. In revenge Myriades offered his services to Shapur and led the troops directly to the gates. The rich fled from Antioch at the approach of the Persians, leaving behind the restless masses who seemed to be quite content with a change of government.
Shapur had ordered a huge battering ram to be fashioned, its head was indeed in the shape of a ram and solidly made of iron. It was massive, and once it had served its purpose was dragged to the city of Carrhae and abandoned. A hundred years later this same ‘antique’ ram would be dragged to the city of Bezabde by the legions in order to dislodge the Persians from that city. The fall of Antioch must have been sudden and unexpected, Eunapius writes how a comic actor on stage within the city suddenly declared to his audience, ‘Am I dreaming or are the Persians here?’ His audience fled in terror as missiles rained down upon them, the houses and temples were plundered, inhabitants killed or taken into captivity and the city set on fire. The treacherous Myriades, history records, was executed by Shapur once the city had been captured.
Valerian mustered his Roman forces and fought the Persian garrisons left behind by Shapur. It must have seemed to the emperor that he was making light work of the Persian occupation and raiding troops, but the King of Kings was holding his elite cavalry forces in reserve further east. An unnamed Roman victory in 257 was even substantial enough to be commemorated on an issue of coins bearing Valerian’s name.
When Valerian discovered that Shapur was besieging Edessa with great difficulty in 260, he launched a military expedition to fight the Persians there. However, the plains around Edessa and Carrhae were much suited to Persian cavalry and in addition the Roman troops were far outnumbered. Not only that but the equites Mauri (the Moorish cavalry) were stricken with the plague. Suffering a terrible defeat in June of that year and forced to retreat behind the walls of Edessa, Valerian had run out of options. Persian inscriptions claim that the Roman force had numbered 70,000 and that a great number were captured and deported to Iran. The emperor decided to attempt negotiation, it was perhaps the only option left to him. Shapur insisted he leave Edessa to talk, accompanied only by a small retinue of advisors and officers. Upon receiving the Roman delegation, the ‘wicked and bloodthirsty’ king captured them all. Valerian, the emperor of Rome, as well as high ranking Roman senators, the praetorian prefect and many others, were all enslaved. No emperor had ever been captured by the enemy before; the news stunned Rome.
Free now to roam at will, Shapur attacked Syrian cities in a renewed military campaign, sacking Seleucia, Iconium, Nicopolis, Tyana and, once again, Antioch. The Persian army even reached Cappadocia. The Roman forces, smashed outside Edessa, were little match for the Persian army. There was some spirited resistance in Cilicia where a Roman general named Ballista rallied Roman stragglers and made attacks on the Persians, now divided into smaller, more mobile raiding parties. He was able to capture the harem of Shapur along with a great deal of booty and his troops were able to wipe out a force of three thousand Persians.
Shapur, realising he had outstayed his welcome, turned his forces east and headed for home. He first had to bribe the fierce citizens of Edessa in order that he might pass unmolested. Odaenathus, king of Palmyra, a wealthy caravan city allied with Rome, could not be bribed – and he harried the retreating Persians along the Euphrates river frontier. Thousands of prisoners were marched east by the Persians, fed on the bare minimum to support life and allowed to drink once a day, being driven to water by their guards like cattle. According to the writer Zonaras, at one point the retreating column reached a gorge impassable to Shapur’s baggage animals. The king ‘ordered the prisoners to be killed and thrown into the gorge so that when its depth was filled up with the bodies of the corpses, his baggage animals might make their way across.’
Of course Valerian was now also a prisoner. Accounts differ about how long he survived; Aurelius Victor claims that he was quickly hacked to death, but others insist the emperor lived out his life in servitude to Shapur. As a common slave, Valerian, a man in his sixties, was humiliated and forced to stoop and allow Shapur to step on his back to mount his horse. Lactantius claims that when Valerian eventually died, the Persian king had his body skinned. The old man’s skin was dyed with vermillion and then stretched upon a wall so that future ambassadors from Rome might look upon poor Valerian evermore as a symbol of Rome’s military vulnerability.
Had Valerian left no heir it is likely that a new round of civil wars would have torn through the empire. However, Valerian had entrusted the western half of the empire to Gallienus, his capable son and co-emperor. But if Romans had thought that the future could not get any worse, they were sorely mistaken.
The Era of Pretenders
Now let us pass on to the twenty pretenders, who arose in the time of Gallienus because of contempt for the evil prince.
Historian Augusta, Life of Gallienus 21
While Valerian spent his final years of freedom in the east waging war against the Persian army, his son Gallienus was no less busy on the northern frontier. German tribes beyond the Danube river were beaten back during the years 254 to 256, and once that frontier was secure, the focus shifted to the defence of the Rhine. Attacks came thick and fast. Although Gallienus claimed the title of ‘Germanicus Maximus’ for himself five times and issued coins celebrating his victories beyond the Rhine, he was soon back on the Danube (258). Yet, despite his furious fire-fighting Gallienus could not be everywhere at once and further west the Juthungi broke through the military frontier (limes).
From the North Sea, the river Rhine snaked southwards to provide a natural barrier against the German tribes to the east. Meanwhile, Italy, Pannonia and Thrace received the protection of the river Danube which ran from southern Germany eastwards to the Black Sea. North of this frontier, German and Sarmatian tribes squared off against the local Roman garrisons. However, these ‘wet’ frontiers, formidable natural moats that took great effort to breach, did not meet. This vulnerable gap at the headwaters of the Danube and the Rhine was kept free of German invaders with only a man-made defensive line. The modern-day German state of Baden-Württemberg represents the vulnerable provincial settlement known as the Agri Decumates that lay behind this frontier.
For the previous twenty years attacks had been frequent and punishing on this defensive weak point. At Castra Vetoniana (modern Pfünz) excavations seem to suggest that the soldiers of cohors I Breucorum had been so surprised in one attack that gate guards had no time to grab their shields. Repeated Germanic attacks eroded the military installations and their garrisons to a point that made the 259 invasion possible. The Juthungi descended on Italy and marched toward Rome where a hastily assembled army turned them back – they were defeated near Mediolanum (Milan) by the forces of Gallienus. The weakened sector of the frontier had exposed Italy to the ferocity of the northern tribes. Rome, a city without fortifications, had not felt this vulnerable since the first century BC.
Unsurprisingly, the Agri Decumates was hastily abandoned – that frontier was now considered untenable. Yet attacks continued relentlessly. The Alemanni invaded Italy in 260 while other raiders ravaged as far as Gaul and Spain. The northern borders were crumbling, as was confidence in the emperor Gallienus. Beleaguered provincials who were threatened with continued barbarian attacks, and some of the emperor’s own generals, had lost faith in Gallienus’ ability to defend the empire.
The invasion of northern Italy and the abandonment of the Agri Decumates region, coupled with the Roman defeat at Edessa and capture of Valerian, triggered a wave of usurpers all eager to prove that they could do better. Although the Historia Augusta talks of twenty pretenders, there were in fact fewer serious contenders. First was Ingenuus, governor of Pannonia and Moesia, with plenty of legions at his command. He was defeated in battle at Mursa, northwest of modern Belgrade, by a Roman army led by one of Gallienus’ top generals called Aureolus. This seething frontier produced another discontented general, Regalianus, who was proclaimed emperor by the remnants of Ingenuus’ broken army in late 260. He was murdered by his own troops.
Syria had more right than most to be discontented and late in 260 the legions there threw their support behind Macrianus and Ballista, the two generals who had pulled together some kind of military response to the terrible Persian onslaught following Valerian’s capture. Macrianus was hailed as emperor by the eastern troops he commanded but being of advanced age and infirm, he passed that title to his two sons, known together as the Macriani. The two brothers were named Fulvius Iunius Macrianus and Fulvius Iunius Quietus. Proclaimed joint emperors and enjoying the support of the war-weary eastern provinces they planned to take control of the empire. Macrianus (the older of the two brothers) marched against Gallienus with an army numbering 45,000. Again the general Aureolus counter-attacked and in 261 his forces encircled the army of the rebels in Illyricum (the region of former Yugoslavia). The trapped legionaries suddenly switched sides and ended the rebellion.
Quietus, the younger of the Macriani, had remained in Syria with Ballista and both men had taken refuge within the city of Edessa. Here, Gallienus was able to call on Odaenathus, an ally in the east on whom he could depend. As the ruler of wealthy Palmyra, untouched by Persian aggression, Odaenathus commanded the premier fighting force on the eastern frontier. Following the earlier Palmyrene attacks on the Persian columns and the capture of Shapur’s harem, Gallienus had rewarded Odaenathus with the honorary title of dux Romanorum (‘regional commander’). Edessa was soon besieged by the Palmyrene prince who executed Quietus and Ballista once the city had fallen. He did this on behalf of Gallienus.
The eastern uprising had been quashed but plenty of bitterness and resentment circulated throughout the empire. Mussius Aemilianus was governor of Egypt and had been part of the Macriani revolt. Now he claimed the throne but like the Macriani, he was defeated in battle and executed early in 262.
Even Aureolus, the emperor’s trusted general, rebelled in 262 but he was forced to back down and make peace with his master. Unusually, the emperor let him retain not only his life but also his position and power. Perhaps he needed the military talent of Aureolus too much to have him executed.
Fragments of Empire
Upon the news of Valerian’s capture and enslavement, the governor of Lower Germany, Marcus Cassianus Latinus Postumus, rose in revolt against Gallienus. Postumus had ably dealt with a Germanic attack and on the strength of this victory, had his troops proclaim him emperor. In the autumn of 260 he marched to Colonia Agrippina (modern Cologne) where the young son of Gallienus, Salonius, had been installed as co-emperor with his father. Postumus refused to give up the siege of the city unless Salonius was handed over to him. Once the folk of Colonia Agrippina agreed to the demands, both the boy and his guardian were executed.
Unlike past usurpers who had usually gathered together a military force and then made a dash to Rome, Postumus seemed content to remain beyond the Alps. Using the Rhine legions, he was able to clear the western provinces of barbarians and in doing so he earned the loyalty of the British, Spanish and Gallic provinces. The governors and legionary commanders decided to recognise Postumus as the legitimate emperor over those territories. This was not a re-run of power-sharing between Clodius Albinus and Septimius Severus in 193, Postumus had, in a stroke, created an alternative Roman Empire, one based primarily upon the defence of the western provinces that was ruled from Augusta Treverorum (modern Trier). Postumus made it clear that he was satisfied with the western provinces and did not spoil for a fight, this was just as well, for Gallienus was struggling to cope with a series of usurpers from 260 to 262.
It was not until the spring of 265 that Gallienus felt confident enough to challenge Postumus and marched a Roman army deep into Gaul. An early victory led to the bottling up of Postumus within a city (possibly Lugdunum, modern Lyons) followed by a siege. While the emperor inspected the siege works constructed by his troops, a defender shot Gallienus in the back with an arrow, seriously wounding him. He was evacuated back to Rome in order to recover and although Aureolus was left in charge of the conflict he seems to have made some kind of deal with Postumus, lifting the siege and letting the usurper escape. The Gallic Empire was thereafter left unmolested by Gallienus who continued to face the inevitable distractions – the renewed invasions that would continue to batter what was left of the Roman Empire.
This break-away Gallic Empire survived as an independent state for the next fourteen years; it was made up of the three provinces of Gaul (Aquitania, Narbonensis and Lugdunensis), the two German provinces (Upper and Lower), the three Spanish provinces (Tarraconensis, Lusitania and Baetica), Raetia and the two British provinces (Superior and Inferior). Raetia was taken back by Gallienus in 263 and the Spanish provinces, along with eastern Narbonensis (that area east of the Rhône) were all recovered in 269. However, a measure of the Gallic Empire’s success can be gleaned not just from its relative longevity but also from the fact that all of its four emperors refused to march on Rome and they instead focused on protecting the territory from incursions beyond the Rhine. The third century ‘disease’, that of imperial succession by military assassination plagued the successors of Postumus just as it did Rome; all but the last of the Gallic emperors were murdered.
In a sense, the Gallic Empire depicts the Roman Empire cracking and disintegrating under pressure, and as events in Syria would soon show, it was not just the west that wanted to go its own way. The mass eastern support of the Macriani in 260 indicated a similar provincial sentiment – that of a desire for firm local control in the face of a foreign onslaught. In 270 the east would officially break away from Rome which effectively created three separate imperial powers.
In 266, as the emperor Gallienus recovered from his arrow wound, Odaenathus, the ruler of Palmyra, spearheaded his own military campaign against Persia. Driving deep into Mesopotamia he was able to win a stunning victory at Ctesiphon, the Persian capital, an achievement matched only by three Roman emperors before him. These men had the weight of Rome’s military behind them; Odaenathus had his elite Palmyrene cavalry backed by the military forces of the eastern provinces. It was clear that this potentate was running the show in Syria and Mesopotamia.
From the viewpoint of Gallienus, looking outwards from Rome, the Gallic Empire in the west was dealing effectively with German raids. In the east, the Roman proxy Odeanathus was thrashing the Persians on their own territory. Meanwhile, the Danube frontier was quiet. Did this mean peace for Rome at last?
Sculpture at Naqsh-e Rostam, Iran, depicting the triumph of King Shapur I over the Roman Emperor Valerian.
The Goths Were Coming …
Six centuries earlier Spartans and their allies had stood at Thermopylae and blocked the Persian advance into Greece. Ephialtes, the Greek traitor, had treacherously led the Persian troops along a goat-track that brought them directly behind the Spartan force. In 267 and 268 Goths on the shores of the Black Sea saw a way to avoid the entrenched legionary defences of the frontiers; they resolved to seize hundreds of ships and boats and use the seaways as a means to strike at the heart of the Roman Empire. This had never been done before. The first raiders beached their ships near Heraclea in northern Turkey and they began a campaign of plunder and destruction. Emperor Gallienus directed Odaenathus to halt his Persian war and to divert his army to Heraclea – the Goths had to be stopped. The Palmyrene lord did as he was asked but fell victim to aristocratic in-fighting. Odaenathus was murdered by one of his own kinsmen as part of some on-going domestic quarrel.
Early in 268 the adventurous Goths raided sites in the Balkans, they attacked Byzantium (with little success) and were able to sack the ancient cities of Corinth, Athens and Sparta. Although Gallienus managed to intercept the Goths and bring them to battle, little is known of the scale of his success. Greece represented the settled heartland of the Roman Empire, free from strife or terror. Gothic attacks on this scale and in this manner represented a new and terrifying form of warfare that the emperor and his legions had probably never imagined and had not planned for.
At a place called Nessus, probably in Macedonia, Gallienus engaged a Gothic army and slew 3,000 of them. This battle was not decisive and the emperor was forced to abandon his Balkan campaign to face yet another usurper – Aureolus had turned traitor once again. Declaring his support for Postumus and the Gallic empire, Aureolus marched on Italy with the imperial throne in his sights. With his Dalmatian cavalry Gallienus intercepted and defeated Aureolus’ advance troops at Pontirolo in the north of Italy. Soon he had the rebel general besieged at Mediolanum (modern day Milan). During the siege, which lasted throughout the summer of 268, the emperor’s senior officers seem to have begun conspiring against him. They waited until he was riding without his bodyguard, surrounded him and cut him down. His murder was not welcomed by the troops who complained bitterly that they had been robbed of a useful and indispensable emperor, a man who was ‘courageous and competent.’ Claudius, the commander of the cavalry wing, assumed the throne in his place.
At the moment that Gallienus met his end, the empire had never looked in a more precarious position. Gothic war bands were inside the borders and sacking prosperous Roman cities, the western provinces had seceded to create their own Gallic Empire and in the east, with Odaenathus dead, his widow Zenobia had taken control of Palmyra and its army. She was about to pursue her own interests, not those of Rome and was soon to carve away the eastern provinces to create an independent Palmyrene empire.
Little mention has been made of the plague which swept the cities intermittently, nor have the effects of rampant inflation been discussed, which caused misery and suffering for the citizens of even the most peaceful of regions. The year 268 truly marks the lowest point in Rome’s history. Only a miracle could save the empire, that or an emperor of immense skill who could stitch the empire back together, drive out the barbarians and outfight and outlast the usurpers whose existence had become perhaps the only certainty of the third century.
Later Roman writers had few good things to say about Gallienus, repeating stories of his lecherousness and effeminacy and playing down his boundless energy, the victories that probably saved the total collapse of the empire, and his military reforms. Doubtless this slander was due to Gallienus’ decision to prevent senators from serving as temporary military commanders. Instead he recruited tough and experienced officers who lacked titles, wealth and honours, but who came from a background of professional soldiering. Since many historians came from the senatorial class that was now barred from military service, there may have been some revenge to be had by blackening Gallienus’ name.
‘Dura … a foundation of the Macedonians, called Europos by the Greeks
Isidore of Charax, Parthian Stations
In February 2012, French archaeologist Michael Landolt revealed the gruesome yet fascinating details of the First World War trench system that he had been digging. Located near Carspach in French Alsace, the timber-built underground shelter contained the bodies of 34 German soldiers who had all been killed when a French shell exploded above, causing the tunnels to collapse. The end came so quickly and the mud entombed the shelter’s contents so thoroughly, that the grim scene was perfectly preserved ready for Landolt’s diggers to unearth almost a century later.
Many of the soldiers were found in the positions they had been in at the very moment of the collapse, prompting some to liken the scene to Pompeii. Some of the skeletal remains were discovered sitting upright on a bench, whilst another was still laying where he died in his bed. One man was curled up in a foetal position at the bottom of a flight of stairs where he had been thrown by the blast. Along with the bodies were found a number of poignant personal artefacts including spectacles, wallets, pipes and wine bottles as well as the more utilitarian kit one would expect in a trench, such as rifles, ammunition, helmets and boots. However, although this montage represented a tiny part of a vast battle-front, its victims were known and could be identified. A nearby war memorial records their names and the date of their deaths.
Dura Europus, also likened to Pompeii, was a Syrian city located on the banks of the Euphrates river. In 255 or 256 it was besieged by the Persians and despite fierce Roman resistance its defences were breached. The military garrison as well as the civilian population were almost certainly deported to Persia. Other than the ruins of the fortifications, the buildings within them and the treasure trove of recovered artefacts, no record of this great event in the city’s history survives. For the men and women struggling to defend Dura the siege was a momentous occasion; hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives would have been lost in the struggle.
Once the city had fallen the Roman Empire ignored the loss and did not bother to repopulate the abandoned city. No mention is made of the siege in either Roman or Persian records. What a contrast to that single trench collapse at Carspach. Of course the Romans had no reason to crow about the defeat, many cities had fallen, Dura was but one more and Roman writers were always keen to avoid documenting defeats. The battle of Barballisos (252), for example, had been a crucial military confrontation involving tens of thousands of troops on both sides, yet because it was a humiliating defeat it received barely a mention in the annals.
Pompeii of the Syrian Desert
During the late 1920s and 1930s, a number of archaeologists, beginning with James Henry Breasted, worked at the site. Much of the later work was conducted by French and American teams and led first by Franz Cumont and later by Michael Rostovtzeff. It was Rostovtzeff who described Dura whimsically as ‘the Pompeii of the Syrian Desert’, a description which was ridiculed by his contemporaries because of the barren and forbidding appearance of the desert fortress.
The city was important. It was built on an escarpment 90 m above the right bank of the Euphrates river and sat on the river frontier between Persia and Roman Syria, near the modern Syrian village of Salhiyé. One trade route snaked along the river bank all the way from Antioch to Ctesiphon, the Sassanid capital, another ran north to south from the great caravan city of Persian-aligned Hatra to the oasis town of Roman-aligned Palmyra. Once owned by the Parthians, it had been wrestled from them by the forces of Marcus Aurelius in 165 and had remained a Roman frontier town for almost a century.
A wealth of military equipment was discovered inside the ruined city, everything from sword blades to arrowheads, helmet fragments to horse armour. The dry desert conditions proved conducive to preservation and fragments of textiles, leather and wood were recovered by archaeologists during the 1930s. Finds are today scattered across several museums; most of the finds are held by Yale University Art Gallery, while the rest are found in the Damascus National Museum and the Royal Ontario Museum, Canada. Two pieces rest with the Louvre, in Paris.
For the study of the Roman military during the third century, the remains of Dura provide an invaluable treasure trove of information. Much of the assemblage resembles that of finds on the British, Rhine and Danubian frontiers, albeit in greater quantity. But Dura stands out for the unique survivals unknown anywhere else; papyrus documents give us the duty rosters of a garrison unit (cohors XX Palmyrenorum) and a fascinating wall painting depicts members of this actual unit attending a religious ceremony with their commander, Terentius. Other, equally stunning wall paintings survived on the walls of the synagogue at Dura, bringing us some of the colour and vibrancy of Roman life. A large number of intact Roman shields were also discovered, a find not equalled anywhere else in the Roman Empire. Some still displayed their painted faces and together they provide a unique insight into Roman shield design.
Who Defended Dura Europus?
‘Dura Europus’ is a modern name, reflecting the city’s complex past. Originally established by Greek-speakers, the city was known as Europos. Only later, when the fortress was built upon the escarpment to defend the site did the locals then refer to it instead as Dura (‘fortress’ in the local Semitic dialect).
Because of the city’s crucial location and its distance from the Syrian governor and his legions, a regional commander called the dux ripae (commander of the river frontier) operated from Dura in the 240s and 250s. Under his command were both the forces stationed along the frontier as well as the garrison at Dura Europus. In the 240s this garrison had been cohors XX Palmyrenorum but it is unlikely to have still been in residence during the Persian siege.
A dramatic break occurred in the military garrison in 253 with Persians briefly taking control of the city. However, no signs of conflict were detected, leading archaeologists to conclude that the Roman garrison (the cohors XX) must have fled. Roman control was restored sometime in 254 as Valerian’s expeditionary force began to aggressively engage Shapur’s units that were dispersed throughout Syria.
A detachment of Legio IV Scythica was certainly present at around this time (a papyrus records a divorce of one of its legionaries in 254). Troops from nearby Palmyra are also likely to have been stationed in the city, supported no doubt by vexillations taken from legions brought to Syria by Valerian in 254. A fair estimate of the garrison strength ranges from 500 (a bare minimum) to 2,000 (the maximum based on available billets).6
Soon all the massed forces of the enemy were assaulting the city far more furiously than before … we moved five of the lighter [ballista] to positions opposite the tower. These kept up a rapid fire of wooden projectiles, some of which transfixed two men at once.
Ammianus Marcellinus, at the siege of Amida, 19.5
The city sits on an escarpment above the river Euphrates which runs east of the site. To the north and south are dry, desert gulleys (wadis) which provide a steep-sided defence. Only the westward side of the city is easily accessible, nevertheless the entire circuit of Dura was fortified with a substantial wall, reinforced by eleven towers and a strongly fortified central gateway.
In 255 or 256 a Persian army approached from the west and must have been challenged by Roman forces; scale horse-armour was discovered west of the wall with an arrowhead stuck in it. The main gate came under intensive attack and it is likely that once this failed, two simultaneous assaults were made on the western wall. One was directed at Tower 14, the second was focused on Tower 19. A siege tunnel was dug that began some 40 m west of Tower 19. The aim was to undermine the fortifications and then to set fire to the tunnel props, this would collapse not only the tunnel but also the tower and wall above it.
The tunnel reached beneath the tower and eventually side galleries were dug beneath the adjacent walls. The resulting spoil was heaped up as a defensive barrier around the mine entrance. In those last few days the Persian army would have waited expectantly for the tunnel to be completed, the troops watching basket after basket of earth come out of the tunnel. Within the city the legionaries must have seen the spoil heap growing larger and understood its meaning, they may even have heard the clink of iron tools below the walls. A counter-mine was hastily dug from inside the city to intercept the Persian tunnel and allow Roman soldiers to kill or drive off the Persian miners. The counter-mine was a success and hand-to-hand fighting took place. The bodies excavated from the tunnels indicate that spatha, javelins and oval shields were carried into the mines and that armour and cloaks were worn but that helmets were left behind. The Niederbieber-type helmet, with its deep neck guard, could not be used in a crouch position. The tunnel was around 1.6 m high and wide. Crowded with armed men in the dark, lit only by a couple of oil lamps or burning torches, it is hard to imagine the claustrophobic conditions and the terror of imminent combat as the iron picks broke through into a void. Persians would have been heard shouting warnings, there would be the flickering of enemy lamps and then hand-to-hand fighting once Persian soldiers were rushed down into the tunnel.
We know that the legionaries lost the fight, between sixteen and eighteen dead or wounded were left behind in the tunnel, they may have been overwhelmed by numbers or simply fled in fear from the confused mêlée and the prospect of being trapped in the dark to be butchered by the Persians. The tunnel must have been fired soon after and the Roman counter-mine was hastily blocked up by the panicked Roman defenders, terrified now that the Persians would use the Roman counter-mine to get inside Dura. Within the counter-mine the Persians were equally worried about a second Roman attack and they piled up the Roman dead into a heap against the face of the blocking wall.
One of the skeletons discovered by French excavators within this gruesome scene of tumbled bones, skulls and corroded military equipment, was Persian. He had been facing the city when he was wounded or killed and he fell on his back. Some attempt had been made by his comrades to drag him back to safety. His ringmail shirt was pulled up about his neck as if a couple of rescuers had grabbed an arm each and a fistful of ringmail in their attempt to get him back to their own lines. Why was he left behind with the Roman dead? Perhaps the order to fire the mine had been given, perhaps they suddenly realised the soldier was dead. Much like the First World War skeletons discovered in the bunker at Alsace, those uncovered at Dura represent the final moments of some awful subterranean tragedy, a moment in a war that lasted several years, frozen in time for a later generation to wonder at and attempt to piece together.
Persian sappers set the counter-mine on fire then set about firing their own mine underneath Tower 19. Due to extensive reinforcement within the city, the walls did not fall forward and neither did Tower 19, instead both dropped vertically into the gap created by the collapsed tunnels. No breach in the wall occurred and the attack here was abandoned. The huge number of catapult and arrowheads found in the vicinity testify, however, to the ferocious missile exchanges going on throughout the mining attempt.
Attention probably shifted to Tower 14 and the southern end of the desert wall where another siege mine had also been excavated. The mine was fired and Tower 14 collapsed, rendering it useless as a Roman catapult platform. With this threat gone the Persian army then constructed a siege ramp from debris, rocks and soil that would allow its troops to march right up to the Roman ramparts. At the same time a tunnel was dug beneath the siege ramp to lead underneath the walls. Much wider than the mine of Tower 19, this tunnel was probably intended to allow Persian assault troops into the city when the grand attack began. It failed because the defenders again dug a counter-mine and this time successfully captured the Persian tunnel. It was then used to create sabotage tunnels inside the siege ramp which caused parts of it to collapse. At this point the mining seems to have stopped. It may be that the Persians were able to take back their attack tunnel and use the Roman counter-mine to get inside Dura, seizing the city for themselves. There is no evidence of fighting and it could be that the inhabitants surrendered once the enemy gained entry. The stones are mute. No written records exist to explain the sequence of events or the dramatic outcome. Everything has had to be pieced together by archaeologists and historians living centuries after the fact.
The weeks or months of resistance and furious digging were at an end, the city was looted and everyone in it herded together and led east into Persia. Evidence suggests that many thousands of Roman captives lived out their lives in Iran during this period, building bridges and cities and perhaps even carving the famous Naqsh-e Rustam relief that commemorates Shapur’s victory over the Roman general Valerian.
Julian had survived because he was so young (only six when the previous Emperor Constantine died), and he appeared unambitious and insignificant; he professed Christianity, but he had fallen in love with the culture of Athens and was a pagan at heart. In 355, as Constantius himself was preparing for war against Sapor, Julian was sent to Gaul as caesar to fight the Franks. (Julian’s chief of staff was picked personally by Constantius.) Julian quickly assumed command and won some victories, but the raids continued. The Alamanni-after a succession of successful raids and skirmishes, after driving even Julian behind walls, after seeing Roman cooperation break down in a futile attempt to coordinate a converging movement on the Alamanni-decided on a major campaign in Gaul under their king, Chnodomarius [Chnodomar]. Julian was ready to fight, and the two sides met at the battle of Strasbourg [Argentoratum] (A. D. 357).
The Roman army had to march about twenty miles. It set out at dawn, the foot soldiers in the middle, their flanks guarded by cavalry squadrons including cataphracts and archers (“a formidable kind of armed men”). After eight hours marching, they reached the vicinity of the enemy camp and Julian suggested to the troops that they prepare a fortified camp wherein they could rest, refresh themselves, and prepare to attack the next dawn. The soldiers “gnashed their teeth, clashed their spears on their shields,” and demanded that Julian lead them immediately against the enemy. Julian’s Praetorian prefect also urged him to attack while they had all the Alamanni fixed in one location and reminded him of “the hot tempers of the soldiers which could turn them so easily to riot.” A standard bearer cried out, “Advance, Caesar, luckiest of all men!”
The Romans advanced slowly, and when they came in sight of the Alamanni, they formed up in a close-packed wedge formation, and the Alamanni also formed up in wedges. The Alamanni put all their cavalry opposite the Roman cavalry on the Roman right. As the cataphracts had the advantage over the Alamanni cavalry because they wore mail armor and their hands were free while the Alamanni had to hold reins and shield in one hand and spear in the other, the Alamanni reinforced their cavalry with skirmishers and light infantry. The Alamanni had dug trenches on their right from which to spring ambushes, but the Romans expected trickery and halted on the edge of the trenches and waited to see what would happen.
Julian, protected by a bodyguard of 200 men and identified by a dragon banner, rode back and forth calling upon his men to restore Rome’s majesty; the Alamanni called upon their leaders to dismount and share the fortunes of the common soldier. King Chnodomarius [Chnodomar], a gigantic, muscular man, was the first to dismount, and the other princes followed his example. Then the trumpets blared, the two sides hurled their spears at each other, and the Alamanni charged. “The Alamanni, their long hair streaming, their eyes blazing with madness, made a terrifying sight.”
The two sides, densely packed, pushed each other back and forth, and clouds of dust obscured the field. Then the Roman cavalry commander was wounded and the Roman cavalry withdrew; Julian rushed to the spot to stop the retreat, but the cavalry and Julian were out of the battle long enough for the Alamanni to force their way into the Roman formation. There they were checked momentarily by Julian’s German troops before they broke through to the center of the army, where the Roman master of troops commanded a special unit. The two sides hacked at each other, the Romans sheltered behind their phalanx of shields, the Alamanni gone beserk, trying to break the formation and shouting war cries above the shrieks and moans of the wounded and dying. The Romans stabbed at the unprotected sides of the Alamanni, until they broke the impetus of their charge and forced them to turn and run.
The Romans pursued them to the banks of the Rhine and struck them until their swords were dulled, their spears broken, and then they stood on the banks of the river and threw javelins at them. The Alamanni who had preserved their shields in their flight used them as miniature rafts to take them to the other side. Chnodomarius surrendered and was sent to Rome where he died of old age. The Romans estimated that the Alamanni had numbered about 35,000 and that they themselves had been outnumbered three to one. They acknowledged 247 dead.
Julian’s Germans were so valuable to him that he learned their language. One of the commanders in his subsequent campaign against the Persians was Vadomarius, who had been king of an Alamannic canton. As king, Vadomarius led raids into Roman territory (in 352-353), his own territory had been raided in retaliation, and he had concluded a peace treaty with the Romans. Under the cover of the peace treaty, even as he accepted the local Roman commander’s invitations to banquets, he continued to raid Roman territory. Roman patience ran out, Vadomarius was arrested while he was attending a banquet, and he was sent to Spain. (His son succeeded him as king.) During Julian’s campaign in the east, Vadomarius was the “leader of the Phoenicians,” and under Julian’s successor, Valens, he conducted the siege of Nicaea and successfully commanded troops against the Persian King Sapor II in 371. This German king was at home in the Roman world, at least as that world was represented by the army, and he was a trusted commander, although his loyalty was pledged to the emperor and the army, not to the abstract entity Rome.
In 359, the Persians captured the important Roman frontier post of Amida, and the following year two other Roman outposts fell. Constantius was obliged to return to Antioch and prepare for war. Since 357, and Constantius’ march on the Danube, Julian had effectively been the sole representative of imperial authority in the western provinces, a responsibility to which he adapted himself with remarkable élan. In an impressive series of campaigns, Julian had driven the marauding barbarians from northern Gaul, and shown the strength of Roman arms beyond the Rhine. At the same time, he had reorganized the collection of taxes in Gaul to the benefit of both fisc and subjects alike. Julian was proving himself to be not only a brave general, but an efficient and equitable administrator.
Julian’s success in Gaul appears to have caused Constantius some consternation. Accordingly, in early 360, the emperor sent orders that a considerable portion of Julian’s army be moved eastwards for the purposes of the Persian war. To Julian this must have seemed like a deliberate attempt to undermine his position. Julian’s army was soon to head east in numbers that Constantius may not initially have expected. For, in February 360, Julian’s troops proclaimed him Augustus. Constantius refused to countenance any diminution of his own authority, and in 361 Julian and his army began the long march east to settle the question of the imperial title by force of arms. Constantius in turn withdrew from Antioch, ‘eager as always’, Ammianus records, ‘to meet the challenge of civil war head on’. As he and his army advanced through Cilicia, however, Constantius fell victim to a fever that claimed his life. The late emperor’s advisers agreed to acknowledge Julian as supreme lord of the Roman world, and two officers set off to invite him ‘to come without delay and take possession of the East, which was ready to obey him’. Julian hastened to Constantinople.
Julian’s reign was to last little more than eighteen months. Yet, to contemporaries, as to modern scholars, his period of rule was to be of lasting fascination. On the death of his uncle he chose to reveal publicly what had long been known to a circle of close intimates, namely that, during his studies first in Nicomedia in 351, and subsequently at Ephesus, he had cast aside the God of Constantine, and instead embraced the mysteries of Neoplatonic paganism. Once in Constantinople, Julian declared religious toleration, removed the privileges enjoyed by the Christian Church and clergy, and ordered a revival of worship at the pagan temples of the cities of the empire.
Julian sought to present this declaration as restoring to the Roman world the publicly sanctioned worship of the gods who had granted Rome her past success. Yet it is important to realize the extent to which, even to many non-Christians, Julian’s paganism seemed a strange and possibly alienating amalgam. Julian had been raised a Christian: his paganism had something of the quality of a foreign tongue, one eagerly acquired, but alien to the ear of a native speaker. Julian was a devotee of a highly intellectualized form of paganism that took a metaphorical approach to the myths and legends of Graeco-Roman tradition. Whilst the cults of individual deities were to be nurtured, the ultimate purpose of these cults was to lead one to a clearer appreciation of the single divine principle embodied in what Julian described as ‘the creator … the common father and king of all peoples’.
This intellectualism, infused with a monotheistic tendency that had long been evident within late paganism, might well have appealed to members of the empire’s educated elite. Yet Julian’s high-mindedness went hand-in-hand with a taste for the spectacular, the sacrificial, and the magical, a taste which many members of this self-same elite would have regarded as rather vulgar. Thus Ammianus remarks that Julian was ‘superstitious rather than genuinely observant of the rites of religion, and he sacrificed innumerable victims regardless of expense’. It was not just the accession of Christian emperors that had led provincial pagans to allow the civic temples and their associated cults to fall into desuetude. It was also, to some extent, the result of a lack of interest in overtly public and highly costly displays of pagan religiosity on the part of well-born pagans themselves.
If Julian’s religious inclinations ran counter to much contemporary feeling, so too did certain of his secular aims. In essence, Julian’s policies reveal a determination to roll back the Diocletianic and Constantinian revolution. The court was reduced both in scale and splendour. The emperor was to revert to the role of chief magistrate, rather than overlord, of the Roman world. The central government was gradually to be retrenched, and the administration of the empire was once more to devolve upon the self-governance of the city councils. Such conservative ambitions may have seemed praiseworthy to some. But the chance to escape burdensome civic duties, to advance oneself through the offices of central government, to experience and partake in the extravagance of the court, had opened up opportunities to members of the new imperial aristocracy which they would have been loath to lose.
It is thus perhaps no surprise that, as Julian headed off from Constantinople to Antioch in 362, he found himself distinctly underwhelmed by the enthusiasm his secular and religious policies were eliciting amongst the cities through which he passed. This was to culminate with Julian’s spectacular falling out with the citizenry of Antioch. There, Julian’s lavish sacrifices to mark the feast of Adonis at a time when the city was suffering from a food shortage, combined with the emperor’s own botched attempts to relieve the city’s hunger, annoyed Christian and pagan alike. This left the emperor vulnerable to a public lampooning that made a deep impression on him. Upon his return to the region, Julian declared, he would make Tarsus, not Antioch, his home.
Julian’s journey east in 362, however, suggests that he was aware of the difficulties he faced in realizing his ambitions. For his aim appears to have been to do what Roman emperors had long done to unite the Greek-speaking cities of the East behind them: to launch a campaign against the Hellenic world’s traditional enemy—the empire of Persia. In 363, with an army of 65,000 men, Julian crossed into Persian territory, and, in a series of spectacular victories recorded for us by the first-hand testimony of Ammianus Marcellinus, came within reach of the capital of the shahs at Ctesiphon. Within sight of the city’s defenders, Julian presided over a set of athletic celebrations and games. A brilliant victory seemed within his grasp, one that would demonstrate the superiority of his religion. However, it soon dawned on Julian and his advisers that the city was, to all intents and purposes, impregnable. As the Christian Gregory of Nazianzus declared, ‘from this point on, like sand slipping from beneath his feet, or a great storm bursting upon a ship, things began to go black for him’.
It was at this point that Julian made his fatal error. He decided that, rather than retreating the way he had come, he would burn the ships that his army had used to traverse the Euphrates and its tributaries, and instead strike further into Persian territory. As it did so, Julian’s increasingly demoralized army found itself deprived of supplies and subjected to raids and ambushes. During one such attack, on 26 June, the emperor himself was struck down by a spear that passed through his ribs. Julian was carried to his tent where he died the same evening, professing satisfaction, according to Ammianus, that he had at least suffered a virtuous death in battle rather than ‘through secret conspiracy’. Others were less sure: it was rumoured that the emperor had in fact been struck down by one of his own Christian troops.
Two new warlike prospects now invited Pyrrhus. Both offered him the opportunity-which he always coveted – of championing Greek civilization. One opportunity lay in Greece itself, where an eruption of Celtic hordes from the north had produced turmoil; the other lay in Sicily, where the Greek cities, lacking a military successor to Agathocles, were again menaced by the Carthaginians. Pyrrhus chose the Sicilian venture. Certainly, it looked less like a retreat from his present unsatisfactory situation. To the disgust of the Tarentines, after unsuccessful peace overtures to Rome, he suspended operations in Italy, placed a garrison in Tarentum, and sailed for Sicily with 30,000 infantry and 25,000 cavalry. His consequent success was quite unequivocal; he swept the Carthaginians before him, soon reaching Eryx, their strongly fortified city at the western extremity of the island.
Eryx was taken by storm. A trumpet blast gave the signal for a missile barrage which dispersed the defenders on the walls. Scaling ladders were swiftly brought up and Pyrrhus was himself the first man to mount the battlements, dealing death to left and right of him and emerging at last unscathed. This was a victory after his own heart and he celebrated it, as he had vowed to do, with athletic events and displays in honour of Heracles.
The Carthaginians having been thus subdued and already inclined to negotiate terms, Pyrrhus found himself in the role of a keeper of the peace. A community of Italian brigands, originally hired from Campania as mercenary troops by Agathocles, had been in the habit of extorting payments from Sicilian cities. These lawless and violent men, who styled themselves Mamertini (“The War God’s Men” in their dialect), were to play a crucial part in later history; but for the time being Pyrrhus managed to suppress them, defeating them in pitched battle and capturing many of their strongholds. Even here, however, his achievement was incomplete. The Mamertines survived to embarrass the Mediterranean world at a later date.
As for the Carthaginians, Pyrrhus refused them the peace they asked and required that they should totally evacuate Sicily. But by this time he had himself begun to quarrel with the Greek Sicilian cities, some of whom were ready to support the Carthaginians, while others rallied surviving Mamertines to their aid. News that the people of Tarentum and other Greeks of the Italian mainland were hard pressed by the Romans in his absence now gave him the opportunity of extricating himself from yet another deadlock, and he took it.
In Sicily, Pyrrhus’ reputation, both as a triumphant war-leader and as a liberal ruler, had ultimately suffered. He had failed to capture the remaining stronghold of Lilybaeum, which the Carthaginians had established on the westernmost point of Sicily after the destruction of Motya at the beginning of the previous century. Planning the invasion of Africa, in imitation of Agathocles, he had made himself unpopular by what amounted to pressgang recruitment of rowing crews. But at the same time it must be admitted that the Greeks were never an easy population to deal with. Every successful champion of their liberties was sooner or later bound to be suspected as a potential tyrant.
It is related that Pyrrhus left Sicily conscious that it would become a battlefield for hostilities between Rome and Carthage. Perhaps the remark attributed to him on this occasion was the invention of historians who enjoyed the advantage of hindsight. But Sicily had always been a cockpit and it was easy to see here an area in which any widely expanding power must be challenged.
Rome and Carthage as Allies
At the time of Pyrrhus’ operations in Italy and Sicily (281-275 BC), Rome and Carthage were in fact associated by a series 6f treaties which dated from very early times. The precise number of these treaties is a subject on which neither ancient historians nor modern scholars agree. Polybius, the Greek historian of Rome’s wars against Carthage, paraphrases these treaties, the earliest of which was preserved at Rome in an archaic form of Latin. According to Polybius, the treaty forbade the Romans to sail south of the “Fair Cape” (just north of Carthage) unless driven there by weather or warfare. A Roman finding himself accidentally in this area was not allowed to carry anything away with him save what was necessary for repairs to his ship or sacrifice to the gods, and he was obliged to leave the country within five days. Any business contracts in the scheduled zones were to be concluded in the presence of a herald or notary. Such contracts could be enforced by law in Libya and Sardinia. In Sicily, a Roman was to enjoy equal rights with others. Carthage, for her part, was bound to maintain friendly relations with Rome’s Latin satellites, and this applied even to other Latin cities, though rather equivocally: if the Carthaginians captured such a city, they were obliged to hand it over to Rome without sacking it. The Carthaginians, moreover, were forbidden to build any fort in Latin territory, and if Carthaginians by chance entered the territory under arms, they were not to pass the night there.
At a later date, says Polybius, another treaty was made. Areas in which the Romans might neither trade nor practise piracy were more specifically defined. If the Carthaginians captured any Latin city, they could retain valuables and captives but must surrender the city itself to the Romans. There are detailed provisions relating to the taking of slaves, and again a reference to Sardinia and Libya as sensitive Carthaginian zones. The Romans were not to trade or found settlements in either of these territories.
The last of the three treaties mentioned by Polybius was occasioned by Pyrrhus’ invasion and may confidently be assigned to 279 BC. It provided that, should either the Romans or Carthaginians subsequently reach terms with Pyrrhus, these should be subject to a reservation: namely, that if either of the two parties became a victim of the king’s aggression, they might both collaborate within the resulting theatre of war. In any such case, the Carthaginians would provide ships for transport and hostilities, but each government would pay its own troops. The Carthaginians would assist in war at sea but could not be obliged to land any forces. The representatives of the contracting parties swore solemnly to this agreement, each by his own gods, and the terms of the treaty, inscribed on bronze tablets at Rome, were preserved at the temple of Jupiter. Polybius expressly denies the assertion of the pro-Carthaginian Greek historian, Philinus. that another treaty existed according to which the Romans and Carthaginians were respectively forbidden to enter Sicily and Italy.
It is not always easy to distinguish between the commercial and strategic activities of the ancient world. A major sector of commerce was the slave trade and the capture of slaves was necessarily accompanied by violence and warlike action. Nor was piracy regarded as an infringement of any international code, although one might be obliged to refrain from it locally under treaty pledges. However, the first two of the above-mentioned treaties seem to have been mainly commercial in scope; the third, military and naval. The underlying principle seems to have been that Carthage should offer naval aid in return for Roman military support.
It is indeed on record that, hoping to hinder Pyrrhus’ intervention in Sicily, a Carthaginian admiral arrived with 120 ships to dissuade Rome from making peace with the king. The Romans were not at first willing to commit themselves. The Carthaginians then sailed off to negotiate with Pyrrhus. These negotiations also led to nothing. but when the Carthaginian mission returned again to Rome, the Romans were more amenable. The Carthaginian negotiators had made their point. The 120 ships could be thrown into either scale; Rome continued its war against Pyrrhus’ allies in Italy. In fact, the Carthaginian commander, on his way back to Sicily, The Carthaginian diplomatic initiative against Pyrrhus certainly seems to have borne fruit. Moreover, the Carthaginian navy attacked the king’s forces as they returned from Sicily and destroyed a substantial number of his ships. About 1,000 Mamertines had also crossed into Italy to afflict Pyrrhus with guerrilla warfare. Their crossing had no doubt been much facilitated by the Carthaginian fleet.
The only portrait of Drusus known to have been carved in his lifetime appears on the Ara Pacis in Rome. On the south facing enclosure wall, one figure in the procession is conspicuous by his attire. He is the only male figure shown wearing the paludamentum, the military cloak, in contrast to the others who wear togas; and caligae, the robust, open sandals worn by soldiers, which compare to the others who wear closed civilian boots. The consensus opinion is the figure is that of Nero Claudius Drusus since he was active on military campaign while the altar was being carved and at the time of the inauguration on 30 January 9 BCE. If the identification is correct, this is the only portrait of Drusus which can be securely dated to his lifetime. He is shown as a confident and relaxed individual in the company of his family. With her head turned to look at him is the figure of Antonia Minor, who holds the hand of a small boy identified as Ti. Claudius Nero (better known as Germanicus) who would have been nearly six years old at the time of the consecration ceremony.
In the spring of 11 BCE, with the western coastal region nominally under – or at least not hostile to – Roman control, Drusus turned his attention to the interior lands. From Vetera, he crossed the Rhine taking with him all or parts of Legiones I Germanica, V Alaudae and XVII, XVIII and XIX plus cohorts of auxilia. They followed the meandering course of the 220 kilometre (136.7 mile) long Lippe River (Lupia) and immediately engaged the Tencteri and Usipetes. The Usipetes – or Usipii – were close allies of the Tencteri to the south, and not much else is known about them. They lived between the Rhine and Lippe Rivers and became known to Iulius Caesar during his campaigns in Gallia. In 55 BCE news of Caesar’s defeat of the Eburones reached the people across the Rhine. Seeking their share of the plunder and corn the Tencteri and Usipetes united and crossed the Meuse River, and instantly became a problem for Caesar. He engaged them and in the ensuing rout, the Germanic tribes retreated upriver. In the opening weeks of Drusus’ invasion the Usipetes were overcome just as easily as four decades before.
Drusus had paid very particular attention to building out military infrastructure on the left bank of the Rhine prior to the invasion and, having landed on the right bank, immediately began to install the supply depots and accommodations that would support the forward advance. The temporary fortress established on the right bank of the Rhine at Dorsten-Holsterhausen, 36 kilometres (22.4 miles) east of Vetera, and which was large enough for two legions, may date from this time.6 Marching further inland Drusus ordered a bridge to be constructed over the Lupia and promptly marched his men across it. They were now in the country of the Sugambri nation, modern Sauerland. The Sugambri – or Sicambri or Sygambri – were a tough, proud people who let no obstacles stand in their way. “Neither morass nor forest obstructs these men, born amidst war and depredations,” noted Caesar. They appear to have been related to the Belgae, based on a study of their names, many of which end in –ix, such as Baetorix and his son Deudorix. Baetorix was the brother of Maelo who, as war chief, led the alliance of Sugambri, Tencteri and Usipetes in the raid into Gallia in 17 BCE leading to the clades Lolliana which gave Augustus his reason to launch a war. Maelo was still war chief of the Sugambri at the time of Drusus’ invasion.
The Sugambri first enter the written record in the account of Iulius Caesar’s Gallic War. It was to the sanctuary of the Sugambri nation that the Tencteri and Usipetes had fled in 55 BCE when pursued by the Romans. Caesar sent an emissary to demand the hand-over of the men who had invaded Gaul. The Sugambri refused, insisting that the Rhine River marked the limit of Roman power. Shortly after that episode Caesar decided to build his famous bridge and to take the war to the Germanic nations. Ten days later, his bridge having been built, he marched his men into Sugambri territory. He found the people had disappeared – the Sugambri had been tipped off and retreated into the forest. He burned their villages and buildings and cut down their corn crop as punishment for their intransigence. It was not a happy start to the relationship between these peoples. Two years later, Caesar was back in the territory of the Eburones and, lured by the promise of loot, the Sugambri saw a chance to stake their own claim on the defeated tribe’s possessions. Gathering up 2,000 cavalry they took to boats and crossed the river thirty miles downstream from the site of Caesar’s bridge and garrisons so that they could move unobserved. They gathered up all the roaming cattle they could find and planned to move further inland in search of loot. They headed south towards Atuatuca (Tongeren), but were repulsed and crossed back to their homeland with their prizes.
The Sugambri did not take defeat lightly and neither did they tolerate those who would not ally themselves with them in pursuit of a common foe. Dio records that they were angry at the Chatti for not having stood with them on their raid into Gaul in 17 BCE. Six years later the men of the Sugambri massed for a punitive raid on their neighbours and abandoned their homesteads for the season. The Chatti – or Catti or Catthi – were one of the Germanic nations not mentioned in Caesar’s Gallic War and were possibly not well known at the start of Drusus’ campaign. The earliest written source we have is that of Strabo who located them in the mountains and valleys of the Elder, Fulda and upper reaches of the Weser River, in what is now modern Hessen. The best account of them, however, is preserved in Tacitus who calls the Chatti “the children of the Hercynian Forest”. He describes them as “distinguished beyond their fellows by their singularly hardy frames, well-knit limbs, resolute eyes and by a remarkable energy of spirit”. In contrast to most Germanic communities which eschewed urban living, the capital city of the Chatti was called Mattium (near modern Kassel) and located in the defensible Taunus mountains. Tacitus was struck by their similarities between the Chatti and his own countrymen. “Their whole strength is in foot soldiers,” he writes, “who, besides carrying their arms, are loaded with tools and supplies” (just as legionaries did). They posted pickets by day and dug ditches around their camps at night (in the same way legions did). They also followed the orders of their leaders, whom they elected, and they fought in formations which they kept in the heat of battle (exactly like the legions following their praetors or consuls). Unlike their barbarian neighbours who “came out for a single battle” the Chatti engaged in campaigns, and
seldom make mere raids or allow themselves to be drawn into a casual encounter: it is cavalry, to be sure, from which one expects a quick success or a quick retreat; speed goes with timidity, slowness is more allied to steadiness.
Pitted against such an opponent the Sugambri were in for a hard fight. Where the Sugambri made war with their hearts, the Chatti campaigned with their heads.
Their decision to wage war on each other was a tremendous stroke of good luck for Drusus. He apparently encountered no resistance and was able to move his expeditionary force freely through Sugambri territory unimpeded.
By following the twisting and turning course of the Lippe River in an easterly direction Drusus would have ultimately reached its source at Bad Lippspringe on the edge of the Teutoburg Forest. This was the homeland of the Cherusci nation. The Cherusci have gone down in history as the tribe that produced Arminius, or Hermann the German, who defeated Roman ambitions at Teutoburg in 9 CE. In 11 BCE he was just six years old, but his father Segimer and uncle Inguiomer were already accomplished warriors. The Cherusci first appear in the Roman literature with Julius Caesar where they are mentioned as neighbours of the hostile Suebi and separated by a forest called Bacenis which provided them protection from raids and attacks. Tacitus mentions their other neighbouring tribes as the Chauci and Chatti. Pliny the Elder places them as members of the Hermunduri community comprising the Suebi, Hermunduri and Chatti. On the outbound march Drusus may have avoided the Cherusci, but they would not remain strangers for long.
Beyond where Anreppen now stands the Lippe River eventually becomes difficult for boats to navigate. The course of the Lippe has changed over the last two millennia but at some point along this stretch of the river the expeditionary force struck out across country towards the Weser River (Visurgis) east-northeast in the general direction of modern Minden or southeast towards Göttingen – the extant sources are unclear on this point. Eventually the Romans reached its right tributary source, the Werra River. The army would have struck temporary camps each night but these leave only faint traces and most have been lost or not yet identified. It must have been with great disappointment that Drusus listened to the advice of his legates and camp prefects. Supplies, or the dwindling level of them, would not permit Drusus to cross the Weser River this campaign season without endangering the mission. He was still in hostile territory, the summer was over and winter was in prospect. Tactically he had no choice but to turn back and head for Vetera.
Another event is recorded that likely tipped the balance for Drusus. In his marching camp an unusual – and to the Romans’ sensibilities a very disturbing – event took place. Outside the tent of praefectus castrorum Hostilius Rufus bees were seen swarming. Specifically they swarmed one of the poles and guy ropes holding up the tent. The ancients paid particular attention to the behaviour of bees, which were seen as winged messengers of the gods. The augurs were called without delay to interpret the meaning of the swarming insects. Their reading of the omens was treated with utmost gravity and respect and in hushed silence they studied the buzzing creatures for signs of divine intent. Finally they pronounced that the auguries appeared to signal danger, possibly even a defeat ahead for the Romans. Drusus, they said, should tread carefully through Germania. It was enough to convince him. The campaign was suspended for the year and Drusus gave the order to begin the 300 kilometre (186.4 mile) journey that lay between them and home to the west.
What we know of the Germanic warrior comes mainly from Greek- and Latin-speaking Roman authors. At this time, the Germans wrote nothing down. Some evidence survives in the archaeological record to give us a material picture of his arms and armour. Yet his reputation has survived the ages: fierce to the point of being savage, fearless bordering on the reckless, cunning like the fox. Unlike his Roman opponent, the Germanic war fighter was remarkably underequipped. In large part this was due to the paucity of basic materials. “Even iron is by no means abundant with them”, Tacitus noted, “as we may gather from the character of their weapons”. About one in ten warriors had a single-edged knife (measuring 7–12 centimetres, 2.8–4.7 inches long). Others carried a sword for cutting and thrusting; or a machete-like sax (measuring about 46 centimetres – 18.1 inches – long) for slashing and chopping. Some might bear a double-edged sword similar to the Celtic long sword of the Raeti and Norici or Roman spatha. However, Germanic weapons were made of a form of iron called ‘steely iron’ which has a much lower content of carbon, typically 0.5 to 1.5 per cent of its weight, making it softer and more likely to bend when struck with force. To compensate for this weakness, Germanic swordsmiths made the sax with a thicker upper edge, but notwithstanding this measure, against the harder steel weapons used by the Romans, Germanic swordsmen were at a material disadvantage.
Axes were wielded by those with means, while others with fewer means used wooden clubs hewn from logs which had been fire-hardened or made more deadly with iron spikes. Both weapons were used with devastating effect: even the rough edge of a club can cause considerable blunt trauma and crush bones. They also used bows of fir and yew and arrows, slings and slingshot that were devastating when used en masse. When the ammunition ran out, they threw rocks and stones.
Their preferred weapon was a slender but versatile spear. “They carry lances”, wrote Tacitus, “frameae as they call them, with the iron point narrow and short, but so sharp and so easy to handle that they employ them either for stabbing or throwing on occasions”. They also carried darts – missilia the Romans called them. Ranging from 90–275 centimetres (35.3–108.3 inches) in length with a tip 10–20 centimetres (3.9–7.9 inches) long, in an expert’s hand these were terrible weapons, especially to men wearing chain mail armour, the links of which the sharp, narrow point could pierce and rip apart. Each man carried several into battle and “they can hurl them to an immense distance”.
The regular Germanic fighter wore little or no body armour, unless stripped from an opponent or made by a local craftsman, “and only a man or two here and there a helmet or head piece”. Though there were likely national or clan differences in dress, he typically wore a short- or long-sleeved tunic, baggy or close-fitting long trousers belted at the waist, and a cloak fastened with a brooch. German woollen cloth was somewhat rough to the touch but nevertheless dyed in solid colours, or woven with stripes or geometric patterns. A shield was the primary mode of defence. Sculptures and coins show Germanic shields to be flat and long, and in shape oval, rectangular or hexagonal. Tacitus comments that their shields were not supported by metal or leather but were simply wicker or painted boards, however, metal edging strips have been found in eastern Germany contesting his generalisation. He also mentions the care with which they painted the coloured devices on the front of them. Surviving first century BCE examples from Denmark, one measuring 88 centimetres (34.6 inches) by 60 centimetres (23.6 inches) and the other 66 centimetres (25.9 inches) by 30 centimetres (11.8 inches), are made of wooden planks. In these specimens a central ‘barleycorn’ shaped shield boss protects the handgrip, but iron domed and pointed circular shield bosses have also survived.
Germanic warriors fought both on foot and horseback. Each was similarly equipped with spear or darts and shield. Lightly armed infantry made up the largest part of a Germanic tribal army but their cavalry, even in smaller numbers, were very effective. Germanic cavalry would often dismount and fight on foot and Caesar observed that they even trained their horses to remain standing in the same spot so they could leap up on to them and ride to another part of the battlefield or escape. “Their horses are not remarkable”, writes Tacitus snootily,
for beauty or speed, neither are they trained to complex evolutions like ours; the riders charge straight forward, or wheel in a single turn to the right, the formation of the troop being such that there is no rear flank.
The right turn meant that the rider’s shield side was presented to their enemy so he could launch his weapon with his right side fully protected.
Young men able to run fast formed the vanguard of the attack as they were able to keep up with the cavalry charge. It was actually part of their ritual of attaining manhood. When deemed ready, a young man was formally presented with a lance and shield in the presence of his tribal assembly in what was regarded as the youth’s admission to the public life of his community. In times of war, one hundred of the ablest young men were selected from their villages to accompany the cavalry on foot. Some, having proved their courage and skill, might then become retainers or bodyguards of the clan or war chief,
and there is an eager rivalry between the retainers for the post of honour next to their chief, as well as between different chiefs for the honour of having the most numerous and most valiant bodyguard. Here lie dignity and strength. To be perpetually surrounded by a large train of picked young warriors is a distinction in peace and a protection in war.
The relationship between the retainer and retained was complex, based on a code of honour, reward and recognition:
Upon the field of battle the chief is bound in honour not to let himself be surpassed in valour, and his retainers are equally bound to rival the valour of their chief. Furthermore, for one of the retainers to come back alive from the field where his chief had fallen is from that day forward an infamy and a reproach during all the rest of his life. To defend him, to guard him, nay, to give him the glory of their own feats of valour, is the perfection of their loyalty. The chiefs fight for victory; the bodyguard for their chief.
The Germanic nations were admired by Roman authors for their free spirit and democratic form of self-rule. Chiefs were elected by a tribal assembly to administer the law in their communities and each leader had a council of one hundred free men to consult for advice and to enforce his decisions. For campaigns they elected a war leader. Caesar had observed “when a state either repels war waged against it or wages it against another, magistrates are chosen to preside over that war with such authority, that they have power of life and death”. After the war, they relinquished that power. “They choose their kings for their noble birth”, observes Tacitus,
their generals for their prowess: the king’s power is neither unlimited nor arbitrary, and the generals owe their authority less to their military rank than to their example and the admiration they excite by it, if they are dashing, if they are conspicuous, if they charge ahead of the line.
These were characteristics Drusus would have admired as they were the very same principles by which he led his own men.
Raiding was common practice among Germanic nations. In part this arose from the need to keep retainers fed and usefully employed as “forays and plunderings supply the means of keeping a free table”. Not for them tilling the land, but yet they could stand bloody wounds if it meant their status would rise on account of them. Germanic tribes tried to avoid a pitched battle. ‘Hit-and-run’ was the preferred tactic in battle, using ambushes to strike their enemy when they were least expecting and prepared for an attack. Only as a last resort, did they meet in a set piece battle, and having first carefully picked the ground, preferring wet or wooded or stony ground. The Germanic army on the battlefield is often portrayed as a rabble, a mêlée, but this is inaccurate. They assembled in columns and took up wedge formations, familiar to the Romans as the cuneus, a tactic they themselves used. Like the Romans, the men in the wedge formation interlocked or overlapped their shields to form a shield wall or ‘shield castle’. In 58 BCE, the Germanic king, Ariovistus, arrayed his men against Iulius Caesar by assembling the seven tribes under his command in columns of 300 men strong with spaces between them. The Romans attacked from the front and sides, and the Germanic left flank – their unprotected side – collapsed, but on their right flank – the side protected by their shields – Ariovistus’ men were able to deflect the Roman attack by pushing aggressively forward into Caesar’s ranks. They were only defeated when Roman reinforcements arrived.
Just as the warriors of Raetia, Vindelicia and Noricum did, Germanic warriors fired up their spirits by singing and chanting. The Germanic war fighters sang to Hercules according to Tacitus (who may have equated him to Thor or Irmin, son of Wuotan), and
they raise a hymn in his praise, as the pattern of all valiant men, as they approach the field of battle. They have also a kind of song which they chant to fire their courage – they call it barding (barritus) – and from this chant they draw an augury of the issue of the coming day. For they inspire terror in the foe, or become flurried themselves according to the sound that goes up from the host. It is not so much any articulate expression of words as a war-like chorus. Their great aim is to produce a hoarse and tempestuous roar, every man holding his shield before his mouth to increase the volume and depth of tone by reverberation.
Adding to the raucous noise, the men clashed their weapons rhythmically against their shields. Some might combine the menace of their barritus with an aggressive war dance to antagonise and strike fear in their opponent.
The strength of the formation lay in its composition. Men formed up next to their kith and kin – son, brother and father stood next to each other, their lives on the line. Their wives and children would often go along and cheer their menfolk from behind. “Each man”, writes Tacitus,
feels bound to play the hero before such witnesses and to earn their most coveted praise. To his mother and to his wife he brings his wounds; and they do not shrink from counting them, nor from searching for them, while they carry food to the fighters and give them encouragement.
If their husbands, fathers or brothers fell, their comrades and womenfolk would be there to carry the body home proudly on his shield.
Retreats and feigned flights were accepted battlefield tactics. Yet for a warrior to run and leave his shield behind was considered a shameful act and one that dishonoured him in the eyes of his entire community. The humiliating punishment was disbarment from religious rites and denial of participation in the tribal assembly, and fearing this rejection “many such survivors from the battlefield have been known to end their shame by hanging themselves”.
War fighters gathered under clan flags like the vexilla of the Roman army. Long horns or trumpets were played to relay basic commands. These were prized spoils and, along with captured spears and shields, were assembled by the victor into war trophies. An enemy warrior captured alive in battle by a Germanic tribe might expect to face a duel with the champion of the captive-taker’s tribe. The outcome of the combat was taken as a forecast of how the war would end.
When the attack commenced, trumpets blasted, and a hail of spears, darts and rocks was unleashed upon the enemy. Led from the front by their war chief, the wedge made up of interlocking shields would move forward in a menacing body of arms and men chanting their barritus. Some young men called beserkers, carrying shields and wielding spears or clubs, but otherwise naked and barefoot, might rush out screaming in a form of war madness and throw themselves upon the enemy. What lightly armed Germanic fighters lacked in equipment, they made up for in aggression, stealth and numbers, as Drusus and his invading army would now find out.
Early Germanic warriors either first century BC or AD. The Germans east of the Rhine had a fearsome reputation and constantly waged war on their Gallic neighbours. The Gauls who lived close to the German border were considered to be the most hardened of the Gallic peoples as a result.
Ambush at Arbalo
Drusus’ expeditionary army continued to progress through Cheruscan territory. The Cherusci, meanwhile, had been tracking the Romans from a distance. They had the tactical advantage, knowing where to hide and when to launch surprise attacks. Using stealth, concealment and deception, the Cherusci constantly assaulted Drusus’ troops with surprise hit-and-run attacks, but they proved ineffectual as Roman discipline held. However, at a place called Arbalo the Cherusci finally unleashed a major ambush that tested Roman resolve. Dio describes the place simply as “a narrow pass”, which is not much to go on in trying to identify the site today. Several attempts have been made and a consensus view has formed on the area around Hildesheim or Hameln.
Drusus’ army was at its most vulnerable on the march. It would have been in a defensive formation for marching in hostile country, but that still meant it was strung out over many kilometers with its impedimenta, the long baggage train, slowing down the pace. Once the bulk of Drusus’ men had entered the narrow pass, the Cherusci sprung their attack. They blocked both the Romans’ advance and their retreat. In this confined space Drusus and his army now found themselves trapped. It was the kind of battle Drusus did not want to fight. The Cherusci rained down their missiles – frameae, darts and slingshot – upon the cramped, snaking Roman lines. In marching order there was not much space between the men for them to deploy their weapons. Under the hail of missiles whistling through the air and unable to quickly deploy in their battle formations they were ‘sitting ducks’ at the mercy of their opponents. Each legionary carried not only his heavy arms and shield, which on the march was protected by a goat-skin cover, but he was weighed down by his personal gear and tools hanging from a pole over the left shoulder, which combined was not only heavy but swung awkwardly as he marched, especially over uneven ground. Tribunes and centurions screamed out orders to the rankers to drop their shoulder packs, to form defensive lines and hold their heavy covered shields up high. The baggage train was either drawn back into the line or abandoned, but inevitably the animals panicked and their handlers struggled to restrain them. Drusus’ men resisted fiercely as they took the shock of the Germanic charge, wielding their gladii as they tried to cut their way through the blockade at the front while fending off the onslaught from the sides. Under their helmets, sweat trickled down from their brows, stinging their eyes. Hands gripped tightly the inside of the bosses of heavy shields, which suddenly felt lighter as adrenaline surged through the legionaries’ veins. It was a terrible situation that Drusus and his men were now in. Germanic wooden clubs struck Roman iron armour. The cries of attackers met the groans of wounded men. The living tried to avoid treading on the bodies of the dead.
Despite their valiant efforts the legionaries and auxiliaries began to sag under the continuing assault in this unfavourable terrain, and to tire under the weight of their equipment and the physicality of their exertions. It may have been during this action that the two military tribunes, Chumstinctus and Avectius, both young Nervii from Gallia Belgica, distinguished themselves with acts of gallantry – though precisely what they did which merited mention by Livy has been lost.
Then, inexplicably the German attack appeared to waver and some of the warriors even seemed to withdraw. Up to that point the Cherusci had had the upper hand during the struggle. In Dio’s account they did not press home their advantage out of “a contempt for them, as if they were already captured and needed only the finishing stroke”. The Cheruscan leadership, perhaps among them Segimer himself, seemed to have decided that defeating an enemy in this manner was not honourable. The change of heart, however, also broke the resolve of the main body of Cheruscan warriors and those who continued the fight found themselves unsupported by their brothers now hesitating from a distance behind. It was an amazing stroke of good luck for the desperate Romans and exactly the chance Drusus needed. Urging his men on, Drusus broke through the Cheruscan blockade. Against the odds, the Romans escaped. The Cherusci had also lost their one opportunity to deliver a knockout blow – perhaps one that might have ended Roman ambitions for taking Germania. Cheruscan scorn or indecision perhaps more than superior Roman arms and tactics had saved the day for Drusus.
How could it have happened? It seems someone had not been paying adequate attention to the surroundings. Had the advance Roman scouts simply been duped or failed in their duty? Or had Drusus disregarded the intelligence in an example of overconfidence or overeagerness? The ancient sources do not say, and although Roman casualties are not known, yet clearly Drusus had come perilously close to losing his army altogether that day. Nevertheless Pliny the Elder characterised Arbalo as “a brilliant victory”. He ridiculed the men who had misinterpreted the swarm of bees. Arbalo was “a proof, indeed, that the conjectures of soothsayers are not by any means infallible, seeing that they are of opinion that this is always of evil augury”.
In the eyes of the common soldiery too 26-year old Drusus had brought them a great victory. He was a soldier’s soldier. He maintained the love and goodwill of his men who now showed it by spontaneously acclaiming him with their right arms raised and loudly shouting the salutation ‘imperator!’ – meaning simply ‘commander’. It was in the gift of the soldiers to acclaim their commander on the field of battle in this manner in a tradition extending over hundreds of years. The concept of imperator had originally been used in a religious context but became a military honour when Scipio Africanus was acclaimed by his soldiers for his victory in Hispania which he ascribed to a special relationship he had with the father of the gods, Iupiter. The use of the title was encouraged by Marius, Sulla, Caesar and Augustus. Believing Drusus the commander would lead his battered army back to the safety of the winter camps on the Rhine, his soldiers cheered heartily; but Drusus was not content to simply abandon his hard won gains. To retain his stake and probably to signal that he intended to return the next year, Drusus decided to post garrisons inside Germanic territory. One fortified stronghold was erected provocatively in Cheruscan territory “at the point where the Lupia and the Eliso unite”. The location of the site has been debated for over a 150 years. The Eliso may have been the Alme River, and where it intercepts the Lippe River today is modern day Paderborn, some 60 kilometres (37.2 miles) east of the Rhine. This tends to support a case for the fort being at Haltern laying 54 kilometres (33.5 miles) from the Rhine and located on the course of the Old Lippe River. The site has been extensively excavated and the first structure that can be identified was a marching camp roughly square in shape covering an area of 36 hectares, which is large enough for two legions. A V-shaped ditch and turf rampart surrounded the camp, but no permanent structures have been identified suggesting it was a temporary structure and probably unsuitable for occupation in winter. Close to the riverbank, a triangular enclosure was erected around a steep hill-top which commands a view of the valley. Called the Annaberg Fort it was likely a stores compound. It was built later than the marching camp and has been tentatively dated to Drusus’ campaign period.
The other prime contender for the site of Aliso is Bergkammen-Oberaden situated northeast of Dortmund, 70 kilometres (43.5 miles) east of Vetera. A Roman camp was identified here in 1905 and timber finds have been precisely dated using dendrochronology to the autumn of 11 BCE, which is therefore the earliest date work on the fortress began. Roughly heptagonal in shape (map 8), at 57 hectares (840 metres by 680 metres; 2,755.9 feet by 2,230.9 feet) the fortress was large enough to accommodate up to three legions and auxiliaries. Its planners chose a hill-top for the base and constructed a formidable 2.7 kilometre (1.7 mile) long wooden curtain wall around it with a 3 metre (9.8 feet) wide rampart behind and towers spaced out at 25 metre (82.0 feet) intervals. In front of it, a 5 metre (16.4 feet) wide, 3 metre (9.8 feet) deep ditch was dug but on the northern side, the ditch was wider and narrower at 6.5 metres (21.3 feet) by 2.5 metres (8.2 feet), and staked with 300 sticks sharpened at both ends, one of which has survived and is on display at the Westfälisches Römermuseum in Haltern am See. An estimated 25,000 trees were felled to provide the timber for this massive encampment. The finds from the site suggest the fortress was built to be occupied all year round and its inhabitants seemingly suffered no discomforts during their stay. The principia, which was the office of the legate and his administrative staff, was finished with painted plaster, pieces of which were uncovered during excavations with the imprint of the wicker wall panel still on the reverse side. Wells were dug within the enclosed area to provide fresh drinking water, one of which was found inside the courtyard of what may have been one of the tribune’s residences. The well was notable for the wooden slats that lined it to a depth of 5 metres (16.4 feet) and the remains of a 1.26 metre (4.1 feet) long ladder found in it. Latrines fed with water tanks have been identified within the ramparts and examinations of the organic matter reclaimed from them have revealed evidence of the inhabitants’ diet. Among the staples of wheat, lentils and millet were seeds from apples, raspberries, figs and olives, as well as hazelnuts, and astonishingly, peppercorns that had been imported from India. Drusus’ commissariat had thought of everything.
The second fort Drusus ordered was erected on territory belonging to the Chatti, the location of which has also been the subject of long debate, but none has yet been identified in Hessen and confidently dated to 11 BCE. Wherever these two forts actually were, contingents of the Roman army now remained in Germania. It was the first time in recorded history that Roman troops spent a winter on the right bank of the Rhine. For the men continuing on to the Rhine, the march remained dangerous and the ambuscades and hit and run attacks did not let up. By now the Sugambri had withdrawn from their war against the Chatti and had returned to their homesteads. As the Romans entered and passed through their territory the Germans harried the unwelcome intruders. They too could have delivered a crippling blow, but did not. Exhausted by their inconclusive war with their neighbours, they still had to prepare for the winter ahead. Drusus’ luck held up and his men finally reached the Rhine River and made it to the safety of their camps.
Drusus now returned to Lugdunum. There he would have met with his princeps praetorii and received a full briefing on the situation in the Tres Galliae. In particular Drusus would have been concerned with the results of the census and the mood of the population following the measures taken the previous year to douse cold water on the smouldering embers of rebellion. That there is no further mention in the Roman historians of discontent among the Gallic nations during this time suggests their mood was one of acceptance, even if it was grudging. In one important respect, Drusus was now seen to be doing something definitive that would benefit all Gaul: he was dealing with the Germanic menace. The reports flowing back from across the Rhine of his military successes over the Germanic tribes would have helped boost confidence among the Gallic people that security in the homelands would improve. The fact that Romans were actually encamped in Germania during the winter of 11/10 BCE provided tangible evidence of progress in the war.
The return to Lugdunum also provided Drusus with a long overdue opportunity to be with his family again. He was still very much in love with Antonia. Drusus’ sexual fidelity to his wife was highlighted by Valerius Maximus in his Memorable Sayings and Doings as an example of abstinence (abstinentia) and continence (continentia). His eldest son was now four years old while his daughter was two. But it was a short stay. With winter setting in, and travel becoming more difficult as the weather deteriorated, they could not stay long in the Gallic capital. In November just before his departure from Lugdunum and his arrival in Rome, or somewhere in between, their next child was conceived.
On arriving in Rome, Drusus faced a full agenda. Augustus required a complete update on the second year of the war in Germania. With Agrippa dead Augustus now relied completely on Drusus and his brother to execute his military operations. While he was generally pleased with progress, however, he did not allow Drusus to accept the title of imperator that the men of the legions had bestowed upon him on the battlefield. As the acclaimed commander was entitled to add the honour after his name, perhaps Augustus felt this form of recognition was too high a profile for the young man so early in his career; or he may have preferred that he be the one to decide the moment when to grant use of the title. Neither was it the first time a commander had been blocked from accepting the title: in 29 BCE Crassus, proconsul of Macedonia, was granted a triumph, but Augustus alone took the salutation as imperator. In a repeat of this episode, Augustus took this latest acclamation again for himself to bolster his own military prestige and, just as eighteen years before, Augustus granted Drusus instead an ovatio, a lower grade of triumph in which he was permitted to ride on horseback through the city of Rome. This was tantamount to saying to Drusus that he still had work to do to earn a full triumph, but the ovatio would in the meantime give him deserved public recognition. If and when the ovation took place is not recorded. Nevertheless, Nero Claudius Drusus’ currency was rising.
Meanwhile, Tiberius had successfully subdued the rebellions in Illyricum and Pannonia. With peace breaking out across the world, it seemed an appropropriate time to shut the doors of the Temple of Ianus Geminus, an act only carried out when Roman arms were laid to rest. The last year it had happened, and that for only the third time in Roman history in fact, was after Actium when Augustus invoked the ancient ceremony on 11 January 29 BCE. The senate willingly voted and approved the motion. However, it was not to be. The pax Romana was not so easily won. The Dacians invaded Pannonia and the Illyrians rose up again in protest against the tribute imposed on them. Yet again, Augustus looked to Tiberius to fix the problem and he would spend the following year quelling them.
While in Rome, Drusus’ mother-in-law unexpectedly died. Octavia was 60, a respectably old age by Roman standards. Her body was laid in state with a curtain over her corpse at the Temple of Iulius in the Forum Romanum. Drusus gave the funeral oration from the rostrum just in front of the senate house on behalf of the family. He and his brother were pallbearers during the public funeral. Significantly Augustus did not agree to allow all the honours the senate voted her. Refusing honours as much as accepting them was one of the ways Augustus carefully managed the public image and reputation of his family in the eyes of the senate and Roman people.
For reasons good and bad, it had been a landmark year. Yet Drusus’ mind was on matters far from Rome. Perhaps inspired by the consuls of old or the lure of military glory, Drusus was intent on leaving the city at the earliest opportunity to continue the war.
He returned to Lugdunum in the spring of 10 BCE. The Tres Galliae continued to function as expected and there were no reports of unrest. His legates, meantime, had wasted no time in Germania. The Lippe River was now being lined with forts and logistics depots to relay supplies along the river delivered from Vetera. Work on Oberaden continued. A new supply depot to support the fortress was established a few kilometers downstream at Beckinghausen. Discovered in 1911 on a steep slope falling towards the river, it was subsequently excavated and an oval shaped encampment was uncovered measuring 185 meters (606.9 feet) by 88 metres (288.7 feet), encompassing an area of approximately 1.56 hectares, although the landing place for loading and unloading rivercraft has yet to be found. The main campaign this year would not, however, be driven along the Lippe River. Drusus now shifted the tactical thrust into Germania from a base further up the Rhine. A few weeks later he arrived with his entourage in Mogontiacum eager to launch an offensive to the Elbe via the River Main (Moenus or Menus). There were two legions at the camp, XIV Gemina and XVI Gallica. They may have been joined by vexillations of other legions from Fectio, Oppidum Ubiorum, Novaesium and Vetera. Detachments of these already made up at least two garrisons inside Germania. They would have been under orders to engage in simultaneous operations to drive deeper thrusts of their own into the territories building on the previous two campaign seasons; and to consolidate their gains with the construction of new forts, watch towers and roads. A skeleton crew would also have to be left at Mogontiacum (and the other Rhine fortresses) to guard it and manage the supply chain of provisions going to the front. Thus in practice the force for the new invasion along the Main River might have numbered as few as 10,000 men plus cohorts of auxiliaries.
A new fort may have been established at Frankfurt-am-Main-Höchst at the confluence of the Nidda and Main Rivers. As in the previous campaigns, Drusus used rivers to ferry much of the supplies his invading force needed by boat. The Main River is 524 kilometres (325.6 miles) long and a major tributary of the Rhine, with its source near Kulmbach, which is in turn fed by two minor tributaries the Red Main and White Main. The invasion plan was conceived with the usual Roman attention to detail, and logistics in particular. A supply depot was established at Rödgen near Bad Nauheim on the east bank of the Wetter River close by its source, about 60 kilometres (37.3 miles) east of the Rhine. It was polygonal in shape with a double ditch, 3 metres (9.8 feet) deep and wood-and-earth rampart structure 3 metres (9.8 feet) high and 3 metres (9.8 feet) wide at the base, enclosing an area of 3.3 hectares. Archaeologists found that the gateway, flanked by substantial towers, was wide enough for two wagons to pass through. These would have delivered corn and fresh produce brought up from Mogontiacum for storage in the warehouses and granaries inside the compound. There was also a well-equipped workshop. In the centre of the fortified camp was a principia, praetorium and barrack blocks sufficient for about 1,000 men but the size of the storage capacity meant it would feed many more mouths than its garrison. The nearby fort at Friedburg may have been connected with it.
The invasion route took them headlong into conflict with the Chatti who were a strong opponent. Unlike the previous campaign season, they had finally formed an alliance with the Sugambri and combined forces, having abandoned their own country, which the Romans had apparently given them. The Chatti were tough fighters and the ensuing conflict with the Romans was bloody and brutal. On the far northeastern edge of Chatti territory the Roman army established a major summer camp at Hedemünden near modern Göttingen, some 240 kilometres (149.1 miles) northest of Mogontiacum. Military surveyors laid out a narrow oval fortress taking full advantage of the Burgberg, a hill overlooking a bend on the Werra River, which is a tributary of the Weser. The defensive enclosure measured 320 metres (1,049.9 feet) long by 150 metres (492.1 feet) wide encompassing an area of 3.215 hectares. The 760 metre (2,493.4 feet) long circuit of wall measuring 5–6 metres (16.4–19.7 feet) at the base with a ditch outside was pierced by one gateway on each of the west and south sides, two on the east side with a curved but ungated northern end on the crest of the hill. There was an adjoining annex, also surrounded by a protective wall and ditch, which swept down to the riverside and may have been used for animals and supplies. The site, which has been partly excavated, has already produced over 1,500 iron objects carried by Roman troops, including exceptionally well preserved dolabra and pugiones, flat bladed spear points, the bent metal shank of a pilum, pyramid-shaped catapult bolts, nails, chain, hooks and even tent pegs with rings for tying the leather straps to. More personal items were also found such as iron hobnails – 600 in all – from caligae and a bronze phallic good luck charm. That the Romans were in the area on active campaign and taking prisoners is attested by an exquisitely nasty set of iron fetters. Shaped like the letter P the loop fitted around the neck and the hands were locked in two cuffs attached to the shaft. The short length of the shaft meant the captive wearer had to keep his arms up high across his chest – where they could be clearly seen by the guards – to avoid discomfort to the neck.
Anticipating his people might suffer a similar fate, one tribal leader took proactive steps to avoid conflict with the invaders. That year an enterprising noble from the Marcomanni nation named Marboduus or Marabodus, who was educated at Rome and once enjoyed Augustus’ patronage, returned to his people – or perhaps was taken there under Roman escort – and became their leader. He took back with him ideas about how the Marcomanni might introduce Roman-style law, government and military science. He had come to know the Romans well and understood what motivated them. Rather than challenge Rome or be subjugated by her, Marboduus decided upon a radical strategy. In a remarkable move, he convinced his tribe to relocate far from Roman temptation. Joining his people on the migration to a new homeland in Bohemia (Bohaemium) were the Lugii, Zumi, Butones (or Gutones), Mugilones and Sibini nations, a combined force of some 70,000 men on foot and 4,000 horse.
For those standing in Drusus’ path, the choice was ally with him or be prepared to fight. While the invading Roman army continued to attack and defeat any opposition as it progressed through the country, Drusus engaged in dazzling displays of single combat.
Spoils of War
Waging war was a central defining characteristic of Roman culture. There was prestige and profit to be had in a successful campaign and to advance in politics meant showing courage and ability on the battlefield. Fifty-three years earlier Cicero had exhorted
preëminence in military skill excels all other virtues. It is this which has procured its name for the glory of the Roman people; it is this which has procured eternal glory for this city; it is this which has compelled the whole world to submit to our dominion; all domestic affairs, all these illustrious pursuits of ours, and our forensic renown, and our industry, are safe under the protection of military valour. The highest dignity is in those men who excel in military glory.
One way a commander could prove his worth was to engage his opponent in face-to-face combat, defeat him and strip his body bare of its arms, armour and personal effects. These rich spoils were called the spolia opima. They were then hung decoratively from an oak tree trunk as a trophy (tropaea) and the victor brought the display back to Rome and presented it as victor to the shrine of Iupiter Feretrius on the Capitoline Hill. Their exalted place in the Roman psyche was due to their extreme rarity. Legend had it that the first spoils were taken by Romulus from Acro, king of the Caeninenses in 752 BCE following the incident in which the Sabine women were raped. The second spolia were those of Lars Tolumnius, king of the Veientes, taken by A. Cornelius Crossus. The decaying linen cuirass and accompanying inscription were still in existence in Augustus’ time and they actually came to light during the renovation of the temple of Iupiter Feretrius at the request of the princeps.
The last recorded Roman commander to be recognised for wrenching the spoils from his fallen adversary was M. Claudius Marcellus (c.268–208 BCE). He was a distant relative of Drusus and as a child he would have heard the thrilling story, which is preserved by Plutarch, of how he captured them in 222 BCE. Day and night, the story went, Marcellus pursued the Gaesatae, a Gallic tribe, which had invaded the Lombardy region of northern Italy to assist their allies, the Insubres. He finally intercepted 10,000 of them at Clastidium. Unfortunately, Marcellus had with him just 600 lightly armed troops, as well as a contingent of heavy infantry and some cavalry. Viridomarus, king of the Insubres, thinking that his side had the advantage of greater numbers and proven skill in horsemanship, set out to squash the Roman invader without delay. The Gauls were now heading en masse at speed towards Marcellus’ forces. Fearing he would be overwhelmed, the consul deployed his men into longer, thinner lines with the cavalry placed at the wings. His own horse, however, was terrified by the ululations of the advancing Gauls and turned tail, carrying Marcellus back in the direction of the Roman lines. This did not look at all good in front of his own men, so thinking quickly on his feet, he made as if he was praying to the gods and promised to Iupiter Feretrius the choicest of the Gallic king’s weapons and armour. Meanwhile, Viridomarus standing in his war chariot and wearing his striped trousers had spotted Marcellus by the splendour of his kit and charged out to slay him. Seeing the gleaming silver and gold of the Gaul’s armour and the elaborate coloured fabrics of his tunic and cloak, and recalling his vow to the Roman god, Marcellus now charged atViridomarus.The adversaries raced closer and closer together. Marcellus saw an opportunity but he had to act quickly. With all his might, he hurled his spear. The slender iron tipped weapon sliced through the sky and found its prey. The blade pierced the Gallic king’s cuirass and the force of the impact thrust him off his chariot and crashing to the ground. Marcellus charged up on his steed and dismounted. With two or three stabs, Marcellus dispatched the man.145 He hacked off the dead man’s head, removed the torc from his severed neck in the manner of the Celts, and stripped the dead man of his splendid gear. Lifting them skywards Marcellus proclaimed,
“O Iupiter Feretrius, who observest the deeds of great warriors and generals in battle, I now call thee to witness, that I am the third Roman consul and general who have, with my own hands slain a general and a king! To thee I consecrate the most excellent spoils. Do thou grant us equal success in the prosecution of this war”.
The Roman cavalry then charged the Gallic horse and infantry and won a great victory, made all the more so on account of the small number of Marcellus’ force and the greater odds it faced. The Gaesatae withdrew and surrendered Mediolanum (Milan) and other cities under their control and sued for terms. The senate awarded Marcellus a triumph in which the spoils were prominently displayed to cheers from the spectators. The sight of Marcellus carrying the trophy adorned with Viridomarus’ spectacular armour to the temple of Iupiter Feretrius was “the most agreeable and most uncommon spectacle”, writes Plutarch. Some 175 years later a descendant of Marcellus who was a tresvir monetalis used his position to commemorate the event on a special denarius.
There was another ancestor on Drusus’ mother’s side whose story probably inspired the young commander to uncommon acts of bravery on the battlefield. That was the story of how his family acquired its cognomen Drusus. One of his ancestors had dueled a Gallic chieftain named Drausus and by killing him “procured for himself and his posterity” the name.
These tales of heroism and glorious deeds evidently left a deep impression on the young Claudian. The German War provided Drusus with numerous opportunites to win his own rich spoils. Suetonius remarks that he was eager for glory and “frequently marked out the German chiefs in the midst of their army, and encountered them in single combat, at the utmost hazard of his life”. Drusus may have been successful in his quest, “for besides his victories”, writes the biographer of the Caesars, “he gained from the enemy the spolia opima”. If indeed Drusus was successful – when and against which opponent is not recorded in the surviving accounts – this was an extraordinary honour. The last person to claim the honour was M. Licinius Crassus (the grandson of the triumvir) who had defeated an opponent in Macedonia in 29 BCE. His achievement was downplayed, however. Politics got in the way of him collecting his trophy. The honour was deemed too distracting to Octavianus’ efforts to consolidate his political power. Crassus was denied his eternal glory and fobbed off with a triumph. By the time Drusus had taken the rich spoils from his Germanic enemy Augustus’ power base was more solid and he could afford to allow his young stepson the public recognition. Indeed, it would have been first rate propaganda for here was a member of his own household who had achieved what only three other illustrious men had in the entire course of Roman history.
While Drusus was fighting in Germania, his brother was into the second year of a bitter campaign in Illyricum and Pannonia.157 It was not a war of conquest, for that had already been undertaken several years before, but the less glamorous burden of suppressing a rebellion. In 10 BCE Tiberius had yet to celebrate his first official triumph. Was Tiberius jealous of his younger brother’s high profile successes across the Rhine? Was Tiberius suspicious that his brother had become Augustus’ favourite? There is certainly a suggestion in the Latin literature of sibling rivalry and deeper resentments. Suetonius uses the word odium, ‘hatred’, to describe Tiberius’ feelings towards his younger brother at an undisclosed time in their relationship. As the only evidence for it he cites that Drusus had written a letter (epistula) to his elder brother in which he proposed they strongly urge Augustus to resign and for him to restore the institutions of the res publica. Tiberius “produced the letter”, presumably handing it over to Augustus himself. The consequences of this alleged action are not recorded, but Drusus’ preference for the old form of government was apparently well known, so it is hard to see how this could be damaging to him – unless it was this letter that revealed his true feelings and it was the first time Augustus learned of them. The letter does, however, strongly suggest that Drusus would have been opposed to a hereditary succession – including his own.
It was now summer and Drusus had to leave the campaign in the capable hands of his legates. There was a matter of provincial importance that required his return to Lugdunum. On 1 August the concilium Galliarum was to gather at the pagus Condate for the official opening of the sanctuary. The date chosen for the inauguration was significant on several counts. For the Gallic nations on this day they celebrated the start of the Lughnasa, the festival of Lug, the god of war and craft who had come to be associated with the Roman Mercurius. For the Romans, 1 August was the “natal day” of the temples of Victoria and Victoria Virgo on the Palatine Hill and on this day, Augustus had taken Alexandria from Kleopatra in 30 BCE and Drusus had taken the oppidum of the Genauni fifteen years later.
The sanctuary complex commissioned by Drusus was a spectacular expression in stone, marble and gilt bronze of the burgeoning ‘theology of victory’ that legitimized Augustus’ vision for an expansionistic Roman commonwealth and of the place of Tres Galliae in it. The creation of a cult centre shared between three provinces was unprecedented anywhere in the Empire but relates back to the reorganization of the Tres Galliae under Augustus between 16–13 BCE and the need to create a common bond between its diverse civitates. It was appropriately grand. Visitors to the complex crossed from Lugdunum via a bridge over the Saône River. They first saw the amphitheatre, which dominated their field of view. An elaborate wooden one- or two-storey superstructure supported rows of seats for some 1,800 spectators who sat around an oval-shaped sand-covered arena measuring 67.6 metres (221.8 feet) by 42 metres (137.8 feet).