Piso Conspiracy (65 CE)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Praetorian Guard (180–235) I

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, emperor of Rome, together with his Praetorian Guardsmen

The death of Marcus Aurelius marked a turning point not only for the Roman Empire but also for the Praetorian Guard. The accession of his weak and reckless son Commodus created a power vacuum into which the praetorian prefects and the praetorians themselves, as the most significant force in Rome, were inevitably sucked. The emergence of opportunistic and self-serving praetorian prefects of a type unseen since the days of Tigellinus under Nero added to the problems caused by a greedy, lazy and indulgent Guard. The murder of Commodus in 192 heralded a protracted age of instability, beginning with a massive power struggle, orchestrated in part by the Praetorian Guard. It would culminate in the whole Guard being cashiered in 193 by Septimius Severus, and its reformation. The Guard of the third century increasingly found itself operating as an integral part of the emperor’s field army in an era of unrestrained military ambition and chronic frontier instability.

Commodus was the first weak emperor for more than eighty years. As the blood son of Marcus Aurelius he was also the first filial heir since Titus a century earlier. Whereas Titus was up to the job, Commodus was not. In 177 he had been made joint Augustus with Marcus Aurelius so the legitimacy of his sole reign was never in doubt. Aurelius recognized that Commodus, then aged only about nineteen, would be susceptible to poor advice because of his inexperience. On his deathbed he urged his advisers and relatives to support him, and recommended him to the support of the army, something Commodus claimed his father had done ever since he was a boy. Aurelius died shortly afterwards, on 17 March 180 in Vindobona (Vienna).

A few days later, Commodus was taken by those same advisers to the camp at Vindobona so that he could address the soldiers and offer them a donative. The troops were summoned to the parade ground outside the fort where Commodus made his speech. He appealed to their loyalty, experience and support. One of the great values of the evidence for this period is that our principal sources, Cassius Dio and Herodian, had not only lived through the times they were describing, but had also known the emperors concerned, though this does not mean that their accounts always accord; all too often they do not. Dio entered the senate during Commodus’ reign and thus witnessed events as they unfolded. Herodian was only a teenager when Commodus died, but his proximity to the period and its records make him equally invaluable. Dio’s opinion was that Commodus was not innately evil, but that he lacked guile; as a result he was easily led astray by his companions.

Commodus immediately made peace with the Marcomanni, a decision that instantly alienated the army. On his arrival in Rome, which was eagerly awaited, he boasted to the senate about his exploits. He thanked the soldiers who had been left in Rome, presumably the rump of the Praetorian Guard, for their loyalty. He was immediately the focus of plots. He had inherited Publius Tarrutenius Paternus as praetorian prefect, but by 181 or 182 had also appointed Tigidius Perennis to the post. Paternus became involved in the first of a series of plots against Commodus. The conspiracy was a complicated one, and not made easier to understand by the piecemeal references in the sources, which provide quite disparate detail. Commodus’ sister Lucilla was married to Claudius Pompeianus, a man whom she hated and who was also an adviser to Commodus. Pompeianus had a son, Claudius Pompeianus Quintianus, by (probably) a previous marriage. Egged on by Lucilla in the hope that her husband would be permanently ruined by the association, and apparently all under the guiding hand of Paternus, Quintianus attacked Commodus. Herodian, however, attributes the plot to Lucilla’s lover Quadratus, who was desperate to please her because she resented the precedence now awarded Crispina at her expense. Either way, Quintianus made a physical assault on Commodus, claiming it was being done in the name of the senate, but failed to kill him.

In the aftermath, Commodus forced Lucilla, and then his wife Crispina, into exile. He removed Paternus from the prefecture by awarding him honorary consular status and then killed him anyway in c. 182. Commodus decided that he hated the senate and also now fell under the influence of the remaining praetorian prefect, Tigidius Perennis, who turned out to be only the first in a record-breaking series of new praetorian prefects for a single reign. On the face of it, Perennis ought to have been the perfect candidate: he was both Italian and considered to have an excellent military reputation, though this has proved impossible to substantiate. He was presented with an extremely challenging job because it appears he was expected to do a great deal more than manage the Guard, with Commodus effectively delegating to him all the duties of the emperor. This exposed him to resentment. This is Dio’s perspective and, although critical of Perennis, the blame is also laid squarely on Commodus. Conversely, Herodian depicts Perennis as a cynical opportunist who identified Commodus’ vulnerability and capitalized on the chance to maximize his own power. There is more than a passing resemblance to the portrayals of Sejanus and Tigellinus here, even if the nature of the emperors involved was different. It is possible that this version of Perennis is therefore effectively a redrawing of the Sejanus episode, but it is just as likely that the circumstances of a vulnerable emperor and an ambitious prefect could generate similar consequences. There is no suggestion that the praetorians themselves were involved. Herodian describes Perennis as maintaining Commodus in a state of licentious intoxication. This would allow him to run the Empire in order to make as much money out of it as possible in preparation for seizing it by offering the army a huge payout. Perennis began by encouraging Commodus to believe he was surrounded by enemies in the form of rich senators, who could be executed and their property seized. This appears really to have taken hold after the crushing of the plot involving Paternus, Pompeianus, Quadratus and Lucilla. Perennis is said to have persuaded Commodus to transfer the army in Illyricum to his sons, though these are unknown, as the next stage in his plan to seize power.

The fall of Perennis followed shortly afterwards in 185. Herodian’s version is that Commodus was chastened by a theatregoer ‘dressed as a philosopher’ who publicly criticized him for attending a performance while Perennis was plotting his coup. The man was executed but Commodus turned on Perennis. In Dio’s account, fifteen hundred soldiers arrived in Rome from the garrison of Britain to alert Commodus to Perennis’ machinations; the implication is that they were bitterly resentful of how Perennis had been managing the army. This had been orchestrated by Commodus’ chamberlain, Cleander, who is discussed in more detail below. The story is amplified in the Historia Augusta, where Perennis is said to have been installing equestrians, instead of senators, as legionary commanders in Britain during a war in 184. This remarkable breach of a long-established tradition was probably a device to ensure the army was under the control of men who would owe their allegiance to Perennis and not be troubled by his non-senatorial status. Commodus apparently believed them and handed Perennis over to the praetorians themselves, who killed him, his wife and their children. In Herodian’s version, Perennis was killed by someone sent secretly on Commodus’ orders. This was followed by sending two agents to Perennis’ son, before he heard the truth about his father, to pretend they brought orders for him to come to Rome. Perennis’ son, whose name is unknown, fell for the ruse and was murdered when he reached Rome. The various problems with the details do not alter the fact that Commodus permitted his sole praetorian prefect to become far too powerful at his expense. The dangers were the same as under Tiberius and Nero, although the timescale was considerably shorter. Clearly, as with Sejanus, Perennis’ power began with commanding the Guard, though in his case he went a great deal further in his attempts to secure control over the legionary forces dispersed around the Empire. Britain’s garrison was an interesting and intelligent choice. With three legions concentrated in a geographically small area, along with a large number of auxiliary units, it presented significant opportunities to men of ambition.

Commodus decided to appoint two praetorian prefects, believing that this would be safer. If he was aware of the story of Sejanus, and he must have been, the two episodes would now have functioned as very salutary warnings. The names of the prefects concerned are not certain, complicated substantially by Commodus’ mercurial nature, which led him to hire and fire prefects in rapid succession, sometimes after only a few hours. Pescennius Niger seems to have been one of the replacements, and Titus Longaeus Rufus the other, but Niger lasted only six hours. Marcus Quartius lasted five days, and it appears a number of other, unnamed, incumbents may have followed in the reckless days of 185.

The driving force seems to have been Marcus Aurelius Cleander, a freedman and chamberlain (cubicularius) of Commodus. Cleander was responsible for selling all sorts of positions under Commodus’ nose and effectively took over the metaphorical vacancy of opportunist-in-chief created by the execution of Perennis. In or around 187, Publius Attilius Aebutanius was made prefect but was also executed; it is not known if he secured the position by simply bidding for it. At that point Cleander became praetorian prefect, an appointment (or, perhaps, self-appointment) with no precedent, along with two others whose names are unknown, creating another precedent in their being three praetorian prefects. It is inconceivable that the Guard had done any more than look on in consummate disgust, but Commodus had perhaps allowed Cleander’s advancement on the basis that he distrusted the Guard already, and any prefects appointed by the conventional route. Cleander had gone too far. He engineered the execution of a popular official called Arrius Antoninus. Even Commodus realized that Cleander would have to be sacrificed. The occasion in 189 or 190 appears to have been a food riot caused by a famine that was exacerbated by the prefect of the grain supply, Papirius Dionysius. He put it about that Cleander had been stealing from the stores to enrich himself so that the mob would believe Cleander was responsible for the shortage. The riot broke out in the circus with the mob cursing Cleander. Commodus ordered the equites singulares Augusti to attack them, but the crowd’s resolve was bolstered by praetorians fighting with them, the praetorians allegedly hating the equites singulares, though not before a large number of civilians had been killed. A terrified Commodus handed Cleander over to be torn to pieces on the spot.

Two of the last praetorian prefects of the reign were Lucius Julius Vehilius Gratus Julianus and Regillus. They lasted so little time that nothing is known of them apart from the fact that they were executed in short order. Another, Motilenus, followed shortly afterwards when he was fed poisoned figs. Commodus descended further into delusional grandeur, depicting himself as Hercules on numerous statues in Rome and some of his coins while toying with the idea of renaming Rome Colonia Commodiana. He engaged in increasingly reckless bouts of murdering prominent men. The accounts of his profligate expenditure on horseracing, chariot-racing, gladiatorial bouts, grandiose costumes and other indulgences seem impossible. Dio, however, insisted that he had seen and heard everything he described. He pointed out that it was precisely because he was an eyewitness and knew no one else who had his own level of access to what was going on that made his account reliable. Dio and the other sources, however, were susceptible to the tradition of depicting ‘bad’ emperors as bad in every possible way.

The end, when it came, was the result of a plot by his mistress, Marcia, and the then praetorian prefect, Quintus Aemilius Laetus. Aemilius Laetus, and Eclectus, Commodus’ cubicularius, had been obliged to wait on Commodus as he fought as a gladiator in the arena. Commodus would compete, and inevitably win, and then kiss Laetus and Eclectus through his helmet. The two men tried to dissuade Commodus from his more extreme acts, but they were terrified of what might happen to them. Commodus was planning to kill the two consuls on 1 January 193. Laetus and Eclectus took Marcia into their confidence and persuaded her to poison him. Commodus’ consumption of alcohol meant that he vomited some of the poison up and instead the conspirators had to persuade an athlete called Narcissus to throttle Commodus. He was killed on the last day of December 192.

The plotters had taken the precaution of planning for the succession in advance. Their choice was Publius Helvius Pertinax, a man of similar vintage to Nerva almost a century earlier. At the age of sixty-seven he was a wealthy senator, having risen from being the son of a freedman through a series of military commands to provincial governorships. These included being sent by Commodus to Britain to pacify the troops there after the death of Perennis. In 192 Pertinax was consul for the second time when Laetus and Eclectus approached him. With Commodus dead they informed Pertinax, and he went to the Castra Praetoria to present himself to the Praetorian Guard so that the all-important oath of loyalty could be secured. The praetorians already seem to have tried to elevate their own nominee, a senator called Triarius Maternus Lascivius, but he fled, perhaps wisely. The oath was secured, but at the price of 12,000 sestertii, economizing on the 20,000 sestertii allegedly paid on the accession of Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, despite Pertinax’s claim that he had matched their handout. In one version of the events Pertinax allegedly only paid half the 12,000 sestertii anyway. Moreover, the people of Rome had been so worried the Guard would refuse to be ruled by Pertinax that a huge crowd had gone to the Castra Praetoria to coerce the soldiers to accept Pertinax, who had earned their respect thanks to his military reputation and time as prefect of Rome.

A very dangerous development followed. Pertinax informed the Guard that he would be setting right all sorts of distressing circumstances, which formed part of a more widespread and popular programme of reforms. The praetorians had become accustomed to various indulgent privileges that Commodus had allowed them. They now grew concerned that these were about to disappear in Pertinax’s new age of discipline and order. For the moment they suppressed their resentment, largely because Pertinax sold off or melted down everything he could that had belonged to Commodus to raise the money after he discovered that the deceased emperor had emptied the imperial coffers. Ending their freedom to do as they pleased alienated both the praetorians and imperial freedmen. The result was that Laetus became embroiled in another plot to topple an emperor, this time with the active participation of the Guard. Their first plan was to seize power while Pertinax was at the coast inspecting the grain supply, and to place a consul called Falco on the throne. The plot was uncovered but Pertinax refused to execute Falco because he was a senator, even though Dio and the other senators were fully prepared to condemn him to death.

Laetus, perhaps to divert attention from himself, turned on the praetorians and started executing some of them, claiming that Pertinax had ordered him to do so. Two hundred praetorians promptly headed off to the Palatine Hill and forced their way into the imperial palace. Pertinax made no attempt to use the vigiles or the equites singulares Augusti to protect himself, preferring instead to try negotiating with the irate praetorians. But one praetorian stopped him from going out while palace staff let the soldiers in through all the other entrances. When they confronted Pertinax they were momentarily stopped in their tracks; one praetorian darted forward and stabbed Pertinax and Eclectus, announcing that ‘this sword is sent you by the soldiers’. Pertinax’s body was decapitated and the head displayed on a spear. What followed was the unedifying auction of the Roman Empire, conducted by the Praetorian Guard. The long period of silent acquiescence and discipline that had ended during the reign of Commodus gave way fully to a period in which the praetorians were the kingmakers. They were motivated by greed and a reckless disregard either for their own interests or the emperors’ and those of the Roman people. This set in train a disastrous series of events that would last for decades.

Didius Julianus secured his position as emperor by promising the Praetorian Guard 25,000 sestertii each. It was a generous offer, but proved too generous because Julianus had failed to consider whether he could pay it. He was gathered up by the praetorians who, displaying their standards, escorted the new emperor to the forum and the senate. The public display of power was deliberate and obvious and had the desired effect. Julianus indulged the conceit that he had come alone to address the senate while a large number of armed troops secured the building outside and a number came with him into the senate. It was a clear demonstration of where the real power lay, reminiscent of the accession of Otho in 69. Under the circumstances it was hardly surprising that the senate confirmed by decree that Julianus was emperor. He also ingratiated himself, or tried to, with the Guard by acceding to their personal nominees for the prefecture, in this case Flavius Genialis and Tullius Crispinus. His limited coinage focused to some extent on the army, with ‘Harmony of the soldiers’ being the principal offering. Conversely, Pertinax’s coinage had been far more general in its themes. Unfortunately for Julianus, not only did he lack the personal resources to fund the donative, but the imperial treasuries also remained barren after Commodus’ reckless reign. The praetorians were infuriated and started publicly humiliating Julianus, who was already gaining a reputation as greedy and indulgent.

Didius Julianus’ short-lived regime was already crumbling. In the east, Pescennius Niger, governor of Syria, had been declared emperor by his troops after news of the murder of Pertinax reached them. News of Niger’s ambitions reached Rome, where a frustrated populace started to protest in his favour. Part of the reason appears to have been a belief that Pertinax had been capable of arresting the rot that had set in under Commodus but had not been allowed to finish the job by the otiose and wasteful Julianus. Fighting broke out between the crowd and ‘soldiers’, which probably included the urban cohorts and the praetorians. Niger was by no means the only potential challenger. Lucius Septimius Severus, governor of Upper Pannonia, had allied himself to Pertinax, but on the latter’s death Severus had been declared emperor on 9 April 193 by his own troops. There was an irony in Severus’ status. He had been made one of twenty-five consuls appointed by Cleander, just before the latter was made praetorian prefect. In the west, Decimus Clodius Albinus, the governor of Britain, had also thrown his hat into the ring. The stage was set for another civil war. Severus was an arch manipulator. First he bought Albinus’ cooperation by offering him the post of heir apparent. Next, he set out first to secure Rome and then to destroy Niger. Severus was confident that in the meantime Julianus would be deposed; he could then turn against Albinus, destroy him and emerge, as Vespasian had in 69, as the supreme power in the Roman world.

For the moment Julianus depended almost entirely on the fragile loyalty of the praetorians, men to whom he had promised a vast sum of money that he was unable to pay. His first move was inevitable, but futile. He ordered the senate to declare Severus a public enemy. His second was to have a defensible stronghold constructed and prepare the whole city for war, which included fortifying his own palace so that he could hold it to the end. Rome filled up with soldiers and equipment, but the preparations turned into a farce. Dio mocked what the praetorians and other available forces had become. Years of easy living, cultivated in the indulgent days of Commodus’ reign, had left the soldiers without much idea of what they were supposed to do. The fleet troops from Misenum had forgotten how to drill. According to Herodian, the praetorians had to be told to arm themselves, get back into training and dig trenches; this implies that they were accustomed to being unarmed and were completely out of condition. This depiction of the Praetorian Guard, however, suited the purpose of Dio and Herodian. A stereotyped derelict and incompetent Guard amplified the impression of the decadence of Commodus’ reign and the incompetence of Didius Julianus, as well as creating a gratifying image of grossly overpaid and indolent public servants getting their comeuppance. Nevertheless, the indolence probably had a basis in truth and might also have been linked to a conservative attitude to equipment. By the end of the second century AD praetorian infantrymen were still habitually equipping themselves with the pilum, while legionaries had spurned this in favour of various new forms of javelin.

The praetorians became agitated. Not only were they completely overwhelmed by all the work they had had to do, but they were also extremely concerned at the prospect of confronting the Syrian army under Severus that was approaching through northern Italy. Julianus toyed with the idea of offering Severus a share in the Empire in an effort to save his own skin. The praetorian prefect Tullius Crispinus was sent north to take a suitable message to this effect to Severus. Severus suspected that Crispinus had really been sent on a mission to murder him, so he had Crispinus killed. In his place Julianus appointed a third prefect, Flavius Juvenalis, whose loyalty Severus secured by writing to him confirming that he would hold the post when he, Severus, took power. There is some confusion here. The Historia Augusta calls the third prefect Veturius Macrinus, so conceivably two new prefects had been appointed, both of whom seem to have transferred to the Severan regime. Severus sent letters ahead, perhaps via Juvenalis, promising the praetorians that they would be unharmed if they handed over Pertinax’s killers. They obliged, and this meant that Julianus was finished. Severus also sent an advance force to infiltrate the city, disguised as citizens. The senate, realizing that the praetorians had abandoned Julianus, voted that Julianus be executed. This happened in short order on 2 June 193. Next they declared Severus to be the new emperor. Didius Julianus had reigned for a little over two months. In the space of five months in 193 the Praetorian Guard had played their first truly significant role in imperial events for well over a century. They had toppled an emperor and installed another, only to abandon him with unseemly haste, contributing significantly now to the inception of a new dynasty whose members would rule the Roman world until 235. Not since 69 had the praetorians made so much difference, though, ironically, it seems that in 193 as troops they were no more than a shadow of their former selves. They were to pay a heavy price for their interference in imperial politics.

The transition of power was not as smooth as the praetorians hoped. Their tribunes, now working for Severus, ordered them to leave their barracks unarmed, dressed only in the subarmilis (under-armour garment) and head for Severus’ camp. Severus stood up to address them but it was a trap. The praetorians were promptly surrounded by his armed troops, who had orders not to attack the praetorians but to contain them. Severus ordered that those who had killed Pertinax be executed. This act was to have consequences forty-five years later when another generation of praetorians believed they were about to be cashiered too.30 Severus harangued the praetorians because they had not supported Julianus or protected him, despite his shortcomings, completely ignoring their own oath of loyalty. In Severus’ view this ignoble conduct was tantamount to disqualifying themselves from entitlement to be praetorians; oddly, the so-called ‘auction of the Empire’ seems to have gone without mention.

Severus had a very good reason for adopting this strategy. It avoided creating any impression that he was buying the Empire as Didius Julianus had, even though previous emperors, including very respectable ones like Marcus Aurelius, had paid a donative. Firing the praetorians en masse also saved him a great deal of money, in the form of either a donative or a retirement gratuity. Given the cost of Severus’ own war, and the appalling state of the imperial treasuries, this must have been a pressing consideration. The normal practice would have been for the emperor to pay a donative out of his own pocket. Severus was prepared to spare the praetorians’ lives but only on the condition that they were stripped of rank and equipment and cashiered on the spot. This meant literally being stripped. They were forcibly divested by Severus’ legionaries of their uniforms, belts and any military insignia, and also made to part with their ceremonial daggers ‘inlaid with gold and silver’. Just in case the humiliated praetorians took it into their heads that they might rush back to the Castra Praetoria and arm themselves, Severus had sent a squad ahead to secure the camp. The praetorians had to disperse into Rome, the mounted troops having also to abandon their horses, though one killed both his horse and then himself in despair at the ignominy.

The Praetorian Guard (180–235) II

Only then did Severus enter Rome himself. Rome was filled with troops, just as it had been in 68–9. This agitated the crowd, which had acclaimed him as he arrived. Severus made promises that he did not keep, such as insisting he would not murder senators. Having disposed of the Praetorian Guard in its existing form, Severus obviously had to rebuild it. He appears to have done so with Juvenalis and Macrinus still at the helm as prefects in reward for their loyalty over the transition. Severus’ new Praetorian Guard represented the first major change in the institution since its formation under Augustus and amounted to a new creation. Valerius Martinus, a Pannonian, lived only until he was twenty-five but by then he had already served for three years in the X praetorian cohort, following service in the XIIII legion Gemina. XIIII Gemina had declared very early on for Severus so Martinus probably benefited from being transferred to the new Guard in 193 or soon afterwards. Lucius Domitius Valerianus from Jerusalem joined the new praetorians soon after 193. He had served originally in the VI legion Ferrata before being transferred to the X praetorian cohort where he stayed until his honourable discharge on 7 January 208. Valerianus cannot have been in the Guard before Severus reformed it in 193, so this means his eighteen years of military service, specified on the altar he dedicated, must have begun in the legions in 190 under Commodus. Therefore it is probable most of his time, between 193 and 208, was in the Guard under Severus. One of the most significant appointments to the Guard at this time was a Thracian soldier of epic height who began his Roman military career in the auxiliary cavalry. In 235 this man would seize power as Maximinus, following the murder of Severus Alexander, the last of the Severan dynasty.

Dio’s reference to there being ten thousand men in ten cohorts in AD 5 is sometimes assumed to be a reference really to the organization of the Guard in his own time, the early third century. It is possible that ten praetorian cohorts had been in existence from Flavian times on. It is beyond doubt, however, unusually for this topic, that from Severus onwards, the Praetorian Guard consisted nominally of ten thousand men in ten milliary cohorts as Dio had described. Diplomas of the third century certainly confirm that thereafter there were ten cohorts. A crucial change made by Severus was to abolish the rule that the praetorians were only recruited from Italy, Spain, Macedonia and Noricum. Instead any legionary was eligible for consideration if he had proved himself in war. This had the effect of making appointment to the Guard a realistic aspiration for any legionary. The idea was that by recruiting from experienced legionaries, the Severan praetorian would now have a far better idea of how to behave as a soldier. This was not always the case. By the time Selvinius Justinus died at the age of thirty-two in the early third century, he had already served seventeen years in the VII praetorian cohort. Unfortunately, there was an unintended consequence, or so Dio claimed. Italians who might have found a job with the Guard now found themselves without anywhere to go and resorted to street fighting, hooliganism and generally abusive behaviour as a result. Rome also now found itself home to provincial soldiers whose customs were regarded as lowering the tone. The reports seem likely to be exaggerated. A Guard of around ten thousand men would hardly have absorbed all of Italy’s disaffected young men. Nor would ten thousand provincial praetorians have changed the character of Rome, especially as many of the new praetorians clearly spent much of their time on campaign. An interesting peripheral aspect to this story is that the paenula cloak, apparently part of the Praetorian Guard’s everyday dress, seems to have dropped out of use by the military by this date; it had, perhaps, become discredited by association with the cashiered praetorians.

Severus had more pressing concerns for the immediate future. He had to dispose first of Niger and then turn on Albinus. Niger was defeated at Issus in Cilicia in 194. He fled to Parthia but was caught by Severus’ agents and killed. Severus was distracted by various rebellions in the east before he was able in 196 to turn his attention to Clodius Albinus in the west, still nursing ambitions of becoming emperor after Severus even though Severus had withdrawn the title of Caesar from him. The climax came at the Battle of Lugdunum (Lyon) in Gaul in a vast engagement in which the Praetorian Guard played an important part. The figure claimed by Dio for the battle of 150,000 men in each army is simply enormous and equivalent to around thirty legions each, an implausibly vast number. It is better interpreted as the figure for both armies together, but there cannot be any doubt that the engagement was of major significance.

The battle began badly for Severus because Albinus had placed his right wing behind concealed trenches. Albinus ordered the wing to withdraw, luring the Severan forces after them. Severus fell into the trap. His forces raced forwards, with the front lines crashing into the trenches. The rest stopped in their tracks, leading to a retreat with a knock-on effect on the soldiers at the back, some of whom collapsed into a ravine. Meanwhile the Albinians fired missiles and arrows at those still standing. Severus, horrified by the impending catastrophe, ordered his praetorians forward to help. The praetorians came within danger of being wiped out too; when Severus lost his horse it began to look as though the game was up. Severus only won because he personally rallied those close to him, and because cavalry under the command of Julius Laetus, one of the legionary legates from the east who had supported Severus in 193, arrived in time to save the day. Laetus had been watching to see how the battle shifted before showing his hand, deciding that the Severan rally was enough to make him fight for Severus. It is a shame we do not know more about how many praetorians were present, and exactly how they were deployed but, given the claimed numbers involved in the battle, it seems very likely that all, or at least most, of the praetorians were amongst them. If so, the reformed Praetorian Guard must have been very nearly destroyed within a very few years of being organized because it is certain the body count on the battlefield was enormous.

The Battle of Lugdunum marks a point in the history of the Praetorian Guard when it seems to have become normal for all or most of the Guard to be deployed away from Rome as part of the main army. Conversely, it also represented a return to the way praetorians had been deployed during the period 44–31 BC. The only praetorians likely to be left in Rome during a time when the Guard was needed for war were men approaching retirement. The II legion Parthica, formed by Severus, was based at Albanum, just 12 miles (19 km) from Rome from around 197 onwards. The legion would clearly have helped compensate for the absence of the Guard so long as some of the legion was at home. It also bolstered the number of soldiers immediately available to the emperor as a field army, without having to rely entirely on the Guard or troops pulled from frontier garrisons. Alternatively it could fulfil some of the Guard’s duties if the emperor took praetorians on campaign with him. A praetorian in Severus’ Guard could expect to see a great deal of action. Publius Aelius Maximinus was a soldier in the V praetorian cohort under Severus. On his tombstone he was said to have participated ‘in all the campaigns’, which suggests that going to war had become routine for praetorians, though it simply could have been a stock, rather than a literal, claim. Since the tombstone was found in Rome, Aelius Maximinus had presumably lived to tell the tale, expiring at some point after his return, though he was only thirty-one years and eight months old when he died.

The soldiers who took part in Severus’ wars and who earned the right to transfer to the new Praetorian Guard found that a further Severan change in terms and conditions was an increase in length of service to eighteen years. This could include the time spent as a legionary. Lucius Domitius Valerianus was discharged in 208 after serving eighteen years. He had been recruited into the VI legion Ferrata in around 190 under Commodus, from which he transferred to the X praetorian cohort at an unspecified later date, serving in the century of Flavius Caralitanus. The date of discharge is provided by the reference to the joint consulship of Severus’ sons, Caracalla and Geta, which they held that year. The VI legion Ferrata had been based in Syria since at least AD 150 and had formed part of the eastern army supporting Severus, being awarded with the title Fidelis Constans (‘always faithful’) for not siding with Niger. The funerary memorial of another praetorian of this era, Lucius Septimius Valerinus of the VIIII praetorian cohort and formerly of the I legion Adiutrix, shows him bareheaded in the traditional praetorian tunic with sword at his side and holding a spear.

The Praetorian Guard as an institution survived to fight another day for Severus. It remained an important symbol of imperial power and Rome’s military strength. A praetorian standard was featured on the so-called Arch of the Moneylenders, dedicated in Rome in 204. With Albinus destroyed and his supporters executed, Severus returned to Rome before turning his attention to Parthia in 198. A cash handout to the Roman people was accompanied by a large payment to ‘the soldiers’, as well as a pay rise and other privileges, such as being able to cohabit with wives. These must have included praetorians, but quite to what extent is unknown as the reference is to the army in general. Herodian was acutely critical of how the new arrangements could undermine military discipline.

Parthia took advantage of the Roman civil wars of 193–7 and invaded Mesopotamia. By 199 Severus was crossing Mesopotamia to fight back but an assault on Hatra went badly, leaving him with numerous casualties and a lot of siege equipment destroyed. This provoked Julius Crispus, a praetorian tribune, to quote from Virgil’s Aeneid, where Aeneas bemoans the fact that so many lives were being lost just because his enemy Turnus wanted to secure the hand of Lavinia. The meaning was obvious: Severus was sending numerous Roman soldiers to their deaths for a futile cause. Another praetorian reported Crispus’ comment and was rewarded by Severus with Crispus’ job. Severus also killed Julius Laetus, whose success in the field here, as in Gaul at Lugdunum, was beginning to make him the focus of the soldiers’ loyalty.

It is not known whether Laetus really did have ideas above his station but one of the praetorian prefects, Caius Fulvius Plautianus, a fellow Libyan of Severus, very definitely did. In or around 200, while Severus was in Egypt, Plautianus killed his co-prefect Quintus Aemilius Saturninus. He next removed privileges from the tribunes in case any of them imagined they were likely to be promoted. The implication from Dio’s account is that both were with Severus in Egypt, or at least in the region. Plautianus’ ambition was to make himself sole permanent prefect; it appears that Severus was complicit in Plautianus’ designs and facilitated his prefect’s advance. Dio accused Plautianus of engaging in a campaign of grand larceny and plundering. By far the most eccentric allegation was that Plautianus had castrated a hundred Roman citizens of ‘noble’ (senatorial) birth so that his daughter Plautilla could be waited on by eunuchs. Plautianus was honoured with innumerable statues, and was the subject of oaths both by soldiers (praetorians?) and senators. Plautianus steadily moved upwards, being appointed a consul, and in 200 having Plautilla selected for marriage to Severus’ eldest son, Caracalla. The nuptials did not take place until late 202 or 203, which coincided with the tenth anniversary of Severus becoming emperor, even though it had taken five years to annihilate his rivals. Plautianus handed over as Plautilla’s dowry a huge sum of money, said by Dio to be fifty times the appropriate sum even for a woman of royal status. Plautianus bankrolled animal fights at games to celebrate Severus’ decennalia (tenth anniversary), while the Guards themselves received from the emperor ten gold coins each, equivalent to 1,000 sestertii, the same amount awarded in Augustus’ will almost two centuries earlier.

The description of Plautianus’ behaviour has echoes of both Sejanus and Tigellinus. It is difficult to believe that this was not deliberate on Dio’s part, for example, the depiction of Plautianus gorging himself at a banquet and engaging in promiscuous sexual activity. Eventually, Plautianus went too far, even by the standards of the day. The account of the fall of Plautianus is confused and difficult to follow but, essentially, what seems to have happened is that his ambitions had earned him the hatred of both of Severus’ sons, Caracalla and Geta. Caracalla disliked his wife Plautilla, and this fuelled his determination to get rid of Plautianus. In Herodian’s version, Caracalla’s loathing for Plautilla led Plautianus to fear for his own life and to sidestep the threat by trying to seize power for himself. In 205 Caracalla used his tutor Euodus to talk a praetorian centurion called Saturninus and two other centurions into claiming that they were three of ten centurions ordered by Plautianus to kill Severus and Caracalla. Herodian’s version has Saturninus as a praetorian tribune who was completely loyal to Plautianus; Plautianus in this account offered Saturninus the praetorian prefecture if he killed Severus and Caracalla. Saturninus persuaded Plautianus to put all this down in writing. Saturninus headed off to the palace but realized there was no chance of murdering Severus and Caracalla, and decided to tell Severus about Plautianus’ scheming.

Severus initially disbelieved Saturninus. Deciding that Caracalla was really the culprit, Severus tackled his son. Eventually, Saturninus concluded that the only way to prove his innocence was to send a message to Plautianus that the deed was done to trick him into coming to the palace. Plautianus fell for the ruse and turned up, only to be confronted by Severus and Caracalla. Plautianus tried to talk his way out and nearly succeeded, but when it emerged that he was wearing a breastplate under his ordinary clothes it became obvious that Saturninus had been telling the truth. The ancestor festival being held that day made it completely implausible that Plautianus would have needed to go around wearing a breastplate unless he was up to no good. Caracalla pointed this out, and ordered Saturninus and others to kill the prefect. Plautianus’ body was thrown out into the street. There is some debate about how much of either version is believable. The details do not matter as much here as the fact that it appears, once more, that a praetorian prefect had been given the opportunity to take advantage of his position and had succeeded in doing so. The parallels with Sejanus are obvious, including this time the more successful manipulation of an imperial marriage, the excessive trust, the greed, the duplicity and the tricking of the guilty prefect.

In the aftermath, Severus, who had learned a valuable lesson, returned to the traditional two-prefect system. The new men were carefully chosen. Quintus Marcius Laetus came up the traditional route from the prefecture of Egypt. Aemilius Papinianus was a brilliant and famous jurist. They were to remain in post throughout the rest of Severus’ reign. During their time Severus embarked on his war of conquest in Britain, which was designed to give Caracalla and Geta a chance to prove themselves. Dio’s account of the period also includes a reference to the policing duties to which the praetorians were liable to be allocated. Bulla was an Italian bandit leader who ranged over Italy with impunity for two years. Despite being pursued by soldiers, Bulla led a marauding gang that even included disaffected imperial freedmen. Severus, by then on campaign in Britain, was irritated to hear that while he was fighting a war his forces in Italy were incapable of stopping a robber. Severus ordered that a praetorian tribune at the head of a cavalry force be sent, under threat of severe punishment if he failed, to capture Bulla. Instead of using brute force, the tribune persuaded Bulla’s mistress to give him up on a promise of immunity. He was taken to Papinianus, who must therefore have still been in Italy. Papinianus asked Bulla why he was a robber. Bulla tartly responded, ‘Why are you a prefect?’ However gratifying Bulla must have felt his witty riposte to be, the answer turned out to be that as praetorian prefect Papinianus had a good deal more power than Bulla. The robber chief was promptly killed by being thrown to wild beasts.

By 210 Papinianus was in Britain with Severus. Some of the Guard was on campaign with Severus. Gaius Cesennius Senecio was a centurion of the II praetorian cohort, which held the Severan Pia Vindex (‘faithful avenger’) decoration. He was killed, or died, in Britain and his remains returned to Rome for burial, where his tombstone survives. It is not known whether he was actually involved in fighting or was merely serving as part of an escort, but he had reached the heights of being an exercitator ‘of praetorian cavalry’. Caracalla, desperate for sole power (he had been made joint emperor in 198, and since 209 with Geta as well), seems to have spontaneously toyed with the idea of killing his father, raising his sword as they rode out to fight the Caledonians of northern Britain. Caracalla hesitated (he was in plain sight) and gave up. Severus taunted Caracalla, telling him he should go ahead with the attack, and even made a sword available. Papinianus was present as one of the witnesses. Severus egged on Caracalla and told his son that he could order Papinianus to kill him. In the meantime Laetus must have remained in charge of the praetorians left in Rome. Caracalla resisted the opportunity to kill his father. Severus died soon afterwards in York on 4 February 211 but not before he had advised his sons to work together, make the soldiers rich, and treat everyone else with scorn. Caracalla ignored the advice to live in harmony with Geta but followed the rest. He moved quickly. According to Dio he immediately removed Papinianus from his post and killed a number of others, including his tutor Euodus and his wife Plautilla, though it is possible that Papinianus remained in post until he was murdered in 212 after Geta was killed.

After abandoning Severus’ campaign in Britain by negotiating peace, Caracalla and Geta returned to Rome in May 211. The two brothers’ mutual loathing was exhibited by continual plots against each other and the way they surrounded themselves with armed guards. They even went to the extent of dividing up the palace into separate fortified establishments, an arrangement that would be comic had the consequences not been so drastic. They even concocted a plan to divide the Empire between them. Only when their mother, Julia Domna, pointed out that they could not divide her between them was the plan abandoned. This solved nothing. Since Geta had an armed escort of soldiers, Caracalla resorted to asking Julia to summon the pair of them early in 212. In Dio’s version Caracalla had centurions on hand who had been briefed to murder Geta, which they did while Geta clung to his mother. This was followed by the murder of all those who had attended Geta, including soldiers, amounting to ‘twenty thousand’. In Herodian’s account Caracalla was blamed for the killing. The likelihood is that praetorian centurions were responsible, but only because they had been bribed by Caracalla.

According to Herodian, Caracalla fled from the palace to the Castra Praetoria, claiming he had only just escaped an attempt on his own life, and made his way to seek sanctuary in the sacellum. Here Caracalla told his story in which Geta had supposedly been plotting to murder him, but that he, Caracalla, had managed to kill his enemy and escape. The praetorians were encouraged to believe Caracalla with an instant payout of 2,500 denarii and a 50 per cent pay rise, the latter being extended to the whole army at a cost of 280 million sestertii in total (70 million denarii). To provide the instant payout the praetorians were told to collect the cash from temples and treasuries in Rome. By this time the truth had reached the praetorians, but since they had already been bought they acceded to Caracalla’s sole rule. The Historia Augusta’s version is slightly different: when the news reached the Castra Praetoria it was a shock to praetorians who had not been bribed or been in on the plot, and who also believed they had sworn allegiance to both brothers. The praetorians therefore locked the Castra Praetoria and refused to see Caracalla. Any sense that this outrage was founded on solid moral rectitude was soon exposed as humbug when Caracalla paid out the money to purchase the Guard’s support. The versions are not necessarily contradictory. It is plausible that some of the praetorians were disturbed by the news, but it was also historically clear that the praetorians, like other soldiers, had their price and if it had been paid then there was nothing more to be said (at least for the moment).

The substantial pay rise offered by Caracalla inevitably incurred a significant charge on the state, which added to the problems experienced by Severus when he found the imperial treasuries drained in 193. Severus had resorted to debasing the denarius, reducing its silver content to 50 per cent. The solution, introduced in 215, was even more cynical. The denarius was joined by a new coin, known today as the antoninianus after Caracalla’s official name of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. Apparently tariffed as a double-denarius, the new coin in fact only contained half as much silver again as one denarius. Therefore, the melting of three denarii provided enough silver to be alloyed with copper to produce two new antoninianii, apparently tariffed as the equivalent of four denarii. Clearly designed to make state expenses easier to pay, such as the praetorians’ pay rise, inflationary consequences were inevitable but these took generations to impact on the economy. The new coin was issued until around 222, after which it was discontinued until 238 when it started to replace the denarius permanently.

The killing of Geta was the manifestation of a new and vicious era. Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus had been joint emperors but Verus’ death in 169 was not suspicious and nor had the two been rivals. Therefore the question of divided loyalties had not arisen with the Praetorian Guard. The Severan family presented a completely new problem. It seems not to have been in doubt to anyone at the time that Caracalla was responsible, and that he had arranged for the murder, apparently with sidekicks chosen from the Guard’s centurionate. In the aftermath of Geta’s death, the praetorian prefect Maecius Laetus was forced to commit suicide, even though it appears he might have helped Caracalla plan the murder. Other killings followed, including the former praetorian prefect Papinianus who was murdered with an axe after the praetorians made allegations about him. Worse, Caracalla even told the praetorians that since he ruled for them and not for himself, they could be both accusers and judges. He confined himself to being annoyed that Papinianus was executed with an axe instead of a sword.

To compound the increasing tension, a mutiny broke out amongst the urban cohorts. The murder of Papinianus seems to have been ordered simply because he had backed Geta. As Papinianus was dragged off to be killed, he commented that whoever took his place would be a fool if he did not avenge this attack on the office of the praetorian prefecture. This may well be a literary device, since the observation turned out to be exactly what happened. Another praetorian prefect, the little-known Valerius Patruinus, was killed too. There is a tenuous possibility that some of the praetorians were now based in premises on imperial property on the Pincian Hill in Rome, if they had not been previously. An inscription from here names Julia Domna as ‘mother of Augustus [Caracalla] and of the camps’.

Caracalla’s reign degenerated even further into a series of increasingly arbitrary killings. In 213 he set out on a tour of the provinces, ordering executions as he went, including that of the proconsul of Gallia Narbonensis. By the time he reached Thrace, he was accompanied by an unnamed praetorian prefect. One possibility is that the post was already held by Macrinus, known to have been in post when he murdered Caracalla in 217. Alternatively, Gnaeus Marcius Rustius Rufinus is a possibility. Marcus Opellius Macrinus was prefect by the end of the reign, apparently alongside Marcus Oclatinius Adventus, a man whose remarkable career had seen him move up from being a speculator, serving in a variety of jobs including frumentarius (imperial spy), and procurator of Britain under Severus between c. 205 and 208, eventually rising to city prefect under Macrinus as emperor.

The Praetorian Guard (180–235) III

In 216 Caracalla started a war against the Parthians, then ruled by Artabanus V. By 217 the campaign had gone from indifferently to worse, but a most peculiar incident was to lead to Caracalla’s demise. An African prophet had put it about that the praetorian prefect Macrinus, who had already reached the heights of consular status, was destined to become emperor along with his son Diadumenian. The news reached the prefect of Rome, Flavius Maternianus, who promptly alerted Caracalla. This was not a trivial incident. At the time such prophecies, along with signs and portents, could carry enormous currency, especially with the notoriously superstitious members of the Severan dynasty. The letter was delayed en route to Caracalla because it was sent first to Julia Domna in Antioch in Syria, where she was administering his affairs. Meanwhile, Macrinus (who was with Caracalla) was alerted by the censor in Rome, Ulpius Julianus, and realized that if he did not act then it was inevitable that Caracalla would try to have him killed. Macrinus organized three co-conspirators. Two of them, Aurelianus Nemesianus and Aurelianus Apollinaris, were brothers and praetorian tribunes. The third was a disaffected evocatus called Julius Martialis who was nursing a grudge against Caracalla for not promoting him to the praetorian centurionate. Clearly then, the conspiracy was largely a praetorian one, though others were involved such as Aelius Triccianus, prefect of the II legion Parthica and Marcius Agrippa, commander of the fleet.

On 8 April 217, Caracalla dismounted from his horse, momentarily dropping his guard while he relieved himself. It was not the sort of lapse of concentration a despot like him could afford. Spotting his chance, Martialis began the attack but was killed by one of Caracalla’s Scythian personal bodyguards. At that moment Nemesianus and Apollinaris pretended to come forward to help the emperor but seized the opportunity to kill him. The Scythians formed part of an eclectic band of freedmen and enslaved bodyguards whom Caracalla had employed in preference to the praetorians, something that had no doubt caused further grievance; though, as it had turned out, Caracalla’s suspicions were well founded. Two days of chaos followed as the disorientated soldiers fumbled about wondering what to do. They were agitated at the prospect of Artabanus, who was approaching with a large force in an attempt to take advantage of a peace treaty. The soldiers decided to ask Oclatinius Adventus if he would be emperor. He declined on the grounds that he was too old, though it must also have been apparent that his origins were humbler even than those of Macrinus. The soldiers turned to Macrinus and offered him the position of emperor, largely because there was no one else suitable to hand and time was running out. Macrinus accepted and rallied the troops to face Artabanus, who still believed he was fighting Caracalla against whom he wanted revenge for the war. As a result the fighting went on relentlessly for two days until Macrinus realized that Artabanus was fighting under a misapprehension and sent him a letter, offering a negotiated peace. Artabanus accepted and the war ended.

Meanwhile, the news of Caracalla’s death reached Julia Domna in Antioch, who was mostly annoyed that his demise would mean a return to private life for her. Macrinus, however, allowed her to continue to enjoy the protection of a detachment of praetorians, the privilege that Nero had withdrawn from Agrippina over 150 years previously. For a while, some of the praetorians considered mutinying and supporting her bid to become sole ruler in her own right, which would have made her the first autonomous empress in Roman history. The scheme came to nothing because Macrinus forced her to leave Antioch. She died not long afterwards, either from suicide or breast cancer. The fate of her praetorian detachment is not known. Julia Domna left a grieving sister, Julia Maesa. Maesa had so enjoyed life at the imperial court during Julia Domna’s reign that she was determined not to let an upstart praetorian prefect bring about the end of the Severan dynasty.

The new emperor Macrinus was from Caesarea (Cherchell) in Mauretania Caesariensis (Algeria). The senate welcomed him on the basis that anyone was better than Caracalla. He was an enthusiastic, if not always well-informed, supporter of the law, serving as Plautianus’ assistant as a result but escaping execution by association. From that position he acted as curator of the Via Flaminia under Severus, then as a procurator under Caracalla, before finally being made praetorian prefect. His ascent was a product of a curiously egalitarian aspect of the Roman world. It really was possible to rise from total obscurity to the most important posts in the Empire out of a combination of luck and ability, though this did not necessarily lead to acceptance, as Macrinus was to discover. He is the first of the praetorian prefects whose appearance is well and reliably known to us thanks to his coinage struck at Rome and mints across the Eastern Empire. Despite the brevity of the reign, his coins are still relatively common. They depict a mature and hardened man with a full beard, but without any of the studied brutality so characteristic of Caracalla’s late coin portraiture. This is in spite of the Historia Augusta’s judgement of Macrinus as ‘arrogant and bloodthirsty’, and description of a litany of the vicious punishments he meted out such as burning adulterers alive. Herodian’s description of life in Rome under Macrinus as a time of security and freedom, despite Macrinus’ other shortcomings, is a considerable contrast and more balanced.

Macrinus had achieved something that no other praetorian prefect, or indeed equestrian, had ever achieved. He declared himself emperor and took the name Marcus Opellius Severus Macrinus Augustus without waiting for the senate to vote him any titles. This was a crucial breach of protocol. His son, Diadumenian, was declared Caesar and thus his successor. Macrinus, who decided to continue with the Parthian war, was initially welcomed by the army. He fixed praetorian pay at a rate set by Severus. Nevertheless, Macrinus had problems from the outset and they were linked to his rank. His elevation of Oclatinius Adventus to the position of senator, consul and prefect of the city, incurred particular censure; it looked as if Macrinus was attempting to divert attention from his own lowly origins while promoting someone even less suitable to the status of senator. Macrinus’ judgement was also called into question with his appointment of Ulpius Julianus and Julianus Nestor to the praetorian prefecture. Neither of these two had the right military or administrative skills. Their main credentials were principally their assistance of Caracalla in his decadent pursuits.

In spite of Caracalla’s expenditure on the war, no one in Rome immediately dared declare him to have been a public enemy out of fear of how the praetorians might react. This did not stop other denunciations of his deeds, destruction of his statues or punishment of his associates. Macrinus benefited because most people were consequently prepared to overlook his modest origins, at least for the moment. This did not last: before the year was out Macrinus and Diadumenian were regarded as no longer having any meaningful existence. After settling the Parthian war, Macrinus found he had made an enemy of the army. They were resentful at having had to go to war, at a pay cut and withdrawal of exemption from duties. Macrinus also ordered that while existing soldiers would continue to enjoy privileges granted by Caracalla, new recruits would serve on terms established by Severus. Naturally enough, that simply alienated any new recruits. The peace negotiated with Artabanus V had included handing back property and paying 200 million sestertii as an indemnity. This hardly constituted a glorious triumph over Rome’s enemies.

Julia Maesa could see that the window of opportunity had opened, and she passed immediately through it. When Julia Domna died she had been ordered by Macrinus to return home (the women came from Syria). Maesa had two daughters, Julia Soaemias and Julia Mamaea, by a former consul, Julius Avitus. These younger women each had a son, Varius Avitus Bassianus (Elagabalus) and Gessius Bassianus Alexianus (Severus Alexander) respectively. Both boys were brought up in the worship of the sun god, Heliogabalus, the central cult object of which was a huge conical black stone. The elder boy acted as a priest, being known by the derived name of Elagabalus as a result. He was extremely popular with the military garrison at nearby Emesa, and a rumour had started to circulate amongst the troops that he was really the son of Caracalla. This was compounded by the belief that Maesa was extremely wealthy (which she was) and that if the soldiers made Elagabalus emperor then they would benefit from handouts. Maesa was delighted at the prospect of being able to return to court life and agreed, though she seems to have either been assisted or led by someone called Publius Valerius Comazon (also known as Eutychianus), said to have been a dancer who had performed in Rome. The women and their sons were taken to Raphaneae in Phoenicia where Elagabalus was declared emperor on 16 May 218. Macrinus’ praetorian prefect Ulpius Julianus was nearby and, despite his shortcomings, rallied to the moment, initially killing a daughter of Mamaea and the daughter’s husband before organizing a scratch force, presumably of praetorians, and attacking the fortress at Raphaneae.

Unfortunately, Julianus’ scratch squad was inconveniently beguiled into transferring their support to Elagabalus, whom the soldiers were displaying on the fortress walls. Julianus was either killed at the scene or made his escape and was killed later. When the news reached Macrinus he removed his court to Apamea, tried to appoint his ten-year-old son Diadumenian emperor and offer 20,000 sestertii (5,000 denarii) to every soldier, as well as reversing all the previous pay and ration cuts he had imposed on them. The cash offer was the same as the discharge grant for praetorians set originally by Augustus. Macrinus laid on an extravagant dinner to show that he was celebrating his son’s elevation, only for one of the rebel soldiers to turn up with the wrapped-up decapitated head of Julianus disguised as the head of Elagabalus. The head was unwrapped, revealing the horrible truth, and Macrinus realized he would have to flee. As events spiralled out of control for Macrinus he promoted Julius Basilianus, prefect of Egypt, to the praetorian prefecture in place of the unfortunate Julianus.84 Macrinus was defeated on 8 June 218 by a force under Gannys, the eunuch of Maesa’s other grandson, Varius Avitus, and Comazon. Macrinus had his praetorians with him, whom he had ordered to abandon their scale armour and grooved shields so that they would be more lightly equipped and could move faster in battle. This single reference is one of the few detailed clues that exist about praetorian equipment. According to Herodian, the praetorians, notable for their height and for being hand picked, fought exceptionally well, even though Macrinus had already fled the scene.

Macrinus tried to make his escape by heading north, but was caught and killed by a centurion called Marcianus Taurus at Calchedon in Bithynia. Diadumenian, who had been sent by his father to Artabanus V, was also caught and killed en route. Macrinus, sometime prefect of the Praetorian Guard, had reigned as an emperor of Rome for three days shy of fourteen months. Dio’s acerbic conclusion was that if Macrinus had been content with his station and supported the elevation of a senator (Dio’s bias is obvious here) then Macrinus might have enjoyed considerable esteem; however, there must be some truth in the idea that in the context of the era a man such as Macrinus simply lacked the status necessary to advance beyond the prefecture and expect to survive.

Elagabalus paid out 2,000 sestertii (500 denarii) each to the soldiers in Antioch and prepared for the journey to Rome. He styled himself Marcus Aurelius Antoninus in a further manifestation of the Severan policy of fabricating dynastic continuity from the Antonines, though he is invariably known to history as Elagabalus. He and his court began their slow progress to Rome, wintering between 218 and 219 at Nicomedia. Elagabalus, still only fourteen or fifteen, was already a fanatical follower of his cult, dressing in extravagant costumes and going about accompanied by flute and drums. Maesa was alarmed by this, comprehending immediately how it would alienate the Roman people. Elagabalus refused to tone himself down and resorted to the bizarre solution of sending ahead to Rome a huge painting of himself ‘in action’ as a priest. When he arrived he demanded that his god take precedence over all others, and forced the entire senatorial and equestrian orders to participate in his ceremonies, with military prefects amongst those obliged to carry the entrails of sacrificial victims.

Comazon had now been appointed praetorian prefect, a promotion that turned out to be one in a series of unprecedented stages in his meteoric rise, much to Dio’s disgust. Comazon, who had no professional experience and was considered something of a clown, as well as having been a stage dancer, went on to be consul three times, and then prefect of Rome. Comazon exploited his influence to pursue personal feuds. He had been punished by Claudius Attalus, governor of Thrace, for some earlier misdemeanour committed while he was serving there. Comazon, now in his exalted position, secured the execution of Attalus, though this was only one of a number of killings ordered by Elagabalus.

In or around 219 Elagabalus married Cornelia Paula. He celebrated the occasion with a payout to the senate and the equestrians, a dinner costing 600 sestertii per head for the people, and a gift of 400 sestertii to the soldiers, presumably his praetorians. It was clearly an attempt to present Elagabalus as normal and counteract the mounting scurrilous stories about the emperor’s promiscuous homosexuality, conducted in the passive role. Elagabalus divorced the unfortunate Cornelia Paula soon afterwards and moved on to Aquilia Severa, one of the Vestal Virgins, which caused even more offence than his previous activities. Elagabalus’ behaviour unsettled the praetorians, something that the peculiar young emperor was himself well aware of. Under pressure from his grandmother and mother to placate them, he adopted his cousin, Bassianus Alexianus, who was renamed Severus Alexander, as his heir. Elagabalus was praised by the senate but observed that although the senate, the people and the legions loved him, the Praetorian Guard did not, regardless of how much he gave them. It seems that even the praetorians had their limits.

Severus Alexander, who appears to have been a far gentler and more conventional boy, enjoyed the protection of his mother and grandmother, as well as that of the praetorians. Elagabalus bitterly resented the fact that Alexander’s mother was clearly preparing him for succession as an educated and more appropriate emperor. It was also obvious that the praetorians preferred Alexander and, given that their prefect was allegedly a dancer, this is hardly surprising. Elagabalus turned against his cousin and tried to have him killed. Mamaea took the precaution of paying a secret donative to the praetorians to smooth her son’s path to power; it was an astute investment. Elagabalus pulled his cousin out of public appearances and put it about that Alexander was dying in order to test the water. He also appears to have ordered the praetorians to deny Alexander the title ‘Caesar’, which denoted his status as heir, and to plaster mud over any inscriptions naming Alexander that were displayed in the Castra Praetoria. The mud smearing was done but the praetorians were furious and upset.

The angry praetorians then set out to find Alexander, Mamaea and Maesa, and took them back to the camp for their own protection. Next, a band of praetorians went off looking for the emperor in the Gardens of Spes Vetus, where he was getting ready for a chariot race. Elagabalus heard them coming and sent one of his praetorian prefects (whose name is not known) to calm down the Castra Praetoria where most of the Guard still was under the command of a tribune called Aristomachus. The other, an otherwise unknown individual called Antiochianus, was told to calm down the praetorians in the Gardens. The praetorians in the camp told the anonymous prefect that their price for backing down was Elagabalus handing over his hangers-on and starting to live in a suitable manner for an emperor. They also demanded that the prefects guard Alexander. This must be the occasion to which Herodian was referring when he described how the praetorians refused to turn up to guard the emperor, locking themselves into the Castra Praetoria. Elagabalus had to go to the Castra Praetoria with Alexander to prove that all was well, suffering the soldiers’ far more preferential greeting of Alexander, and also hand over some of his more nefarious associates.

Elagabalus ignored the danger he was in. He demanded back his lover, the former Carian slave and charioteer Hierocles, to whom he regarded himself married, and refused to appear in public with Alexander. Maesa and Soaemias told him that his life was in danger from the praetorians but he ordered the senate to leave the city. In Dio’s account this was followed by an irate Elagabalus haranguing the praetorians in the camp sacellum, followed by a second visit to the camp to reassure the praetorians all was well. This episode was accompanied by the unseemly sight of his mother Julia Soaemias and her sister Julia Mamaea competing to win over the praetorians to their respective sons. Soaemias lost. According to the Historia Augusta, the praetorians had had enough after Elagabalus told the senate to leave. They killed Elagabalus’ associates, then found the emperor in a latrine where they murdered him before throwing his body in the river. In Dio’s version, on 11 March 222 Soaemias and Elagabalus were murdered by praetorians in the Castra Praetoria, along with all their attendants. Their decapitated and stripped bodies were dragged around Rome. The victims also involved members of the court, including the praetorian prefects Comazon and Antiochianus.

The transfer of power was immediate. Severus Alexander was acclaimed emperor there and then by the praetorians. Alexander also appointed two praetorian prefects, Flavianus and Geminius Chrestus, explicitly because they were soldiers who had experience in both military affairs and civilian administration. But, apparently at the behest of his mother Mamaea he also appointed Gnaeus Domitius Annius Ulpianus, a celebrated jurist (now usually known as Ulpian), to be a praetorian prefect and to oversee them, which infuriated Flavianus and Chrestus. Ulpian’s legal knowledge and other skills made him ideal to take care of everyday government and also plan for the future. Ulpian had previously been exiled by Elagabalus. He did not last long this time round. In 223 or 224 a dispute broke out between the Praetorian Guard and the people of Rome. It led to a three-day running street battle in the city. The Guard was outnumbered and resorted to setting fire to buildings to force the people to back down and agree to peace. Somewhere along the line Ulpian or Mamaea had Flavianus and Chrestus killed, apparently either because they were conspiring against him or simply to remove them. The whole story is confused and difficult to unravel but it is clear there was enormous tension between Ulpian and the praetorians. It is apparent that Ulpian had been made prefect as soon as Alexander became emperor and was also held in enormous trust, being the only person permitted to see Alexander on his own. Ulpian was later killed by some of the Guard, who had been put up to the job by a freedman of Caracalla called Epagathus. They had already complained to Ulpian because they had heard that Cassius Dio (the historian), governor of Pannonia, had imposed a strict regime on the garrison there and were worried that something similar might happen to them. However, it must also be the case that Ulpian had no relevant experience of commanding troops. His death may have occurred as soon as 223, not 228 when his replacement is known to have been installed. By 229 Dio, who was consul that year, was under threat from the praetorians and he moved on health grounds to his home in Bithynia for his own safety. With Dio’s death at some point during the reign of Severus Alexander, the principal source for the period is lost. Alexander subsequently appointed another jurist, Julius Paulus, to the praetorian prefecture in 228. During this time some praetorians decided to make a dedication to Asclepius in his conflated form with a local Thracian god called Sindrinus (or Zimidrenus). They all came from Philoppolis in Thrace and proclaimed this fact at the beginning of the dedication, which named each man, his cohort and rank. The text invokes an image of a Guard made up of various subgroups of soldiers who clearly maintained their provincial ethnic identities and affiliations. It was a far cry from the early days of the Guard and its largely Italian nature.

Severus Alexander was the last of the Severan dynasty. He had become emperor at around the age of fourteen but it was inevitably the case that he would seek to become more independent, especially once his grandmother died around 224. Alexander is depicted by Herodian as a benign and merciful ruler, but one who grew increasingly frustrated by his mother’s behaviour. She took opportunities to confiscate other people’s property, ostensibly so that she could bankroll a payout to the army on her son’s behalf, but in reality so that she could add to her private fortune. Given the instability of the previous eleven years, it was remarkable that Alexander survived until 235. From the outset, much of the real power was in the hands of his mother Mamaea and his grandmother Maesa.

Mamaea and Maesa organized the creation of a council of sixteen senior senators to guide Alexander. It was an initiative that anticipated arrangements adopted for medieval monarchs who acceded while still minors. Herodian even observed that the new structure represented a significant change in the form of the principate. This meant that senior appointments, such as the prefects of the Guard, were made only with senatorial approval, even though Alexander made the initial choice. This on one occasion included a candidate who had declined, Alexander arguing that it was better to give the job to a man who was not interested in office for its own sake. Holding the prefecture under Alexander became an automatic qualification for senatorial status, unless the incumbent was already a senator (the prefecture had been opened up to senators as well by now), but Alexander had a serious purpose in mind. He objected to the way in which promotion had become merely the established method of removing a praetorian prefect from his post; he wanted his praetorian prefects to be senators so that they held an appropriate rank for passing a judgement on a senator.

Alexander was married to a woman called Sallustia Barbia Orbiana but Mamaea, unwilling to share the position of empress, had her daughter-in-law removed from the palace. This so disgusted the girl’s father that he took her to the Castra Praetoria for protection and accused Mamaea of insulting his daughter. This was a miscalculation. Mamaea, disregarding her son’s feelings and exhibiting all the ruthlessness for which the Severan women were celebrated, had the father executed and Orbiana exiled to Libya.

The latter part of Alexander’s reign was overtaken by the return of the Persian threat, this time under Artaxerxes, who had killed Artabanus and taken Parthia. Attempts to negotiate a peace came to nothing, leaving Alexander with no choice by 230 but to introduce a form of conscription so that an army of sufficient size with legions at full strength could be sent against Artaxerxes. By 231 Alexander had left for Antioch where the necessary training could be organized. It must be assumed that he had taken at least a large part of the Guard with him. His first campaign involved dividing his forces into three separate armies, each of which would approach the Persians by a different route. The northerly army made its way through Armenia to attack the Persians, the central army under Alexander’s personal command simply never invaded (a fact blamed by Herodian on Mamaea’s reluctance to allow her son to go into danger), and the southerly third force was practically wiped out when Artaxerxes threw his whole army at it on the Euphrates.

Nonetheless, Mesopotamia was recovered. Alexander was able to return to Rome and celebrate a triumph in 233, only to face instability on the Rhine and Danube frontiers, in particular in the form of a threat from the German Alamanni. This led to a serious split in the army. Units transferred from Illyricum to the Persian War had suffered serious losses and now believed their absence from the Danube and Rhine had contributed to the problems there. The German tribes presented a far greater threat to Italy than the Persians, so Alexander led an army north from Italy. Rather than throw himself into fighting, he opted to offer to negotiate a peace with the Germans, adding for good measure that he had enough money to provide a payment. Alexander had placed his army’s training under the management of a giant Thracian soldier called Maximinus, who proved extremely popular with the army and provided a considerable contrast to an emperor who was generally depicted as a mother’s boy and lacking in any military guile, panache, skill or motivation. Maximinus had earned an early reputation for his physical strength and astonishing height, coming to Septimius Severus’ attention as a wrestler. So impressed was Septimius Severus that Maximinus had been automatically offered a position in the Praetorian Guard. He had subsequently retired under Macrinus, only returning to military service as an evocatus under Alexander.

Herodian added the observation that the soldiers had now experienced a relatively (by the standards of the time) long reign, meaning that it had been a considerable while since the last major donative. This made the prospect of promoting Maximinus attractive. Conversely, the Historia Augusta states that during Alexander’s reign at least three cash gifts were made to the soldiers. Moreover, the same source says that Alexander always personally heard complaints made by soldiers against their tribunes and would punish the tribune appropriately if he were found guilty. Under Alexander, the antoninianus, the new debased double-denarius introduced by Caracalla, was temporarily discontinued. Alexander produced only the traditional silver denarius, perhaps as part of his policy of restoring the coinage. Since the troops would have been the first to notice that the antoninianus contained less silver than two denarii, this return to the old denomination ought to have helped restore their confidence. If so, the gesture failed.

The soldiers proclaimed Maximinus emperor, forcing him to accept. Having acquiesced to their wishes, Maximinus told them they would have to take Alexander’s bodyguard by surprise. To help them steel their nerves, he offered doubled pay, a donative and cancellation of punishments. Alexander got wind of what had happened, panicked and floundered around, begging his troops to stand with him. They abandoned him, one by one, demanding the execution of the praetorian(?) prefect and Alexander’s household. When Maximinus arrived he sent a tribune and centurions into Alexander’s tent where they killed the sometime favourite of the praetorians, his mother Mamaea and many of their associates.

Roman Northern Africa

Roman Dromedarii. Dromedarii are auxilliary troops recruited in the desert provinces of the Eastern Empire to take the place of light cavalry in scorching desert conditions.
As light troops these men are most useful as screening and scouting forces, although they can be surprisingly effective against other cavalry especially when the enemy horses are unused to the repulsive (to horses) smell of camels. Recruited from among the local desert tribesmen, dromedarii are peculiar to the Eastern Roman Empire and a specific answer to the problem of fielding light cavalry along the frontier.

All of northern Africa eventually fell under Roman control. After the demise of Carthage and its annexation as the province of Africa in 146 BCE, the next to capitulate in 46 BCE was the Berber kingdom of Numidia, further west along the coast, which the Romans named Africa Nova (eastern Algeria). A decade later, they took possession of Mauretania, a Berber kingdom west of Numidia, which stretched as far as the Atlantic coast. From east to west, by the end of the first century BCE, Rome’s empire reached along the coastal plains for 3,000 miles, from Egypt to Morocco. Along the edge of the Saharan steppes, Rome established a continuous military frontier, stone barriers known as the limes, patrolled by mobile units based in forts and watchtowers, that were supposed to keep out inland ‘barbarians’.

Under Roman occupation, the region became increasingly prosperous. Rome’s principal objective was to ensure that Africa continued to provide vital shipments of grain supplies needed to feed its own population at home. In north-west Africa, large numbers of army veterans and other immigrants were settled on land confiscated from Carthaginian and Numidian landowners and from Berber pastoralists, with the aim of boosting agricultural production. Roman senators and speculators acquired vast landholdings, leasing out sections to tenants and sub-tenants in return for one-third of their produce, making fortunes from the high price of grain exports. New areas suitable for cultivation were put under the plough. By the first century CE, Africa was providing the bulk of Rome’s grain requirements – more than 60 per cent. Egypt alone supplied 100,000 tons of corn a year. But other territories in North Africa had become even more important: their shipments amounted to 200,000 tons a year. For a period of more than 300 years, Africa exported to Rome about half a million tons of corn a year.

A second agrarian boom came from olive production, spreading wealth within north Africa more widely. Peasant farmers were given official encouragement to plant olive groves on hillside terraces and in drier regions of the interior not suitable for the cultivation of other crops. Olive oil was an essential commodity in classical times, used not just for cooking, but as a soap, a fuel for lighting and a base to fix perfume. As with grain, Italy did not produce enough olive oil for its own needs, creating a demand for imports. Vast olive groves were planted all over the dry country of southern Tunisia and southern Numidia and as far west as the Aurès mountains.

Along with the development of agriculture, Rome transformed its provinces in north-west Africa with the construction of model towns, aqueducts, ports and roads. By the third century, the number of towns and cities had reached about 600 and the road network extended for some 12,000 miles, marked by milestones. Carthage was rebuilt as a colonia with a rectangular grid-plan of streets covering the old Punic ruins and a 50-mile-long aqueduct linking it to Mount Zaghouan. With a population reaching perhaps as high as 400,000, Carthage ranked as the third city of the empire, after Rome and Alexandria.

Rome presided over its African provinces with a light touch. In Egypt, Roman governors relied on the old bureaucracy to maintain control and raise taxes, much as before. A small elite of Roman citizens sat at the top of the social hierarchy, enjoying a monopoly of power. Beneath them a large Greek community continued to thrive in urban centres. Greek influence remained strong. Greek, rather than Latin, was preferred as the language of commerce with other parts of the eastern Mediterranean. Further down the social ladder, there was a substantial Jewish community, initially enjoying imperial protection. On the lowest rung, despised by their rulers, was the vast mass of Coptic-speaking peasants who bore the brunt of taxation. The Delta region became increasingly important as an agricultural centre, producing higher yields from improved irrigation techniques. But otherwise the culture of the countryside remained unchanged.

In the provinces of north-west Africa, Rome also permitted a wide measure of autonomy. The local Punic-speaking ruling class remained largely in place. Punic speech was still widely used. Towns were left to run their own affairs. Local councils competed to embellish their home towns with public facilities such as markets, fountains, amphitheatres and circus-tracks for chariot racing, a popular entertainment. With local funds, streets were decorated with statues and monumental arches. Wealthy citizens paid for the building of temples, theatres and charity schools. Public baths formed a central feature of urban life, a rendezvous for gossip and politics, enjoyed by all and sundry. Some were built in a palatial style, with vaulted ceilings, intricate mosaics, marble facings and central-heating ducts. North-west Africa ended up with more great baths than any comparable part of the empire.

In the countryside, Roman villas and estates were interspersed with Berber villages. Some Berber families gained wealth and status alongside the elite. But many others also managed to improve their circumstances, as the testimony on the tombstone of a Berber of humble origins, living in Mactar in the second century, records:

I was born of poor parents; my father had neither an income nor his own house. From the day of my birth I always cultivated my field; neither my land nor I ever had any rest . . . When the harvest-gangs arrived to hire themselves out in the countryside round Cirta, capital of Numidia, or in the plains of the mountain of Jupiter, I was the first to harvest my field. Then, leaving my neighbourhood, for twelve years I reaped the harvest of another man, under a fiery sun; for eleven years I was chief of a harvest-gang and scythed the corn in the fields of Numidia. Thanks to my labours, and being content with very little, I finally became master of a house and a property: today I live at ease. I have even achieved honours: I was called on to sit in the senate of my city, and, though once a modest peasant, I became censor. I have watched my children and grandchildren grow up round me; my life has been occupied, peaceful and honoured by all.

From their base in Egypt, the Romans also began to promote trade with regions further up the Nile Valley in the African interior. After a series of clashes with the kingdom of Kush, they signed a peace treaty with its rulers in 20 BCE, establishing an agreed frontier at the southern edge of Egypt. Rome henceforth regarded Kush as a ‘client kingdom’, lying outside its direct control, an arrangement that lasted for 300 years.

With the help of the Kushites, the Romans endeavoured to discover the source of the Nile. In 66 CE, the Emperor Nero, a keen geographer, sent two centurions upriver. According to the Roman scribe Seneca, they reached the Bahr al-Ghazal, a tributary of the White Nile, but found their way southwards blocked by ‘immense swamps, the end of which neither the natives know, nor is it possible for anyone to hope to know’. Not until the nineteenth century was a route found through the swamps – a hundred-mile maze of floating papyrus and reed islands known as the Sudd.

Since their expulsion from Egypt by the Assyrians in the seventh century BCE, the rulers of Kush had moved their capital southwards to Meroe, a Middle Nile location between the Fifth and Sixth Cataracts, on the fringe of the summer rainfall belt. A distinctive culture emerged at Meroe, combining aspects of Egyptian religion with indigenous practices. The rulers of Kush constructed royal pyramids and elaborate cult monuments. The Kushites also devised their own extensive script – Meroitic – borrowing twenty-three Egyptian symbols to create a syllabic alphabet. Classified as a Nilo-Saharan language rather than an Afro-Asiatic language like Egyptian, the Meroitic language remains unintelligible to modern linguists.

The mainstay of the Kushite economy was sorghum, cattle and cotton. But what interested the Romans more was their trade in gold, ivory and slaves. The Kushites were also renowned for their manufacture of iron products, a technology they acquired from the Assyrians. The land surrounding Meroe was rich in both iron ore and hardwood timber needed to produce charcoal for iron-smelting. Iron was used to make improved weapons of defence, spears for hunting and tools for agriculture. But the extent of charcoal production had a devastating impact on the land. The Kushites stripped the Butana plain of its forests, leaving behind an arid landscape and huge piles of slag which can still be seen today. According to modern calculations, the size of the slag heaps at Meroe meant that the furnaces there consumed at least 56,000 cubic feet of timber every year for 300 years.

As well as trade with the African interior, Roman Egypt saw a dramatic increase in maritime trade with the Red Sea ports and the northern regions of the Indian Ocean beyond. Mariners from Arabia and India had long exploited the monsoon winds of the western Indian Ocean which blew from the south-west from May to September and from the north-east from November to April, allowing a favourable voyage in both directions. Egyptian-based merchants now sought a greater share of the trade.

To assist their endeavours, an enterprising Egyptian Greek merchant in the mid-first century CE compiled a guide to the region’s trade called the Periplus Maris Erythraei. The name of the author is not known, but he wrote from personal experience of voyages to eastern Africa, southern Arabia and India, the area covered by the Periplus. His objective was to pass on trading information, about products that could be bought and sold in each port, rather than tips for mariners.

His starting point was Egypt’s two main ports on the Red Sea coast, Myos Hormos and Berenice. The African route from Egypt, he explained, ran down the Red Sea, through the Straits of Bab el Mandeb, along the African coast of the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea and then along the eastern coast of Africa to Rhapta, a port somewhere in the vicinity of modern Dar es Salaam. Because of dangerous shoals in the Red Sea, ships following the coastline sailed only during the day, putting in towards nightfall at the nearest available anchorage. The first major stop was Adulis, a small port at the time, linked to an inland territory known as Aksum, but already renowned for its trade in ivory, rhinoceros horn and tortoiseshell. ‘The mass of elephants and rhinoceroses that are slaughtered all inhabit the upland regions, although on rare occasions they are also seen along the shore around Adulis itself.’ Further south were the incense ports of northern Somalia where the principal items for trade were frankincense and myrrh.

Ships heading along the African route tended to leave Egypt in July, taking about two months to reach Cape Guardafui on the point of the Horn of Africa, travelling southwards with the north-east monsoon winds behind them and reaching Rhapta in November or December. They were obliged to remain there for eight months, waiting for the last winds of the south-west monsoon before leaving, returning to Guardafui not before October in order to catch the early north-east monsoon that would provide favourable winds for traversing the Gulf of Aden. A round trip to Rhapta therefore took about eighteen months.

The Periplus makes few observations about Rhapta, other than to note that ‘great quantities of ivory and tortoiseshell’ were to be found there, that the inhabitants were ‘very big-bodied men’, and that the area was under Arab rule. Rhapta was described as ‘the very last port of trade on the coast of Azania’, a Greek name for eastern Africa.

Nor was there any information available about the African interior. The only glimpse of this vast hinterland for centuries came from a Greek merchant named Diogenes, who claimed that as he was returning home from a visit to India in the middle of the first century CE he had landed on the African mainland at Rhapta and then travelled for twenty-five days inland. He arrived, he said, ‘in the vicinity of two great lakes, and the snowy range of mountains whence the Nile draws its twin sources’. A century later, the Alexandrian geographer Claudius Ptolemy incorporated this information into his map of the world, and named the source of the Nile as Lunae Montes, the Mountains of the Moon. For 1,700 years, Ptolemy’s map remained the only guide to the mystery of the Nile’s sources.

Crassus’ Wall

Even the dark cell of Capua had not left Spartacus feeling as securely and completely trapped as he was right now.

The Thracian had achieved so much in the nearly three years since his last time standing in the gladiatorial arena. He’d been a mock hero of entertainment then, killing others like him for the enjoyment of the bloodthirsty crowd. But ever since he and his followers had seized kitchen knives and fled from their prison, he had become something far more. He had become a real hero to real people in a real life-and-death situation. The battles of the gladiators had been staged, even though the spilled blood had been all too real. Yet every drop of Roman blood that stained all of Italy from the Alps to Rhegium had been spilled for a reason, for the sake of freedom, at least in Spartacus’ mind. Freedom had been the tantalizing hope that had drawn him every step of the way.

And it was freedom now that he had lost. He might be a real hero to the rebels now, a kind of legend, but he feared that he would never be the one thing he really wanted to be: free. An ordinary Thracian living an ordinary life on the high plateau where he had run and played as a boy. He rued the day that he had become a Roman soldier.

The Cilician pirates had been Spartacus’ trump card, his last hope, but now, that hope was gone. Because Crassus had caught up.

It’s easy to imagine Crassus practically cackling with glee when he saw the predicament that his worthy adversary had gotten himself into. Spartacus might not have been holed up in a town—or upon the flank of an active volcano—but his position on the peninsula of Bruttium left him almost as vulnerable to a siege as if he had chosen to bring his army into a city. That was, if Crassus could do the impossible: build a wall across the entire peninsula, a wall that would have been forty miles long.

Even as Spartacus scrambled to find a way out, Crassus was busy sealing off his only hope of escape. Crassus’ men were driven by a force even more powerful than the hope that Spartacus was offering his people: fear. Knowing that they had to fight or die, they strove to build the enormous wall, complete with a fifteen-foot ditch at the foot of it, in a matter of days.

Spartacus believed the only way to escape was to head toward Sicily. He ordered his men to begin building rafts, made by lashing planks to empty barrels; lumber was cut wherever it could be found, and shipbuilding was attempted. But the rafts were washed out to sea by the fast-flowing waters of the strait, and so, the attempts were abandoned. Some sources claim that Crassus took measures to put a stop to the shipbuilding, although his methods are not described.

Winter came thick and cold that year. The temperatures plummeted, and the balmy summers that had been so good to Spartacus and his men were gone now, reducing fertile Bruttium into what felt like a bare and icy wasteland. Snow fell among the rebel camp and turned to slush, trampled by the feet of men and horses. There were very little provisions left for the men, as Bruttium had already been stripped almost bare, and there was even less grazing for the horses. Crassus, smug and safe behind his ramparts, knew that he would barely have to fight the rebels at all. Starvation would be his weapon, and he would wield it with a far greater skill than Claudius Glaber had at the feet of Vesuvius.

It was as if the presence of the wall somehow dimmed the golden glow of Spartacus’ charisma. Faced with hunger and death, the men had lost hope, and they had lost faith in their leader after his decision to trust the pirates. Cracks began to appear in the cohesion with which Spartacus’ men had operated in the early days. The men were hungry, desperate, and terrified. Spartacus knew that it was only their tenacity and fire that had brought them this far, and if he lost those two qualities, then the war would be over. He needed to strike now, hard and fast, not only to gain freedom but to regain morale. It was all they had left.

One night, a snowstorm descended upon the two encamped armies, and Crassus felt a rush of relief and excitement as he watched the white flakes cascade thickly down onto the slumbering landscape. His men had ample food and firewood; the rebels, on the other hand, had been trapped for some time now, and they would have stripped the landscape utterly bare of warmth or sustenance. Surely this snowstorm would be enough to break them. Those left alive in the morning would come crawling to him for surrender, and he would go home to Rome, and the consuls would give him a triumph, and he would finally be on equal footing with Pompey.

Crassus, however, had underestimated one thing about the rebels: their toughness. These were not Roman legionaries who had been given a carefully calculated ration, trained in exactly the right way, or grown up in homes with food and freedom. These men used to be slaves. They were used to being punished for exhaustion by being given more work and less food. They were used to being beaten and starved. They were used to being trapped, and as much as it panicked them, it could not crush them. A mere snowstorm was nothing compared with the icy rage they’d often experienced at the hands of their masters, and so when Spartacus gave one more rousing speech, rallying his army one more time, they rose up and followed him.

None of the Roman legionaries were expecting it when the sound of marching feet among howling snow on the other side of the wall turned out to be the rebel army. Despite being half-blinded by the blizzard, the slaves were attacking. Somehow traversing the massive ditch, they scaled the wall with the same quick agility as they had used rappelling down the cliffs of Mount Vesuvius. Spartacus was leading them personally, and his sword flashed in his hand, snowflakes scattering on his cloaked shoulder, as he struck down one Roman soldier after another. Reinforcements were slow to gather, and by the time the legions could pull themselves together, Spartacus’ army was gone: it had melted away into the snowstorm, disappearing but for their tracks. And with the snow coming down fast, even those were almost impossible to follow.

Once again, the rebels had slipped through Crassus’ clutches, and Spartacus had access once more to southern Italy. Now perhaps, at last, he could drive north, as hard and as fast as possible, to reach the Alps by the time spring broke and finally break free into the land that he loved and missed. At this point, most classical historians agree that Spartacus’ heart was set on nothing but going home. There were many obstacles between the great Thracian and Thrace itself, but at least now he was traveling in the right direction.

But once again, the greatest of those obstacles would prove to be disunity in Spartacus’ own ranks. The Germans and Gauls among them—many of them the same men who had followed Crixus in that first fateful split—didn’t want to return to Thrace. They still believed that Rome could be conquered, even despite the setbacks they had lately suffered. This time, Spartacus refused to comply with them. He was going north, and if the Germans and Gauls wanted to get themselves killed, then that was their choice. With most of the Thracians following him, Spartacus kept pushing north, putting distance between himself and the Roman legions.

It was just as well. Crassus had been surprised by the attack in the snowstorm, and he was enraged by the fact that Spartacus had escaped. Terrified of decimation, his troops raced after Spartacus, determined to catch him. Almost demented by jealousy and rage, Crassus was driving them on harder than ever, knowing that it wouldn’t be long before Pompey returned.

But they didn’t catch up with Spartacus—at least, not at first. Instead, they caught up with the group of Germans and Gauls that Spartacus had left behind. Whether or not they had been expecting tens of thousands of Roman legionaries to come marching down upon them, the group of rebels was not ready to fight them. Even Spartacus knew better than to engage Crassus in a pitched battle; it was why he had attempted his escape in a snowstorm instead of attacking the wall under more favorable conditions. The event that followed was less of a battle than it was a downright disaster. Twelve thousand three hundred rebels perished, cut down mercilessly by the Roman legionaries, and Crassus went on to pursue the rest of Spartacus’ army.

Spartacus, meanwhile, had come across the Roman vanguard. It’s unspecified how many men were in this vanguard, although the name of its commanding officer is known, a cavalryman named Lucius Quinctius. Quinctius had been attempting to pursue Spartacus ever since he had slipped past him after escaping from the wall, and Spartacus eventually turned back to attack him. This time, with the battle being fought in a series of quick guerrilla movements, Spartacus’ army was successful. The vanguard was defeated, and Spartacus and his men were able to keep heading north. Quinctius survived the attack and went on to become a successful politician, but he was never known for his military efforts.

Who knows whether they would have made it, scrambling through Italy as they had done before, all the way back to the Alps? Who knows whether Spartacus might have been able to go home instead of standing by the mountains, like Moses, gazing into the untouchable Promised Land? Perhaps they might have, if they’d been able to keep going. But once again, for reasons unknown, the rebel army came crashing to a halt after the defeat of the Roman vanguard.

Even classical historians could only guess at what caused Spartacus to stop where he did, once again on the very precipice of freedom. Much of it may have had to do with the fact that Spartacus’ ragtag rebel army was simply exhausted, incapable of going a step farther after the arduous winter they had suffered. Some historians speculate that the victory over the Roman vanguard had once again gone to the rebels’ heads. They may have hoped that all their struggles were merely temporary setbacks and that they could still defeat Crassus if Spartacus would only lead them. Yet most historians agree, and it would appear, that Spartacus himself wanted nothing more than to head back toward the Alps.

Whatever happened, the rebel army came to a halt on the banks of the Silarius River. It is very plausible that the rebels wanted to bring the fight to Crassus, and if that was the case, Spartacus was faced with a terrible choice. Should he do once more what he had done with Crixus, and with the other band of Germans and Gauls, and leave them to the fate they’d chosen? Spartacus could have easily chosen to take a few sympathizers and flee north; the remaining men might have slowed Crassus down long enough for Spartacus, at least, to make his escape. But Crixus had already been killed, and so had the others that Spartacus had left behind. He wouldn’t have any more of the rebels’ blood on his conscience. So, fatally, Spartacus decided to stay.

As he’d done after the death of Crixus, however, Spartacus committed a dark and ironic act after hearing about the deaths of the 12,300 men. Perhaps in a last bid to dissuade his men from fighting Crassus in open battle, or perhaps simply to fuel their fighting spirit, he ordered that one of the Roman prisoners be brought to him. A cross was made by nailing together two long planks of wood. Then the prisoner, bound and held down, was dragged onto the cross. A single nail was driven through his ankles and into the wood; two more were hammered painfully through the long tendons of his wrists. Blood soaked the wood and ran down his skin, and as he screamed in agony, the rebels hauled the cross upright. And the Roman hung crucified against the gray winter sky, dying slowly and in terrible agony as Spartacus’ whole army watched.

Spartacus turned to his troops and told them that if they stayed, if they fought, and if they lost, then this was what would happen to them. They would be crucified, and they would die the ugliest, most painful death imaginable. Crassus would make sure of that.

But the men stayed. And Spartacus was faced one last time with the deadliest choice of all: fight or die.

Etruscan Wars




Unlike later Roman conflicts for which we have more sources, the Etruscan Wars do not survive well in the ancient sources, numerous difficulties arise in assembling their course. These wars occurred so early in Roman history that extensive elements of the early narratives are shrouded in mythology and should be heavily discounted. Livy is our best surviving source for this early period, but he wrote four centuries after the events and drew on sources that were recorded at least two centuries after the events they described. Also, his account does not become more detailed until the last phase of the Etruscan conflict, and then it breaks off abruptly with events in 293. The problems in all of our sources are such that no continuous narrative of the Etruscan Wars can be reconstructed. It is, however, possible to discern at places the general course of the wars.

The Etruscan Wars began with Rome’s three wars against the city of Veii, beginning in 483 BCE. Veii was a successful Etruscan city nine miles north of Rome. Both cities were of similar size and strength and had been in competition for years. It is not clear from our sources which side struck first, but the warfare was annual, and the raiding by both sides continued alongside regular campaigns. There was a Roman battle victory in 480, but the Veiians were still able to invade and set up a camp in Roman territory on the Janiculum Hill. In response, the Fabian clan of Romans set up a fort in Veiian territory on the Cremera River. Veii destroyed this fort in 477. Finally in 474, the two sides signed a 40-year truce.

As it happened, the truce coincided with the Battle of Cumae off central Italy. The Greek tyrant Hiero I of Syracuse, allied with Aristodemus of Cumae, defeated a large Etruscan fleet in the bay of Naples. Rome played no role in the engagement, but the naval battle resulted in the end of Etruscan hegemony in central Italy and left a power vacuum into which Rome would eventually turn its energies.

The second war with Veii began in 437 when the Veiian leader Lars Tolumnius had Roman ambassadors murdered. In the ensuing warfare, Tolumnius died in single combat. In 436 or 435, Rome attacked and began to siege the Veiian city of Fidenae. Roman soldiers tunneled into the city’s citadel, capturing it. Remarkably, no other Etruscan city sent aid to Fidenae or Veii, so they had to sign a 30-year truce in 435. The final conflict with Veii began when Rome attacked it directly after the Veiians refused to pay an indemnity for the prior conflict. Rome laid siege to Veii. Livy’s report that the siege lasted 10 years and ended the same way as the siege of Fidenae are too poetic to be true. There may have been a siege, and the city did fall in circa 396 and was absorbed into Roman territory. The end of this conflict was merely the end of the first phase in the Etruscan Wars.

There was a brief war (358-351) between Rome and the Etruscan city of Tarquinii, which was later supported by the Etruscan communities of Falerii and Caere. Tarquinii soldiers raided Roman territory, and when they refused to pay reparations, the war began. As with so many Roman wars in this period, the quality of the leadership and combat was erratic, so the war dragged on. Rome won a major victory in 353, forcing Caere to sign a truce, and two years later after much pillaging, Tarquinii and Falerii signed truces also, ending the war. As with the prior conflict, most of the Etruscan communities did not send aid, though this pattern is not surprising given that the Etruscans did not maintain a federal or imperial system.

The final phase of the Etruscan Wars began in 311 when Etruscan cities, probably Volsinii, Perusia, Cortona, Arretium, and Clusium, banded together and attacked the Roman colony at Sutrium, in formerly Etruscan territory. What triggered the attack is not recorded, but it may have been connected with Roman warfare with the Samnites and Gauls. Rome responded aggressively, forcing Perusia, Cortona, and Arretium to sign treaties in 311 and forcing Volsinii to sign a treaty in 308. Even after bringing these cities to make peace, the Romans continued fighting in Etruria annually as the Samnites tried to forge a broader alliance to distract or crush Rome. This phase of the war turned more aggressive after the Battle of Sentinum against a Samnite coalition in 295. Roman commanders moved against the Etruscan cities that had allied with the Samnites, and more vigorous annual, or nearly so, campaigns into Etruria continued.

After 293 Livy’s narrative is lost for most of the third century, so there are only occasional notices. In 284 a Roman army was defeated by Gauls with Etruscan allies near Arretium, but in 283 Rome defeated a similar force at Lake Vadimon. By 280, the Etruscan communities of Vulci, Volsinii, Rusellae, Vetulonia, Populonia, Volaterrae, and Tarquinii had been forced to become allies of Rome. Caere’s conquest in 273 was the effective end of the Etruscan Wars. A last gasp occurred when Falerii revolted in 241, but the city was was razed and its population relocated as an example to other allies. Rome finally had unchallenged dominance of Etruria.

The Etruscan Wars read as if the outcome was a foregone conclusion, but it is important to recall that Rome lost numerous battles, and for a time early in the wars, part of its territory was occupied. During the later phase of the wars, Rome was distracted with wars in central Italy but still managed to bring this series of conflicts to a conclusion.

Rome benefited immensely in the long term from the war. Starting with the elimination of Veii and the seizure of its territory in 396, Rome added a great deal of territory to its public holdings. Rome also established a number of colonies that had the economic benefit of removing some of the poor from the city by giving them land elsewhere but also spreading Roman commercial interests and control over resources. Rome also gained control over Etruria, thus freeing up resources for employment to the south and adding to Rome’s pool of allied manpower reserves. This was the first war in which Rome fielded an army that included as many or more allied troops as legionaries. Rome applied the military, commercial, and colonial practices that evolved to win the Etruscan Wars to later conflicts in central and southern Italy. These wars contributed immensely to Rome’s later success.

Another consequence of these wars was internal political change in Rome. In his narrative, Livy connects the wars with a number of points in Rome’s political conflict called the Struggle of the Orders. During the wars, the Plebeians used crises to assert their demands. Thus, tribunes of the Plebeians were able to assert independent authority, the first Plebeian consul was elected, and the first Plebeian dictator was named. The Etruscan Wars were not internal conflicts in Rome, but they contributed to internal political change.

While the wars spread destruction and turmoil, over the long term they were an immense boon to Rome. They laid much of the groundwork for later Roman military and economic success. The Etruscan allies were sufficiently satisfied with the arrangement that when Hannibal invaded Italy in 218, they contributed men to Rome’s armies and remained loyal. When the Social War erupted, Rome’s allies participated but accepted the offers of citizenship and peace early. Shrouded in legend and lost sources, the Etruscan Wars were an important episode in Roman military history.


Hippika schools, Egypt, 2nd century AD

Roman Legion against Ptolemaic Egyptian Army

Centurion in Egypt 117-138 AD

The topic of the Roman army in imperial Egypt has two faces. Structurally, the army was certainly one of the most homogeneous organizations in the Roman empire—if not the most homogeneous. Much of what there is to say about it therefore applies equally to the formations stationed in other regions of the empire. For instance, we find in the whole empire the same types of unit with the same strength of numbers and the same structure: the large infantry divisions of the Roman army, the legions, which in the early principate still consisted fundamentally of Roman citizens, and the units recruited originally from non-Romans, namely the auxiliary troop formations (auxilia), whether cavalry (ala), infantry (cohors), or mixed (cohors equitata). There were general, empire-wide rules concerning the length of service for soldiers, their pay, and the privileges that they were entitled to at the end of their service, though the members of different types of unit did receive different benefits (FIRA III 171). Furthermore, their senior officers consistently came from the two small and relatively exclusive leadership classes: the army and legion commanders normally came from the approximately 700 senatorial families of the empire, and the majority of the other senior officers, particularly the commanders of auxiliary units, came from the second rank of the empire, the equestrian order, which numbered about 10,000 men in the whole Roman world. An important factor in preventing the various provincial armies from drifting apart was the fact that these senior officers often originated in other provinces than Egypt and had served in further provinces—something that applied only to some of the middle-ranking officers, the centurions and decurions. The more varied experience of the senior officers helped to enforce consistency across the empire, as did the constant transfer of whole units or major parts of such units from one province to another (from the time of Hadrian only by way of exception in the case of legions).

The first element specific to the province of Aegyptus, as was also the case in every province of the empire, was the composition of the garrison, and in particular the units stationed there and their military engagements. Also specific to the exercitus Aegyptiacus (the Latin designation for the ‘army of Egypt’) were a few institutional regulations dating from Octavian’s conquest and the form he gave to the province’s administration. And finally, two kinds of source, namely the papyri and ostraca, are specific to the province. Although there are bodies of evidence of this kind from other parts of the empire—for instance, from Dura Europos, a few forts in northern Africa, and particularly Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall—there is not nearly as much evidence as for Egypt.


The history of the garrison in the province, and of the military engagements in which it was involved, has been an essential part of research on the Roman army in Egypt since it began (Lesquier 1918: 1–114; Daris 1988, 2000a, b, 2005; Speidel 1988). Papyri tend to come from villages in Middle Egypt, particularly at the peak of the empire, and therefore only rarely reflect political–military events beyond the local level. Thus, our knowledge of military events in this province has increased little beyond the first comprehensive study by Lesquier, despite all the additional papyri published in the course of the last century. Inscriptions, too, rarely give information about such events. Therefore, it is not surprising that even in the case of legions stationed in the province, a number of important questions remain unanswered: for instance, during Augustan times, which legion, apart from the legiones III Cyrenaica (Wolff 2000) and XXII Deiotariana (Daris 2000b), was stationed in the province, at what place, and when was it withdrawn? This is significant, as answers to these questions would make it clear for how long after the administration of the first two prefects, C. Cornelius Gallus and Aelius Gallus, the Romans were thinking of a policy of further expansion, and where, during the early years of the province, the Romans saw the greatest danger.

By 23 CE at the latest, the core of the province’s garrison was reduced to the two legions named above. They were stationed together in Nikopolis near Alexandria. Under Augustus, the three and then two legions had been stationed at Nikopolis, at Babylon (Sheehan 1996), and perhaps Thebes (Maxfield 2009: 66; see in this context I Syringes 1733). At the beginning of the second century, the number of legions stationed in Egypt was further reduced: shortly after August 119, the legio III Cyrenaica was transferred out of the province (BGU I 140), and the same papyrus provides the last piece of evidence for the existence of the legio XXII Deiotariana. No later than 127/8, the legio II Traiana arrived in the province, and constituted the core of the provincial army for the next two centuries (Daris 2000b; Sänger 2009). The reason our knowledge of these legions’ history is so incomplete is that only a few papyri from Alexandria survive. Likewise, we know so little of the archaeology of the legionary and auxiliary camps at the peak of the empire because they were built over or flooded, in addition to the lack of archaeological interest that prevailed for many years with regard to Roman period sites.

For the history of the auxiliary units stationed in Egypt, the key sources are documents that scholars refer to as military diplomas. These are inscriptions on bronze recording the award granted to auxiliary soldiers after their period of service of twenty-five or twenty-six years, whereby they received Roman citizenship and the so-called connubium, the right to a form of marriage that gave children of the union the status of Roman citizens. The wording of the diplomas includes a list of all the units whose soldiers were entitled to privileges, which was usually all or almost all the auxiliary units in a province (sometimes there were no soldiers with twenty-five or twenty-six years of service in a unit). Six such documents concerning soldiers of the Egyptian army have been published, covering the period between 83 and 206 CE (in chronological order: CIL XVI 29; RMD I 9; CIL XVI 184; Eck 2011; see further the very fragmentary diplomata RMD III 185; V 341). These documents show that in the late first and the second century, the total number of auxilia stationed in the province remained fairly constant, though it was perhaps raised slightly in the last quarter of the second century: there were three to four alae (cavalry units with a full strength of approximately 500 men) and about seven to ten cohortes (units of about 500 infantry, or, in the case of the so-called cohortes equitatae, about 600 men, of which about 120 were cavalry). On the basis of all the relevant documentation, it is evident that a number of units were part of the garrison of the province for decades, or even centuries (see also Stoll 2009: 424). Thus, for instance, we can trace the ala Apriana from the years 37/40 CE (P Lips. II 133) until 268/70 (SPP XX 71), and the cohors II Ituraerorum equitata from 39 CE (ILS 8899) up to the Notitia Dignitatum, an administrative handbook of the late fourth or fifth century (Eastern part: XXVII 44).

Such an unchanging composition of the auxiliary garrison is not found in the first decades of the principate, when some of the auxiliary units had not even been firmly established and troops were moved in the course of the conquest of large areas. After the first decades of Roman rule, however, there is relative consistency in military concentration, with Nikopolis near Alexandria (Stoll 2009: 421) taking prime place. At first two legions were garrisoned there, then one, together with auxiliary units, mostly alae; in addition, there was the Alexandrian fleet, the classis Alexandrina. The choice of this centre appears to have had two aims (Alston 1995: 36–7). On the one hand, it meant that the prefect had a reserve at his main place of residence, ready to be put into action; cavalry in particular could be sent out quite easily in all directions. On the other hand, it meant that troops were available to suppress uprisings in the city of Alexandria, which was regarded with suspicion, and with good reason (Haensch 1997: 219–21). When seen in this context, the 8,000 soldiers stationed at such a megalopolis in the second and third centuries were not a large force.

A second important centre, though by no means so heavily guarded, was the southern entry point to Egypt, the region of the First Cataract around Syene and Philae. It appears that at least three auxiliary units were permanently stationed in this region (Speidel 1988; see also Locher 1999: 280–1; Maxfield 2000, 2009: 67–9; primary sources: especially Strabo 17.1.12, 53; ILS 8907). In addition to protecting Egypt from enemy attack from the south, they were probably also intended to prevent possible uprisings in the Thebaid.

We have little precise information about where the remaining units were stationed (Alston 1995: 33–6; Maxfield 2009). We cannot even tell whether all the units were actually garrisoned in specific military installations. It is in any case clear that a significant number of the soldiers from these units were detailed for service in smaller outposts. How far such outposts were sent has recently been shown by an inscription found on the island of Farasan at the outlet of the Red Sea (AE 2004: 1643 = 2005: 1639; most recently Speidel 2009c: 633–49). The life of these soldiers in their outposts (praesidia) has been greatly elucidated through the numerous finds and the publication of ostraca by Hélène Cuvigny (2003, 2005 in particular). These finds are the result of surveys and excavations on the road from Koptos to Myos Hormos and the Red Sea, and in the quarries of Mons Claudianus, carried out by Cuvigny and her team (Fig. 5.2). The ostraca illustrate very clearly the daily life of these soldiers, who were charged with protecting the road from attacks by nomads, and with controlling the quarry labourers and giving them technical help. We know less about the soldiers, particularly the beneficiarii and the centuriones, whose task it was to maintain peace and order in the settlements of the Nile Valley. From the beginning of the second century, they were additional representatives of state authority alongside the competent officials of the civil administration, in particular the strategos, who governed each nome or district (see particularly Rankov 1994; Nelis-Clément 2000: 214–17, 227–43, 413–14; Palme 2006, 2008).


In many respects, what can be said about the Roman army in the province of Egypt is only a local adaptation of what was typical of the Roman army in general. But the army in this province did quite clearly exhibit certain individual features: while the highest military commanders throughout the empire—that is, the governors and the commanders of the largest military units, the legions—came from the senatorial class, in Egypt these commanders, were members of the second rank of the empire, the equestrian order. As with the office of prefect, Octavian, who feared a power challenge or usurpation, decided that the government of this province would fall to men of the equestrian order and not, as was customary, the senatorial class. He probably saw in this ruling, promulgated in the most formal way as a lex, an additional guarantee that Egypt could not once again be made into a centre of resistance to him—and for a time, this was undoubtedly correct (Eich 2007: 382–3; Jördens 2009: 46–51). But it would have gone against all notions of the relations between ranks, on the part of both ordines, if he had put senatorial legion commanders under an equestrian governor. Thus, the legion commanders could only come from the ordo equester.

This provision caused differences not only in rank and prestige among these high-ranking commanders, but also in the extent of their experience. These legion commanders had had very different military careers from those of the senatorial legion commanders, who could appeal at best to experience which they had obtained during their very short tours of duty as military tribunes, when they were frequently not in sole command. But the equestrian commanders of the legions in Egypt were raised to equestrian rank apparently only after lengthy careers as centurio and primipilus II, the highest centurion rank (for an early example, see AE 1978: 286; cf. AE 1954: 163). It remains an open question whether this difference in social origin and military experience caused differences in military leadership of the large units, because neither in Egypt nor in other provinces do we have insight into everyday military leadership, in the narrow sense. In these questions, Egypt does not offer more insight into everyday reality than other provinces, because the legions were soon concentrated in Nikopolis and were thus in a part of the province for which we have papyri only in exceptional cases. We therefore know almost nothing about the ways in which the prefect and the high-ranking equestrian officers under him went about their military functions—to what extent, for instance, they carried out manoeuvres.

We do, however, know that the army in this province had a more Greek-speaking character than those in other provinces: in the first century, when two legions were still stationed in Egypt, at least one of the commanders in charge of both legions, and also presumably of all the auxiliary formations in the province, was designated in an official Latin inscription as praefectus stratopedarches, Latinizing the Greek term for the head of the camp (AE 1954: 163; cf. P Wisc. II 48). The same function could apparently also be designated praef(ectus) ex [er] citu qui est in Aegypto (CIL III 6809 = ILS 2696).

We also find two other cases where the titles of officers in this provincial army mix Greek and Latin. In Egypt, as in other provinces, the prefect relied on soldiers detailed from the army as an essential part of his staff. In the second century there was an equestrian official with the title archistrator at the head of the stratores, those responsible for the horses of the prefect’s staff (AE 1929: 125 = TAM III 52). We also find a very similar title for the head of another department of the prefect’s office, at this same time: there was an equestrian commander titled archistator in charge of a formation of apparently several hundred men, so-called statores– soldiers who, on the basis of their designation, were prepared to take on tasks of all kinds (AE 1958: 156; cf. P Oxy. II 294; XXXVI 2754). We know of no parallels for such Latin–Greek titles elsewhere in the Roman army. It is of fundamental importance that we find these titles in memorial inscriptions erected in provinces other than Egypt. Documentation specific to this individual province therefore has no relevance, and thus one cannot argue that we find no comparable peculiarities merely on account of the poorer state of preservation in other provinces. Titles where Greek and Latin are mixed can probably only be explained by the fact that in the exercitus Aegyptiacus, and especially in the staff of the praefectus Aegypti, Greek was significantly more common than in other provinces, even eastern ones (Haensch 2008).

The statores were an exceptional institution in another respect as well. Only the praefectus Aegypti, among all the governors of the principate, had at his disposal a body of soldiers of this kind. In the Republican period, one does find statores, but under quite different officials. In the imperial army they only survived either as a unit of the troops of the city of Rome, in which case they were commanded by the praetorian prefects, or as individual functionaries (there may have been two or three of them) assisting equestrian auxiliary commanders, that is, commanders of smaller units in the Roman army. Clearly the fact that the functions of prefect of Egypt and of praetorian prefect originated from the middle equestrian officer corps meant that these functionaries retained conditions typical of equestrian officers, although they had become much more important than them. The equestrian rank of archistrator (and archistator) is equally exceptional and may be explained only in terms applicable to the province of Egypt and to the city of Alexandria. In all other provinces the head of a governor’s stratores was only a centurio. Presumably the great number of equestrian officials in Egypt and the many Alexandrian notables of equestrian rank meant that it was felt necessary to raise the rank of important officiales serving under the prefect. A third unique institution—the existence of an agrimensor (land surveyor) praefecti Aegypti (SB III 7183 = FIRA III 142), for whom there was no known parallel in any other provincial governor’s staff—may be explained by the need for a surveyor of this type in a province where the arable land changed with each flooding of the Nile.