‘What Ifs’ Fall of the Roman Empire I

Earlier ‘What Ifs’: the crises that led to the creation of the ‘Later Empire’

In a similar manner to the disaster at Adrianople, a victory against the Goths in their earlier incursion of 251 – when Emperor Decius was killed and the Balkans opened to ravaging – would have avoided sparking off a round of ‘copy-cat’ invasions by emboldened Germans. An experienced commander who his troops had hailed as Emperor after he defeated earlier attacks and forced him to turn on his master Emperor Philip (or so he claimed), Decius had had problems in bringing the Goths to battle in Thrace in 250–1. Logically the invaders had spread out over too wide an area to be confronted quickly in one grouping and had to be confined in a manageable area. This was an inevitable result of the time lag between them crossing the Danube and the Emperor arriving from Italy. There had been trouble on the Danube from the Carpi through the 240s, so a major attack was not that surprising, but placing a local commander in the area with a large enough army was politically dangerous, as he might use his troops against Decius as Decius had done to Philip. The delay in tackling the Goths probably owed much to Decius’ caution after recent revolts. A stable and unchallenged ruler could have risked having a senior commander or more troops in the region or both. This is with the caveat that manpower was available and had not been diverted to face Persia, we simply do not know. In any case, both Decius and his elder son were killed in battle. A bout of internal Roman revolts followed Decius’ death, with his surviving son Hostilianus, young and inexperienced, being superseded by one general after another.

The wave of German attacks, at sea across the Black Sea as well as on land, was followed by another invasion by the opportunistic Sassanids and the diversion of Emperor Valerian and many of his troops to the East to fight them in 260. The Emperor’s disastrous military failure there and capture at a parley by Great King Shapur’s troops broke the Empire up into chaos and opened many more provinces to ravaging. The humiliation was played up by Shapur, whose ambitions seem to have been to restore the ancient Achaemenid Empire of Darius and Xerxes that had reached to the Aegean. Reviving the ancient tradition of rock-cut glorification of the Persian Great King for all to see on the main road from Iraq up onto the Iranian plateau, he created a carving of Valerian kneeling before him as a suppliant, and was rumoured to have stuffed his body as a trophy when he died. In practical terms, the Persian invasion of Syria had to be driven back by Odenathus, the Roman client-ruler of Palmyra, as the shattered Roman army in the East retreated into Asia Minor and became split up in claims of Imperial power by its commanders. A wave of rebellions left Valerian’s son Gallienus with control of the central Roman lands but the West (Gaul, Spain, Britain, the Rhine) lost to a breakaway regime under Postumus and the Levant controlled by the autonomous city-state of Palmyra under Odenathus and later his widow Zenobia. Both states were reconquered by Aurelian after 270, but the multiple crises led to the emergence of a much more centralised, bureaucratic, and tax-heavy Roman state.

Would this form of state have ever emerged had the Empire not faced disaster in the 250s? Or was the loss of Roman manpower in the plague of the 250s sufficient to embolden attackers and fatally weaken the Roman army anyway? Indeed, it can be argued that the nature of copycat revolts, one successful rebel general’s example encouraging another to challenge him later, means that the chronic and disastrous instability of the mid-third century Empire owed a lot to recent political failure. The Empire had been invaded by large-scale German tribal forces at a time of plague in the 160s, but Marcus Aurelius had fought them off and the Empire did not collapse. Was this because the Empire of the 160s did not have to cope with the Sassanid state too, or was it due to mid-second century Roman political stability? It is noticeable that the Emperors whose death and capture sparked disaster in 251 and 260 (Decius and Valerian) were both usurpers, not secure long-term rulers from an established dynasty.

Would the Empire have fared better had it had a stable line of unchallenged rulers after the extinction of the Severan dynasty in 235?

There were no long-lived rulers or secure successions from this event until the creation of Diocletian’s new system of government after 284. It is possible that the loss of both Emperor Septimius Severus’ adult sons in 211–17 (Geta murdered by his brother Caracalla, the latter a tyrant murdered by his most senior commander) was what ushered in this dangerous instability, given the inadequacies of their distant cousins and successors Elagabalus and Alexander Severus. The tyrannical Caracalla was murdered for self-preservation by his competent Praetorian Praefect Macrinus in 217, but the latter was seen as dynastically illegitimate by his mutinous troops; some of the latter duly acclaimed Caracalla’s cousin (and reputed son) Elagabalus, the teenage High Priest of the Syrian sun-god at Emesa. Macrinus was defeated in battle and killed, and the victor and his entourage moved to Rome, taking the sacred stone (was this a meteorite?) of the god with them. A transvestite bisexual exhibitionist, Elagabalus was murdered in 222; Alexander, his cousin and successor, was seen as dominated by his mother and was murdered too on a Rhine campaign (235). A round of coups commenced, with the troops’ capable but lowborn choice of sovereign, the Thracian ex-ranker Maximin, facing revolt in Rome and Africa.

After 235 no Emperor could secure stability, even the militarily competent Maximin and Philip the Arab. Arguably, the fault for all this lay with Septimius Severus for not killing his violent, and fratricidal elder son Caracalla, who had possibly already plotted his murder, and ensuring that the less dangerous Geta succeeded him; the latter and his capable adviser Papinian could have secured stability for a vital period of the early-mid third century. Severus’ stated plea to his sons on his deathbed to live at peace with each other, keep the troops happy, and not bother about anyone else was wishful thinking. If he did not want to kill his son he could have despatched him to a remote island, as Augustus did with his allegedly violent and politically dangerous grandson Agrippa Postumus.

The Empire’s problems in the third and fourth centuries. How might they have been reduced by earlier military successes?

In the longer term, it is also arguable that the nature of the Germanthreatened Empire’s outer defences in the later fourth century, easily crossable rivers, the Rhine and Danube, weakened its defences. In the first decade of the millennium Augustus’ generals had attempted to annex the lands between Rhine and Elbe, bringing many of the local tribes into the Empire, only to meet with disaster in the Teutoberg Forest in AD9. The conquest of lower Germany had then been abandoned. Even if it had succeeded, a combination of Roman parsimony about garrisons and the ever-likely civil wars could easily have occasioned a successful revolt before the fourth century. In the 100s Trajan had responded to repeated Dacian attacks on the middle Danube by advancing his frontier to the eastern Carpathians, and in the 170s Marcus Aurelius had temporarily overrun the Czech lands.

Maintenance of all three occupations would have brought many of the tribes who threatened the Empire under its rule, with their warriors serving in the Roman army, like the previously hostile Gauls from the 50s BC, instead of raiding Roman lands. The remaining Germanic territory South of the Carpathians, that of the Iazyges between middle Danube and Theiss, could have been occupied or left as an allied kingdom under pro-Roman chieftains. The military occupation of a slice of territory was in any event less important than its neutralisation as a threat. Rome had long operated through a cheap system of allied kingdoms that did not entail direct rule, as with the Germanic tribal realm of Maroboduus on the Danube and the multiplicity of Levantine Greco-Aramaic states. Provided that a territory was not immanently hostile to the Empire, occupation usually occurred when a Roman ruler needed to prove his military credentials by an impressive conquest, as with rising politician Caesar in Gaul in 58BC and ageing new Emperor Claudius in AD43. Indeed, it is worth remarking that despite the disastrous defeat of a large Roman army in the German forests East of the Rhine by Arminius in AD9 the situation had been partly rectified by Tiberius’ nephew Germanicus before he died in 19. The latter was ambitious and arrogant, and made much of his physical resemblance to Alexander the Great.

Had Germanicus succeeded Tiberius as planned, could he have decided to add to his reputation by invading and annexing territory beyond the Rhine or Danube? Doing this would have entailed either moving part of the garrison of Lower Germany (four legions on the Rhine) into the area, risking revolt to their rear, or raising more legions. Augustus had had trouble in finding new troops after losing three legions in the German disaster of AD9, having to arm slaves, so would it have been difficult to create even two new legions to help hold down the lands to the Elbe? There was a political advantage in creating this new force for a new province (Transrhenus?), as it would serve as a check on the ambitions of the military commanders in Lower Germany. In AD69 their commander Vitellius rose in revolt against new Emperor Galba and fought his way to Rome; could he have done so had he faced a local rival who was still loyal?

The precedent of Roman occupation of a similar agriculturally based tribal society in Gaul shows that local rebellion was still a problem (occasionally) in Tiberius’ time, seventy years after Caesar’s conquest, and there was to be a major eruption under Julius Civilis in northeastern Gaul once Rome fell into civil war. The latter revolt in 69 was aided from beyond the Roman frontier on the Rhine, and had the Empire advanced to the Elbe some time after AD9 or had Varus defeated Arminius then and saved three legions for use in an occupation, revolt was still probable later. Crucially, the Empire kept existing tribal units as administrative sub-provinces in Britain and Gaul, and would probably have done the same in Germany. This aided a sense of identity among the locals, as shown in the tribal-based nature of revolt in Gaul in the early 20s and 69. Breaking up the existing tribal landowners’ landed power-base by atomising the social structure would have been more effective in preventing revolt, which would have entailed massdeportations as in Dacia under Trajan after 100. Was this the successful policy that the Romans adopted in keeping the Iceni quiet after Boudicca’s revolt in 60–1? The name of the Iceni never re-emerged in the fifth century, unlike other British tribal kingdoms. And could a similar break-up of Germanic tribal polities between Rhine and Danube in the first century AD have produced an invaluable long-term German boost to the Roman army that aided it in its third and fourth century wars?

Such territory may not have been fully occupied as a province (like Germany west of the Rhine and the Gallic Belgica) but just dominated by legionary outposts, leaving open the chance of revolt at times of weakness, as with the Batavian region of the Rhine-mouth in AD69–70. The rule of this region had been left to its own local chieftains, provided that they supplied troops to the Empire; the same strategy was followed for allied British kingdoms beyond the frontier in the 40s and 50s, e.g. Cartimandua’s Brigantes and Prasutagas’ Iceni. The main aim of the Antonine occupation of Bohemia in the 170s seems to have been to prevent more invasions of Italy, and this aim may have been achieved without creation of a formal province. In the event Marcus’ death in 180 and Commodus’ withdrawal meant that Marcus’ war-aims of around 177 are unclear.

The effect of military domination and partial occupation would still have been the same: to prevent the emergence of the new super-tribes, the coalitions of disparate German peoples under single dynamic leaders which invaded the Empire in the mid-third century. The use of new names to identify them in place of the terminology of the first century AD suggests new tribal groupings emerging, probably under active warlords who forged coalitions. The regular recruitment of their menfolk to the Roman army would have kept the latter as allies to, not preying on, the Empire. The Germans would have been sent to serve well away from their home territory to minimise the chances of revolt, as with the Empire’s Sarmatian nomad allies from the lower Danube.

Holding down such an extended dominion would have had its problems, not least revolt. Romanization of tribal peoples was a slow process and some of the Gauls revolted in the early 20s AD , followed by the major Rhine revolt of Civilis in 69–70. But a mountain frontier eastwards from the Elbe Gap near Leipzig to the Iron Gates on the lower Danube, broken only by a few passes and occasional low-lying regions like the Ostrava Gap/Beskids, would have been easier to defend from penetration than the river frontier, and would certainly have required no more troops. The main danger would have been of a still-restless tribal population hankering after its freedom and ready to revolt at times of crisis with help from beyond the frontier, as with parts of northeast Gaul as late as AD69, over a century after Caesar’s conquest. That problem, however, had not been insurmountable once Rome regained its military cohesion and Vespasian could send troops to suppress the Gallic revolt under Civilis; using the same argument, the Danube- Carpathian lands were no less controllable for the period after 180. There would however have been longer distances involved, hampering quick reaction. Also, the poorer soil of the north German plains and the forests would not provide useful produce for the Roman economy; costs would have been high.

The numbers of invasions that the Empire faced from the 170s onwards would thus have been reduced, though attacks from Wallachia across the lower Danube (e.g. the Gothic invasion of 251 and Gothic refugee-movement of 376) would have been unaffected. The Persian threat from the 230s would have been equally serious, though the disaster of 260 (when Emperor Valerian was captured and the East dissolved into chaos) owed much to the distractions of the Rhine and Danube invasions that resulted in an under-manned Eastern army. The third century Empire would still have been subject to major losses from the plague of 252, though not necessarily as many civil wars given the absence of certain domestic crises such as Commodus’ reign, the civil war of 193–7, and the successive coups and revolts from 235 to 260. Internal stability would have decreased the distractions of civil war, which aided the invaders, enabling an unchallenged Emperor to meet the main attacks head-on with his army as Marcus Aurelius did after 169.

State structures and the succession: from ‘First Citizen’ to hereditary autocrat

It can be argued that each successful coup or revolt from 192 had a cumulative effect on the Empire’s stability, and thus on its long-term chances of survival. No arrangement for the political succession is of course infallible, though a rigorous selection process or a definitive genetic right of heirship can present distinct advantages. The most stable political systems have relied on a collective leadership rather than one individual, as with the oligarchy of medieval Venice with its figurehead Doge, but this was unrealistic for an age of monarchy and military leadership, particularly in the Greek-Middle Eastern areas of the Empire.

The whole tradition of government in Rome had evolved from the concentration of political and military power in two annually appointed senior magistrates, with a temporary dictatorship for emergencies but a taboo on any notion of kingship; it was Augustus’ genius to introduce a hidden monarchy while avoiding the open single rule which Caesar had not troubled to disguise. The vital role of military power in a far-flung state needing large armies that the government had to control to avoid the turbulence of the late Republic made one man’s ascendancy inevitable. There was a need for a visible individual as the centre of control (and of cultic worship), as Caesar, Antony, and Augustus duly recognised. The last attempt to re-create a stable collective aristocratic leadership, by Sulla in 82–80BC, had foundered on patrician feuds and powerful provincial army commanders. The same would have been likely to happen had Pompey and the Senate defeated Caesar in 48BC or Brutus and Cassius defeated the Caesareans in 42BC.

There was not yet the necessary structure of government, or acceptability for it, to create a rigid, top-down bureaucracy in the early Empire. In this case a cabal of ministers heading permanent departments would rule the state and the Emperor be its nominal frontman, whose personal failings and possible removal did not affect the viability of the state. This sort of regime emerged in centralised dynastic China from the middle Han period, under a succession of weak Emperors. Ultimately, in China this did not prevent failure of leadership; inter-ministerial feuds erupted, civil war and revolt followed, and repeated break-ups into rival provincial polities followed that. But China had by then evolved a tradition of centralised bureaucracy, as created in the state structure of the kingdom of Jin in the ‘Era of Warring States’ and imposed on the entire country by the unifying ‘First Emperor’ Jin Shih Huangdi. The nearest bureaucratic equivalent in the Mediterranean world was the complex governmental structure of Ptolemaic Egypt, which carried on functioning irrespective of the incompetent sovereigns and bloody feuds within the ruling dynasty. In traditionalist Rome, government had been a simpler and more ad hoc affair with the small number of senior officials assisted by their private households and their groups of personal ‘amici’.

It had only slowly adapted to the massive political and economic demands of empire in the last two centuries BC, with its resistance to change aiding the political chaos of the Late Republic. Even with power and Mediterranean-wide official business concentrated on the Emperor, Augustus and his successors governed through the traditional means of a senior magistrate’s personal household. There was contemporary criticism of the emergence of low-class freedmen household officials wielding immense power under the later Julio-Claudians. There was always something ad hoc about the early Empire’s Imperial government, as analysed by Fergus Millar, and much was left to local self-rule by governors and city councils who sought Imperial advice and instructions when necessary, as shown by the famous correspondence between Trajan and Pliny the Younger.

The creation of a large-scale and intrusive bureaucracy had to wait until the later third and early fourth centuries, and is plausibly ascribed to a specific political strategy formulated by the administratively minded Diocletian. This bore some resemblance to the hierarchic governmental systems of Sassanid Persia and China, and notably had a Persian-style formal court based at a ‘Sacred Palace’ instead of the more democratic courts of most early Emperors. The Emperor was cut off from direct contact with his subjects, surrounded by a hierarchy of court officials and Persian-style eunuchs, and in an increasingly religious age an effort was made to have the court reflect the order and ceremonial of Heaven (firstly in its Olympian guise, but soon in a Christian context).

It may be significant that Diocletian, unlike his militarily successful predecessors Claudius II, Aurelian, Probus, and Carus was a civilian (Greek) bureaucrat not a general. He may have decided to trust in a foolproof state system, not personal charisma as the Illyrian soldier-emperors from 268 to 284 had done. The system of a godlike Emperor isolated at court, which he created, was then kept on by the next long-ruling Emperor, Constantine, who could have reverted to a less formal mode of ruling. It is not sufficient to claim that a huge court was the inevitable accompaniment of autocracy, as the Illyrian Emperors, and even Septimius Severus much earlier, had ruled by naked force rather than in tune with early Empire deference to the Senate.

‘What Ifs’ Fall of the Roman Empire II

Megalomaniac Emperor Caius ‘Caligula’ had seen himself as a god and used the Temple of Castor in the Forum as the entrance to his palace. Nero had built a colossal statue of himself as the sun-god Helios and ruled as a sun-king from his ‘Domus Aurea’ in the mid-60s, and Domitian in the 80s had ruled as ‘dominus et deus’ (‘lord and god’) and built a large throne-room in the Imperial residence on the Palatine. This fitted in with Eastern notions of the ruler as semi-divine but not with Roman practice; it was a different matter from so-called ‘Emperor-worship’, a universal practice in the Early Empire which was more a matter of a cult of respectful loyalty to the status of the ruler than treating him as divine. On all three occasions this innovation had been reversed by their successors, so the same could have been done to Diocletian’s ‘Oriental’ Court.

But instead Constantine continued the process, and made a further break with tradition by creating a new Christian capital, inaugurated in 330: ‘New Rome’ (later called ‘Constantinople’) on the Bosphorus. The idea of a permanent Imperial capital in the East for a locally resident Emperor had been Diocletian’s, but he had chosen the established Bithynian city of Nicomedia. Constantine set up a much more radical project, with a new and carefully planned city (based on a previous, smaller Greek town) with the facilities that were to become appropriate for medieval Christian cities (e.g. a cathedral). He also set up a Senate and encouraged aristocratic families to move to the city, going further than his predecessors had done; the new capital was clearly meant to supersede the old one.

It was also linked to a huge and dominant court and a regular round of Imperial ritual that added mystique to the Imperial office, though the unique and non-Roman nature of this may owe more to hindsight, as Constantinople was the only Late Roman capital to survive for centuries. Constantine still kept the senior role of Western Emperor for his eldest sons, Crispus (killed 326) and then Constantine II, who were based at Trier. The literary evidence certainly hints at him having a form of megalomania in his later years, which may have influenced the boldness and grandiosity of his plans. His family life ended up replaying ancient Greek myth, as he killed Crispus at the behest of the latter’s stepmother Fausta and then killed her for false accusations, an echo of Theseus, Hippolytus, and Phaedra.

Augustus had laid claim to the loyalty of the troops of his late greatuncle’s armies from 44 BC as his genetic heir, the new Caesar, and duly outmanoeuvred the more experienced senior general Antony. The new system focussed loyalty on the ‘Princeps’ in his role as ‘Caesar’, with a family surname turning into an administrative title, and the hereditary basis of power was established. Significantly, the ailing Augustus’ designated heir in 23BC was his young and untried genetic heir, nephew and son-in-law Marcellus, not an experienced political and military lieutenant like Agrippa; in later years the choice fell on his equally inexperienced grandsons. The unique position he had created for himself became a hereditary monarchy, though with the technical caveat of confirmation of powers by the Senate. When the latter attempted to choose their own (or no) candidate for ruler after Caligula’s murder in January AD41 they were swiftly reined in by the Praetorian Guard.

Augustus eventually attempted to lay down a form of succession by the most experienced member of the Imperial family rather than by father-son descent, arranging for his stepson Tiberius to be followed by Tiberius’ older, militarily senior nephew Germanicus, who was married to Augustus’ own grand-daughter, not by Tiberius’ son Drusus. Drusus (maybe two years younger than Germanicus) would then be followed by Germanicus’ sons. Tiberius kept to this faithfully, and put Germanicus’ sons ahead of Drusus’ (under-age) son Tiberius Gemellus in the queue to be Emperor. Arguably, Claudius did the same in putting his stepson Nero ahead of his own, younger son Britannicus. This system then evolved to father-son descent in the second century, when an Emperor had a son or brother, which was not the case from 81 to 161.

But a wholly hereditary system of rule, whereby the next eligible adult male (son, brother, or cousin) inherits irrespective of capability, introduces the risk of incompetence or insanity. This is followed by the overthrow of the incumbent by a more competent but illegitimate successor, who can then be challenged by ambitious relatives or military commanders. One coup leads to another, a minority is the inevitable opportunity for adults to overthrow the under-age sovereign, and prolonged instability is only ended by a strong ruler. This is what happened to the English monarchy in 1399, 1461, 1470–1, and 1483–5, though other kingdoms (such as France in 987–1328) had a luckier run of unchallenged capable heirs (usually adult) in direct succession.

If a state dominated by its officer-corps or provincial generals turns into a hereditary monarchy, any succession of an inexperienced minor can lead to coups by the military, as seen by the repeated fate of Sultans’ under-age heirs in Mameluke Egypt after 1260. This fate happened to Gordianus III of Rome, teenage ruler in 238–44, at the hands of his Praetorian Praefect Philip. If there is an heir entrusted with a governorship and army outside the capital, they can then overthrow their sovereign, as Julian did to Constantius II in 360–1, and as occasional Ottoman Sultans did, e.g. Selim I to Bayezid II in 1512. If a state is split among a multiplicity of eligible adult heirs as corulers, mutual assistance is less likely than endless struggles for supreme power, of which invaders then take advantage, as with Carolingian Francia among Louis the Pious’ sons in the 840s. If the state is lucky, one heir can quickly destroy his rivals and reassert central authority, as Bayezid II and Selim I did in the Ottoman civil wars of 1481 and 1512. If it is not, a standoff and permanent division ensues as in Francia post-843.

In Rome’s case, the split of power among multiple heirs in the fourth century often led to civil wars among the rivals which only ended with one candidate’s victory, as after Diocletian’s abdication in 305 and Constantine’s death in 337. The division between Valentinian and Valens in 364 was better managed. It was not fatal to a militarily strong Empire, despite the loss of manpower in internecine warfare; but after the split of 395 the mutual mistrust of Arcadius’ East and Honorius’ West was to give Alaric’s Gothic armies a crucial opportunity to play one Emperor against the other and militarily overshadow both.

In the case of Rome’s principal contemporary equal, Han China and its heirs, a succession of weak rulers in thrall to a feuding court bureaucracy and the repeated accession of minors led to instability and decline at the centre of power and ultimately to successful military challenge from the provinces. Once a regular succession of competent adults to the throne failed, central power weakened and the Emperors became puppets of their ministers, as with several initially successful Chinese dynasties after the Han, most notably the T’ang in the ninth century. In Japan, the powerful court dynasties surrounding the throne in the ninth century and afterwards even kept the throne restricted to under-age rulers in order to secure a succession of lucrative regencies. In Sassanid Persia from 226, a more centralised state with a more unified army than that of its Parthian predecessor, a long-lasting dynasty survived under rulers of varying merits with only a few internal non-dynastic coups, e.g. in 590. This was probably due to the overwhelming power of the central as opposed to provincial armies, which coup-prone Parthia had lacked.

No provincial warlord would think it worth challenging a State with overwhelming military superiority. That factor probably kept most ambitious Roman provincial commanders from challenging the Emperor in Rome until the rule of Nero deteriorated and made the central authorities vulnerable in 68. Once there was a hiatus in Rome or one commander dared to rebel, it was open season for would-be rebels to join in, as in AD69, 193, and 260.

The reliance of the Roman political system on the merits of one man, as introduced by Augustus, had ended earlier instability. The repeated politico-military struggles and usurpations of the period from the Gracchi to Actium had been caused primarily by the feuding over power of the rival senior noble families and ambitious new men of the late Republican patriciate, and centred on the senior provincial governors’ possession of armies. Ultimately, with Julius Caesar and then Octavian-Augustus, only one political leader was left with full control of all the Republic’s armies, and the latter, as ‘Princeps’, ensured that the armies remained loyal to him and his family and that the political system was unobtrusively turned into a monarchy while remaining technically a republic. Unlike Caesar, he did not flout the cherished ‘mos maiorum’ and he enabled the Senatorial aristocracy to live within the fiction that the traditional constitution was being maintained, once he had slaughtered all real or potential serious challengers.

The succession problems of his dynasty are well known, and were survived by luck as much as by good judgement in the case of two mentally unstable rulers (Caius ‘Caligula’ and Nero) who were murdered and one civil war (AD69). Luck could have been better and there have been no tyranny, for example if Tiberius had been succeeded by his original heirs, but his nephew Germanicus, his son the younger Drusus, and the former’s son Nero Caesar all predeceased him, possibly violently. Caligula was only Germanicus’ third son and was an unlikely successor until the destruction of his elder brothers, Nero by the jealous Sejanus and Drusus (II) by Tiberius for betraying his family to Sejanus. Nor did Caligula’s worst traits become apparent until after a serious illness months after he succeeded Tiberius in 37; did this illness emotionally unbalance him?

Britannicus was only in his early teens when Claudius died, and the latter had political reasons for advancing his older stepbrother Nero as senior heir. Nero was more closely descended from Augustus and his mother’s family were popular with the troops. Possibly Claudius even suspected that Britannicus’ nymphomaniac mother Messalina had used one of her lovers to father the boy, or that his enemies, led by Nero’s mother Agrippina, would say that. But an older and more viable Britannicus could have succeeded his father as an adult around 60–62. Claudius might not have adopted his stepson Nero as senior heir, or Claudius discovered Agrippina’s poison plot in time in October 54. The Julio-Claudian succession system would have worked then and not have seemed inferior to that of the Antonines in retrospect. The Empire would not have had to wait to 96–180 for a run of good Emperors.

Thereafter the Roman Empire had been lucky in its transmission of the succession from 96 to 180, no ruler except Marcus Aurelius having an adult close relative to succeed him. But the succession was not always smooth, as with the mysterious political executions of four consuls early in Hadrian’s reign and the early death of his chosen heir Aelius Verus. It was unlucky thereafter. There was not a conscious system of choosing the best man as Edward Gibbon and other historians believed; if an Emperor had a son of whatever age or quality, as Marcus with Commodus, the choice of heir was clear, and the army would probably have baulked at accepting any substitute. Marcus would have had problems had he proposed to set his incompetent son Commodus aside, assuming that the latter’s faults were already visible by the time of Marcus’ death; the most blatant acts of Commodus’ misrule occurred after some years in power. The new Emperor (aged nineteen) was taken advantage of by flattering Court favourites such as Saoterus and later Cleander, a perennial problem for a vain and impressionable young autocrat (as shown by the initially good Nero). For that matter, it should be remembered that Commodus had a twin and a younger brother, both of whom died young; had either of them replaced him on his murder in December 192 there would not have been a succession crisis and civil war then either. Instead the chosen new ruler, the competent but brusque and disciplinarian general Pertinax, alienated the over-indulged Praetorian Guard and was soon murdered too.

The run of poor or easily challenged rulers in the third century was not inevitable, and some Emperors ducked their responsibility to provide an adequate and unchallenged heir, most crucially Septimius Severus with Caracalla and Geta in 211. It should also be remarked that the Empire had been lucky in that a new civil war did not erupt in 97–8 after the unexpected extinction of the Flavian dynasty. The shaky regime of the elderly, obscure, and heirless Nerva, defied by its own guardsmen, swiftly adopted a powerful and charismatic military commander (Trajan) as its heir to ward off another civil war. Nerva was fortunate to avoid the fate of the similarly placed Galba thirty years earlier. There was no certainty in 193 that Pertinax would not be able to control the Guard, or that he would be killed rather than just defied as Nerva had been in 97. Had he been more careful or tactful, this veteran commander (aged sixty-six in 192/3) could have averted murder and civil war and passed on the throne to his chosen heir, either Septimius Severus, an earlier protégé, or the latter’s rival Clodius Albinus. Instead, the son-less second and third century Emperors sought to bolster legitimacy by adopting their heirs, which was bizarre at times, as when Elagabalus adopted his cousin Alexander Severus, four years younger than him. Septimius Severus retrospectively had himself adopted posthumously by Pertinax.

The habit of provincial military challenges to the centre of power had been a threat to the Roman polity ever since the emergence of powerful provincial armies. Sulla had used his armies in Greece to overthrow the regime of Marius’ heirs in 83–2BC, Caesar had marched on Rome from Gaul in 49BC, and in 43 the Senate was helpless before the triple alliance of Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus. It recurred throughout the early Empire at times of crisis and uncertain leadership in Rome, potentially (though aborted) with Gaetulicus in AD39 and Scribonianus in 42 and fully with the civil war of 69. Augustus, lucky in the possession of a large family, had where possible kept the armies in his loyal and competent male relatives’ hands. It resumed with the instability following Pertinax’s murder in 193 (though there was an abortive revolt as early as the rumours of Marcus’ death in 175), and became endemic after 235. But once the chances of a revolt succeeding had become greater, with the lack of an recognisably dominating ruler and stable dynasty in Rome, the temptation to challenge the Emperor became greater. One successful revolt bred another, and in turn the preoccupation of the current incumbent with survival meant that external enemies were emboldened.

The safest military solution to this was that adopted by the late Roman state, probably through a deliberate plan by Diocletian which Constantine reinforced; the central army at the Emperor’s disposal, the ‘comitatus’, outnumbered any provincial army and the old Augustan provinces were split into many smaller ones so that no provincial commander had enough men to risk challenging the government. Each province also now had a separate civil and military governor. This did not stop some bold commanders, as with Maximus in Britain in 383, a desperate man like Silvanus in Trier in 355, or a junior Imperial prince commanding a ‘comitatus’ on a threatened frontier, as with Julian in Gaul in 360; but it made revolt more risky and so halted the epidemic of risings in the 250s and 260s.

In the 250s the instability at the centre, coherent military challenge from Persia, and opportunistic attacks from Germanic tribal coalitions across the Rhine and Danube – all feeding off each other – came together at a time when the Empire’s manpower was being undermined by plague. The results were catastrophic. But what if there had been greater political stability within the Empire at this juncture?

The 250s and after: dynastic mischance and its exploitation

Apart from the military advantages of a firm and continuing response to outside threats, greater political stability from a secure succession process would have enabled the Empire to call upon its full revenues for and troops from all unaffected provinces to aid the government and military. The plague of 252 would still have diminished both, making the chances of defeat and a civil war higher, particularly with the opportunistic Persian Great King Shapur I ready to invade. The defeat of the Eastern armies, sack of Antioch, local power-vacuum, and seizure of the politico-military initiative by Odenathus and Zenobia of Palmyra in the 260s were probable if the Rhine or Danube wars had tied down the Western armies. If the Emperor marched East and had no capable colleague to guard the threatened Rhine, a revolt on the latter was probable. In real life the local commander Postumus deposed Gallienus’ young son and set up a breakaway Gallic-Spanish-British realm in 260 and it was not reconquered until Aurelian had dealt with Palmyra in 272–3.

Recovery should have been quicker without the multiplicity of revolts in 259–67, and the strain on resources to pay for the enlarged Diocletianic army and civil service less without the economic dislocation caused by ravaging across many provinces. The efforts usually attributed to a bureaucratically minded Diocletian to secure adequate manpower for vital professions (the military and agriculture in particular) centred on the solution of making them hereditary, while economic problems were tackled by similar legislation. Inflation was solved by being banned, the reaction of a despot like a modern Third World dictator. Diocletian’s crucial lack of a male heir led to an ingenious attempt to solve the endemic problem of the succession by another administrative solution. The two new Emperors, of East and West, would each adopt a competent adult heir who would serve as deputy ruler or ‘Caesar’ under him before succeeding to the throne. Was this only suggested because Diocletian had no son? This idea was unworkable given human nature and the desire of the men involved to pass on their power within their families, and it was duly wrecked by a complicated power struggle among Diocletian’s heirs after he retired in 305.

The outcome was the personal ascendancy of Constantine as sole ruler in 324, followed by his own attempt to divide up the Empire among his sons and nephews, which also collapsed in bloodshed in 337. The successive bouts of political instability and civil wars which followed saw no dynasty surviving with stable adult male rule for more than a few decades, although the loss of manpower in civil war did not immediately affect the Empire’s survival when it lacked external challengers. But indirectly the effects of dynastic strife commenced the process of political disintegration; Valentinian I’s unwise choice of his brother Valens as his co-ruler in 364, criticised at the time, presented the East with the man who mishandled the Gothic crisis of 376–8 and was killed in Rome’s first serious military defeat at German hands since the 250s. After the death of Valens and destruction of the Eastern army at Adrianople in 378 the Goths, initially a flood of refugees from Hunnic incursions into their steppe homeland not a hostile invading army, were able to maintain their own polity within the borders of the Empire. Nominal military vassals at first, after their accommodation with Theodosius in 381, their Gothic-commanded forces were outside the Roman chain of command, and were able to exploit the vacuum in leadership that followed Theodosius’ death in 395.

At this point, the Empire’s physical loss of control of the provinces, and their manpower and revenues, commenced, and the Germanic warlords within its borders began to be a serious military challenge. The spiral of Decline and Fall, began, more specifically meaning a growing loss of resources and military power in the West at a time of rising challenges from unchecked Germanic warlords who could not be intimidated or bought off indefinitely. There has been much argument over the size of the barbarian hordes, the amount of damage and economic dislocation, and the possible exaggeration of their depredations. But the loss of Imperial political control of the outlying provinces, leaving a rump state at the mercy of its German-led armies in the 460s, speaks for itself.

‘What Ifs’ Fall of the Roman Empire III

The survival of the Western Empire: feasible with better luck?

A larger state: a match for the Germans and the East?

The survival of Theodosius I, only forty-seven at his death in 395, for another decade or two, putting him in the position to combat the Germanic crossing of the Rhine into Gaul in 406, should have made that attack containable like the previous invasions of the mid-270s and 350s. Probably Alaric the Goth would not have risked his attacks on Italy from 402. Even if the Empire had faced at least one of these challenges, an experienced adult Emperor would have been in a stronger position to meet them than the regent Stilicho. The Germans would not have had the opportunity to spread unchecked over Gaul, Spain, and later Africa from 406, detaching rich provinces from the Empire and so reducing its ability to pay for a militarily superior central army that could defeat tribal based armies led by opportunistic German warlords. Barbarian kingdoms would not have coalesced around successful warlords in Roman territory and become more powerful than the Imperial armies, or the central Imperial army been reduced to over-reliance on king-making German generals with their own loyal entourages, e.g. Ricimer and Gundobad. Crucially, the Vandals would not have been able to set up their kingdom in Africa from 429 and deliver the major blow of the sack of Rome in 455, ravaging the Italian (and other) coasts for decades thereafter and undermining trade. The Goths would not have been able to operate freely in Italy against an undefended city of Rome and a militarily weak government in Ravenna after Stilicho’s assassination in 408, or set up a kingdom in Southern Gaul in 418.

Thereafter, a more powerful Western Roman army, though probably still with a major autonomous allied German contingent, would have been available under Aetius to meet the attacks of the Huns. The latter might still have been undefeated until 451–2, due to earlier concentration on the weaker East, but German refugees from Attila’s empire fleeing to the West would have reinforced the Roman army. Even in the circumstances of a weakened Empire that had lost control of its African corn-supplies and much of Gaul, Aetius, who had usefully lived in exile among the Huns earlier and knew their tactics, was able to muster a Romano-German coalition to defeat Attila’s incursion into Gaul. How much better would he have fared had the Empire not already lost much of its revenues and power?

The assassination of Aetius by his jealous sovereign Valentinian III in 454 led to a vacuum in Roman military leadership, a new power-struggle at court, and Gaiseric’s physically and psychologically damaging sack of the capital in 455. It also led to Aetius’ successor Petronius Maximus, allegedly implicated in his murder, seeking alliance with the Goths, which Rome had avoided since 408, and the latter securing a free hand to operate in Spain and extend their power there. What if Aetius had escaped the attack and overthrown his monarch? (He was already rumoured to be intending to install his son Gaudentius as the next ruler, married to Valentinian’s daughter.) As praised by his contemporary and panegyricist Merobaudes in his laudatory poems of around 439 and 443, the indefatiguable Aetius had restored order to Gaul in the 430s and defeated Germans and ‘bacaudae’ alike – and even held up Gaiseric’s advance in Africa temporarily by bringing in Aspar and Eastern troops in 435. The relative stability he brought after three decades of chaos speaks for itself, as does his successful leadership of the Romano-German coalition to defeat Attila somewhere near Chalons in 451. The collapse of Roman power in Gaul and Gaiseric’s attack on the capital only followed his death, so what if his rule had continued?

The defeat, containment, and death of Attila in 451–3, followed by Aetius’ contining ascendancy at court, would have enabled Aetius to recruit many of the subject tribes who revolted against the Huns in 454 to be allies of Rome. The Western Empire would have continued as a major military power into the later fifth century with most of its provinces intact, and Aetius had competent officers to succeed him in power such as Aegidius and Majorian. In real life Aegidius ruled parts of northern Gaul as a Romano-Gallic warlord after 455, and Majorian became Emperor in 457. Such competent and energetic rulers, with appropriate armies, would probably have dissuaded or defeated further provincial revolts, and if North Africa and its corn supplies had still been in Vandal hands reconquest would have been a priority. The Empire would have been manageable without outlying regions of Gaul (lost to Goths, Burgundians, and Franks) and Spain (lost to the Suevi).

Either a strong military leader or a legitimate Theodosian would have served as a focus for stability in the 460s and after. With or without the continuation of the dynasty of Theodosius, the Empire’s military leadership and control of resources would have been adequate for survival on the politico-socio-economic basis of the state of the fourth century. It would have been the military equal of Justinian’s Eastern Empire provided that it was not undermined by further civil wars. Therafter it would quite possibly have been an unviable target to conquer. Indeed, the notion of an Eastern attack on the West owed much to the aggressive (and ultra-Christian) ambitions of Justinian himself, a conqueror, builder, and would-be theological arbiter on the scale of Constantine the Great.

But what if this humbly born Balkan peasant-boy had never become Eastern Emperor? He did not take the throne by obvious military talent as had the humbly born Balkan Emperors of the later third and early fourth century like Claudius II, Aurelian, Maximian, Galerius, and Constantius I.

His introduction to the capital, Court, and politics was due to his (childless) uncle Justin becoming an ex-ranker Guards officer and inviting him to the capital around 500 as his protégé. The disputed succession to eighty-eight year old Emperor Anastasius in July 518 then saw Justin, commander of the ‘Excubitors’ guards regiment, selected as a compromise candidate instead of the ambitious civilian minister Celer or Anastasius’ nephew Hypatius. The latter was the ‘legitimist’ choice of the Nika rioters to replace Justinian in 532.

Justin, then aged around sixty, may well have been seen as a stopgap by his selectors, less dangerous and strong-willed than Celer and a respectable Catholic in place of the unpopularly pro-Monophysite Anastasius. The latter had recently had to abandon his pro-Monophysite policies due to a Catholic military revolt led by the charismatic general Vitalian, who still had an army to hand in 518 and so was a potential Emperor. Instead, Justinian took control of the administration as his semi-literate uncle’s civilian strongman, had Vitalian bought off with a consulship and quietly murdered, and was duly made co-Emperor. In 527 he succeeded his uncle, despite tension over his marrying the ex-actress and alleged prostitute Theodora. But would the West have been invaded in 533–7 had Celer, Hypatius, or Vitalian secured the throne in 518?

Had the Vandals been kept or driven out of Africa, the only significant military challenge the West would have faced after Attila’s death would have been the armies of Theodoric the Ostrogoth (encouraged to leave the East after defying its rulers through the 480s) around 490–3. In real life Theodoric was able to overthrow the post-Imperial regime of Odovacer in Italy, but a strong Western central army could have held him at bay as Stilicho had done to Alaric in 402. Indeed, there is a possibility that a militarily strong West could have sent troops to assist the Catholic military revolt of Vitalian against Anastasius around 513 and helped to save the cause of orthodox religion in the latter’s capital. The West had intervened successfully in the East before, as Constantine had defeated the suspiciously lukewarm pro-Christian Licinius in the name of orthodoxy in 324 and Julian had attacked his uncle Constantius II in 361. A Western Empire controlling most of its provinces (and maybe with Gothic allies from Aquitaine) was a formidable foe for an East whose armies were in disarray, and in real life Anastasius had to treat with Vitalian as his armies could not defeat him. A West that had held or restored the Rhine frontier could have militarily outmatched Anastasius’ divided armies in 513–18, especially if its Catholic Emperor allied to Vitalian in the cause of orthodoxy.

A smaller state

Alternatively, if the Western Empire had been weakened by invasions and poor leadership in the fifth century, a core of Mediterranean provinces, probably minus Gaul, the Rhineland, and Britain, could have survived as a small state into the 530s. This scenario was possible from the recovery of the Empire in the 410s under Constantius III, which left a Gothic ‘federate’ state ruling south-west Gaul, Germans roaming at large in Spain, and the Rhineland and Britain permanently lost. Had the Vandals still managed to conquer North Africa, in which a power-struggle between Aetius and Boniface to control the regency in Rome around 428–33 aided their advance, the West would have faced a new pirate kingdom with a fleet raiding Italy, worryingly based at the ancient foe Carthage, and the loss of African corn and revenues. That need not have led to the devastating sack of Rome in 455, the result of the murder of the military leader Aetius by Valentinian III and the chaos that followed, which gave Gaiseric the excuse to intervene. But the surviving Empire would have been weakened further by regular raids and the defeat of a retaliatory expedition (e.g. that of Majorian in 462) would have been a signal for more political instability.

A massive expedition from East and West like that of 468 could have evicted the Vandals if competently led. The expedition apparently consisted of a huge armada of 1,100 ships according to Byzantine sources, and was only defeated due to skilful use of fireships by Gaiseric as the Eastern navy reached the Tunisian coast – against which the wind helped in trapping the Roman ships so they could not sail or row to safety. The Eastern commander Basiliscus was accused later by the sixth century historian Procopius of accepting a bribe to delay the attack, which enabled the Vandals to prepare and use their fireships (though nobody could have known that the wind would change and trap the Eastern ships against a lee shore). Once an army was ashore it had a reasonable chance of defeating the incumbent power, then blockading Carthage into surrender and driving resistance out into the deserts, as carried out by Scipio Africanus in 203–2BC and Belisarius in AD533. Had the alleged overwhelming size of the combined Eastern and Western force secured victory, the corn and tax revenues of prosperous North Africa would have been restored to the Western Empire and it could have raised the men to tackle the smaller kingdoms of German-held Spain (e.g. the Suevi).

A success by Majorian in Africa in 462–3 (his expedition was defeated en route and he was overthrown by Ricimer) would have been more useful in regaining Spain than a success by Anthemius and Basiliscus in 468, as by 468 the Goths were more entrenched in Spain. But either expedition could have regained Africa and tipped the balance of resources in the Western Empire’s favour, at least securing it control of nearer parts of Spain. This would have helped the Empire to hold onto central and southern Gaul too, with or without a war against the Goths who only gained control of the Auvergne region around 470. The North was partly ruled by survivors of Aetius’ Gallic army, under Aegidius and his son Syagrius, until 486 and this force (based at Soissons) was likely to rally to the Empire if the latter was in the ascendant. In that case, a revived Mediterranean-based Western Empire that Majorian or Anthemius had secured North Africa would have been viable for decades but for an external threat or civil war.

This smaller Empire could still have avoided ruinous civil war if there had been a stable succession within one dynasty, which could have been that of Valentinian III, his son-in-law Olybrius, and grandson Areobindus from 425 to around 510 or Anthemius’ family, or the role could have been taken by a series of strong military leaders such as Aetius, Majorian, Marcellinus, and Julius Nepos. It was actual or potential Roman civil wars that gave the Germanic tribal leaders their opportunities, from the time when Stilicho neglected tackling the invasion of Gaul in 406–8 to concentrate on the Eastern succession to the power-struggle in Rome in 455.

Holding onto its remaining Mediterranean territory with a viable army led by Roman generals, the Empire should have avoided becoming the puppet of German officers such as Ricimer. The latter’s emergence as commander-in-chief and Emperor-maker in the later 450s would have been inconceivable had Aetius been alive, and in any case he could have been overthrown by his Emperor (for instance the capable Majorian) as in the East the Germanic commander-in-chief Aspar was killed in 467 by his puppet Leo I. Majorian’s defeat of the Vandals, rather than his own defeat, in 461–2 would have strengthened both him and his rump Empire, and in 467–8 the Eastern fleet could have defeated Gaiseric and reconquered North Africa for the new Emperor Anthemius.

If the Western Empire had defeated the invasion of Theodoric in circa. 492–3 the state should have had no more military challenges into the sixth century, when it would have posed a tempting challenge to the aggressive Eastern ruler Justinian. (Being orthodox instead of Arian like the Gothic kingdom of Italy would not have saved it; the East had attacked the West already in 351–2, 388, 394, 425 and 467). The likelihood is that Justinian would have sought to reabsorb the West even had it been ruled by a Roman Emperor rather than several disunited heretic German kings, but he might have regarded this as a lower priority and taken on the Sassanids for a long-term war first. The attempt at reunification would have been risky, as in real life Justinian could only spare small armies to carry it out (due to the Persian threat to the Eastern frontier) and if the West had survived he would have been facing a Roman ‘comitatus’. But he could still have attempted it, particularly in order to remove a theologically unorthodox, possibly Arian, Emperor or to exploit a civil war. It appears from the contemporary accounts of the great plague that commenced in 542 that this cost millions of lives, and thus would have reduced military capability to send an adequate army West thereafter. But an attack before that date was still feasible, with the caveat that independently of internal Roman politics a new wave of Germanic, Asiatic (Hun and Avar), and Slavic attacks was disrupting the Balkans by the 540s.

Assuming Justinian and his general Belisarius had succeeded in invading the West, there would have been one Empire as last seen under Theodosius I in 394–5. The Imperial writ would have run from the upper Euphrates and upper Nile valleys to Southern Gaul and the Straits of Gibraltar, with or without a surviving Rhine frontier (which even if it had not been breached in 406 could have fallen to a migration of refugees from Attila’s empire in the 430s). The West could then have been given to a separate ruler in a new division of power in the later sixth century, as appears to have been considered as an option in real life by Tiberius II in 582. At the time, the possible division of power between Tiberius’ son-in-law Maurice (East) and Germanus Postumus (West) would have left a weakened West struggling to hold back the Lombards in an Italy ravaged by Gothic wars. But there could have been been no Gothic occupation of Italy in 493 (or any grant of land to Germans in 476), or a more decisive victory for the East by 540 without Totila’s subsequent fight-back. In these scenarios, Italy would have been free from the presence of German settlers with homes to defend against the Eastern troops and a ruinous war would not have occurred.

Even in the circumstances of real-life 540, the East had driven the Goths back into the Po valley and their demoralised remnants were reduced to inviting Belisarius (evidently admired as a chivalrous foe) to become their ruler. (This did not do his reputation any good with his suspicious Emperor.) The Goths’ initially successful recovery in the early 540s was partly due to the capable Totila taking on the command; partly due to Justinian’s recall of Belisarius and many of his soldiers, and partly due to Roman manpower losses in the devastating plague of 542–3. The Persian attack on Syria and sack of Antioch made the recalls probable, and the plague meant that Justinian could not send an adequate army West until his nephew Germanus’ mission in 550 (aborted by the general’s death). Justinian, like George Bush in Iraq in 2003, seems to have been too eager to proclaim ‘mission accomplished’ and not alert to the possibility of revolt. But what if Totila had been won over or killed quickly, or Belisarius had not been recalled? Italy would have been in a far better condition to meet any new invasions in the later sixth century, though still denuded of manpower if the plague of 542 had occurred. As it was, the land had already been ruined by decades of Romans and Goths fighting over it before the Lombards moved in, making conquest easier, and Justinian’s extortionate tax demands did not help agricultural recovery either.

The survival of the Western Empire during 476–535 would have provided a ‘comitatus’ to be incorporated into Justinian’s army at the reconquest, and a stronger force available to hold back the Lombards. The Western Empire, possibly incorporating southern Gaul and Spain as well as Berber-raided North Africa, should have survived as a viable political entity into the seventh century. Crucially, providing there were good relations with the current Eastern Emperor it would have been able to send him troops to fight the Persian incursions in the 610s, and later to fight the Arabs. But if the plague of 542 had carried off up to half the population, as estimated by Procopius, military manpower (and tax revenues to hire troops from outside the Empire) would have been smaller in the later sixth century than in the fourth and fifth. The military challenges from the new nomad threat, the Avar empire (centred in the Hungarian basin and Wallachia like Attila’s), and the mass-movements of its fleeing enemies (e.g. the Lombards) would have prevented a peaceful and prosperous future for the united or divided Empire of the period 570–600.

Dyrrhachium 48 BC

Battle of Dyrrhachium 48 BC

Commanders: Caesar v Pompey

Numbers: Caesar: c25000 legionaries; a few cavalry and auxiliaries. Pompey: c36000 legionaries; a strong cavalry force.

1 Pompey mobilises in the East (500 war galleys plus unspecified number of other craft).

2 After subduing Pompey’s legions in Spain Caesar crosses Adriatic in winter with 7 legions.

3 Caesar surrounds Pompey’s larger force at Dyrrhachium with a circumvallation.

4 Pompey continuously reinforced and supplied by sea.

5 Early Spring: Mark Antony crossing the Adriatic reinforces Caesar with 4 legions.

6 Pompey succeeds in breaking through Caesar’s lines.

7 Caesar’s counter-attack is repulsed with heavy loss.

8 Pompey fails to take advantage.

9 Caesar raises siege and marches eastward to Thessaly.

10 Pompey imprudently follows him to Pharsalus.

At last, Pompey’s legati, Afranius and Petreius, were themselves cut off from supplies and forced to capitulate. After much fighting, Massilia (Marseille) also surrendered. Caesar returned to Italy, ready for an offensive against Pompey himself. In January 48 risking everything, for Pompey’s ships controlled the Adriatic, Caesar crossed the Adriatic Sea from Brundisium with 12 understrength legions totaling perhaps 25,000 men. Successfully evading Pompey’s fleet, Caesar landed on the coast of Epirus (present-day Albania), south of Pompey’s base at Dyrrhachium (presentday Durres, also known as Durazzo) in what is today western Albania. Caesar then ordered his ships to return to Brundisium to bring back an additional 20,000 men under Mark Antony, but Pompey’s fleet blockaded Antony’s ships at Brundisium. Learning of Caesar’s landing, Pompey marched there from Epirus, forestalling Caesar’s attempt to seize Dyrrhachium.

Caesar had brought with him Pompey’s officer Vibullius Rufus, whom he had captured for a second time in Spain, and he sent him to Pompey with a renewed peace proposal. Caesar pointed out that both sides had suffered serious reverses – himself in the loss of Curio and his army in Africa, and C. Antonius’s army in Illyria, and Pompey in being driven from Italy and Sicily, and losing his army and provinces in Spain – so that it would be wise to arrive at a compromise settlement before either side was harmed further. He proposed that both sides should swear to lay down arms and disband their armies within three days, and that they should let the Senate and people of Rome settle the differences between them. That amounted to a return to politics as normal before the creation of Caesar’s and Pompey’s great commands; but this proposal was dismissed out of hand by Pompey. Since the two armies were stationed not far from each other, however, and soldiers from both were in the habit of going down to the Apsus river on their respective sides for water, a certain amount of fraternizing arose between men on each side, which Caesar encouraged. It culminated in an exchange of harangues between Vatinius on Caesar’s side, and Labienus on Pompey’s, at which Labienus had his troops suddenly fire a volley of missiles at Caesar’s men and closed things by declaring that the only acceptable peace terms were Caesar’s head on a platter

In March 48 able to slip past Pompey’s blockading fleet, Antony delivered Caesar’s remaining legions north of Dyrrhachium. Informed of Antony’s arrival, Pompey moved to defeat Caesar’s forces in detail before they could unite, but Caesar was as usual quicker and managed to link up with Antony at Tirana and cut Pompey off from Dyrrhachium by land. Because his forces dominated at sea, however, Pompey was still able to communicate with his base of Dyrrhachium.

Realizing that the countryside was largely bereft of supplies and yet able to secure plentiful stocks for his own men from Dyrrhachium, Pompey decided to remain quiescent in the hopes of starving Caesar into submission. Caesar was able to secure sufficient food supplies, however. Always offensive minded, he initiated a bold siege of Pompey’s beachhead with a force half the size of that of his adversary. Both sides constructed extensive fortifications.

The armies of Caesar and Pompey confronted each other at Dyrrhachium (Durazzo). Caesar’s force was the smaller, perhaps three-quarters the size of Pompey’s, but it was the better army. Pompey realized this and wisely avoided a pitched battle, choosing instead to fortify an enclave on the Adriatic coast, 15 Roman miles (13.8 miles, 22.2 km) in perimeter. Caesar characteristically enclosed this enclave with his own outer circumvallation.

Pompey had fortified a position along the coast south of Dyrrhachium, thus securing his resupply by sea. Caesar interposed his army between Dyrrhachium and Pompey and set about investing Pompey’s army with his own, smaller army. The two sides raced to occupy and fortify the hills-Caesar to close Pompey in, Pompey to force Caesar to spread his forces out as thinly as possible-and then to connect the hill forts with walls. Pompey built twenty-four forts and enclosed an area large enough to graze animals. Caesar had to construct trenches and walls fifteen miles long, that is, about one legion for every two miles. Each construction put his men in extreme danger as Pompey would occupy an adjacent hill with archers, slingers, light-armed troops, and artillery.

Caesar’s troops had to fight and build at the same time. If Pompey could bring enough force to bear, he would assault their position. Attack provoked counterattack, and Caesar’s troops were fighting continuously, they were outnumbered, and their supplies ran short, but their morale was high because they were working for victory, and they considered that they had the moral edge over their more numerous opponent, who avoided open battle. Caesar’s soldiers on sentry duty called to Pompey’s troops that they would sooner eat the bark from the trees than let Pompey slip from their hands. Deserters brought the news to Caesar that Pompey’s horses were at the point of death, the rest of the animals were being slaughtered, and the men were not in good health because of the confined space, the noxious odor of rotting corpses, and the daily labor of those unaccustomed to labor, and-since Caesar had diverted or dammed all the rivers and streams that made their way to the sea through Pompey’s zone-they were affected by lack of water.

As the siege worked its effects on Pompey’s army, Pompey ordered a general attack all along the line. Six battles were fought in one day, three at Dyrrhachium, three along the line of fortifications. Pompey lost some 2,000 men, many centurions, and six military standards. Caesar lost only twenty men, but in one fort every man was wounded, four centurions in one cohort lost an eye, 30,000 arrows were fixed in the fort, and the shield of one centurion had 120 holes in it. Pompey’s situation continued to worsen until two Gallic deserters brought to him the complete details of Caesar’s dispositions, commanders, and units and revealed that the lower end of Caesar’s line of fortifications had not been completed. Pompey sent sixty cohorts by land and sea in a dawn attack on the exposed fortifications. He drove Caesar’s troops back, and only Caesar’s personal intervention saved the situation. Caesar’s counterattack failed, and he decided to break contact and march inland.

Military history in general tends to familiarize us with battles which are decided on a fateful day and battlefields which are reminiscent of playing fields. By contrast, Caesar’s mode of fighting, with its reliance on earthworks and ditches, anticipates protracted twentieth century struggles amid extensively prepared positions. At Dyrrhachium, Pompey’s determination not to be drawn into a pitched battle was in every way wise. He had access to seaborne supplies and reinforcements, while Caesar, without a navy, was cut off from Italy. The besiegers grew hungrier than the besieged, but lacking corn they resorted to digging up a local root which could be mixed with milk and made edible.

Caesar’s strategy at Dyrrhachium· thus ended in fiasco, and he marched away into Thessaly, perhaps threatening Thessalonica or perhaps mainly in search of corn.

DYRRHACHIUM: LESNIKIA R (48) – Second Civil W ar

When Caesar heard that Pompey was at Asparagiurn, he moved there and camped nearby. The next morning he offered battle. Pompey was anxious to avoid this in spite of his overwhelming numerical superiority as his troops were inferior in training to Caesar’s veterans. When the offer was refused, Caesar decided to make for Dyrrhachium [Durres], Pompey’s base. By heading off in a different direction and making a detour, Caesar outwitted his foe and got there first as Pompey appeared in the distance. Pompey, excluded from the town, built a strong camp south of the town on a hill called Petra close to the Bay of Dyrrhachium, where he established a well-stocked base. Caesar camped further inland and started blockading Pompey by constructing a line of forts with entrenchments between them, stretching from sea to sea over a distance of about 12 miles. Pompey retaliated by making a similar but shorter line of fortifications inside Caesar’s line. Military activities in the early stages were confined to harassment and attempts to confine the other and deny access to supplies and provisions. Caesar mentions that in one day alone there were six engagements which accounted for enemy losses of about 2,000 casualties. When Pompey decided to attempt a break-out, a bigger battle did ensue.

In the middle of the night he led 60 cohorts to the southern end of the encircling fortifications where they joined the sea. At the same time he embarked a large force of archers and light-armed troops, whom he sent to the same shoreline accompanied by his warships. At this point Caesar’s line was a double wall consisting of two parallel lines of ramparts and trenches a few hundred yards apart. They extended from the sea for about 2 miles inland at which point there was a camp, occupied at the time by Lentulus Marcellinus. These fortifications had been built by Caesar in the early stages of the campaign but had not been quite completed. The cross wall connecting the two ramparts by the sea had never been built, and Pompey had heard about this deficiency from deserters. At the time of Pompey’s attack, two cohorts of Caesar’s Ninth legion were camping by the sea. The attackers started hurling missiles from outside the outer rampart while others attacked the inner rampart from the other side. The defenders, between the walls, had only stones with which to retaliate. They were already suffering badly when the enemy noticed that there was no cross wall and managed to get into the space between the ramparts from the shore. Taken on the flank as well as in the front and rear, the defenders turned to flight. Some cohorts which were sent to the rescue from Marcellinus’ camp failed to achieve anything except to increase the confusion and to get in the way. Finally, Antony arrived with 12 cohorts and drove the enemy back. The final disgrace was avoided when a legionary standard bearer just managed to hand on his eagle, the supreme emblem, before he expired. After his victory Pompey built a new camp, situated on the shore to the south of the circumvallation, outside the blockade.

This battle consisted in fact of two distinct engagements and what has been described was only the first. The second phase took place in the same area and centred round an old camp of Caesar’s situated in the plain between his double fortification and the southern end of Pompey’s line of works to the north. A river, the Lesnikia [Gesnike], ran on the north side of this camp through the plain to the sea. Caesar heard that Pompey was moving troops into this camp and he sent 33 cohorts in two columns to attack it. The left column got into the camp and forced the occupants back; but the right column encountered a rampart which they thought was the camp wall. In fact, it ran from the camp to the river. Unable to find a gate, they broke through the rampart near the river and got into the plain on the other side. Pompey then led five legions and some cavalry to the relief of the camp. When Caesar’s right column tried to retire they came up once more against the rampart which led to the river. Unable to get through en masse, many of them jumped from the top of the rampart into the trench and were trampled down by those that followed. When the left column saw that the right was in rout, it too turned and fled. Caesar himself attempted to halt the headlong flight but no one paid any attention to him. A chastened Caesar admitted to losing 960 legionaries, the majority of them from the 9th Legion, as well as 36 officers-4 of the rank of general and 32 tribunes and centurions. And he had hundreds more wounded; Caesar never revealed exactly how many, but the number was substantial enough, together with the fatalities, to reduce the effectiveness of the 8th and 9th Legions to the point that Caesar later combined the two. But had Pompey followed up on his success, Caesar could have lost the war. Yet again, Julius Caesar’s luck prevailed.

These encounters are now known as the Battle of the Lesnikia. Caesar, however, does not name the river and neither Appian nor Dio Cassius mention a river at all.

Rome in Gaul Before Caesar I

In 125 BC Massalia once again appealed to Rome for help. This time she was under pressure from the Saluvii, and perhaps also the Vocontii, who lived between the Rhône and the Isère rivers. The exact course of the campaign or its effects are extremely difficult to reconstruct as the sources for this period are few and at times contradictory. The consul Marcus Fulvius Flaccus was sent probably with the normal two legions and allies to their aid. His route is not specified in the sources but it appears likely that he marched by way of the Alpine passes and through the territory of the Vocontii. He defeated the Saluvii and Vocontii in battle, but there is no indication as to where these battles took place.

By the opening of the campaigning season of 124 a new consul, Gaius Sextius Calvinus, had arrived. He continued operations in Gaul until 122. The sources claim that he defeated the same tribes as Flaccus had, which seems to indicate that Flaccus’s successes had not been decisive. The combined actions of both consuls seem finally to have solved the problem of the Saluvii. The next reference to them is a rebellion in 90.

In addition to his military activity, Sextius established a garrison at Aquae Sextiae (Aix-en-Provence) in 123 where he seems to have won a battle against the Saluvii. Aix replaced the main town of the Saluvii Entremont, which was perhaps destroyed during this campaign. The garrison was located at an important road junction that served to protect the coastal route and as a further measure of security the tribes were forced to pull back from the coast. The foundation of Aix marks the next stage in Roman penetration of the area. For the first time there was a permanent Roman presence in Transalpine Gaul. It appears that Massalia was no longer capable of protecting the eastern part of this vital route for Roman campaigns in Spain.

The campaigns of Sextius did not mark the end of Roman intervention. The king and some of the leading men of the Saluvii fled to the Allobroges, a larger and more important tribe whose territory was situated along the Rhône north of the Saluvii, and which extended from the River Isère east to the Alps. They had also attacked the Aedui, whose land lay north of the Allobroges in Burgundy and who now appealed to the Romans for aid. They were one of the most important of the Gallic tribes. At some point before the late 120s they had concluded an alliance with Rome and were recognized as related by blood to the Romans, perhaps on the basis of a myth of a common Trojan origin. Why the Romans did so is not clear. There is a parallel in the relationship with Saguntum, which also lay deep in Carthaginian territory and in a period when Rome had no manifest interest in Spain. It is possible that the Romans saw such an alliance as a way to deter powerful tribes from attacking the coastal route. They would be able to use the threat of the Aedui who lay to the enemy’s rear as a buffer.

The refusal of the Allobroges to return the Saluvian fugitives led to the sending of another expedition under a consul of 122, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus. War with the Allobroges led to a wider conflict. The Allobroges were subordinate to the Arverni whose territory lay in the Auvergne in south-central France. They were the most powerful tribe in southern France. Some later sources talk of an Arvernian empire extending from the Pyrenees to the Rhine. But it is more likely that, as was the case with the Allobroges, they had a number of weaker tribes as clients. For unknown reasons Domitius did not begin the major phase of his campaign until the following year. The chief of the Arverni, Bituitus, sent an embassy to meet with Domitius, perhaps to persuade him to call off the campaign. Since Bituitus’s envoys refused to hand over the Saluvian chiefs or to settle other Roman grievances the embassy ended in failure. Domitius defeated a combined army of Arverni and Allobroges under the command of Bituitus at a site called Vindalium. Its exact location is unknown but it appears that it lay about 6 miles (10km) north of Avignon. Although we lack any details about the course of the battle the sources report heavy casualties among the Gauls.

Once again, in 121 another consul, Quintus Fabius Maximus, was sent out who seems to have operated jointly with Domitius. Domitius’ victory may have weakened the Gauls but it had not put an end to the conflict. Fabius moved north and somewhere near the confluence of the Rhône and the Isère decisively defeated a combined army of Allobroges, Arverni and Ruteni (another client of the Arverni who lived in the southern Massif-Central). The date was August 121. Bituitus was captured and deported to Italy where he was detained at a villa south of Rome. Fabius and Domitius both celebrated triumphs in 121. The Allobroges as well as the Saluvii were now under Roman control of some sort, while the Arverni and the tribes to the north were left independent.

Fabius followed a standard Roman practice and added the title Allobrogicus to his name in recognition of his victory. He further memorialized it by the erection of a triumphal arch. Domitius’s celebration of his victory was more exotic. According to Suetonius, the biographer of his descendant the emperor Nero:

During his consulate after defeating the Allobroges and Arverni he was carried through the province on an elephant accompanied by a crowd of soldiers as though he was celebrating a triumph.

Other sources mention the fact that Domitius had elephants with his army and had used them to great effect against the Gauls who presumably had never before encountered them.

Domitius’s procession through southern Gaul had less colourful aspects as well. He gave his name to a new road, the Via Domitia, which ran from the west bank of the Rhône at Tarascon to a major pass over the Pyrenees at Le Perthus. The road speeded the movement of men and supplies to Spain where the Romans were still engaged in pacifying the tribes of the centre and west of the peninsula. The road has yielded the earliest Roman milestone we possess, which bears the name of Domitius and records that it marks the 20th Roman mile from Narbo Martius (Narbonne).

Narbo, founded probably in 118, was, unlike the garrison at Aix, a citizen colony; the first founded outside of Italy. In part it must have fulfilled the same function as Aix and Massilia in protecting, in this case, the portion of the route to Spain that lay to the west of the Rhône. It was also located at a site of great commercial importance, and even before the advent of the Romans the site had played an important role in trade. It sat astride an important trade route that ran through Toulouse and linked it to Aquitania and the Bay of Biscay. Although the major reason for this colony as for other Roman colonies was strategic, there is no doubt that the commercial benefits of the site were readily apparent and Italians were quick to take advantage of them. The foundation of the colony was followed by a growth in Italian imports and an increase in local coinage based on the standard Roman coin the denarius.

Its foundation should be linked as well to political problems at Rome. Access to and ownership of land had become a pressing social and political issue. The devastation of southern Italy during the Second Punic War had driven many peasants off their land. Added to this pressure were the constant demands of prolonged military service outside of Italy. The peasant soldier had normally been the main source of labour on his farm and his absence, often for as much as six years, outside of Italy led to severe economic consequences for his family. Added to this was the effect of Rome’s conquests, particularly in the eastern Mediterranean. Enormous wealth in the form of booty flowed to the Roman state, but especially into the hands of the aristocracy. The prestige and safety associated with land ownership led the aristocracy to expand their land holdings at the expense of peasant farmers. Adding to the pressure on small-holders was the importation of slaves acquired in Rome’s wars and their use as agricultural labourers on the elite’s estates. It has been estimated that between the beginning of the Second Punic War and the middle of the first century about 500,000 slaves were imported into Italy. Seasonal labour on estates, which had been used to supplement peasant income, was now no longer available. The pressure on this group is evident in the continued movement of population from the countryside into the cities of Italy.

All of these factors had an effect on Rome’s armies. Military service in the legions was based on the possession of a certain minimum amount of property. Most of those who served were drawn from the rural population. As they lost their farms they no longer qualified for service and this created manpower problems for the levy. Added to this was a conflict in Spain where the Romans were involved in a prolonged guerrilla war that offered few prospects of booty for the average soldier.

By 133 this had become a major issue in Roman politics. After a difficult political struggle one of the tribunes of the plebs, Tiberius Gracchus, passed a law distributing plots of Roman public land to landless citizens. Despite his death in a brawl with his political enemies, a commission established by the law continued with the distributions but by about 120 the available public land in Italy seems to have been all but exhausted. It is in this context that we can place a proposal by Tiberius’s younger brother Gaius, in 123 or 122, to found a colony on the site of Carthage. With the death of Gaius in 122, also as the result of political conflict, the plan for a citizen colony at Carthage was abandoned.

These struggles over the issue of land and other benefits for the Roman lower classes had become deeply intertwined in elite politics. A division opened between those who pushed for such legislation and those who fought against it. A variety of economic and political interests were involved on both sides as members of the aristocracy struggled with each other for prestige and political office. Just as there had been in the case of the colony at Carthage, so there was a great deal of resistance to the founding of Narbo. The proposal was seen as a manoeuvre by those favouring popular legislation to enhance their political position. Despite opposition in the Senate to the measure it was carried. Some scholars have claimed that the basis for the opposition was the distance and isolated position of the colony. This does not seem persuasive. Earlier colonies in Italy, such as Placentia, founded in 218, had often been located at exposed sites. Also, southern Gaul offered a fertile area for Italian settlement. Its climate and topography were similar to Italy’s. By the first century Pliny the Elder could refer to southern Gaul as ‘more Italy than a province’.

The campaigns of 125–121 had been fought exclusively to the east of the Rhône; apparently the Romans had little trouble with the tribes west of the river. The inability of Massalia to maintain control of a vital route had drawn the Romans into southern Gaul. They had subjugated an area extending on the west from the Pyrenees to the Alps on the east, and bordered on the north by the Massif Central and the Cevennes. The lack of any further conquests for seventy years supports the idea that Roman goals in Transalpine Gaul were limited. The main aim seems to have been to safeguard the route to Spain by land and to maintain control of the coastal ports. The more difficult question is what mechanisms they used to achieve those objectives.

The major controversy has centred on the formation of a province which the Romans called Transalpina, or Transalpine Gaul to distinguish it from the Gallic area on the Italian side of the Alps, Cisalpina. The basic meaning of the Roman term provincia (province) is the sphere in which a magistrate or promagistrate (a magistrate whose powers are continued after his term in office has ended) is empowered to act. The province need not be a military command; it designates any sort of politically approved activity. For instance, it included the legal activities of praetors in Italy at Rome or the various duties of quaestors including financial supervision. In 59 Caesar and his fellow consul were given the administration of Italy’s woods and public pasturelands as their province after they left office. For the consuls and praetors, as well as proconsuls and propraetors, the sphere of activity was usually military. The consul and proconsuls were the magistrates that waged Rome’s wars. Rome’s first overseas provinces of Sicily and Sardinia/Corsica were governed by additional praetors, and two more were added to govern the Spanish provinces after 197. The need in these areas for continued oversight led to provincia developing a geographical meaning as an established administrative area. The process developed haphazardly, especially in the west. In the eastern Mediterranean the previously established administrative apparatus of Hellenistic kingdoms and states offered the Romans a system they could use as a basis for their own administrative organization. The lack of such structures in western Europe, and the diffuse nature of tribal authority, made the process far more difficult.

A province in the fullest sense would be a geographical area that possessed a Roman administrative structure under the supervision of a Roman governor. The origin of provinces as military command often meant that administration and control developed slowly and haphazardly. For example, Sicily was conquered by the Romans in 241 but it was not until 227 that a governor was sent. In Spain the process unfolded in the opposite direction. From 197 Roman Spain was divided into two provinces but it was not until 180 that a formal administrative structure developed.

The problem is complicated in the case of Transalpine Gaul. For one thing we know very little about the settlements with the defeated tribes after the campaigns of the late 120s. Caesar informs us that neither the Arverni nor the Ruteni were reduced to provincial status or had yearly taxes imposed upon them. This may imply that Rome concluded treaties with them in place of governing them directly. There is more ambiguity about the status of the other tribes that Rome had defeated. The Allobroges surrendered unconditionally, as presumably did the Saluvii, Ligurians, and the Vocontii who occupied the western foothills of the Alps south of the Allobroges. It has been suggested that Rome bound the tribes by a series of treaties but is more likely that the area became a lightly administered province. There is support for this in the sources, who mention that the Saluvii rebelled in 90. The remark implies that they were directly subordinated to Rome.

One problem with accepting the establishment of a province at this time has been the absence of evidence for a regular succession of governors. It makes it more difficult that an individual can be specified as having Transalpine Gaul as his area of action without any explicit reference as to whether he was also administering it. For instance, Gaius Valerius Flaccus, who had been consul in 93, is mentioned in the sources as proconsul in Gaul from 84–81, but this may have been in connection with the war then raging in Spain and so is no certain indication that he was the governor of the province. The first definitely-identifiable governor was Marcus Fonteius, who probably served in Transalpine Gaul from 74 to 72. But even this is not totally certain. By Caesar’s time he can refer to all of south Gaul simply as ‘the province’, which provides our first unambiguous evidence.

Prior to Fonteius the whole of southern Gaul seems to have often been administered by the governors of contiguous provinces. The western portion often fell under the purview of the governor of Nearer Spain while the part east of the Rhône was assigned to the governor of Cisalpine Gaul. This again implies nothing about the status of Transalpine Gaul. Caesar was assigned Transalpine Gaul as a supplementary command when he had been given Cisalpine Gaul.

There is no definitive evidence for the status of southern Gaul until Caesar’s time. In part this is the result of the absence of sources for this period. It is also a result of the relative absence of conflict in Gaul for most of the period before Caesar, except for a major crisis caused by the migration of two German tribes towards the end of the second century.

In 113 a wandering tribe of Germans, the Cimbri, had been laying waste the Celtic kingdom of Noreia, which was allied to the Romans and located in the eastern Alps south of the River Danube. The consul Gnaeus Papirius Carbo, fearing a possible invasion of Italy, confronted them. After entering into negotiations with them he launched a surprise attack and was disastrously defeated. The Cimbri and their fellow Germans the Teutones seem to have begun a migration from their homeland in Jutland in modern Denmark around 120. The reasons for the migration were as disputed in antiquity as they are today. One possibility is that they were driven out by the slow encroachment of the sea on their homeland or some sort of climatic change. But there may have been other factors at work. The last two centuries BC are marked by the migrations of other northern European tribes and the Cimbri and Teutones may simply be part of this larger movement. Their actions and negotiations with the Romans suggest they were looking both for plunder and for new lands to settle in. Their initial movement was towards eastern Europe and the Danube. However, they were defeated by the tribes already established there and turned west, where they encountered Carbo. After his defeat the Germans could have crossed the Alps into Italy but for unknown reasons turned west again. They seem to have remained in the area of the Rhine for a year, where they were joined by Celtic tribes including the Tigurini, a sub-tribe of the Helvetii. Finally in 110, or a little earlier, they crossed the Rhine into Gaul.

In 109 the Cimbri defeated the consul Marcus Junius Silanus, probably near Lake Geneva. The Cimbri followed up their victory with a request to the Roman Senate for land to settle in, probably in Gaul, in return for performing military service. The Senate refused and it is not clear what land could have been given to them. Two years later a Roman army once again met the wandering tribes. The consul Lucius Cassius Longinus and his legate Lucius Calpurnius Piso had been operating near the colony at Narbo in an attempt to pacify the area, which had been thrown into turmoil by the arrival of the Germans. The Tigurini encountered Cassius in the territory of the Nitiobriges, which lay in south-west Aquitaine. Cassius fought the Tigurini under their war leader Divico near the town of Aginnum, probably modern Agen; and suffered a crushing defeat. Both the consul and his legate were killed and the survivors surrendered unconditionally. These two defeats shook Roman prestige in Gaul to its core. Soon after the campaigns of the 120s a garrison had been established at Tolosa (Toulouse) to guard the road to Spain where it ran west of the Rhône. It lay, as did Narbo, in the territory of the Volcae Tectosages, who may have had a treaty with the Romans. The loss of land to Narbo and the presence of the garrison at Toulouse were clearly irritants for the Volcae and with the defeat of Cassius they rose in revolt and imprisoned the garrison.

Rome in Gaul Before Caesar II

Given the unstable situation in Gaul a consul of 106, Quintus Servilius Caepio, was sent against the Volcae and suppressed the rebellion. He did not have to immediately face the Cimbri who were far to the north in the Seine basin. Perhaps Caepio’s victory set them in motion once again, looking for an easier point of entry into the Roman controlled lands of the south. They moved east to the Rhône and then down its eastern bank as far as Arausio (Orange) in 105. One of the consuls, Gnaeus Mallius, was posted there awaiting the Germans. Caepio had been retained in command as proconsul and he seems to have been assigned the area to the west of the Rhône while Mallius was to keep watch to the east of the river. The appearance of the Cimbri and the defeat and death of his legate Scaurus led Mallius to summon Caepio to his aid, but relations between the two men were strained. The question at issue was seniority in command. As consul, Mallius would normally have been senior to Caepio who was now in 105 serving as a proconsul. But Caepio claimed his command was independent and not subordinated to Mallius. Caepio moved up to the Rhône’s west bank but at first did not cross it. The dispute between the two continued until Caepio, in fear that Mallius would win the glory of a victory without him, crossed to the east bank and encamped between Mallius and the enemy in hope of defeating the Cimbri before Mallius could come up. Together the two must have had an army of about 50,000 to 60,000 men including four legions and allies. There seem to have been two separate engagements in which the Romans were outflanked and totally defeated. Both camps were then taken and sacked. The sources claim that the defeat, with a loss of 80,000 men, was the most devastating since Cannae in the Second Punic War. The date of the battle is given as 6 October 105, which was added to the religious calendar as a dies nefastus, an ill-omened day on which no public business could be conducted. The figure of 80,000 is clearly not credible, but it is clear that Roman losses were very heavy and southern Gaul was now open to invasion.

The tribes of northern Europe were certainly the most formidable foes that Rome faced in this period, but the series of Roman defeats against the tribes are surprising. During the campaigns of 125–120 the Romans had faced large Gallic armies and had consistently beaten them. There is no indication in the sources that the Germans had superior equipment. The weapons finds in German areas point to the dominance of infantry and the relative lightness of their equipment. Little body armour has been found but it may have been made of perishable materials. The finds do show the importance of missile weapons, which indicate a reliance on speed and agility among Germanic warriors. Unfortunately little is known about German tactics or strategy although it is clear that they were able to plan large-scale tactical movements. Their string of victories is all the more surprising in that for most of the next three centuries the Romans were normally able to win set-piece battles against them. The Roman disaster at the Teutoburger Wood in AD 9, where three legions were destroyed, was the result of an ambush not a formal battle. The difference in numbers is not a sufficient explanation. In general Greek and Roman sources give impossible figures. At a later battle the sources claim that the Germans had 300,000 warriors, but this seems impossible. The best that can be said is that in some of these encounters the German forces were larger. But as these later battles show they were hardly unbeatable. In the encounters of 113, 109 and 107 BC it may well be that superior numbers told. At Arausio it seems not to have been a question of numbers but rather of lack of coordination and incompetence on the Roman side.

Luckily for the Romans the Germans did not immediately move south. They moved into Celtic territories which were closer and less strongly defended. The Germans tribes now separated, with the Teutones and Ambrones along with the Tigurini plundering the lands of the Arverni in south-central Gaul after failing to defeat the Belgae in north-eastern France. The Cimbri pillaged Languedoc and then moved south to the lands of Celts and Iberians in northwestern Spain. Their plundering there was not successful. They were defeated by the Celtiberi of north-central Spain and turned north, re-entering Gaul by the spring of 103.

The fear of the northern barbarians and the string of Roman defeats created panic at Rome. A successful but difficult war had just ended against the Numidian prince Jugurtha in 105, after a series of campaigns that stretched over six years and were at times marked by incompetence and corruption. The war had damaged relations between the Senate and the broader mass of citizens. The victorious commander Gaius Marius celebrated a triumph for his victory on 1 January 104. Marius came from a locally-important family at Arpinum, a town 60 miles (96km) southeast of Rome. His rise to the consulship had resulted from patronage extended by certain leading aristocratic families, his ties to various financial interests and his military ability. The last had led to his appointment to command in the war against Jugurtha despite strong senatorial opposition. In the aftermath of Arausio he was the obvious choice and was elected as consul for 104 and given the command against the Germans. Many military reforms have been ascribed to Marius in preparation for the northern campaign, but many of them are dubious. Some seem authentic and seem to have been due to Marius’s efforts, including the encouragement of a greater level of professionalism and the introduction of more intensive weapons-training and steps taken to increase the mobility of the legions.

After their return from Spain the Cimbri reunited with the Teutones and the other wandering tribes near Rouen. It was here that a decision was taken to invade Italy. What prompted this decision is far from clear. Italy was to continue to attract northerners throughout antiquity and in this period, and later its wealth and climate were continuous attractions for those living north of the Alps. The Alps could be a formidable barrier at certain times of the year but the Cimbri had already crossed and re-crossed the Pyrenees, and the Alpine passes were easier to negotiate for those coming from the north than they were for movement in the opposite direction. In addition, the Romans must have seemed a less than formidable foe. Every time the tribes had encountered them they had beaten them and the Romans were the only power that had sufficient strength to successfully oppose them.

Whatever the actual numbers involved, it is probable that for logistic reasons, and perhaps to create additional problems for the defence, the tribes decided to descend into Italy separately. The Tigurini were to proceed by way of Noricum (part of Austria) and the Julian Alps into Cisalpine Gaul, the Cimbri, some way to the east by the Brenner Pass and the Adige River while the Teutones and Ambrones were to pass into Italy through the Roman province and then cross the Maritime Alps. The likeliest time for this decision would have been towards the end of 103.

The consul and his army, probably consisting of five legions totalling about 30,000 men and perhaps 40,000 allies, arrived in Gaul in the late spring or early summer of 104. He did not pursue the Germans but set about defending the east bank of the Rhône. The exact site of his camp is not known, but it was either at Arles, the lowest ford on the Rhône, or more probably near the confluence of the Isère and the Rhône at Valence where the valley of the Isère leads to the Alpine pass of the Little St Bernard. It may be at this point that Marius expected the German invasion would come down the Rhône and through the Maritime Alps. We do not know where his colleague Gaius Flavius Fimbria was, but it is not unlikely that he was posted in Cisalpine Gaul as was the case in 102. Perhaps because he did not trust the Allobroges or because they were unable to supply the number of troops involved, Marius had his men construct a canal linking Fos-sur Mer to the Rhône and its confluence with the Isère. It simplified the problem of moving supplies upstream in a river known for its strong downstream currents. It was probably built over the winter of 103/2.

Certainly the Romans had learned of the Germans’ plans by the beginning of 102. While Marius was posted in southern Gaul the other consul of 102, Quintus Lutatius Catulus, was probably based at the road nexus of Cremona north of the Po to meet the invasion of the Cimbri, probably with a normal consular army of two legions and an equal number of allies.

The Teutones and Ambrones had been moving down the east bank of the Rhône when they encountered Marius’s camp. The consul refused to engage them. The sources report that he remained in camp for three days without responding to attacks by the Germans. The reason they give for the refusal to fight does not carry conviction and it may be that Marius was looking for a more favourable location before engaging the enemy. The Teutones and Ambrones decided to bypass Marius and proceeded on towards the Alpine passes. The Germans moved along the valley of the Durance until they descended towards the plain of Aquae Sextiae. Marius must have skirted their main body and also arrived in the plain, while only the Ambrones who formed the vanguard of the German force had reached Aix.

Marius encamped on a hill overlooking the River Torse, which supplied the Romans with their drinking water. The Ambrones were camped on the opposite side of the river. It was from a skirmish at the river that the first battle developed. Roman support troops had gone down to the river for water when they were attacked by a party of Ambrones. The sounds of the struggle alerted the rest of the Ambrones, who then attacked en masse. The Ambrones lost cohesion as they crossed the river and before they could reform they were attacked by Celtic and Ligurian troops fighting alongside the Romans. While the engagement was taking place the legions came up in support and the Ambrones were routed and a number were cut down. After the destruction of the Ambrones Marius now had to face the more numerous Teutones.

Less is known about the origins of the second battle. Even the month is uncertain, although September has been suggested, and its exact location remains a mystery. It seems to have been deliberately sought by the Romans. It appears that Marius had decided to hold the Teutones in front while he launched an attack on their rear and flanks. Apparently, before the battle he sent a force of 3,000 infantry under his legate Marcus Claudius Marcellus to set up an ambush on some wooded hills to the rear of the enemy. He opened the battle by sending his cavalry down into the plain of Aix. The Teutones attacked the cavalry, which then retreated to the legions arrayed on the slopes of the hill where Marius had camped. The Teutones charged uphill, which was always a difficult manoeuvre, and while this was going on Marcellus’s troops attacked their rear. The tribesmen lost cohesion and fled. There is no doubt that they suffered heavy casualties, but the ancient figures, which number up to 200,000 dead, seem greatly exaggerated.

The defeat of the Teutones and Ambrones did not end the threat to Italy. The next year saw another great battle against the Cimbri who had crossed the Alps by the way of the Brenner Pass – which today connects Innsbruck, Austria to Bolzano, Italy – probably in the winter of 102/101, although an earlier crossing cannot be ruled out. Catulus, based at Cremona to the west, learned of the Cimbri’s descent into the Veneto and marched to confront them. He reached the Adige and then moved for a considerable distance up the river valley. The terrain was mountainous and Catulus may have selected it purposely to minimize the enemy’s numerical superiority. It has also been suggested that he hoped to catch the Cimbri before they had recovered from the rigours of their passage of the Alps. It is also possible that, given the terrain, he may have wanted to try to defeat them in detail. If this was his plan it did not meet with success. Catulus was twice defeated and forced to retire behind the Po. In doing so he abandoned the plains north of the Po, which the Cimbri proceeded to pillage.

At the end of spring 101 Marius with 30,000 troops joined Catulus, bringing the Roman forces up to about 50,000 men. With Marius in command the Romans now crossed the Po to seek a battle with the Cimbri. Surprisingly the battle took place in the western part of the plain of the Po near Vercellae (modern Vercelli), about 60 miles (100km) west of Milan. The site of the battle, the Campi Raudi, is unknown. It is difficult to explain why the Cimbri had moved so far west and the sources provide us with no explanation. It is not easy to accept that they moved west to link up with the Teutones as they must have known of their defeat as almost a year had passed, although one of the sources, Plutarch, claims this was the case.24 One possibility is that, having pillaged their way across the Po valley, they were now seeking to return to Gaul where they could expect to meet less resistance.

The Cimbri entered into negotiations with the Romans before the battle, again asking for land to settle in as they had seven years before. This is further confirmation that the Germans were not simply raiders but migrating tribes. The Cimbri, through their king Boiorix, challenged Marius to battle and a day was set, 30 July. This is not impossible as most large-scale battles in antiquity required a decision of both sides to fight. The course of the battle is far from clear. The Roman accounts of the battle have been distorted by the memoirs of both Catulus and later Sulla, who were both opponents of Marius. Apparently the Romans drew up in their normal battle formation in three lines with the cavalry on the wings, though the implication of the sources is that the majority of the Roman cavalry was arrayed on the right. It may be as well that the centre of the infantry line was deployed somewhat to the rear of the wings. This may have been an attempt to draw the Cimbri in and then attack them on the flanks. But none of this is certain. Marius commanded the Roman right while Catulus took the centre. The commander of the left is unspecified but it might have been Catulus’s legate Sulla.

The battle formation of the Cimbri seems rather unusual. Apparently, all of their cavalry, which numbered 15,000 men, was drawn up on their left. The biographer Plutarch in his Life of Marius provides a vivid description:

(The cavalry) rode out in magnificent fashion with helmets made to resemble the jaws of wild animals or the heads of strange beasts. Their helmets had crests of feathers, which made the riders seem larger than they were and they wore iron breastplates and held glittering white shields. Each trooper carried a pair of javelins and a large heavy sword for hand-to-hand fighting.

According to Plutarch the infantry of the Cimbri were drawn up in a square formation with their depth equal to their frontage and each side was approximately 3 miles (5km) long. There are serious problems with the extant descriptions of the battle. This formation seems impossible as most of the German infantry could not have engaged.

Plutarch mentions an opening manoeuvre by the Cimbric cavalry to draw off the Roman cavalry by swerving to the right to try to outflank them and pin them between themselves and their own infantry. The cavalry then disappear from Plutarch’s account. The fifth-century Christian writer Orosius has the German cavalry being driven back by the Romans on their own infantry and throwing them into disorder.26 The course of the rest of the battle is lost in the polemic between the commanders, with each trying to take credit for the victory. Certainly, Marius’s election to an unprecedented sixth consulship indicates that at least in the eyes of the Roman populace he deserved the major share of the credit for the victory. A further indication of the Cimbric migration as an attempt to find new land for the tribe rather than as a raiding expedition is the final stage of the battle, which our sources have dramatically elaborated. After their victory in the field the Roman attacked the camp of the Cimbri, which as was normal in German migrations consisted of their encircled wagons. They had placed their women and children there for safekeeping. The women fought back as long as they could and then killed themselves and their children.

Unlike Aquae Sextiae this seems to have been a soldier’s battle. No stratagems are mentioned on the Roman side. The accounts make much of the sun shining in the face of the Germans, as well as the effect of dust and heat on men from cooler climates. This implies a long, drawn out struggle rather than a quick decisive battle. One source mentions that there were few casualties on the Roman side but that 40,000 of the enemy were slain and a further 60,000 captured. The numbers are not impossible and are certainly more credible than the ones given for Aquae Sextiae.

With the defeat of the Cimbri the threat of invasion ended. The third group of invaders, the Tigurini, who were to enter Italy by way of the Julian Alps, retreated to Switzerland. The German threat to Rome was only to reappear centuries later. Although it has been claimed that the invasions made the Romans aware of the importance of Transalpine Gaul, there is little support for it. There is no evidence for an extension of provincial boundaries or exceptional activity in the period after the invasions. One striking aspect of the turmoil in Gaul was the passivity of the southern Gauls. It is true that they suffered from the depredations of the invaders, which might have made an uprising against the Romans more difficult. Nevertheless there is no evidence of any major unrest in the Roman area of control during this period. Other Gauls had joined the Germans; those of the south did not. There were to be isolated rebellions of various tribes until the time of Caesar but there does not seem to have been any general movement to oust the Romans from the area. Even during the strains of the Gallic War it remained remarkably quiet.

There are only fragmentary references to Transalpine Gaul until the late 70s. Understanding the situation is made more difficult by the fact that the references to Gaul can refer either to Cisalpine or Transalpine Gaul, although the occasional reference to the ‘Two Gauls’ helps remove the ambiguity. The first possible governor of Transalpine Gaul is Lucius Licinius Crassus, who was consul in 95. As consul he was active in Cisalpine Gaul where he repressed raiders and brigands. He was then assigned to Gaul as proconsul. What is not clear is which Gaul is meant. He had a long history of association with Transalpine Gaul. As a young man he had been instrumental in passing the law that authorized the founding of Narbo and so had existing connections with the province. It is possible that he governed both provinces at the same time, but there is no firm evidence that he did so or operated as a military commander there.

The next reference to a Roman official operating in Gaul is to Marcus Porcius Cato, who had been a praetor. He set out for Transalpine Gaul in 91 and died there. There is, however, no evidence as to why he was in the province. It could have been for private reasons and have had no connection to the government of the province. However, it is just possible that Cato was acting in an official capacity. In 90 the Saluvii revolted and were put down by Gaius Coelius Caldus, who had been consul in 94 and was presumably acting as proconsul in Transalpine Gaul. Cato may have been operating against the Saluvii when he died since we do not know when the revolt began.

The situation in Gaul remains obscure over the next few years. Gaius Valerius Flaccus, consul in 93, suppressed a revolt of the Celtiberian tribes in north-central Spain, probably in 92. He was in Transalpine Gaul probably in the years 84–82 and held a triumph over Gauls and the Celtiberians in 81. It may be that he governed both Nearer Spain and Transalpine Gaul together. This would suggest that the Gauls he conquered were probably located west of the Rhône.

Flaccus’s activity falls in a period when Roman control in Transalpine Gaul became much more crucial. A serious and difficult war had broken out in Spain in 83 and once again Gaul assumed its role as a vital supply route for Roman armies operating in the Iberian Peninsula. The war, which was to greatly affect both Spain and southern Gaul, had its origin in a fierce internal struggle in Rome that threatened its political structure and its hold on its empire.

Peoples of Roman North Africa


The western region of North Africa was home to Berber-speaking groups whom the Greeks and later Romans identified as Mauri, or Moors. The term probably comes from a generic designation of Numidian tribes operating in the Atlas Mountains and West Africa in modern-day Morocco. The Romans took over the region and made it into the provinces of Mauretania Caesariensis, in the east in modern-day Algeria, and Mauretania Tingitana, in the west in modern-day Morocco. The region before had existed as a kingdom, with the legendary founder being King Atlas. They had ties with Carthage, and their first historically recorded king was Baga. Their king Bocchus was the father-in-law to Jugurtha, who would rebel against Rome and for over a decade (116-104 BCE) challenged Rome in Numidia (modern-day northern Algeria). During his rebellion he encouraged anti-Roman sentiment, leading to a massacre of Italians in the city of Cirta (Algeria). Rome’s conduct in the war was far from stellar, with charges of Roman commanders being bribed by Jugurtha. After his death the kingdom was calm for a half century. His rule showed many that local native power was strong and that Rome could be challenged, especially if using guerrilla warfare. During the chaos of the Roman civil war of 44-31 BCE, Mauretania became a client kingdom in 29, with Juba II of Numidia installed as its king by the Romans. Juba II was the son of Juba I, who had sided with Pompey and was defeated by Julius Caesar. Raised in Rome, Juba II became friends with Octavian (Augustus) and fought with him at Actium, where Octavian defeated Marc Antony in 31 BCE. Juba was rewarded with the kingdom of Mauretania probably in 29 BCE. He married Cleopatra Selene, daughter of Cleopatra, Ptolemaic ruler of Egypt, and Marc Antony. Under their rule Mauretania flourished; they encouraged the arts, science, and agriculture, leading to extensive trade partners.

Their son Ptolemy coruled with his father from about 9 CE and then became king with Juba’s death in 23 CE. During Ptolemy’s reign with his father, in 17 CE the Berber tribes rebelled against him under the Numidian Tacfarinas and the Garamantes tribe. Juba and his son were not able to defeat them. Ptolemy was forced to call upon the Roman governor of Africa, and the rebellion finally ended in 24 but with considerable casualties. Ptolemy ruled in peace after this, and the kingdom prospered. In 40 CE Caligula invited him to Rome, where he was confirmed as king but then was assassinated on Caligula’s orders. Ptolemy’s household slave Aedemon was outraged and started a violent rebellion, which was not put down until 44 CE.

With Roman annexation, the region of Mauretania now promoted Rome. Local soldiers, notably cavalry, became known throughout the empire. The easternmost province, Mauretania Caesariensis, had its capital at Caesarea Mauretaniae in honor of Augustus. The city was rebuilt by Juba and Cleopatra and ultimately had a hippodrome, a basilica, an amphitheater, Greek temples, and numerous civic buildings. The city became the center for trade with the rest of the Roman world. It formed part of the frontier of the diocese of Africa in the late empire. In the west the other province was Mauretania Tingitana, with the Mulucha River as the boundary. The southern towns had defensive walls and ditches to protect them from marauders, and there was no continuous line of fortifications such as Hadrian’s Wall and the limes in Germany. The province was in the diocese of Spain in the late empire.

These western defenses were not able to prevent the raids by the local tribes of Mauri, which began during the reign of Nero, from crossing the Strait of Gibraltar into Spain. A century later under Commodus they again raided the region of Baetica. The raids during the third century required the tetrarch Maximian to lead an invasion through Spain, across into Tingitana, through the Atlas Mountains, and then through Caesariensis into Carthage. The descendants of the Berber tribes were called Moors during the early Christian period.

Desert Tribes

In the east, Rome faced desert marauders in Syria, Arabia, Egypt, and North Africa. Although occasionally disrupting provinces, these tribes never constituted a major threat to the empire because of their disconnected geographical regions. Their disruptions usually occurred in the agricultural regions, around watering holes. The major tribes that Rome faced were the Saracens and the Blemmyes.

In Arabia, the Saracens constantly raided the region east of the Jordan River. Ptolemy (100-170 CE) in his geography used the term to describe the region in the northern Sinai Peninsula as well as a tribal group living nearby in Arabia (Ptolemy et al. 1932, Book 5). The two being so close together probably had a common origin, one being the tribe, the other being the area they were originally inhabiting in the Roman Empire. Other authors also mention the Saracens as living in the mountains and enslaving people, which was probably a reference to their marauding behavior. Several ancient authors mention the Saracens in relation to the region around Arabia and the Sinai Peninsula. By the late third century they were noted for their military prowess and attacks on the Roman Empire (Retsö 2003, 505-506). They seem to have used heavy cavalry and were incorporated at times in the Roman military, although the term may have applied to the style of cavalry and not actual tribesmen. During the fourth century they were used by both Romans and Persians in their armies and may have been allies or, more likely, mercenaries. Although never presenting a serious threat to the empire, their rapid strikes forced Rome to place mobile and therefore more expensive troops in the region. Control of roads and oases thus dictated Rome’s defensive policy.

Known since the fourth century BCE, the Blemmyes lived in the south of Egypt in the region that Rome called Nubia and Kush. In the early empire Strabo, the geographer, described them as living in the Eastern Desert around Meroe and as peaceful people (Strabo and Roller 2014, 17.1). They apparently began to enlarge their sphere of influence during the third century CE, when Rome was weakened by internal strife. By 250 they were attacking Egypt, forcing Emperor Decius to personally strike against them and push them back. Zenobia, the queen of Palmyra, nominally an ally of Rome, in 272 used the Blemmyes to help her in her bid to become dominant in the east. Although they took the Thebais in Egypt, they were ultimately defeated in 279-280 when the Romans crushed them. Diocletian gave up southern Egyptian land to the allied nomadic tribes, the Nobatae, in order to create a buffer zone against the Blemmyes around the Nile at the first cataracts in 298. The Nobatae most likely also came from the Eastern Desert and probably were the traditional enemies of the Blemmyes. With the movement of the borders north, Diocletian created a secure defensible site while using the traditional warlike character of the tribes to maintain distractions and dissension among them outside of the empire’s territory.

When Rome conquered North Africa from Carthage and its successors, they attempted to control the coastal areas and rich agricultural lands in the interior near the foothills. The Romans attempted to incorporate the local population, especially the mountain tribes, the Berbers, into their society. Since Rome did not attempt to display a racial distinction, it was easy for the tribes to become assimilated. Outside of Africa to the south lay the nomadic tribes that interacted with Rome. One group Rome came into contact with was the Gaetuli, who fought for Jugurtha in North Africa (modern day Tunisia) in his struggle against Rome during 112-106 BCE, as related by Sallust. Although Sallust believed that all the tribes were one great nation, it is now known that they actually were separate tribes living in and south of the Atlas Mountains. Some of the tribes during the first century BCE were loyal to Marius, the Roman general who defeated Jugurtha in 106 BCE. In 3 CE the Gaetuli rebelled, possibly due to Roman attempts to stop their migration; this “war,” concluded in 6 CE, was followed by a general uprising in 17 CE by several tribes. Another group, the Garamantes, was a Berber tribe living in the Sahara in the Fezzan from 200 BCE to 200 CE. They continually raided Roman territory, and in 19 BCE Augustus sent his general Cornelius Balbus on an expedition, during which he captured 15 of their settlements; for his accomplishment he was granted a triumph, which was usually reserved for the imperial family.

In 17 CE, Tacfarinas led a general uprising of Gaetuli and Garamantes tribes against the Roman Third Augustan Legion. Tacfarinas was a Roman auxiliary commander who deserted and led his people, the Musulamii, a subgroup of the Gaetuli, against Rome during the reign of Emperor Tiberius. While the war was probably more of tribal incursions and raids, it lasted nearly a decade. What made the situation worse was that Tacfarinas gained support from the Mauri, who were rebelling against the Kingdom of Mauretania, clients of Rome. This increased Roman concerns, since now the whole region could be altered. While never able to take fortified Roman camps, Tacfarinas could rely on large numbers of desert tribesmen and continual raids. Finally, in 24 CE the governor Dolabella attacked and pursued Tacfarinas, knowing that only with his death could peace be restored. In a surprise morning attack, Tacfarinas was defeated and died charging the Roman troops. Finally, Septimius Severus was able to capture the Garamantes’s capital city, Gamara, and effectively end their power. The Garamantes were successful because of Rome’s desire not to incorporate large tracts of desert into their empire.

The native tribes occupying the deserts acted both as hostile marauders who gave Rome trouble and as buffer states between Rome and other organized groups that may have wanted to encroach upon Roman territory. The Roman Army often incorporated some of these tribes as auxiliaries. Rome often used these tribes to create divisions among other groups and powers, just as they in return did the same to Rome. Since the regions were not open to conquest and control, Rome attempted to show force when needed and control vital spots such as passes and watering holes. Although never a major problem, the tribes were often a nuisance.

Further Reading Richardson, John. 1996. The Romans in Spain. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell. Roller, Duane W. 2003. The World of Juba II and Kleopatra Selene: Royal Scholarship on Rome’s African Frontier. New York: Routledge. Law, R. C. C. 1967. “The Garamantes and Trans-Saharan Enterprise in Classical Times.” Journal of African History 8(2): 181-200. Ptolemy et al. 1932. Geography of Claudius Ptolemy. Translated by Edward Luther Stevenson. New York: New York Public Library. Retsö, Jan. 2003. The Arabs in Antiquity: Their History from the Assyrians to the Umayyads. Oxford, UK: Routledge. Strabo and Duane W. Roller. 2014. The Geography of Strabo. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Piso Conspiracy (65 CE)

The evolution of the Roman Empire witnessed the Roman senators’ power diminishing during the Julio-Claudian era. The early conspiracies under Augustus posed a threat from these powerful families but did not undermine the power of the emperors. While there were other conspiracies under the early emperors, none were as serious and broad as the conspiracy of Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso. The conspiracy intended to use Piso as a figurehead and have power in the Praetorian Guard. The plot was exposed, and its members were executed. However, the plot showed that members of the household and the Praetorian Guard were becoming increasingly concerned with Emperor Nero’s reign, ultimately leading a few years later to whole-scale rebellion.

Piso was from a distinguished family. His grandfather, also named Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso, was a friend of Emperor Tiberius. The elder Piso was implicated in the death of Germanicus and committed suicide when Tiberius refused to help him at his trial. However, the family did not suffer, as Piso’s son Lucius held the consulship during Tiberius’s reign and married well. Inheriting his wealth from his mother, the daughter of Marcus Licinius Crassus Dives, Piso was known for his generosity and beneficence to all social classes. The family was connected with other great men of the republic, including Pompey. Piso was known to be tall, good-looking, and good-natured and excelled in the courts and oratory, the ideal Roman. On the other hand, he was known for being ostentatious and giving in to sensual pleasures. Emperor Caligula desired Piso’s wife, forcing her to divorce Piso, and then Caligula banished him for committing adultery with his own wife. Piso returned a year after Caligula’s assassination. Upon his return the new emperor, Claudius, made Piso his coconsul in 41, and Piso became a leading senator; later his stature increased under Nero.

During the reign of Nero, Piso was seen as one of the leading senators. In 65 CE after witnessing 11 years of Nero’s reign, Piso plotted to assassinate the emperor and have the Praetorian Guard declare him emperor. In order to achieve this, Piso enlisted the help of Faenius Rufus, cocommander of the Praetorian Guard who had close ties and affinity with Nero’s mother Agrippina, whom Nero had executed. Other individuals such as senators, guards, and officials were also brought into the plan, and each had his own motive but seemingly were united in their hatred of Nero. While Piso was the figurehead of the conspiracy, it appears that officers in the Praetorian Guard, such as the tribune Subrius Flavus and the centurion Sulpicius Asper, were the actual driving force behind the act. Flavus appears to have used Piso as the figurehead to gather support, and according to the ancient author Tacitus, Flavus assassinated Piso and handed power over to Seneca the Younger (Tacitus 1956, 15:47-74). Flavus would later state that he hated Nero for murdering Agrippina and Octavia (Nero’s wife).

The plot was not well organized, and too much information seems to have been available. One of the fleet captains, Volusius Proculus, was told of the plot by a freedwoman, Epicharis, who appears to have been involved with Seneca’s brother. She hoped that Proculus would join the plot and bring over the sailors, but he reported it to Nero, who had Epicharis tortured. She did not give up any names and committed suicide rather than continue being tortured. Finally, on April 19, 65 CE, the plot was fully uncovered when Milichus, a freedman, was urged by his wife to report the plot. It appears from Plutarch that one of the conspirators told a condemned prisoner to have hope, as all would change (i. e., Nero would be gone). The prisoner relayed this to Nero, and the conspirator was tortured, revealing the plot (Plutarch and Babbitt 1927, 505C). From the passages of Tacitus and Plutarch, it appears that the conspirators, being so many, could not ensure confidentiality and secrecy. Nero ordered the arrest of all conspirators and forced Piso to commit suicide.

Those involved included the consul Plautius Lateranus; the prefect Faenius Rufus; the senators Afranius Quintianus and Flavius Scaevinus (master of the freedman Milichus); the equestrian Anonius Natalis; Lucan, who appears to have implicated his uncle Seneca the Younger; and Epicharis. When Milichus informed on his master Scaevinus, he then betrayed others.

The result of the conspiracy being exposed led to a series of trials, resulting in 19 being put to death or forced to commit suicide and 13 being exiled. Piso of course was implicated and allowed to commit suicide. Other important individuals who were executed or allowed to commit suicide included Subrius Flavus, who was beheaded; the prefect Faenius Rufus; and Seneca the Younger, who was probably not involved in the plot but was ordered by Nero to kill himself. Lucan, Seneca’s nephew who joined the conspiracy, implicated his mother as he lay dying, but she escaped punishment.

The conspiracy allowed Tigellinus, the prefect of the Praetorian Guard, to hunt down his enemies and accuse some of being involved even if they weren’t. The conspiracy showed the deep-seated hatred of Nero that would soon manifest itself in a series of rebellions throughout the empire by several of his generals, leading ultimately to Galba being proclaimed emperor and Nero committing suicide.

The final internal crisis was the Jewish Rebellion begun in 66. The rebellion, caused by high taxes and Roman abuse, led to a full-scale war; Nero dispatched Vespasian and his army from Syria to quell the rebellion. After initial setbacks the Romans were successful in taking and destroying Jerusalem, but only after Nero’s death.

In 68 a rebellion broke out in Gaul. Nero ordered the army from Germany to stamp out the rebellion, while Galba was called upon by the rebels to seize power. Although the rebellion was put down, Galba was soon hailed emperor and urged to march on Rome. When the commander of the Praetorian Guard came out in favor of Galba, Nero fled, only to be forced to return after not finding troops loyal to him. When he realized that he was abandoned, he fled the city again, arriving at a freedman’s villa. He received news that the Senate had declared him a public enemy, not true, but believing that it would kill him he decided to commit suicide but could not bring himself to do the deed; he pleaded with his secretary to kill him. When the Senate heard of his death it did declare him a public enemy to win favor with Galba, whom it had previously declared a public enemy.

While most looked to Galba as someone who would restore the sanity of the empire, they were soon disappointed. Marching from Spain to Rome with his legion, Galba exacted enormous fines from cities that did not receive him quickly. He also rescinded many of Nero’s reforms including those that benefited individuals and regions from not paying taxes. Galba also refused to grant citizenship to many who asked, since this would allow the recipient to not pay taxes. When he arrived in Rome, Galba refused to pay the Praetorian Guard its bonus, which it had been promised. He also dismissed the Batavian (German) bodyguard. Because Vindex had been defeated by the German governor and his troops, Galba did not trust them and replaced the governor with Aulus Vitellius.

On January 1, 69, the German legions did not swear allegiance to the emperor as was customary with the start of the new year. The next day they proclaimed Aulus Vitellius their emperor. When Galba heard that the Rhine legions had deserted him, on January 10 he proclaimed Lucius Calpurnius Piso Frugi Licinianus his successor in hopes of rallying support from the upper echelons of society, since he was a descendant from both Pompey and Crassus, the triumvirs in the late republic. Marcus Salvius Otho meanwhile had been proposed as heir and was upset that he did not receive it. Galba passed him over, since he was a favorite of Nero and was known for his lack of morals. Outraged, Otho decided that both men needed to be removed and raised a rebellion. Both Galba and Licinianus were butchered in the Forum by the Praetorian Guard; supposedly 120 soldiers claimed responsibility in hopes of getting a reward. Otho wrote their names down, which was disastrous for them.

On January 15, Otho went to Palatine Hill and was hailed emperor by the Praetorian Guard, whereupon he and his forces moved against Galba and killed him. Otho was then proclaimed emperor by the Senate that very same day. Whereas Galba had not paid the Praetorian Guard its gold and the populace of Rome had still revered Nero, Otho immediately played into both camps.

In 69 CE the Roman Empire convulsed with a civil war, the Year of the Four Emperors. Nero had committed suicide in 68, and the new emperor, Galba, the governor of Spain, marched on Rome. During the year 69 four men would rule the empire, with the last, Vespasian, winning and surviving. On July 1 Vespasian was in Alexandria, Egypt, while Titus continued operations in Judea against the Jews. In Alexandria, Vespasian was in control of the grain supply going to Rome and was proclaimed emperor by the governor of Egypt. The troops in Judea followed suit, and Vespasian began his journey to Rome. By the end of the year he was emperor.

Further Reading Griffin, Miriam T. 1985. Nero: The End of a Dynasty. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. Pagan, Victoria Emma. 2004. Conspiracy Narratives in Roman History. Austin: University of Texas Press. Plutarch and Frank Cole Babbitt. 1927. Plutarch’s Moralia. London: W. Heinemann. Tacitus, Cornelius. 1956. The Annals of Imperial Rome. Translated by Michael Grant. Baltimore: Penguin.