The Italians in Roman armies

South Italic warriors, c. 400BCE, art by Giuseppe Rava

Semper populum Romanum alienis rebus arbitrio alieno usum; et principium et finem in potesta tem ipsorum, qui ope sua velint adiutos Romanos, esse.

The Roman people had always employed the property of other peoples with their consent; the decision to provide assistance, both the beginning and the end, was under the control of those who wished the Roman people to enjoy their aid. (Livy 32.8.14)

The Romans relied heavily on the resources of their Italian allies, as the Senate informed Attalus II of Pergamum in 198 BCE in the passage above (all dates BCE unless otherwise noted). Of course there was a significant difference between the façade of willing, even eager, assistance the Romans promoted and the reality of allied support. In the centuries in which Rome rose from one among many Italian communities to hegemon of the peninsula, the story of the peoples of Italy in Roman armies is one of gradual integration and subordination. Roman armies in the fourth century and earlier resembled other Italian armies of the day. An important aspect of early Italian warfare was military cooperation, facilitated by overlapping bonds of formal and informal relationships between communities and individuals. Over the third century and culminating in the Second Punic War, the Romans organized their Italian allies into large conglomerate units that were placed under Roman officers. At the same time, the Romans generally took more direct control of the military resources of their allies as the idea of military obligation developed. The integration and subordination of the Italians under increasing Roman domination fundamentally altered their relationships. By the late second century, the Italians were vestiges of past traditions that no longer fitted into a changing world, resulting in growing feelings of discontent and eventually outright rebellion. Italian military resources were key to the growth of the Roman empire, but over time the balance of power changed the fundamental military relationship of the Romans with the other peoples of Italy.

Early Italian warfare

Italy prior to the Roman conquest, ending ca. 265, was a land divided amongst hundreds of communities constantly in conflict, often at war, with one another. The narrative of early Roman history is dominated by annual wars with neighbors, while the great men of Rome were nearly all warriors. The evidence that survives in the literary record is naturally one sided, focusing on the supposedly inevitable rise of Rome to hegemon of Italy. Where Italians come into the narrative is secondary, as opponents or supporting characters in a Roman tale. Despite the limitations of the sources, what survives reveals the Italian foundations of the Roman army’s reliance on allied soldiers. While warfare was common there was also an important aspect of cooperation, which is important when looking at the nature of military interaction in Italy. Both the contentiousness and cooperation shaped how the Italians fit into Roman armies and the eventual growth of empire.

The fluid and chaotic nature of community interactions is clearly demonstrated in the events from 343 to 338, the First Samnite War and the great Latin War (Livy 7.32?8.14; Oakley 1997?2005, 2.307?311). Around the year 343, the Samnites launched attacks from the central Apennines on the Sidicini in northern Campania, who in turn called upon the nearby people of Capua for help. After suffering defeat at the hands of the Samnites, the people of Capua persuaded the Romans to abandon a previous treaty with the Samnites and enter the war on their side. The Romans brought their Latin allies with them. After three years of fighting, the Romans and Samnites concluded peace to the dismay of the Latins, Campanians, and Sidicini who jointly decided to continue the fight against the Samnites (and supposedly attack Rome afterwards). In response, the Romans and Samnites, so recently enemies, joined forces and together defeated the forces of the Romans’ former allies in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius (Livy 8.8.19?11.2; Dion. Hal. Ant. Rom. 15.7.3). After two more years of fighting, the Latins were put down and “given” full Roman citizenship, the Campanians became Roman allies with civitas sine suffragio, and the Sidicini became Samnite allies. These developments occurred over about five years. It is hard not to be impressed by the ease with which the Italians of the central Apennines created and abandoned their alliances when deemed profitable or useful. Such a chaotic environment made alliances and military cooperation of significant importance for the survival of Italian communities. By pooling military resources together, smaller communities were able to protect themselves and larger communities could project their influence abroad.

The communities of Italy were tied together in a complex web that facilitated military cooperation. In the plains cities were common, while in the mountains looser tribal organizations existed. Trade routes linked the peninsula, with goods flowing across community boundaries. While a number of different languages existed in Italy prior to the Roman conquest (such as Latin, Oscan, Umbrian, Etruscan) linguistic and material evidence suggests close interaction of peoples regardless of linguistic differences (Adams 2003, 112?183). Many Italian communities throughout the peninsula worshipped at common shrines, which formed the basis for religious associations called nomina (Cornell 1995, 294?299; Bradley 2000, 62?77; Isayev 2007, 31? 41; Alföldi 1965, 119). On an individual level the elites of Italian communities intermarried and maintained ties of hospitality such as the Fabii in Caere (Holloway 1994, 71?72; Livy 9.36). The various communities of Italy were a diverse group in many ways. Nevertheless, they were able to cooperate effectively with each other militarily through the connections that existed.

In particular, cooperation relied heavily on the generally similar militaristic societies of Italy. Roman militarism is well understood and quite obvious in their historical accounts (Harris 1984). However, the Romans were hardly unique in their bellicosity in the peninsula (Eckstein 2006, 118?147). Fortifications blanket Italy (city walls and hill forts). Artwork commonly depicted warfare as a motif, while ritualistic burials included military goods. Indeed, an individual’s position in society relied heavily on military accomplishments. A stark example of this comes from the story of P. Horatius Cocles, who single-handedly defended the only bridge over the Tiber from enemy invaders, earning praise from his fellow citizens. However, despite the reputation he achieved, a severe hip wound taken during the fight left him lame, which ended his ability to participate in war and thus precluded any future military commands or political offices (Dion. Hal. Ant. Rom. 5.25.3). The story of Horatius, although undoubtedly embellished, is a stark example of the importance of warfare in Roman society. While we lack such stories from the traditions of any other Italian people, the material record (burial goods, burial frescoes, pottery) and the historical record of constant warfare suggest a similar outlook.

Formal and informal relations between communities and individuals made cooperation possible. Formal treaties (foedera) existed between communities that included mutual defense clauses in addition to various legal clauses. The foedus Cassianum stated “let [the Romans and Latins] assist each other with all their forces when either is attacked,” and forbade assisting foreign enemies (Dion. Hal. Ant. Rom. 6.95.2; Cornell 1997, 299?301). Less formal agreements existed as well, including indutiae (truces that were mostly used in Etruria), sponsiones (personal guarantees), and the religious ties of nomina, although the military implications of these relationships is unclear. These less formal arrangements could become formal treaties under the right circumstances (Crawford 1973, 1?7). In addition, personal social relations were important especially in terms of military cooperation. Within communities, prominent individuals could maintain personal bands of warriors such as those described in the Lapis Satricanus (Stibbe 1980; Smith 1996, 235?237), the Fabii at the Cremera (Livy 2.48.8?10; Dion. Hal. Ant. Rom. 9.15; Richard 1988, 526? 553, contra Welwei 1993, 60?76), and Numerius Decimius in the Second Punic War (Livy 22.24.12). These warbands could be led to the support of foreign individuals or communities with whom their leaders had personal relations. In 327 Samnite military assistance to Neapolis was described as “some individuals with private ties of friendship (?d??? e?? a) . and friends of the Neapolitans who are helping that city by their own choice” (Dion. Hal. Ant. Rom. 15.8.4). Likewise, Etruscan assistance to Veii, which was being attacked by the Romans, was limited to young men with personal ties to the Veientes without any official support or condemnation from their home cities (Livy 5.17.9). Military cooperation among the Italians relied on the complex web of formal and informal relationships that linked communities together in diverse ways.

Cooperation in tactical situations was also made possible by a similar panoply of arms and armor as well as approach to warfare. Italian arms and armor showed a good deal of local variation, but generally indicate a similar style and approach to warfare. From the fifth century onwards, Italian armor suggests an emphasis on individual combat in battle. Helmets came in a variety of styles variously inspired by Celtic influence in the north and Greek influence in the south (Paddock 1993). Despite local variations, these helmets shared an open face and uncovered ears that did not hinder the wearer’s sight or hearing, indicating the importance of situational awareness. Body armor consisted of heart-protectors, triple-disc breastplates, and chainmail depending on the region, while shields were generally oval in shape and somewhat smaller than their Greek equivalents (Stary 1981). These forms of armor allowed freedom of movement, relying on personal mobility for protection rather than Greece’s heavy bronze that provided superior protection but inhibited movement. Mobility and space trumped heavy armor and dense formations. Weaponry likewise suggests an importance on individual combatants. The peoples of Italy seem to have preferred a certain kind of weapon (e. g. swords in Latium, spears in Samnium), but many regions also indicate variation of weapons within a single population (different types of spears, swords, axes) (Stary 1981). Ultimately, weapon choice was likely personal. Polybius confirms this disparity of arms and armor, albeit within larger age groups of Roman armies (Polyb. 6.22?23; Walbank 1957?1971, 1.703? 706). Where the individual is emphasized over the group, personal variations had less of an impact. Common arms and armor, as well as approaches to warfare, facilitated the military cooperation of the peoples of Italy.

Military cooperation was made possible by a common military culture in Italy and served an important function in the survival and expansion of communities. Domination of the peninsula ultimately came down to who could best utilize allied military resources through formal and informal relationships. The fourth and early third centuries witnessed a brutal series of wars that engulfed the peninsula in a constantly shifting set of alliances among communities. Although Rome’s wars naturally dominate the narrative, there were many others, many of which did not involve the Romans. Throughout these conflicts, exploitation of military alliances proved vital but alliances were often fleeting. An important aspect of Roman success in the wars of Italy was their attempts to solidify control over their allies’ military resources, by incorporating many allies as full or partial citizens into Rome’s military structure (Livy 8.14.1?12; Oakley 1997?2005, 2.538?571). By the middle of the third century the Romans managed to solidify their hegemony through warfare, colonization, citizenship extensions, land seizures, aristocratic relationships, and treaties. At its heart, though, Roman domination of Italy was built on preexisting military and political systems of the peninsula. The Italians remained autonomous Roman allies who continued to provide military assistance through the ancient systems of cooperation that had long been in place. Roman hegemony, however, fundamentally altered the balance of power in Italy and would, in time, result in a subordination and integration of the Italians into a Roman military and political system.


The Italians in the Roman military system

There was an inherent similarity of Italian styles of warfare in the peninsula, which facilitated the cooperation of Romans and their Italian allies. In time, this cohesiveness allowed the development of a more sophisticated organization of Rome’s allies into larger units (alae) under Roman officers (prefects). Better incorporation and control of their allies allowed the Romans to use them very effectively in conquering and maintaining an empire.

Although the command structure used by the Romans with regard to their Italian allies is difficult to determine due to a general poor survival of evidence, there is clear evidence of greater levels of control in the third and second centuries. Before the Punic Wars, there is little indication of well-defined command structures over allied forces in Roman armies. Livy twice mentions prefects of the allies in the mid-third century, but only as part of stock phrases (Livy 8.36.5; 10.35.5; Oakley 1997? 2005, 2.749?750). That is not to say that Roman commanders were never placed over units of Italian allies (e. g. Sp. Nautius in 293, Livy 10.40.8; Frontin. Str. 2.4.1), only that there is no evidence of a regular position. With the domination of Italy by the Romans, however, a new Roman command structure developed. The exact timeline of this development is hazy, but by the Second Punic War Roman officers known as prefects of the allies (praefecti sociorum) are to be found commanding groups of Italians. These officers represent a level of command and control for Roman generals, making tactical control more effective, as well as representing the growing formalization of Roman domination of their allies. Italian commanders were apparently subordinated below these officers and appear less often in the sources. Polybius indicates that the prefects were a fully integrated part of the Roman command structure (6.26?40; Walbank 1957?1971, 1.709?723). They were appointed at the discretion of Roman generals. Twelve men were appointed to this position, six per ala (legion-like units of allies), which corresponded to the number of military tribunes in citizen legions (Ilari 1974, 128). Prefects of the allies could be used as special commanders of small detachments of allied forces, a few infantry cohorts or cavalry turmae (Livy 24.20.1; 27.41.7; 40.31.3?6; Sall. Iug. 77.4). However, in those instances where alae functioned as independent operational units similar to legions, they did so under legates as opposed to prefects.

Sometime in the third century Roman generals began organizing the allied forces drawn from other Italian communities into larger units, alae. There are some indications of groupings of allied groups in Roman armies before the Punic Wars (Livy 10.43.3; Dion. Hal. Ant. Rom. 20.1.5). However, it was not until the Second Punic War (218?201) that they are firmly attested and appear regularly thereafter. The close timing with the appearance of prefects of the allies is likely not a coincidence, as both the officers and units were closely intertwined. However, it is difficult to push this interpretation too far as sources for the early third century are quite poor and generally preserve little specific information regarding Italians in Roman armies. The alae comprised smaller cohorts drawn from allied communities and were commanded by local leaders. As a whole, the alae were similar in size to legions and could serve a similar tactical function (e. g. Livy 25.21.6; 27.1.8?13; 31.21.1?7; 35.5). In fact, in his description of the Battle of Magnesia Livy refers to the alae as legions (37.39.7; Briscoe 1981, 347). Together, the prefects and alae created a more effective system for the Romans to exploit the military potential of their allies.

The most detailed description of the Roman Republican army, including weapons, armor, command structure, castrametation, and, most relevantly here, an overview of the Italian allies as they served in Roman armies, comes from Polybius (6.19? 42). The army was divided into three lines of heavy infantry (the triplex acies) divided into age groups plus smaller numbers of cavalry and light infantry. The Italians, who had shared a common panoply prior to the Roman conquest, were organized similarly, and Livy says that at the Battle of Mt. Vesuvius in 340 the Latins fought in the same triple line (8.8; Oakley 1997?2005, 2.475?476). While no doubt anachronistic, the description is consistent with the similarities of warfare in early Italy and at the later battle at Magnesia in 189 where the Italians were organized along the same lines as the Romans (Livy 37.39.7?8). Each line was further divided into smaller subunits. For Roman infantry, these units were the maniples made up of about 160 men, three of which were grouped as a cohort. Italian infantry seem to have been organized solely in cohorts of about 500 men, or at least only cohorts are in evidence. Polybius says that the number of allied infantry coincided with the Roman infantry with three times the number of cavalry (6.27.6?9; Walbank 1957?1971, 1.709; cf. Vell. Pat. 2.15.1?2).

It seems that the two alae were typically deployed on the flanks of the two legions in a consular army (Polyb. 6.26.9; Livy 37.39.7?8). The alae, however, were not always placed on the wings, but could be deployed as needed. The Italian allies no longer formed cooperative groups, but fully formed tactical units that could undertake a variety of roles. In 181 the propraetor Q. Fulvius Flaccus in Spain deployed the left ala into an ambush position against a force of Celtiberians (Livy 40.31; cf. Frontin. Str. 2.5.8). Here not only was the ala acting completely separately from the main Roman force, but it also functioned as the core to which 6,000 Spanish auxiliaries could be attached much as the Roman legions had done for allied Italian forces. Of course, not all, or even most, Roman generals used alae so creatively, but the integration of the Italian allies was an important development in Roman warfare that created a potentially more efficient fighting force.

Beyond the alae, the allies were also grouped into a unit called the extraordinarii. Before the alae were organized, the extraordinarii were chosen by the prefects of the allies from the best men of the Italian soldiers, about 2,000 infantry and 600 cavalry (Polyb. 6.26.7?9; Walbank 1957?1971, 1.709). They were then subdivided into four cohorts of infantry and ten turmae of cavalry. While Roman armies were on the march, Polybius (6.40.8) says that the extraordinarii were either deployed in the van or the rear depending on where attacks were expected. They seem to have had no regular position in the battle-line, being deployed as needed and providing a flexible force of good soldiers (Pfeilschifter 2007, 34; Livy 40.31.3; Polyb. 10.39.1).

The Italians had become fully integrated into the Roman military system by the end of the third century. They were incorporated into the camps that Roman armies regularly constructed, although the exact details are difficult to ascertain (Polyb. 6.27? 32; Walbank 1957?1971, 1.709?716; Dobson 2008; cf. Rosenstein 2012, 93?100). The extraordinarii occupied a place of distinction near the general’s tent. Non-Italian allies camped separately. With regards to rations, Polybius (6.39.15) says that the allied infantry received the same rations as the Roman infantry, and the cavalry about onethird less than the Roman cavalry, which were given as a gift. The provision of rations can be associated with the growing disparity in relative power between the Romans and their Italian allies. In Roman eyes, it was the duty of their allies to march alongside Roman citizens across the Mediterranean, but at the same time, as with any good master, it was the duty of the Romans to care for their subordinate allies while on campaign.

The many campaigns in which the Italians participated alongside the Romans also had an impact on the complex process of cultural interchange. To be sure, units were apparently separated by ethnic groups into units and in camps (Pfeilschifter 2007; Rosenstein 2012). While fluency may have been rare, there is no reason to think that this segregation prevented passing knowledge of Latin among allied soldiers. Certainly, in those instances of discontent among soldiers, Roman citizens and Italian allies showed solidarity and cooperation (Livy 28.24.13; 40.35?36). Nevertheless, many regions in Italy show at least familiarity with Latin that must have been supported by military interaction. The Abruzzi tribes of the central Apennines were among the most common allies in Roman armies, among them the Marsi who claimed that no Roman army had ever achieved a triumph over them or without them (App. B Civ. 1.46). The earliest example of Latin used outside of Latium (in this case influenced by local Oscan), dated to the third century, comes from this area (ILLRP 7). On the other hand, the Paeligni, another Abruzzi people commonly referenced in Roman armies, show little influence from Latin in the inscriptional evidence as early as their neighbors (Bispham 2007, 5). The impact of Latin on the various languages of Italy in general reflects the same complexity of influence, adaptation, and resistance (Bispham 2007, 4?5; Benelli 2001, 7?16; Mouritsen 1998, 77?81). While other factors were at play, common military service based on centuries-old traditions of military cooperation made cultural exchange among the peoples of Italy possible.

The Low Point of the Third Century Roman Empire and Reforms of Gallienus

Roman infantry during the crisis of the third century. They wear late pattern Niederbieber helmets.

The prestige of Roman arms was at an all-time low and the situation was made even worse by the fact that the power-hungry Roman generals everywhere rose in revolt against Gallienus (253–268), the son and co-emperor of Valerian. With prestige low and civil wars being fought, the enemies of Rome seized their opportunity and broke through the frontiers everywhere. In Gaul Postumus created a separatist Gallic Empire, which weakened Gallienus’ position even further and led to the development of separate military organizations in the different parts of the Empire. And this was not the only revolt Gallienus was facing. It was symptomatic of the situation that Gallienus had to grant Odaenathus, the Arab prince of Palmyra, the command of all loyal Roman forces in the east with the title Corrector Totius Orientis against the Roman forces of the usurping family of the Macriani in Asia, while his own forces engaged their main army.

Gallienus could not trust any native Roman with the command of an army against Roman usurpers, but his emergency measure led to further troubles. Its by-product was the short-lived Palmyran Empire, and one can say with very good reason that the father of the Palmyran Empire was Gallienus. Odaenathus’ role in the defeat of Shapur I in 260 and in subsequent events has been overstated. Odaenathus had merely raided Shapur’s personal retinue in 260 while the divisions of Shapur’s army were actually defeated by the Roman forces which consisted of those sent by Gallienus (the fleet under Ballista) and those who had survived the fall of Valerian. It was this army that the Macriani then turned against Gallienus.

In the West, the Dunkirk II marine transgression beginning in c.230 had led to the abandonment of the forts at the mouth of the Rhine, which the Franks had exploited by beginning to conduct piratical raids alongside their land operations. In 260 the Franks penetrated all the way to Spain before being defeated by Postumus, who then duly usurped power. The earliest recorded piratical raid of the Saxons occurred slightly later in the 280s, but it is possible that they too had started this activity earlier because a new set of fortifications was built on both sides of the Channel between c.250–285 that we today know with the name of the Saxon shore. The Roman coastal defences and fleets had proved incapable of protecting the coasts of Britain, Gaul and Spain.

Elsewhere, the Alamanni had been able to march into Italy before being defeated by Gallienus; the Goths and Heruls had ravaged Asia Minor, the Balkans and even the Mediterranean before being defeated through the combined efforts of three successive emperors – Gallienus, Claudius II and Aurelian; the Persians had ravaged Asia Minor and Syria; and the Berbers had raided Mauritania Tingitana. Similarly, further east other Berbers (Quinquegentanei, Bavares and Faraxen/Frexes) had ravaged the North-East of Mauritania Caesariensis and the North-West of Numidia from 254 to 259.

During Claudius II’s reign the Blemmyes had ravaged Egypt and the Marmaridae had ravaged Cyrenaica, and the Palmyran Arabs and their Roman auxiliaries had been able to conquer most of the east. Even the Isaurians had revolted and started raiding.

Gallienus did not only fight these enemies, but concluded treaties with the Franks, Marcomanni and Heruls. He was desperately short of manpower, and was therefore ready to use a combination of force and diplomacy. This policy allowed him to pacify whole sectors of the frontier and it also gave him access to a pool of auxiliaries and Foederati that he could employ against other foreign or domestic enemies. It was highly symptomatic of the situation that foreigners were needed for the fighting of civil wars.

However, eventually after many years of fighting, Gallienus managed to stabilize the situation partly thanks to the many reforms he made, partly thanks to his own superb generalship, partly thanks to the efforts of others (Postumus, Odaenathus, generals), partly by treaties, and partly thanks to the temporary abandonment of terrain to the enemy. Gallienus was faced with an unenviable situation, and therefore instituted many changes and reforms to save the situation: for example, he granted religious freedom to the Christians to gain their support, especially in the east.

It should be stressed, however, that the reforms of Gallienus concerned only that part of the empire which was ruled by him. For example, in the Gallic Empire the usurper Postumus had to bolster his military strength by employing a great number of auxiliary troops consisting of ‘Celts’ (Germans or Gauls?) and Franks (SHA Gall. 7), who may have been the precursors of the Late Roman auxilia. In contrast, Gallienus created a personal field army comitatus consisting of a mix of new recruits and existing units and their detachments. The core of this army was based on cavalry that Gallienus grouped together. Foreigners did play a role in his army too, but mainly as allied forces.

The most famous of Gallienus’ reforms was the creation of the first separate mobile cavalry army, the Tagmata, in Milan as a rapid reaction force against threats from Gaul, Raetia and Illyria. The evacuation of the Agri Decumantes by Postumus opened Italy to invasions through Raetia. What was novel about the Tagmata was that the legionary cavalry forces had been separated from their mother units and joined together with the auxiliary cavalry units to form the first truly separate and permanent cavalry army (that is, it was not a temporary grouping) under its own commander. This army consisted of cavalry units/legions about 6,000 strong, the equivalent of infantry legions. But this was not the whole extent of the reform. Gallienus also separated the infantry units and detachments into their own separate 6,000-man ‘legions’. It is unlikely to be a coincidence that John Lydus (De magistratibus 1.46, p.70.3–4) also refers to the existence of separate 6,000-man infantry legions, and 6,000-man cavalry legions (i.e. the equivalent of later mere/meros) in the past, the practice of which I date to Gallienus’ reign.

According to the sixth-century author Lydus (De Magistr. 1.46), the professional Roman army consisted of units (speirai) of 300 aspidoforoi (shield-bearers185) called cohorts; cavalry alae (ilai) of 600 horsemen; vexillationes of 500 horsemen; turmae of 500 horsemen and legions of 6,000 footmen and the same numbers of horsemen. On the basis of the fact that this list fails to mention the limitanei or comitatenses and includes the praetoriani, it is clear that the names must predate the reign of Constantine. However, Lydus’ referral to the cohorts of 300 aspidoforoi should be seen as a referral to the use of the legions as phalanxes consisting of 320-man units. It is of course possible that this is a mistake resulting from his misunderstanding of the structure of the republican era manipular legion of principes, hastati, and triarii, which Marius had changed to include the light-armed velites for a total of 480 men. If Lydus is correct then the ‘cohort’ in question could be a second- to third-century detachment that consisted of only the four centuries of shield-bearers (à 80) for a total of 320 men (depth four to eight men), in addition to which came the light-armed (lanciarii, sagittarii, verutarii, funditores, ferentarii for a total of 160 men, deployed two to four deep). That is, with the inclusion of the light-armed this cohort retained the old strength of 480, but it was still smaller than the ‘old cohort’, because it had included in addition to the 480 legionaries 240 light-armed troops. This alternative receives support from the fact that the units would not have marched to war in their entirety, which would have made necessary the use of the abovementioned smaller cohorts. The other alternative is that we should identify the 300-man cohorts with the 256-man tagmata of the former legions mentioned by the Strategikon (12.B.8.1) so that each detachment (1024 men) consisted of four such and 256 light-armed men grouped separately. However, this seems to refer to the situation after the reforms of Constantine.

The creation of a separate independent cavalry Tagmata and commander (Aureolus in Zonaras 12.25: ‘archôn tês hippou’) can be seen as a precursor for the later division of the armed forces under a Magister Equitum and a Magister Peditum, as the title ‘Commander of the Cavalry’ also implies that there must have been a separate commander for Gallienus’ infantry forces. In fact, it is obvious that Gallienus’ infantry detachments, drawn from all over the Empire – including the areas under Postumus – required a new administrative system at the head of which must have been some commander for the infantry. It should be kept in mind, however, that on the basis of a papyrus dating from 302 the cavalry was not yet regarded as fully independent. That is, each legionary cavalry unit retained its connection with their infantry unit for administrative purposes until the reign of Diocletian (Parker, 1933, 188–9), but it is also possible that one of Gallienus’ successors reattached the cavalry back to the legions. Unfortunately, we do not know the title of the infantry commander that is likely to have existed for the infantry detachments. He may have been Comes or Magister Peditum, or Comes Domesticorum Peditum, or Praefectus Praetorio.

It is suggested that the Tribunus et Magister Officiorum was actually the overall commander of all Protectores, because according to Aurelius Victor 33, Claudius II, who was the most important man right after Gallienus in 268, had only the title of tribunus in 368. This would equate with the title of Tribunus et Magister Officiorum (note also SHA Elagab. 20.2). Gallienus was quite prepared to create large military commands for his trusted men. Of note is Gallienus’ creation of regional commands in the same manner as Philip the Arab had done. For example, the former ‘Hipparchos’ Aureolus served as Dux per Raetias in 267–268 with command of all of the forces facing Postumus and Alamanni in Italy and Raetia. The largest command was granted to Odaenathus who held the position of Corrector Totius Orientis, with the powers to command all of the forces of the East, but in this case Gallienus probably had little choice. It should be noted, however, that for the creation of the supreme command of the eastern armies there were also precedents, for example from the reign of Philip the Arab and even before that from the early Principate.

One of Gallienus’ more important reforms was the exclusion of senators from positions of military leadership (tribuni, duces, legati) in order to limit their possibility for usurpation. Obviously this did not concern every senator, only those who did not have Gallienus’ trust. Gallienus’ favourite senators still continued to hold on to and to receive new military appointments. Similarly, this exclusion did not concern the position of governorship. Gallienus’ reform meant that henceforth Roman generals would consist of duces (dukes), comites (counts) and praefecti (prefects), all appointed by the emperor, and no longer of the senatorial legates as before. Unsurprisingly, it was during this period that the senatorial legati stopped being commanders of legions. Henceforth the legions were commanded by professional military men of equestrian rank who had risen to higher commands through service in the ranks.

The dux (leader, duke) was originally a temporary command, but thanks to the fact that temporarily-created forces like Gallienus’ Comitatus and Tagmata were constantly operating together, the position became a regular one. Besides his command duties, the dux was also in charge of recruiting, training, and supply. The comes (companion, count) was originally a member of the emperor’s entourage, which now became a permanent title for a great variety of offices. Militarily the most important offices were the Comes Domesticorum (commander of the Protectores Domestici) and Comes rei Militaris (general). The inscription (PLRE 1 Marcianus 2) AE 1965, 114 Philippolis (Thrace) confirms the existence of comes or magister as military commander for the reign of Gallienus. It runs as follows: “ho diasêmotatos, protector tou aneikêtou despotou hêmôn Galliênou Se(bastou), tribounos praetôrianôn kai doux kai stratêlatês”. Dux and stratelates (comes or magister) are clearly two separate posts. The closeness of the comites to the emperor ensured better chances of promotion, just like with the protectores (see below). The importance of the temporary position of praepositus also increased and became semipermanent in many cases. The significance of the tribune also increased, the highest ranking of them being in charge of the units of bodyguards and the lesser in charge of the cavalry vexillations, legions and auxiliary cohorts.

Further, Gallienus increased the importance of the institutions of Protectores/Protectores Domestici (protectors/protectors at home/court), which may have been created by him or by Caracalla, and the Frumentarii (postmen/spies/assassins) as instruments of imperial security.

The exact status of the protectores/domestici is not known. There were also three or four types of protectores: those who had been posted in the provinces and whose origin probably lay in the governors’ bodyguards (equites and pedites singulares); those who stayed with the emperor and came to be called Protectores Domestici or Domestici (these latter were also later sent on missions as deputati); and those who had received the honour of simply being given the title. According to one view the protector was originally an honorary title that was then extended to men who acted as the emperor’s bodyguards/staff college from which the men received appointments to other higher positions, and/or the title was given to all officers who had reached a certain rank to make them more loyal to the emperor. According to this view the protectores were not really a military bodyguard unit, but simply men with the officers’ rank that acted simultaneously as the emperor’s bodyguards and staff-college and from which they could be seconded to special missions or for duty in the generals’ staffs.

According to another view there were two separate entities of protectores, the first of which was the staff-college/military intelligence staff and the second of which was an actual imperial bodyguard unit. According to this version, the latter protectores were formerly called either speculatores (300 ‘scouts’ stationed in the same camp as the Praetorians) or they consisted of the former equites singularis Augusti (c.2000 horsemen).

The suggestion is that there were ‘three’ bodyguard units of protectores/domestici: 1) the former speculatores who performed simultaneously the functions of bodyguards, military intelligence gathering, acted as sort of political commissars who kept their superiors in check, and acted as a staff-college for the emperor who could then use these officers for special missions; 2) military units like the equites singulares Augusti and Scholae/Aulici commanded by these protectores and which were also collectively called protectores; and 3) the former bodyguards of the governors and were now only renamed as protectores.

There are several reasons for this conclusion. The protectores were later used as commanders and officers of (for example) the Scholae of Constantine, which points to the likelihood that the protectores probably commanded different units under each different emperor. Many of these units would also have consisted of barbarians or other ethnic groups, just like the case with the equites singulares Augusti or Caracalla’s Leones. Consequently, during Gallienus’ reign the cavalry protectores probably consisted of the Equites Singulares Augusti, Scholae, Equites Dalmatae (and possibly also of the Comites, Equites Promoti and some other units) while its infantry counterparts would probably have been some palatine units like those later known as the Ioviani and Herculiani. Notably, the Equites Dalmatae formed Gallienus’ retinue at the time of his murder.

It is further important to note that besides being bodyguards, just like the praetorians and all those garrisoned at castra peregrinorum in Rome, the protectores were also used as spies and imperial assassins, and it is also known that Gallienus sometimes even spied upon people in person in disguise at night. As Frank has pointed out it is probable that the protectores also served as the military equivalent of the civilian agentes in rebus (successors of the Frumentarii) in the staffs of the period commanders. That is, the protectores performed military intelligence gathering missions which included spying on superiors and on foreigners. The messenger/inspector Frumentarii were by no means the only imperial special agents. It is not known whether Gallienus also used priests, astrologers and fortune tellers as informers just like the earlier emperors, but one may make the educated guess that such practices were also continued alongside the other systems.

Among the greatest successes of Gallienus can be counted that in his own portion of the Roman Empire he created and trained a highly efficient and mobile army commanded by equally gifted men of lowly Illyrian origin all of whom had risen through the ranks. It was this army and its leaders that breathed new life into the Roman Empire. It is true that the final mopping up of the Gothic and Herulian invading forces was left for Claudius and Aurelian (Aurelianus) to complete during the years 269–271, but it was still primarily thanks to the valiant efforts of Gallienus in 267–268 that the terrible migration/invasion of the Eastern Germans was stopped. The destruction of the Gothic and Herulian fleets, together with a sizable portion of their manpower and population, caused a temporary collapse of Gothic power in the Black Sea region with the result that, for example, the Sarmatians were able to regain control of the Bosporan kingdom. The same victory also secured to the Romans the control of the allied Greek cities of the North Black Sea such as Olbia and Chersonesus, the latter of which proved instrumental in warfare against the Bosporans. It is of course possible that the Romans never lost the control of these cities, but the crushing defeat of the Goths in 267–271 certainly secured these for the Romans. It is also probable that it was then at the latest that the ‘Huns’ moved westward to occupy lands north of the Caucasus previously under the control of the Goths, unless of course the reason for the Gothic invasions/migrations had not been their attack to begin with rather than the arrival of the plague with the lure of easy booty – additional details are included later in the narrative.

Despite all the frantic efforts of Gallienus, at the time when he was murdered by his own officers the Roman Empire was still effectively divided into three parts: 1) the Gallic Empire under the usurper/emperor Postumus; 2) the Roman Empire under the legitimate emperor Gallienus; and 3) the Palmyran Empire, still nominally ruled by Gallienus but already in practice by Zenobia, the widow of the murdered Odaenathus. The revolt of Aureolus and the murder of Gallienus had also meant that the mopping up of the Gothic invaders had been left unfinished, as a result of which Claudius’ short reign was entirely spent on dealing with the Goths, while the Palmyrenes rose in revolt against him. The Palmyrene takeover of the East and Egypt caused serious but not permanent damage to the classes Syriaca/Seleuca and Alexandriana both of which, however, appear to have managed to survive by fleeing to Roman territory. The end result of this was the resurgence of the problem of Isaurian piracy. The fleets as such survived and took part in the reconquest of the East during the reign of Aurelian.

Thanks to the fact that Gallienus’ almost only available recruiting area was Illyricum, he had brought the Illyrians to the dominant position among the military. The Illyrians were tough soldiers but only semi-civilized in Roman eyes. It was largely thanks to this that, after the murder of Gallienus by Illyrian officers, the Empire was effectively ruled by the ‘Illyrian Mafia’, at least until the downfall of the Constantinian Dynasty.

Julian and the Alamanni

Emperor Julian’s Roman Army travels on the Rhine near Strasbourg.

Julian had survived because he was so young (only six when the previous Emperor Constantine died), and he appeared unambitious and insignificant; he professed Christianity, but he had fallen in love with the culture of Athens and was a pagan at heart. In 355, as Constantius himself was preparing for war against Sapor, Julian was sent to Gaul as caesar to fight the Franks. (Julian’s chief of staff was picked personally by Constantius.) Julian quickly assumed command and won some victories, but the raids continued. The Alamanni-after a succession of successful raids and skirmishes, after driving even Julian behind walls, after seeing Roman cooperation break down in a futile attempt to coordinate a converging movement on the Alamanni-decided on a major campaign in Gaul under their king, Chnodomarius [Chnodomar]. Julian was ready to fight, and the two sides met at the battle of Strasbourg [Argentoratum] (A. D. 357).

The Roman army had to march about twenty miles. It set out at dawn, the foot soldiers in the middle, their flanks guarded by cavalry squadrons including cataphracts and archers (“a formidable kind of armed men”). After eight hours marching, they reached the vicinity of the enemy camp and Julian suggested to the troops that they prepare a fortified camp wherein they could rest, refresh themselves, and prepare to attack the next dawn. The soldiers “gnashed their teeth, clashed their spears on their shields,” and demanded that Julian lead them immediately against the enemy. Julian’s Praetorian prefect also urged him to attack while they had all the Alamanni fixed in one location and reminded him of “the hot tempers of the soldiers which could turn them so easily to riot.” A standard bearer cried out, “Advance, Caesar, luckiest of all men!”

The Romans advanced slowly, and when they came in sight of the Alamanni, they formed up in a close-packed wedge formation, and the Alamanni also formed up in wedges. The Alamanni put all their cavalry opposite the Roman cavalry on the Roman right. As the cataphracts had the advantage over the Alamanni cavalry because they wore mail armor and their hands were free while the Alamanni had to hold reins and shield in one hand and spear in the other, the Alamanni reinforced their cavalry with skirmishers and light infantry. The Alamanni had dug trenches on their right from which to spring ambushes, but the Romans expected trickery and halted on the edge of the trenches and waited to see what would happen.

Julian, protected by a bodyguard of 200 men and identified by a dragon banner, rode back and forth calling upon his men to restore Rome’s majesty; the Alamanni called upon their leaders to dismount and share the fortunes of the common soldier. King Chnodomarius [Chnodomar], a gigantic, muscular man, was the first to dismount, and the other princes followed his example. Then the trumpets blared, the two sides hurled their spears at each other, and the Alamanni charged. “The Alamanni, their long hair streaming, their eyes blazing with madness, made a terrifying sight.”

The two sides, densely packed, pushed each other back and forth, and clouds of dust obscured the field. Then the Roman cavalry commander was wounded and the Roman cavalry withdrew; Julian rushed to the spot to stop the retreat, but the cavalry and Julian were out of the battle long enough for the Alamanni to force their way into the Roman formation. There they were checked momentarily by Julian’s German troops before they broke through to the center of the army, where the Roman master of troops commanded a special unit. The two sides hacked at each other, the Romans sheltered behind their phalanx of shields, the Alamanni gone beserk, trying to break the formation and shouting war cries above the shrieks and moans of the wounded and dying. The Romans stabbed at the unprotected sides of the Alamanni, until they broke the impetus of their charge and forced them to turn and run.

The Romans pursued them to the banks of the Rhine and struck them until their swords were dulled, their spears broken, and then they stood on the banks of the river and threw javelins at them. The Alamanni who had preserved their shields in their flight used them as miniature rafts to take them to the other side. Chnodomarius surrendered and was sent to Rome where he died of old age. The Romans estimated that the Alamanni had numbered about 35,000 and that they themselves had been outnumbered three to one. They acknowledged 247 dead.

Julian’s Germans were so valuable to him that he learned their language. One of the commanders in his subsequent campaign against the Persians was Vadomarius, who had been king of an Alamannic canton. As king, Vadomarius led raids into Roman territory (in 352-353), his own territory had been raided in retaliation, and he had concluded a peace treaty with the Romans. Under the cover of the peace treaty, even as he accepted the local Roman commander’s invitations to banquets, he continued to raid Roman territory. Roman patience ran out, Vadomarius was arrested while he was attending a banquet, and he was sent to Spain. (His son succeeded him as king.) During Julian’s campaign in the east, Vadomarius was the “leader of the Phoenicians,” and under Julian’s successor, Valens, he conducted the siege of Nicaea and successfully commanded troops against the Persian King Sapor II in 371. This German king was at home in the Roman world, at least as that world was represented by the army, and he was a trusted commander, although his loyalty was pledged to the emperor and the army, not to the abstract entity Rome.

Julian tried to ameliorate the radical division between government and governed in Gaul with a total reorganization of the administration and a remission of taxes. His reforms were opposed by his own chief of staff (Constantius’s man), who ordered a larger tax. When Julian refused, the chief of staff reported to Constantius, and Constantius ordered Julian to collect the tax. Julian made a personal appeal to the people of Gaul and collected more money than the chief of staff had demanded. Julian’s success aroused the suspicions of Constantius, and Julian was ordered to send several large contingents of troops east to Constantius for the Persian War of the winter 359-360. Julian agreed, but his troops refused to serve so far away from their homes. They convinced Julian to let them proclaim him emperor (February 360), and they raised Julian on a shield, a custom followed by the German tribes. Julian asked Constantius to recognize him as co-emperor. Instead, Constantius gathered an army, and Julian and Constantius marched to a confrontation averted only by the death of Constantius in 361.

Thus Julian became sole emperor of the Roman Empire. Julian hated Christianity as the enemy of the Hellenic past he loved. He withdrew the privileges Christians had enjoyed and reintroduced sacrifice and the emperor cult. He forbade Christians to teach in the schools and refused them public careers. He looked the other way as old scores were settled.



Parthia and Rome

After the defeat of Crassus, the Romans expected a Parthian invasion to overrun and claim the poorly defended territories of the eastern Mediterranean. Instead, the Parthians launched plundering raids into Syria and Asia Minor that undermined, rather than vanquished, Roman authority in these regions (53–52 BC). The death of Crassus destabilised Roman politics and in 49 BC Julius Caesar was drawn into a civil war with a political faction led by his former friend and colleague, Pompey. When Caesar emerged victorious and was declared Dictator, he prepared the Roman legions for a further campaign against Parthia. His plan was to avenge Crassus by conquering the Parthian Empire and extending Roman rule as far as the Oxus River. But Caesar’s autocratic rule had alarmed traditionalists in Rome who conspired to have him assassinated before he could begin his war against the Parthians (44 BC).

The death of Caesar caused another civil war as Mark Anthony joined with Caesar’s nephew and adopted son Octavian to establish their own joint rule over the Roman Republic. They achieved a decisive victory over the pro-republican faction at the Battle of Philippi in Macedonia in 42 BC. Octavian then assumed power in Rome and Antony took authority over the Roman commands in the Eastern Mediterranean. The responsibility therefore fell on Antony to enact Caesar’s plans and conquer the Parthian Empire.

Fresh from his dalliance with Cleopatra, Antony set out to conquer the Parthian empire, following a battle plan he discussed years before with Caesar. Avoiding Crassus’ mistake of striking directly through Mesopotamia, Antony took his massive army north through Armenia. Always impetuous, Anthony refused to wait for his baggage wagons and siege equipment and marched with his main army to Phraaspa, the Royal City of Media, leaving Oppius Statianus in charge of the siege train with a fairly large security force. When king Phraates heard about Antony’s folly, he led a strong force of cavalry to attack the wagon train. Phraates’ cavalry quickly surrounded the wagons, killed the guards, and destroyed all the equipment. Antony could not capture Phraaspa without his siege equipment. Despite winning a few minor skirmishes, Anthony was forced to withdraw from Media in the winter, suffering extremely heavy losses to both Parthian attacks and the harsh weather.

After his victory at Philippi, Mark Antony was intent on waging war against the Parthians and avenging the defeat at Carrhae. Anthony sent Pubulius Ventidius Baussus ahead to pave the way. Ventidius was one of the most successful Roman generals who fought the Parthians. His use of ranged weapon troops and terrain to combat the Parthian cavalry gave him several victories.
Ventidius marched into Syria and encountered Quintus Labienus, a renegade Republican officer who had served under Brutus and then joined the Parthians. Ventidius gave chase, tracking Labienus down at the Cilician Gates, the main pass through the Taurus Mountains that separated Cilicia from Anatolia. Ventidius made camp on the heights while Labienus, expecting Parthian reinforcements, camped a short distance from the away. The Parthian cavalry under Pacorus soon arrived. Utterly fearless of the Romans, the Parthian horsemen did not wait to join Labienus but instead directly charged the heights. The Roman force, well supplied with missile troops and benefitted from the terrain, repulsed the attack and drove off the Parthians. The surviving Parthians fled to the Labienus’ camp. Labienus avoided the fight and managed to escape again after dark. The way was now clear for Antony to invade Mesopotamia.

Antony invades the Parthian Empire

Antony utilized the Egyptian city of Alexandria as his new political headquarters and with the support of Roman client kingdoms in the Near East he prepared for a new war against the Parthians. He mobilized an army of 100,000 soldiers including up to 60,000 legionaries from sixteen legions and 10,000 cavalry. The allied forces included 20,000 Hellenic troops provided by Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt and several other kingdoms in the Near East subject to Rome. The King of Armenia also offered 6,000 cavalry and 7,000 infantry to support the Roman conquest. A convoy of 300 wagons was organized to transport essential siege machinery including an 80-foot long battering ram. The wagons also carried crucial food stocks for the campaigning army. Antony believed that this force was sufficient to defeat a Parthian army that could probably mobilize about 40,000 mounted troops including 4,000 armoured lancers commanded by their new king Phraates IV.

In 36 BC the Roman army crossed the Upper Euphrates and invaded the large kingdom of Media Atropatene which dominated the northwest quarter of the Parthian Empire. Their first target was the Median winter capital Phraaspa (Maragheh) which was almost 300 miles, or three week’s march, from the Euphrates frontier. The Roman soldiers were equipped with slings that had proved effective in countering volleys of enemy arrows. Dio reports that ‘the numerous slingers routed the enemy because they could shoot farther than the Parthian archers.’ A hail of lead sling-stones could inflict ‘severe injury on all Parthians including men in armour’, but this weapon rarely killed and the enemy could quickly retreat if overwhelmed or injured.

Antony achieved a rapid advance by marching ahead of the slow-moving train of accompanying wagons which were guarded by at least two Roman legions and a large force of allied Hellenic troops. But the Parthian army ambushed the convoy, massacred its guard of 10,000 legionaries, plundered the Roman supplies and burnt the siege equipment. Plutarch explains that this was a decisive point in the war and ‘the king of Armenia, despairing of the Roman cause, withdrew his forces and abandoned Antony.’

Antony reached Phraaspa with a force of more than 50,000 legionaries, but the fortified city was well-garrisoned and provisioned to withstand long-term siege. The Roman siege machinery that had been destroyed could not be replaced using local timber or the palisade wood that the legionaries carried to fortify their camps. The Romans therefore began to build a large earthen mound next to the city wall to surmount the defences and provide a platform for attack. This was a time-consuming, labour-intensive effort and as their supplies dwindled large parts of the army were left immobile. The Parthian army appeared outside the legionary camps arrayed in full battle formation to yell repeated challenges and insults which badly affected Roman morale. Antony was concerned that this ‘dismay and dejection would increase through inactivity,’ so he assembled ten legions and with the support of his cavalry he marched into the countryside to seize all available food supplies. This he hoped would draw the Parthians into a decisive battle.

Leaving a retaining force near the city walls, Antony marched his army a day’s journey from Phraaspa. The following day, the Parthian army including up to 40,000 mounted warriors appeared within sight of the Roman legions. They waited for the Romans to renew their march then gathered a crescent-shaped formation to attack the legionary columns from their flanks. But at a given signal the marching legionaries began a complex manoeuvre to bring columns of men into rank formation and face the Parthian army in a combat-ready battle-line. Plutarch describes how the Parthians ‘were awed by Roman discipline and watched the men maintain equal distance from one another as the marching lines rearranged in silence without confusion. Then soldiers brandished their javelins.’ Antony had issued orders that the Roman cavalry were to ride against the Parthians if they came within range of a legionary charge.

The Parthians interpreted these silent manoeuvres as the early stages of a Roman withdrawal and were not alarmed when the space between two armies narrowed. But at a given signal, ‘the Roman horsemen wheeled about and rode against the enemy with loud shouts.’ The shocked Parthians did not have time to unleash a full volley of arrows as 10,000 Roman cavalry charged into their midst. The larger Parthian force was able to withstand and repel the Roman charge, but the delay gave the legionaries time to dash forward and reach their enemy. Plutarch describes how battle was joined with shouts and the clash of weapons, but ‘the Parthian horses took fright and broke contact, and the Parthians fled before they were forced to fight the legionaries at close quarters.’ The legionaries pursued the Parthians for up to 6 miles, then the Roman cavalry continued the chase for 18 miles, but the enemy did not regroup for battle.

This engagement was considered a Roman victory, but when the legionaries took a tally of the battle they counted only eighty Parthian casualties and thirty prisoners. Plutarch explains that ‘Antony had great hopes that he might finish the whole war or decide a large part of the conflict in that one battle.’ But the tactics and casualty figures suggested otherwise, especially as the Roman army had already lost 10,000 legionaries in the earlier ambush. Plutarch reports that ‘all were affected with a mood of despondency and despair. They considered how terrible it was to be victorious, yet have killed so few of the enemy, when they had been deprived of so many men when they themselves had suffered defeat.’

The following day the Roman legions began the march back to Phraaspa. But the Parthian army had rallied and reappeared, ‘unconquered and renewed, to challenge and attack the Romans from every side’. Plutarch explains that the Romans only reached the safety of their siege camp after ‘much difficulty and effort’. When they saw the condition of the returning Roman army, the defenders of Phraaspa launched a successful sortie to destroy the improvised siege-works and put the guards to flight. To maintain discipline Antony ordered an immediate ‘decimation’ where one in ten of the soldiers in the disgraced units were selected for summary execution by their colleagues.

By this stage famine was imminent as Roman supplies were depleted and any troops sent on foraging parities suffered heavy casualties. Furthermore, winter was approaching and both armies knew that severe cold and frosts would soon cover this exposed landscape. Antony had no choice but to abandon the siege and withdraw to Roman territory. Plutarch reports that ‘although Antony was a natural speaker and could command armies with his eloquence, he was overcome with shame and dejection and did not make his usual speech to encourage his troops.’ The Roman retreat was announced by a sub-commander who perhaps reminded the legions that Armenia was now considered to be hostile territory, since its king had changed his allegiance.

Antony chose an alternative route back to Roman territory that crossed hills rather than the open treeless stretches of plain which would have been favourable to pursuing Parthian cavalry. The hill route passed through well-provisioned villages, but the Parthians were prepared and ‘seized passes before the Romans approached, blocked routes with trenches or palisades, secured water-sources and destroyed pasturage’. On the third day of the march the Parthians breached a dyke and flooded the ground in preparation for an ambush. But the legions were quick to form defensive formations with slingers and javelin-throwers launching missiles. The forward march continued and Antony ordered his troops not to leave the marching column to pursue the enemy. On the fifth day a detachment of light-armed troops guarding the rear disobeyed his orders and followed a Parthian attack force away from the main column. The detachment was immediately surrounded by Parthian reinforcements and Antony fought a fierce battle to retrieve his troops. Almost 3,000 Romans were killed and a further 5,000 soldiers suffered serious wounds in this single engagement.

The following day the Parthians again rode against the Roman rear-guard and encountered several units formed up behind a wall of shields (the testudo). They assumed that these immobile ranks were units that had abandoned the march prior to surrender. The Parthians therefore dismounted and approached on foot. But the legionaries counter-charged and cut down the first ranks of the enemy with their short-swords.

As the march continued the weather worsened with severe frosts and driving sleet further hampering the Roman retreat. Many wounded Romans had to be carried or supported, and the accompanying pack animals began to die from exhaustion and exposure. Provisions were almost exhausted and the troops became ill from eating harmful wild plants. But the Parthians still followed the retreating Romans, guarding any nearby villages that the legionaries might try to seize for shelter or supplies.

Antony considered leaving the hills, but he received a Parthian deserter who warned that the Roman column would be annihilated if it ventured onto the open plains. One source suggests that this man was a survivor from the campaign by Crassus who had undertaken to serve his Parthian captors, but could not bear to see his countrymen massacred. Florus reports, ‘The gods in their pity intervened, as a survivor from the disaster of Crassus dressed in Parthian costume rode up to the camp. He uttered a Latin salutation, inspired trust by speaking their language and told them of imminent danger’. Florus asserts that ‘no disaster had ever occurred comparable with the one which now threatened the Romans.’

The Parthian deserter warned Antony that the hill route was taking them across a district where there was no fresh drinking water. Antony therefore instructed his soldiers to fill all available leather-skin containers and carry additional water in their upturned helmets. The Romans began the 30-mile march across this district at night with the mounted Parthians still in pursuit. By morning the Romans had reached a clear, cold-running stream that was heavily saline. Despite direct orders from Antony, many thirsty soldiers drank this harmful water and were debilitated by a sudden sickness. After miles of further forced march, the exhausted legionaries finally reached shade and clean drinking water, but they were only permitted a short rest. Their guide promised Antony that they were close to a boundary river and rough terrain that the mounted Parthians would not cross in pursuit.

The night before they reached the river there was a large-scale disturbance in the Roman camp. A group of deserters killed comrades who had been guarding the pay and precious metal artefacts carried by the legions. The Parthians saw the disorder and attacked. Antony feared that a breakdown in the Roman formations would cause a mass rout, so he ordered a member of his personal guard to kill him if his capture seemed imminent. The freedman was instructed to cut the head from Antony’s corpse so that it could not be taken and displayed as a Parthian trophy. But Roman training and discipline held enough of the ranks together to repel the enemy throughout the night. In testudo formation the Roman column finally reached the banks of the boundary river the following day. The cavalry formed a guard as the sick and wounded were brought across the river to safety in the territory that lay beyond.

It had been twenty-seven days since Antony had abandoned the siege at Phraaspa and begun the retreat back through the hill country. Since then, his army had fought at least eighteen defensive engagements and suffered heavy casualties due to enemy action, exposure, sickness and fatigue. According to Plutarch the Romans lost 20,000 legionaries and 4,000 cavalry on the return march alone. To these figures can be added the two legions (10,000 troops) destroyed with the siege equipment on the outbound expedition. Florus claims that barely a third of the expedition force (23,000 troops) reached safety, meaning that 12,000 were captured or killed at Phraaspa. Roman casualties were over 40,000 men, the size of the entire army led by Crassus. Antony had probably lost two-thirds of the soldiers taken on campaign. This reduction in Antony’s forces proved significant when Octavian successfully challenged and defeated Antony to gain control over the entire Roman Empire (32–30 BC).

Augustus and Parthia

In 27 BC Augustus (Octavian) formally accepted the position of Emperor and became the uncontested ruler of the entire Roman Empire. But important political legacies of the civil war period were still unsettled. Julius Caesar had planned the conquest of Parthia in revenge for the Roman defeat at Carrhae and Antony had suffered humiliating setbacks in his failed campaigns against the Parthian Empire. Augustus was expected to rectify this situation and restore Roman honour in the Middle East.

But eastern conquests were not an easy prospect for the Augustan regime. Two Roman armies had been almost annihilated attempting first the Euphrates invasion route and secondly the Median route into Parthia. Furthermore, any invasion of Parthian territory would take large numbers of Roman troops far from the centre of their Mediterranean Empire at a time when Augustus needed to be near Rome to oversee political affairs and guarantee the dictatorial reforms that he had introduced. Any Parthian campaign needed to be undertaken by generals that Augustus could trust to pursue conflicts in distant regions far from his direct supervision. Alexander had been able to conquer the core territories of the Persian Empire in just three years (331–328 BC), so perhaps the Romans could expect similar progress if everything in their high-risk invasion plans were to succeed. Appian records that even Caesar’s invasion plans had set out a three-year schedule for the conquest of the Parthian Empire.

The Latin poet Horace reveals the prevalent Roman attitude during this period (30–20 BC). In one instance he refers to ‘the Parthians, threatening Rome’ and in another context suggests that the Roman army needed to develop a cavalry corps equipped with long lances to counter the tactics of mounted Parthian forces. He asserted that ‘our youth should learn how to use the steed and lance to impose fear on the Parthians.’ This is probably based on popular debate as to how to prepare the legions for the prospect of eastern wars.

Other comments by Horace promote Roman supremacy, for example, ‘The Roman soldier fears the deceptive retreat of the Parthians, but Parthia dreads Roman dominance.’ Elsewhere he comments, ‘who fears Parthian or Scythian hordes, or dense German forests, while the Emperor lives?’ The view that the Romans might be about to attack Parthian territory is also conveyed by his statement that ‘Rome, in warlike pride will stretch a conqueror’s hand over Media.’

Septimus Odaenathus

King Odenathus • Queen Zenobia • Palmyrene guardsman, Angus McBride

The main leader of the Roman recovery in the east was Septimius Odaenathus, and he stayed loyal to Gallienus. A Palmyrene nobleman – probably the third generation of his family to be Roman citizens – he had come to dominate his home city. He also pursued a career in imperial service, seems to have gained senatorial rank and may well have been governor of one of the Syrian provinces. Perhaps he was still in this office when he led troops against the Persians, although it is equally possible that he acted without formal power and simply as a prominent local man. His loyalties may not always have been clear, and one source claims that he sought friendship with Shapur. Scornfully rejected, Odaenathus won a series of victories over the Persians, hastening their retreat. With the invaders gone, he next suppressed Macrianus’ younger son.

Odaenathus was not content merely to expel the Persians from the Roman provinces, and in 262 he led a major offensive that got as far as Ctesiphon. This and a second expedition – probably in 266 – were no more than large-scale raids, but they helped to restore Roman prestige. Shapur remained on the defensive for the rest of his reign – he had already won enough victories to secure his hold on the throne. Gallienus granted Odaenathus a number of honours, and the titles of dux (a senior rank and the origin of the medieval `duke’) and `commander of the entire east’ (corrector totius orientis), which probably gave him authority over individual provincial governors. Odaenathus had already styled himself `lord’ of his home city of Palmyra. Now he aped the Persian monarch and was named `king of kings’.

In spite of the grandeur of such titles, Odaenathus never claimed imperial status. He guarded the frontier with Persia and put down any challenge to Gallienus, but, rather like the leaders of the `Gallic Empire’, he made no attempt to expand the territory under his control. For six years he was effectively in control of much of the eastern part of the empire. As far as we can tell he seems to have governed competently – certainly, virtually all of our sources are favourable to him. Even so, he and his eldest son Herodes were murdered in 267 by one of his cousins. It was said that the dispute began with a squabble over precedence during a hunt – Odaenathus, like many other aristocrats, was a very keen hunter. Perhaps there was no more to it than a relative’s anger over a public humiliation, but then and later some people have suspected a deeper, more political conspiracy.

Whatever the truth of the matter, its sequel is not in doubt. Power now passed nominally to Odaenathus’ younger son Vaballathus, but since he was only a child, effective control lay with his mother, Zenobia. She was Odaenathus’ second wife, and the fact that the murdered Herodes was the product of an earlier marriage added to the rumours of a palace conspiracy. Vaballathus was styled `king of kings’ and `commander of the entire east’. These were exceptional times and Odaenathus had had an exceptional career, holding power over such a wide area for a long period. His local connections had added to his prestige, but ultimately he had been a Roman official holding rank granted to him by the emperor – even if in truth Gallienus may have had little choice in the matter. This was an appointment, and there was absolutely no precedent within the Roman system for such a rank to be passed on to an heir, or indeed held by any child. For the moment it was tolerated – Gallienus had other, more immediate, priorities, as did his successor Claudius II – and so for the next few years a woman controlled the greater part of the eastern empire.


PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Palmyran Prince Odaenathus vs. Shapur I of Persia

PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): Persia, Armenia, Mesopotamia, and parts of Asia Minor

MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: After routing Persian king Shapur I at the end of the Roman-Persian War of 257-261, the Arab firebrand Odaenathus, backed by Rome, invaded Persia itself.

OUTCOME: Odaenathus defeated Shapur and reclaimed Rome’s lost provinces in the east.

After Roman emperor Valerian died in captivity (c. 261) during the ROMAN-PERSIAN WAR (257-261), his captor, King Shapur I (d. 272), overran Syria, retook Antioch, and raided throughout the Roman east. Returning home loaded with booty from Asia Minor, Shapur’s Persian army ran into a small Roman-Arab force west of the Euphrates River. Shapur was surprised and routed by Septimus Odaenathus (d. c. 267), prince of Palmyra, a Romanized Arab who made himself so indispensable to the new caesar, Gallienus (218-268), that the latter made Odaenathus his virtual coruler in the east. Given the title “Dux Orientis” as a reward for attacking, defeating, and executing Quietus, one of the so-called Thirty Tyrants, Odaenathus invaded Persia itself in 262.

Reinforced with a substantial number of Roman legionnaires, courtesy of Emperor Gallienus, Odaenathus attacked first the lost Roman provinces east of the Euphrates. Although his army was still comparatively small, composed mainly of light foot archers, cataphracts, and lancers plus his irregular light Arabian cavalry, Odaenathus nevertheless managed to drive off the Persians investing Edessa and to recapture Nisbis and Carrahe. Accompanied and assisted by his beautiful and capable wife, Zenobia (d. after 274), the Palmyran prince harassed Armenia and raided far into Mesopotamia over the course of the next two years. He consistently defeated Shapur and his generals, twice capturing the Sassanid capital of Ctesiphon.

By 264 Shapur had had enough and sued for peace, freeing Odaenathus for another assignment-a successful punitive expedition against the Goths who had recently begun to ravage Asia Minor.

In 266, at the conclusion of that adventure, Odaenathus was murdered. Although his son Vaballathus (d. c. 273), became the new prince of Palmyra, true power, and Rome’s eastern dominions as well, lay in the hands of his widow.

Further reading: A. D. Lee, Information, Frontiers, and Barbarians: The Role of Strategic Intelligence in the Relations of the Late Roman Empire with Persia and Northern Peoples (Cambridge: University of Cambridge, 1987); Josef Wiesehöfer, Ancient Persia: From 550 B. C. E to 650 A. D. (London: I. B. Tauris, 1996).

Rome: the Power… Part I

We can gain a great deal from comparing the Romans of widely diverse periods. Strange to say, the Romans who constructed an empire and the Romans who lost one have very seldom met each other in the pages of a scholarly history. The contrast between these two populations is extremely illuminating. While it is in any case reasonably obvious that the Romans of the third and second centuries BC were warlike and very often aggressive, no one who compares their behaviour with the behaviour of the markedly different Romans of late antiquity could possibly doubt it. Conversely, no one who has studied the mid-republican Romans could possibly write very favourably about the military capacities of the Roman state in either of the two late-antique periods.

More contestably, if we contemplate the cohesive and disciplined Roman state of the middle Republic, the fragmented and distracted world of the Roman state in the age of Theodosius I and his sons becomes even more obviously dysfunctional. This applies still more to the empire of Phocas and Heraclius and to the fragments of it that passed to their successors.

Thus we have been concerned with military, political, social, and economic power all at the same time, but also with gender power and the power of ideas, and with all the channels, especially ideological ones, through which power was exercised. And it has constantly been necessary to ask how much these historical processes disclose the dominance of a single social class.

Why did Roman power spread so widely and lasted so long. Many factors worked together in the middle Republic to produce an extraordinary though not uninterrupted train of military victories: these factors included geographical location and demographic success, which was greatly assisted by the enslavement of defeated enemies and by the incorporation of manumitted slaves. And the Romans’ exceptional devotion to war becomes visible from virtually the beginning of their well-recorded history.

By the last decade of the fourth century BC, if not earlier, Rome’s resources overshadowed those of most of its chosen enemies. With exceptional skill, Rome managed to exploit the manpower resources of other communities, at first the Latins, then, by the 270s at the latest, other Italians. Another feature that emerges clearly by the time of the first war with Carthage is Rome’s capacity for absorbing military technology from other nations.

Social discipline, however, was crucial, including the discipline that sustained aristocratic competition while never letting it get out of hand. There is no sign at all in this period that ordinary Romans were reluctant to serve in the army, but an aristocracy, very powerful though not all-powerful, guided the state’s external policy and did so in a consistent fashion. Much in all this remains uncertain of course – there are hardly any contemporary texts, and we do not know for instance whether the pathological and intimidating violence that Polybius and his informants saw in Roman soldiers already differentiated them from other Italian peoples around, say, 300 BC.

We are better informed about the `organizational techniques’ (to repeat Michael Mann’s phrase) that enabled Rome to hold on to what it had won in peninsular Italy, and they have been studied extensively: colonization, land-confiscations, road-building, the spread of Roman citizenship and Italian identity, together with a limited degree of cultural and religious interference. Rome always tended to favour the local men of wealth and power if they were willing to cooperate, as many of them were.

It only just worked: Hannibal came fairly close to destroying Rome’s control over peninsular Italy, and the anger of the Italians themselves boiled over in the widespread revolt of 91-90 BC. On both occasions, however, there were so many Italian `allies’ who were either favourable to Rome or at any rate disinclined to take up arms in rebellion that Rome prevailed.

Explaining Rome’s military success in its conflicts with the other great Mediterranean powers, down to the destruction of Carthage in 146, is another challenging task. Carthage and Macedon disappeared as independent states, and the empire of the Seleucids, much reduced, had to recognize its subordinate role after the Battle of Pydna in 168. Naval power was crucial: between 260 (the Battle of Mylae) and 190 (the Battle of Myonnesus) Rome appropriated the Mediterranean, aided once again by several advantages – in particular, the economic resources necessary for the construction and renewal of large fleets, and the more or less voluntary cooperation of Greek cities possessed of naval expertise. But the majority of Rome’s fighting over this 120-year period was on land, against many different opponents. It was often an unequal contest, but that was not at first the case with the great Mediterranean powers, and indeed it was not a foregone conclusion either that Rome would conquer a large part of Iberia. Roman armies always prevailed in the end, for reasons that are to a considerable degree unfathomable. Discipline, both social and military, had much to do with it once again, and discipline was at the centre of Polybius’ explanation. He also told how the ferocity of Roman soldiers intimidated their Macedonian counterparts, who at the time were probably as tough as any others in the Mediterranean world.

As in Italy, so in the territories that Rome came to control down to 146, the victors devised organizational techniques that were fully sufficient to sustain long-term control: on the one hand, provinces and new magistracies, diplomacy of a much more ambitious kind, accompanied by appropriate slogans, together with, once again, support for cooperative local men of property; on the other hand, brutal displacement when it was considered necessary, culminating in the destruction of the historic cities of Carthage and Corinth and the distribution of their land to Roman and Italian settlers.

Rome suffered some spectacular military defeats during the remaining 130 years of unrelenting imperial expansion – in particular at Arausio (105), Carrhae (53), and the Teutoburg Forest (ad 9) – the inevitable con- sequences, we may say, of a highly aggressive, sometimes over-confident, manner of dealing with the outside world. But the overall record was still triumphant, for Rome’s resources and commitment were enough to deal with any remaining enemy anywhere in the Mediterranean area or in northern Europe – with one exception, the empire of the Parthians. In the north, however, Roman determination flagged at a crucial time (from AD 9 onwards) – for good rational reasons – and so the lands to the east of the Rhine and north of the Danube remained free.

Through all this era of republican and Augustan expansion, we can relate Rome’s external and internal power relations. The broad outlines are clear: competition between aristocrats in a warrior society, a society furthermore in which citizen power did not produce detectable democratic aspirations of a serious kind until the age of the Gracchi, demanded constant warfare. Military prestige remained indispensable to anyone who claimed to rule, at least down to the time of Tiberius. In the end imperial expansion became less attractive in large part because it did not suit the monarchical ruler to entrust large army commands to potential rivals, or to raise added revenue for this purpose.

The growth of Rome’s external power, meanwhile, revolutionized Roman society, above all by filling it with slaves and by separating the wealthy more and more from the ordinary people. Never a democracy, mid-republican Rome nonetheless left important powers to the citizens. It was the aristocracy that dominated, however – an aristocracy fortified by assorted social and religious practices that cut across class lines, but always an aristocracy. The Roman family contributed to an exceptional degree of civic discipline. Prevailing values such as fides and virtus tended to strengthen this discipline; the ideal of libertas, on the other hand, had more complex effects. In any case the Senate, which was quite large in relation to the size of the citizen population, dominated the body politic. There were some warning signs in the mid-second century, but until about 140 the senatorial order and its allies seemed to be in very firm control. They had enriched themselves and judiciously shared the benefits of successful imperialism. But they had left many of the needs and aspirations of ordinary Romans unsatisfied; and meanwhile their own culture was changing, away from militarism (though this trend must not be exaggerated) and towards competition and enjoyment in many other areas of life (Greek influence making itself felt here).

The discontents of the late Republic were of at least four different kinds. Most easily accommodated were the aspirations of the emerging class of moderately well-off citizens who inspired the ballot laws of the 130s. Much more problematic and never to be accommodated in any way was the rebelliousness of the slaves, at its height between 140 and 71. Extreme trouble came from the non-citizen Italians, who, however, were eventually accommodated at the cost of the most radical policy reversal in the whole of Roman history, mainly encapsulated in the Julian law that gave most of them Roman citizenship in the year 90.

The fourth kind of conflict, no graver perhaps than slave rebelliousness or the discontent of the Italians, but not susceptible of resolution without civil war, consisted of the needs of the poorer section of the population all over the Italian peninsula. These needs could be accommodated, but only when they were channelled into the ranks of quasi-revolutionary armies and subjected to the ambitions of the aristocrats who vied for personal dominance in the two generations from Sulla to Octavian. The result was more than fifty years of turmoil and insecurity.

It is hardly surprising that the senatorial order was unable to control the rise of mighty dynasts from amidst its own ranks. It made many questionable moves, and in the end lost its political supremacy, though not decisively so until the reign of Tiberius; and even then the social class of rentiers, having survived the proscriptions and other dangers of the late Republic and triumviral periods – when many aristocratic families died out or declined – lived on, substantially invulnerable to popular discontent.

Octavian/Augustus, having shed great quantities of Roman and other blood to establish himself as sole ruler, restored a degree of stability that had been unknown since at least the start of the Social War, sixty years before the Battle of Actium. With extraordinary astuteness and a whole panoply of institutional and ideological weapons he rendered himself invulnerable, and eventually handed on power to his chosen successor.

That successor, Tiberius, put into effect a change in Rome’s behaviour in the outside world that turned out to be long lasting. Whereas Augustus had challenged the Germanic peoples but not the Parthians, Tiberius largely left both to their own devices. Over the next 200 years Roman expansion sharply decelerated, for several different reasons. These varied in their relative importance: the single most significant factor was probably the need that the emperor inevitably felt to protect himself from usurpers, for it was obvious that a spectacularly successful army-commander threatened the man at the top, while very few emperors desired, as Trajan did, the real task of personally leading arduous conquests. An empire with a long frontier and many restless subjects was inevitably engaged very frequently in secondary conflicts. Rome’s military forces were quite a heavy financial burden, especially after the Great Pestilence – beginning under Marcus Aurelius – reduced the tax base, and after Septimius Severus increased the number of legions, and this too was a major restraining influence. It also mattered that many Romans could convince themselves that there was nothing outside the empire that was worth conquering, and that in an absolute monarchy the emperor could claim to be a conqueror without actually conquering any- thing. It is evident furthermore that virtually the whole governing class had lost its republican passion for military glory.

Thus Rome came in practice to settle down behind a largely unchanging frontier, which it defended in part by periodically terrorizing its neighbours. The empire of Constantine was larger than that of Tiberius, and its frontiers seemed fairly secure, but it had its military weaknesses as well as its potentially severe internal problems. That it had spent too much – in both men and money – during the civil wars after the end of the tetrarchy might not have mattered if it had not been for the certainty that civil war would soon return once Constantine disappeared. It is very tempting to see in the tetrarchic-Constantinian army the seeds of future troubles – huge expense, plus the imperfect identification of `barbarian’ troops with Rome.

Under the middle Republic, a very large percentage of the healthy male citizens did at least some military service: we might guesstimate that in the mid-second century BC at least 50 per cent of them saw service at some time or other. Once the veterans of the Actium campaign had died out, in Tiberius’ reign, the proportion of the male population that knew military service at first hand declined: we can estimate that by the mid-second century ad something like 4 per cent of living citizen males were serving in the military or had done so, and an even smaller percentage of the total male population. Of those who did serve at that time, fewer experienced real fighting against formidable enemies. Hence there will have been far fewer citizens with old wounds, far fewer young widows – and far fewer citizens hardened by warfare. The Roman state was less belligerent, and it was less ready for major conflicts.

The durability of the Roman Empire obviously depended a great deal on its internal structures of power, and thanks to an extensive documentary as well as literary record these structures can be better known in the first to fourth centuries than earlier or later. There always remains the secrecy of the imperial court, but the main systems are quite visible.