The Principate Roman Army I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imperial Roman High Command

The aspirations of soldiers who wished to enter into the militiae equestres highlight the often strange and convoluted path to advancement in the Roman army and administration. The usual pattern of promotion from the ranks of the army (via the primipilate and the Rome tribunates) bypassed the equestrian officer commands in the militiae and instead led to the procuratorial career. The opportunities for a former soldier to be placed in direct command of troops at a more senior level included the posts of praefectus classis, praesidial procurator, or the prefectures of the vigiles and praetorian guard. However, there are few indications that the Roman administration actively preferred former soldiers for these posts, and many a primipilaris is later found in financial procuratorships. The senior legionary and provincial commands were restricted to senators; experienced primipilares, as middle-aged men, were not normally suitable for entrance into the senate. This meant that there was no coherent career path from soldier to general in the principate. The promotion of former soldiers into the militiae equestres represented one challenge to this system, but it was not enough in and of itself to prompt the overhaul of the military career structure. This only happened gradually over the course of the late second and third centuries AD.

The emperors traditionally invested military authority in their senatorial legates, both the governors of consular and praetorian provinces, as well as any senators appointed to ad hoc supra-provincial commands, as in the case of Cn. Domitius Corbulo or C. Avidius Cassius. Important campaigns requiring significant forces, such as Trajan’s Dacian and Parthian Wars, saw the emperor and his senatorial generals assume primary command of the legions. Equestrian officers, usually in the militiae equestres, were placed in control of auxiliary troops or smaller detachments. For example, in the Parthian War of Lucius Verus, M. Valerius Lollianus, prefect of the ala II Flavia Agrippiana, was appointed praepositus of vexillations of auxiliary units in Syria. During this campaign Lollianus answered to the senior senatorial commanders: the governor of Cappadocia, M. Statius Priscus Licinius Italicus, and M. Claudius Fronto, who was legatus Augusti in charge of an expeditionary army of legions and auxiliaries. The majority of Marcus Aurelius’ senior commanders during his German wars, which occupied most of the 170s, were likewise senatorial generals. The praetorian prefects, who commanded the cohortes praetoriae and the imperial horse guard (equites singulares Augusti), were the exception to this roster of senatorial commanders. The praetorian prefect was occasionally entrusted with more senior authority, as when Domitian gave Cornelius Fuscus control over the conduct of his First Dacian War after the senatorial governor of Moesia, Oppius Sabinus, was killed in battle. Marcus Aurelius likewise invested his prefect Taruttienus Paternus with command of an expeditionary force at the beginning of his Second German War in AD 177. These shortterm appointments did not in and of themselves bring about a change in senatorial military authority.

There was a clear military hierarchy for senators: they could serve as military tribunes, then as legionary legates, then govern a two- or three legion province. There was no such well-defined path for equites, and no opportunity for talented equestrians to lead large expeditionary forces at a high rank. This meant that ad hoc solutions had to be devised, as happened in the 160s-170s AD during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. M. Valerius Maximianus, who began his career in the militiae equestres, was placed in charge of cavalry units sent to the eastern provinces to assist in suppressing the revolt of Avidius Cassius. Since he had advanced beyond the militiae, Maximianus’ higher standing was recognised by giving him the status of centenarius, the equivalent of a procurator. The same type of promotion was employed for his contemporary, L. Iulius Vehilius Gallus Iulianus, who had also advanced beyond the militia quarta. Iulianus was granted the exceptional title of `procurator Augusti and praepositus of vexillations’, as a way of recognising his seniority in several campaigns during this period. These commissions at procuratorial rank represented an attempt to create an equestrian equivalent to the senatorial legionary legate. The only alternative would have been to promote these equestrians into the senate at the rank of expraetor. This did eventually occur in the case of M. Valerius Maximianus and two of his Antonine contemporaries, P. Helvius Pertinax and M. Macrinius Avitus Catonius Vindex. But Iulianus remained an eques, eventually ascending to the praetorian prefecture under Commodus.

It must be emphasised that these promotions did not represent any attempt to advance hardened soldiers from the ranks to senior commands. Maximianus was from the curial class of Poetovio in Pannonia, while Vindex was the son of the praetorian prefect M. Macrinius Vindex. Pertinax was the son of a freedman, but had obtained equestrian rank and a commission in the militiae thanks to prominent senatorial patrons. The origins of Iulianus are unknown, but he certainly began his career in the militiae. There was only one seasoned solider on Marcus Aurelius’ staff: the praetorian prefect M. Bassaeus Rufus, who was from a poor and humble background, and had risen via the primipilate and a procuratorial career. The wars of Marcus Aurelius therefore introduced some important innovations, which highlighted notable problems with the developing equestrian cursus. The second century AD had witnessed the consolidation of the equestrian aristocracy of service, men who were prepared to serve the state domi militiaeque in the same manner as senators. Yet there was no clear way for these men to assume high military commands as equites, resulting in the creation of ad hoc procuratorial appointments.

The reign of Septimius Severus witnessed important developments for the Roman military establishment, and the place of the equestrian order within it. Severus created three new legions, the I, II and III Parthica, each of which was placed under the command of an equestrian praefectus legionis, not a senatorial legate. The first and third Parthian legions were stationed in the new province of Mesopotamia, which was entrusted to an equestrian prefect on the model of the province of Egypt. The commanders of the legions therefore had to be equites in order to avoid having a senator answer to an equestrian governor. This had been the practice of Augustus when he installed the legio XXII Deiotariana and the legio III Cyrenaica in Egypt under equestrian prefects. The same command structure was maintained in the legio II Traiana, which was the sole legion stationed in Egypt in the Severan age. The third new legion founded by Severus, the legio II Parthica, was quartered at Albanum just outside Rome, and thus became the first legion to be permanently stationed in Italy. One prefect of the II Parthica, T. Licinius Hierocles, is recorded with the exceptional title of praefectus vice legati (`the prefect acting in place of the legate’), though this was probably only a formality, since no senatorial legates are on record.

The career paths for the officers of the Parthian legions followed the pattern of the legions stationed in Egypt. Their tribunates were integrated into the militiae equestres, with some tribunes of the Parthian legions going on to procuratorial careers in the usual manner. The traditional route to the prefecture of the legio II Traiana in Egypt was via the primipilate and the Rome tribunates. The command of this legion ranked as a ducenarian procuratorship by the Antonine period, and the same status was given to the prefects of the new legiones Parthicae. The first prefect of a Parthian legion, C. Iulius Pacatianus, was promoted from the militiae equestres, but thereafter the commands appear to have been given to primipilares, following the Egyptian precedent. This suggests that Septimius Severus was following traditional status hierarchies when establishing his new Parthian legions. There was certainly no move to replace senatorial legates with equestrian prefects elsewhere in the empire. This had been attempted by Sex. Tigidius Perennis, Commodus’ praetorian prefect, after the British legions acclaimed the senatorial legionary legate Priscus as emperor. When Perennis tried to place equestrians in command of the legions, this punitive measure provoked a military revolt that eventually led to his downfall. Severus was not about to repeat this mistake, and therefore his new legions fitted with existing equestrian paradigms and career paths.

The Principate Roman Army II

The foundation of the Parthian legions did, however, lead to changes in the expeditionary forces, particularly their overall command structure. The legio II Parthica was designed to accompany the emperor on campaign, a role it performed during Septimius Severus’ two Parthian wars and his British expedition. The question of whether the legion came under the direct command of the praefectus praetorio is a vexed one. In Cassius Dio’s Roman History the character Maecenas advises Octavian that the praetorian prefect should control all the forces stationed in Italy, a statement that could be taken refer to the situation in Dio’s own lifetime. As an official imperial comes during Severus’ Parthian campaigns, the prefect Fulvius Plautianus certainly joined the emperor in the east, but he is not mentioned in any specifically military capacity, in contrast with the abundant evidence for Severus’ senatorial generals leading troops in battle. It seems likely, therefore, that the authority of the praetorian prefect over the legio II Parthica evolved gradually. During Caracalla’s campaign against the Parthians his expeditionary force was composed of the legio II Parthica, the cohortes praetoriae, and the equites singulares Augusti, as well as vexillations of legions based on the German, Danubian and Syrian frontiers, totalling some 80-90,000 soldiers. This is what scholars call a `field army’, a modern term of convenience used to describe a large force composed of vexillations from a range of legions and auxiliary forces, which accompanied emperors or their leading generals on campaigns. Apart from the legio II Parthica, the only other legion that may have participated in Caracalla’s campaign as a complete unit was the legio II Adiutrix of Pannonia. This meant that the legio II Parthica was effectively the central core of the force and – although no ancient source explicitly attests this – the logical commander of the field army would be the praetorian prefect. Both of Caracalla’s prefects, M. Opellius Macrinus and M. Oclatinius Adventus, are known to have accompanied him to the east. This necessitated the appointment of a substitute prefect in Rome to handle the judicial responsibilities of the position.

The legio II Parthica later formed the core of the forces marshalled by Severus Alexander and Gordian III for their eastern campaigns against the revived Persian empire. Indeed, it is during Gordian III’s reign that the connection between the legion and the praetorian prefect is shown clearly for the first time. Both the emperor’s praetorian prefects, C. Furius Sabinius Aquila Timesitheus and C. Iulius Priscus, formed part of the retinue that left Rome for the Persian front in AD 242. In the same year, Valerius Valens, praefectus vigilum, is attested in Rome `acting in place of the praetorian prefect’ (vice praef(ecti) praet(orio) agentis). In this capacity he oversaw the discharge of the veteran soldiers of the legio II Parthica. These men had originally enlisted in AD 216, and had been left behind in Rome rather than journeying to the east. The prefects on campaign with their emperor became enormously powerful individuals: C. Iulius Philippus, who succeeded Timesitheus, was able to arrange the downfall of Gordian III in the east, and returned to Rome as emperor. Successianus, an equestrian commander on the Black Sea in the 250s, was summoned by Valerian to serve as his praetorian prefect in the east, where he commanded the field army against the Persians. The composition of Valerian’s army is strikingly demonstrated by the account of the Roman forces in the account of the Persian king Shapur, known as the Res Gestae divi Saporis. This includes the detail that the praetorian prefect was captured by the Persians in AD 260 alongside the emperor and members of the senate. The employment of the legio II Parthica as a permanent core of the emperor’s own field army enhanced and consolidated the position of the praetorian prefect as a senior military commander in addition to the senatorial generals.

The rise of the field armies attached to the emperor and the praetorian prefect sometimes offered new opportunities to soldiers of other ranks. In the previous section we observed the marked correspondence between soldiers who served in the praetorian guard, the equites singulares, and the legio II Parthica, and those who obtained advancement into the militiae equestres or the promotion of their sons to equestrian rank. Proximity to the emperor and his senior staff on campaign evidently had its advantages. The same phenomenon can be observed in the careers of prefects of the legio II Parthica, which, since it accompanied Caracalla to the east, was intimately bound up with the political machinations of the years AD 217-18. In this period the empire passed from Caracalla to his prefect Macrinus and then to the boy emperor Elagabalus, with the crucial battles all happening in Syria. The commanders of the legio II Parthica included Aelius Triccianus, who had begun his career as a rank-and-file soldier in Pannonia and ostiarius (`door-keeper’) to the governor. Other ostiarii are attested as being promoted to centurion, so it is likely that Triccianus himself became a centurion and primus pilus, a career path attested for comparable equestrian legionary prefects. This was a spectacular career, but not unprecedented or improper. The same can be said for P. Valerius Comazon, who served as a soldier in Thrace early in his career, before rising to become praefectus of the legio II Parthica. Again, there is nothing truly exceptional in and of itself about soldiers who ascended to the Rome tribunates or camp prefecture via the primipilate. But the command of the legio II Parthica offered connections to the imperial court, and the favour of Macrinus and Elagabalus, respectively, enabled Aelius Triccianus and Valerius Comazon to enter the ranks of the senate. Their promotion earned the ire of the senatorial historian Cassius Dio, who disliked the progression of soldiers into the amplissimus ordo. Dio did not resent the advancement of equestrians per se, but the elevation of soldiers who were able to enter the equestrian order and then into the curia. Triccianus and Comazon were quite different from M. Valerius Maximianus, who originated from the curial classes of Pannonia. Such opportunities would only become more common as emperors spent more time on campaign with their field armies.

In addition to the creation of the Parthian legions and the growing importance of the field army, the first half of the third century AD witnessed equites appointed to ad hoc procuratorial military commands. We have already noted this phenomenon in the wars of Marcus Aurelius, when M. Valerius Maximianus and L. Iulius Vehilius Gallus Iulianus commanded army detachments with the rank of a procurator, as a way of compensating for the lack of any defined military pathway for equestrians after the militiae. In the reign of Severus Alexander, P. Sallustius Sempronius Victor was granted the ius gladii with a special commission to clear the sea of pirates, a command that was probably associated with his existing procuratorship in Bithynia and Pontus. This creation of new military commands within the procuratorial hierarchy can also be seen vividly in the case of Ae[l]ius Fir[mus]. Following a series of financial procuratorships in Pontus and Bithynia and Hispania Citerior (high-ranking posts in and of themselves), Fir[mus] was placed in charge of vexillations of the praetorian fleet, detachments of a legio I (possibly Parthica or Adiutrix), and another group of vexillations, in the Parthian War of Gordian III. In this capacity he ranked as an army commander and procurator at the ducenarian level, without actually holding a standing military post (such as fleet prefect, praesidial procurator or praetorian prefect). The adaptability of the equestrian careers to meet the new demands is demonstrated by the case of a certain Ulpius [-].227After series of administrative procuratorial positions, Ulpius was praepositus of the legio VII Gemina. Since this legion was normally stationed in northern Spain, Ulpius probably commanded vexillations of the legion in a war conducted in the reign of Philip. He then returned to the usual procuratorial cursus, serving as sub- praefectus annonae in Rome.

Some equestrians were given special appointments as dux with responsibility for a specific province or series of provinces. This can be observed in Egypt, where generals with the title of dux or commander appear in the 230s-240s. The archaic Greek word σρατηλάτης is rarely used in the imperial period before the third century AD; the only exception is inscribed account of the career of the Trajanic senator and general C. Iulius Quadratus Bassus at Ephesus. But it makes a reappearance in the third century AD to describe senior equestrian military commanders. The first Egyptian example is M. Aurelius Zeno Ianuarius, who replaced the prefect in some, or probably all, of his functions in AD 231. His military responsibilities should be connected with the beginning of Severus Alexander’s Persian War. The second dux/σρατηλάτης mis attested ten years later, in AD 241/2, which is precisely when war broke out between Romans and Persians again under Gordian III. This time, the dux was Cn. Domitius Philippus, the praefectus vigilum, who appears to have been sent directly to Egypt while retaining his post as commander of the vigiles. In both cases the new military command was an ad hoc addition to their usual equestrian cursus. The final example occurs in the 250s, when M. Cornelius Octavianus, vir perfectissimus, is attested as `general across Africa, Numidia and Mauretania’ (duci per Africam  Numidiam Mauretaniamque), with a commission to campaign against the Bavares. This substantial command was in succession to his appointment as governor of Mauretania Caesariensis. Octavianus then departed to become prefect of the fleet at Misenum, working his way to a senior post in the equestrian procuratorial cursus. All these cases show the essential adaptability of the imperial system, which allowed third-century emperors to appoint equestrians to senior military commands when it suited them. This may have been because an equestrian was the person the emperor trusted most in the circumstances; for example, Cn. Domitius Philippus, as praefectus vigilum, was one of the most senior officials in the empire. This represents the same pragmatic approach we saw in the appointment of equestrians as acting governors. On a practical level, it did not matter whether an army commander was an eques Romanus or a senator, because the military tasks that he was capable of performing, and was entrusted with by the emperor, were essentially the same. The new ad hoc army commands gave members of the equestris nobilitas further opportunities to serve the state domi militiaeque alongside the senatorial service elite.

At the same time, it is necessary to point out that these changes did not lead to senators being ousted from military commands prior to the reign of Gallienus. Rich epigraphic evidence, combined with the testimony of Dio and Herodian, preserves a long list of Septimius Severus’ senatorial generals. P. Cornelius Anullinus, L. Fabius Cilo, L. Marius Maximus, Ti. Claudius Candidus and L. Virius Lupus commanded Severus’ troops as duces or praepositi in one, or both, of his civil wars against Pescennius Niger and Clodius Albinus. Candidus also participated in the emperor’s Parthian campaigns, alongside Ti. Claudius Claudianus, T. Sextius Lateranus, Claudius Gallus, Iulius Laetus and a certain Probus. These senators were rewarded with a range of honours, from consulships and governorships to wealth and property (the sole exception was Laetus, who was executed for being too popular with the troops). In the face of such overwhelming testimony, it proves difficult to marshal support for the still-popular scholarly argument that Severus prioritised equestrian officers over senators. Equestrian commanders continued to participate in campaigns as subordinates to the senatorial generals, as we see in the case of L. Valerius Valerianus, who commanded the cavalry at the Battle of Issus under the authority of the consular legate, P. Cornelius Anullinus.

The same pattern can be found in Severus Alexander’s Persian War of AD 231-3. Herodian’s History, our major historical account of this conflict, is notoriously deficient in prosopographical detail. Yet senators are attested in inscriptions, as in the case of the senior consular comes, T. Clodius Aurelius Saturninus, who accompanied Alexander to the east. The senator L. Rutilius Pudens Crispinus, praetorian governor of Syria Phoenice and legate of the legio III Gallica, also served as a commander of vexillations during this conflict. But we only know about Crispinus’ command from an inscription from Palmyra, which recounts the assistance rendered by the local dignitary Iulius Aurelius Zenobius to Alexander, Crispinus and the Roman forces. The inscribed account of Crispinus’ career from Rome merely states that he was legatus Augusti pro praetore of Syria Phoenice. It is probable that senatorial governors, such as D. Simonius Proculus Iulianus, consular legate of Syria Coele, continued to play important roles in eastern conflicts under Gordian III. Indeed, the evidence for equestrian procurators acting vice praesidis in Syria Coele, discussed above, suggests that the procurator assumed judicial responsibilities while the consular governor was preoccupied with warfare. This indicates that senatorial governors continued to play a major part in military campaigns, even if it was not specifically noted in inscriptions recording their cursus.

This argument is supported by the literary sources that show senators assuming military commands through to the middle decades of the third century AD. We can observe this in particular in the Danubian and Balkan region, which was a near-continuous conflict zone. Tullius Menophilus fought against the Goths as legatus Augusti pro praetore of Moesia Inferior in the reign of Gordian III. During the incursion of the Goths under Cniva in AD 250/1, the Moesian governor C. Vibius Trebonianus Gallus successfully defended the town of Nova. In AD 253 M. Aemilius Aemilianus, governor of one of the Moesian provinces, pursued the fight against the Goths, before being acclaimed emperor. Senators also continued to receive special commands, as in the case of C. Messius Quintus Decius Valerinus and P. Licinius Valerianus, both future emperors, who were placed in charge of expeditionary forces by the emperors Philip and Aemilius Aemilianus, respectively. In Numidia, the governor C. Macrinius Decianus conducted a major campaign against several barbarian tribes in the middle of the 250s. In fact, if we examine the backgrounds of the generals who claimed the purple up to and including the reign of Gallienus, the majority of them were actually senators, a fact obscured by the common use of the term `soldier emperor’ for rulers of this period. Decius, one of the few known senators from Pannonia, successfully allied himself with an Etruscan senatorial family when he married the eminently suitable Herennia Cupressenia Etruscilla. His successor, Trebonianus Gallus, was of remarkably similar background to Etruscilla, coming from Perusia in central Italy. The emperor Valerian likewise had close links with the Italian senatorial aristocracy, marrying into the family of the Egnatii. Some of the more ephemeral emperors deserve notice too, such as Ti. Claudius Marinus Pacatianus, the descendant of a Severan senatorial governor, who rebelled in the reign of Philip. P. Cassius Regalianus, who was probably consular legate of Pannonia Superior when he began an insurrection against Gallienus in 260, was himself descended from a Severan suffect consul. These men were not soldiers promoted from the ranks, but senatorial generals who used their positions to make a play for the imperial purple.

The Roman military hierarchy in the first half of the third century AD was therefore characterised by a mixture of continuity and change. The creation of the legio II Parthica, and the necessity for the emperor and his praetorian prefects to campaign on a regular basis, meant that emperor was in close contact with members of the expeditionary forces. Officers in the field army could receive imperial favour and embark on spectacular careers, like Aelius Triccianus or Valerius Comazon, or even Iulius Philippus, the praetorian prefect who snatched the purple from Gordian III while in the east. It is no coincidence that many of the soldiers’ sons attested with equestrian rank belonged to the praetorian guard, the equites singulares and the legio II Parthica. At the same time, the imperial state tried to create senior army roles for promising equites in a manner analogous to senatorial legates by instituting ad hoc procuratorial commands (as seen in the case of Valerius Maximianus and Vehilius Gallus Iulianus). This gave members of the equestris nobilitas, the equestrian aristocracy of service, access to army officer commands beyond the militiae equestres. It should be noted that for the most part these men were not lowborn ingénues from the ranks, but members of the municipal aristocracy who served the res publica in a comparable manner to senators, as their predecessors had before them. It is also imperative to point out the endurance of tradition within the high command. Senatorial legates and generals still commanded armies in the emperor’s foreign wars on the Rhine, Danube and Euphrates frontiers. Their military authority continued to make them viable and desirable candidates for the purple in the first half of the third century AD. There was as yet no attempt to undermine the positions of senatorial tribunes or legionary legates. It was the dramatic developments in the 250s-260s that provided the catalyst to set the empire on a radically different path.

The Macedonian Monarchy and the Roman Republic

First Macedonian War, (215-205 B. C. E.)

PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Macedonians vs. Romans

PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): Northern frontiers of Macedon


MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: Philip V of Macedon wanted to expand his empire.

OUTCOME: Indecisive, except to spawn further warfare.



TREATIES: Peace of Phoenice, 205 B. C. E.

King Philip V (238-179 B. C. E.) of Macedon was a warlike and restless monarch ambitious to extend his empire at any cost. He exploited the Second PUNIC WAR, in which the forces of Rome were preoccupied with fighting Carthage, to attack the diminished Roman forces in the east, the region known as Illyria. However, the Romans could not decisively defeat the Macedonians, nor could Philip wear down the Romans, and the result was warfare that consumed a decade, producing little result.

Philip took a new tack. Allying himself with Hannibal of Carthage (247-c. 183-181 B. C. E.), he invaded the Greek city-states. Rome, characteristically neutral in the affairs of these states, saw Philip’s incursions as an opportunity to expand the Roman sphere of influence. Rome concluded the Peace of Phoenice, which was generous to Philip. However, within five years of the end of the First Macedonian War, the Second MACEDONIAN WAR began.

Second Macedonian War, (200-196 B. C. E.)



DECLARATION: Rome against Macedon, 200 B. C. E.

MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: Philip V of Macedon wanted to extend his empire into the Greek states. OUTCOME: Rome defeated Macedon, which agreed to an indemnity.

APPROXIMATE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF MEN UNDER ARMS: Each side fielded about 20,000 men.

CASUALTIES: At Cynoscephalae, the decisive battle of the war, Macedonian losses were 10,000 killed; Roman losses were much lower.

TREATIES: Indemnity agreement

The First MACEDONIAN WAR ended at the northern frontiers of Macedon. Although the Peace of Phoenice offered many favorable terms to Macedon, much was left unsettled, and, in 200 B. C. E., Philip V (238-179 B. C. E.) of Macedon turned southward, intending to make inroads into the Greek city-states. He menaced Rhodes and Pergamum first, then attacked other city-states. Rome demanded Philip’s pledge to make no further hostile moves. He refused and, seeing gains to be made in defeating Philip in Greece, Rome engaged him. The climactic battle of the Second Macedonian War came in 197 B. C. E., when Rome’s legions soundly beat Philip at Cynoscephalae. Titus Quintius Flaminius (c. 227-174 B. C. E.) led 20,000 Roman legionaries and met the Macedonian force on the heights of Cynoscephalae, in southwestern Thessaly. It was a hard-fought battle, but Philip took by far the worst of it. Half his 20,000 men were killed. Rome’s losses, while substantial, did not approach this magnitude. As a result of his defeat, Philip withdrew from Greece and further agreed to render a large indemnity to Rome, which then proclaimed itself the liberator and protector of the Greek states, asserting a benevolent dominance over them.

Philip’s son Perseus (c. 212-166 B. C. E.) succeeded him as Macedon’s king in 179. Instead of invading Greece, he made alliances among the Greek states. Fearing this kind of influence as well, Rome initiated the Third MACEDONIAN WAR.

Third Macedonian War, (172-167 B. C. E.)


PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): Southeastern Macedonia


MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: Rome wanted to stop Macedon’s meddling in Greek politics.

OUTCOME: Macedon was defeated; Rome divided Macedonia into republics.


CASUALTIES: Macedonian losses at Pydna (168 B. C. E.) were 20,000 killed and 11,000 made prisoner; in contrast, Rome lost about 100 killed.


After Perseus (c. 212-166 B. C. E.), who had inherited the Macedonian throne from his father Philip V in 179 B. C. E., began to meddle in Greek affairs by making alliances with various Greek city-states, Rome sent an army to attack his forces at Pydna in southeastern Macedonia. Fought on June 22, 168 B. C. E., this battle proved decisive, the Macedonians lost 20,000 killed and 11,000 taken as prisoners; Roman losses amounted to no more than 100 killed. The following year, Perseus was dethroned and made captive. To ensure that Macedon would never again threaten the stability of the Roman world, the victors divided it into four republics. However, this only succeeded in causing internal conflict, as the republics soon fell to disputing with one another. In a climate of discontent and confusion, a pretender to the throne attempted to reestablish the Macedonian monarchy in 152 B. C. E., an action that ignited the Fourth MACEDONIAN WAR.

Fourth Macedonian War, (151-146 B. C. E.)




MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: When a pretender to the throne vowed to reunify Macedon, the Romans decided to subjugate it fully.

OUTCOME: The Macedonian army was no match for the Romans, who conquered Macedon and annexed it.




Following the Roman partition of Macedon into four republics, a pretender to the throne arose, calling for the reunification of the nation under his leadership. This provoked Rome to dispatch forces to fight the Macedonians for a fourth time, and, once again, Rome easily triumphed over the Macedonian army. The war included no battles of military significance; the Macedonians were simply de- moralized by the Roman Legions and melted away before them. Having tried and failed to render Macedon docile by dividing it into four republics, Rome now annexed the country to itself. This was the first major step in the long expansion of the Roman Empire.

Further reading: M. Cary, A History of the Greek World from 323 to 146 B. C. (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1963); N. G. L. Hammond, The Macedonian State (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989); Victor Davis Hanson, The Wars of the Ancient Greeks (New York: Sterling, 2002); J. F. Lazenby, Hannibal’s War: A Military History of the Second Punic War (Warminster, England: Aris and Phillips, 1978); Colin Wells, The Roman Empire, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995).

Philip V

In 219 BC Philip V had been king of Macedon for a matter of months, but he would have known from the outset that, even without the Romans complicating his life, that his was no easy job. Though ranked as one of the great Hellenistic powers, for more than a century Macedon had been ‘punching above its weight’ as modern military parlance puts it. A relatively small and partly mountainous country, with limited resources of manpower, Macedon had an abundance of barbarian enemies to occupy its armies; as if holding down the fractious statelets of the Greek peninsula was not effort enough. As pointed out earlier, Macedon compensated for its weakness in manpower and military overstretch by having both a superbly organized army and an efficient administration.

Since the king of Macedon was the linchpin of that administration, it was natural that Macedon’s enemies would test the mettle of that linchpin, who was, after all, a 17-year-old boy. As Polybius remarks:

The Aetolians had for long been dissatisfied with peace and with a way of life limited to their own resources, as they had been accustomed to live on the wealth of their neighbours … Nevertheless whilst Antigonus was alive, they kept their peace through fear of Macedonia, but when the king died leaving as his successor Philip, who was almost a child, they thought this new king could be safely ignored.

More or less the same thought had occurred to the Dardanians, the warlike people to the north of Illyria against whom Antigonus Doson had probably been campaigning at the time of his death. Assuming a state of confusion whilst Philip picked up the reins of power, the Dardanians lost no time in launching a quick raid on Macedonia. Philip had been expecting this and had prepared his response with the speed and flair that was to become his trademark.

The Dardanians were driven back in confusion to their mountains, but before Philip could follow up this early success word reached him of trouble to the south. The Aetolians had started a war with the small city-state of Messenia. Since the Hellenic League created by Antigonus Doson to deal with Cleomenes of Sparta had never been dissolved, the Messanians called for aid from their former allies, above all the Achaeans and Macedon.

Aratus, leader of the Achaeans at this time, responded promptly to the Messanian plea without waiting for Philip, whom he knew to be busy with the Dardanians. However, the Achaeans were out-manouvered and soundly beaten by the Aetolians, which is why it became essential for Philip to hurry to Corinth to take matters in hand. The contingencies of the international situation meant that rather than seeking an immediate military solution, the king was initially inclined towards negotiations.

Trouble was brewing to the east where a war had broken out between Rhodes and Byzantium, enthusiastically encouraged by the Ptolemaic Egyptians. Also with Egyptian encouragement, Athens had revolted from Macedon, and Sparta was becoming restless once more. The outlook to the west was ominous. Relations between Rome and Carthage were deteriorating rapidly as a result of Hannibal’s unchecked expansion in Spain, and the two Illyrian leaders, Demetrius and Sacerdilaidas were becoming increasingly assertive. Sacerdilaidas had vigorously joined in the Aetolian aggression, and not to be outdone, Demetrius had embarked on the expansionist policy on the borders of the Roman protectorate which was to bring the legions down on his head. In short, Philip was emphatically not looking for trouble if he could talk his way out of it instead.

Leaving Demetrius to be dealt with by the Romans, Philip bribed Sacerdilaidas to his side and thus secured his western frontier. However, the Aetolians had already shown how little they feared Macedon’s intervention. Aetolia’s privateers had captured a ship of the Macedonian royal navy, and taking it to Aetolia, sold the ship and enslaved its captain and crew. Now convinced that Philip had come south to fight, the Aetolians pre-empted negotiations by resuming hostilities. The war which followed is known as the Social War, since it involved the allies of Macedon. It was basically another spat between the Greek confederations. However this spat was more important than most because it established the military and political situation which prevailed at the time of the coming of Rome.

In response to Aetolian attacks Philip arrived in Epirus via Thessaly. He ignored an Aetolian attempt to distract him by a very substantial raid into Macedonia and took the city of Ambracus. Then, with a combined army of Macedonians, Epirots and Achaeans he pushed deep into the Aetolian heartland. However, his hopes of finishing the war that year were dashed by news that the Dardanians were preparing a larger and more organized assault on his kingdom. Philip was desperately needed in the north once more. It was while en route to deal with the latest crisis that Philip added to his entourage, Demetrius of Pharos fresh from his drubbing by the Romans. It was unlikely that Philip would look kindly on Roman intervention in Illyria, which he perceived as part of his bailiwick, and his kindly reception of Demetrius was probably a reflection of his pique.

Hearing of Philip’s immanent return, the Dardanians abandoned their plans for invasion. It was now late in the campaigning season, and everyone assumed that hostilities were now concluded for the year. Consequently it came as a shock to the Aetolians and their allies when Philip suddenly reappeared in Corinth with a picked force of some 6,000 men and advanced through the winter snows into Arcadia in the eastern Peloponnese.

A highly profitable and successful campaign followed in which Philip’s conduct and generalship aroused near-universal admiration in Greece. The end of the year 219 BC saw Philip back at the city of Argos with the Aetolians packed out of the Peloponnese and the peninsula largely subdued apart from Sparta, soon to be under the rule of King Nabis, a ruler in the tradition of the late Cleomenes. At about this time, word reached Philip that Rome was on the brink of war with Carthage, as Hannibal had attacked Rome’s ally in Spain (the city of Saguntum) and Carthage had failed to respond appropriately to this outrage by one of its generals. This news, with its momentous implications for the future of Greece and Macedon, was considered of little note at the time.

Summer 218 BC saw Hannibal and his elephants set out for the Alps, and a Roman army head off in the opposite direction to Spain. In the east, the Hellenistic kingdoms of the Ptolemies and the Seleucids began a serious war over possession of an area called Coele-Syria. Between the two, the states of Greece resumed where they had left off the previous winter. Philip had obtained supplies of corn from the Achaeans to compensate for the effects of the Aetolian raid on Macedonia the previous year. Perhaps feeling the Aetolians owed him yet more corn, he suddenly switched his attack from land to sea and, with ships partly supplied by Sacerdilaidas, pillaged the island of Cephallenia, a valuable ally which supplied Aetolia with both corn and ships.

On hearing that the Aetolians had attacked Thessaly, Philip made another lightning change of direction. Taking advantage of the absence of Aetilia’s army he attacked the country once more with a force which included Macedonian regulars, Illyrian tribesmen, Thracian irregulars and Cretan bowmen. These made their way through the narrow mountain passes before the remaining Aetolians had time to mount an effective defence, and took and sacked Thermus, the principal city of the Aetolian confederacy.

The Macedonian army then razed much of the town, in contravention of the laws of war as the Greeks perceived them, and so earned Philip the undying enmity of the Aetolians. On hearing of the attack on Aetolia, the Spartans declared against Macedon, and were stunned to find that within days the Macedonian king had departed Aetolia and was plundering their lands.

Philip might have done more, but his commanders were suffering from divided loyalties. There were those who endorsed the operations in Greece, and those who were aware that Thessaly and Macedonia were lightly defended in consequence. Chief among those with the latter view was Philip’s counsellor, Apelles. Polybius (who, as an Achaean, was all in favour of Philip beating up the Aetolians) claims that Apelles had expected his seniority to impress the young king to the point where Apelles might have been the de facto ruler of Macedon. When Philip showed himself both highly competent and very much his own man, Apelles became bitter and treacherous. The Macedonian kings traditionally allowed their followers considerable freedom of speech and action, but when they overstepped the mark (as Apelles proceeded to do by interfering with the efficiency of the army) these same kings could also be remarkably abrupt. Apelles and the generals who supported him were promptly executed and their followers purged from the royal court.

By way of appeasing the remainder of Apelles’ faction in the army, Philip switched operations the following year to Boeotia, intending to secure this area and so prevent Aetolian raids on Macedon and Thessaly. It was after another substantial victory in this new theatre of operations that news reached Philip that Hannibal had thrashed the Romans at the Battle of Lake Trasimene in Italy.

This was of particular interest to Philip as Sacerdilaidas now felt that his efforts for the Macedonian cause had been insufficiently rewarded and he had turned openly hostile. With Hannibal keeping the Romans out of the game, the Illyrians had returned whole-heartedly to state-sponsored piracy and regional trade was suffering. Urged on by Demetrius of Pharos, Philip began to contemplate patching up a peace with the Aetolians, and subduing the Illyrians once and for all. Then using Illyria as a springboard, Philip might establish a Macedonian presence in war-weakened Italy. Perhaps after all, the master plan of Pyrrhus could be realized.

This was, as Polybius remarks, the moment when the separate threads of Greek and Roman history became intertwined, and events in the west directly affected Greece. It was a moment not only of great opportunity, but of great danger. In the peace conference with the Aetolians which was part one of Philip’s ambitious new plan, Polybius has one speaker remark:

Whether the Carthaginians beat the Romans or the Romans beat the Carthaginians, it is highly unlikely that the winners will be content to rule Italy and Sicily. They are sure to come here. …if you wait for these clouds gathering in the west to cover Greece, I very much fear these truces and wars and games at which we now play are going to be rudely interrupted.

After their mauling at Macedonian hands over the previous few years the Aetolians were keen to retire and lick their wounds under the mantle of Greek unity. This left Philip free to move his plan to part two and attack Illyria, where he made considerable progress before the winter closed in.

During the winter was all sides in the converging regional conflict mustered their forces for a hectic campaigning season to come. The Romans had elected as consul Aemilius Paulus, the conqueror of Illyria in 219 BC, and were gathering the largest army they had ever put into the field in an effort to push Hannibal from Italy. Philip was busily building a fleet (mostly fast light ships of the Illyrian type) for operations in the Adriatic, and the Achaeans and Aetolians were quietly preparing for another bout of mutual hostilities. Sacerdilaidas was industriously building ships to counter Philip’s fleet, and had sent to the Romans for aid. The Romans had problems of their own at this point, but dispatched a small fleet of some dozen ships from Lilybaeum in Sicily with instructions to familiarize themselves with the situation in the Balkans and Adriatic coast.

Philip’s fleet, pushing northward, encountered these ships, the first military encounter between Macedonians and Romans. The Macedonians did not engage the newcomers, for Philip had not yet decided on war with Rome. Philip thought he had encountered the full Roman fleet, and was uncertain whether this presaged another major Roman incursion into the region. So perturbed was he by this extension of Roman power that he pulled back his forces which had reached as far as Apollonia and awaited developments.

Though he had not lost any men, this retreat was a blow to Philip’s prestige. The setback soured the young king who had heretofore enjoyed little but outright success. He would have further cursed when he realized that he had retreated from Illyria, not before the full Roman fleet, but merely a strong reconnaissance force. None of this would have disposed him favourably to Rome. Later in the year, news reached Macedonia that even as Philip was pulling back from Illyria, in expectation of the arrival of a Roman army, Hannibal was busily wiping out that same army at Cannae, killing, among tens of thousand of others, the consul Aemilius Paulus.

This development appears to have tipped the balance. However, Philip did not immediately declare war on Rome. It is possible that Philip may even have considered that he had left it too late to do so, and that Rome must now surely sue for peace. However, as 215 BC began, and the Romans fought grimly on, Philip could offer assistance to Carthage without appearing simply to climb on to the bandwagon of Hannibal’s success. Led by an Athenian, Xenophanes, ambassadors were sent to make an agreement for an offensive alliance against the Romans.

Chios 201 BC: A Coalition Command

Phalanx vs Legion: Battle of Cynoscephalae

The Roman World – The Western Empire in the Fifth Century

Decline and fall? How much has it been exaggerated, and was it inevitable?

The basic argument is that the fall of the Western Empire was not inevitable, despite its comparative structural weaknesses that made it more vulnerable than the Eastern Empire. The latter survived in various, increasingly Graecicised forms until 1453 under a continuous line of Emperors: so why did the West collapse? Was it the long Western Empire frontier with the Germanic tribes to the north, open to penetration as soon as the Rhine and upper Danube were crossed? The East only had a shorter frontier on the lower Danube, and marauding tribes could be stopped at the Bosphorus and Hellespont. The East’s Gothic invasions from 376 saw the East’s army severely damaged at the Battle of Adrianople, yet the enemy were contained in the Balkans. The massive raids by Attila and his Hunnic-led empire in the 440s were similarly confined to the Balkans, as were the rampant Ostro[East]goths in the 470s and 480s. The mid-sixth century raids by the Kutrigur and Utrigur Bulgars reached the walls of Constantinople at a time when Justinian had secured control of Italy and part of Spain; this Balkan-born Emperor could not preserve his homeland from widespread ravaging despite an exhaustive programme of fortification testified to by Procopius. New arrivals in the Hungarian basin, the Avars, engaged in semi-permanent warfare with the Empire over the Danube valley and then Thrace from 568. We know little of how this endemic insecurity damaged agriculture and reduced the availability of peasant soldiers for the army, but it must have been a serious problem, and by the 580s the ravaged Balkans were being settled permanently by the Slavs. None of these attacks by a locally powerful foe ranged right across the East to its permanent disruption; and Asia Minor remained secure apart from one bout of Hunnic raiding south from the Caucasus, which even reached Syria, around 400.

But in the West three major Germanic tribes’ crossing of the Rhine in 406 led to permanent barbarian settlement in Gaul and Spain and in due course North Africa. This was not the case in the East, despite the mass movement of the Tervingi and Geuthungi Gothic peoples into the empire in 376–8 that was similarly militarily successful. The initial Gothic autonomous ‘federate’ tribal state in the Balkans, conceded to them by the East in 382 as they were too powerful to be evicted, was not a permanent solution, as seen on both sides. A Roman revival was hoped for by the Eastern orator Themistius in his up-beat propagandist account of the treaty to their Senate, where the Goths were portrayed as defeated and as turning into peaceful farmers; and a desire within the Gothic leadership for further pressure on the Empire was shown by the next Gothic leader, Alaric, in his aggressive behaviour in 395.

But had the Goths’ joint leadership of the 370s or a friendly Gothic ruler like Fritigern been in place, would this attack have occurred at all? After the mid-390s Alaric shifted his activities West, and Gainas, an over-powerful Gothic general who did secure supreme military command in Constantinople, was soon killed. The same Eastern ability at containment applies to the next two Gothic tribal states, both ruled by a Theodoric, in the Balkans in the 470s and 480s, as Emperor Zeno induced their unifier Theodoric the Amal to invade Italy in 490. But in the West, the Goths followed their wanderings across Italy, southern Gaul, and Spain by securing a ‘federate’ state in Aquitaine in 418, and other parts of Gaul and Spain fell away too. Britain was abandoned to its own devices in 410, and the Vandals (part of the 406 Rhine coalition) moved on from Spain into North Africa in 428 and secured its capital, Carthage, in 439.

Losses in the West were thus permanent, and each one weakened the state’s revenues, and ability to field an army, further. In turn, this encouraged further attacks. It was true, however, that the decline of Western power was not a smooth downward curve but came in sharp bursts. Each was precipitated by a specific political crisis. Due to personal charisma and military power, the Western supreme commander Aetius (in power 433–54) was able to call on the semi-independent Germans of Gaul to aid him against the invading Attila in 451, and central and northern Gaul were ruled by a mixture of Roman and German authorities until his murder in 454 saw the Goths turning on the fatally weakened Empire and extending their domains. Arguably, Aetius’ influence over his allies in Gaul was personal, not institutional, and he had a valuable past knowledge of Germans and Huns alike that aided his success. He had been an exile in the Hunnic state in the early 430s and used them as allies to regain power in the Empire. His vigorous campaigns against Germans and peasant brigand rebels (‘bacaudae’) gave him the respect of individual leaders, in an era when personal ties were crucial to such warlords.

Independence or autonomy for German polities in the Western Empire thus did not mean an end to Roman power or influence, with successive generations of Gothic leaders hankering after adopting Roman lifestyles or gaining Roman political influence. The Romanised social behaviour of Gothic king Theodoric II (reign 453–66) was praised by his Roman clientemperor Avitus’ son-in-law Sidonius Apollinaris, a contemporary Gallic poet-aristocrat who scrupulously aped classical literary culture. Indeed, the piratical Vandals in North Africa after Gaiseric’s time (post-477) adopted a sybaritic Roman lifestyle, to which their military decline after the 460s was to be attributed. In central and southern Gaul the Goths seem to have lived separately from the Romans, shunning the towns, and to have preserved their own culture and traditions, as described by Sidonius Apollinaris. The Franks mainly settled in less urbanised northern Gaul, and the only semi- Romanised sybarite ruler with cultural pretensions (as seen by Gregory of Tours) was Chilperic of Soissons, who died in 584. Landed estates in at least two ceded Roman areas, Gothic Aquitaine in 418 and Italy in 476, were formally divided between the two peoples.

In 408 the rebellious Alaric the Goth initially sought his late foe Stilicho’s supreme Roman commandership-in-chief from the supine Western Empire, and set up Attalus as his own puppet Emperor; the sack of Rome only followed the failure of his plans. He was seeking blackmail money to pay off his armies, not the destruction of the Empire, and made huge but manageable demands for gold and silver from the weak government of Emperor Honorius, then sought to replace it. His brother-in-law Athaulf spoke of wanting to fuse Roman and Gothic peoples into one state according to a story which reached the historian Orosius, and married Honorius’ kidnapped half-sister Galla Placidia. His murder in a private feud ended this attempt to set up a German-Roman state based at Narbonne, and his successors were driven west into Aquitaine in 418.

After the disasters of 454–5, the Goths of Toulouse used their military supremacy in Gaul to impose their own nominee, Avitus, as the new Emperor in leaderless Rome, thus seeking to influence the state rather than revolt against it. Avitus was a former supreme civilian official in Gaul so he knew the Gothic leadership, and had been sent to seek their alliance by the new Emperor Petronius Maximus after the latter had his predecessor Valentinian III murdered. This plan was forestalled by the Vandal attack on Rome. With Petronius in flight and killed, and Rome sacked by their rivals, the Goths then installed Avitus in his place. But the point is that now (455) it was the weakening Empire seeking Gothic military help, which it had firmly resisted when it was Alaric attempting to force his military assistance on the Empire in 408–10. In 416–18 Constantius III had been insistent on containing the Goths in far-away Aquitaine and recovering Princess Galla Placidia for himself, but after 454–5 the Goths, and then German generals in the Western army, were the senior partner in any Romano-German alliance.

Attila also sought to blackmail the Eastern Empire into sending him huge subsidies and gifts rather than conquering it in the 440s, though he did annex the middle and lower Danube valley from it too. He was aided prodigiously by sheer luck. His attacks and advantageous treaty with the East in 441–2 followed the departure of part of their army to fight Gaiseric in North Africa, and in 447 the walls of Constantinople and other cities were damaged by a massive earthquake. His open aggression towards the West in 451 followed an appeal from the disgruntled Princess Honoria for his hand in marriage which the government disowned, an excuse for a politically logical attack, but still useful to him. The flattering servility and massive bribes offered by the latest Eastern embassy to him, led by the supreme civilian official, ‘Master of Offices’ Nomus, had bought the East a temporary reprieve. Allegedly he had grudges against a Western banker for keeping plate promised to him or maybe was also bribed by Gaiseric the Vandal. He had already considered attacking Persia instead, according to Eastern envoy Priscus, but the geography was prohibitive as he would have to cross the Caucasus. His choice of Gaul, not Italy where Honoria could be found, shows practicality; it was easier to cross the Rhine than the Alps. The nature of this steppe-based state was clearly based on warfare by restless nomads, unlike the relatively settled German lands bordering on the Danube and Rhine frontiers, where farming not pastoral herding predominated and the Germans had long been semi-integrated into the Roman world as mercenary-supplying vassals.

A leader like Attila needed constant success and loot to keep his followers contented, and the Empire was the richest source of both. Indeed, as of the Romano-Hun negotiations of 411 there had been several Hunnic kings; the sole rule of Attila was a novelty. This meant that Attila’s power depended partly on his success in imposing unity as a war-leader, and partly in his role as the sole conduit of loot (or Roman bribes) to his warriors. War was more useful to him than peace and the Empire had far more gold than his German neighbours, though if they extorted huge Roman subsidies he could channel these as sole negotiator with the Empire. Buying him off permanently was an unlikely result of Roman appeasement diplomacy, given the way he shamelessly raised his demands year by year. Possibly the East paid, rather than fighting, in 442 and 447 due to temporary strategic weakness, not out of fear or military incompetence. Its army was occupied elsewhere on the first occasion, and the earthquake had struck on the second. Had Attila been satisfied with the results of blackmail on East and West alike he would still have needed targets to conquer, and we have seen that he considered Persia.

Botched plans by Eastern chief minister Chrysaphius to assassinate him in 449 and the apparent appeal to him by Honoria exacerbated tensions, but any wiser Western submission would have left Attila with a problem of keeping his warriors occupied. He would probably have sought other excuses for aggression and the East could hardly afford to pay him any more; his demands had already risen ten-fold in a decade. But his court included Romans as well as Germans and Huns, with his secretary being the Roman Count Orestes who was later to become father of the West’s last Emperor. It is too simplistic to present a notion of an irrevocable ‘Romans vs. Germans and Huns’ estrangement leading to the latter all pursuing a settled policy of seizing Roman territory. Rather, the more aggressive Germanic and Hunnic leaders made use of the opportunities that presented themselves in the decades after the first Danubian crossing in 376. The nature of newly established dynastic sole rulers, first Alaric, then Attila, in peoples used to no or multiple kingship encouraged the successful warlords to wage war and secure success and loot which benefited them personally.

It should be remarked here that the allegedly irrevocable, hostile Gothic crossing of the Danube by the Tervingi and Gaethungi in 376 was a refugee problem, a response to the loss of their steppe lands to the Huns, not anti- Roman aggression. The contemporary historian Ammianus claimed that Emperor Valens was pleased with their arrival as providing thousands of useful Gothic military recruits, at a time of rising tension with Persia (he was at Antioch in Syria preparing for war). He had previously negotiated successfully with these peoples as dependant allies at the end of a three-year war in 369, albeit probably forced to moderate his terms by the need to relocate east to a Persian war over Armenia. The Romans had been using their Danube neighbours for this purpose, and admitting thousands of agriculturalists to boost their denuded farming communities, for centuries. Constantine secured large numbers of recruits from the Goths in 331, and his son Constantius II did the same with the Sarmatians in 358–9. In recent years, one leading Gothic king (Athanaric of the Tervingi) had tried to limit, not extend, Gothic dependency on and supplies of troops to the Empire in the 369 treaty; the Hunnic attack forced a re-think as the Goths now needed sanctuary. The mass immigration in 376 was not a new phenomenon, either; the Empire had admitted thousands of Carpi from the Danube in 300. The main difference with the 376 phenomenon was that on the latter occasion the Goths obstinately stayed under the direct control of their own war-leaders; the Romans usually hastened to split bodies of armed immigrants up into manageable numbers under Roman command. Presumably this normal practice was Valens’ intention for 376–7 too, but was hampered by circumstances such as the sheer number of the Goths and probably the lack of Roman troops to supervise them at a time of war with Persia.

As of 376–7 the Goths were interested in land and food, not attack; the situation only turned ugly after they were moved on South to local Roman commander Lupicinus’ base at Marcianopolis and the Gaethungi crossed the Danube unilaterally to join the Tervingi. Lupicinus and other officials seem to have been operating a ‘black market’ in food-supplies and their extortion bred resentment. Valens should have sent reliable officials to avoid this in such a delicate situation. Lupicinus then panicked and tried to murder the Gothic leaders at a banquet, a logical move to decapitate the threat and hopefully force the leaderless Goths to obey Roman orders. Instead the targets escaped and war resulted, with Valens hundreds of miles away and unable to react quickly. The attempted strike at the enemy leadership was to be repeated, equally unsuccessfully, by chief minister Chrysaphius attempting to murder Attila in 449.

When Valens did arrive and march into Thrace in July 378, he seems to have expected to meet only around 10,000 Goths who he outnumbered, but faced at least twice or thrice that; possibly he had not heard that the Geuthungi had now linked up with his initial foes, the Tervingi. The size of the Gothic cavalry charge onto his army as it attacked the Gothic camp near Adrianople on 9 August then precipitated disaster. Was his defeat therefore due to over-confidence or faulty scouting? It is arguable that what distinguished the disaster of 376–8 from successful Roman management of mass-immigration in 331 and 358–9 was that on the first two occasions the Emperor had been on the Danube with an army to supervise the process; in 376–8 Valens was in Syria and left it to under-resourced and corrupt military officials. The resulting damage to the Empire was permanent, but it was not an unavoidable invasion of the Empire by hostile barbarians.

The overall amount of Germanic looting and pillaging has also probably been played up by rumour and apocalyptic exaggeration by Christian writers, to whom the catastrophic collapse of the Christian Empire was a sign of God’s disfavour and portended the Last Days foretold in Revelation. In 395–6 the Goths ranged at will across the major sites of ancient Greece, sacking Eleusis, Sparta, and Olympia and blackmailing Athens into paying ransom, a major psychological blow to the Empire.

In 402 Alaric attacked the Western capital at Milan by surprise, forcing the court to take refuge permanently in the inaccessible marshes of Ravenna, hardly the situation of a militarily confident government. Thereafter Alaric returned to an uneasy role as a ‘federate’ ally based on the Illyrian border of East and West, playing them off against each other. An independent leader, Radagaisus, invaded Italy on his own in 405 and was defeated. Although our account of the attack (by Zosimus) is garbled it seems that he had nothing to do with Alaric’s Goths but crossed the upper Danube from Bohemia. The West was thus starting to attract copycat opportunistic invasions, and on 31 December 406 a multi-ethnic German coalition crossed the Rhine. Led by the Vandals and also including the Alans and Suevi, they rampaged at will across Gaul and produced apocalyptic comments about the end of civilization from local writers (e.g. Prosper); the lack of Roman Imperial military re-action led to the commander in Britain, Constantine (III), taking action unilaterally and claiming the throne. A revolt against his authority by his general Gerontius then enabled the Germans to move on into Spain, which was divided between them without any need to consult the Empire.

In 408 the murder of Stilicho left the West open to another invasion of Italy and threats to pillage Rome. Alaric shamelessly raised the stakes of protection money for leaving, and eventually lost patience. The Goths’ sack of Rome in August 410 was a relatively disciplined and organised affair, with the Christian, albeit heretic Arian, Goths treating the churches and the Papacy with some respect. Indeed it was a result of Alaric’s blackmail of the government in Ravenna failing to extort the pay-off he expected, not a long-term plan. If the Western military high command had not been decimated by the anti-Stilicho purge in 408 he would have been unlikely to reach Rome at all. He had after all simply been attempting to secure power within the Roman ‘system’ as commander-in-chief to his own new puppet-emperor, Attalus. But the psychological effect was immense, with St. Jerome in distant Bethlehem summing it up as symbolising the destruction of the world.

In reply to the pagan reaction that it was the gods’ revenge on the Empire for abandoning them, St. Augustine of Hippo wrote ‘De Civitate Dei’ arguing that the real ‘City of God’ was the new, spiritual Christian world not an earthly city. This was not a new reaction to the difficulty of fitting in the spiritual world of Christianity to a state that had initially persecuted it, and abandonment of the ungodly secular society was a desirable course for the virtuous Christian long before 410. But the sack of Rome gave Augustine an opportunity to establish a theological basis for the separation of the aims of Christianity and of the state, and to place the former as infinitely preferable. This fed into the claims of the Papacy to religious authority and prestige in place of the Emperor as lord of Rome, although Constantine had already given the Popes supreme jurisdiction over their ecclesiastical subordinates in the Western part of the Empire, effectively as ‘Patriarchs of the West’.

The Vandals’ sack in 455 was more brutal and secured a far greater haul of loot, but also opportunistic, and unlike Alaric, Gaiseric was not likely to be bought off before his forces attacked the city. Like Attila in 451, he used the excuse of wanting the implementation of a promise (this time in a formal treaty) of an Imperial heiress, Valentinian III’s daughter Eudocia, destined for his son Hunneric but unlikely to be delivered willingly to a barbarian. In political terms, it was extremely implausible that Gaiseric would have secured the Imperial succession for Hunneric. Even if the son-less Emperor had been forced to marry his elder daughter to Hunneric to avoid war, or after the murder of Valentinian his successor Petronius Maximus had done so, the succession would not have passed to Hunneric. The main political aim of Gaiseric in 455 was probably to forestall Petronius’ planned alliance with the Goths (via Avitus’ embassy), which could lead to a Romano-Gothic attack on the Vandals in North Africa. Had the alliance been implemented and Gaiseric not reacted, the Vandals would probably have faced the same dangerous level of attack from north, east, and west as they had in 441–2 with the Eastern Empire able to join in with greater German participation than earlier thanks to Attila’s death.

The written evidence suggests that what came to be known to much later centuries as the eponymous ‘vandalism’ by the Vandals in Rome and elsewhere, systematic and deliberate destruction, was an occasional rather than a commonplace occurrence. At most, Gaiseric collected all the valuable moveables he could and stripped the roofs from temples in Rome to carry off the precious metals. Most damage to the fabric of the Empire’s cities and towns was done gradually, not by concentrated barbarian assault. Across the West, buildings collapsed over decades for lack of maintenance rather than being pulled down by German attackers, and it is now suggested that the evidence of fires in excavated villas (e.g. in Britain) is not necessarily due to arson by passing Germans. Nor did hordes of Goths storm the walls of Rome in 410; the gates were opened for them by runaway slaves. In 455 Petronius Maximus fled the city and Pope Leo surrendered sooner than face a massacre.

There was widespread insecurity and anarchy, at least in some areas where governmental authority had collapsed, e.g. the mid-fifth century middle Danube written about by the local St. Severinus9. The decline in building standards of what little new works were undertaken, and the use of wood not stone, in the fifth and sixth centuries West suggests an inability to find adequate craftsmen or materials10. If this is not physical ‘decline’ into an atomised society, what is? But it should be remembered that in less affected areas such as mid- and southern Gaul, the local Romanised aristocracy were still in existence as a cultured, Latin-speaking elite and running the Church throughout the sixth century. The world of the 590s historian Bishop Gregory of Tours was post-Roman politically, but not culturally, and the Church remained a strong bond with the city of Rome. Even in seventh century Anglo-Saxon England the international links of the Catholic Church, restored to the Germanic kingdoms there from the time of St. Augustine’s mission in 597, could allow for the imposition of Theodore, a Greek, as Archbishop of Canterbury, who came from distant Tarsus in Cilicia in 669.

The fall of the Western Empire was not the end of the international world of a Mediterranean-centred Church. Indeed, the concept of ‘Roma Aeterna’ as the centre of the civilised world now applied to spiritual rather than political leadership, and was played up by Pope Gregory the Great, who was from an old Senatorial family but with a monastery established in his ancestral mansion. The collapse of the central institution of the Senate did not occur in 476, as it was still functioning and given practical autonomy in Rome by the Romanophile Gothic king Theodoric from 493. It only went into eclipse after the disruption of the wars between Eastern Empire and Goths over Italy in 537–54, when Rome was captured several times and Gothic leader Totila once evicted its declining population.

The thesis of a weaker Western army open to greater recruitment from unreliable German troops and Germanic supreme commanders has also been suggested as damaging to the West; the West had a Germanic supreme infantry and cavalry commander (‘magister utiusque militiae’) and effective regent, Stilicho, in 395–408 and eventually fell victim to more German generals after 455. But the East’s army also relied on extensive Germanic recruitment, as in 331 (Goths) and 359 (Sarmatians). The East’s senior German officers included one man who briefly held supreme military power in the capital (Gainas in 399–400) and one who served as military commander and chief minister (Aspar, 450–467). Both were murdered and their partisans massacred, as was Stilicho; but after Stilicho’s fall the powerless Western court was at the Germans’ mercy in 408–10. The East, however, fought off its Germanic challengers after their similar coups in 400 and 467. After Gainas and Aspar were killed their surviving troops were left at large in Thrace but could only plunder the countryside. Did the West face a more concentrated and resource sapping Germanic challenge than the East? Did its geography make attack easier and its containment more difficult?

Roman Invasion Plans for Parthia I

Ancient sources reveal the extent of Roman plans to add Parthia to their empire during the first decades of Augustan rule (27 BC–AD 14). The preparations involved intelligence gathering and the creation of itineraries to map possible invasion routes through Iran. These accounts confirm the veracity of Roman ambitions and verify the scope of military preparations being considered by the Emperor Augustus.

During the first decade of Augustan rule there was a resurgence of Roman interest in eastern campaigns and Latin poets took the subject as inspiration to introduce dramatic situations into their narratives. For example, Propertius explored ideas of distant military service and the feelings of a Roman wife separated from her soldier-husband who was fighting in Bactria. The verse takes the form of a letter with the wife appealing to her husband not to be reckless in the pursuit of glory when Roman forces lay siege to Bactrian cities and take silks as plunder from the steppe hordes. She writes, ‘I beg you not to set so much glory in scaling Bactrian walls, or seizing fine fabrics from their perfumed chieftain, especially when the enemy launch the lead shot from their slings and fire their bows with such cunning from their wheeling horses.’ Propertius imagines that the soldier-husband would return when ‘the lands of the Parthian hordes are overcome’ and the Oxus River was established as a new imperial boundary. However, he hints at even more distant locations. The Roman wife expects her husband will be seen amid ‘the dark-skinned Indians who are pounded by the eastern waves’.

These ideas could have been prompted by the arrival of Indian envoys in the Roman Empire who might have offered the prospect of military alliances (26–20 BC). In another work, Propertius addresses a lover with the possible scenario, ‘What if I were a soldier detained in far-off India, or my ship was stationed on the Ocean?’ In this period it must have seemed possible that well-led Roman armies could exceed the eastern conquests of Alexander.

There are also some indications that the scenarios suggested by Propertius could be based on genuine military planning. Propertius mentions charts being circulated that mapped Parthian territory and provided details concerning enemy logistics. The wife reveals that she ‘studies the course of the Oxus River which is soon to be conquered and learns how many miles a Parthian horse can travel without water’. She also ‘examines the world depicted on a map and the position of lands set out by the gods to be sluggish with frost, or brittle with heat’. These details suggest that imperial authorities were gathering geographical and logistical information about the east in order to determine the practical prospects for conquest.

The Parthian Stations

The Romans knew the size and geography of Persia from Greek histories, including accounts written by authorities who followed Alexander. From these historical descriptions Roman commanders reconstructed hypothetical invasion routes as ‘itineraries’ listing the directions and distances between strategic sites. These itineraries might have been represented pictorially on charts containing geographic detail including mountains, lakes and rivers. But other documents were descriptive texts that explained the character of strategic locations and itemised possible invasion routes.

The Romans had supporters in the main Greek cities of Babylonia and these communities were in continual contact with Mediterranean merchants who travelled back and forth across the Euphrates frontiers. In particular, the Romans had a network of collaborators in the city-port of Spasinu Charax near the head of the Persian Gulf. Spasinu Charax was originally a military outpost established by the Seleucids, taking its name from the Greek word ‘Charax’ meaning ‘palisaded fort’. This fortified Hellenic town developed into a commercial city that was well-protected from siege or cavalry attack by the floodplains of the Tigris River. When the Parthians conquered the eastern half of the Seleucid realm, the local Greek commander Hyspaosines took the title of king and founded a new Hellenic dynasty at Charax to govern a region called Characene (127 BC). The new kings of Characene accepted Parthian suzerainty, but with a well-defended capital they could assert their independence and challenge outside interests.

Spasinu Charax was positioned at the junction between riverine and maritime travel. The city received traffic coming down the Tigris River from the heartlands of Babylonia, but it was also a staging post for maritime voyages into the Persian Gulf. Spasinu Charax therefore received trade goods from Arabia and India and served as a meeting place where Persian and Greek traders could engage with eastern merchants from distant lands. Consequently, the city was an ideal location to gather intelligence about political developments in the distant east and use as a base from which to reconnoitre possible invasion routes into foreign territories.

Pliny reveals how Greek operatives from Spasinu Charax provided Roman authorities with accounts of eastern geography and politics in preparation for a planned military action against the Parthians. He explains that ‘the most recent writer to have dealt with the geography of the world is Dionysius who was born in Charax and sent to the East by the Emperor Augustus to write a full account of this region.’ Pliny explains that Dionysus was given this responsibility sometime before 2 BC and ‘shortly before Gaius Caesar travelled into Armenia to take command against the Parthians’. The work has not survived, but it probably included the type of information suggested by Propertius when he described Roman charts recording the distance between Parthian watering-stations and the condition of the surrounding landscapes.

An ancient account known as the Parthian Stations could also be a product of these early intelligence gathering operations. The Parthian Stations was written by a Greek author called Isidore who also came from Spasinu Charax. Sometime before 10 BC Isidore charted a route through Parthia for the benefit of Roman authorities. If Augustus had ordered the conquest of the Parthian Empire, the route was intended for Roman forces to follow during their military campaign. Isidore also described valuable resources produced in Parthian territory, including pearls that contributed large revenues to eastern treasuries.

The Invasion Route through Parthia

The Parthian Stations gives an itinerary of ancient sites leading across ancient Persia from the frontiers of Roman Syria to the eastern edge of Iran. Isidore mentions distances between strategic locations and provides information about the character of prominent settlements. He maps out a possible route for Roman legions that follows the Euphrates River into Babylonia and then out across the Iranian Plateau to reach the eastern frontiers of Parthian jurisdiction in Arachosia (southern Afghanistan). Isidore mentions which settlements are fortified and notes which districts have access to the main wells. He records sites that were founded by the Macedonian regime and on several occasions includes details as to whether an urban population could be considered ‘Greek’ and thereby, by implication, pro-Roman.

Isidore suggested the invasion route should begin at the Syrian town of Zeugma on the Euphrates frontier. Zeugma controlled a large bridge that spanned the Euphrates, but he advised the main Roman force keep to the western bank so that any intercepting Parthian cavalry would need to cross the river to launch an attack. From Zeugma, the Roman army would march south through a line of fortified Greek towns and walled villages that had been founded by Alexander or the Seleucid kings. Isidore also notes the site of several ‘Royal Stations’ in this region that had been established by the Persian King Darius as part of an ancient Royal Road that connected his domains in the fifth century BC. It is possible that the Romans planned to ship supplies and personnel down the Euphrates on river craft and Isidore therefore notes any sailing hazards. At one point he warns, ‘Here the flow is dammed with rocks in order that the water may overflow the fields, but in summer this same barrier will wreck the boats.’

A village named Phaliga on the Euphrates occupied a strategic position in the invasion plans. Isidore records that the settlement lay almost halfway between the Syrian capital Antioch and the main city of Seleucia in central Babylonia. Downstream from Phaliga a tributary river flowed into the Euphrates near a walled village called Nabagath. At this point Isidore recommends, ‘Here the Legions cross over to territory beyond the river.’ This was the site where the Romans expected to bridge the Euphrates in order to advance down the east bank of the river.

There were Parthian garrisons guarding river outposts on the east banks of the mid-Euphrates and the Romans needed to occupy these locations in order to control this part of Mesopotamia (northern Iraq). Isidore mentions two Euphrates islands that the Parthians used as secure bases to store treasury funds. When a renegade Parthian Prince named Tiridates II temporarily took control of Babylonia in 26 BC, he was able to take these sites from King Phraates IV. Isidore noted that Phraates ordered his men to ‘cut the throats of the concubines’ when the exiled Tiridates had surrounded the loyalist outpost. This incident reminded the Romans that the Parthians would kill hostages and destroy property if they believed defeat was imminent.

Beyond the treasury island of Thilabus there was another island midstream in the Euphrates where the city of Izan was located. The Romans required river transports to seize these sites and Isidore mentions that the nearby city of Aipolis had bitumen springs used to waterproof ship-hulls. This material could repair any Roman transports damaged by sailing downstream, or perhaps the imperial invaders planned to construct new vessels at this site. Meanwhile, Roman land forces could advance towards the city of Besechana which had a prominent temple dedicated to the Syrian goddess Atargatis. Beyond this city the course of the Euphrates came close to the Tigris with a short canal connecting the two rivers. After capturing the Hellenic city of Neapolis, the legions would follow the path of this canal east to Seleucia on the banks of the Tigris River. The vast city of Seleucia was heavily fortified, but the Romans could expect support and assistance from its largely Greek population.

The twin capitals of Seleucia and Ctesiphon were positioned on opposite sides of the Tigris River, so the Romans needed to commandeer or build river craft to make a crossing to this monumental Parthian city. The Romans probably surmised that once Ctesiphon was captured, the Parthians would relinquish control over Babylonia, including Spasinu Charax at the head of the Persian Gulf. Isidore therefore suggests that the next stage in the Roman campaign was the invasion of Iran and the capture of Ecbatana, the second royal city of the Parthian Empire.

Babylonia was densely populated with wide well-irrigated field systems and relatively short distances between the leading urban sites. But the cities of Iran were separated by arid and mountainous tracks of land and this created difficulties for the invading force. Isidore uses a new terminology to describe sites on the route through Iran, including positions that he calls stathmoi or ‘stations’. These sites might have been caravan supply-stations (caravanserai), military installations, or communication posts used by Parthian administrators to relay government orders. It is also possible that many of these locations fulfilled multiple roles for travellers and because the Parthian regime depended on cavalry, these outposts were crucial in maintaining cohesion across their empire. As the ruling Parthian court wintered at Ctesiphon and spent the summer months in Ecbatana, the thoroughfare between these two cities was well maintained for official travellers. It therefore provided the Parthian rulers with a fast and effective escape route if the Romans sized Babylonia. Isidore describes Ecbatana as a metropolis that housed the Parthian treasury and reports that it also had a major temple dedicated to the Iranian goddess Anaitis.

The route from Ctesiphon to Ecbatana headed northeast to the Iranian Plateau. Leaving the banks of the Tigris, the Roman force would pass a Greek city named Artemita on the edge of Babylonia. From this point onwards the legions had to cross open terrain through a series of rural villages equipped with caravan stations. On route to the Zagros Mountain range they would pass through another Greek city named Chala before crossing into Media.

The legions needed to travel through ten villages in Median territory, each equipped with stations (stathmoi) for travellers. After these positions were secured, the Romans would reach a mountain city named Bagistana that controlled passage to the city of Concobar with its famous temple to the Greek hunting-goddess Artemis. By then the Roman army were close to the centre of Parthian rule in Media and if they marched further east they were advised to capture a custom station known as Bazigraban which controlled caravan traffic moving between Babylonia and Iran. Close by there was a royal summer palace named Adrapana which had surrounding parklands for the Parthian nobility to hunt game and engage in other equestrian sports.

From Adrapana it was suggested that the legions marched onward to capture the nearby capital Ecbatana. Ecbatana was crucial to the conquest of Media and after this city had been captured, Isidore recommended a further route through the region to seize three important caravan stations, ten villages at strategic locations and five additional cities. This part of the campaign route ended near a city called Rhaga which had a population larger than Ecbatana. Nearby was the city of Media-Charax which had developed around a fortified installation where the Parthians had settled some of their steppe allies known as the Mardi (176–171 BC). The city of Media-Charax was positioned beneath a mountain called Caspius and it controlled the main approach to the southern Caspian Gates. This location marked the edge of Media, so the capture of the city would have brought the western realms of the Parthian Empire fully under Roman dominion. According to Pliny, Ecbatana was 750 miles from Seleucia and 20 miles from a strategic pass known as the Caspian Gates.

Hostile deserts of salt-encrusted sediment filled large stretches of eastern Iran. These were the remains of ancient prehistoric seas that had entirely evaporated to leave broad wastelands between the mountain ranges that encircled the country. In order to capture the remaining Parthian territories, Roman forces needed to follow a course across Hyrcania, a fertile region that stretched around the southern shores of the Caspian Sea. This open coastline included grasslands, but inland there were deciduous broadleaved forests and upland alpine meadows that provided a habitat for the now extinct Caspian tiger. Leopards, lynx, brown bears, wild boars and wolves were hunted in these forests and its grassland peripheries.

However, to enter Hyrcania, the Romans had to pass through a narrow gorge known as the Southern Caspian Gates that cut through the Alburz Mountains. The legionaries taken prisoner at Carrhae had been marched through this bleak mountain pass, so the Roman authorities already had harrowing eyewitness accounts of the region. Pliny describes how the pass had been cut through the rock by Persian engineers, but the 8-mile roadway was scarcely broad enough for a single line of wagon traffic. He reports that the gorge was ‘overhung on either side by crags that look as if they had been burnt by fire and the narrow passage through the gorge is only interrupted by a salt-water stream’. Roman reports suggested that the surrounding country was almost entirely waterless for a range of 28 miles. The permanent mountain streams were saline and fresh water could only be obtained with the melt of winter snows. Consequently, the region would present serious challenges to any infantry-based Roman army trying to capture this strategic position from Parthian cavalry forces. Pliny concludes, ‘The Parthian kingdom is effectively shut off by passes.’

Pliny had read Roman itineraries that used information from Alexander’s campaigns to chart invasion routes through Iran. The Southern Caspian Gates was a central strategic point in these studies since it was estimated to be almost 600 miles from the River Jaxartes (the Syr Darya) where Alexander fixed the northern limits of his conquests in Sogdia. The gorge was also calculated to be about 450 miles from the Bactrian capital Balkh and 2,000 miles from the northern frontiers of ancient India.

A modern survey of these routes has confirmed the accuracy of these ancient figures. Pliny reports that the distance from the Caspian Gate to the Parthian capital Hecatompylos was 133 Roman miles (122 modern miles). The distance measured using modern techniques is close to 125 miles along a course that probably deviates only slightly from the ancient pathways.

Isidore outlined a route into the fertile lands of Hyrcania for any Roman forces that captured and held the Caspian Gates. Beyond the Gates, the legionaries would arrive at a narrow valley that led to the Iranian city of Apamia. From there, the invasion course had to turn east and occupy another line of villages equipped with caravan stations that probably operated as Parthian military outposts. There were no cities in this region and the Romans would travel through thirty-five villages with stathmoi (stations) on their route through Hyrcania. Only then would they reach the frontiers of the region known as Parthia and the original homelands of their enemy.

An Iranian city called Asaac (Arsak) was on the western frontier of Parthia. It was here on the southeast shores of the Caspian Sea that the founder of the Parthian regime, Arsaces I had been proclaimed king by his steppe followers after they had settled the region (250–211 BC). Isidore reports that Asaac was an important centre for an ancient Iranian religion known as Zoroastrianism and a sacred everlasting fire was maintained in the city temples.

Near Asaac was the fortified city of Nisa (Parthaunisa) which was the location of ancient royal tombs belonging to the earliest Parthian rulers. Excavations at this site, near Ashgabat in Turkmenistan, recovered carved ivory drinking cups or ceremonial libation cones known as rytons. Other finds from the city include thousands of fragmentary administrative records from the Parthian regime written on clay tablets in Persian script. These texts document deliveries of wine and other produce to the Parthian administrators at Nisa. They also record military titles including Border-Wardens and Fortress-Commanders who oversaw the conveyance of cash crops to the royal centre.

There were no travel-stations in this part of Parthia because the region already had sufficient cities to accommodate caravans and facilitate the movement of mounted armies. North of Parthia was the Eurasian steppe, but the lands to the south were covered by desert. This meant that any Roman invasion route had to pass directly through the region. Isidore lists a series of Parthian cities that would have to be captured on any campaign through this territory, including Gathar, Siroc, Apauarctica and Ragau. This would complete the anticipated Roman conquest of Parthia, but further east there were other territories subject to Parthian rule that might also be claimed for the Roman Empire.

Beyond Parthia

Isidore outlined a route from Parthia east into Margiana that would have allowed Roman forces to take possession of the oasis site of Merv. The territory around Merv was almost entirely devoid of any settlements, but there were two Parthian villages on route to the oasis. Here Roman commanders expected to find the captive legionaries who had served under Crassus (53 BC) and Mark Antony (36 BC). By the 20s BC many of these prisoners would have spent most of their adult lives under Parthian governance.

The Romans received reports that Merv was enclosed by mountains that formed a 187-mile circuit around the oasis. Beyond the mountains was a large expanse of desert that extended for at least 120 miles to the east. The oasis at Merv received water from the Murghab River which flowed more than 500 miles from mountains on the edge of northwest Afghanistan into the Karakum Desert in Turkmenistan. Curtius records that Alexander the Great established six Hellenic towns on hill sites near Merv, ‘spaced only a short distance apart so that they could seek mutual aid from one another’. Pliny claims that Alexander also established a city near the river, but the settlement was abandoned or destroyed by enemy forces. Antiochus I Soter reclaimed the oasis by founding a walled Hellenic city called Antiochia Margiana close to the river (281–261 BC). He enclosed the countryside surrounding this city with a wall measuring almost 8 miles in circumference.

Archaeological remains and records from later eras suggest the appearance of this ancient territory. A Chinese soldier visited the city of Merv (Mulu) in the eighth century AD after he had been held captive by Iranian forces. He saw a caravan city surrounded by walls that were 3 miles in circumference and had iron gates. When he returned to China he reported that the ‘walls of the city are high and thick and the streets and markets are tidy and well-arranged’. The remains of ancient clay-wall barriers have been found stretching across certain northern districts of Margiana. These defences were probably built to protect the territory from mounted raiders, but the remains cannot be securely dated. They could be Hellenic, Parthian or perhaps Sassanid defences (AD 224–651) built or repaired by native peoples, or perhaps foreign prisoners of war.

Pliny describes how Margiana was ‘famous for its sunny climate’ and received recognition as one of the few territories in Parthia where grape vines were cultivated. Strabo emphasises the wine production at this site and describes fertile soil suitable for viticulture. He reports that ‘vine stocks are found that require two men to girth [10 feet circumference] and bunches of gapes grow to 2 cubits [3 feet]. This suggests that viticulture might have been well established when the first Roman captives were brought to Merv in 53 BC.

Many of the Roman captives were probably settled as agricultural labourers in towns near the city of Antiochia Margiana. Some of these Italian captives might have had pre-war experience in viticulture which was a valuable skill. One of the Parthian clay tablets recovered from the royal city of Nisa records wine deliveries from the oasis (before 40 BC). The delivery was arranged and overseen by two ‘Tagmadars’, a Greek title that designated unit officers. These men had the Parthian names Frabaxtak and Frafarn, but they could have commanded labour teams of Roman workers assigned to royal vineyards. A further possibility is that some Roman captives adopted Parthian culture and received the titles and responsibilities of their new regime. Horace asked his reader to imagine their fate: ‘Are the soldiers of Crassus, men of Marsi and Apulia, living under Median rule, joined in shameful marriage to foreign wives?’


During the reign of Emperor Wu, he sent out Zhang Qian as his envoy to distant lands in the west, he brought back important information in regards to the Kushans, the Sogdians, and the Bactrians, as well as Parthia. Though the Xiongnu still operated fiercely in the area during his travels (100BC- contemporaneous to the Civil Wars of the Roman Republic,) his journey would pave the ways for formal relations to be established between China and the various polities along the vast trade network, eventually leading to the creation of the Silk Road.

Eastern Han Heavy Cavalry

Western Han Ge Cavalry

Western Han Armor-Spear Cavalry


The anarchy that followed the fall of the Ch’in was complete. The various provinces fell to the army commanders, as a “free-for-all” threw the unified Empire back into chaos.

Liu Pang, an adventurer of sorts, while serving as a police official in Kiangsu province, carved out a personal kingdom in a rather novel way. Finding himself as the escort for a body of condemned prisoners, he decided to remove their chains and form a regiment of brigands. Naturally, they were delighted at the prospect, and eagerly followed their new-found ” condottiere ” captain, Liu Pang. Liu Pang then anointed the drums with his blood, and adopted blood red as the color for his standards. At the head of his “brigand band” he proceeded to carve out a kingdom in Kiangsu. In 207 B. C., he marched on Shensi and took it by popularity, not force-a kind of “Anschluss”. For five years, Liu Pang fought his rival, Hsiang Yu, and finally defeated him in 202 B. C. This commoner’s son, the leader of an army of convicts, was now the unchallenged Emperor of China. This Empire , the Han (named after the Han River and Liu Pang’s Imperial name, Han Kao-tzu) was to last until 220 A. D., and leave such a mark on China and her history that even today the Chinese refer to themselves as The Sons of Han.


The Han were masters at administration and this is reflected in their army organizations. Michael Loewe’s work on the Chu-yen bamboo strips has brought to light much detail on the Han chain of command and unit organization.

Field army commanders, the Shang Chin or Ta Chun, were at the head of the army organization, responsible only to the Emperor . They might also command the military regions or provinces

At the head of a particular army was the commanding officer, the Chiang Chin, or general. The army was then brigaded into physical areas and commanded by generals of lower rank. The front or vanguard, commanded by the Ch’ien Chun, was supported by the left wing, commanded by the Tso Chin, and the right wing, commanded by the Yu Chin. The rear was brought up by the Hou Chun. These were aided in administrative duties by the Lieh Chun , or general staff . Colonels (Hsiao wei) were not included in a normal chain of command as we know today, but rather seem to have been administrative officials and not necessarily military commanders.

According to the Chu-yen strips, three Tu-wei-fus or battalions, were allocated to a Chun, or army.

The Tu-wei-fu was the basic unit in the Han organization. This unit was composed of local troops assisted by a Ch’eng and a Ssu-ma. This Tu-wei-fu would consist of any number of Hou-kuan , or (provincial units), local cavalry , but mainly of conscripted infantry . It was commanded by a Tu-w companies, each of which was commanded by a Hou. In turn, each Hou-kuan was composed of from four to six platoons, or Hou. Each platoon was commanded by a Hou-chang, and consisted of six to seven squads or Sui. These squads were commanded by a Sui-chang, and usually consisted of up to eleven men.

Within the army, the best fighter of every Sui was transferred to a special unit, the shock or elite troops. This theoretically would be ten percent, or one in ten. Mainly held as a reserve, in Han times they were called the “Gallants from the Three Rivers.”

Cavalry were detached directly from army headquarters to Tu-wei-fu, Hou-kuan, or Hou headquarters.

They may have followed standard army organization, but this is not known for sure. A document unit of unknown type had 182 men. The Han made much use of allied auxiliary cavalry units-the majority of which were usually border tribes of the Hsiung-nu.

Prisoners and convicts were frequently used in the army, in two capacities. The common labor troops were convicts merely serving out a prison sentence. They performed the menial tasks around the camps, dug ditches and latrines, built fortifications and the like, and much to their chagrin, served as “cannon fodder” in battle. However the Ch’ih-hsing were amnestied convicts, serving out their sentence in the combat arm of the army. These frequently were very fierce fighters, not hampered with too much military training

Pioneers were not engineers or the like, as we might call them today. They were the static garrisons that manned the Chinese limes and the Great Wall. These troops were mainly armed farmers and actually cultivated the areas around their posts when not on duty, much like their 4th and 5th century Roman counterparts.

In addition to the above, there were several specialized units in the Han Army, brought to light by Chao Chung-huo’s campaign against the rebellious Western Ch’iang in 61 B. C.. It is here that we first hear of the “Volunteer Expert Marksmen”, who distinguished themselves by their uncanny marksmanship. These operated as a Jager or Rifle Brigade-type in battle, but as to whether they were armed with a bow or crossbow the histories do not tell us. The “Winged Forest Orphans” were an elite body of armored infantry, all of whom were orphaned as a direct result of their fathers’ dying in battle. The “Liang Chia-tzu” were elite noble-born cavalrymen, and more than likely armored. Finally, the “Yung-kan” archers are mentioned but not elaborated upon.

The Han were noted for their use of artillery and long-ranged crossbows. These weapons clearly gave them an advantage as they generally outranged any weapons their enemies possessed.

Han Dynasty likely phased out stone-throwers because their main adversary was nomadic Xiongnu. Heavy siege equipment will slow down the army, making them vulnerable to ambush and raids, there isn’t many trees lying in the desert and grasslands to build one on the spot, Xiongnu being nomadic meaning very few permanent settlements for them to lay siege, and in the rare instance when the Han army DID lay siege on Xiongnu, they burned everything down and took the fortified city in two days with overwhelming numbers, without resorting to siege engine.

Towards the end of Han Dynasty (Three Kingdoms period), the Chinese were warring among themselves again, and siege warfare become necessary once more. Thus the resurgence of stone-thrower and other siege engine.


As is evident in the battle narratives of the Han period, not much in the way of stratagems and innovations were ignored by Han generals. They learned much from Sun-tzu and applied his principles.

Basically, much attention was focused on the missile weapon as the main arm, and the crossbow simply outclassed any opponent’s weapon. On repeated occasions (Battle of Sogdiana, 38 B. C., Li Ling, 90 B. C., for examples) the crossbows were formed up in ranks protected by the armored infantry who carried large shields and long spears. Even the armored cavalry at times were equipped with these crossbows, forming a kind of “self-propelled artillery.”

The chariots were used for the final blow, after the bows had done the real work. Cavalry was used for the shock assault if the ground wasn’t suitable for the chariots. Generally, the cavalry arm was used in two ways–one, as a reconnaissance and pursuit force, and two, if a highly mobile force such as the Hsiung-nu were involved as an enemy in battle, the Han cavalry attempted to pin the enemy cavalry, allowing the infantry and chariots to close.


In this category, the Han Army was far superior to any previous Chinese Army and most of her enemies.

During the early Han, all males between the ages of 23 and 56 were conscripted for two years active service. During the years 155-74 B. C. the age was reduced to 20 for conscription. At the age of 56, all low-ranking infantry and marines were classed as ” elderly and decrepit ” and were “made civilians.”

Training was not left in boot camp either. Every year, on the eighth month, the entire army, no ranks or arms excepted, was involved in a General Inspection and testing program. All units were graded on performance, and woe to the unit commander whose unit was not up to par! Thus, training and combat proficiency were a constant and ongoing operation during the Han period.

Approximate Composition of the Han Dynasty Army

Maximum percentages of types within the total force employed:

Armored cavalry = 50%

Unarmored or lightly armored cavalry = 50%

Tribal auxiliary unarmored cavalry = 50%

Labor troops =10%

Convict Combat troops =10%

Armored infantry = 50%

Unarmored infantry = 50%

Of the last two categories, 30 % could be armed with the crossbow.

Artillerists =10%

Charioteers = 5 % scout, 5% war chariots


By this time, Pan Ch’ao seemed to demonstrate that he was invincible Ansi (the Arsacid Parthian Empire) was defeated. Now Han China stood, the greatest land-owning empire possibly only second to Rome.

Pan Ch’ao ordered his second in command, Kan Ying, to set forth across newly conquered Ansi, to “Ta-ts’in” the Chinese name for the Roman Empire.

As Pan Ch’ao only allocated a portion of the army to subdue this “additional Kingdom”. it is obvious that to call this a “planned invasion” is stretching things a bit.

Kan Ying advanced across the middle-eastern expanses towards Antioch thought to be the capitol of the Roman Empire. Kan Ying was anxious to know of his enemy, so the Parthians began to tell him of the might and expanse of the Roman Empire. Upon gaining this new intelligence information, Kan Ying decided that his force was not sufficient for the task, so he turned around and rejoined Pan Ch’ao.

In 116 A. D., Trajan’s advances into Parthia to Ctesiphon would be within one day’s march of Han Chinese border garrisons. As a side note, 97 A. D. was the first year of the Emperor Trajan’s reign. It is quite interesting to speculate on the consequences had Kan Ying pursued his objective and attacked Roman Antioch.

Brothers: Tiberius and Drusus in War

Tiberius was sent to the Balkans where trouble had broken out again, encouraged by the news of Agrippa’s death. His brother Drusus went back to Gaul, and for the next three years both would campaign aggressively on these frontiers. It was clearly part of a concerted plan, although modern claims that Augustus was striving to create defensible boundaries based on the Danube and ultimately the Elbe do not convince. After years of tidying up the existing provinces, completing the conquest of the Iberian Peninsula and most recently occupying the Alps, Imperator Caesar Augustus was determined on large-scale conquests in Europe. This was clean glory, winning the victories that would fulfil the promise of peace through strength celebrated in the Ara Pacis and justify his supervision of the provinces facing military problems. It was also a chance for Tiberius and Drusus to add to their reputations and win further experience of high command.

These aggressive campaigns were premeditated, and in the last few years troops and supplies had gathered on the Rhine and in the Balkans to undertake them. That is not to say that they were unprovoked, and modern cynicism over claims that almost every Roman war was fought in response to earlier raids is unnecessary. Raiding was common and often serious, but the Roman response to it was less predictable, varying from minor reprisals to heavy attacks or outright conquest. The coincidence of available resources and a commander with the freedom of action and the desire to win glory determined the scale and type of Roman response. These factors and the opportunity offered by the migration of the Helvetii in 58 BC had led to Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul, rather than the Balkan war he had expected to wage.

Untroubled by serious warfare elsewhere, and with a freedom of action unmatched by any Roman leader in the past, Augustus decided to add to Roman territory in both these areas. Like any Roman, he did not think so much in terms of physical as political geography, seeing the world as a network of peoples and states. It was these he would attack, and ‘spare the conquered and overcome the proud in war’. Some would be added to the provinces while others would simply be forced to acknowledge Roman power. The Greeks and Romans had only a vague sense of the lands far from the Mediterranean, and certainly did not appreciate the sheer size of central Europe and the steppes beyond. It is quite possible that Augustus believed that he could conquer all of Europe as far as the ocean that was believed to encircle all three known continents, but such possibilities were for the future. At the moment his ambitions were more restrained. He would add to Rome’s imperium, punishing the peoples who had attacked the provinces in the past and preventing them from doing this in the future.

Tiberius and Drusus would lead the legions in person, while Imperator Caesar Augustus supervised from a distance. In a change from the recent pattern of long tours of the provinces, over the next years he made short trips to be near the theatres of operations, stationing himself in Aquileia in northern Italy on the border with Illyricum or at Lugdunum in Gaul. Neither were so very far from Rome, and he returned to the City on several occasions, usually after the campaigning season was over. Suetonius provides a glimpse of these trips in an extract of a letter handwritten by Augustus himself, telling his older stepson about the five-day festival celebrated between 20 and 25 March in honour of the goddess Minerva:

We spent the Quinquatria very merrily, my dear Tiberius, for we played all day long and kept the gaming board warm. Your brother made a great outcry about his luck, but after all did not come out so far behind in the long run; for after losing heavily he unexpectedly and little by little got back a good deal. For my part, I lost 20,000 sesterces, but because I was extravagantly generous in my play, as usual. If I had demanded of everyone the stakes which I let go, or had kept all that I gave away, I should have won fully 50,000. But I like that better, for my generosity will exalt me to immortal glory.

The informal style is typical of surviving letters to family and friends, and at least openly Augustus got on well with his stepsons. Drusus was famous for his charm and affability, and had quickly become a popular favourite. Tiberius was a reserved and complex character, easier to respect than to like, but the fragments of letters written to him contain repeated statements of affection and a gentle, bantering tone and heavy use of irony, such as the talk of ‘immortal glory’. In another he describes a dinner where he and his guests ‘gambled like old men’. There are many echoes of Cicero’s letters in Augustus’ correspondence, in the repeated statements of affection, the frequent quotations and jokes and perhaps also in false claims of deep affection. Even so, at this stage there is no hint that the relationship between the princeps and the man soon to become his son-in-law were anything other than cordial.

Early in 12 BC Drusus completed a formal census in the three Gauls, no doubt helping to organise the provinces, recording property and the taxation due to Rome, and ensuring that they would give him plentiful supplies for the forthcoming campaigns. The process had perhaps begun before Augustus left the provinces the previous year, and the princeps had personally supervised the first such census held in the region in 27 BC. Perhaps it was also intended to be fairer than the existing system of levies which had been so recently exploited by Licinus. Apart from Luke’s Gospel, we have no other evidence claiming that at some point Augustus issued a single decree to hold a census in, and arrange the taxation due from, the entire empire. It is perfectly possible that there actually was such a single decree, effectively making clear what already happened in an ad hoc way, and that this – like so many other details – is simply not mentioned in our other sources. On the other hand, the Gospel writer may merely reflect the perspective of a provincial, for whom census and taxation were imposed by the Roman authorities with a regularity that must have seemed as if it was a system imposed by a single decision.

Sometimes the holding of a census provoked resentment and even rebellion, especially in recently settled provinces – the prospect of paying tax is rarely a pleasant one, especially if it went to an occupying power. Livy claims that there was some trouble in Gaul in response to the census, and Dio hints that this was the case, but gives no details, and if there were disturbances then they were probably small-scale. There were advantages to individuals and communities in registering property and rights, since these were recorded in a form that had unimpeachable legal authority. Most areas quickly became used to the process, and Drusus efficiently suppressed whatever resistance did occur.

As well as organising the finances of the Gallic provinces and keeping order, there was considerable activity preparing for the forthcoming advance across the Rhine. A series of large military bases were established to accommodate the troops mustering for the planned war. Numbers are difficult to establish, but probably at least eight legions were gathered, supported by substantial numbers of auxiliary troops and some naval squadrons manning both small war galleys and transport ships. One of the bases was at modern-day Nijmegen on the River Waal, and excavations suggest that it was constructed somewhere between 19 and 16 BC. Some forty-two hectares in size, and built of earth, turf and timber, it probably housed two complete legions as well as auxiliary units. Like most of the other forts built by the army in these years, whether on or to the east of the Rhine and in Spain, it does not quite conform to the neat, playing-card shape so familiar for Roman army bases in the first and second centuries AD. Augustus’ legions exploited good natural positions and often sited forts on high ground, the ramparts roughly following the contours to produce six-, seven- or eight-sided shapes. Their internal layouts also vary, as does the design of individual building types, but in each case the variation is less marked than the very close similarities. If it lacks the greater uniformity of practice of the next century, it suggests the ongoing development of such regular planning, evolving from traditional methods. Many of the regulations for the army were set down by Augustus and would remain in force for over a century without significant change.

Used to seeing the big stone forts of later years, it is all too easy for us to accept without remark the scale and organisation of these camps. Nijmegen was occupied for less than a decade, perhaps only for a few years, and yet for that time the soldiers lived in well-built, neatly ordered barrack blocks constructed to a standard design, with a pair of rooms for each tent group (or contubernium) of eight men. Some of the excavated barrack blocks are a little smaller and have been identified as auxiliary rather than legionary, but even these offered considerable comfort for men living through a north European winter. Far more generous are the headquarters building and the substantial houses built for the senator serving as legate in charge of a legion – or perhaps in such camps one man in charge of both legions – and for the equestrian and senatorial tribunes. All of these buildings are matched by similar structures in other forts built during these campaigns. In size and organisation, such army bases resembled well-ordered Mediterranean-style cities springing up on the fringes of the empire.

The winter months of 13–12 BC saw another raid by German warriors into the Roman provinces, but this was repulsed by Drusus. In the spring he launched the first of a series of attacks against the tribes living east of the Rhine. Some of the army advanced using land routes following the valleys feeding into the Rhine, while another part embarked on board ships and sailed around the North Sea to make landings on the coast. At one point he seriously misjudged local conditions, leaving many of his vessels aground when the tide went out further than he expected. Julius Caesar had similarly underestimated the power and tidal range of the sea during his British expeditions. Fortunately the Frisii, a recently acquired local ally, arrived to protect and assist the stranded Romans. Yet on the whole the story was one of success. Tribal homelands were attacked, villages and farms burnt, animals rounded up and crops destroyed, and any warriors who gathered defeated in battle. A century or so later Tacitus would make a barbarian leader grimly joke that the Romans ‘create a desolation and call it peace’. Faced with such displays of the price paid for resisting Rome, several tribes joined the Frisii in seeking alliance. Tiberius employed similar methods with similar success in Pannonia.

Drusus returned to Rome at the end of the year for a brief visit which demonstrated how many of the old restrictions on provincial governors simply did not apply to those close to the princeps. He was elected praetor, given the prestigious post of urban praetor, but tarried for only a short time before hurrying back to the Rhine frontier to continue the war. Now aged twenty-seven, at the start of spring 11 BC the princeps’ stepson attacked again, this time leading one of the columns making its way overland. Some of the tribes which had briefly capitulated may have decided to risk war once more. Florus tells a story of the Sugambri, Cherusci and Suebi seizing and crucifying twenty centurions who were in their territory, and this episode may date to that year. The most likely reason for their presence would have been either diplomatic activity as Roman representatives or more likely raising recruits promised by treaty for service in the auxiliary cohorts. However, as so often the Romans benefited from rivalries and disunity among the tribes. The Sugambri mustered an army and attacked the neighbouring Chatti because they refused to join them in alliance against Rome. While the warriors were occupied in this way, Drusus struck quickly, devastating their homeland.

Such incidents are a valuable reminder that the area east of the Rhine was populated by many distinct and often mutually hostile communities. The Romans called them Germans, but it is unlikely that any of the inhabitants of the region thought of themselves in that way. Julius Caesar portrayed the Germans and the Gauls as clearly distinct, although even he admitted that there was some blurring with the Germanic peoples already settled in Gaul. The distinction was useful to him, since it helped to establish the Germans as a threat to Gaul, and also made it easier for him to stop his conquests at the Rhine. He and other ancient authors paint a gloomy picture of Germany and its peoples, making them more primitive and at the same time more ferocious than the inhabitants of Gaul. For them Germany was a land of bogs and thick forests, with few clear tracks, no substantial towns, no temples and a population that was semi-nomadic, who kept animals and hunted in the forests but did not farm. Many old stereotypes of barbarism, stretching back to Homer’s portrait of the monstrous Cyclops in the Odyssey, fed this impression of peoples who were utterly uncivilised, and thus unpredictable and dangerous.

The archaeological evidence challenges much of this, while presenting problems and complexities of its own. Before Julius Caesar arrived in Gaul, a wide area of central Germany closely resembled the lands west of the Rhine, boasting large hilltop towns with similar signs of industry, trade and organisation as the Gaulish oppida. There was much contact between these areas, and whatever the political relationship the cultural similarities are striking, both belonging to what archaeologists call La Tène culture. During the first half of the first century BC, these towns in central Germany are all either abandoned or shrink dramatically in size and sophistication. In at least one case there is evidence for violent and bloody destruction of the town, and in general weaponry becomes far more common in the archaeological record. The destruction was not wrought by the Romans, who had yet to reach these lands, although it is possible that a contributing factor was the ripple effect caused by the impact of Rome’s empire, whether through the shifting trade patterns or direct military action. It is unlikely that the Romans were ever aware of what was happening so far from their empire; they naturally assumed that the situation they encountered when they did reach the area was normal, and that the local peoples had always behaved in this way.

These German towns and the societies based around them had probably already collapsed before Julius Caesar arrived in Gaul. How this happened is impossible to know, and the evidence could equally be interpreted as internal upheaval causing destructive power struggles, or as the arrival of new, aggressive peoples. Migrations are often difficult to trace archaeologically, but the repeated talk in our sources of large groups moving in search of new land must at least in part reflect reality. Tribal and other groupings also frequently defy the best attempts to see them in the archaeological evidence, and are likely to have been complex, with recently formed and short-lived groups mingling with older ties of kinship. Linguistic analysis of surviving names based on later Celtic and Germanic languages does suggest real distinctions at the time, but still does not make it easy to establish the ethnic and cultural identity of particular peoples. There is a fair chance that the Romans did not fully understand the relationships between named groups like the Sugambri, Cherusci, Chatti, Chauci or Suebi, and it is more than likely that these changed fairly rapidly as leaders rose and fell.

At the higher levels of society, there was certainly enough instability and rapid change to justify some of the Romans’ view of a population constantly on the move. Lower down this was less true. The towns had gone, but in most areas east of the Rhine farms, hamlets and small villages remained in occupation for long periods of time, spanning several generations. The overall population was probably large, even if there were no big settlements. Agriculture was widespread, albeit geared mainly to feeding the local population and producing no more surplus than was needed to cushion them against bad harvests. In the longer term the social and political structures of the tribes were in a state of flux, and substantial populations periodically on the move, but even so for decades at a time some tribal groups were settled on the same lands, and had clearly acknowledged leaders. The Romans could try to identify the tribes and know where their current homelands and chieftains were, at least in the immediate future.

No doubt they misunderstood a good deal and made mistakes, but Drusus and his staff steadily added to their knowledge of the peoples they were fighting. The absence of good roads made movement of men and supplies difficult for them. The lack of large communities meant that it was hard to find large stores of food and fodder. In Gaul, Julius Caesar had frequently gone to one of the oppida and either demanded or taken the supplies needed by his army. It was far more difficult to go to hundreds of little settlements for such needs, and so in Germany the legions were forced to carry almost all that they needed. Where necessary, they built bridges over rivers and causeways through marshes and this inevitably took time. In most cases Drusus and his men followed the lines of rivers since this made it easier to carry some supplies by barge, and the difficulty of moving overland helps to explain the reliance upon sailing around the North Sea coast.

In spite of such difficulties the second season of campaigning was successful, with the Roman columns penetrating deeper than ever before into Germany before running short of supplies. With summer drawing to a close, Drusus led his men back towards the Rhine – at this stage it would have been difficult to feed and impossible to support any garrison left deep in hostile territory over the winter months. German chieftains maintained bands of warriors who had no other job apart from fighting, but these were few in number. The army of a whole tribe or an alliance of tribes relied for numbers on every free tribesman able to equip himself with weapons and willing to fight, and inevitably it took a long time for such an army to muster. This meant that a Roman army was far more likely to encounter serious resistance when it retreated rather than in the initial attack. In this particular case men had also returned from the raid on the Chatti and joined the bands gathering to fight the enemy who had ravaged their lands. The Roman column was large and cumbersome with its supply train, and thus its route was predictable. The warriors were angry and they were confident, since a retreat on the part of the invader inevitably seemed like nervous flight.

Drusus’ column marched into a succession of ambushes. The Romans steadily fought their way onwards, but even when they repulsed the attackers they were in no position to pursue them and inflict serious losses, and could not afford the time to halt and manoeuvre against this elusive enemy. Each success, however small, encouraged the warriors, and no doubt inspired more to join them. This culminated in a much larger-scale ambush, which bottled up the Roman column in a restrictive defile. The Romans were trapped and risked annihilation, but then the essential clumsiness of a tribal army saved them. German warriors did not carry enough food for a long campaign and thus wanted the fight to be over quickly so they could return home. There was no single leader able to control the army, but lots of chiefs with varying amounts of influence, while each warrior reserved the right to decide when and how he would fight. The Romans seemed to be at their mercy and so, instead of waiting and letting them starve or fight at a disadvantage, bands of Germans massed together and surged forward to wipe out the enemy and enjoy the plunder to be taken from their baggage train. Close combat of this sort played to the strengths of the legionaries, giving Drusus and his men the opportunity to strike at their opponents at last. Turning at bay, the Romans savaged the exultant warriors, whose over-confidence quickly turned to panicked flight. Drusus and his men marched the rest of the way back to the Rhine unimpeded.

The campaign was declared a victory, as was the one waged by Tiberius near the Danube. Augustus was awarded a triumph, which as usual he chose not to celebrate, and his stepsons were granted the lesser honour of an ovation combined with the symbols of a triumph (ornamenta triumphalia). In the autumn both men returned to Rome, as did Augustus himself, and 400 sesterces were given to each male citizen in the City to celebrate the success of Livia’s sons. His fifty-second birthday was marked by a series of beast fights and around this time Julia and Tiberius were married. Yet the news was not all good. Octavia died suddenly, and so the ashes of yet another family member were installed in the Mausoleum. The princeps’ sister received the honour of a state funeral, with the principal oration delivered by her son-in-law Drusus.

In spite of this personal loss the mood was confident, and the Senate decreed the closing of the doors on the Temple of Janus to signify the establishment of peace throughout the Roman world. News of a Dacian raid across the Danube prevented the rite from being performed, and in 10 BC the wars were resumed. Augustus and Livia accompanied Drusus and his family to Lugdunum in Gaul, where later in the year Antonia gave birth to their second son, the future emperor Claudius. This year most likely saw the dedication there of a lavishly built and decorated precinct enclosing an altar to Rome and Augustus. Tribal leaders were summoned from all over Gaul to attend the ceremony and take part in the rituals that would from then on be repeated annually. Julius Caesar had talked of regular meetings of all the tribes of Gaul, and it is quite likely that this new cult was intended to fill the gap left by the abolition of such potentially subversive gatherings.

Tiberius spent the year campaigning in the Balkans, supported by at least one other army whose leader also received the insignia of a triumph. Drusus fought in Germany, and the brothers regularly wrote to each other, just as they did to Augustus and their mother. On one occasion Tiberius showed such a letter to the princeps, in which his brother talked of their combining to force Augustus to ‘restore liberty’. Suetonius tells the story as the first sign of Tiberius’ hatred of his kindred, but there is no other evidence for hostility between the brothers and every indication of deep affection. Perhaps the incident was an accident or a later invention. Modern scholars tend to assume that Drusus wanted the princeps to resign and the Republican system to be revived, and like to portray both brothers as aristocrats with highly traditional views of politics. Yet the phrase is vague, and may have meant no more than a dislike of some of the people given office and influence under Augustus, and a desire that these be replaced by better men – including themselves. Drusus was certainly ambitious. Elsewhere Suetonius tells us that he was desperate to win the spolia opima, even going so far as to chase German kings around the battlefield in the hope of cornering them and killing them in single combat. It is a great leap of the imagination to connect this with the incident involving Crassus in 29 BC, rather than seeing it as the eagerness of a young aristocrat to win one of the rarest and most prestigious of all honours.

In January 9 BC Drusus became consul just over a week before his twenty-ninth birthday, and it may be that his hunt for the spolia opima came in this year, when as consul he fought under his own imperium and auspices. This was the year when he took his army to the River Elbe; a story soon circulated that he was there confronted with the apparition of a larger-than-life woman who warned him not to advance any further and prophesied that his life was almost at an end. It was late in the season, and Drusus returned to his bases on the Rhine, but was now able to leave some garrisons in Germany. In the course of the four campaigns the land between the Rhine and the Elbe had been overrun, and most of the peoples there claimed to acknowledge Roman rule. How permanent this would prove was not yet clear, but the achievement was certainly considerable. Then, on the way back to winter in Gaul, Drusus had a riding accident and badly injured his leg. The wound failed to heal and in September the young general died.

Tiberius was soon at his brother’s side, having rushed to join him in a journey that became famous for its speed. He arranged for the body to be embalmed and carried back to Rome with great ceremony. The first to bear it were tribunes and centurions from his legions. Later they passed this duty on to the leading citizens of Roman colonies and towns. On many of the stages Tiberius walked with the procession. The mourning was a genuine reflection of Drusus’ popularity – Seneca later claimed the mood was almost that of a triumph as they marked the passing of the dashing young hero. The ceremonies culminated in a public funeral in Rome. Tiberius delivered a eulogy to his brother from the Rostra outside the Temple of the Divine Julius in the Forum. Augustus gave another – perhaps to an even bigger crowd – in the Circus Flaminius and outside the pomerium, the formal boundary of a city. (He was in mourning and this prevented him entering Rome and performing the rites required to mark his latest victory.) Actors wore the funeral masks and insignia of Drusus’ ancestors in the traditional way. These were augmented by those of the ancestors of the Julii, even though Augustus had never adopted his stepson, before the body was cremated and the ashes added to those in the Mausoleum – association with the princeps clearly trumped the right to be commemorated as a member of the dead man’s real family.

Year of the Four Emperors, Roman Civil Wars


AD 69 (Year of the Four Emperors, Roman Civil Wars) – The power struggle between Marcus Salvius Otho, the former governor of Lusitania, and Aulus Vitellius, governor of Germania Inferior (Lower Germany), was the latest chapter in the Roman civil war which followed the death of the Julio-Claudian Emperor Nero in the summer of AD 68. The assassination of his immediate successor, Galba, the following January signalled the beginning of a months-long internecine struggle between these two men. The contest between Otho and Vitellius was decided in the Padus (Po) Valley in northern Italy. The first significant clash came at Placentia (Piacenza). Here, the legions of Vitellius’ lieutenant, Caecina, besieged the city in an attempt to force the capitulation of the resident Othonian forces led by Vestricius Spurinna. Once his army was across the Padus River, Caecina’s legions attacked the community, but were unsuccessful in breaching its walls and suffered heavy losses by the end of the day’s action. His army resumed the investment the next morning, this time with the aid of siege-works – fascines, manlets and sheds to mine the walls – but still failed to make progress against the defenders. Unable to overcome the city’s defences by storm, Caecina ultimately abandoned the assault, re-crossed the river and marched against Cremona some 20 miles (32km) away.

Locus Castorum

AD 69 (Year of the Four Emperors, Roman Civil Wars) – The death of Roman Emperor Nero in the summer of AD 68 proved the catalyst for a violent power struggle in the Empire that eventually pitted various Roman legions against one another in open civil war. Following the demise of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, Servius Sulpicius Galba briefly served as emperor from June of AD 68 until the following January, before his assassination again plunged the Empire into chaos. Two other contenders now openly sought the emperorship: Marcus Salvius Otho, the former governor of Lusitania, and Aulus Vitellius, governor of Germania Inferior (Lower Germany). The contest between these two pretenders was ultimately decided in the Po Valley of northern Italy. The first clash occurred at Locus Castorum, a location some 12 miles (19.3km) from the town of Cremona. Vitellian forces encountered an Othonian army led by the general Suetonius Paulinus. With the approach of Otho’s troops, the legatus Aulus Caecina Alienus prepared an ambuscade for the enemy. Deploying auxiliary troops in some woods near the road, he sent his cavalry with instructions to provoke an engagement and then feign retreat in order to draw the Othonians into the trap. The opposing generals soon learned of the intended ambush and approached the location with caution, though still intent on pursuing battle. Paulinus immediately assumed command of the infantry, while Marius Celsus led the cavalry. Before reaching the location of Caecina, Otho’s commanders assembled their army into battle formation. On the left flank, they positioned a vexillation of the Legio XIII Gemina, four cohorts of auxiliary infantry and 500 auxiliary cavalry. Opposite these troops, on the right flank, were arrayed the Legio I Adiutrix, a pair of auxiliary infantry cohorts and 500 horse. In the centre, spanning the road, were three praetorian cohorts. To the rear, Paulinus stationed a reserve of 1,000 Praetorian and auxiliary cavalry. As the Othonians advanced, a portion of the Vitellian line broke and fled. Celsus suspected a trick, and in turn initiated a feigned withdrawal which lured some of the enemy from cover. Caecina’s troops gave chase and quickly found themselves constrained by legionary cohorts to their front and auxiliary infantry on the flanks. Before they could properly react, the prompt arrival of Celsus’ cavalry closed any avenue of retreat toward Cremona. While the two sides faced one another, Paulinus paused long enough to redress his line and formulate a plan of attack. The delay offered Caecina’s men opportunity to seek the relative safety of nearby vineyards and a small grove of woods. When the Othonian army was properly arrayed, Paulinus ordered his battle line to charge. The attack proved irresistible. Even with the piecemeal arrival of reinforcements, the auxiliary cohorts of Caecina were flushed from the tangle of vines and tree cover and completely routed. The defeated remnants of the army thereafter retreated to Cremona.

Forum Julii

AD 69 (Year of the Four Emperors, Roman Civil Wars) – During the Roman civil war between Emperor Otho and Aulus Vitellius, governor of Germania Inferior (Lower Germany), envoys from Gallia Narbonensis appealed to the Vitellian general, Fabius Valens, for protection in the province from a marauding Othonian fleet. In response, he dispatched a force of auxilia, both infantry and cavalry, to secure the region, which had earlier declared its allegiance for Vitellius. A portion of these troops bivouacked at the port of Forum Julii (Frejus) to help secure the unprotected coast from indiscriminate raiding by the enemy. Upon the approach of an Othonian army, the Vitellians prepared for battle. They deployed twelve turmae of cavalry, including Trevirian horsemen, and a select detachment of infantry. These were reinforced by local auxiliaries, 500 Pannonian recruits not yet formally enrolled into service and one Ligurian cohort. Once the two armies began assembling for battle, the Vitellians, who were strongest in cavalry, formed two lines; the mounted squadrons in front, followed by the infantry in close ranks. The Ligurian auxiliaries were located on adjacent high ground. Opposing the Vitellians was a numerically superior army that included several cohorts of Praetorian infantry and a mixed contingent of marines and local militia. These were deployed over a level area extending inland from the coast. Nearby, the Othonian fleet was anchored close to shore, its ships facing the battlefield in order to better provide support for the army. The Trevirian cavalry opened the contest with an imprudent charge against the Praetorians, which not only failed to disrupt the formation of veteran infantry, but needlessly exposed their flank to the fire of slingers. While both armies were fully engaged in the struggle, the Othonian fleet attacked the enemy’s rear. The action trapped the Vitellians, who were only able to avoid complete destruction with the onset of nightfall. The Othonians returned to camp following this victory, unaware that the enemy, though defeated, was prepared to regroup for a second battle. After receiving fresh reinforcements, including two cohorts of Tungarian auxilia, the Vitellians launched a surprise assault that penetrated their opponents’ encampment and forced the Othonians to abandon their defences and rally on a nearby hill. The resulting struggle was long and stubbornly contested, and both sides accrued heavy casualties. The battle finally ended when intense missile fire overwhelmed the determined resistance of the Tungrian infantry and put the Vitellians to flight once again. An effort by the Othonians to underscore their victory with a vigorous chase was abruptly stopped when the enemy horse wheeled around and briefly surrounded their pursuers. Both armies thereafter withdrew, the Vitellians to nearby Antipolis (Antibes) and the emperor’s forces further up the coast to Albingaunum (Albenga) in Liguria.


AD 69, 14 April (Year of the Four Emperors, Roman Civil Wars) – The death of Emperor Nero in early June of AD 68 resulted in open civil war throughout the Roman Empire. Following the assassination of the hastily chosen Emperor Galba, the armies of his successor, Marcus Salvius Otho, clashed with those of Aulus Vitellius, governor of Germania Inferior (Lower Germany), near the northern Italian communities of Cremona and Bedriacum (Calvatone). In a preliminary contest outside the village of Locus Castorum, an Othonian army led by the general Suetonius Paulinus defeated an inferior rival force commanded by Aulus Caecina Alienus. The defeated Vitellian troops fled to Cremona, where they were soon joined by an army under Fabius Valens. As the two sides prepared for the coming engagement, Otho’s principal commander – his brother, Titianus, and the prefectus, Proculus – rejected the counsel of Paulinus and the legatus Marius Celsus to await reinforcements and instead elected to immediately force a major action outside of Cremona. The emperor withdrew to the safety of Brixellum (Brescello), accompanied by a strong force of his bodyguards, cavalry and Praetorian Guardsmen. The two armies arrayed for battle near Cremona. The forces of Vitellius possessed the advantage of both strength and numbers, and their greater morale permitted the legions to quickly form into orderly ranks, while confusion slowed the development of the Othonian line. The fighting concentrated along the raised causeway of the Via Postumia, a road situated on the left bank of the Padus (Po) River. In an open plain bounded by the river and road, intense fighting erupted between Vitellius’ veteran Legio XXI Rapax from Germania Superior (Upper Germany) and the less experienced Legio I Adiutrix. The First Legion, consisting of marines levied from the fleet at Ravenna, inflicted heavy casualties on the leading ranks of the Twenty-first and temporarily captured its eagle before a ferocious counter-attack drove back the Legio I with heavy losses, including its legate, Orfidius Benignus. At the same time, Vitellius’ Legio V Alaudae from Germania Inferior (Lower Germany) routed the Legio XIII Gemina based in Pannonia. On another part of the battlefield, the Vitellians attacked Otho’s XIV Gemina after successfully isolating the legion with superior forces. The general struggle remained undecided for some time until Caecina and Valens reinforced their legions by the application of reserves. The Vitellian effort was further strengthened with the arrival of Batavian auxilia under Varus Alfenus. Fresh from their victory over Othonian forces at the Padus, the Batavians immediately launched a concentrated assault against the enemy’s flank. This attack, together with continued pressure brought against the opposing ranks by the Vitellian legions, caused Otho’s centre to collapse. The loss of this central formation triggered a total rout. Both victors and vanquished were temporarily slowed by the carnage on the Via Postumia as each departed the field in the direction of Bedriacum, approximately 15 miles (24km) away. As the army of Vitellius reached the town’s fifth milestone, Caecina and Valens ended the pursuit. Total Roman dead amounted to over 40,000.


AD 69, 24 October (Year of the Four Emperors, Roman Civil Wars) – The Roman civil war that followed the Emperor Nero’s death in early summer of AD 68 resulted in the rapid manifestation of four claim- ants to the imperial purple by the spring of the following year. The power struggle eventually led to the assassination of Emperor Galba in January AD 69 after only seven months in power; the suicide of his successor Otho following his army’s defeat at Cremona in April; and the emergence of a violent contest between Aulus Vitellius, governor of Germania Inferior (Lower Germany), and Titus Flavius Vespasianus, the general appointed by Nero to crush an ongoing revolt in Judaea. Near the town of Bedriacum (Calvatone) in northern Italy, legions loyal to Vitellius and Vespasian joined in a violent battle to determine the future of the Empire. Following a sharp but largely inconclusive engagement on the first day, both armies prepared for a major battle that night. Shortly after dusk, the Flavian commander Marcus Antonius Primus drew up his army across the Via Postumia, an elevated roadway which extended between the towns of Cremona and Bedriacum, and generally followed the left bank of the Padus (Po) River. He positioned the Legio XIII Gemina on the causeway, and on the left flank in an open plain he deployed the Legio VII Galbiana and the Legio VII Claudia. To the right, Antonius stationed the Legio VIII Augusta on a secondary road. It was joined by the Legio III Gallica, which found itself hampered on the far right by its placement among dense thickets. A detachment of praetorians was then drawn up next to the Third Legion and auxiliary cohorts were posted on each wing. The Flavian cavalry, numbering some 4,000, secured the flanks and rear of the entire formation. Lastly, ahead of the legions ranged a select force of Suebian tribesmen.

Opposite Antonius’ front line, the darkness heavily obscured a formidable Vitellian battle formation. The approaching army was presently leaderless, as its general, Aulus Caecina Alienus, was in irons after plotting to defect to the Flavians. The absence of their senior commander, combined with the dark of night, served to create some initial confusion within the ranks of the Vitellians. On the extreme right, the Legio IIII Macedonica advanced in the company of the Fifth and Fifteenth legions, which were stationed in the centre along with vexillations of the Legio IX Hispana, Legio II Augusta and the Legio XX Valeria Victrix. On the left, the Sixteenth and First legions were joined by the Legio XXII Primigenia. Within the ranks of each was included a liberal distribution of soldiers from the depleted cohorts of the Legio XXI Rapax and Legio I Italica. Completing the arrangement was the army’s cavalry and auxilia, which were arrayed around the main body of heavy infantry. Some distance from Bedriacium, the contending armies met in a decisive confrontation. The battle lasted throughout the night, and proved to be a savage, confusing struggle whose outcome remained uncertain until dawn when the men of the Legio III Gallica, imbued with a certain Syrian custom after many years of service in the orient, turned and saluted the rising sun. The Vitellians misunderstood the gesture, and concluded that the Third Legion was acknowledging the arrival of reinforcements. Using the dissemination of this misinformation to best advantage, the Flavian cohorts vigorously advanced as if supported by fresh divisions. The ruse worked to further demoralize an enemy already weakened by a lack of leadership, and Antonius seized the opportunity to launch an assault against the opposing line. The forceful attack broke the Vitellian formation, and a subsequent attempt to reform proved futile because the oppressed cohorts were driven back among their own supply wagons and artillery. Unable to recover, Vitellius’ forces dissolved into headlong retreat toward Cremona, pursued by the victorious troops of Vespasian.

Via Salaria

AD 69, 20-21 December (Year of the Four Emperors, Roman Civil Wars) – In preparation for marching his legions into Rome, Flavian general Marcus Antonius Primus sent an advance column of 1,000 cavalry along the Salarian Way with orders to enter the north-eastern part of the city and secure the Colline Gate. As the detachment of horsemen led by Quintus Petilius Cerialis approached their destination, they encountered a Vitellian force, consisting of both infantry and cavalry, blocking the Via Salaria. The resulting battle occurred in a developed area outside the city walls where the maze of buildings, gardens and winding streets proved a liability for Cerialis’ troops. At the same time, the familiar surroundings permitted the Vitellians to exploit the situation to best tactical advantage and eventually put the enemy to ?ight. The subsequent pursuit by the victors lasted only as far as the town of Fidenae, some 5 miles (8km) north of Rome on the same highway.


AD 69, 20-21 December (Year of the Four Emperors, Roman Civil Wars) – The Roman civil war that followed the death of Nero in the early summer of AD 68 climaxed eighteen months later in the autumn of 69 with an intense struggle between the armies of Emperor Aelius Vitellius and his challenger, the veteran legatus, Titus Flavius Vespasianus. Following the victory of Flavian legions at Bedriacum (Calvatone) in northern Italy, Vespasian’s lieutenant, Marcus Antonius Primus, marched south toward Rome with the intention of finishing the conflict. Advancing along the Via Flaminia, Antonius’ army arrived in late evening at Saxa Rubra, a village located some 6 miles (9.6km) north of the capital. Here he learned that a 1,000-man cavalry detachment, dispatched by him earlier under the com- mand of Quintus Petilius Cerialis, had been defeated on the Via Salaria near Rome. Further, it appeared the preponderance of popular support in the city was for Vitellius. While the army halted temporarily on the far side of the river, a senatorial delegation arrived with a peace proposal for Antonius, soon followed by Vestals bearing letters from Vitellius requesting the Flavians delay their march until the next day. The general was inclined to accede to the request and camp near the Milvian Bridge, but the legions refused to stop their advance and demanded Antonius continue on despite the late hour. Once the Flavians resumed their march, they divided into three columns: one force continuing along the Flaminian Way, a second to the right of the highway following the banks of the Tiber and a third approaching the Colline Gate on the north-eastern side of the city. The Vitellians countered by deploying troops ahead of each of these columns. As a result, widespread fighting occurred near the northern and north-eastern walls of the city, on the Campus Martius and in the Sixth, or Alta Semita, Region of the city. In addition, Antonius’ legions encountered particularly stiff resistance at the Castra Praetoria, which only ended after the complete destruction of the veteran praetorian cohorts of the emperor. After hours of combat, the Flavian divisions finally gained control of the city in late afternoon. By that time Vitellius was dead, murdered by soldiers earlier in the day.