What may have happened to the Ninth Legion after the rebuilding of York in 107-108 AD, for no real evidence of the Ninth Legion after this date has ever been found. Only historical theories have been put forward and they seem to keep changing as new discoveries are made and new ideas about Roman history rise to prominence. All the established theories and current new theories are detailed below.


By the beginning of 109 AD all the rebuilding had been completed in York but the Northern lands were still very hostile to Roman rule. Emperor Trajan was expanding the Empire, Legions were always on the move (or at least parts of them) and, in 110 AD, two cohorts of the Ninth Legion were transferred to Nijmegen (now in Holland) on the German border. This was thought safe as any trouble could be contained in Britain using less troops, but in 115 AD the Northern tribes struck back hard and burnt many small forts including Malton only 20 miles from York.

The Ninth Legion now had three hard years fighting until the situation was calm again. However, Roman troops in Scotland had been cut off and only forts on the River Tay could be supplied, and that was by sea. Governor Pompeius Falco decided to relieve these forts but, whilst this was still being planned, Emperor Trajan died in 117 AD and Hadrian took over. This was not sufficient to stop the Ninth’s final fateful expedition North.

By spring 118 AD York was filled by a further 6,000 auxiliary troops. In the first week of May that year an army group, including most of the Ninth Legion and its auxiliaries and cavalry, moved out of York and headed North with the troops in the Tay forts expecting them. As the 10,000 men left York, spies from the local tribes informed their chiefs, who in turn informed the Scottish tribes of the Ninth’s advance north. At first there was little resistance, tribes submitted, but it was noted that there was a general lack of able-bodied men in these camps!

The chiefs of the Scottish tribes gathered as many men together as they could muster, possibly numbering over 30,000 foot soldiers, 1,000 chariots, plus many horsemen – but then where to attack the Roman army? It was remembered many years before that the Ninth Legion had almost been wiped out during a night attack so it was decided to try this method again. As the Ninth Legion headed north they travelled over the Cheviot Hills keeping to the high ground. In the undulating lowland areas lay large tracts of forest in which thousands of the Northern tribesmen hid.

The Romans had to make camp and they dug the usual defences which were heavily guarded. By the time most of the camp had turned in, the tribesmen attacked from one side with 5,000 men and broke through into the camp.

Then two other attacks came with 10,000 men and the camp was almost overrun completely, the Ninth Legion just managing to construct some sort of defensive line. By the morning the whole camp was completely surrounded with all cavalry horses lost or taken.

An order to ‘break out’ was given and those Legionaries who managed this monumental achievement found other groups of tribesmen waiting for them and were slaughtered where they stood. On the further hills chariots and horsemen rode down any surviving Romans. By the end of the day every single man of the Ninth Legion and their auxiliaries had been slain.

Northern tribal leaders then gave orders that no evidence of the Ninth Legion was to remain. All bodies were stripped and burnt and the ashes buried or scattered. All cursed Roman weapons were to be melted down and destroyed which did cause some trouble as the tribesmen valued these highly but the order was nevertheless carried out. All efforts to find the Ninth’s Golden Eagle failed. The Legion’s Standard Bearer had hidden it and it has never been found – it still lies somewhere hidden in the Cheviot Hills.

Meanwhile the forts on the Tay waited for the Ninth Legion and at first when there was no sign of them it created no cause for concern. Delays were common. A ship from York arrived and the sailors were very surprised that the Ninth had not yet turned up! Other ships came and went carrying news that the Ninth had gone missing. When the Tribune left in charge of York heard such tales and sent out horsemen nothing was found. Even the forward camp had not heard or seen anything of the Ninth.

The Governor was informed and he sent 5,000 auxiliaries to York. In support the Twentieth Legion at Chester sent five cohorts to the Border. Carlisle was reinforced. A messenger was sent to the Emperor Hadrian in Rome who was most concerned and put an ‘oath of silence’ on the news of the Ninth’s disappearance fearing instability in the Roman ranks.

Hadrian then considered the problem in Britain very seriously and came over (in what year it is not known for certain though it is thought perhaps to be 122 AD, but possibly as early as 119 AD). He brought with him the Sixth Legion, Legio VI ‘Victris’, and made his headquarters at York. Those remaining soldiers of the Ninth Legion there were incorporated into the Sixth Legion. Hadrian then withdrew all Roman forces from Scotland and Ireland and built his famous wall from Wallsend-on-Tyne to Bowness-on-Solway, a distance of 80 Roman miles (73 English miles). Three Legions built it, the II ‘Augusta’, VI ‘Victris’, and XX ‘Valeria’ – perhaps a fitting tribute to what was once Rome’s finest Legion, the ‘Glorious Ninth’?

There is probably more circumstantial evidence to support this theory than any other.


However, some think the Ninth Legion actually assisted in building the wall and survived independently to endure further adventures.

After restoring order in the north between 114 AD and 117 AD, it was decided by the new Emperor Hadrian that the Ninth Legion would be moved to Carlisle and another Legion, the Sixth Legion, would move to York. So, in 118 AD, the Ninth moved to Carlisle. It was here that they were to have built a large fort like they did initially at York, but in 119 AD trouble in the north started again and the Roman forts in Scotland, which had been relieved, were once again cut off. It was now decided on another two-pronged advance into Scotland.

This time the Sixth Legion drove north from York and the Ninth Legion from Carlisle. When the Ninth reached the Solway Firth they camped on the south side. In the morning they started to cross. The Commander, not knowing the sands and taking this route in order to save time, ran into trouble with the ground and was then heavily attacked by the northern tribesmen from the north bank. The Ninth Legion was forced to retreat back across the Solway Firth and right into the tide and soft sands. Here they perished and sank into the oncoming tide and quicksands, leaving no trace whatsoever.

An unlikely theory but just as possible as the previous one based on the lack of concrete evidence.


Rewind the story slightly for the next instalment:

After subduing the uprising in North Yorkshire in 115 AD, the Ninth Legion was ordered by Governor Pompeius Falco to relieve the forts on the River Tay that were still cut off and, in the summer of 117 AD, the Ninth Legion finally reached these Roman forts. All opposition had been dealt with on the way up and, having been very successful, the Legion’s Commander decided to continue this policy and destroy the surrounding tribes. Taking a large force of 12,000 to 15,000 men, he set off the following year to campaign in central and northern Scotland; however, he made a fatal tactical mistake and split his forces, the idea being to trap a large group of tribal warriors thought to be gathering in the area of Loch Rannock in Perthshire.

The main body of the Ninth with auxiliaries came up from the south and were attacked by 5,000 Scottish tribesmen. The Legion formed squares and for a time held out, but the second body of the Roman army were unable to reach this main Roman force now surrounded on Rannoch Moor. As more tribesmen reinforcements arrived the Ninth Legion was cut down and none survived. As a result Hadrian withdrew all Roman forces from Scotland and built phase one of his now famous wall beginning in 118 AD.

Apparently today local people still talk of the Ninth Legion as being lost on Rannoch Moor.


After the British tribal uprising of 115 AD the Ninth Legion restored peace. But in 117 AD another large tribal uprising spread through what is now south Yorkshire and Lancashire. Communications were cut from London and Chester. Governor Falco ordered the Twentieth Legion based at Chester and the Ninth Legion based at York to deal with this uprising and restore communications.

The Ninth Legion marched to attack a large group of hostile tribesmen far to the south of York, a route which took them over the Pennine road where they were surrounded and destroyed. No soldiers survived and again British tribesmen took this opportunity to remove all evidence of the battle. It is a known fact, however, that battles in the past were always automatically followed by the victors sending scavengers over the battlefield to loot everything that could be recycled. The mystery is that Roman military equipment of the kind used by the Ninth Legion has not surfaced in any unusual quantity in any British or Scottish archaeological context anywhere associated with the missing Legion.

The Sixth Legion did eventually restore order in these regions but the disappearance of the Ninth remains a mystery.


This is simple and straightforward.

The theory goes that in 115 AD a large uprising occurred and Malton, only 20 miles from York, was burnt down and the auxiliary force there destroyed. Archaeological evidence generally supports this event.

As has been noted, the Ninth Legion then had two years of hard campaigning to restore order in the North. With part of the Legion then being sent to Nijmegen this left the Ninth very much under-strength and British tribes in the North saw this and decided to attack York directly. It was planned for early 118 AD and a night attack thought to be the ideal strategy. One cold February night when the moon was full, over 20,000 tribesmen stormed York.

Military action during the bitter winter months was entirely unexpected and caught the Romans off guard. The attack was well co-ordinated and local tribesmen knew the defences of the city well. The walls were soon overrun and the main barracks attacked with full force. Very few soldiers were able to defend themselves trapped inside the barracks, and the cold seriously affected the Legionaries’ performance once outside. By morning all of the Ninth Legion was destroyed, along with the Roman city of York.

This theory is almost impossible to substantiate based on archaeological remains. If York was overrun then the conquerors almost certainly chose to retain the city without creating the distinctive evidence associated with burning structures. It looks like the fort simply remained to be taken back at some future date and put back into full service later in that century by the Roman army.

There is just one possibility – that the superstitious Britons chose not to use the city structures at all and simply left after their victory, leaving the non-military remains of the Roman inhabitants to continue and rebuild.


The uprising of 115 AD was decisively put down by the Ninth Legion and, by about 118 AD, a peaceful normality had returned.

The Governor of Britain, Pompeius Falco, ordered the Ninth Legion to force open a passage to the forts on the River Tay, but it was found by reconnaissance that a much larger force than one Legion would be needed to achieve this. The Commander of the Ninth decided to request and await reinforcements but, before any such forces arrived, a ship docked from the forts with news that immediate forces were needed in order to hold them. Now the only way remaining to successfully do this was by sea.

A large part of the Ninth Legion, who were used to marine action from past campaigns, hastily boarded on to whatever ships could be commandeered or built at short notice and set sail for the Tay. On this fateful voyage a sudden storm arose and all ships were lost out at sea with no survivors from the Legion or crews.

A somewhat unlikely scenario but one theory nonetheless.


During the start of Hadrian’s rule the Ninth Legion had been ordered to put down a rising somewhere in the North, possibly as already outlined. The Legion left York in 118 AD and was very badly defeated in a battle where many soldiers fled.

Hadrian then came over with the Sixth Legion and, being a strict disciplinarian, cashiered the whole Ninth Legion, with Staff Officers being transferred to the Sixth Legion and, perhaps, many of the disgraced soldiers and auxiliaries being sent to help construct Hadrian’s Wall.

This makes the Ninth Legion simply vanish into Hadrian’s other Legions without the embarrassing facts being recorded.


This theory goes that, in 85 AD to 86 AD, a trading post was set up in Ireland by the Ninth Legion where present day Drumanagh now stands. This later became a strong fort. Other small forts were set up along the coast, one where present day Dublin now stands; this being only 15 miles from the main Roman fort at Drumanagh.

By about 107 AD Rome occupied much of the west coast of Ireland. The Romans had also breached up to 30 miles inland and now controlled at least two of the coastal kingdoms, but the country was always highly volatile; some kingdoms were friendly others were not. The Ninth Legion was about to be moved to Carlisle from York where another Legion was due to be posted; however, events in Ireland changed all that.

Roman forts in Ireland were under threat due to new kings who did not want the Romans on Irish soil. The Ninth Legion was sent back to the now 40 acre fort at Drumanagh. Once settled in they began a series of punitive strikes against the troublesome kings in the west.

All went well at first, then in 120 AD a large military expedition left Drumanagh to campaign against the kingdoms in the west and that was the last anyone ever saw of the Ninth Legion. In haste Emperor Hadrian withdrew all Roman forces from Ireland. The Irish petty kings then systematically destroyed all evidence of Roman occupation. No records of the event were kept and, even years later, archaeologists and the National Museum of Ireland keep this great historical secret from the world.

This theory may well be the right one. Conspiracy and hidden evidence?

Now let’s move the clock forward to look at other possibilities for the eventual fate of the Ninth Legion beyond these islands.


In 120 AD Emperor Hadrian came to Britain. He bought with him the Sixth Legion, Legio VI ‘Victrix’, from the Lower Rhine. The entire Ninth Legion at York was then transferred to Nijmegen (now in Holland) as the Legion had suffered heavy casualties in the summer of 117 AD and had problems with discipline ever since. The Ninth Legion was then reformed and trained up.

Twelve years later, in 132 AD, this much improved Legion was transferred to take part in the Jewish War. The Roman Commander Sextus Juilus Severus was transferred from Britain to take command in the East and, on his way, he collected the Ninth Legion; and it was during this war that the Ninth once again suffered heavy losses. This time Antonnius Pius disbanded the Legion in 153 AD.

A possibility.


Continuing further along the path of Roman history this theory goes that, after taking part in the Jewish War in 132 AD, the Ninth Legion returned to Nijmegen.

In 161 AD the Parthians started another war and the Ninth Legion was quickly dispatched to the East to stem the Parthian assault. The commander of the Ninth Legion, a man called Severianus, made his headquarters at Elegeia.

From Elegeia, Severianus marched the Ninth further east where he was attacked and surrounded by horse archers with powerful composite bows. The whole Legion was destroyed and never reformed.

This is the latest theory and the one currently most favoured by experts.


As previously, in 161 AD the Ninth Legion was ordered to Parthia to stop the massive Parthian advance. The Parthian army was defeated by the Romans under Severianus and, in 165 AD, the Parthian capital Ctesiphon was placed under siege by Roman forces and fell. It is said that the troops of the Ninth Legion burnt down the Royal Palace.

Ctesiphon, now under Roman control, was to be made the base for a conquering drive even further east with the Ninth Legion forming the spearhead of the campaign. Then a plague of some kind broke out and most of the Ninth Legion died and the Roman troops were forced to withdraw. After this the Ninth Legion was disbanded and those who survived incorporated into the Thirtieth Legion.

Frankly not very likely.


This is the last theory, without doubt the least likely, and centres around a Roman city in China, how this city came to be, and the involvement of the Ninth Legion.

In 53 BC, whilst the Ninth Legion was with Julius Caesar in Gaul, the new Proconsul of Syria, a very ambitious man called Marcus Lincinius Crassus was given command of the army in the East and prepared to undertake a series of campaigns that would equal Alexandra the Great. This vain man was to find a place in the English Dictionary: Crass, i.e. grossly stupid, for Crassus was about to lead the armies of the East to total destruction in one of the most incompetently led campaigns in military history.

First Crassus crossed the Euphrates in 53 BC. Several Mesopotamian cities gave him allegiance which he then garrisoned. The city of Zenodotia resisted and was destroyed and Crassus then wintered in Syria.

The next spring Crassus massed seven Legions, 5,000 auxiliary infantrymen, and about the same number of cavalry. His son arrived from Southern Gaul with 1,000 Gallic cavalrymen. Some time later King Artavasdes of Armenia arrived with a small army of about 6,000 troops and a promise of a further 40,000 more. The King then advised Crassus to attack Parthia through the southern foothills of Armenia as the Parthians, who were very strong in cavalry, would have difficulty in operating freely there and the region was well watered.

Despite this good local advice Crassus decided to take the shorter and more direct route through the desert into Parthia and crossed the Euphrates during a bad storm. The superstitious Romans thought this to be a bad omen and they were right!

To add insult to injury Crassus was then tricked by an Arab chieftain called Ariamnes who told him to hasten after the Parthian army which was, at that very moment, retreating across the desert. Fatally Crassus decided to allow the devious Arabs to lead his army in pursuit of these Parthians.

Meanwhile Orodes II, King of the Parthians, split his real army in two. Orodes led one part of the army into Armenia and started to pillage the country, the second part of the army he gave to his best general, a man of great leadership named Surenas, whose task was to slow down the Roman army until Orodes could rejoin him after the raid on Armenia.

The Romans headed into the desert and the Arabs then rode away. King Artavasdes could not send his 40,000 troops to help Crassus as they were needed to stop Orodes II from further sacking Armenia. Crassus was strongly advised by his Generals to either rejoin King Artavasdes in Armenia, or to take the easier route through the foothills. Crassus ignored this advice and, instead, carried on into the desert!

As his army drew nearer to the ancient town of Carrhae, riders from the advance column told Crassus that a large body of Parthian cavalry horse archers were advancing towards his army. They soon appeared and surrounded the Romans and kept up a deadly stream of arrows from their composite bows. The Romans had expected Parthian cataphracts in complete armour but, although these heavily armoured cavalry knights were seen, they were held back in favour of the fast striking archers and refused to engage the Romans. The Parthians brought up camels with spare quivers of arrows so their bows were always kept supplied even in the desert.

The Romans made a determined charge with cavalry under Publius, Crassus’ son, but they were surrounded on a hill nearby and wiped out. The Legionaries formed a square called a ‘testudo’ but many arrows got below and through the shields and wounded hundreds of foot soldiers. By nightfall 20,000 Romans has been killed and Crassus was dead in the shifting sands. Only one quarter of the Roman army managed to escape back to Syria. 10,000 were taken prisoner, moved to Margiana, and offered their lives if they formed into groups to help defend Parthia’s eastern border. This they did.

Some Romans escaped to become mercenaries for other rulers. Romans even went further to the Chinese who welcomed these brave soldiers who would be able to guard their frontier. Eventually the Chinese allowed these men to build a frontier city called Li-gien. From this city Roman military influence was then recorded in China. Eventually the city of Li-gien was destroyed by the Tibetans who overran the whole area in 746 AD but the Romans knew of the existence of this city some years after Crassus’ military disaster at Carrhae.

The story goes that when the Romans overran the Parthian capital Ctesiphon in 165 AD further evidence of the Roman city of Li-gien came to light. It was decided by some to press on and find this city so the Roman Commander chose the Ninth Legion. The Ninth set out in the summer of 165 AD from Ctesiphon to reach the Roman city of Li-gien and disappeared.

A very unlikely theory but Li-gien did actually exist and there is strong evidence of Roman’s being there at some point in its history.

By 169 AD the Ninth Legion was no longer on the Roman army lists and, further more, no trace or knowledge of its fate during the preceding 61 years has yet been found.



At his death in 44 BC, Julius Caesar had been days away from leaving Rome to embark on a major military operation—the invasion of Parthia. Over the next 150 years, several emperors seized on the idea of realizing Caesar’s dream of conquering Parthia. In AD 66, Nero was marshaling his forces for an invasion of Parthia when the Jewish Revolt forced him to abort the plan and divert his legions to counter the revolt. With Nero’s death, the Parthian plan died too. It seems that Trajan had also long harbored the desire to become the conqueror of Parthia. Once he had brought Dacia into the Roman Empire and had consolidated the Dacian conquest, he was able to turn his full focus to the East.

Trajan was presented with an excuse to go to war with the Parthians. The current king of Armenia, Exedares, had been crowned by the Parthian king, Osroes, and had sworn loyalty to Parthia. Traditionally, the emperors of Rome had reserved the right to choose the kings of Armenia. But Trajan had another motive. According to Dio: “His real reason was a desire to win renown.” [LXVIII, 17]

In AD 113, Trajan gave orders for the legions of the East to prepare for a major campaign the following spring. He also ordered several of his European-based legions to transfer to Syria in preparation for the new campaign. He himself set off to sail to Syria via Greece accompanied by his wife, the empress Plotina, and elements of the Praetorian Guard and Singularian Horse. They traveled aboard ships of the Roman navy’s Misene Fleet from Misenum commanded by fleet prefect Quintus Marcius Turbo, who would later become prefect of the Praetorian Guard under Hadrian. [Starr, App., & Add.] A large part of the fleet remained in the East throughout Trajan’s eastern campaign. [Starr, viii]

One of the legions sent east for Trajan’s new campaign was the 1st Adiutrix. Founded in AD 68, it would have undergone a new enlistment over the winter of AD 108–109, so by AD 113 its numbers were up and its new recruits were settled and trained. The 1st Adiutrix marched west from Brigetio in Pannonia to the next legion base on the Danube, Carnuntum, and there its column was joined by the 15th Apollinaris Legion. Both legions then marched down to Ravenna in northeastern Italy to board warships of the Ravenna Fleet, which ferried them to Syria.

The 2nd Traiana Legion, raised by Trajan in AD 105 and sent to the East to support the annexation of Arabia Petraea, came up to Syria for the offensive from its base in Egypt. At the same time, the 3rd Cyrenaica at Bostra in Arabia Petraea prepared its weapons, ammunition and stores for a campaign the following year. In Cappadocia, just to the south of Armenia, the province’s governor Marcus Junius sent word to his two legions, the 12th Fulminata at Melitene and the 16th Flavia at Satala, to be ready to march in the spring.

Word soon reached the Parthian king that Trajan was heading to the East with an army, and immediately he saw himself as the Roman emperor’s target. By the time that Trajan reached Athens in Greece on his way east, Parthian envoys were awaiting him there. The envoys offered Trajan gifts and, telling him that Osroes had removed Exedares from the Armenian throne, sought a peace agreement. As part of the Parthian peace initiative, King Osroes asked that Trajan authorize him to make his nephew Parthamasiris the new king of Armenia. “The emperor neither accepted the gifts nor returned any answer, either oral or written,” said Dio, “except the statement that friendship is determined by deeds and not words, and that accordingly when he reached Syria he would do all that was proper.” [Dio, lxviii, 31]

Trajan’s nephew Hadrian had been a consul and governor of Lower Pannonia following the Dacian Wars, but his career had slowed dramatically after that. Hadrian had a great liking for Greek customs, and by AD 112 he was archon, or governor, of Athens, and was no doubt in the city when Trajan arrived there in AD 113 on his way to Syria. It seems that Trajan added Hadrian to his party at the urging of his wife Plotina, who was close to Hadrian, giving him the post of governor of Syria, for Dio wrote that Hadrian “had been assigned to Syria for the Parthian War.” [Dio, lxix, 1]

After Trajan’s fleets arrived at Laodicea, he and the imperial party spent the winter at Antioch. The facilities at Laodicea were apparently so overburdened by the influx of naval and military personnel that sailors and marines of the Misene Fleet were quartered at the long-deserted quarters of the 10th Fretensis Legion at nearby Cyrrhus. [Starr, Add.; and AE 1955, 225]

Trajan was joined at Antioch by his lieutenants for the campaign. Chief among these was the Moor Lusius Quietus. Quietus had served Trajan so loyally and effectively throughout the Dacian Wars that the emperor had, over the past seven years, made him a praetor, consul and provincial governor. Quietus was serving as governor of Judea when the emperor arrived in the East. Trajan’s other senior general, the trusted Lucius Appius Maximus, came out from Rome with him. Like Quietus, Maximus had served Trajan well in Dacia. Trajan no longer had the services of tough old Sura, the third of his successful Dacian War generals, who had died a natural death in around AD 108.

In the spring of AD 114, leaving his wife with Hadrian at Antioch, Trajan launched his eastern offensive; as governor of Syria, Hadrian had the task of ensuring that Trajan’s lines of supply were efficiently maintained. For the first stage of the campaign, Trajan marched his army north to Melitene in Cappadocia. As the army tramped along the Roman highways at a steady 18 miles a day, Trajan neither rode nor was carried in a litter; he marched on foot at the head of his troops, bareheaded. Each day, he personally decided the marching order. [Dio, lxviii, 23]

By the end of March, Trajan had reached Melitene and added the two Cappadocia-based legions to his column; from there, he swung east, crossing the Euphrates and entering Armenia. [Guey] The summer was still young when Trajan’s troops completed the seizure of southern Armenia, driving a wedge between the Armenians to the south and the forces in the north loyal to Parthamasiris, the nephew of Osroes, whom the Parthian king had proceeded to install on the Armenian throne.

When Marcus and his army reached the Armenian city of Elegeia, Parthamasiris left the rebuilt Armenian capital, Artaxata, and came to Trajan’s camp seeking an audience. Trajan was seated on a tribunal when the young Parthian prince approached, saluted him, and removed his crown and placed it at Trajan’s feet. Parthamasiris fully expected the Roman emperor to return his crown to him, just as Nero had returned that of Tiridates fifty years before. But Trajan did no such thing. Instead, he sent the prince and the Parthian members of his entourage away under Roman cavalry escort, and told the Armenians in the party to stay right where they were, as they were now his subjects. Soon, Trajan’s legions had brought all of Armenia under Roman control.

Trajan, after crossing the Tigris river and securing key frontier cities including Nisibis and Batnae, and leaving garrisons at strategic points, marched west to Edessa, modern Urfa in southeast Turkey. Situated on the plain of Haran, the city controlled a strategic hill pass to Mesopotamia and the Parthian heartland. At Edessa, Trajan received various eastern potentates before pushing south through the pass and occupying part of northern Mesopotamia. With the end of the year approaching, Trajan left the army camped in Parthian territory and returned to Syria to winter at Antioch. As he departed the army, he left orders for the legions to fell trees in the forests around Nisibis then use the wood to build collapsible boats for the new year’s campaign in Mesopotamia.

Over the winter, Antioch and many cities of the region were hit by a severe earthquake. The Syrian capital was badly damaged, and “multitudes” killed. [Dio, lxviii, 25] Among the casualties were foreign ambassadors waiting on the Roman emperor, and Marcus Vergilianus Pedo, who had just arrived in Syria after briefly serving as a consul in Rome and giving his name to the year. Trajan himself managed to escape with minor injuries, via a window of his quarters, being led from the ruins by men “of greater than human stature”; Dio was possibly referring to large Germans of the emperor’s Singularian Horse bodyguard. [Ibid.] For some days, Trajan lived in a tent in the Antioch chariot-racing stadium, the hippodrome, as aftershocks continued to shake the region.

The spring of AD 115 saw Trajan back with the army in Mesopotamia, and again on the advance. The six legions of the task force moved east through a landscape “destitute of trees.” A convoy of wagons had brought the newly constructed fleet of collapsible boats down from Nisibis, but as Trajan tried to send his troops across a river in his path—probably the Nighr—an opposition force that had assembled on the far bank made life difficult for the invaders by peppering them with missiles. [Ibid.]

This was the first mention in Cassius Dio’s narrative of the campaign of organized resistance in the field. It turned out that Trajan’s invasion had taken place at an opportune time, for “the Parthian power had been destroyed by civil conflicts and was still at this time the subject of strife.” [Dio, LXVIII, 22] The Parthians were locked in a civil war. It is likely that the troops who opposed Trajan at this river crossing comprised the small army of the kingdom of Adiabene, a Parthian ally in northern Mesopotamia.

After assembling their vessels, Trajan’s legions began to build a bridge of moored boats across the river. In the usual Roman textbook fashion, there were several craft at the forefront of this growing bridge, equipped with towers and screens, and manned by archers and heavy infantry with javelins who rained missiles down on the enemy. At the same time, various Roman units dashed this way and that, up and down the western bank of the river, giving the impression that they were going to cross in boats at various points. This forced the outnumbered enemy to divert detachments from their army to hurry up and down the bank in order to be in position to counter these crossings. With the main enemy defense weakened, Trajan was able to send his troops across the bridge of boats in force.

There was a brief battle on the eastern side of the river, but Trajan had overwhelming numbers—his army would have comprised 60,000–70,000 fighting men at the commencement of the offensive the previous year. “The barbarians gave way,” said Dio. [Dio, LXVIII, 21] Once across the river, the Roman army quickly gained possession of the kingdom of Adiabene.

To Trajan, this was a special moment. Like so many Roman generals including Julius Caesar, Trajan had a desire to emulate the deeds of Alexander the Great. Alexander had brought his army here to Adiabene. [Ibid.] And it was here, on the plain in the vicinity of the ancient cities of Nineveh, Arbela and Gaugamela, that the Macedonian army had defeated King Darius’ Persian army in 331 BC.

Further to the south, at Adenystrae, modern-day Irbil, 70 miles (112 kilometers) north of Kirkuk in today’s northern Iraq, there was a strong Parthian fort. When Trajan sent a legion centurion named Sentius ahead to give the Adenystrae garrison a chance to surrender, the Parthian commander, Mebarsapes, rejected the offer and imprisoned the centurion. In the Adenystrae dungeon, Sentius convinced other prisoners to help him. The centurion duly escaped, found Mebarsapes, then killed him, and opened the fort gate as the Roman army approached. Centurion Sentius’ rewards from a grateful Trajan can only be imagined.

As the Roman army continued its advance down the Euphrates, “quite free from molestation” from the enemy and apparently using the collapsible boats to transport its supplies, Trajan conceived the idea of building a canal between the Euphrates and the Tigris. [Dio, LXVIII, 26, 28] This was to allow him to follow the Tigris all the way to the Persian Gulf, or the Erythreaean Sea as the Romans called it. The courses of the two rivers come tantalizingly close near where the later city of Baghdad would rise, but Trajan’s engineers warned him that his canal was not practical because the Euphrates flowed at a higher elevation than the Tigris, and a canal would only run the Euphrates dry. The determined emperor therefore had his troops drag the boats overland to the Tigris.

On the eastern bank of the Tigris, the legions came to Parthia’s winter capital, Ctesiphon. Its Parthian defenders put up some resistance, but the legions soon captured it, and, apparently, also captured neighboring Seleucia. At an assembly in Ctesiphon, Trajan was hailed imperator by the legions. It seems that Trajan and the bulk of his army spent the winter of AD 115–116 there at Ctesiphon, with Trajan occupying the palace of the kings of Parthia. From there, Trajan sent his latest dispatches to the Senate at Rome. Following the AD 114 campaign, the Senate had granted Trajan the title Optimus, meaning “Most Excellent.” When news of the emperor’s latest successes in the East arrived, especially the taking of the Parthian capital, the Senate granted him the additional title of “Parthicus.”


In the spring of AD 116, Trajan and part of his army sailed down the Tigris in his fleet of boats, almost coming to grief when, on reaching a point in the river’s lower reaches where the current met the incoming tide, a storm broke over the vessels. The Romans took refuge on an island in the river, Mesene, whose ruler treated Trajan kindly. Trajan continued on to the Persian Gulf. There, on seeing a ship departing for India, reminding him that Alexander the Great had marched that far, Trajan is reported to have said: “I would certainly have crossed over to the Indi, too, if I were still young.” [Ibid., 29]

The Romans then retraced their course up the Tigris. Whether on water against the current, or on land, this return progress would have been slower than the exhilarating trip down the river to the Gulf. Trajan deliberately paused at the ancient ruins of Babylon, 55 miles (88 kilometers) south of today’s Baghdad. Babylon’s original culture had been more than 1,500 years old when Alexander the Great died here during his great eastern campaign of conquest. At Babylon, Trajan was shown the room where Alexander had reputedly breathed his last, and there he conducted a religious sacrifice in memory of the great Macedonian king.

As he lingered at Babylon, Trajan received unsettling news. While he had been playing tourist and sailing down to the Gulf and returning again, “all the conquered districts were thrown into turmoil and revolted, and the garrisons placed among the various peoples were either expelled or slain.” [Ibid.] Nisibis and Edessa were among the cities that had revolted, as had Seleucia, only a comparatively short distance from Babylon. In response, Trajan quickly sent his best generals, Quietus the Moor and Maximus, hurrying north with flying columns, and dispatched a force under legion commanders Ericius Clarens and Julius Alexander to retake Seleucia, a city with a population of as many as 600,000 people.

Maximus’ troops were engaged in battle in the field by the Parthians. The Romans were defeated, the loyal Maximus slaughtered in the fighting. Lusius Quietus made up for Maximus’ failure by recovering several key cities including Nisibis and storming a stubbornly defended Edessa, which his troops sacked and left in flames. Seleucia was also recaptured, by Clarens and Alexander, and it too was put to the torch after being sacked, although it appears not to have been totally destroyed.

Trajan himself returned to Ctesiphon, the Parthian capital, and on the plain outside the city he called an assembly of his troops and of all Parthians in the vicinity. Trajan, after mounting a lofty platform in front of the assembly, told his audience of all he had achieved in this war, and announced that he had chosen a new king of Parthia—it would be, he said, Parthamaspates, a Parthian prince, whom he now produced and crowned king.

Parthamaspates was left at Ctesiphon to rule over the Parthians while vowing fealty to Trajan and Rome. Trajan, in the meantime, led his troops north to Hatra, a little west of the Tigris, where the Atreni Arab residents had also revolted and closed their gates to Romans. The city of Hatra was not large, and it sat on the edge of the desert with little water and no trees in the vicinity. But these very qualities made it difficult to besiege. Trajan had a camp built, and surrounded the city, then sent his legionaries against its walls with mining equipment.

Before long, the troops had created a breach by causing a section of Hatra’s wall to topple. Trajan, commanding the assault from the saddle and keeping close to the action, immediately sent cavalry to force their way through the breach. But the Atreni counter-attacked so fiercely that they drove the Roman cavalry back into their own camp. So that he would not be recognized by enemy archers, Trajan had removed his purple commander-in-chief’s cloak and other imperial trappings, but now, as his troopers came flooding back in disarray, the pursuing Hatran archers, “seeing his majestic gray head and his august countenance, suspected his identity” and let off a volley of arrows in his direction. Trajan himself escaped unhurt, but one of the cavalrymen of his bodyguard was killed in the deluge of arrows. [Ibid., 31]

As the siege of Hatra dragged on, the Roman besiegers were sometimes drenched with rain and pelted by hail, while at other times they endured fierce heat and were plagued by flies that settled in masses on their food and drink. With the siege making no progress, the morale of his troops drooping and the campaigning season nearing its end, Trajan gave up his attempt to take Hatra, and ordered his troops to pack up and pull out. As the army marched north, Trajan began to feel increasingly unwell.

The year had seen the legions and auxiliary units involved in the campaign suffer heavy casualties. With supplies low, Trajan, now sick and exhausted, withdrew his forces from Mesopotamia. Leaving his army in Armenia and Cappadocia for the winter, he returned to Antioch, where he rejoined his wife and nephew, who had been supervising the metropolitan rebuilding efforts in the wake of the earlier earthquake.

Early the following year, AD 117, at Antioch, Trajan was making plans for a new spring offensive in Mesopotamia when he was struck down by a serious stroke which left him paralyzed down one side. As he struggled to recover, the emperor put his Parthian plans on hold. And then, in the spring, news reached Antioch that there had been Jewish uprisings around the eastern Mediterranean. In Cyrenaica in North Africa, a reported 220,000 Romans and Greeks living in the province had been killed. In Egypt, more civilians died, and on Cyprus 240,000 people were said to have perished at the hands of the Jewish rebels. [Ibid., 32]

Now, all thoughts of resumed operations in Mesopotamia were forgotten as Trajan set out to eliminate the Jewish problem. The Jews of Judea, however, had not risen with their compatriots elsewhere in the East, so to ensure that Judea remained secure Trajan detached the 6th Ferrata Legion from his army and stationed it at Caparcotna in Galilee, just 15 miles (24 kilometers) from Nazareth, in the heart of Jewish territory.

Simultaneously, Trajan gave Lusius Quietus, fleet prefect Turbo and his other senior commanders orders to take more troops from his army and put down the Jewish rebellions elsewhere. Units quickly set off for Egypt and Cyrenaica to the south, and, by sea, for Cyprus to the west. Meanwhile, to consolidate the Roman hold on Armenia, Trajan sent the 16th Flavia Legion to the city of Samosata, in southwestern Armenia, to establish a new base there, with the 15th Apollinaris Legion making the 16th Flavia’s former base at Satala its new home.

In the summer of AD 117, Roman troops swept into Egypt and Cyrenaica to terminate the revolts, and triremes of Turbo’s Misene Fleet glided into harbors at Cyprus and disgorged thousands of troops. Under the leadership of Quietus and his colleagues, Roman soldiers who had so recently been fighting a grueling war in Armenia and Parthia swiftly and brutally put down all the Jewish uprisings. Those Jews on Cyprus not killed in the Roman reprisals would have been taken away as prisoners, for the island was cleared of Jews, who were from that time forward banned from even setting foot on Cyprus. [Ibid.]

By the middle of the summer, with his poor health sorely affecting him, Trajan decided, or was convinced by those around him, to go home to Rome. In late July, he set sail for Italy with Plotina, leaving Hadrian at Antioch still in charge of Syria. Tracing the Turkish coast, the emperor’s flotilla put in at Selinus in the province of Cilicia, today’s Anatolia region in southern Turkey. There in early August AD 117, shortly after his arrival, Trajan apparently suffered another stroke, and died.

So it was that after almost twenty years on the throne, and with his Parthian expedition up in the air, Trajan left the scene. In a letter signed by his wife but supposedly from Trajan, 41-year-old Hadrian was named as his heir. As a result, Hadrian was proclaimed the new emperor of Rome by the legions in the East, and this was subsequently endorsed by the Senate.

In the end, apart from glory for Trajan and booty aplenty for those of his troops who survived the campaign, Trajan’s Parthian War achieved nothing, at considerable cost. Many thousands of legionaries and auxiliaries perished in the campaign, and, while numerous cities and towns had been briefly occupied or destroyed, no new territory or sources of income had been acquired by Rome.

The Parthians, meanwhile, rejected and ejected Trajan’s choice for king, Parthamaspates, and appointed a new ruler of their own choice. As for the balance of power in the region, it was left unchanged. The Euphrates continued to serve as the boundary between the Roman world and the Parthian world. And the Parthians rebuilt their power in the region, to the extent that they would be in a position to invade Syria before half a century had passed.

Hadrian set off for Italy, making a leisurely perambulation through the eastern provinces. By the summer of AD 118 he had arrived in Rome. With no intention of following in Trajan’s expansionist footsteps, Hadrian officially terminated the campaign in the East and sent the 1st Adiutrix Legion back to its longtime Danube base in Moesia. Hadrian’s self-appointed task from this point on would be consolidation of the frontier throughout the empire.

Before the year was out, several of Trajan’s leading advisers and generals were arrested on what were probably trumped-up charges of conspiracy against Hadrian, and executed. Among the generals who perished in this pogrom were Palma, who had annexed Arabia Petraea for Trajan, and Quietus, the Moor who had proved to be Trajan’s most reliable and effective field commander in Dacia and the East.

As Hadrian removed Trajan men from power and put his own stamp on the Palatium, even Trajan’s brilliant but arrogant architect Apollodorus of Damascus was sidelined, and eventually executed, by the new emperor. Hadrian went as far as removing the superstructure of Apollodorus’ famed bridge over the Danube, leaving just the massive piers standing. Hadrian’s excuse for this act was a fear of barbarian invaders using the bridge to cross the river into Roman territory. Some writers have suggested he may merely have been so jealous of Apollodorus he wanted to destroy one of the greatest monuments to his genius.

Under Hadrian, Rome now moved from the financially unsustainable offensive stance taken by Trajan in both the West and the East, to one of defense. From this time on, the Roman Empire would be forever on the defensive.


A term associated with the heavily armoured cavalry is ‘clibanarius’, apparently from a Persian word for an oven or furnace, which must have seemed most apt under the Mediterranean or Persian sun. It is sometimes anachronistically translated as ‘ironclad’. Although probably starting as a nickname for cataphracts, some of the evidence suggests that clibanarius seems to have gained a specific and distinct technical meaning. To add to the confusion, a unit could be referred to as cataphractus clibanarius. Some scholars have suggested that clibanarii carried bows as well as the lance (as did most of the Persian horsemen) or that one had full horse armour and the other only the frontal half armour. It has also been suggested that the distinction was not one of equipment but of tactical use and training with clibanarii being trained to cooperate closely with light horse archers. By this way of thinking, a unit trained in both might operate as cataphracti on one occasion or clibanarii on another.

In addition to the variety of types in service, the main impression of the Roman cavalry that Arrian gives his reader is of a highly disciplined force, rigorously trained through constant practice. In cavalry tactics, as in so many fields, the Romans were the beneficiaries of centuries of development among many peoples, both their conquered subjects and those still beyond their borders. The eclectic range of formations and manoeuvres that the empire’s regiments were expected to master included the Celtic toloutegon, the Cantabrian gallop, the Thessalian rhombus, and of course the wedge, so valuable for cutting through enemy formations in shock action, which the Macedonians had learnt from the Thracians and Scythians.

By Hadrian’s reign, when the cataphract was finally adopted by the Roman army, the Roman Empire had reached its high watermark. As well as annexing Dacia (roughly modern Rumania), Trajan had campaigned in the east, capturing the Parthian capital at Ctesiphon and carrying the Empire’s borders to their greatest territorial extent. After that Rome was increasingly on the defensive. In Britain of course, this retrenchment was clearly embodied in the construction of Hadrian’s Wall and the other frontiers also gradually ossified into fixed defensive systems.

On the Danube, Hadrian began paying subsidies to the Roxolani and awarded citizenship to their king, Rasparagus, but other Sarmatian groups remained a major threat, despite a significant victory by the Emperor Marcus Aurelius in the winter of AD 173/174. Once more the Sarmatian dependence upon the headlong charge proved their undoing in a battle fought upon the frozen River Danube. It seems incredible that any cavalry force would willingly give battle on ice, yet, remarkably, the historian Cassius Dio claims that the lazyge raiders, who had been retreating with their loot, actually halted on the river and waited for the Romans, expecting to have the advantage ‘as their horses had been trained to run safely even over a surface of this kind’.

When the Romans came up the Sarmatians tried to employ exactly the tactics Arrian had prepared to face, with some dashing straight at the Roman centre while others attempted to envelop both flanks. The Romans, however, did not panic and ‘drew together in a compact body’; possibly a square with the cavalry in the centre since they are not mentioned in the ensuing fight. The Sarmatian assault failed to break the Roman infantry, many of the men having thrown down their shields for the front ranks to stand upon for firmer footing. The lazyges did manage to drive their horses into the waiting lines but many mounts lost their footing and went down ‘since the barbarians, by reason of their momentum could no longer keep from slipping’. Those piling in from behind became embroiled in a vicious struggle in which many were bodily hauled from their horses ‘so that but few escaped out of a large force’.

Marcus Aurelius adopted the soubriquet ‘Sarmaticus’ as a result of this victory and, after further campaigning, was able to negotiate a favourable peace two years later. The terms of this settlement illustrate how the Romans, although not expanding territorially, still sought to incorporate the manpower of defeated enemies. As a result of this defeat, the lazyges returned some one hundred thousand captives taken in raids over the years, and also undertook to furnish eight thousand cavalry for service with the Roman army, of whom 5500 were sent to Britain.

Some see a tantalizing link between this and the historical basis for the legend of King Arthur. The Sarmatians would have been horsemen, some at least clad in shining mail (though not uniquely so among Britannia’s garrison) and fighting under a dragon standard (although again not uniquely, for draco standards were widely used by the late Roman army). Add to this that Sarmatian religious beliefs, true to their Scythian roots, included the veneration of an ancient sword plunged in the ground, and connections are tempting indeed. A Sarmatian unit was still based in Lancashire in the third century and there is archaeological evidence for their presence around AD 400, just before the official Roman abandonment of Britain. At one point they were even commanded by one Lucius Artorius Castus.

The peace lasted for a generation, but a new threat was already emerging in the region.

Drusus in Germania

The only portrait of Drusus known to have been carved in his lifetime appears on the Ara Pacis in Rome. On the south facing enclosure wall, one figure in the procession is conspicuous by his attire. He is the only male figure shown wearing the paludamentum, the military cloak, in contrast to the others who wear togas; and caligae, the robust, open sandals worn by soldiers, which compare to the others who wear closed civilian boots. The consensus opinion is the figure is that of Nero Claudius Drusus since he was active on military campaign while the altar was being carved and at the time of the inauguration on 30 January 9 BCE. If the identification is correct, this is the only portrait of Drusus which can be securely dated to his lifetime. He is shown as a confident and relaxed individual in the company of his family. With her head turned to look at him is the figure of Antonia Minor, who holds the hand of a small boy identified as Ti. Claudius Nero (better known as Germanicus) who would have been nearly six years old at the time of the consecration ceremony.

Map of military operations in Magna Germania 10 BCE.


Map of the Roman Empire 16–9 BCE.

Roman Propraetor Decimus Claudius Drusus’ mind was on matters far from Rome. Perhaps inspired by the consuls of old or the lure of military glory, Drusus was intent on leaving the city at the earliest opportunity to continue the war.

He returned to Lugdunum in the spring of 10 BCE. The Tres Galliae continued to function as expected and there were no reports of unrest. His legates, meantime, had wasted no time in Germania. The Lippe River was now being lined with forts and logistics depots to relay supplies along the river delivered from Vetera. Work on Oberaden continued. A new supply depot to support the fortress was established a few kilometers downstream at Beckinghausen. Discovered in 1911 on a steep slope falling towards the river, it was subsequently excavated and an oval shaped encampment was uncovered measuring 185 meters (606.9 feet) by 88 metres (288.7 feet), encompassing an area of approximately 1.56 hectares, although the landing place for loading and unloading rivercraft has yet to be found. The main campaign this year would not, however, be driven along the Lippe River. Drusus now shifted the tactical thrust into Germania from a base further up the Rhine. A few weeks later he arrived with his entourage in Mogontiacum eager to launch an offensive to the Elbe via the River Main (Moenus or Menus). There were two legions at the camp, XIV Gemina and XVI Gallica. They may have been joined by vexillations of other legions from Fectio, Oppidum Ubiorum, Novaesium and Vetera. Detachments of these already made up at least two garrisons inside Germania. They would have been under orders to engage in simultaneous operations to drive deeper thrusts of their own into the territories building on the previous two campaign seasons; and to consolidate their gains with the construction of new forts, watch towers and roads. A skeleton crew would also have to be left at Mogontiacum (and the other Rhine fortresses) to guard it and manage the supply chain of provisions going to the front. Thus in practice the force for the new invasion along the Main River might have numbered as few as 10,000 men plus cohorts of auxiliaries.

A new fort may have been established at Frankfurt-am-Main-Höchst at the confluence of the Nidda and Main Rivers. As in the previous campaigns, Drusus used rivers to ferry much of the supplies his invading force needed by boat. The Main River is 524 kilometres (325.6 miles) long and a major tributary of the Rhine, with its source near Kulmbach, which is in turn fed by two minor tributaries the Red Main and White Main. The invasion plan was conceived with the usual Roman attention to detail, and logistics in particular. A supply depot was established at Rödgen near Bad Nauheim on the east bank of the Wetter River close by its source, about 60 kilometres (37.3 miles) east of the Rhine. It was polygonal in shape with a double ditch, 3 metres (9.8 feet) deep and wood-and-earth rampart structure 3 metres (9.8 feet) high and 3 metres (9.8 feet) wide at the base, enclosing an area of 3.3 hectares. Archaeologists found that the gateway, flanked by substantial towers, was wide enough for two wagons to pass through. These would have delivered corn and fresh produce brought up from Mogontiacum for storage in the warehouses and granaries inside the compound. There was also a well-equipped workshop. In the centre of the fortified camp was a principia, praetorium and barrack blocks sufficient for about 1,000 men but the size of the storage capacity meant it would feed many more mouths than its garrison. The nearby fort at Friedburg may have been connected with it.

The invasion route took them headlong into conflict with the Chatti who were a strong opponent. Unlike the previous campaign season, they had finally formed an alliance with the Sugambri and combined forces, having abandoned their own country, which the Romans had apparently given them. The Chatti were tough fighters and the ensuing conflict with the Romans was bloody and brutal. On the far northeastern edge of Chatti territory the Roman army established a major summer camp at Hedemünden near modern Göttingen, some 240 kilometres (149.1 miles) northest of Mogontiacum. Military surveyors laid out a narrow oval fortress taking full advantage of the Burgberg, a hill overlooking a bend on the Werra River, which is a tributary of the Weser. The defensive enclosure measured 320 metres (1,049.9 feet) long by 150 metres (492.1 feet) wide encompassing an area of 3.215 hectares. The 760 metre (2,493.4 feet) long circuit of wall measuring 5–6 metres (16.4–19.7 feet) at the base with a ditch outside was pierced by one gateway on each of the west and south sides, two on the east side with a curved but ungated northern end on the crest of the hill. There was an adjoining annex, also surrounded by a protective wall and ditch, which swept down to the riverside and may have been used for animals and supplies. The site, which has been partly excavated, has already produced over 1,500 iron objects carried by Roman troops, including exceptionally well preserved dolabra and pugiones, flat bladed spear points, the bent metal shank of a pilum, pyramid-shaped catapult bolts, nails, chain, hooks and even tent pegs with rings for tying the leather straps to. More personal items were also found such as iron hobnails – 600 in all – from caligae and a bronze phallic good luck charm. That the Romans were in the area on active campaign and taking prisoners is attested by an exquisitely nasty set of iron fetters. Shaped like the letter P the loop fitted around the neck and the hands were locked in two cuffs attached to the shaft. The short length of the shaft meant the captive wearer had to keep his arms up high across his chest – where they could be clearly seen by the guards – to avoid discomfort to the neck.

Anticipating his people might suffer a similar fate, one tribal leader took proactive steps to avoid conflict with the invaders. That year an enterprising noble from the Marcomanni nation named Marboduus or Marabodus, who was educated at Rome and once enjoyed Augustus’ patronage, returned to his people – or perhaps was taken there under Roman escort – and became their leader. He took back with him ideas about how the Marcomanni might introduce Roman-style law, government and military science. He had come to know the Romans well and understood what motivated them. Rather than challenge Rome or be subjugated by her, Marboduus decided upon a radical strategy. In a remarkable move, he convinced his tribe to relocate far from Roman temptation. Joining his people on the migration to a new homeland in Bohemia (Bohaemium) were the Lugii, Zumi, Butones (or Gutones), Mugilones and Sibini nations, a combined force of some 70,000 men on foot and 4,000 horse.

For those standing in Drusus’ path, the choice was ally with him or be prepared to fight. While the invading Roman army continued to attack and defeat any opposition as it progressed through the country, Drusus engaged in dazzling displays of single combat.

Waging war was a central defining characteristic of Roman culture. There was prestige and profit to be had in a successful campaign and to advance in politics meant showing courage and ability on the battlefield. Fifty-three years earlier Cicero had exhorted

preëminence in military skill excels all other virtues. It is this which has procured its name for the glory of the Roman people; it is this which has procured eternal glory for this city; it is this which has compelled the whole world to submit to our dominion; all domestic affairs, all these illustrious pursuits of ours, and our forensic renown, and our industry, are safe under the protection of military valour. The highest dignity is in those men who excel in military glory.

One way a commander could prove his worth was to engage his opponent in face-to-face combat, defeat him and strip his body bare of its arms, armour and personal effects. These rich spoils were called the spolia opima. They were then hung decoratively from an oak tree trunk as a trophy (tropaea) and the victor brought the display back to Rome and presented it as victor to the shrine of Iupiter Feretrius on the Capitoline Hill. Their exalted place in the Roman psyche was due to their extreme rarity. Legend had it that the first spoils were taken by Romulus from Acro, king of the Caeninenses in 752 BCE following the incident in which the Sabine women were raped. The second spolia were those of Lars Tolumnius, king of the Veientes, taken by A. Cornelius Crossus. The decaying linen cuirass and accompanying inscription were still in existence in Augustus’ time and they actually came to light during the renovation of the temple of Iupiter Feretrius at the request of the princeps.

The last recorded Roman commander to be recognised for wrenching the spoils from his fallen adversary was M. Claudius Marcellus (c.268–208 BCE). He was a distant relative of Drusus and as a child he would have heard the thrilling story, which is preserved by Plutarch, of how he captured them in 222 BCE.143 Day and night, the story went, Marcellus pursued the Gaesatae, a Gallic tribe, which had invaded the Lombardy region of northern Italy to assist their allies, the Insubres. He finally intercepted 10,000 of them at Clastidium. Unfortunately, Marcellus had with him just 600 lightly armed troops, as well as a contingent of heavy infantry and some cavalry. Viridomarus, king of the Insubres, thinking that his side had the advantage of greater numbers and proven skill in horsemanship, set out to squash the Roman invader without delay. The Gauls were now heading en masse at speed towards Marcellus’ forces. Fearing he would be overwhelmed, the consul deployed his men into longer, thinner lines with the cavalry placed at the wings. His own horse, however, was terrified by the ululations of the advancing Gauls and turned tail, carrying Marcellus back in the direction of the Roman lines. This did not look at all good in front of his own men, so thinking quickly on his feet, he made as if he was praying to the gods and promised to Iupiter Feretrius the choicest of the Gallic king’s weapons and armour. Meanwhile, Viridomarus standing in his war chariot and wearing his striped trousers had spotted Marcellus by the splendour of his kit and charged out to slay him. Seeing the gleaming silver and gold of the Gaul’s armour and the elaborate coloured fabrics of his tunic and cloak, and recalling his vow to the Roman god, Marcellus now charged atViridomarus.The adversaries raced closer and closer together. Marcellus saw an opportunity but he had to act quickly. With all his might, he hurled his spear. The slender iron tipped weapon sliced through the sky and found its prey. The blade pierced the Gallic king’s cuirass and the force of the impact thrust him off his chariot and crashing to the ground. Marcellus charged up on his steed and dismounted. With two or three stabs, Marcellus dispatched the man. He hacked off the dead man’s head, removed the torc from his severed neck in the manner of the Celts, and stripped the dead man of his splendid gear. Lifting them skywards Marcellus proclaimed,

“O Iupiter Feretrius, who observest the deeds of great warriors and generals in battle, I now call thee to witness, that I am the third Roman consul and general who have, with my own hands slain a general and a king! To thee I consecrate the most excellent spoils. Do thou grant us equal success in the prosecution of this war”.

The Roman cavalry then charged the Gallic horse and infantry and won a great victory, made all the more so on account of the small number of Marcellus’ force and the greater odds it faced. The Gaesatae withdrew and surrendered Mediolanum (Milan) and other cities under their control and sued for terms. The senate awarded Marcellus a triumph in which the spoils were prominently displayed to cheers from the spectators. The sight of Marcellus carrying the trophy adorned with Viridomarus’ spectacular armour to the temple of Iupiter Feretrius was “the most agreeable and most uncommon spectacle”, writes Plutarch. Some 175 years later a descendant of Marcellus who was a tresvir monetalis used his position to commemorate the event on a special denarius.

There was another ancestor on Drusus’ mother’s side whose story probably inspired the young commander to uncommon acts of bravery on the battlefield. That was the story of how his family acquired its cognomen Drusus. One of his ancestors had dueled a Gallic chieftain named Drausus and by killing him “procured for himself and his posterity” the name.

These tales of heroism and glorious deeds evidently left a deep impression on the young Claudian. The German War provided Drusus with numerous opportunities to win his own rich spoils. Suetonius remarks that he was eager for glory and “frequently marked out the German chiefs in the midst of their army, and encountered them in single combat, at the utmost hazard of his life”. Drusus may have been successful in his quest, “for besides his victories”, writes the biographer of the Caesars, “he gained from the enemy the spolia opima”. If indeed Drusus was successful – when and against which opponent is not recorded in the surviving accounts – this was an extraordinary honour. The last person to claim the honour was M. Licinius Crassus (the grandson of the triumvir) who had defeated an opponent in Macedonia in 29 BCE. His achievement was downplayed, however. Politics got in the way of him collecting his trophy. The honour was deemed too distracting to Octavianus’ efforts to consolidate his political power. Crassus was denied his eternal glory and fobbed off with a triumph. By the time Drusus had taken the rich spoils from his Germanic enemy Augustus’ power base was more solid and he could afford to allow his young stepson the public recognition. Indeed, it would have been first rate propaganda for here was a member of his own household who had achieved what only three other illustrious men had in the entire course of Roman history.


Notwithstanding his grief at losing Drusus, Augustus was still intent on concluding the German War in Rome’s favour. Florus remarks that the Germanic nations were defeated but not yet subjugated, and that they respected the Romans’ moral qualities (mores) under Drusus’ rule more than they did Rome’s military might. It now fell to Tiberius to assume command of the Rhine army and in 8 BCE he departed for the front. Where Drusus had generally preferred the gladius to bring the German to his will, his older brother’s favoured weapon was diplomacy backed by the threat of force. It had served him well in Parthia and he evidently felt it would be worth trying again in Germania. Indeed, it was an insightful judgement. Hearing that Tiberius had mobilized his forces and crossed the Rhine, the nations living in the region bounded by the Ems, Lippe and Weser rivers sent emissaries to him to sue for peace. Initially absent, however, were the Sugambri. According to Dio, Augustus told Tiberius he would not accept terms from the Germans unless the Sugambri were part of the peace deal. The Romans and Sugambri embarked on a course of brinkmanship lasting several weeks. The Sugambri sent envoys who seemed unwilling to, or had been instructed not to, take the negotiations with the gravity the Romans expected. His patience tried, Tiberius had the Sugambrian delegation arrested, split up and distributed among the cities of Tres Galliae. The imprisoned ambassadors were very distressed by this unexpected turn of events and allegedly committed suicide (though that may have been cynical propaganda spin on a series of grubby behind-closed-doors executions). The stakes having now risen to the point where outright war might once again break out, the Sugambri finally returned prepared to negotiate terms. The result was a stunning U-turn by the Germanic nation that had for a generation led the offence against Rome. Tiberius’ calculated gamble had paid off. It provided timely propaganda the princeps needed for the audience at home. Displaying his talent for propaganda, Augustus states in his own memoirs that Maelo of the Sugambri was one of several named kings that “sent me supplications”. The terms offered to the Sugambri were different than those offered to the other nations. Like the Ubii before them, the Sugambri agreed to be relocated across the Rhine – Eutropius mentions 40,000 people – to the vicinity of Vetera where they became known as Ciberni, Cuberni or Cugerni, under the watchful eyes of the men of Legiones XVII and XVIII. Soon the Sugambri, like the Ligures, Raeti and Vindelici of the Alps before them, were supplying men for the Roman army. The cohors Sugambrorum quickly earned a reputation as a fierce fighting unit characterised by blood chilling war chanting and clashing of weapons before battle. Of the fate of Maelo the warchief, history is silent. Perhaps he settled in to a quiet life as a Romano-Germanic gentleman farmer, or he may have led one of the new military units under his own name and found adventure far from his new home.

For his victories, Augustus granted Tiberius the title of imperator and an equestrian triumph. He then took up his second term as consul with Cn. Calpurnius Piso. In his address to the senate on 1 January 7 BCE Tiberius set out his aspirations for the year and among them was the repair of the Temple of Concordia. Upon its entablature, he said, would be written a dedication from both himself and his brother Drusus. The session concluded, he rode his horse as triumphator along the via Sacra to the adulation of cheering crowds, enjoying a well-deserved occasion for public recognition, before ascending to the Temple of Iupiter Capitolinus for a feast with members of the senate.

Later that year he returned to Germania to deal with fresh disturbances there: despite the peace treaties of the previous year, the natives were ever restless. They rebelled again in 1 CE while L. Domitius Ahenobarbus – the first official legatus augusti pro praetore appointed by Augustus to provincia Germania – was campaigning. Ahenobarbus (‘bronze beard’) achieved what Drusus had not by crossing the Elbe River. He engaged the Hermunduri, whom he relocated to the region of Bohaemium in part of the territory already occupied by the Marcomanni. The Romans met no opposition from Marboduus’ people and even formed a “pact of friendship” with them. At the marketplace of the Ubii on the Rhine River Ahenobarbus set up an altar to Roma et Augustus, replicating the one Drusus had established at Lugdunum. The town changed its name from Oppidum Ubiorum to Ara Ubiorum to reflect its new status as a cult centre and Ahenobarbus also set up his provincial headquarters there. He attempted to negotiate for a number of hostages held by the Cherusci, but the involvement of other tribes as intermediaries resulted in failure and brought contempt for the Romans among the Germanic nations.

All was not well in the imperial household, however. Tiberius had thrown a fit for reasons scholars still debate and went into a self-imposed seven year exile to Rhodes. Only after a reconciliation with Augustus did Tiberius return again to deal with the situation in Germania in 4 CE. Sharing command of the campaign with Tiberius this time was G. Sentius Saturninus, the new legatus augusti pro praetore, who had been a legionary legate under Drusus.105 During the next two years, Oberaden was abandoned and the legions moved to new forward positions at Anreppen and Haltern and along the Lippe, while the unit that had been stationed at Dangstetten was subsequently moved to Oberhausen near Augsburg in 9 BCE, and transferred again to a new 37 hectare site at Marktbreit am Rhein in Bavaria eighteen years later. An amphibious campaign retraced the route taken by Drusus which took the fleet via the North Sea to the Elbe and sailed it upstream. Meanwhile, a land invasion led to the Cherusci, Chatti and others suing for peace terms. Under the energized force of Roman military might it seemed Germania Libera would finally bow to the Roman yoke. Indeed, the process of Romanisation of Germania had already begun. In large part due to Drusus’ explorations, the Romans had a much better understanding of the extent of Germania Magna and its peoples. Writing in the 80s and 90s CE Tacitus mentions forty tribes by name, almost five times the number recorded in Iulius Caesar’s Gallic War. Civilian settlements were being established. The remains at Waldgrimes in the Lahn valley discovered in 1993, complete with a basilica and forum dated using dendrochronology to 4 BCE, are proof of this.109 Other similar settlements may yet lie awaiting discovery by archaeologists.

In Rome Augustus’ carefully laid plans for succession had begun to unravel. In 2 CE Lucius died and three years later his brother Caius passed away. Faced with the prospect of dying without a successor, on 26 June 4 CE Augustus adopted both Tiberius and Agrippa Postumus (the youngest and only surviving son of Vipsanius Agrippa and Iulia). That same year, at the princeps’ request, Tiberius adopted Drusus’ eldest son, Germanicus, who was now 19 years’ old. In 5 or 6 CE, while Tiberius was waging war again over the Rhine, Germanicus and Claudius laid on gladiatorial games in honour of their father, to which the public responded with approval “for this mark of honour” feeling “comforted” by the recognition. In another public display of pietas for his brother, in 6 CE Tiberius dedicated the Temple of Castor and Pollux in his own name and that of Drusus, now dead since fifteen years. In the same year both Augustus and Tiberius were acclaimed imperator and the governor Sentius Saturninus was granted triumphal honours for brokering not one but two truces with the Germanic nations. In late 6 CE, Tiberius executed his own plan to take on the Marcomanni in their homeland of Bohaemium. It was the largest operation ever conducted by the Roman army, with at least twelve legions involved. However, hardly had they advanced north a rebellion in Pannonia – triggered by resentment at the punitive tribute levied on its peoples – stopped the massed army in its tracks and it had to be recalled. It would take three years of blood and treasure to quell the revolt. Taking part in suppressing that violent insurgency was a young noble of the Cherusci leading a Roman cavalry unit. He had received privileges directly from Augustus himself and assumed the name C. Iulius Arminius.

In 7 CE, Quinctilius Varus was appointed legatus augusti pro praetore of Germania. The son of the impoverished patrician family had done rather well for himself. In the complex world of political favours, Augustus tended to promote men from within his own family and social network. Varus was now married to Augustus’ great niece, Claudia Pulchra. Varus’ task was to pacify the region and transform it into a province. Perhaps he did the job too well. As the summer of 9 CE turned to autumn word reached Rome from Germania of a terrible disaster. At a place few Romans had ever heard of called saltus Teutoburgiensis reports came of a military catastrophe. Three legions – Legiones XVII, XVIII and XIX, all of them once under Drusus’ command – had been destroyed by a coalition of Germanic bandits. Incredibly the reports stated that the rebels had been led by C. Iulius Arminius, who was supposedly a trusted Roman ally. Cunningly he had used his position of status and trust to trick Varus and his intimate knowledge of Roman military doctrine to wipe out the governor’s army. As remarkably, it was a repeat of the same ambush tactic Drusus had suffered at Arbalo almost two decades before, except this time the Cherusci had not wavered and the Romans had lost. The Roman population panicked: barbarians were not supposed to be able to outwit them and now there was little between the Rhine and the Tiber to stop an invasion of Germanic hordes. Many recalled with terror the stories they had heard from grandparents about the Cimbri and Teutones. Where in this time of need was their Marius? A state of emergency was declared. Citizens were to be called up and given rudimentary training on the Campus Martius before being dispatched to Tres Galliae. When the appeal for volunteers went unheeded, Augustus drew men’s names by lot. When that failed to produce enough men he began ordering executions, and enlisted freedmen to the colours – a measure of how desperate the situation had become. It was then that he fired his German bodyguard. The feared invasion never came, but the trauma of the clades Variana remained for years. The few survivors from the three ambushed legions struggled back with tales of horror at the hands of blood-crazed Germani. That kind of talk was corrosive to public morale, decided Augustus: by edict, all survivors were banned from entering the Italian homeland for fear they would scare the local communities. The stain of shame would live with those men until their deaths. Augustus himself took the news personally and very badly. “Qinctilius Varus!” he was heard to cry as he tore at his hair and clothes, “give me back my legions!” It seemed his dream of a Roman Germania and beyond lay in tatters, yet Tiberius returned the following year and, with Germanicus’ support, after two years’ campaigning restored Roman control, at least along the river.

As his reign drew to a close, Augustus’ interest in annexing Germania waned and he attended to more modest enterprises. Before he died he is said to have made his successor promise not to overextend the boundaries of the empire: the Romans had their Lebensraum – let that be enough.

The War against Terror

The lembos (Lat. Lembus, Plautus, Mercator, I, 2,81 and II, 1,35) was an Illyrian fast ship, probably originally used in piracy and very important for the Romans for its carrying capacity of men, equipment and booty. It could be open and aphract, with a strong ramming capacity and rowed at two levels (biremis). From this the liburna was developed.

POMPEY THE GREAT DEFEATS CILICIAN PIRATES, 66 BC It was Pompey the Great who was to crush the Cilician pirates and give freedom and security to the waterways of the Roman Republic. To do this, Pompey received from the Senate, after long debates, extraordinary powers in 67 BC: the proconsular power (Imperium Proconsolare) for three years throughout the Mediterranean basin to the Black Sea with the right to operate up to 45 miles inland. Fifteen legates were put under him with the title of propraetores and 20 legions (120,000 men) and 4,000 riders, 270 ships and a budget of 6,000 talents. In a rapid and well-organized campaign he defeated the pirates. Two months sufced to patrol the Black Sea and root out troublemakers; then it was the turn of Crete and Cilicia (App., Mithridatic War, 96). The pirates were destroyed in their own territories and they surrendered to Pompey a great quantity of arms and ships, some under construction, some already at sea, together with bronze, iron, sail cloth, rope and various kinds of timber. In Cilicia 71 ships were taken for capture and 300 for surrender. This scene shows an amphibious operation of Pompey the Great’s fleet against the pirates. The main Roman ship is a `Three’. The burning Cilician ships are two myoparones.

The armies of the Republic had not always been filled with penniless volunteers. When the citizens assembled for elections on the Campus Martius, ranked strictly according to their wealth, they were preserving the memory of a time when men of every class had been drafted, when a legion had indeed embodied the Republic at war. Ironically, in those nostalgically remembered days, only those without property had been excluded from the levy. This had reflected deeply held prejudices: among the Romans, it was received wisdom that ‘men who have their roots in the land make the bravest and toughest soldiers’. The horny-handed peasant, tending to his small plot, was the object of much sentimental attachment and patriotic pride. Unsurprisingly, for the Republic had become great on his back. For centuries the all-conquering Roman infantry had consisted of yeoman-farmers, their swords cleaned of chaff, their ploughs left behind, following their magistrates obediently to war. For as long as Rome’s power had been confined to Italy, campaigns had been of manageably short duration. But with the expansion of the Republic’s interests overseas, they had lengthened, often into years. During a soldier’s absence, his property might become easy prey. Small farms had been increasingly swallowed up by the rich. In place of a tapestry of fields and vineyards worked by free men, great stretches of Italy had been given over to vast estates, the ‘wilderness’ through which Spartacus had marched. Of course, it was not truly a wilderness, being filled with chain-gangs — but it lacked free-born citizens. The sight of ‘a countryside almost depopulated, with a virtual absence of free peasants or shepherds, and no one except for barbarian, imported slaves’, was what had shocked Tiberius Gracchus into launching his reform project. He had warned his fellow citizens that the foundations of their military greatness were being eroded. Every peasant who lost his farm had meant a soldier lost to Rome. To generations of reformers, the miseries of the dispossessed had seemed a portent of the entire Republic’s doom. The crisis in Italian agriculture was so overwhelming as to prove virtually intractable, but the crisis in military recruitment, at least, had begged an obvious reform. In 107 bc Marius had bowed to the inevitable: the army was opened to every citizen, regardless of whether he owned property or not. Weapons and armour had begun to be supplied by the state. The legions had turned professional.

From that moment on, possession of a farm was no longer the qualification for military service, but the reward. This was why, when the first mutterings of mutiny began to be heard in the winter of 68 bc, the whispers were all of how Pompey’s veterans, merely for fighting rebels and slaves, were already ‘settled down with wives and children, in possession of fertile land’. Lucullus, by contrast, was starving his men of loot. The charge was patently untrue — Tigranocerta had fallen and been plundered only the previous year — but it was widely believed. After all, was Lucullus not notoriously mean? Had he not prevented the Greek cities back in Pontus from being looted? Were his men not ‘wasting their lives roaming across the world, with no reward for their service save the chance to guard the wagons and camels of Lucullus, and their freight of gold and gem-encrusted cups’?

Discipline in the professionalised legions was even more merciless than it had been in the citizen levies of the past. Sentiments of mutiny were not lightly articulated. Fortunately for the resentful soldiery, however, there was a spokesman ready to hand. To Lucullus, his identity could not have come as more of a betrayal. The young Clodius Pulcher, unlike his elder brother Appius, had not been entrusted with flamboyant foreign missions. Nor had he been given the rapid promotion that he believed, as a Claudius, was his god-given right. Piqued by the perceived disrespect, Clodius had been waiting for the opportunity to stab his brother-in-law in the back. His revenge, when it came, was brazen. The patrician scion of Rome’s haughtiest family began to present himself as ‘the soldier’s friend’. His rabble-rousing had an immediate and devastating effect: Lucullus’ entire army went on strike.

Withdrawing their labour had always been the ultimate — indeed, the only — sanction available to disgruntled plebeians. In a camp on the very limits of civilisation, far from the frontiers of the empire, let alone from Rome herself, the primordial history of the

Republic was once again replayed. But the world in which the mutineers staged their strike was no longer that of their ancestors. Their own interests were almost the least of what was at stake. Not only was the mutiny hopelessly entangled with the snarl of aristocratic rivalries, but it was imperilling a vast swath of territories, containing millions of Rome’s subjects, and sending reverberations throughout the whole of the East. This was the potential greatness of a proconsul, that even in the hour of catastrophe the whole world might seem filled by the shadow-play of his downfall. As the legionaries sat on their weapons the news was brought to them that Mithridates had returned to Pontus and reclaimed his kingdom. And Lucullus, the aloof and haughty Lucullus, went from tent to tent, taking the hand of each soldier like a suppliant, and the tears streamed down his cheeks.

In the months following his soldiers’ strike, as Lucullus struggled to deal with Mithridates and mutineers simultaneously, a rare smile would have been brought to his face by the news that Clodius had been taken prisoner by pirates. The soldier’s friend’ had been quick to abscond from Lucullus’ camp. Heading west, he had arrived in Cilicia, a Roman province on the south-eastern Turkish coast. Another of his brothers-in-law, Marcius Rex, the husband of Clodius’ youngest sister, was the governor there. Marcius, who disliked Lucullus and was perfectly happy to cock a snook at him, had rewarded the young mutineer with the command of a war fleet. It was while out on patrol with this that Clodius had been seized.

Capture by pirates had recently become something of an occupational hazard for Roman aristocrats. Eight years previously Julius Caesar had been abducted while en route to Molon’s finishing school. When the pirates demanded a ransom of twenty talents, Caesar had indignantly claimed that he was worth at least fifty. He had also warned his captors that he would capture and crucify them once he had been released, a promise that he had duly fulfilled. Clodius’ own dealings with pirates were to contribute less flatteringly to his reputation. When he wrote to the King of Egypt demanding the ransom fee, the response was a derisory payment of two talents, to the immense amusement of the pirates and the fury of the captive himself. The final circumstances of Clodius’ release were lost in a murk of scandal. His enemies — of whom there were many — claimed that the price had been his anal virginity.

Whatever the rewards it was capable of bringing them, however, kidnapping was only a sideline for the pirates. Calculated acts of intimidation ensured that they could extort and rob almost at will, inland as well as at sea. The scale of their plundering was matched by their pretensions. Their chiefs ‘claimed for themselves the status of kings and tyrants, and for their men, that of soldiers, believing that if they pooled their resources, they would be invincible’. In the nakedness of their greed, and in their desire to make the whole world their prey, there was more than a parody of the Republic itself, a ghostly mirror-image that the Romans found unsettling in the extreme. The shadowiness of the pirates’ organisation, and their diffuse operations, made them a foe unlike any other. ‘The pirate is not bound by the rules of war, but is the common enemy of everyone,’ Cicero complained. ‘There can be no trusting him, no attempt to bind him with mutually agreed treaties.’ How was such an adversary ever to be pinned down, still more eradicated? To make the attempt would be to fight against phantoms. ‘It would be an unprecedented war, fought without rules, in a fog’; a war that appeared without promise of an end.

Yet for a people who prided themselves on their refusal to tolerate disrespect, this was a policy of unusual defeatism. It was true that the rocky inlets of Cilicia and the mountain fastnesses that stretched beyond them were almost impossible to police. The area had always been bandit country. Ironically, however, it was Rome’s very supremacy in the East that had enabled the pirates to swarm far beyond their strongholds. By hamstringing every regional power that might pose a threat to its interests, and yet refusing to shoulder the burden of direct administration, the Republic had left the field clear for the triumph of brigandage. To people racked by the twin plagues of political impotence and lawlessness, the pirates had at least brought the order of the protection racket. Some towns paid tribute to them, others offered harbours. With each year that passed the pirates’ tentacles extended further.

Only once, in 102 bc, had the Romans been provoked into tackling the menace head on. The great orator Marcus Antonius, Cicero’s hero, had been dispatched to Cilicia with an army and a fleet. The pirates had quickly fled their strongholds, Antonius had proclaimed a decisive victory, and the Senate had duly awarded him a triumph. But the pirates had merely regrouped on Crete, and they soon returned to their old haunts, as predatory as before. This time round the Republic chose to turn a blind eye. An all-out war against the pirates promised to be as hopeless as ever, but there were also powerful interest groups in Rome that positively encouraged inactivity. The more that the economy was glutted with slaves, the more dependent it became on them. Even when the Republic was not at war this addiction still had to be fed. The pirates were the most consistent suppliers. At the great free port of Delos it was said that up to ten thousand slaves might be exchanged in a single day. The proceeds of this staggering volume of trade fatted pirate captain and Roman plutocrat alike. To the business lobby, profit talked louder than disrespect.

Many Romans, particularly in the upper reaches of the aristocracy, were naturally appalled by this blot on Rome’s good name.

Lucullus was merely the boldest to take a stand against it. But the Senate had long been in bed with the business classes. It was for this reason, perhaps, that the most far-sighted critic of the Republic’s hunger for human livestock was not a Roman at all, but a Greek. Posidonius, the philosopher who had celebrated the Republic’s empire as the coming of a universal state, recognised in the monstrous scale of slavery the dark side of his optimistic vision. During his travels he had seen Syrians toiling in Spanish mines, and Gauls in chain-gangs on Sicilian estates. He was shocked by the inhuman conditions he had witnessed. Naturally, it never crossed his mind to oppose slavery as an institution. What did horrify him, however, was the brutalising of millions upon millions, and the danger that this posed to all his high hopes for Rome. If the Republic, rather than staying true to the aristocratic ideals that Posidonius so admired, permitted its global mission to be corrupted by big business, then he feared that its empire would degenerate into a free-for-all of anarchy and greed. Rome’s supremacy, rather than heralding a golden age, might portend a universal darkness. Corruption in the Republic threatened to putrefy the world.

As an example of what he feared, Posidonius pointed to a series of slave revolts, of which that of Spartacus had been merely the most recent. He might just as well have cited the pirates. Bandits, like their prey, were most likely to be fugitives from the misery of the times, from extortion, warfare and social breakdown. The result, across the Mediterranean, wherever men from different cultures had been thrown together, whether in slave barracks or on pirate ships, was a desperate yearning for the very apocalypse so feared by Posidonius. Rootlessness and suffering served to wither the worship of traditional gods, but it provided a fertile breeding ground for mystery cults. Like the Sibyl’s prophecies, these tended to be a fusion of many different influences: Greek, Persian and Jewish beliefs. By their nature, they were underground and fluid, invisible to those who wrote history—but one of them, at least, was to leave a permanent mark. Mithras, whose rites the pirates celebrated, was to end up worshipped throughout the Roman Empire, but his cult was first practised by the enemies of Rome. Mysterious threads of association bound him to Mithridates, whose very name meant ‘given by Mithra’. Mithras himself had originally been a Persian deity, but in the form worshipped by the pirates he most resembled Perseus, a Greek hero, and one from whom Mithridates, significantly, claimed descent. Perseus, like Mithridates, had been a mighty king, uniting West and East, Greece and Persia, orders far more ancient than the upstart rule of Rome. On Mithridates’ coinage there appeared a crescent and a star, the ancient symbol of the Greek hero’s sword. This same sword could be seen in the hand of Mithras, plunging deep into the chest of a giant bull.

In a distortion of the original Persian myth, the bull had become the symbol of the Great Antagonist, the Principle of Evil: was this how the pirates saw Rome? The cloak of secrecy that veiled their mysteries makes it impossible to know for sure. What is certain, however, is that the alliance between the pirates and Mithridates, which was very close, went far beyond mere expediency. And what is equally certain is that the pirates, preoccupied with plunder as they were, also saw themselves as the enemies of everything embodied by Rome. No opportunity was wasted to trample upon the Republic’s ideals. If a prisoner was discovered to be a Roman citizen, the pirates would first pretend to be terrified of him, grovelling at his feet and dressing him in his toga; only when he was wearing the symbol of his citizenship would they lower a ladder into the sea and invite him to swim back home. Raiding parties would deliberately target Roman magistrates and carry off the symbols of their power. Because Antonius had abducted treasures to lead in triumph through Rome, the pirates struck back by seizing his daughter from her villa on the coast. These were carefully calculated outrages, reflecting a shrewd awareness of Roman psychology. They struck at the very essence of the Republic’s prestige.

Honour, naturally, demanded a response—but so too, increasingly, did commercial self-interest. Roman business, having sponsored a monster, now began to find itself menaced by its own creation. The pirates’ growing command of the sea enabled them to throttle the shipping lanes. The supply of everything, from slaves to grain, duly dried to a trickle and Rome began to starve. Still the Senate hesitated. Such had been the growth in piracy that it was clear that nothing less than a Mediterranean-wide command would prove sufficient to deal with it. This, to many senators, seemed to be a proconsulship too far. In the end, a second Marcus Antonius, the son of the great orator, was awarded the command in 74 bc, but his chief qualification was certainly not any hereditary talent for fighting pirates. Rather, it was his very incompetence that recommended him — as it was waspishly observed, ‘it is no great deal, the promotion of those whose power we have no cause to fear’. Antonius’ first measure was to indulge in some lucrative free-booting of his own off Sicily; his second to be roundly defeated by the pirates off Crete. Roman prisoners were bound in the fetters that they had brought to chain the pirates, then left to dangle from the yardarms of the pirates’ ships.

Even this bobbing forest of gibbets was not to be the most humiliating symbol of superpower impotence. In 68 bc, as Lucullus was striking east against Tigranes, the pirates responded by launching an attack against the very heart of the Republic. At Ostia, where the Tiber met the sea, barely fifteen miles from Rome, the pirates sailed into the harbour and burned the consular war fleet as it lay in dock. The port of the hungry capital went up in flames. The grip of famine tightened around Rome. Starving citizens took to the Forum, demanding action on the crisis and the appointment of a proconsul to resolve it—not a paper tiger like Antonius, but a man who could get the job done. Even now, the Senate dug in its heels. Catulus and Hortensius understood perfectly well who their fellow citizens wanted. They knew who was waiting in the wings.

Ever since his consulship, Pompey had been deliberately lying low. His displays of modesty, like all his displays, were carefully staged for their effect. ‘It was Pompey’s favourite tactic to pretend that he was not angling for the things which in fact he wanted the most’, a shrewd gambit at the best of times, but especially so when his ambitions aimed as high as they did now. Instead of vaunting himself, he had adopted Crassus’ stratagem of employing proxies to do the boasting on his behalf. Caesar was one of these, a lone voice in favour of Pompey in the Senate — less out of any great enthusiasm for Pompey than because he could see clearly how the dice were going to fall. Now that Sulla’s reforms had been rolled back, the tribunes were back in play. Not for nothing, during his consulship, had Pompey restored their ancient powers. The tribunes had helped him to dismantle Lucullus’ command, and it was a tribune, in 67 bc, who proposed that the people’s hero be given a sweeping licence to deal with the pirates. Despite an impassioned appeal from Catulus not to appoint ‘a virtual monarch over the empire’, the citizens rapturously ratified the bill. Pompey was granted the unprecedented force of 500 ships and 120,000 men, together with the right to levy more, should he decide that they were needed. His command embraced the entire Mediterranean, covered all its islands, and extended fifty miles inland. Never before had the resources of the Republic been so concentrated in the hands of a single man.

In every sense, then, Pompey’s appointment was a leap into the dark. No one, not even his supporters, quite knew what to expect. The decision to mobilise on such a scale had in itself been a gesture of despair, and the pessimism with which the Romans regarded even their favourite’s prospects was reflected in the length of his commission: three years. As it proved, to sweep the seas clear of pirates, storm their last stronghold and end a menace that had been tormenting the Republic for decades took the new proconsul a mere three months. It was a brilliant victory, a triumph for Pompey himself and an eye-opening demonstration of the reserves of force available to Rome. Even the Romans themselves appear to have been a little stunned. It suggested that no matter how hesitant their initial response to a challenge might be, there was still no withstanding them should their patience be pushed too far. Campaigns of terror were containable. Rome remained a superpower.

Yet, even though Pompey’s victory had demonstrated once again that the Republic could do pretty much as it pleased, there was none of the savagery that had traditionally been used to drive that lesson home. In a display of clemency quite as startling as his victory, Pompey not merely refrained from crucifying his captives, but bought them plots of land and helped to set them up as farmers. Brigandage, he had clearly recognised, was bred of rootlessness and social upheaval. For as long as the Republic was held responsible for these conditions, there would continue to be a hatred of Rome. Yet it hardly needs emphasising that the rehabilitation of criminals was not standard Roman policy. Perhaps it is significant that Pompey, midway through his campaign against the pirates, should have found the time to visit Posidonius on Rhodes. We know that he attended one of Posidonius’ lectures and then spoke privately with him afterwards. Since it was not the role of philosophers to challenge Roman prejudices, but to give them an intellectual gloss, we can be certain that Pompey would have heard nothing that he did not want to hear — but Posidonius must have helped him, at the very least, to clarify his opinions. Posidonius himself was deeply impressed with his protege. In Pompey he believed that he had finally found the answer to his prayers: a Roman aristocrat worthy of the values of his class. ‘Always fight bravely’, he advised the parting proconsul, ‘and be superior to others’, a pithy admonition from Homer that Pompey was delighted to accept. This was the spirit in which he pardoned the pirates. So it was that the town where he settled them was titled Pompeiopolis: his mercy and munificence were to contribute eternally to the greatness of his name. Stern in war, gracious in peace, it was no wonder that Posidonius could hail him as the hero of the hour.

But Pompey, greedy as ever, wanted more. It was not enough to be the new Hector. From his earliest days, teasing his quiff in front of the mirror, he had dreamed of being the new Alexander. Now he was determined to seize his chance. The East lay all before him, and with it the prospect of glory such as no Roman citizen had ever won before.


Under the rule of Augustus the Empire achieved relative stability, but the weakness of some Imperial successors led to the emergence of pretenders supported by provincial armies. In the early centuries AD, Roman military power both preserved the Empire – and divided it.

Political and Military Considerations

Augustus was able to establish the authoritarian regime on which Roman maintenance of widespread law and order depended, largely because he had assumed power while young and lived to be nearly 77 years old. Longevity is at any time a matter of some luck. In Roman political circles, whether of the Republican or Imperial epoch, it was a matter of great luck. The unity and continuity provided by a single head of state, exercising uninterrupted power for 44 years, was in fact fortunate for the whole Roman world.

Augustus never contemplated abolishing the time-honoured magistracies of the Republic. He simply assumed all the key titles himself: consul, tribune, proconsul and, after the death of his old triumviral colleague Lepidus, Pontifex Maximus (Supreme Pontiff). He called himself Princeps – a word which in its most general sense meant “leading man”. This was in addition to his other constitutional title of princeps senatus or “leading senator”. He presided over an exhausted world, which had reluctantly realized that law and order can be worth more than liberty, and that authority was destined in the foreseeable future to be based on military power, whatever constitutional forms were adopted. Julius Caesar had shown more respect for constitutional appearances in his last years, as a dictator, than in his early years as a demagogue. It may have been memories of his early career rather than the conduct of his late life that exacerbated Republican sentiment and brought about his murder. Augustus was at all events at great pains to preserve the outward forms of a constitution.

The real source of his power was not merely the army, which now accepted his unrivalled supremacy. From the days which had immediately followed his great-uncle’s death, he had realized the political importance of finance. After Philippi, lack of funds had considerably embarrassed him, but with the downfall of Cleopatra, the vast treasury of Egypt, which for different reasons Cassius and Antony had both failed to commandeer, was at his disposal. His “privy purse” (fiscus) was administered separately from the Roman state treasury (aerarium), but in practice he controlled both funds. Similarly, there was a distinction between imperial and constitutional procedure in provincial administration. The outlying frontier provinces, in which the Roman legions were stationed, were more obviously under command of the emperor; in home territories, where war was not expected, administration was more apparently civil and senatorial.

If we wish to stress the constitutional aspect of Augustus’ rule, we may refer to it as the Principate, but the term Empire is that which has best survived in history, the word “emperor” being derived from imperator, the title by which a victorious general had normally been acclaimed by the celebrating populace in the later days of the Republic.

Apart from the legions in military provinces at the circumference of the Roman world, it was important to the emperors that they should be able to rely on a nucleus of armed strength at the centre. The Republican general’s unit of headquarter troops, the praetorian cohort, developed in Imperial times into the Praetorian Guard, a privileged corps d’élite. The Guard, quartered in the vicinity of the city, was originally composed of nine cohorts, each probably 1,000 strong, and included both infantry and cavalry elements. These served as a bodyguard to the emperors.

In 2 BC, two officers (praefecti) were appointed to command the praetorian cohorts, and as praetorian prefect, Sejanus (Lucius Aelius Seianus), the adviser of Tiberius, Augustus’ successor, attained dangerous power. Later, the Praetorians realized only too well the extent of the emperors’ reliance on them. They became makers and breakers of emperors.

Three urban cohorts were also created for police purposes in the city. They served under their own prefect and were each commanded by a tribune. In practice, their political significance became comparable to that of the Praetorians, though they were not paid so highly.

In addition, there were seven cohorts called cohortes vigilum, who served as firemen and night police. Other troops regularly stationed in Italy were the marines at the naval bases of Misenum and Ravenna. These contingents were sometimes used for fatigue and pioneer duties in support of the army or in aid of public works.

The Frontiers of Empire

The Roman navy, at such times as it could be said to exist at all, was always the junior service. However, Augustus was at pains to maintain it, for he needed to preserve lines of communication between Italy and the provinces. Of no small account were the naval forces whose allegiances had been transferred to him after the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra, and he was able to establish fleets in the eastern and western Mediterranean and in the Black Sea. Other naval squadrons operated on the Danube, the Rhine and in the English Channel.

Campaigns in Illyricum, under Augustus’ destined successor, Tiberius, had safeguarded the route to the east by the Via Egnatia and Thessalonica, and the freedom of the Adriatic from pirates was further assured by the construction of the naval base at Ravenna. The Mediterranean in general was well policed under Augustus, and his was the last Roman administration to take effective measures against piracy.

Preoccupation with sea routes was the logical accompaniment of provincial road-building which proceeded under the Empire. Italy in the time of the Republic had acquired a good road system. Apart from that, the Via Egnatia, referred to above, and the Via Domitia, which led from the Rhône to the Pyrenees, were also Republican achievements. In Augustus’ time, new Alpine roads were made and communications facilitated with the Danube. The characteristically straight Roman roads, adhering where possible to high ground, were planned to satisfy military requirements. But at the same time, of course, they opened the way to trade and assisted official contacts.

The legions which in the first century AD extended and, later, defended the frontiers of the Empire were distinguished by names and numbers, though some of the numbers were duplicated. The names commemorated the patrons or creators of the legions, as for example the Legio Angusta, or else they referred to some event in regimental history, or marked a local connection, as in Macedonica or Gallica. Augustus’ army originally contained 28 legions. But three of these were annihilated in the great Roman military disaster of AD 9, when Augustus’ general, Publius Quinctilius Varus, was treacherously ambushed by the German chief Arminius in the Teutoburgian Forest. The numbers of these three ill-starred legions were as a consequence never allotted to Roman legions at a later date.

A Roman governor, in charge of an imperial province, ordinarily ranked as a legatos of the emperor. Legions apart auxiliary troops including cavalry contingents were an important element in the garrison of a province. Under Augustus, auxiliaries, which during the first century BC had been composed of foreign troops, once more began to recruit Roman citizens. This was in part because Roman citizenship itself had by now been conferred on many communities and individuals outside Italy. The social distinction being lost, auxiliaries tended to be integrated with legions. In permanent frontier stations auxiliary cavalry and infantry were posted at first from distant provinces. But as a matter of convenience, auxiliaries came to be recruited locally and the distinction between the legionaries and auxilia was accordingly once more obscured. However, military policy favoured independent cavalry tactics. From the reign of Trajan onwards, tribal non-Romanized units, known as numeri, were recruited; their role corresponded in some ways to that of auxilia in more ancient times.

The disaster which the Romans suffered in Germany under Varus was the result of an attempt to establish frontiers farther east, on the Elbe. Its effect was that Roman emperors were from that time onward content, as Julius Caesar had been, to rely on punitive and retaliatory action in order to assert a Roman presence on the Rhine. Augustus himself, at the end of his life, made it quite clear that his territorial ambitions were not unlimited. Defence, however, often entails offensive initiative, and he had been at great pains to secure the line of the Danube.

The most suitable location of frontiers was a question which left room for uncertainty, above all in the reign of an emperor of unbalanced mind, such as Gaius (Caligula) proved to be. His inexplicable vacillations could well have been damaging to Roman prestige, and the expansionist policies of the mild-mannered Claudius, who succeeded him, may have been necessary to ensure that enemies beyond the frontier were left with no illusions about the reality of Roman strength. Claudius, in need of a military reputation, added first Mauretania, then Britain to the Empire. Roman domination was carried farther by Trajan, who annexed Armenia and temporarily occupied much of Parthia. Rome, however, was never able to impose itself finally on the Parthians.

Armed Insurrections

Apart from frontier fighting, Roman forces were on various occasions during the first century called upon to deal with local rebellions. Information at our disposal is often meagre, but such insurrections seem to have been variously motivated. It is not always easy to distinguish between local grievances and national aspirations of the peoples involved. Rebellion might naturally be expected in a recently subdued province such as Britain. The tribe of Catuvellauni, perhaps subjects of the Cassivellaunus dynasty which had confronted Julius Caesar, had by now extended its sway over south-east Britain. A refugee British prince, seeking aid against his father Cunobelinus (Cymbeline) had given the Emperor Gaius pretext for an invasion, but Gaius contented himself with a military demonstration on the Channel coast of Gaul. When a similar opportunity presented itself to the succeeding Emperor Claudius, it was taken in earnest. Caratacus,1 the British prince with whom the Romans now had to contend, was defeated. He took refuge with Cartimandua, a northern British queen, who was a Roman ally, but she betrayed him and he was sent with his family as a captive to Rome. Claudius magnanimously spared his life.

Boadicea (Boudicca), who revolted in the year 60, was not a member of the Cassivellaunus dynasty, but had been left queen of the Iceni at the death of her husband. The harsh and humiliating treatment of Roman administrators drove her to take up arms. The governor of Britain, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, who had played a prominent part in the conquest of Mauretania nearly 20 years earlier, hurried back from the uncivilized regions of north-west Wales where he had been operating, and Boudica’s defeat and suicide followed. Meanwhile, however, Camulodunum (Colchester), London and Verulamium (St Albans) had been sacked with a massive death toll among the Romans and their British adherents.

Gnaeus Julius Agricola – even allowing for the fact that Tacitus was his son-in – law-must have been an able and energetic administrator. He had served under Paulinus in Britain, and in other parts of the Empire as well, before his appointment as governor in 78. His military operations did much to secure Roman rule in Britain. Tacitus would have been a better military historian if he had paid closer attention to geography. He probably had no precise idea himself as to where the battle of Mons Graupius was fought or where the river Tanaus was. We are left to guess that the former site was somewhere in Scotland, and the Tanaus has been identified variously as the Tyne, Tweed, Tay or even Solway. Fortunately, archaeology has come to our aid in the tracing of Agricola’s movements. At all events, he carried his victorious campaigns into the Scottish Highlands. As a demonstration of strength, he circumnavigated the whole island of Britain, and his military successes were accompanied by wise administration.

The conflict with Boudica may be traced in part to extortionate Roman financial practices: such in fact as had, under the Republic, rendered the eastern Mediterranean world sympathetic to Mithridates. Roman rapacity was a recurrent source of trouble and had in AD 21 led to a notable insurrection in Gaul, led by Julius Sacrovir. Sacrovir was a Romanized Gallic noble of the tribe of the Aedui, Julius Caesar’s old allies. He was eventually defeated by the Roman governor of the upper Rhine province (Germania Superior) and committed suicide. But the same record of local misgovernment continued to explain revolt. Administrators like Agricola were the exception rather than the rule. Later in the century (89), an upper Rhine governor himself, Lucius Antonius Saturninus, raised an insurrection and caused the Emperor Domitian to set out in alarm on a northwards expedition. The governor of the lower Rhine, however, remained loyal to the Emperor and Saturninus was defeated and killed, his eastward German allies having been prevented, apparently by a sudden thaw, from crossing the frozen river. The precise occasion of this revolt is uncertain, but again one would guess that finance lay at the heart of the matter.

Among serious rebellions that occurred in the first century of imperial history was the Jewish War, in which Josephus was involved. This was the product not only of economic causes but of outraged religious susceptibilities. The Romans were in general tolerant of religion, but did not know how to deal with religions which were themselves intolerant (as Judaism and Christianity were). The violence did not end when, after a horrifying siege, Jerusalem fell (AD 70) to the future Emperor Titus. Its total destruction, accompanied by appalling loss of life, provoked a series of revolts by Jewish populations in other provinces, which culminated (115–116) in insurrections throughout Syria, Cyprus, Egypt and Cyrenaica. Casualties are reported as running into hundreds of thousands. These events in turn led ultimately to repercussions in Palestine. Of Bar Kokhba’s revolt, something has been learnt from the literature of the Dead Sea caves.

The Events of AD 69

Insurrections during the first century of imperial government suggest that there was often enough provincial discontent to provide ambitious leaders with a cause. They also show that there was sufficient military ability available to provide aggrieved communities with effective leadership. This was all the more inevitable in view of the fusion between Roman and local elements in the army. Sacrovir and Saturninus, and even Arminius, the destroyer of Varus’ legions, were or had been Roman officers. It was only a matter of time before provincial rebellions could aim at the overthrow of the emperor himself and at the transfer of his power into hands of the rebels’ choosing.

The events of the year 69 can be described more accurately in terms of civil war than of revolt, but they are the logical outcome of military and political precedents. A rebellious Romanized Gallic governor (Julius Vindex) had been defeated and killed by troops from the adjacent upper Rhine province. However, Sulpicius Galba, whose specious claims to restore the Republic he had supported, was in command of legions in Spain, and when the Praetorians at Rome proclaimed Galba as emperor, Nero, last of Augustus’ dynasty, tearfully committed suicide. Galba was soon installed at Rome, but his nomination of a successor disappointed one of his military adherents, Marcus Salvius Otho, who now conspired with the Praetorian Guard. Nor did Otho long enjoy the fruits of Galba’s murder, for a secret, as Tacitus observes, had been revealed by Galba’s shortlived success: emperors could be created elsewhere than in Rome. Even the encouragement of the Praetorians was no longer necessary.

Otho was challenged by Aulus Vitellius, a Rhine commander. The legions of the eastern and Danube frontiers apparently supported Otho. But even if the eastern support had been sincere, it was distant, and the Danube troops were slow to move. Vitellius’ officers won the crucial battle for him near Cremona, and he himself, after Otho’s suicide, travelled to Rome at his convenience. The eastern legions, however, now showed their hand and proclaimed as emperor the 60-year-old general Vespasian (Titus Flavius Vespasianus). Vespasian was in a position to block the Alexandrian corn supply. But apart from that, the Danube troops favoured him. Italy was invaded. Fighting again converged on Cremona. Vitellius was prevented by his own supporters from coming to terms with Vespasian’s brother in Rome, and the latter was killed in the fighting which followed. However, the victors of Cremona soon arrived at Rome. Vitellius was hunted down and dragged to his wretched death.

Vitellius had disbanded the Praetorian Guard and replaced them with Rhineland legionaries of his own. As such, they naturally supported him, but they were unable to resist the wrath of the invading provincial legions. The situation in which the legions of one province were not in accord with those of another may from this time on be regarded as familiar. To all appearances, conditions which had prevailed in the last century of the Republic had now been recreated. Until Nero’s death, dynastic prestige had secured continuity of government, but it needed a leader of exceptional ability to establish a new dynasty. Fortunately, Vespasian was such a leader. He reigned ten years and died at the age of 70. His sons Titus (Titus Flavius Vespasianus) and Domitian (Titus Flavius Domitianus) succeeded him in turn as Emperor.

Vespasian’s accession to power was marked by complications in Gaul. Julius Civilis, who commanded Batavian auxiliaries recruited from the Rhine delta, had on the request of Vespasian’s officer in Italy created a diversion hostile to Vitellius. This provided Civilis with the opportunity for an independent uprising. He allied himself with a nationalist movement in Gaul, which purported to set up a Gallic Empire in place of the apparently crumbling Roman authority. The Gallic movement soon collapsed, but there was a military lesson to be learnt. Roman army units composed of foreign nationals under their own leaders could easily become an embarrassment. A trend in future policy was to post foreign troops at a distance from their home territories and to arrange where possible that auxiliary units should contain more than a single nationality. As for Civilis, we do not know what happened to him. Our manuscript sources break off at this point, tantalizingly leaving him still negotiating with an eloquent Roman commander.

The Stabilization of Frontiers

The murder of Domitian in the year AD 96 was the outcome of domestic discord. Nevertheless, it gave great public satisfaction. Apart from his other shortcomings, the tyrant had failed to make adequate arrangements for a successor. The Senate appointed a new princeps, Marcus Cocceius Nerva, and Tacitus was pleased to see in this constitutional gesture a revival of Republican sentiment. Nerva was an old man at the time of his elevation. He was also childless, and after one year of power he appointed a loyal and able officer, Marcus Ulpius Traianus (Trajan), as his colleague and successor. The appointment was timely, for Nerva died early in the following year. Under Trajan, imperial expansion was renewed, and as one of Rome’s greatest soldier emperors, he was shrewd enough to nominate an equally great successor. The formal nomination and adoption which usually secured the imperial succession was much more satisfactory than the common hereditary process. It generally ensured that the successor would be a military commander, for with exceptions, one of which we have just recorded, none but a soldier could hope to survive. The Empire depended for defence and government upon military force. As for the principle of adoption itself, Roman reverence for legal forms lent it all the sanctity of a blood-tie. One may compare the relationship of patron and protégé (cliens), which we have already had occasion to notice.

Hadrian (Publius Aelius Hadrianus) who, as a connection by marriage, was Trajan’s ward and became emperor on his death, in many ways reversed the policies of his predecessor. But this does not prove that either he or Trajan was wrong. Times were changing. The steady westward migration of peoples in Asia and Europe meant that pressure on Rome’s frontiers was steadily mounting. Under Trajan, those frontiers had attained unprecedentedly wide dimensions. Hadrian saw the need for contraction and consolidation, and this policy was marked in vulnerable areas by the construction of fixed fortifications, signal posts and entrenchments. A line of forts linked by palisades, protected the intrusive salient of territory between the upper reaches of the Rhine and the Danube. Hadrian’s name is notably associated with the Roman frontier works across north Britain from the Tyne to the Solway. The line of forts and base camps, connected by a mural barrier, replaced an earlier linked chain of forts slightly to the south. “Hadrian’s Wall” was initiated as the result of the Emperor’s visit to Britain in AD 122; Hadrian spent a great deal of his reign in visiting outlying provinces. The Wall exemplifies the principles of Roman frontier defence as they existed in many sectors of the Empire. A chain of strong-points was connected by a well-defined communicating road (limes) along which troops could move with efficiency and speed.

Antoninus Pius (138–161), who succeeded Hadrian, presided over an epoch of comparative peace and plenty in the Mediterranean core of the Empire. But the price of social well-being was continual vigilance and preparedness on the frontiers. In Britain, Antoninus tried to advance the frontier – as he did in Germany – and built another wall in the form of a turf embankment on a cobblestone base, farther north, from the Forth to the Clyde. But the time came when this could no longer be defended, and after only 23 years it was decided to withdraw southwards once more and rely solely on Hadrian’s stone structure for the defence of Roman Britain.

The recourse to engineering skills in order to solve manpower problems had been Julius Caesar’s answer. Rome’s wars against the barbarians were a continual struggle against numerical odds, and with the help of technology the Romans strove to make good what they lacked in numbers. Twenty-eight legions had been all too few for Augustus’ original ambitions, and when he lost three of them in Varus’ disaster, he saw the need to reduce military commitments and shorten the perimeter of the imperial frontiers.

The military garrisons which manned frontier areas were (as a matter of policy on which we have already commented) not all nationally homogeneous. But they tended to form settled communities as a result of relationships with local women, and the resulting settled habits and lack of mobility in themselves constituted a disadvantage. However, legions were withdrawn from Britain at various dates during the centuries of Roman rule, to meet pressures in other parts of the Empire, and such withdrawals, even though the legions by this time were not all first-line troops, opened the way inevitably to northern or seaborne invaders to make incursions.

The Task of Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, who succeeded to the principate at the death of Antoninus Pius in AD 161, was also of a quiet and philosophic disposition, but unlike his predecessor he was faced with the necessity for continual warfare. The fact that he was able to meet the challenge of military duty with energy and unbroken resolve indicates some kind of spiritual triumph over his natural temperament, at the same time making him a practising as distinct from a purely academic philosopher.

War against Parthia (162–3) was only a prelude to barbarian incursions on the Danube front (166). It was already well recognized that responsibility for imperial defence was more than a single emperor could support. An emperor’s nominated successor, who now ordinarily received the title of “Caesar”, was also a colleague. Marcus Aurelius was not very fortunate in his colleague Lucius Verus, whose adoption derived from a decision of Hadrian. Marcus, showing perhaps poor judgment of character, arranged that the task of imperial government should be shared, and Verus, ruling as an equal on a collegiate basis, took command of the war against Parthia, which was won for him by his able officer Avidius Cassius.

The major cities of Parthia were captured, but this victory, like that of Trajan, though westward territories were annexed, could not lead to permanent Roman occupation of Parthia. The days were past when Romans and Parthians fought each other with characteristic national weapons and battles were a conflict of highly disciplined legionaries with incalculable swarms of mounted bowmen. Arrian, writing on military tactics in the time of Hadrian, testifies to the diversification of arms and armour and the variety of combatant methods employed by the Roman army at that epoch. Trajan’s Column and other monuments tell the same story. The Romans had among their own contingents heavily mailed horsemen on the Parthian model; nor did they lack archers who could retaliate against the Parthians. If they were never able to bring the Parthian Empire within the bounds of their own, this was probably because they lacked sufficient troops to hold what had been conquered. Such vast deserts were in any case ungovernable.

Lack of numbers also told heavily against Roman defence on the Danube, and it should be stressed that Rome was now seriously on the defensive in this area. Various barbarian tribes, forced westwards and southwards by migratory pressures, crossed the Alps and reached Aquileia at the northern extremity of the Adriatic Sea. Italy was threatened as it never had been since the days of the Cimbric invasion, but the barbarians did not capture Aquileia, lacking the equipment for assaults on fortified towns. Marcus Aurelius, despite the inferior ability of his colleague, was well served by his generals on the Danube front. Lucius Verus in any case died on active service in 169, and Marcus was left in sole command.

There seems to have been a good deal of collaboration between the German tribes of the upper Danube and the Sarmatians farther east. Roman armies, relying simply on mobility and speed, had to turn abruptly from one threat to another. The invaders were defeated in a series of arduous campaigns, forced back across the Danube and reduced to quiescence. But such warfare spelt an end to current methods of frontier defence and, in years which followed, Roman strategists had to think increasingly in terms of fortified zones rather than defensible lines.

Unfortunately, the manpower problem in the time of Marcus Aurelius became all the more critical on account of a devastating plague which the army brought back from its eastern wars. Sheer lack of manpower obliged Marcus to establish a German militia, settled within the imperial frontiers, as a way of combating German threats from without. Military service was the price of the land which the settlers occupied. As the frontiers became less distinct, so also did the definition of Roman nationality. The operations of Marcus Aurelius and his officers secured the line of the Danube, but in the large frontier province of Dacia to the north of the river, which Trajan had previously annexed, a right of way was granted to the barbarian tribes, allowing them to preserve communications with their eastward compatriots. In some sense, the Empire was now provided with insulating zones but – to press the metaphor – this insulation could become a semiconductor of extraneous forces.

Marcus Aurelius would probably have rendered the territory beyond the Danube more secure, but in AD 175 he had to meet the revolt of his eastern deputy Avidius Cassius. It would seem that Cassius had been deceived by a false report that Marcus was dead, and his dissident action hardly had time to gather impetus before he was murdered by one of his own centurions. Avidius Cassius would in any case have been a preferable alternative to the Emperor’s ineffective son Commodus, who eventually filled the role of official colleague and successor.

Septimius Severus and his men contemplating the corpse of his rival for the throne – after the first victory in the Battle of Lugdunum.

Septimius Severus and his Army

The principate of Commodus lasted 12 years, which should have been long enough to secure the succession, but Commodus did not allow the matter to trouble him. He was eventually murderer as the result of a conspiracy hatched by his Praetorian Guard commander, who had for some time shared the real power with other favourites, and at last decided that the present emperor was no longer necessary. During the next year, two emperors were proclaimed and then murdered, while the Praetorians tried to make up their minds. At last, they gave support to Septimius Severus, who commanded the Danube legions. The legions themselves, in fact, provided a firmer backing than Praetorian caprice.

Septimius had to fight for the imperial throne against other contenders, who were also supported by provincial armies. He was victorious in the ensuing struggle, partly because he commanded more troops than his adversaries and partly because he was nearer to Rome – still the key point. He temporarily came to terms with his northern rival Clodius Albinus, governor of Britain, recognizing him as a colleague. It is surprising that Albinus was deceived so easily. Septimius had time to march eastward and defeat his other opponent, Pescennius Niger, in a series of battles in Asia Minor and Syria. He was then in a position to renew hostilities against Albinus, who had advanced into Gaul and rallied the western provinces of the Empire in his favour. Perhaps Albinus also had been playing for time. The numbers engaged in the decisive battle near Lugdumum (Lyon) are reported as being equal, and the issue for long hung in the balance, but Septimius was completely victorious, deciding the battle by his use of cavalry as an independent arm.

Septimius Severus’ military ability was allied to shrewd political insight. On being proclaimed emperor, he had been quick to occupy Rome and disband the Praetorian Guard. He then re-established the Praetorians to suit his own convenience. In the past, the Praetorian cohorts had normally been recruited from Italy, but Septimius threw membership open to all legionaries. This meant in practice that Praetorians were picked from the Illyrian legions which had supported him. They continued to serve him admirably as an imperial corps d’élite in the course of his eastern campaign.

Having eliminated other imperial pretenders, Septimius undertook an effective punitive expedition against the Parthians, who had given support to Niger, his eastern rival. He also had to act promptly in Britain, for the province, stripped of troops by Albinus for his continental adventure, was badly exposed to Caledonian invaders from the north. But Septimius’ British campaign was incomplete and he was preparing to renew hostilities when he died at Eburacum (York) in AD 211.

Septimius Severus admired soldiers and believed in them, particularly in the soldiers of the Roman army. For him, their welfare was a paramount consideration, and one cannot help feeling that his attitude, despite its serious economic implications, was right. Roman civilization had come to depend completely on military power capable of defending the frontiers, and citizens who enjoyed the peace and comfort of metropolitan territories could at least be expected to support the defence effort with their tax contributions. Septimius, in fact, made sure that they did so.

Among other reforms which favoured the soldiers, he legislated that they should be able to marry legally while on service. This facility had not previously existed, though emperors in the past had given some sort of recognition to the relations which soldiers contracted with local women and to the children which resulted. Official attitudes on this subject seem to have been in conflict. On the one hand, the serving soldier was discouraged from forming local ties which might divert him from his principal allegiance to Rome. On the other, it was desired that he should feel at home in the army. The new legislation rectified anomalies. In any case Septimius’ son, colleague and successor, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (known by the nickname of Caracalla) in subsequent years recognized the Roman citizenship of all freeborn provincials. The new constitutional enactment was not credited by an unimpressed posterity with generous motives, but regarded rather as a means of widening liability to tax. But it meant that civilians in general made a greater contribution to the defence budget. Of such a policy, Septimius would have approved.