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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Security of Supply Lines

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

Security of Waterborne Transport

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

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

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

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

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

Security of Overland Supply

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Military Strength and Weakness of the Imperial Roman Army




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roman Auxilia


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



Batavian auxiliary cavalry – Pablo Outeiral


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Cassius Dio ‘ The History of Rome’.

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

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

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

Cornelius Tacitus ‘The Annals of Imperial Rome’..

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

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

Tacitus ‘Agricola’ 18.4

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

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

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

Vegetius, Epitoma rei militaris 3.7

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

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

(Dio Cassius Liber LXIX 9.6)

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

CIL 03, 03676 (AE 1958, 0151).

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

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

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

Septimia Zenobia and Emperor Gallienus


Zenobia of Palmyra, 273 AD – Women War Queens by Gambargin


Palmyra at its greatest extent in 271 AD.


King Odenathus • Queen Zenobia • Palmyrene guardsman, Angus McBride


Arab-Palmyrene soldier, 3rd C. AD, Hatrene clibanarius, 2nd C. AD, Palmyrene soldier, Dura Europos, 3rd C. AD, Angus McBride

The whole of Emperor Gallienus’s reign played out as a series of attempts to keep control of imperial territory and bind it together in the face of repeated challenges and no certain loyalty anywhere. In 261, the Syrian proclamation of Macrianus, initially a response to the campaigns of Shapur, became more dangerous, as the two Macriani crossed from Asia Minor into Europe, seeking to establish the dynasty at Rome in the usual way. Aureolus, already victorious over Ingenuus and Regalianus, now defeated the Macriani and put them to death. It was lucky for Gallienus – and in light of recent history somewhat surprising – that Aureolus’s consistent successes did not prompt him into his own revolt. But nor was he sent east to deal with Quietus and Callistus. Instead, Gallienus entered an alliance with Odaenathus of Palmyra, granting him the title corrector totius orientis, on the model of the command that Julius Priscus had held under Philip in the same region. The reliance on such supra-provincial commanders, outranking any provincial governor, is a further sign of the breakdown of the old governing system, but it was a logical response to persistent instability. Odaenathus at once marched on Emesa, where the soldiery mutinied and killed Quietus and Callistus without taking the field against the Palmyrene.

This was the first act with which Odaenathus proved himself a powerful and reliable ally to the central emperor. He accepted Gallienus’s provincial appointees without demur, but he was also, to all intents and purposes, the independent ruler of an eastern Roman empire. In the west, in the same year 261 that saw the suppression of the Macriani, Postumus achieved the major success of bringing Spain and Britain under his control. Postumus’s emperorship is an interesting phenomenon, one that bears no relationship to the symbolic subordination but de facto hegemony of the Palmyrene leader in the east. Postumus, after all, claimed the imperial title. His full titulature was Imperator Caesar M. Cassianius Latinius Postumus, pius felix invictus Augustus, pontifex maximus, pater patriae, proconsul.

Postumus had declared himself consul at his accession in 260 and he entered a second consulate in 261, the year that all the provinces west of Italy recognised him not as a legitimate emperor, but as the legitimate emperor, a sole legitimacy which his titulature also asserted. His was a usurpation like any other, but with one major difference – successful usurpers, like the Macriani for a time, understood that the rules of the game were to secure one’s rear and then march on the reigning emperor in order to defeat him, because there could only be one emperor at a time. In the face of such a putsch, the reigning emperor was obliged to eliminate the challenge, and would inevitably make that a priority over any other threat he might face – or so it had invariably played out in the past. Postumus, uniquely in Roman history, neither attacked the Italian territories of Gallienus nor sought to legitimise his position as his co-emperor, in the way that Clodius Albinus and Septimius Severus had in the 190s and would become normal practice in the fourth century. Rather, he contented himself with ruling the provinces that had declared for him in 260 and 261, safe behind the Alps, Vosges and Schwarzwald. Gallienus was constrained to regard him as an enemy and an existential challenge simply because of his imperial claim, but he did so without any active provocation from Postumus.

As a result, it is normal to talk of a separate ‘Gallic empire’ created by Postumus and sustained under several successors until suppressed in the 270s by Aurelian. There are problems with that view, however, inasmuch as it implies a sense of separatism – the German term for the regime, the gallisches Sonderreich (‘Gallic splinter empire’), makes the point even more clearly. But evidence for separatism is hard to find. In ideological terms, Postumus and his successors at Colonia Agrippina ignored the existence of Gallienus as an imperial rival, and refused to follow the political script and pursue his defeat and destruction, but by the same token they never claimed to be anything other than Roman emperors. They simply didn’t bother to try to control Rome. The de facto result was two imperial polities in Europe, both of which regarded themselves as the Roman empire. Only one, however, viewed the other as an existential challenge, and thus Gallienus would make several attempts to eliminate the Gallic emperor in the next years of his reign.

The most significant of these was in 265. Gallienus had by that point settled matters in the Balkans to his satisfaction, touring Achaea and holding the archonship of Athens in 264, and also acknowledging the heroism of the local population in resisting the Scythian invasion of two years earlier. That done, he was able to concentrate his manpower on challenging Postumus. He personally commanded the army that crossed the Alps and won a victory over Postumus, who fled to an unknown city where his rival besieged him. During the siege, Gallienus was wounded by the defenders and called off the attack. Postumus’s regime was granted a long reprieve but, as a result of the campaign, the Spanish governors returned their allegiance to Gallienus. The year 266 is almost undocumented, but events in the east took a surprising turn in the autumn of 267, when Odaenathus, on campaign northwards to Heracleia Pontica, was murdered, possibly at Emesa. His son Herodianus, whom he had raised to co-rulership, was likewise killed. The motives and identities of their murderers are impossible to sort out from the confused sources, but it was clearly a family affair of some bitterness. The immediate beneficiary of the murders was Odaenathus’s widow, Zenobia, who was the mother of several of his children, but not the older and favoured Herodian. Under the nominal rule of her son Vaballathus, Zenobia launched a conquest of the Roman east that went beyond the classic model of usurpation, not least in its success.

That took a couple of years to prepare, and we must be careful not to romanticise what is obviously an almost unique regime. Zenobia was born Julia Aurelia Zenobia, or Bath-Zabbai in the Syriac, to the Palmyrene nobleman Julius Aurelius Zenobius. She had built up a strong power base during the lifetime of her husband, but was no doubt displeased at the pre-eminence given Herodian, the offspring of a previous marriage, over her own sons, Septimius Hairanes and Septimius Vaballathus. With Odaenathus’s death, the 7-year-old Vaballathus was given his father’s titles of rex regum (the Latin for shahanshah, ‘king of kings’) and corrector totius Orientis, but there is no evidence that Gallienus accepted this succession from competent and loyal father to pre-adolescent boy. Zenobia, for her part, began to call herself Septimia Zenobia and queen. Her regime was much aided by the disarray of Shapur’s late reign, when he faced disputes among his own heirs and a chaotic new situation on his eastern frontiers which we will look at later in this chapter. As a result, however, Shapur was unable to capitalise on the disruption in Syria as he would certainly once have done, and Zenobia’s hands were almost entirely free.

We cannot know what Gallienus’s response to these eastern events might have been, for he never got the chance to make one. In 268, the Balkans descended into violence once again, with a ‘Scythian’ invasion (this time the invaders are named as Heruli, a group well known in later history), again by ship, into Asia Minor and peninsular Greece. At the same time, Gallienus’s great marshal Aureolus revolted, clearly on his own behalf, though claiming to be doing so as an ally of Postumus and striking coins in the latter’s name at Mediolanum. It may be that Aureolus was at the time commanding a field army in preparation for another Balkan or Gallic campaign. Mediolanum would long be a centre from which to launch such ventures, commanding as it did all the key roads through the North Italian plain. Aureolus did not move swiftly enough to meet Gallienus in battle and found himself besieged in the city. What happened next is poorly documented and the sources give conflicting versions of how Gallienus came to be murdered while conducting the siege. Between them, the different accounts manage to blame almost every one of the prime movers of the next few years of imperial history: Gallienus’s praetorian prefect Aurelius Heraclianus; the generals Marcianus, Marcus Aurelius Claudius and Aurelius Aurelianus; and a regimental commander called Cecropius, otherwise unknown. Practically the only great marshal of Gallienus’s not named in one story or another is Marcus Aurelius Probus. One version has them being tricked into conspiracy by Aureolus; another has Gallienus being tricked into exposing himself to danger by Herodianus; others strive to exculpate one or another of the key players. There is no way to sort claim from counterclaim, no argument can be probative one way or another and, as with the murder of Odaenathus, we can either admit ignorance or let the question of cui bono guide our choice. If we do that, then regardless of who orchestrated the actual murder, the chief plotter will have been Claudius, because after Gallienus’s death, the army acclaimed him emperor at the gates of Mediolanum.

Aureolus died in battle shortly afterwards, and the successful Claudius made a show of honouring his predecessor, sending his body back to Rome and interring it in the family’s mausoleum on the Appian Way. He also prevailed upon the senate to have Gallienus deified. Before going to Rome himself, however, he marched north and won a victory at Lake Garda, in northern Italy, against some Alamanni who had launched an opportunistic invasion when the renewed Roman civil war offered them the chance. Claudius probably spent the winter of 268–9 in Rome, where he entered his first consulship in the company of a long-time senatorial supporter of Gallienus, Aspasius Paternus: whether from conviction or necessity, some of Rome’s senatorial grandees were content to make their peace with this new regime of the marshals.

For Claudius, there was no question but that the year 269 would bring heavy fighting. His only choice was whether to favour an internal or an external foe. The Balkans were still being devastated, whether by the Herulian raiders of the previous year or by further incursions from across the Danube – instability at the centre always encouraged such activity at the frontiers, and we also happen to learn that there was a substantial nomadic attack on the African province of Cyrenaica at just this time. Athens, too, was sacked some time in this year, perhaps in the springtime. Claudius sent his fellow general Julius Placidianus to invade southern Gaul, assigning him some sort of extraordinary command. Claudius himself set out for the Balkans, while his fellow conspirator Heraclianus went east, perhaps to deal with Zenobia. Although the sources do not say so explicitly, we should discern in all this activity the work of a military junta determined to confront the multiple threats that faced it: in a coordinated strategy, three of Gallienus’s marshals, who had in all likelihood shared in plotting his death, now each took charge of one of the three fronts with which Gallienus had been unable to deal. Outcomes, however, did not meet expectations.

Placidianus faced a confusing situation in Gaul, where one of Postumus’s officials, Ulpius Cornelianus Laelianus, had rebelled, taking the imperial title for himself at Moguntiacum in Germania Superior. Postumus rapidly defeated Laelianus, but when he prevented his troops from sacking the city, he immediately faced a mutiny. His own troops murdered Postumus and declared one Marcus Aurelius Marius emperor in his place. Marius was in turn attacked and killed by Postumus’s praetorian prefect, Marcus Piavonius Victorinus – probably a Gallic nobleman, to judge by his name. Victorinus had shared the consulship of 268 with Postumus and he now managed to hold things together longer than had his very short-lived predecessors. The invasion of Claudius’s colleague Pacatianus advanced as far as the village of Cularo (later the fourth-century town of Gratianopolis, thus modern Grenoble), but no further. Perhaps inspired by the tide of the Claudian advance, the city of Augustodunum (Autun) revolted against Victorinus but, without support from Pacatianus, it was besieged and sacked by Victorinus and this once-prosperous Gallic town lost much of its importance thereafter. Despite these losses, Victorinus was able to enter a second consulship undisturbed in 270.

Meanwhile, at Naissus in the Balkans, Claudius won a dramatic victory over the Scythians that earned him the title Gothicus maximus, joining the Germanicus maximus that he had taken the year before to celebrate his victory over the Alamanni. We do not know where in the Balkans Claudius wintered in 269–70, but the next year opened with moppingup operations against the Scythians whom we can now for convenience begin to call Goths – the victory title Gothicus demonstrates that this is how the Romans were beginning to identify the people they were fighting beyond the lower Danube.

In the east, Zenobia reacted violently to the arrival of Heraclianus. She had been claiming the title corrector totius Orientis for Vaballathus ever since the death of Odaenathus, as if it were a hereditary designation. She now began to mint coins in the name of Vaballathus, an act that could only be construed as rebellion, usurpation and treason. An obscure legend on coins may suggest that Vaballathus began to be styled vir consularis [or clarissimus], rex, imperator (et) dux Romanorum. If so, it was almost a claim to the imperial throne, but just enough short to be deniable – every title in the formulation could be explained in a relatively innocent way. What could not be explained away was the invasion of Arabia and Egypt, which Zenobia’s army, under the command of one Zabdas, undertook in 270. The prefect of Egypt, Tenagino Probus, was defeated and killed defending his province against this invasion. Zenobia appointed his deputy prefect, Julius Marcellinus, as his successor, and Egypt now fell under Palmyrene hegemony for nearly half a decade.

Heraclianus proved powerless to dent Palmyrene control over the core territories in Syria and Arabia, and Zenobia’s supporters felt emboldened to push into Anatolia. Meanwhile, in the Balkans, Claudius’s recent victory over the Goths could not save his army from devastation by a more formidable enemy: plague broke out among the soldiers during the winter months, carrying off many of them – and then the emperor himself. There is a certain poignancy in the fact that the only emperor in decades not to die by the sword should have reigned so very briefly. But death saved his reputation – when the fourth century remembered the dark years before Diocletian and Constantine, Claudius was the only emperor to be well regarded by every different historical tradition, so much so that it could seem worth fabricating a fictional descent from him. Not since Severus and Caracalla had there been an emperor whose memory held that much credit.

Catalaunian Fields


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






LEGIO Comitatenses, GALLIA, 451 A. D. The Ursarienses were a Statutory [Standing Army] Comitatenses (ie belonging to the mobile army, the comitatus) of the late empire, this man is from Legio III Italica according to Notitia dignitatum, under the command of the Magister equitum infra Gallias. The legionaries were protected by cuirabolli curiass, wore tunics decorated with orbicoli and clavi, and were equipped with round or oval shield. The new helmet of Persiano-derivation [Sassanid] was one of many variations of this late period.

In spring 451, Attila’s massive army surged westwards out of the Middle Danube, probably following the route taken by the Rhine invaders of 406. ‘It is said’ that the army consisted of a staggering half-million men, reported Jordanes, in his choice of words revealing that for once even he didn’t believe the figure; but there is no doubting the huge size of the force, or that Attila was drawing on the full resources of the Hunnic war machine. As Sidonius Apollinaris, a more or less contemporary Gallic poet, put it:

Suddenly the barbarian world, rent by a mighty upheaval, poured the whole north into Gaul. After the warlike Rugian comes the fierce Gepid, with the Gelonian close by; the Burgundian urges on the Scirian; forward rush the Hun, the Bellonotian, the Neurian, the Bastarnian, the Thuringian, the Bructeran, and the Frank.

Sidonius was writing metred poetry, and required names of the right length and stress to make it work. What he gives us here is an interesting mixture of ancient groups who had nothing to do with the Hunnic Empire (Gelonian, Bellonotian, Neurian, Bastarnian, Brauteran) and real subjects of Attila (Rugian, Gepid, Burgundian, Scirian, Thuringian and Frank), not to mention, of course, the Huns themselves. But, in essence, Sidonius was spot on. And we know from other sources that large numbers of Goths were also present.

No surviving source describes the campaign in detail, but we know roughly what happened. Having followed the Upper Danube northwestwards out of the Great Hungarian Plain, the horde crossed the Rhine in the region of Coblenz and continued west. According to some admittedly fairly dubious sources, the city of Metz fell on 7 April, shortly followed by the old imperial capital of Trier. The army then thrust into the heart of Roman Gaul. By June, it was outside the city of Orleans, where a considerable force of Alans in Roman service had their headquarters. The city was placed under heavy siege; there are hints that Attila was hoping to lure Sangibanus, king of some of the Alans based in the city, over to his side. At the same time, according to another pretty dubious source, elements of the army had also reached the gates of Paris, where they were driven back by the miraculous intervention of the city’s patron Saint Genevieve. It looks as if the Hunnic army was swarming far and wide over Roman Gaul, looting and ransacking as it went.

Aetius was still generalissimo of the west, and as we know from Merobaudes’ second panegyric, he had been anticipating the possibility of a Hunnic assault on the west from at least 443. When it finally materialized, nearly a decade later, he sprang into action. Faced with this enormous threat, he strove to put together a coalition of forces that would stand some chance of success. Early summer 451 saw him advancing north through Gaul with contingents of the Roman armies of Italy and Gaul, plus forces from many allied groups, such as the Burgundians and the Aquitainian Visigoths under their king Theoderic. On 14 June, the approach of this motley force compelled Attila’s withdrawal from Orleans. Later in the same month, Aetius’ men caught up with the retreating horde somewhere in the vicinity of Troyes, another 150 kilometres or so to the east.

On a plain called by different sources the Catalaunian fields or campus Mauriacus, which has never been conclusively identified, a huge battle took place:

The battlefield was a plain rising by a sharp slope to a ridge, which both armies sought to gain . . . The Huns with their forces seized the right side, the Romans, the Visigoths and their allies the left . . . The battleline of the Huns was so arranged that Attila and his bravest followers were in the centre . . . The innumerable peoples of diverse tribes, which he had subjected to his sway, formed the wings.

The Romans and Visigoths reached the ridge first and thwarted every attempt to dislodge them – so our main source tells us, but then lapses into rhetoric (though pretty good rhetoric it is):

The fight grew fierce, confused, monstrous, unrelenting – a fight whose like no ancient time has ever recorded . . . A brook flowing between low banks . . . was swollen by a strange stream and turned into a torrent by the flow of blood. Those whose wounds drove them to slake their parching thirst drank water mingled with gore.

Theoderic was killed in the fighting, either struck by a spear or trampled to death when he fell from his horse, but the accounts of his death are confusing. Again according to our main source, a total of 165,000 men died, but this figure is nonsense. At the end of the day’s fighting, Attila was distraught. Forced back inside a defensive wagon circle, for the first time ever his army had suffered a major defeat. His initial reaction was to heap up saddles to make his own funeral pyre. But his lieutenants persuaded him that the battle was only a tactical check, and he relented. A stalemate followed, with the two armies facing each other, until the Huns began slowly to retreat. Aetius didn’t press them too hard, and disbanded his coalition of forces as quickly as possible – a task made much easier by the fact that the Visigoths were keen to return to Toulouse to sort out the succession to their dead king. Attila consented to his army’s continued withdrawal and, tails between their legs, the Huns returned to Hungary. Although the cost to the Roman communities in the Huns’ line of march was enormous, Attila’s first assault on the west had been repulsed. Yet again, Aetius had delivered at the moment of crisis. Despite the limited resources available, he had put together a coalition that had saved Gaul.

In his wrath, the Hun spent the winter of 451/2 limbering up for yet more violence. This time the blow fell on Italy. In the spring of 452, his force broke through the Alpine passes. The first obstacle in their path was Aquileia. Here they were held up by the city’s massive defences – Attila even contemplated calling off the whole campaign. On the point of bringing their long and frustrating siege to a halt, he saw a stork shipping its young out of the nest that it had built in one of the city’s towers, carrying one by one those that couldn’t yet fly. Seeing this, Priscus tells us, ‘he ordered his army to remain still in the same place, saying that the bird would never have gone . . . unless it was foretelling that some disaster would strike the place very shortly.’ The stork, of course (not to mention Attila), was right. The Huns’ precocious skill at taking fortified strongholds prevailed, and Aquileia fell to them in short order. Its capture opened up the main route into north-eastern Italy.

The horde then followed the ancient Roman roads west across the Po Plain. One of the political heartlands of the western Empire and agriculturally rich, this region was endowed with many prosperous cities. Now, as in the Balkans, one after the other these cities fell to the Huns, and they took in swift succession Padua, Mantua, Vicentia, Verona, Brescia and Bergamo. Now Attila was at the gates of Milan, a long-time imperial capital. The siege was protracted, but again Attila triumphed, and another centre of Empire was looted and sacked. A fragment of Priscus’ history preserves a nice vignette:

When [Attila] saw [in Milan] in a painting the Roman Emperors sitting upon golden thrones and Scythians lying dead before their feet, he sought out a painter and ordered him to paint Attila upon a throne and the Roman emperors heaving sacks upon their shoulders and pouring out gold before his feet.

But, as in Gaul the previous year, Attila’s Italian campaign failed to go entirely to plan. Papal sources and Hollywood scriptwriters love to focus on one incident in particular when, after the capture of Milan, Pope Leo, as part of a peace embassy that included the Prefect Trygetius and ex-consul Avienus, met Attila to try to persuade him not to attack the city of Rome. In the end, the Huns did turn back, retreating to Hungary once again.

In some circles this went down as a great personal triumph for the Pope in face-to-face diplomacy. Reality was more prosaic. Other forces apart from the God-guided Leo were at work. Attila’s Italian campaign, essentially a series of sieges, lacked substantial logistic support; and in their often cramped conditions the Hunnic army was vulnerable in more ways than one. The chronicler Hydatius put it succinctly: ‘The Huns who had been plundering Italy and who had also stormed a number of cities, were victims of divine punishment, being visited with heaven-sent disasters: famine and some kind of disease.’ By the time Milan was captured, disease was taking a heavy toll, and food running dangerously short. Also, Constantinople now had a new ruler, the emperor Marcian, and his forces, together with what Aetius could put together, were far from idle: ‘In addition, [the Huns] were slaughtered by auxiliaries sent by the Emperor Marcian and led by Aetius, and at the same time they were crushed in their settlements by both heavensent disasters and the army of Marcian.’ It looks as though, while the Hunnic army in Italy was being harassed by Aetius leading a joint east-west force, other eastern forces were launching a raid north of the Danube, into Attila’s heartland. The combination was deadly, and, as in the previous year, the Hun had no choice but to retreat. With some kind of peace or truce in operation, his army rolled back into central Europe.

If 451 was itself no more than a tactical check, two major defeats in as many years put a substantial dent in the great conqueror’s reputation. These western campaigns were much more difficult to mount, in fact, than Attila’s Balkan adventures of the previous decade. The Hunnic Empire did not have the bureaucratic machinery of its Roman counterpart, however lumbering that might be. As far as we know, it ran to one Roman-supplied secretary at a time, and a prisoner called Rusticius who was kept for his skill at writing letters in Greek and Latin. Nothing suggests that the Huns had any equivalent, therefore, of the Romans’ capacity for planning and putting in place the necessary logistic support, in terms of food and fodder, for major campaigns. No doubt, when the word went out to assemble for war, each warrior was expected to bring a certain amount of food along with him, but as the campaign dragged on, the Hunnic army was bound to be living mainly off the land. Hence, in campaigns over longer distances, the difficulties involved in maintaining the army as an effective fighting force increased exponentially. Fatigue as well as the likelihood of food shortages and disease increased with distance. There was also every chance that the army would spread so widely over an unfamiliar landscape in search of supplies that it would be difficult to concentrate for battle. In 447, during the widest-reaching of the Balkan campaigns, for their first major battle Attila’s armies had marched west along the northern line of the Haemus Mountains, crossed them, then moved south towards Constantinople, then southwest to the Chersonesus for their second: a total distance of something like 500 kilometres. In 451, the army had to cover the distance from Hungary to Orleans, about 1,200 kilometres; and in 452 from Hungary to Milan, perhaps 800, but this time they were laying siege as they went, which made them yet more susceptible to disease.64 As many historians have commented, in campaigns covering such vast distances into the western Empire, Attila and his forces were almost bound to experience serious setbacks.

But Attila didn’t learn the lesson. Early in 453, he was on the eve of launching yet another destructive campaign across the European landscape, when finally the scourge of God went to meet his employer. He had just taken another wife (we don’t know how many he had in total). On his wedding night he drank too much, burst a blood vessel and died. His bride was too scared to raise the alarm, and was found beside the corpse in the morning. The funeral was an orgy of mourning and glorification, as Jordanes describes:

His body was placed . . . in state in a silken tent . . . The best horsemen of the entire tribe of the Huns rode around in circles . . . and told of his deeds[:] ‘The Chief of the Huns, King Attila, born of his father Mundiuch, lord of the bravest tribes, sole possessor of the Scythian and German realms – powers previously unknown – captured cities and terrified both empires of the Roman world and, appeased by their entreaties, took annual tribute to save the rest from plunder. And when he had accomplished all this . . . he fell not by wound of the foe, nor by treachery of friends, but in the midst of his nation at peace, happy in his joy and without sense of pain.’

When the wake had finished:

In the secrecy of the night they buried his body in the earth. They bound his coffins, the first with gold, the second with silver and the third with the strength of iron . . . iron because he subdued the nations, gold and silver because he received the honours of both empires. They also added the arms of foemen won in the fight, trappings of rare worth, sparkling with various gems, and ornaments of all sorts . . . then . . . they slew those appointed to the work.

Roman Legionary Infantrymen





LEGIO Comitatenses, GALLIA, 451 A. D. The Ursarienses were a Statutory [Standing Army] Comitatenses (ie belonging to the mobile army, the comitatus) of the late empire, this man is from Legio III Italica according to Notitia dignitatum, under the command of the Magister equitum infra Gallias. The legionaries were protected by cuirabolli curiass, wore tunics decorated with orbicoli and clavi, and were equipped with round or oval shield. The new helmet of Persiano-derivation [Sassanid] was one of many variations of this late period.

The ancient sources present a reasonably clear picture of the Republic’s military affairs as it emerged from the struggle with Hannibal. All Roman citizens between the ages of seventeen and thirty-six were liable for service. The maximum length of service was likely sixteen years for infantry and ten for cavalry, but in normal circumstances a soldier would probably serve for up to six years and then be released.

The number of the main infantry division, the legion, is given as 4,200 soldiers, but in emergencies it could be higher. The legion was drawn up in three lines of hastati, principes, and triarii, with the youngest and poorest forming the velites. As lightly armed skirmishers, the velites carried a sword, javelin, and small circular shield. The hastati and principes, in contrast, were heavily armed. Protected by the long Italic shield, they relied upon a short Spanish sword, or gladius, and two throwing spears, or pila. Like the hastati and principes, the triarii were also heavily armed, but they carried a thrusting spear, or hasta, instead of the pilum. All soldiers wore a bronze breast- plate, a bronze helmet, and a pair of greaves, or shin guards. In order to be distinguished from a distance, the velites covered their helmets with wolfskin, and the hastati wore three tall feathers in their helmets. To preserve a degree of exclusiveness, wealthy recruits wore shirts of ring mail, whether serving among the hastati, principes, or triarii.

At the beginning of Augustus’s reign as emperor in 27 b. c. e., Roman legionary infantrymen wore a simple round helmet with a horsehair tail at the top as well as a chain mail shirt known as a lorica hamata. The latter consisted of interlocking metal rings and provided good protection but was, however, very heavy and took a long time to manufacture. Later in Augustus’s reign infantrymen began to use a new type of helmet, of Gallic origin, which was more closely fitted to the skull and included neck and cheek guards. In addition, possibly due to a major loss of military equipment in the German defeat of three legions in the Battle of Teutoburg Forest (9 c. e.), the Roman infantry began to use a new type of breastplate known as the lorica segmentata. This armor consisted of horizontal metal bands covering the chest and abdomen as well as vertical metal bands protecting the shoulders. This could be manufactured much more quickly than mail armor and was very flexible. However, the fittings that held the bands together were easily damaged; as a result, this type of armor was in constant need of repair. Early imperial infantrymen also wore greaves, or shin guards, on their legs as well as leather strips called pteurages that were attached to their body armor and provided protection for their thighs and upper arms.

The principal weapon of early imperial legionary infantrymen was a short sword called a gladius, which was modeled after that of the Spanish Celts and used for hand-to-hand combat. Infantrymen also carried a javelin, or pilum, which was hurled at the enemy from a distance, as well as a thrusting spear known as a hasta. The large semicylindrical shield, or scutum, was probably of Celtic origin and derived from flat oval shields. By the first century c. e. its upper and lower curved edges had been removed, giving it a more rectangular shape. Legionary infantrymen were also equipped with a dagger, which, like the gladius, was of Spanish origin.

Roman officers of the early Empire wore the same Gallic-type helmets worn by the infantry and a variety of body armor, including mail shirts, cuirasses that were modeled after the human torso, or scale shirts known as loricae squamatae. The latter consisted of overlapping metal scales arranged in horizontal rows and fastened to a foundation of linen or hide. This type of armor was easy to make and repair and, when polished, gave the wearer an impressive appearance. However, it was not very flexible, and its wearer was vulnerable to a sword or spear thrust from below.

Under the early Empire, troops of the auxilia used equipment that was generally inferior to that of the legionaries; however, they began to receive better quality equipment during the reign of the emperor Trajan (c. 53-c. 117 c. e.). The infantry wore a variety of helmets as well as leather tunics covered with metal plates or mail, and used narrow, flat, some- times oval shields. Their principal weapons were the hasta and the spatha, a long sword that became the dominant form of sword throughout the Roman army by the early third century. Cavalrymen wore iron hel- mets that covered the entire head except for the eyes, nose, and mouth. They wore either mail or scale body armor and used the same weapons as did the infantry of the auxilia cohorts. Although they did not use stirrups, they were firmly anchored on horseback by the four projecting horns of their saddles.

During the crisis of the third century c. e. the Roman Empire experienced increased invasion and internal chaos but lacked a centralized military supply system. Armies were consequently forced to salvage equipment from battlefields or to obtain it on their own from other sources, which, in turn, led to an end to uniformity in the appearance of soldiers. During this period, the lorica segmentata was gradually abandoned, and soldiers increasingly made use of mail shirts as well as an improved form of scale armor. In this type of armor, which did not require a foundation, the scales were ringed together vertically as well as horizontally. The scales were therefore locked down, and the wearer was much less vulnerable to a thrust from below. Moreover, the older Gallic helmet was replaced by a new helmet of Sarmatian origin, the spangenhelm, which consisted of several metal plates held together in a conical shape by reinforcement bands. This helmet, which included cheek, neck, and nose guards, was used by both infantry and cavalry. In addition the scutum was replaced by a large-dished oval shield covered with hide or linen. Cavalry units used a similar type of shield that featured the insignia of the bearer’s unit.

In the late third century c. e., the emperor Diocletian (c. 245-316 c. e.) established a series of state-run arms factories, or fabricae, in an attempt to remedy the supply problem. However, these factories failed to restore uniformity in military equipment due to the fact that a wide range of barbarian peoples were serving in the Roman army by this time and used their own native weapons. In the fourth century the factories did mass-produce a new type of helmet of Parthian-Sassanian origin, known as a ridge helmet, because it consisted of two metal halves held together by a central ridge. During this period, soldiers also received monetary allowances for the purchase of clothing, arms, and armor. By the late fourth century c. e., the army came to include increased numbers of barbarians who had little need for armor and therefore little desire to purchase it for regular use. Instead, soldiers relied primarily on large circular shields for protection. When an army was on the march, its armor was carried in wagons and was normally used only during an actual pitched battle. The Roman army also used various types of artillery both in battle and when conducting a siege. These included a device known as a tormenta, which fired arrows, javelins, and rocks, as well as larger ballistae and catapults that hurled larger arrows or stones.

The Three Hundred From Rome

In 479 or 477 BC the Veientanes overwhelmed the Fabii and slaughtered them almost to a man.


A Roman citizen in weapons (in the fifth century BC). He has a bronze helmet, round shield (Clipeus), spear and a short sword. The army at this time consisted of wealthy nobles, able to buy this expensive equipment.


An Etruscan officer second class of the fifth century BC. He is distinguished by the type of the conical helmet decoration, similar to that the hoplites. His shield is reinforced with skin. His weapons are a spear and falcata sword.



While supplying her fair share of troops for the wars against the Volsci and Aequi, Rome received little, if any, aid from her allies in the war against Veii, the most southerly of the Etruscan cities. Located 10 miles to the north of Rome on a rocky eminence, Veii ruled over a large and fertile territory and could thus support a substantial population and from that recruit a powerful army. Much of her wealth stemmed from industry and trade and because of this, as well as any ambitions for territorial expansion, it was critical that she dominated one of the Tiber crossings. Her access to the Tyrrhenian coast, and the lucrative salt pans at the mouth of the Tiber, was blocked by the strip of the ager Romanus that occupied the Etruscan bank of the Tiber, as well as the territory of the unfriendly Etruscan city of Caere. A road, the Via Veientanus, led directly from Veii to the river crossing at Rome, but that route meant Roman control over Veientane commerce and communications. However, Veii was perfectly placed to dominate another of the major Tiber crossings. The valley of the small Cremera River provided a direct route from Veii down to the Tiber and the crossing controlled by the small city-state of Fidenae, only 5 miles upstream from Rome (on the left, or Latin, bank). Fidenae, despite being Latin, thus became Veii’s bridgehead, and from there her goods could completely bypass Rome, following the Anio and the route through eastern Latium down to the Greek and Sabellian markets of Campania and southern Italy.

As we have seen, in 504 BC the Sabine chief Attus Clausus, hard-pressed by his Sabine rivals, migrated with his gentilical band to Rome. Clausus was welcomed by the Senate and adlected into the select patrician order. His name was Latinized and he was known from then on as Appius Claudius. The members of his large clan/war band were granted Roman citizenship and formed the new gens of the Claudii. They were settled above the Anio and acted as a buffer against Sabine incursions. The Sabines are presented in the sources as Rome’s most dangerous enemies at the close of the sixth century BC, and they remained a menace until the middle of the fifth century, occasionally raiding the outskirts of Rome or inflicting a defeat on a Roman army in pitched battle, for example at Eretum in 449 BC. In 460 BC another Sabine, Appius Herdonius, occupied the Capitol in a night attack and attempted to take over the city, but was defeated and killed by the Romans and a force from Tusculum (a rare instance of a Latin city aiding Rome against an opponent other than the Volsci or Aequi). Rather than being identified as a foreign invader, Herdonius was probably a leading Roman of Sabine descent, and the force with which he attempted his coup was a gentilical war band reinforced with slaves, exiles and other malcontents.

Some Sabine bands were attempting to expand down from the region between the rivers Tiber and Anio into the Latin plain, but other incursions were simply plundering missions, and may sometimes have been stimulated by similar Roman raids into Sabine territory. The arrival of the Claudii coincided with defeat of Lars Porsenna’s army at Aricia and the loss of Rome’s hegemony over the Latins. With the additional manpower of the Claudii, Rome looked northeast to replace the territories lost in Latium Vetus. She pushed up the Via Salaria (the ‘salt road’) to the edge of Sabine territory at Eretum, picking off the Latin (or at least Latin-speaking) city-states of Crustumerium, which may have controlled a Tiber ferry crossing, and probably Ficulea (499 BC). Fidenae also fell and Roman colonists were sent to occupy its small territory and its important river crossing (498 BC). Veii was not cut off from the south by the capture of Fidenae; she could use the Tiber crossing at Lucus Feroniae in the territory of her allies the Faliscans (who spoke a language similar to Latin, but fell firmly under Etruscan influence). But Lucus Feroniae was much further upstream and therefore lacked the close convenience of Fidenae and also its strategic position on the left bank of the Tiber. Veii determined to win back the bridgehead.

Veii’s reaction was probably immediate, but the attention of the sources turns to Rome’s war against the Latin League, the Battle of Lake Regillus, the subsequent peace and the Romano-Latin-Hernican alliance against the Volsci and Aequi. Full-scale hostilities with Veii are not recorded until 483 – 474 BC (the First Veientane War). Veii had evidently won back Fidenae by this time and in an attempt to cut, or at least disrupt, her communications, Rome established a fort in the valley of the Cremera. This was manned by the gentilical war band of the Fabii, thus allowing citizen soldiers levied by the Roman state from all the other clans and voting districts to be sent to the Volscian and Aequan fronts. In 479 or 477 BC the Veientanes overwhelmed the Fabii and slaughtered them almost to a man. In the meantime, Veii had established her own fort on the Janiculum Hill. While it is unlikely that Rome was actually besieged, this garrison was a persistent irritation and in 474 BC a forty-year truce was negotiated, no doubt to the advantage of Veii.

The Second Veientane War was fought over possession of Fidenae. At some point, Rome regained control of the city, perhaps on the expiry of the truce, but the Fidenates rebelled, murdered four Roman officials sent to investigate and received military aid from Veii. In a battle outside the city, Lars Tolumnius, the king of Veii, was killed in single combat by Aulus Cornelius Cossus (the intriguing cognomen of this hero means the ‘Worm’). Cossus was only the second Roman after Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome, to kill an enemy king in single combat and to dedicate the spolia opima – ‘the greatest spoils’ – to Jupiter Feretrius. The spoils included the king’s armour and perhaps also his severed head. The Romans later entered Fidenae through a siege tunnel and ransacked the city. The chronology of the war is uncertain, but 428 – 425 BC is to be preferred. Thus the Second Veientane War closely followed the great victory over the Aequi and Volsci at Algidus (431 BC). As we have seen, the war against the highlanders was to continue for decades, but a crucial corner had been turned, and Rome felt free to turn her manpower against the enemy on her doorstep.

Veii was now confined to the Etruscan bank of the Tiber but Rome still viewed her as an unacceptable rival. The dissatisfaction of the Romans with the Latin colonial system has already been noted, and they looked at the rich territory of Veii with hungry eyes and set out to annex it to the ager Romanus. It took ten years, but in 396 BC Veii was finally conquered. It is unclear how exactly the Romans captured the rocky citadel and overcame its recently-improved fortifications – the tale that it was by means of a siege tunnel is a duplication of the capture of Fidenae. Perhaps the city was simply starved into submission. It was during the course of this third and final war that the Romans instituted the stipendium, or military pay. Funded by a special tax, this payment was made in kind and in ingots of bronze (the Romans had not yet adopted coinage), allowing the army to stay in the field all year round. Military service was a requirement of citizenship, but the farmers who formed the bulk of the army could not rely on plunder to cover their debts and were always keen to be released from service as soon as possible so they could bring in their crops. When Veii fell, the Roman commander Camillus allowed the troops to sack the city and massacre its inhabitants. The booty was far richer than that taken from any of the cities or towns reconquered from the Volsci and Aequi, and the profits of the conquest were increased when the surviving Veientanes were sold as slaves. The fall of Veii and its logical incorporation into the ager Romanus marks the real start of the Roman conquest of Italy.

The addition of the ager Veientanus increased Roman territory by about fifty per cent and gave Rome a new northern frontier in Etruria. Rome could perhaps have expanded her territory into the Faliscan country as well, but, after suitable displays of force, she came to terms with Veii’s allies, Capena and Falerii (395 and 394 BC). It is indicative of the rivalry between the great Etruscan cities that, with the exception of Tarquinii, Veii did not receive any aid during the long siege.