Caesar’s Blitzkrieg

Julius Caesar crossed the river Rubicon. Suetonius says that as his army began to cross Caesar declared, “Alea iacta est!” The die has been cast…

In December 50 BC one of the two consuls, Gaius Marcellus, travelled in the full pomp of his office to Pompey’s villa in the Alban Hills. His colleague, having begun the year as an anti-Caesarian, had been persuaded, much like Curio, and no doubt for similar motives, to switch sides – but Marcellus, spurning all overtures, had remained implacable in his hostility to Caesar. Now, with only days left in office, he felt that the time had come to put some more steel into Pompey’s backbone. Watched by an immense number of senators and a tense, excited crowd, Marcellus handed his champion a sword. ‘We charge you to march against Caesar,’ he intoned sombrely, ‘and rescue the Republic.’ ‘I will do so,’ Pompey answered, ‘if no other way can be found.’ He then took the sword, along with the command of two legions at Capua. He also set about raising fresh levies. All of which was illegal in the extreme – an embarrassment predictably made much of by Caesar’s supporters. Caesar himself, stationed menacingly at Ravenna with the Legio XIII Gemina, was brought the news by Curio, who by now had finished his term and had no wish to stay in Rome to suffer prosecution, or worse. Meanwhile, back in the capital, his place as tribune had been taken by Antony, who occupied himself throughout December by launching a series of blood-curdling attacks on Pompey and vetoing anything that moved. As the tension heightened, the deadlock remained.

Then, on 1 January 49 BC, despite the stern opposition of the new consuls, who were both, like Marcellus, virulent anti-Caesarians, Antony read out a letter to the Senate. It had been hand-delivered by Curio and penned by Caesar himself. The proconsul cast himself as the friend of peace. After a lengthy recitation of his many great achievements he proposed that both he and Pompey lay down their commands simultaneously. The Senate, nervous of the effect that this might have on public opinion, suppressed it. Metellus Scipio then stood up and dealt the death-blow to all the final, flickering hopes of compromise. He named a date by which Caesar should surrender command of his legions or be considered an enemy of the Republic. This motion was immediately put to the vote. Only two senators opposed it: Curio and Caelius. Antony, as tribune, then promptly vetoed the bill.

For the Senate, that was the final straw. On 7 January a state of emergency was proclaimed. Pompey immediately moved troops into Rome, and the tribunes were warned that their safety could no longer be guaranteed. With a typically melodramatic flourish, Antony, Curio and Caelius disguised themselves as slaves, and then, hiding in wagons, fled north towards Ravenna. There, Caesar was still waiting with his single legion. The news of Pompey’s emergency powers reached him on the tenth. Immediately, he ordered a detachment of troops to strike south, to seize the nearest town across the frontier, inside Italy. Caesar himself, however, while his men were setting out, passed the afternoon by having a bath, then attending a banquet, where he chatted with guests as though he had not a care in the world. Only at dusk did he rise from his couch. Hurrying in a carriage along dark and twisting byways, he finally caught up with his troops on the bank of the Rubicon. There was a moment’s dreadful hesitation, and then he was crossing its swollen waters into Italy, towards Rome.

No one could know it at the time, but 460 years of the free Republic were being brought to an end.

In Gaul, against the barbarians, Caesar had preferred to stab hard and fast wherever he was least expected, no matter what the risks. Now, having taken the supreme gamble of his life, he aimed to unleash the same strategy against his fellow citizens. Rather than wait for his full complement of legions to arrive from Gaul, as Pompey had expected him to do, Caesar decided instead to rely upon the effects of terror and surprise. Beyond the Rubicon there was no one to oppose him. His agents had been busy softening up Italy with bribes. Now, the moment he appeared before them, the frontier towns opened their gates. The great trunk roads to Rome were easily secured. Still no one advanced from the capital. Still Caesar struck on south.

News of the blitzkrieg was carried to Rome upon crowds of refugees. The effect of their arrival was to send fresh refugees streaming out of the city itself. Invasions from the north stirred ancestral nightmares in the Republic. Cicero, as he followed the reports of Caesar’s progress with obsessive horror, wondered, ‘Is it a general of the Roman people we are talking about, or Hannibal?’ But there were other ghosts abroad too, from a more recent period of history. Farmers working in the fields beside the tomb of Marius reported sightings of the grim old general, risen from his sepulchre; while in the middle of the Campus Martius, where Sulla’s corpse had been consumed, his spectre was glimpsed, intoning ‘prophecies of doom’. Gone was the war fever, so glad and confident only a few days before. Panicky senators, who had been assured by Pompey that victory would be a walkover, were now starting to calculate whether their names might not soon be appearing on Caesar’s proscription lists. The Senate rose and, as one body, besieged their generalissimo. One senator openly accused Pompey of having deceived the Republic and tempted it into disaster. Another, Favonius, a close friend of Cato, jeered at him to stamp his foot and produce the legions and cavalry he had promised.

But Pompey had already given up on Rome. The Senate was issued with an evacuation order. Anyone staying behind, Pompey warned, would be regarded as a traitor. With that he headed south, leaving the capital to its fate. His ultimatum made final and irreparable the schism in the Republic. Every civil war cuts through families and friendships, but Roman society had always been especially subtle in its loyalties, and contemptuous of brute divisions. For many citizens, a choice between Caesar and Pompey remained as impossible as ever. For some, it was particularly cruel. As a result all eyes were upon them. What, for instance, was a man such as Marcus Junius Brutus to do? Earnest, dutiful and deep-thinking, yet heavily committed to both rivals, his judgement would carry special weight. Which way would Marcus Brutus choose to leap?

There was much to encourage him into Caesar’s camp. His mother, Servilia, had been the great love of Caesar’s life, and it was even claimed that Brutus himself was their love child. Whatever the truth of that rumour, Brutus’ legal father had been one of the young Pompey’s many victims during the first civil war, and so it was widely assumed that he was bound to favour the old flame of his mother over the murderer of her husband. But Pompey, once the ‘teenage butcher’, was now the champion of the Republic, and Brutus, an intellectual of rare probity and honour, could not bring himself to abandon the cause of legitimacy. Attached to Caesar he may have been, but he was even closer to Cato, who was both his uncle and his father-in-law. Brutus obeyed Pompey’s orders. He abandoned Rome. So too, after a night of havering and hand-wringing, did most of the Senate. Only the barest rump remained. Never before had the city been so emptied of its magistrates. Barely a week had passed since Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon, and already the world had been turned upside down.

Pompey, of course, could argue that there were sound military reasons for the surrender of the capital – and so there were. Nevertheless, it was a tragic and fatal mistake. The Republic could not endure as an abstraction. Its vitality was nourished by the streets and public places of Rome, by the smoke rising from age-blackened temples, by the rhythms of elections, year on year on year. Uprooted, how could the Republic remain true to the will of the gods, and how were the wishes of the Roman people to be known? By fleeing the city the Senate had cut itself off from all those – the vast majority – who could not afford to pack up and leave their homes. As a result, the shared sense of community that had bound even the poorest citizen to the ideals of the state was betrayed. No wonder that the great nobles, abandoning their ancestral homes, dreaded looters and the fury of the slums.

Perhaps, if the war proved to be as short as Pompey had promised it would be, then none of this would matter – but it was already becoming clear that only Caesar had any hope of a lightning victory. Even as Pompey retreated south through Italy his pursuer was gathering pace. It seemed that the scattered legions summoned to the defence of the Republic might suffer the same fate as Spartacus’ army, pinned down in the peninsula’s heel. Only complete evacuation could spare them such a calamity. The Senate began to contemplate the unthinkable: that it should reconvene abroad. Provinces had already been allocated to its key leaders: Sicily to Cato, Syria to Metellus Scipio, Spain to Pompey himself. Henceforward, it appeared, the arbiters of the Republic’s fate were to rule not in the city that had bestowed their rank upon them, but as warlords amid distant and sinister barbarians. Their power would be sanctioned by force, and force alone. How, then, were they different to Caesar? How, whichever side won, was the Republic to be restored?

Even those most identified with the cause of the establishment showed themselves tormented by this question. Cato, contemplating the results of his greatest and most ruinous gamble, did nothing for his followers’ morale by putting on mourning and bewailing the news of every military engagement, victory as well as defeat. Neutrals, of course, lacked even the consolation of knowing that the Republic was being destroyed in a good cause. Cicero, having obediently abandoned Rome on Pompey’s orders, found himself disoriented to the point of hysteria by his absence from the capital. For weeks he could do nothing save write plaintive letters to Atticus, asking him what he should do, where he should go, whom he should support. He regarded Caesar’s followers as a gang of cutthroats, and Pompey as criminally incompetent. Cicero was no soldier, but he could see with perfect clarity what a catastrophe the abandonment of Rome had been, and blamed it for the collapse of everything he held dear, from property prices to the Republic itself. ‘As it is, we wander about like beggars with our wives and children, all our hopes dependent upon a man who falls dangerously ill once a year, and yet we were not even expelled but summoned from our city!’ Always the same anguish, the same bitterness, bred of the wound that had never healed. Cicero already knew what his fellow senators were soon to learn: that a citizen in exile was barely a citizen at all.

Nor, with Rome abandoned, was there anywhere else to make a stand. The one attempt to hold Caesar ended in debacle. Domitius Ahenobarbus, whose immense capacity for hatred embraced Pompey and Caesar in equal measure, refused point blank to retreat. He was inspired less by any grand strategic vision than by stupidity and pig-headedness. With Caesar sweeping through central Italy, Domitius decided to bottle himself up in the crossroads town of Corfinium. This was the same Corfinium that the Italian rebels had made their capital forty years before, and memories of that great struggle were not yet entirely the stuff of history. Enfranchised they may have been, but there were plenty of Italians who still felt themselves alienated from Rome. The cause of the Republic meant little to them – but not so that of Caesar. After all, he was the heir of Marius, that great patron of the Italians – and the enemy of Pompey, the partisan of Sulla. Old hatreds, flaring back to life, doomed Domitius’ stand. Certainly, Corfinium had no intention of perishing in his defence: no sooner had Caesar appeared before its walls than it was begging to surrender. Domitius’ raw levies, confronted by an army that by now comprised five crack legions, were quick to agree. Envoys were sent to Caesar, who accepted their capitulation gracefully. Domitius raged, but in vain.

Hauled before Caesar by his own officers, he begged for death. Caesar refused. Instead he sent Domitius on his way. This was only seemingly a gesture of mercy. For a citizen, there could be no more unspeakable humiliation than to owe one’s life to the favour of another. Domitius, for all that he had been spared to fight another day, left Corfinium diminished and emasculated. It would be unfair to dismiss Caesar’s clemency as a mere tool of policy – Domitius, if their positions had been reversed, would surely have had Caesar put to death – but it served his purposes well enough. For not only did it satisfy his own ineffable sense of superiority, but it helped to reassure neutrals everywhere that he was no second Sulla. Even his bitterest enemies, if they only submitted, could have the assurance that they would be pardoned and spared. Caesar had no plans for proscription lists to be posted in the Forum.

The point was jubilantly taken. Few citizens had the pride of Domitius. The levies he had recruited, to say nothing of the people whose town he had occupied, had no hesitation in rejoicing at their conqueror’s leniency. News of the ‘Pardon of Corfinium’ spread fast. There would be no popular uprising against Caesar now, no chance that Italy would swing behind Pompey and come suddenly to his rescue. With Domitius’ recruits having crossed to the enemy, the army of the Republic was now even more denuded than it had been, and its sole stronghold was Brundisium, the great port, the gateway to the East. Here Pompey remained, frantically commandeering ships, preparing for the crossing to Greece. He knew that he could not risk open battle with Caesar, not yet – and Caesar knew that if only he could capture Brundisium, he would be able to finish off the war at a stroke.

And so now, for both sides, began a desperate race against time. Speeding south from Corfinium, Caesar was brought the news that half of the enemy’s army had already sailed, under the command of the two consuls, but that the other half, under Pompey, still waited crammed inside the port. There they would have to remain, holed up, until the fleet returned from Greece. Caesar, arriving outside Brundisium, immediately ordered his men to sail pontoons to the harbour mouth and throw a breakwater across the gap. Pompey responded by having three-storey towers built on the decks of merchant ships, then sending them across the harbour to rain missiles down on Caesar’s engineers. For days the struggle continued, a desperate tumult of slingshot, heaving timbers and flames. Then, with the breakwater still unfinished, sails were spotted out to sea. Pompey’s fleet was returning from Greece. Breaking through the harbour mouth, it docked successfully, and the evacuation of Brundisium was at last able to begin. The operation was conducted with Pompey’s customary efficiency. As twilight deepened the oars of his transport fleet began to plash across the harbour’s waters. Caesar, warned by sympathisers inside the city, ordered his men to storm the walls – but they broke into Brundisium too late. Out through the narrow bottleneck left them by the siegeworks, Pompey’s ships were slipping into the open night. With them went Caesar’s last hope of a speedy resolution to the war. It was barely two and a half months since he had crossed the Rubicon.

When dawn came it illumined an empty sea. The sails of Pompey’s fleet had vanished. The future of the Roman people now waited not in their own city, nor even in Italy, but beyond the still and mocking horizon, in barbarous countries far from the Forum or the Senate House or the voting pens.

As the Republic tottered, so the tremors could be felt throughout the world.


Campaign Against the Pirates, 66-67 BC

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

Pompey, ordered to clear the seas of pirates, had full authority over the entire Mediterranean and Black Seas, and all land within 80km (50 miles) of the sea. He raised 500 ships, 120,000 soldiers and 5000 cavalry. He then divided this force into 13 commands. The only area left (deliberately) unguarded was Cilicia. Pompey took a squadron of 60 ships and drove the pirates from Sicily, into the arms of another squadron. Then he swept down to North Africa, and completed the triangle by linking up with another legate off the coast of Sardinia, thus securing the three main grain-producing areas that served Rome. Pompey then swept across the Mediterranean from Spain to the east, defeating or driving pirates before him. The remnants duly gathered in Cilicia, where Pompey had planned a full assault by both land and sea. A few pirate strongholds were destroyed, and there was a final sea battle in the bay of Coracesium, but thanks to Pompey’s clemency, most pirates surrendered easily.

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

The early period of Roman expansion was marked by a succession of wars with neighbours near and far. First there were the other states in Italy and then Carthage. When Carthage was beaten, the Rome turned its gaze to the east. Macedonia, Greece and then Pontus (modern Asiatic Turkey) fell to Rome over a number of years. But it was while Rome was focused on these wars that piracy raised its head in the eastern Mediterranean.

For many years, the island of Rhodes had used its navy to suppress piracy in order to protect her position as a transit port in the lucrative east-west trade. However, Rhodes fell foul of the Macedonian kingdom and appealed to Rome, who sent a force of quinqueremes to defend her ally. The combined force compelled the Macedonians to sue for peace. Under the treaty, the Romans gained the small island of Delos, which they returned to Macedonia on the condition that it was run as a free port with no taxes or dues on goods entering or leaving. Unfortunately for Rhodes, the presence of this offshore tax haven undermined the revenues from her trade and the island and her navy went into long-term decline. With Rhodes no longer able to police the waters of the Mediterranean, the pirates spread their depredations beyond the eastern Mediterranean. Ports and coastal towns were sacked, shrines desecrated and cargoes, crews and ships taken at sea. The goods, ships and their crew were then sold off at various markets. Wealthy captives were held to ransom.

The ordinary merchants of the ancient world sailed in ships far simpler in design than the warships of the period. Such ships could not afford the expensive oarsmen of the warship and had to rely instead on the single main mast and single square sail with the optional refinement of bowsprit and second, smaller square sail. Later ships added a triangular sail above the main for extra propulsion. The merchant ships could be as much as 60m (200ft) in length, possibly with more than one mast, but were more usually just 30m (100ft) long and 8m (26ft) in beam, drawing just 3m (10ft) of water and carrying loads of around 100-150 gross tons. Built for capacity rather than speed, they were not fast – perhaps 5-6 knots if the wind permitted. Crews were kept to a minimum since they ate into the profits: 10-15 men were usual on a medium-sized ship; less on a smaller ship and more on a larger one.

While the sail-powered merchantman was dependent on the wind for speed, the oarpowered warship or pirate ship was unhampered by head winds or rough seas. Since the square sail meant the merchantman would sail fastest heading down wind, the pirate tactics were simple: cruise into the wind so that any prey coming the other way would find it next to impossible to escape. Alternatively, the pirates would lurk behind headlands for a quick spurt to catch any passing trader. Fear and intimidation were the best weapons to induce a quick surrender. Faced by a pirate ship apparently bristling with armed men and with no way to escape, most merchant ships would be forced to capitulate. The pirates could then use their oars to spin the ship around and bring their bows up to the victim’s stern, where it was safe to board. The crew would be bundled below and well trussed up and the pirates would install their own crew to sail the prize for home.

So widespread and powerful did the pirates grow that when the rebel leader Spartacus and his army of ex-slaves became trapped in the toe of Italy in 72 BC they negotiated with the pirates to evacuate the whole army – some 90,000 men, women and children – by ship. The pirates were then paid even more by the Roman politician Crassus not to fulfil the contract. The problem with piracy reached such a pass that two Roman Praetors, together with their staff, were captured by the pirates. Another squadron attacked Rome’s port at Ostia and sacked other towns in the region.

Pompey’s Appointment

In many ways, the Roman elite benefited from the pirate’s activities. For those who could afford to buy, piracy kept the price of slaves low and supply plentiful. On the other hand, it did interrupt trade. So the wealthiest classes in Rome, who needed to buy slaves to work their estates, benefited while the lower, merchant classes and their workers suffered. In 69 BC, however, the pirates excelled themselves and plundered the island of Delos. It comes as no surprise, then, that the consul Metellus was voted an army to reduce the pirate base in Crete. He headed off and set about his task, rounding up some pirates and settling down to besiege others in the main pirate base on the island.

In 67 BC, the Roman tribune Aulus Gabinus presented a bill to the Peoples’ Assembly to appoint the most famous general of the age, Pompeius Magnus – better known as Pompey – to sweep the pirates from the seas once and for all. The ramifications were enormous. Clearing the Mediterranean of the pirates would greatly ease the lot of the ordinary man. Indeed, prices in the markets of Rome fell significantly simply at the presentation of this bill. The Roman citizens, the plebs, were right behind the idea. However, the wealthy ruling classes, the senators and, to a lesser extent, the knights were almost universally against the bill. The one notable exception was Julius Caesar. Ever the populist, he supported the motion. It was passed.

Pompey had already enjoyed a very distinguished military career. He had first been appointed commander of an army at the age of 24, supporting Sulla’s side in an earlier civil war. Although he was occasionally accused of cruelty, he proved so successful during campaigns in Sicily and in Africa that he was acclaimed ‘Great’ by Sulla. He even asked for and was granted a triumphal procession that should not have been permitted given his youth and junior rank. No sooner had Sulla died than another civil war loomed and Pompey found himself in Spain, leading an army against Sertorius. Although he was supported by a second army under Metellus, it was Pompey who gained a second triumph. It was a truly remarkable achievement.

The resources initially proposed for Pompey in this next task were huge. They comprised some 200 ships plus oarsmen, sailing crew and marines totalling over 40,000 men. He was to be given 15 legates (military commanders), an unlimited treasury, and unlimited powers over the whole of the Mediterranean and up to 7km (4.5 miles) inland. However, the vote was postponed for a day and when the final amended version was passed the Assembly voted through an even bigger force. This consisted of no less than 500 ships, 120,000 infantry and 5000 cavalrymen, 24 senior military commanders and a pair of quaestors (magistrates responsible for military finances). Against this, however, the pirates were reputed to have 1000 ships at their disposal and bases both large and small all around the Mediterranean.

Pompey versus the Sea Pirates 67 BC

The pirates needed to avoid contact with more powerful military elements so that they could continue to extract plunder from less well defended ports and communities in the Mediterranean, while the Roman squadrons sought to round up the pirates and bring them to a very rudimentary justice. Pompey chose to divide the Mediterranean into discrete areas and conquer each in turn, starting in the far west off the coast of Spain. This drove the pirates steadily towards the southern shore of Turkey and the final bloody confrontation happened near Soli, in modern-day southern Turkey. There, Pompey’s assault routed the pirates, destroying their strongholds in the area. Although hailed as a great victory Empire, it was not successful in the long term. Just a few years later in Sicily, Anthony and Octavian had to combine to combat Pompey’s son, who had turned to piracy.

Planning and preparation are key to the success of any enterprise and Pompey’s orders were decisive. The Mediterranean was divided into 13 areas and each one was allocated a commander and a force appropriate to the threat in that area. Pompey retained direct control over a reserve of 60 of his best ships – almost certainly quinqueremes with well-trained crews. Starting with the waters west of Italy, the local commanders restricted the seaborne movements of the pirates and forced them ashore, where they were destroyed. It took only 40 days to sweep these seas clean of the menace. Those pirates that escaped, made their way back to bases along the inhospitable Cilician coast in what is now Turkey.

The greatest threat to Pompey’s success came from inside Rome. The general’s wide powers were both envied and feared, especially by those who benefited most from the activity of the pirates. The consul Piso, safe within the walls of Rome, went so far as to countermand Pompey’s orders, paying off some of the ships’ crews. While Pompey’s fleet sailed south around the foot of Italy to tackle the pirates in the Adriatic, Pompey himself hurried back to Rome. There, his friend and supporter Gabinius had already started the process of dismissing Piso from his position as consul. This would have been a dreadful and permanent stain on his family honour and reputation. Having got his crews back, however, Pompey had the bill withdrawn, and thus Piso lwas let off. Meanwhile, Rome had been transformed – the markets were full of foodstuffs from all over the Mediterranean and prices were almost back to normal. From Rome, Pompey made his way to Brundisium on the east coast of Italy and took ship for Greece and the final part of the war.

Some of the more cut-off pirate squadrons surrendered to Pompey, who confiscated their ships and arrested the men. He stopped short of having the pirates crucified – the normal form of execution for such a crime (all the survivors of Spartacus’ rebellion had been crucified). Thus encouraged, a large number of pirates also sent a message of surrender from Crete, where they were sitting out a siege by Metellus. Pompey accepted their surrender and despatched one of his own commanders, Lucius Octavian, with instructions that no one should pay heed to Metellus but only to Octavian. Mettelus was understandably livid and continued the siege. Octavian, following Pompey’s orders, now masterminded the defence of the city on behalf of the pirates. Eventually the city – and Octavian – were forced to surrender. Metellus humiliated his rival in front of the assembled army before sending him back to Rome with a flea in his ear.

Pompey’s rehabilitation worked. Around 20,000 former pirates were eventually settled in underpopulated inland areas like Dyme in Achea, on the northern coast of the Peloponnese, and Soli, in what is now Turkey. However, a substantial body of the miscreants occupied the mountain fastnesses of Cilicia with their families. The inevitable battle with Pompey’s men took place at Coracesium in Cilicia in 67 BC. That there was a battle and that the pirates lost it is about all that is known. Pompey’s victory was not surprising, however. The trained and experienced men of Pompey’s army and navy, with their proper equipment, were more than a match for the undisciplined pirates. It is worth recording that among the spoils of war after that last battle were 90 ships equipped with bronze-headed rams.

The Gallic Sack and Rome’s Rebirth I

At the Battle of Allia, ‘mere barbarians’ defeated the Roman army and afterwards, sacked Rome.

The sack of Rome by the Gauls c. 390 BC represented a ‘watershed moment’ in early Roman history, after which nothing was quite the same. This was the point identified by Livy as the ‘second birth’ (secunda origine) of the city and the moment he selected as the starting point of his second ‘pentad’ (set of five books) in his history. In other words, if Livy was a Hollywood filmmaker making a series of movies about early Rome, the first installation would have started with Aeneas and Romulus and culminated with the city’s victory over Veii, and the second would start with the epic tragedy of the Gallic sack and Rome’s rise to greatness in the century following. So, for the Romans, the sack of Rome and the associated defeat at the River Allia clearly represented a turning point in their history – although one whose significance had changed and been adapted over time.

For Livy and the historians of the late Republic, the primary significance of the sack of Rome seems to have been that it marked the point at which evidence seemed to get a bit more reliable. At the start of book 6, Livy famously noted that ‘from this point onwards a clearer and more definite account shall be given of the City’s civil and military history’. The problematic nature of the evidence for the preceding centuries was usually blamed on the destruction of records in a great fire caused by the sack, although there is minimal archaeological evidence to support this. Livy hints at this event though, saying the faulty data for the fifth century BC is in part the result of an incensa, although the timing and nature of the fire is disputed with some scholars arguing that it actually refers instead to a second century BC fire at the regia – associated with the pontifex maximus, where records were stored. For the rest of the Roman populace in the late Republic, the Gallic sack seems to have marked a time of ill-omen, made famous by the Dies Alliensis (Day of the Allia), which commemorated the defeat which led to the sack, but probably little more than that – at least after Caesar’s conquest of Gaul and the final removal of the great Gallic threat. However, in the context of the period, the importance of the Gallic sack of Rome c. 390 BC cannot be overstated. Although it probably did not produce any immediate changes in its own right, despite the assertions of Plutarch and others, it did provide an immense catalyst for change and accelerated the numerous social, political and military developments which were already underway in Rome. Specifically, and focusing on the Roman army, the victory by the Gauls sounded the final death knell for the archaic clan-based warband as the primary military unit in Rome. Although these continued to exist throughout the fourth century BC in various parts of Italy, their ineffectiveness against the Gauls in 390 BC demonstrated quite clearly to the Romans that their time was over. The trauma of the sack also seems to have brought the Roman community together in a way it had never experienced before. While previously the community had represented a slightly amorphous and fluid population based around the urban centre of Rome, the aftermath of the sack witnessed the true advent of a distinct Roman identity – a ‘Romanitas’ or ‘Roman-ness’ – that would develop into the more concrete Roman citizenship, which later Romans would prize so dearly. This new sense of Romanitas would go on to drive the social and political developments of the fourth century BC as well, including the end of the ‘Struggle of the Orders’. But more importantly for the Roman army during this period, it would allow (or perhaps force) the creation of a new set of military commanders (the consuls), a more strategic approach to military actions based on conquest, a new approach to captured land (citizen colonies) and eventually a new tactical formation (the so-called ‘manipular legion’). In this context, the Gallic sack seems to have pushed Rome over the edge of the cliff of social, military and political development she had been walking along up to that point – venturing near it, only to pull back and regress to her archaic modus operandi. The arrival of Gauls in serious numbers in the early fourth century BC demonstrated that the Romans would need to adapt or face utter destruction – and so adapt they did.

The Gallic Sack

The sack of Rome by the Gauls was the culmination of a series of battles (and defeats) which are described in some detail by a huge range of authors (Cato, Polybius, Livy, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Diodorus Siculus, Plutarch, Pliny the Elder, Pompeius Trogus, Appian and others). These battles included an initial skirmish between members of the Fabii clan and the Gauls near the city of Clusium, the major defeat of a combined Roman army at the River Allia and finally the ‘siege’ and subsequent capture of at least most of the city of Rome itself. There are also some accounts which suggest that there was yet another battle after the sack, which the Romans are supposed to have won, when the Roman general Camillus, who had been recalled from exile during the siege, chased down the Gauls in order to recapture the gold paid as an indemnity. This final (and incredibly dubious) battle aside, the Gallic sack represented a comprehensive defeat of Rome’s armed forces which was done without the benefit of surprise or an ambush. The sources are unanimous that Rome’s forces were simply outmatched.

Although the details of the events vary quite a bit between the surviving sources, and the archaeological evidence for the sack is (perhaps surprisingly, given its supposed violence) almost non-existent, the capture of the city by the Gauls represents one of the few aspects of early Roman history which even the most suspicious of scholars can feel reasonably confident in. First, and perhaps foremost, the sack of Rome by the Gauls seems to have left an indelible mark on the Roman psyche, and created a longstanding cultural ‘bogeyman’, inspiring the metus Gallicus (‘Gallic fear’) which even Hannibal and the metus Punicus (‘Punic/Carthaginian fear’) could not top. From this period on, the Gallic menace arguably represented Rome’s greatest anxiety – one which was only put to rest by Caesar and his campaigns in Gaul (an oft forgotten aspect of his Bellum Gallicum). The date of the defeat at the River Allia was remembered for centuries as a day of ill-omen and the fear of another attack by the Gauls led to the immediate institution of the tumultus Gallicus, a mass conscription in defence of the city, and indirectly to the creation of Rome’s alliance network in the fourth century BC. The sack of Rome by the Gauls also represents one of the first specific mentions of Rome in the historical record, as it was recorded by Aristotle (preserved in Plutarch’s Life of Camillus) along with a number of other late fourth century BC Greek writers.4 This was an event which reverberated even outside of Italy.

Out of the surviving sources for the sack, Livy offers the most complete account and the most detail for the events leading up to it, suggesting both an interest and familiarity with the story which may have resulted from his upbringing in Patavium in Cisalpine Gaul. Livy’s account indicates that the history of the Gauls in Italy goes back to the final years of the sixth century BC when a group, under the command of the two nephews of the Gallic chief Ambigatus, ventured out from their homelands in Southern Gaul looking for land. One nephew, Segovesus, took his people into the Hercynian highlands in Southern Germany but the other, Bellovesus, took his followers south across the Alps into Northern Italy. Once there, Livy claimed that Bellovesus and his people destroyed an Etruscan army near the River Ticinus and founded the city of Mediolanium, modern Milan. After a few years, a group of settlers left Mediolanium under the command of Etitovius and settled even further south, near Brixia and Verona. This was followed by still further waves of Gallic settlers who ventured further and further south, with the Libui, Salluvi, Boii, Lingones and Senones all pushing into Etruscan and later Umbrian land – settling in the region which would become Cisalpine Gaul. According to Livy it was then the Senones, the last of the tribes to venture south from Southern Gaul, which made its way to Rome under the leadership of Brennus, before heading even further south to take up service as mercenaries under the tyrant Dionysius I of Syracuse.

Undoubtedly based on local traditions in Cisalpine Gaul, Livy’s account meshes well with what we know about the region archaeologically and indirectly from other literary sources. It has long been established that the late sixth and fifth centuries BC were hard times for the Etruscans, as they came under increasing pressure from Gauls from the north along with the decline of trade with the Greek communities of Magna Graecia, and this period is generally seen as one of Etruscan decline – the beginning of the end of a long period of dominance. The motivation for the Gauls’ movement south towards Rome, at least as presented in Livy, is ambiguous though. The general narrative which he presents of Gallic incursions ever further south into Italy is one based on a desire for land, and Livy seems to imply that this was also true for Brennus’ Gauls. This would suggest that Brennus was travelling with a large group of Gauls, which likely included women, children, animals, etc., which was bent on conquest or at least settlement – an interpretation which was also presented by Polybius in his account of the event. However, there is also the ulterior motivation of service in the court of Dionysius I of Syracuse as mercenaries. This type of mercenary service was particularly common in the fourth century BC, as numerous recent studies have illustrated, and southern Italy in particular had a thriving mercenary economy. If this motivation represents the actual one (and the circumstantial evidence suggests that it was), then Brennus might not have been travelling with an entire tribe, including women and children, but rather a group of warriors who were setting out to make their fortune and then, perhaps, return home.

Whatever the actual makeup of the Gallic forces at Clusium, Allia and Rome, they were undoubtedly effective and evidently defeated the Roman forces in all three battles. At Clusium, this would not have taken much. Livy reported that three members of the Fabian clan had been sent to Clusium as ambassadors of Rome, but evidently joined the local forces and engaged in battle against the Gauls. The forces of Clusium, along with the Fabii, were quickly defeated, but this involvement by the Fabii supposedly provoked the Gauls into attacking Rome, leading to the city’s eventual capture. While the reality of this portion of the narrative is entirely uncertain, and may either represent an anti-Fabian tradition (blaming them for the sack) or perhaps the activities of an independent clan-based army which merely happened to get involved, after defeating the forces of Clusium, the Gauls did evidently continue their march south, meeting the forces of Rome at the River Allia. The Roman army which faced off against them was led by six consular tribunes, including the three Fabii from Clusium in addition to Quintus Sulpicius Longus, Quintus Servilius and Publius Cornelius Maluginensis, and contained approximately 40,000 men. While it is likely that this estimate is exaggerated, the actual number of Romans present was clearly substantial, as the magnitude of the subsequent defeat was deeply etched into the Roman consciousness. During the battle, the Roman army was evidently spread thin in an attempt to match the frontage of the much larger Gallic force and was quickly routed, with the remnants of the army fleeing to both Rome and the recently captured city of Veii. After the defeat, the Gauls entered Rome virtually unopposed, except for the defences on the Capitoline. The sources then describe an epic siege of the Romans on the hill, with the rest of the city burning below. Included in the larger siege narrative is the famous anecdote of the geese, where the Gauls attempt to sneak up the side of the Capitoline hill but in doing so startle the geese who lived there, sacred to Juno, with the resultant noise alerting the Romans to the danger. In honour of this, the Romans later founded a temple to Juno Moneta (moneta from the Latin word monere, to warn) on the Capitoline, which ultimately became the mint at Rome. Eventually, however, the Senate was forced to negotiate a truce with the Gauls whereby they paid the Gallic leader Brennus 1,000lbs of gold.

What happened after the negotiations is slightly more problematic. One tradition states that the Romans simply paid the indemnity. This version often includes the anecdote that the Romans then discovered that the Gauls were using heavier weights than the standard typically used for weighing out the gold, but when the Romans complained Brennus supposedly threw his sword on top of the scales and uttered the phrase ‘vae victis’ (‘Woe to the conquered’) in response. However, Livy offers a different version, followed by Plutarch, which claimed that while the Capitol was still besieged the Senate appointed as dictator the exiled Roman noble Camillus, who eventually arrived from Ardea with an army and, after summoning additional forces from Veii, went on to defeat the Gallic forces before the ransom could be paid. Diodorus provided another version in which the ransom was paid and the Gauls left the city, only to be defeated in a separate battle at Veascium later that year by Camillus, and the gold was then recovered. Polybius, meanwhile, offered yet another version where the bribe was paid and the Gauls simply returned home, an account which Livy actually supports in a later passage.


An important, and yet incredibly enigmatic, figure in this entire narrative is Marcus Furius Camillus (traditionally lived c. 446–365 BC). Camillus, as he is commonly known, is probably one of the most important figures in early Roman history and yet also one of the most obscure. Described by Livy as a ‘second founder’ of Rome,5 an attribution which is supported by Plutarch, Camillus dominates the narrative c. 400 BC, and plays the leading role in both the siege and sack of Veii and Rome’s recovery from the Gallic sack. His only notable absence is from the narrative of Rome’s defeat itself, which is explained by his ‘exile’ just previous to that. He triumphed at least four times and held the dictatorship five times, along with the consular tribunate (multiple times) and the censorship – giving him a military and political career which was truly remarkable during this period. Indeed, rather like Tarquinius Superbus at the start of the fifth century BC, who seemed to feature amongst Rome’s enemies in just about every battle, the figure of Camillus is ubiquitous in the narrative, appearing in a leading role in almost all of Rome’s victories (although he is conspicuously absent from her losses).

Intriguingly, however, not all of the surviving sources for the early fourth century BC feature Camillus. Both Diodorus and Polybius, the latter of which is often seen as one of the more reliable historians, largely ignore Camillus and his achievements, which has led some scholars (when taken along with his arguably unbelievable résumé) to suggest that not only was the figure of Camillus exaggerated, he may have actually been largely invented. The mid-twentieth century scholar Georges Dumézil, for instance, argued that Camillus was not intended to be a historical figure at all but actually an exemplum created by later writers, which he associated with a hero of the goddess Aurora, who personified key Roman virtues during this period. Others have taken a series of less extreme positions, but even the more optimistic scholars have generally been forced to admit that the record for Camillus most likely contains some significant elaboration. These points aside, it is clear that Camillus represents an important figure in, at least, the Roman memory of the period c. 400 BC. He seems to have embodied, somehow, the spirit or ‘zeitgeist’ of the time and his actions, however much they were exaggerated by later storytellers and writers, were remembered as vital to Rome’s development.

Historicity aside, Camillus does represent quite a useful figure in the narrative. As already noted, he was used in some versions of the story to assuage Roman honour during and after the sack, by defeating the Gauls and reclaiming Rome’s gold. He also represented a powerful catalyst for Rome’s recovery, as his victories in the 380s, 370s and 360s BC drove a prolonged period of Roman expansion and conquest. Camillus is an intriguing figure too in the internal political debates which raged in Rome during the 370s and 360s BC. Although a patrician and the most important figure in Roman politics at this time, Camillus is also presented as a facilitator of concordia, or peace, between the patricians and plebeians in the ‘Struggle of the Orders’, and specifically in the ten years of political unrest between 376 and 367 BC. Indeed, as a result of the concordia ordinum which Camillus achieved he is supposed to have founded and dedicated a temple to Concordia in the forum. In Livy’s narrative, which is our main source for this period (Dionysius’s history being unfortunately fragmentary for these years), Camillus seems to represent both sides in the debate at various times although, as Momigliano and others have noted, his involvement is likely to represent, at least in part, a late Republican attempt to rationalize the events. But it is exactly this ability to represent both sides of a matter which makes him so appealing. Camillus is at once an Archaic warleader who is evidently mobile (as seen by his exile and subsequent return to power in Rome) and backed by a powerful gens (the Furii). His power base and position therefore harken back to the fifth century BC and the powerful, warlike raiding gentes which dominated the period. However, in Rome he also occupies a prime position in the new, state-based system – acting as both a consular tribune and censor, but never as a praetor. The closest he comes to that position is as the dictator, a position which he holds multiple times, and which might have served as the template for the later consulship. Camillus is therefore a liminal or transitional figure in the narrative, which both represents the old, archaic model of power and new, state-based way of operating, which includes both the patricians and the plebeians.

Camillus’ role in Roman history c. 400 BC is therefore an important one. Whether or not he represents a real figure (the evidence from the fasti suggests that he was) and whether or not all of his achievements are real (here the evidence is far from convincing), Camillus does seem to illustrate an interesting phenomenon – the final integration of Latium’s gentilicial elite into Rome’s social, political and military systems after the Gallic sack. A previously mobile war leader, who may have been exiled (or simply left for greener pastures), Camillus was invited to return to Rome in the years following the sack of Rome and played a key role in the city’s return to greatness. This hints that the urban community of Rome recognized that having a figure like Camillus, along with his evidently powerful group of followers, was important given the defeat by the Gauls. And it also suggests that figures such as Camillus, despite the ‘old-fashioned’ or archaic nature of his power base, found ways to make Rome’s new military and political system work for him as well. For Camillus, this was largely done through the mechanism of the dictatorship, but his role in establishing the concordia ordinum may also suggest that this type of figure was increasingly finding areas to compromise and establish a system which worked for both sides of the ‘Struggle of the Orders’. So although the figure of Camillus is problematic in strictly historical terms, he may illustrate some important developments in Rome during this period – and the strongest evidence for this is how well his actions and behaviour align with the rest of Rome’s reactions to the Gallic sack.

Rome’s Internal Reaction

Rome’s invitation to Camillus to return to Rome, supposedly issued while the Capitoline hill was still under siege by the Gauls, is generally representative of Rome’s attitude during the years immediately following the defeat. While the city and her increasingly stable collection of clans/gentes had previously let local politics dominate and individual ambitions dictate both domestic and foreign policy, in the years after the sack Rome emerged with a new direction and drive. And, as with the recalling of Camillus from Ardea, this direction was based on immediately securing and expanding her military capabilities, probably in order to prevent a future defeat by the Gauls. All previous squabbles were largely forgotten – this new threat required a concerted effort from everyone.

Rome’s sudden, and entirely reasonable, interest in expanding her military capabilities took a number of different forms. As already noted, the recall of Camillus from his ‘exile’ in Ardea seems to have been the first of these, but even this was part of a much larger attempt to bring the clans who lived around the city together into a more stable union. As suggested in the previous chapter, the powerful clans of Latium, and Central Italy more generally, had already begun the long process of slowly settling down and permanently associating themselves with various communities back in the sixth and fifth centuries BC. This can be linked to changes in the economy and an increased focus on land and agriculture, in addition to the rise of the urban centres themselves. However, as the exile of Camillus indicates (and whether this represented a true exile or merely the movement of a powerful clan leader is still debatable), prominent figures were still able to move around the region and retain most, if not all, of their power and influence, suggesting that this process was ongoing. During the first half of the fourth century BC, however, Rome saw the rise of a distinctive ‘Roman Nobility’ – or group of clans who would go on to dominate Roman politics for the rest of the Republican period, to the exclusion of others. Associated with the closing of the patriciate in the second half of the fifth century BC, which marked the establishment of a distinct ‘patrician’ group in Rome, the creation of the ‘Roman Nobility’, although still partly based on kinship, was predicated on a new set of social norms where glory and social power were attained largely through holding positions within Rome’s civic structure. Although obviously in its infancy during this period, as scholars like Matthias Gelzer identified back in the early twentieth century, the fourth century BC witnessed the origins of a group, who were described as clarissimi or principes civitatis by later sources, whose position was due almost entirely to their family history of holding the key magistracies in Rome. Unfortunately, the nuances of the earliest incarnation of this group are likely lost to us forever, given the nature of the sources for this period, but this development seems to be the result of the city developing a particular, mutually beneficial relationship with certain families, whereby the longstanding competition which had existed between them for glory was moved from outside the city – in the form of raiding, mortuary practices, etc. – to inside the city, and a competition over magistracies.

This relationship clearly benefited the community, as it firmly linked the local clans and their military strength to the city for the long term, but it is initially unclear what the advantage might be for the clans. Although the clans which had settled around Rome would increasingly have had their interests aligned with those of the community anyway, with the result that maximising the military capabilities of the community would have also benefited them, the continuing existence of mobile clans in Latium, who would have been able to simply pick up and leave if the Gauls returned (as perhaps Camillus did in 390 BC), suggests that this was not enough for everyone. The result of this situation is yet another period of political tension within Rome, and another flare up of the ‘Struggle of the Orders’, as the powerful, rural clans and the urban community once again attempted to find some middle ground. The default during the first half of the fourth century BC seems to have been the use of the consular tribunate, with all that that entailed, although the office of the dictatorship was also increasingly utilized, seemingly as a short-term solution to this issue. The dictatorship allowed the return of many of the Archaic prerogatives of the praetorship, including imperium (and the associated right to triumph) and so would have been appealing to the region’s gentilicial elite, but could be used alongside the consular tribunate and therefore maximised Rome’s military might. However, it is clear that this was a short-term solution and one which was not wholly satisfactory to either side. As a result, in 367 BC, the Romans created a new magistracy as a long-term fix: the revamped consulship.

Princeps, Eques, Velites

The Military Reforms of Camillus

The next great landmark in Roman military organization is associated with the achievements of Camillus. Camillus, credited with having saved Rome from the Gauls and remembered as a “second founder” of Rome, was a revered national hero. His name became a legend, and legends accumulated round it. At the same time, he was unquestionably a historical character. We need not believe that his timely return to Rome during the Gallic occupation deprived the Gauls of their indemnity money, which was at that very moment being weighed out in gold. But his capture of the Etruscan city of Veii is historical, and he may here have made use of mining operations such as Livy describes. Similarly, the military changes attributed to him may in part, if not entirety, be due to his initiative.

Soon after the withdrawal of the Gauls from Rome, the tactical formation adopted by the Roman army underwent a radical change. In the Servian army, the smallest unit had been the century. It was an administrative rather than a tactical unit, based on political and economic rather than military considerations. The largest unit was the legion of about 4,000 infantrymen. There were 60 centuries in a legion and, from the time of Camillus, these centuries were combined in couples, each couple being known as a maniple (manipulus). The maniple was a tactical unit. Under the new system, the Roman army was drawn up for battle in three lines, one behind the other. The maniples of each line were stationed at intervals. If the front line was forced to retreat, or if its maniples were threatened with encirclement, they could fall back into the intervals in the line immediately to their rear. In the same way, the rear lines could easily advance, when necessary, to support those in front. The positions of the middle-line maniples corresponded to intervals in the front and rear lines, thus producing a series of quincunx formations. The two constituent centuries of a maniple were each commanded by a centurion, known respectively as the forward (prior) and rear (posterior) centurion. These titles may have been dictated by later tactical developments, or they may simply have marked a difference of rank between the two officers.

The three battle lines of Camillus’ army were termed, in order from front to rear, hastati, principes and triarii. Hastati meant “spearmen”; principes, “leaders”; and triarii, the only term which was consistent with known practice, meant simply “third-liners”. In historical accounts, the hastati were not armed with spears and the principes were not the leading rank, since the hastati were in front of them. The names obviously reflect the usage of an earlier date. In the fourth century BC the two front ranks carried heavy javelins, which they discharged at the enemy on joining battle. After this, fighting was carried on with swords. The triarii alone retained the old thrusting spear (hasta). The heavy javelin of the hastati and principes was the pilum. It comprised a wooden shaft, about 4.5 feet (1.4m) long, and a lancelike, iron head of about the same length as the shaft; which fitted into the wood so far as to give an overall length of something less than 7 feet (2.1m). The Romans may have copied the pilum from their Etruscan or Samnite enemies; or they may have developed it from a more primitive weapon of their own. The sword used was the gladius, a short cut-and-thrust type, probably forged on Spanish models. A large oval shield (scutum), about 4 feet (1.2m) long, was in general use in the maniple formation. It was made of hide on a wooden base, with iron rim and boss.

It has been suggested that the new tactical formation was closely connected with the introduction of the new weapons. The fact that the front rank was called hastati seems to indicate that the hasta, or thrusting spear, was not abandoned until after the new formation had been adopted. Indeed, cause and effect may have stood in circular relationship. The open formation could have favoured new weapons which, once widely adopted, forbade the use of any other formation. At all events, there must have been more elbow room for aiming a javelin.

Apart from these considerations, open-order fighting was characteristic of Greek fourth-century warfare. Xenophon’s men had opened ranks to let the enemy’s scythe-wheel chariots pass harmlessly through. Agesilaus used similar tactics at Coronea. Camillus was aware of the Greek world – and the Greek world was aware of him. He dedicated a golden bowl to Apollo at Delphi and Greek fourth-century writers refer to him. It is at least possible that the new Roman tactical formation was based on Greek precedents, as the old one had been.

Officers and Other Ranks

The epoch of Camillus also saw the first regular payments for military service. The amount of pay, at the time of its introduction, is not recorded. To judge from the enthusiasm to which it gave rise and to the difficulty experienced in levying taxes to provide for it, the sum was substantial. It was a first step towards removing the differences among property classes and standardizing the equipment of the legionary soldier. For tactical purposes, of course, some differences were bound to exist: for instance, in the lighter equipment of the velites. But the removal of the property classes produced an essential change in the Roman army, such as the Greek citizen army had never known. The Athenian hoplites had always remained a social class, and hoplite warfare was their distinctive function. The Spartan hoplites had been an élite of peers, every one of them, as Thucydides remarks, in effect an officer.

At Rome, however, the centuries of which the legions were composed were conspicuously and efficiently led by centurions, men who commanded as a result of their proven merit. The Roman army, in fact, developed a system of leadership such as is familiar today – a system of officers and other ranks. Centurions were comparable to warrant officers, promoted for their performance on the field and in the camp. The military tribunes, like their commanding officers, the consuls and praetors, were at any rate originally appointed to carry out the policies of the Roman state, and they were usually drawn from the upper, politically influential classes.

Six military tribunes were chosen for each legion, and the choice was at first always made by a consul or praetor, who in normal times would have commanded two out of the four legions levied; as colleagues, the consuls shared the army between them. Later, the appointment of 24 military tribunes for the levy of four legions was made not by the consuls but by an assembly of the people. If, however, additional legions were levied, then the tribunes appointed to them were consular nominations. Tribunes appointed by the people held office for one year. Those nominated by a military commander retained their appointment for as long as he did.

Military tribunes were at first senior officers and were required to have several years of military experience prior to appointment. In practice, however, they were often young men, whose very age often precluded them from having had such experience. They were appointed because they came from rich and influential families and they thus had much in common with the subalterns of fashionable regiments in latter-day armies. Originally, an important part of the military tribune’s duties had been in connection with the levy of troops. In normal times, a levy was held once a year. Recruits were required to assemble by tribes (a local as distinct from a class division). The distribution of recruits among the four legions was based on the selection made by the tribunes.

“Praetor” was the title originally conferred on each of the two magistrates who shared supreme authority after the period of the kings. The military functions of the praetor are well attested, and the headquarters in a Roman camp continued to be termed the “praetorium”. In comparatively early times, the title of “consul” replaced that of “praetor”, but partly as a result of political manoeuvre, the office of praetor was later revived to supplement consular power. The authority of a praetor was not equal to that of a consul, but he might still command an army in the field.

The command was not always happily shared between two consuls. In times of emergency – and Rome’s early history consisted largely of emergencies – a single dictator with supreme power was appointed for a maximum term of six months, the length of a campaigning season. The dictator chose his own deputy, who was then known as the Master of the Horse (magister equitum).

The allies, who were called upon to aid Rome in case of war, were commanded by prefects (praefecti), who were Roman officers. The 300 cavalry attached to each legion were, in the third century BC at any rate, divided into ten squadrons (turmae), and subdivided into decuriae, each of which was commanded by a decurio, whose authority corresponded to that of a centurion in the infantry.

The Gallic Sack and Rome’s Rebirth II

Republican Rome – Triarius and Hastatus

Rome’s late Republican historians clearly viewed the introduction of the consulship in 367 BC as the reintroduction or reinstatement of the old praetorship, and indeed they often (confusingly for modern scholars) called the Archaic praetorship ‘the consulship’. There are some very good reasons for this, the most obvious being the return of the regular grant of imperium. The powers of the praetorship and the consulship were both somehow governed by a grant of imperium, which still involved the curiate assembly, meaning that their relationship to the community was roughly similar and that both could be seen as descendants of the rex. Additionally, both magistracies carried the auspices, or religious powers, and were collegial in nature, with two consuls being elected each year after 367 BC, which roughly mirrors the previous arrangement with the praetors – although it is entirely possible that there were more than two praetors in many years of the fifth century BC, though the tradition of consules suffecti (so-called ‘replacement consuls/praetors’ who are sometimes recorded) and the ‘cleaned up’ Augustan-era fasti make this impossible to determine with any certainty. The offices were also dominated by the same group of families, at least initially.

There were, however, some key differences between the offices as well. First, and most importantly for the literary sources, the new consulship was open to the plebeians. From Livy’s narrative, this development represents nothing more than a (admittedly very important) political compromise but, based on our discussion of Rome’s army so far, the importance of this in more practical terms should also be evident. Allowing the plebeians, even plebeian elites, to hold the consulship indicates that the basis of power for this office was no longer a clan or gens but rather the community. As a result, this office could arguably be considered a closer descendant of the consular tribunate which immediately preceded it, than the Archaic praetorship or the rex. Without well-established clans or gentes to act as the core of their military forces (and it does seem that the plebeians did not have proper gentes, although they would have obviously have had some sort of family and client-based structure), the new plebeian consuls were entirely dependent on recruitment through the community in order to form their armies. This, however, creates problems when one considers the re-emergence of imperium. As discussed, Archaic imperium was most likely a sort of contract between the community and an external war leader and his clan, which bound together the two entities in a mutually beneficial relationship. The question then arises of why would imperium be needed for the consulship, if the office was a community-based one? The answer to this question is ‘compromise’.

It seems clear that the consular tribunes were reasonably effective militarily, as this was the office that the Romans reverted to for regular military commands after the Gallic sack when they needed success the most. From the point of view of Rome’s powerful clans and gentes, however, this system did not suit their social needs. The praetorship, and its imperium, had formed an increasingly important part of their internal competition for social and political prestige. While achieving the consular tribunate was evidently also something which was thought to be valuable, as they did compete for this as well, it seemed to lack the appeal of the praetorship, with the right to triumph and the range of powers and privileges associated with the grants of imperium and auspicium. In the new, post-390 BC environment, this level of power was only attainable through the office of the dictator, which was irregularly appointed and dominated by a few individuals (like Camillus). So it seems likely that the city’s gentilicial elite were eager for a return to the praetorship in some form. On the other hand, the community and its plebeian elite had been gaining in power during this period and had demonstrated their ability as generals in the consular tribunate, and seem to have gotten a taste for the rewards of military success themselves. Given this position, they were unlikely to want to see a return to magistracy which would once again have them locked out. So the end result was the creation of the consulship (consul, likely derived from con and sul, meaning ‘those who go together’), which represented a compromise that effectively combined the best parts of the two offices – the military capabilities and community basis of the consular tribunate, and the power and prestige of the preatorship – into a single office open to both groups. It is clear that this compromise was not reached easily, despite its eminent practicality, as attested by the supposed ten years of unrest before its advent and the various debates after (particularly concerning the auspices). This new arrangement would have also resulted in some dramatic changes to the grant of imperium and indeed, even apart from the changes outlined above, scholars have been increasingly pushing for 367 BC as marking a key moment of change and evolution for imperium and the lex curiata de imperio. After 367 BC, imperium and the lex curiata de imperio (the law passed by the curiate assembly which governed it) were no longer needed to bind an external war leader to the community, and as a result they both seem to have taken on a more ritual or religious connotation, which is what was carried on into the late Republic.

For the past 100 years and more, scholars have tried to unravel the nature of Republican imperium and the lex curiata de imperio, particularly as it existed in the mid- to late Republic, and have increasingly come to the conclusion that both the grant and the law which governed it should be considered to be largely ritual in nature. Although passing the lex and having imperium officially granted by the curiae was generally seen as the ‘right thing to do’, its absence did not seem to affect the power of the magistrate in any real terms. This was most famously recorded by Cicero in his account of Appius Claudius, where he stated that:

Appius used some time back to repeat in conversation, and afterwards said openly, even in the senate, that if he were allowed to carry a law in the comitia curiata, he would draw lots with his colleague for their provinces; but if no curiatian law were passed, he would make an arrangement with his colleague and succeed you: that a curiatian law was a proper thing for a consul, but was not a necessity: that since he was in possession of a province by a decree of the senate, he should have imperium in virtue of the Cornelian law until such time as he entered the city.

Of far more significance during the middle and late Republic were the religious ramifications of the lex curiata de imperio, which may have increasingly related to the auspices and the ability to perform certain rituals. Although this did not affect the ability to command an army during this period, it did seem to influence the perceived relationship with the gods. This was still an important aspect as it was raised in debates in 445 BC and again in 362 BC, when the ill-fated plebeian consul L. Gernucius, who was the first plebeian consul to go to war under his own auspices, was defeated and killed by the Hernici. However, the nature of imperium and military command had clearly changed in Rome by the middle of the fourth century BC, and things were increasingly focusing inward on the community.

Connected with this inward focus and the shift in military command, there may also have been a gradual shift in military equipment and formation. This will be discussed in detail in the next chapter, but several points connected with both Rome’s command structure and the influence of the Gauls are worth highlighting now. Looking first at command structure, the reinterpretation of imperium and Rome’s increasing reliance on community-based forces after 367 BC did not mean that its military forces (or the Central Italian clans and gentes) started to fight in a completely different manner or tactical formation – although it did probably result in a slightly more unified arrangement. As already argued, it is highly unlikely that Rome ever utilized a hoplite phalanx, and in fact Rome’s armed forces, such as they were, likely utilized the more flexible, and probably amorphous, tactical formations favoured by the gentes for raiding. Although there are no specific descriptions of these formations in the sources, looking at other ancient examples (most notably from Spain in the third and second centuries BC) it has been argued that they most likely resembled ‘dense clouds’ which expanded and contracted during the course of a battle. As Rome’s army increasingly unified and expanded during the course of the fourth century BC, the community would have had to find a way to effectively utilize soldiers and units used to fighting in this manner. Consequently, it is likely that the mid-fourth century BC represents the likely point of origin for a ‘proto-manipular legion’. Although it is unlikely to have featured all the nuances and organizational details of its later counterpart, the Roman army of the mid-fourth century would have probably contained a number of ‘handfuls’ (manipuli) or groups of men, which were the descendants of the archaic war bands of the fifth century BC, increasingly fighting in a co-ordinated fashion.

The fourth century BC also saw the introduction of some new military equipment in the Roman army, which seems to have come from two different sources. The first source was local, and was perhaps a result of an increasing number of urban, and probably ‘middle class’, men engaging in warfare under the banners of the consular tribunes, and later consuls. These men, although by no means poor (arguably analogous with the zeugitae or ‘hoplite-class’ in Greece), were not from the wealthiest segments of society either and also had very little previous connection to warfare. As a result, we can probably link to these soldiers the increasing use of simple but functional helmets, like the increasingly popular montefortino type, and a general ‘democratization’ of military equipment across the board. Associated with this is the use of a new type of heavy javelin, which makes it appearance in Central Italy at this time. Prior to this time, javelins are rather hard to identify in the archaeological record. Although spears had most likely been thrown for centuries, if not millennia, in Italy, for the most part they were of the ‘multi-purpose’ variety – spears which could be used as either a thrusting weapon or a thrown one. During the course of the fourth century BC, however, there is increasing evidence for purpose-designed heavy javelins being used throughout Italy – a development which may be associated with the growing number of Gauls in the peninsula. Although by no means unique to the Gauls, the type of heavy javelin which appears in the fourth century BC in Italy is very close to the type of weapon favoured by those living in the modern-day regions of southern Austria and southern France, just the other side of the Alps. It is therefore probable that this military development arrived with the Gallic tribesmen in Italy and was slowly adopted by the Italic peoples.

Finally, this period also witnessed the construction of Rome’s first, substantial city walls which completely surrounded the settlement. Known as Rome’s ‘Servian Walls’, after a misattribution to Rome’s sixth rex who was also credited with building walls around the city, the Servian Walls were probably begun in 378 BC – as Livy states that in this year ‘further debts were incurred through the levying of a tax to build a wall of hewn stone, which the censors had contracted for.’ Built from Grotta Oscura tufo taken from quarries near the city of Veii and constructed using ashlar blocks, the fortifications extended a full 11km. Many of the blocks bore Greek masons’ marks, indicating that the Romans may have brought in specialists from Magna Graecia to help build them – something which is arguably unsurprising given the Hellenistic style of the walls. Indeed, the walls were truly massive in scale. A full 4 metres thick, and even today reaching a height of over 10 metres in places, the walls enclosed an area of approximately 426 hectares, meaning that they were on a par with the largest settlement fortifications in the western Mediterranean. The walls were so massive that they may have taken at least twenty-five years to construct, as Livy’s entry from the year 353 BC implies. These were Rome’s main fortifications throughout the Republican period, and were the walls which Hannibal famously viewed and considered attacking during the Second Punic War.

The likely reasons behind the construction of the walls are many and varied, but the threat of another Gallic attack was undoubtedly top amongst them. While Rome’s previous collection of aggeres and fossae (ramparts and ditches) had evidently been at least reasonably effective against the small-scale raids of Latin clans and Italic tribes, the threat posed by the Gauls obviously necessitated a change in approach. Rome could no longer rely on a piecemeal set of fortifications which left significant gaps in her defences. Additionally, as scholars have recognized for years, city walls often represent far more than a military obstacle. City walls, and particularly full circuit walls on the scale of Rome’s new fortifications, are often thought to draw a line between ‘us’ and ‘them’ in the terrain, and as such are key markers of civic identity and civic cohesion. The construction of such walls around Rome in the early fourth century BC thus makes sense culturally and socially, and was in keeping with Rome’s larger programme of self-definition.

Rome’s External Reaction

Rome’s increased unity and internal cohesion in the aftermath of the Gallic sack can also be seen in her changing relationship with the rest of the Latins and the other peoples in Central Italy. While Rome had previously fought a series of low-level wars with various communities and tribes in Central Italy, these had generally had minimal long-term consequences or repercussions. Settlements would be raided and wealth taken but, for the most part, there was no attempt to exert control over the defeated peoples in the long term or incorporate them into the Roman state. During the fourth century BC, however, Rome became increasingly expansionist and interested in the capture and control of land and communities. This seems to have been the result of two concurrent developments in Roman society, visible in Rome’s actions with Veii at the turn of the century, which included an increased interest in land as being both valuable and a viable spoil of war, and also a strategic interest in increasing her manpower reserves.

Rome’s desire for land seems to have dramatically increased during the course of the fourth and early third centuries BC, with Roman territory (ager Romanus, and specifically ager publicus) expanding massively during this period, largely through military conquest. This growth was exponential, with Rome directly controlling a territory of a few hundred square kilometres c. 390 BC, approximately 8,500 km² by 340 BC and over 26,000 km² by 264 BC. This is not to say that Rome’s interests did not extend further afield than a few hundred square kilometres prior to 390 BC, as the ‘carrying capacity’ of this land (the amount of food which it was able to produce) would have likely been unable to support a city the size of Rome in this period, and Rome’s armies clearly ranged further afield. However, the land outside of the ager Romanus antiquus (the area within 5 miles of the pomerium, or ritual boundary of Rome), possibly even including parts of the tribal zones and the earliest sections of ager publicus, should probably be considered ‘liminal’ at best. Although Romans – and Roman armies – may have moved across it, so did other groups in Latium. Used largely for grazing herds and flocks, or heavily forested (as the vast majority of Central Italy was at this time), much of this land was effectively unclaimed during the Archaic period, as it was not economically viable, or indeed feasible, to do so. It was only with the advent of more intensive agricultural practices during this period, coupled with the creation of a more cohesive Roman state, that it was in Rome’s best interests to permanently claim land as ‘Roman’. Consequently, this period witnessed the true birth of the Roman Empire, as a territorial entity, and the beginnings of Roman land-use policies (and problems) which would shape many of the events of the late Republic.

Economics were clearly driving some of this expansion. The larger developments within Roman agricultural practices which had featured back in the fifth century BC (the gradual settling down of the clans, the increase in investment in agriculture and irrigation, etc.) all seem to have continued unabated into the fourth century BC. This, coupled with an increase in population, resulted in an ever-increasing demand for land during this period as individual Romans struggled to climb the economic ladder, clans endeavoured to control this emerging form of wealth and the community as a whole found itself needing to feed more and more mouths. With the available nearby land already occupied, and without a strong tradition of seafaring to allow maritime colonization on a scale similar to that of the Greeks, the Romans turned to conquest to deal with the issue – although this was not as straightforward as it might seem. While Rome’s conquests of the early fourth century BC did start to satiate the land hunger of the population, it was tempered by a few factors – most notably Rome’s desire to maintain her military strength. As a result, during the fourth century BC Rome did not utilize ‘colonization’ particularly heavily, which is often considered surprising as this was how the Romans are usually thought to have controlled captured land. But while Rome supposedly established four new colonies in Latium during the 380s BC, between 380 and 338 BC there were no records of any Roman colony foundations. Indeed, scholars like E.T. Salmon, in his epic volume on Roman colonization, was forced into a series of convoluted arguments to explain this decline, with ‘diminished military need’, an ‘estrangement’ between Rome and the Latins and possible ‘problems of administration and assimilation’ all possibly playing a role. Although Salmon may have been correct with some of his caveats, the main reason for this decline was likely that early Roman colonies, like their Greek counterparts, seem to have become independent communities after they were founded. As a result, while they might have harboured some sentimental attachments to their mother community, they could not necessarily be trusted to automatically act in Rome’s best interests, let alone as allies. This type of behaviour by ‘colonies’ of Rome can be seen time and again during the sixth, fifth and early fourth centuries BC, with colonies regularly rebelling and almost never coming to Rome’s aid in times of trouble. So while colonization might be an easy way to distribute land to Romans, it was not in Rome’s best interests to do so in a time when she was evidently trying to secure her position and expand her military manpower. As a result, Rome seems to have spent much of the early fourth century BC trying to find an answer to this conundrum – how could she expand territorially, while still maintaining (and indeed growing) her citizen base?

Rome attempted a few different mechanisms to get around this issue, all of which were maintained in some form or another into the late Republican period. The first was simply to expand her tribal structure. This was what Rome did after the Gallic sack with the territory and people of Veii. Although she had only recently captured the community, Rome incorporated the ager Veientanus and its population by dividing it up and creating four new rural tribes which then formed part of Rome’s citizen body. This would have immediately increased Rome’s manpower reserves, although it did have some obvious drawbacks – most notably giving the recently-captured Veientines a say in Roman politics – and it was really only a feasible model of inclusion for communities and land in the immediate vicinity of Rome. In the 380s BC, Rome attempted to found colonies, but quickly stopped this practice because, while they helped to alleviate the pressure on land, they also drained Rome’s military manpower as it is clear that these colonies (Satricum, Sutrium, Nepete and Setia) were of the archaic type and quickly exerted their independence. This led to one of Rome’s key innovations, the foundation of the first municipium at Tusculum in 380 BC. Following its capture, the community of Tusculum was incorporated into the Roman state through a grant of civitas sine suffragio (citizenship without voting rights) and the community was dubbed a municipium. The people of Tusculum therefore had something resembling dual citizenship, as they were also considered citizens or residents of Tusculum, and the community was allowed to self-govern as it had before. However, whenever a need arose, the people of Tusculum were also subject to conscription and service in the Roman army. This innovation seems to have addressed some of Rome’s manpower issues and the question of how to increase her military base without giving up control. It did not, however, help with the land issue – although it did provide a possible model. Indeed, Rome’s approach to captured land from the mid-fourth century BC onwards seems to have followed the basic premise behind the creation of municipia – allowing a certain degree of local flexibility while maintaining central control. This was primarily done through the increased use of ager publicus (public land). The ager publicus was usually captured land which remained under the ownership and control of the state, but which could be utilized by any Roman who wished (and non-Romans for a fee). This land was very quickly dominated by the elite clans, as laws as early as the 360s BC indicate, but was supposedly open to all Romans and would have offered the (on paper at least) perfect solution to Rome’s land problem.

The creation of municipia and the use of ager publicus on a wide scale were only possible in the post-390 BC political environment of Rome, where a strengthened community ethos dominated and an increasingly community-centred army fought for land which could be utilized by all. Together, these measures helped to shape the way in which Rome increasingly dealt with the various communities and peoples in Central Italy, and further abroad, by ensuring that her own needs were met (in the fourth century BC this entailed both land and manpower) through maintaining a certain level of central control but allowing a high degree of local flexibility. Rome’s needs would naturally change over time, which resulted in new methods of control and exploitation. For instance, by the late fourth century BC, Roman citizenship and Roman identity seem to have reached a point where true citizen colonies were possible, which were utilized by Rome where more control was needed than that offered by municipia (this will be discussed in the subsequent chapters). In the third century BC, when Rome’s conquests were increasingly distant and far-flung, the state developed a new model of control – the creation of provincia (provinces) – which met Rome’s needs of strategic security and wealth. But all of these developments were still guided by the same principles which underpinned the first steps which Rome took towards empire in the early fourth century BC.

The Gallic sack of Rome can be best described as a catalyst for Rome. Although the arrival of the Gauls can possibly be credited with a few developments in its own right, most notably the use of the heavy javelin, its biggest impact was in accelerating a number of existing trends in Roman society. This included bringing the community, and particularly the local clans, together into a single, cohesive whole and unifying them all under the banner of Rome. Although this process was well under way previously, the Gallic sack seems to have demonstrated in no uncertain terms that the archaic way of life, and particularly the clan-based approach to war, was no longer a viable option. In the aftermath of the sack, Rome did everything she could to increase her manpower and develop a military model to protect against further attacks. This included incorporating new peoples into her citizen body (and military ranks) via the creation of new tribes and municpia, along with the full-time reversion to the consular tribunate and eventually the creation of the consulship.

Rome’s increased internal unity and cohesion also allowed a more concerted approach to land acquisition and ownership, generally exploited through the creation of ager publicus, which gradually developed into a territorial empire. Evidently initiated to satiate the Romans’ increased appetite for land, but tempered by the desire to maintain her manpower reserves and control both the territory and those occupying it (in contrast to previous practice), Rome very quickly carved out a massive Central Italian empire during the course of the fourth century BC. This led the city into increased conflicts with a number of Italian peoples, including the other Latin communities and tribes, as her aggressive and expansionist policies started to impact upon them. This ultimately resulted in a series of wars against the Latins, Samnites, Etruscans and Greeks of Magna Graecia in the second half of the fourth century BC, which further shaped Rome’s military and imperial designs.

Atrax in 198 BC

At Atrax in 198 BC, Quinctius Flamininus threw up a siege embankment to carry rams up to the wall, and although his troops entered the town through the resulting breach they were repulsed by the Macedonian garrison. The siege tower that Flamininus then deployed almost fell over when one of its wheels sank in the rutted embankment, and the Romans finally gave up (Livy 32.18.3). Their failure can probably be attributed to inexperience in mechanized siege warfare: first, their siege embankment was obviously insufficiently compacted to bear the weight of heavy machinery; and second, they seem rarely to have used a siege tower before.

PHILIP V. Philip V of Macedon reigned more than a century after Alexander the Great. His family were the Antigonids, who had risen to power some 80 years before. Mercurial by nature, capable of military brilliance as well as acts of colossal stupidity, Philip was a brave and charismatic general who spent his entire reign fighting enemies to the north, south, east and west. The war with Rome was to prove his nemesis.

TITUS QUINCTIUS FLAMININUS. Flamininus was a fine example of the politician who let nothing get in his way. Serving as various types of magistrate during the war with Hannibal, he succeeded in becoming consul – one of the two most senior magistrates in the Republic – at the tender age of 30. Unusually for the time, he could write and speak Greek, but his love of all things Hellenic did not stop him spearheading a successful invasion of Macedon.

Northern Greece


Under Philip II and his son Alexander the Great, Macedon rose to a position of pre-eminence never equalled by any Greek city state before or after. By the late third century BC, the kingdom had seen better days. That said, although it was much reduced in size, it remained the dominant military power in Greece and continued to exert huge influence over the region. Naturally, this made it unpopular. Macedon ruled the central region of Thessaly, and through three well-situated fortresses (Chalcis, Demetrias and the Acrocorinth, the so-called `Fetters of Greece’) exerted military control over the area around Athens, as well as on the Peloponnese peninsula. Macedon also ruled part of the coastline of Asia Minor, as well as some of the islands in the Aegean Sea.

The rest of Greece remained divided into city states, small powers ruled by their own citizens. It’s important to stress here that there was almost no sense of `Greekness’ at this time. People identified themselves by the place they lived in, and were often at odds with those from other towns or city states. Powers such as Athens and Sparta, which had ruled supreme centuries before, were but shadows of their former selves. Thebes no longer existed, having been crushed by Alexander, and Corinth lay under Macedonian control. Aetolia, in west-central Greece, was one of the stronger city states, and a bitter enemy of Macedon. Other powers included Argos, Elis and Messenia on the Peloponnese, tiny Acarnania in southwest Greece, and Boeotia, the latter two both being allied to Macedon.

Carthage, Macedon and the Seleucid Empire – had all been beaten by Rome in war. In a mere 50 years, the Republic had morphed from a regional power with few territories into one that utterly dominated the Mediterranean world. This seismic change set Rome on the road to becoming an empire, a self-fulfilling path from which there was no turning back.

The Republic’s war with Carthage lasted for 17 bitter years, from 218 BC to 201 BC. It was a conflict initiated by the Carthaginian military genius Hannibal Barca. Invading Italy by crossing the Alps in winter, he inflicted crushing defeats on the Romans at the Trebbia, Lake Trasimene and Cannae. Yet Hannibal never succeeded in forcing his enemies to surrender. Obdurate and resilient, Rome recruited new legions to replace those that had been annihilated, and fought on. It was a long, drawn-out war that spanned four fronts: mainland Italy, Sicily, Spain and, lastly, Carthage, in what is now Tunisia.

Old grudges die hard

One might think that the Romans would have had enough of war once victory over Hannibal and Carthage had been secured. Far from it. Less than two years after the decisive Battle of Zama, the Republic opened hostilities with King Philip V of Macedon. his wasn’t a conflict that had come from nowhere, however: the Romans and Philip had history with one another.

In 215 BC, the year after the Battle of Cannae, the chance interception of a ship off the southern coast of Italy had brought to light a most unwelcome revelation. Documents seized by the Roman navy proved that Philip and Hannibal had come together in secret alliance against the Republic. The Senate immediately sent a fleet to the east, its task to contain the Macedonian King. Events in Illyria soon took on a life of their own, and in 214 BC, war broke out between Rome and Macedon.

The conflict lingered on until 205 BC, a stop-start affair that played out all around the Greek coastline. Macedon fought alone, while the Romans had allies throughout the region. here were sieges, lightning-fast raids and withdrawals, victories and defeats on both sides. When peace was finally negotiated, the Republic’s war with Hannibal was nearing its final act – it suited the Romans to end the conflict with Macedon. Aetolia, Rome’s chief Greek ally, had had enough too. Philip, on the other hand, had reason to be content, having lost none of his territories and gained part of Illyria.

In the five years that followed, Hannibal was defeated by Scipio at Zama, while Philip busied himself campaigning on the coast of Asia Minor, where he had some successes against Rhodes, the Kingdom of Pergamum and others. For every achievement, however, it seemed Philip suffered a setback. He besieged but failed to take the city of Pergamum, and in a naval battle at Chios he lost a large part of his fleet, as well as thousands of sailors and soldiers. he most humiliating incident was the six months in the winter of 201-200 BC that Philip spent barricaded in a bay in western Turkey by a Pergamene and Rhodian fleet. Finally escaping by night, slipping past the ships of his enemies, he made his way back to Macedon.

Whatever other misjudgements Philip had made, he had been astute enough to avoid conflict with the powerful Seleucid Empire, which controlled most of modern-day Turkey and sprawled eastwards into the Middle East, Afghanistan and India. He also entered into a secret agreement with the Seleucid ruler, Antiochus III, that allowed both powers to attack settlements belonging to Ptolemaic Egypt.

Rome’s revenge

Philip’s actions in Asia Minor were to have major repercussions. In the autumn of 201 BC, Rhodes and Pergamum both sent embassies to Rome pleading for aid against him. Despite having rebuffed Aetolian emissaries asking for the same help only a few years before, this time the Senate listened – but its first motion for war was rejected by the Centuriate, the people’s assembly.

It is no surprise that the very people who had bled and died in vast numbers during the struggle against Hannibal were reluctant to pick up their swords and shields again so soon, but their resistance was short-lived. Politicians have always been prone to ignoring decisions made by plebiscite, and after six months – and in all likelihood, after some significant back-room politicking – the Centuriate reversed its decision.

It was late in the summer of 200 BC before an army was dispatched to Illyria. he chosen commander was Publius Sulpicius Galba, an experienced politician and leader who had served in various positions during the war with Hannibal, including that of consul. Setting up base near the city of Apollonia by September, Galba sent a legion up one of the several mountain valleys that led to Macedon. After a short siege, the town of Antipatreia was taken and sacked. Prudently deciding to end his year’s campaign before winter arrived, Galba consolidated his position in Apollonia and waited for the spring.

Philip did the same in Macedon, but as soon as the weather began to improve in early 199 BC, he marched his army west from his capital of Pella. It was difficult to know which route Galba would use to invade; history doesn’t record whether Philip had scouts watching every valley, but it would have made sense to do so.

In the event, Galba chose the Apsus Valley. Philip rushed to defend it, but Rome’s legions smashed past his phalanx and into western Macedon. Although the defeat was incomplete – Philip’s army escaped almost entirely – this was a pivotal moment in the war, when the extraordinarily maneuverable Roman maniple proved itself superior to the rigidly structured phalanx.

Galba’s army marched eastward in search of Philip’s host, and a game of cat and mouse ensued through the summer, with each side seeking battle on its own terms. A victory for the Romans at Ottolobus, when Philip almost lost his life recklessly leading his Companion Cavalry against the enemy, was countered by a Macedonian win at Pluinna. Sadly, the locations of both Ottolobus and Pluinna have been lost to history.

The harvest of 199 BC arrived without a conclusive outcome. Galba, far from his base of Apollonia, with his supply lines at risk of being cut by snow or the Macedonians, took the sensible option and retreated to the Illyrian coast.

Titus Quinctius Flamininus

In many ways, the politics of 2,000 years ago were no different to today: the new man always likes to take control. Although it was common in the mid-Republic for a general to be left in command of the war he was prosecuting, Galba found himself supplanted by the current consul, Villius, soon after his return to Apollonia. Villius in turn was replaced only a few months later, in early 198 BC, by the brand-new consul, Titus Quinctius Flamininus thirty years old – a young age to be in command of a large army – he was a formidable figure who took the invasion in his stride. A lover of all things Hellenic, he could speak and write Greek, something unusual for Romans of the time.

Flamininus decided to try a different valley to Galba, that of the River Aous. He found his path blocked by Philip’s phalanx and an impressive series of defences, leading to a 40-day stand-off during which the Romans must have mounted many unsuccessful attacks. A dramatic meeting between Flamininus and Philip took place during this time, across the Aous. The Roman historian Livy records that Flamininus demanded Philip remove his garrisons from all Greek towns and pay reparations to those whose lands he had ravaged: Athens, Pergamum and Rhodes. Unpalatable though these demands were – being issued to a Hellenic king on his own territory by a non-Greek invader – Philip conceded. Unsurprisingly, he balked at Flamininus’ next demand, that he should surrender the towns of Thessaly to their own populations, reversing a legacy of Macedonian control of more than 150 years.

The impasse resumed, but soon after a local guide was found to lead a Roman force up and around the Macedonian positions. Attacked from in front and behind, Philip’s army broke and fled; it was thanks only to the phalanx that a complete slaughter was prevented. Pursued eastward, Philip had to abandon the same Thessaly he had refused to deliver to Flamininus only days before. It was a humiliating moment for the Macedonian King, all the more so as he had to torch his own farmland and towns to deny supplies to the enemy.

Defeat seemed imminent, but redemption was to come from an unexpected quarter. Despite the loss of the strategically important fortress of Gomphi, Philip’s forces proved victorious at another stronghold, Atrax. When the Roman catapults battered a hole in the wall and the legionaries charged in, they were faced by the phalanx in a tightly confined space. he sources are silent on details, but what happened there persuaded Flamininus to retreat from Thessaly.

Fine September weather meant that the year’s campaign did not come to an end at the usual time. Flamininus’s considerable successes saw the Greek city states, many of which had been playing neutral, move towards the Roman camp – or in the case of Aetolia and Achaea, join it outright. Several towns in Boeotia fell to the legions, and the mighty fortress of the Acrocorinth was besieged by a combined force of Romans, Pergamenes and Achaeans. his attack failed, but it signalled the end of Philip’s ability to retain territories outside Macedon. he future looked bleak.

Macedonian phalanx

The Romans had been fighting the Macedonian phalanx for more than a century. Pyrrhus defeated the Romans with it in the early third century, the Carthaginians in Africa in the middle of the century did as well, and Hannibal did the same later. In 197 bc the Romans had won a terrifying victory against Perseus’s father at Cynoscephalae, a battle that vividly illustrated the terrible power of the phalanx’s charge, even on unsuitable ground. In the year 198 bc before Cynoscephalae, the Roman siege of Atrax had failed when a Macedonian phalanx drawn up in a breach in the wall had proved quite impervious to Roman attack. Polybius’s judgment that “when the phalanx has its characteristic virtue and strength nothing can sustain its frontal attack or withstand the charge” will have been no news to Roman commanders. The phalanx’s fatal flaw, Polybius says, is that it requires flat terrain so that it can preserve its close order. Perseus’s father’s unwise decision to fight on broken ground allowed the Romans to defeat him at Cynoscephalae. But Aemilius Paullus consented to fight the Macedonian phalanx on a plain, ideally suited to it, on ground that Perseus had chosen for exactly that reason.

Crisis of conference

In likely recognition of this, Philip agreed to a conference with Flamininus and his allies in November 198 BC. It also suited the wily Flamininus to negotiate, because in Rome, consular elections were around the corner. If he was to be replaced (as he had done to Villius) then a peace treaty with Philip was the best option; if his command was renewed, on the other hand, Flamininus could fight Macedon to a finish.

Three days of heated negotiations without agreement saw Philip request to send an embassy to Rome; he would abide, he said, by the decision of the Senate. Flamininus agreed, knowing full well that once there, Philip would be asked to surrender the three fortresses that protected Macedon to the south – the so-called `Fetters of Greece’, Acrocorinth, Chalcis and Demetrias. And so it proved. Flamininus’ command was renewed, and Philip’s outwitted ambassadors could not agree to the Senate’s demand to evacuate the Fetters. Both parties retired for the winter.

In spring 197 BC, the war resumed. Rather than in mountain valleys, this year the fighting would take place in Thessaly. By May, both armies were marching towards each other on the coast. Taking account of his allies, Flamininus had about 26,000 men; Philip’s troops were of similar strength, including 16,000 phalangists.

Skirmishes and maneuvering saw both parties march westward, separated by a range of hills. As is often the case with battles of vital importance, the fighting began by accident when Flamininus’s scouts clashed with Philip’s advance force in bad weather, atop the hills of Cynoscephalae. Reinforcements were sent by both sides as the skirmish spiralled out of control and, before long, both commanders had deployed their armies.

The phalanx falters

Unhappy with the ground and lacking half of his phalanx (which was out scouting), Philip went to battle reluctantly. At first, things went well, with his phalangists driving the Roman left flank down the hillside towards their own camp. Victory might have seemed possible, but things changed fast when Flamininus led his right flank up towards the second half of Philip’s phalanx, which had arrived late to the battle. Panicked by the Romans’ elephants, these disorganised phalangists broke and ran.

Misfortune then turned into disaster for Philip when a quick-thinking Roman officer broke away from Flamininus’ position with several thousand legionaries and attacked the exposed flank and rear of the remaining half of the phalanx. Unable to defend themselves, the phalangists were slain in large numbers; the rest fled the field.

The defeat did not see Philip removed from his throne by Flamininus. Rome was well aware of the threat posed by the wild peoples to the north of Macedon and the Seleucid Empire to its east. Philip could serve nicely as a buffer, while also paying reparations and sending one of his sons to Rome as a hostage.

Effectively, Cynoscephalae signalled the end of Macedonian and Greek independence. he city states that had allied themselves to the Republic would realise this too late, and just a year later, in 196 BC, the Aetolians lamented how the Romans had unshackled the feet of the Greeks only to put a collar around their necks.

Caledonia and Rome

On, then, into action; and as you go, think of those that went before you and of those that shall come after.

Words attributed by Tacitus to the Caledonian chieftain Calgacus, AD 84

Before the Picts made their first appearance in history, their territory in what is now Scotland was inhabited by an earlier population. These were the ancestors of the Picts and were the people encountered by Roman armies during the Empire’s attempt to conquer the northern parts of Britain. Theirs was a typical Iron Age society of farmers, fishermen and craftsmen grouped into tribes and ruled by a landowning aristocracy. They spoke a dialect of Brittonic, the Celtic language used in most parts of mainland Britain in pre-Roman times. Like other ancient Celtic peoples, the ancestors of the Picts lived in well-organised communities within a hierarchical society ruled by a minority upper class. Most of the population lived in small settlements scattered across the landscape, owing their primary allegiance to local chiefs who in turn acknowledged the authority of greater chiefs or kings. The economy was based on livestock – sheep, pigs and cattle – and on crops such as oats and barley. The majority of houses were built of timber, but some were of stone. Kings and chiefs built fortified residences on prominent hilltops, in valleys or in coastal locations. In some areas prosperous lords constructed large stone towers around which smaller dwellings were clustered. These towers are known today as ‘brochs’ and a few still survive in ruinous form. They are the most visible and impressive reminder of the prehistoric forefathers of the Picts.

It was around the time of the broch-builders that the Romans first came to Britain. The island was already familiar to Rome because it lay adjacent to her newly conquered territories in Gaul but its interior was largely unknown. The first Roman forays across what is now the English Channel were made by Julius Caesar in 55 and 54 BC. These brought him into conflict with the south-coast tribes but, on both occasions, he returned to Gaul after making a token show of force. In common with his newly conquered Gaulish enemies, the native Britons who opposed him spoke a Celtic language and were similarly well-organised in tribal groups under the rule of kings. Rome regarded their land as rich in agricultural and mineral resources, but Caesar knew that the warlike inhabitants were unlikely to give up their wealth without a fight. A large-scale military campaign would therefore need to be mounted if Britain was to be brought to heel and drawn within the Empire. Although this was not accomplished in Caesar’s lifetime, it was inevitable that Rome would one day return.

Conquest was considered by the emperors Augustus and Caligula but postponed until the middle of the first century ad. In AD 43, during the reign of the emperor Claudius, the project commenced in earnest with a full-scale invasion from Roman Gaul. The initial assault was followed by campaigns against tribes in the southern parts of the island. Some of these surrendered, or made deals with Rome, but others fought bravely to preserve their independence. Within thirty-five years, after crushing all serious resistance and quelling revolts, the invaders successfully brought much of Britain under their sway. Consolidation of the conquered territory proceeded swiftly, driven by a steady process of Romanisation and the reorganising of native political structures. These changes were enforced by a large and permanent military garrison housed in strategically placed forts linked by a network of roads.

Agricola and the Highlands 

By the end of the third quarter of the first century the main phase of the conquest was complete. Half the island lay under imperial control and the Britons in these areas became subjects of the Empire. The southern tribal kings were either dead, exiled or working for Rome as urban bureaucrats in newly built towns and cities. The emperor entrusted the task of running the new province to a governor who, because of the volatile character of the natives, was usually an experienced general. In AD 78 the governorship passed to one of Rome’s most capable men, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, a career soldier who had already seen service in Britain as commander of the Twentieth Legion. Agricola returned to the province and immediately launched campaigns to subdue rebellious tribes in Wales and the Pennines.

A contemporary account of Agricola’s career was written by his son-in-law, Tacitus, whose work has survived. This account bears the simple title Agricola and appeared in AD 98, five years after the death of its subject, as a eulogy in praise of his character and achievements. It does not offer a straightforward, factual report of administrative policies or military campaigns, nor is it concerned with presenting an objective view of the peoples and places encountered by Agricola during his time in Britain. Its value for the present chapter lies in what it says about the people of Celtic Britain. Tacitus paid special attention to the northern parts of the island, the area now known as Scotland. It was here that Agricola found his ambitions thwarted by troublesome natives and an inhospitable landscape. In the Highlands across the firths of Forth and Tay, beyond the furthest limit of Rome’s early conquests, dwelt tribes of untamed barbarians. Tacitus provides fascinating information about these people, much of it gleaned at first-hand in conversations with his father-in-law, who knew them as well as any Roman could.

The natives of the Highlands are described by Tacitus as having ‘reddish hair and large limbs’, a typically stereotyped barbarian image rather than an objective view. They were a proud people whose warriors were brave and fierce, but Rome had met such folk elsewhere and did not fear them. As far as Agricola was concerned they stood in the way of a total conquest of Britain and needed to be swept aside. He was not the kind of man to leave such a task to others, nor did he lack the means to accomplish it. First, however, he had to deal with another obstacle: a group of unconquered tribes between the Pennines and the Forth-Clyde isthmus. In AD 80, the third year of his governorship, he marched north into what is now the Scottish Lowlands to bring these tribes within the Empire. They offered little resistance and were subjugated so quickly that the Romans were able to spare time for the construction of new forts in the conquered districts. Before the end of the summer, Agricola’s advance brought him to the southern edge of the Highlands. He then crossed the River Forth and led his troops into territory where no Roman army had gone before.

The invaders soon found themselves battling wet, windy weather of the kind familiar to any modern visitor who travels among the lochs and glens. Storms hindered the army’s progress after it crossed the Forth into what is now Stirlingshire, but the advance pressed on. Communities of terrified natives could do little but watch helplessly as their lands were plundered by foraging bands of Roman soldiers. The march soon reached the estuary of the Tay, bringing Agricola within sight of the northern mountains, but at this point he decided to advance no further. Instead, he turned around and marched back to the Forth to consolidate his gains in the Lowlands. There he spent the next year building forts and installing garrisons of auxiliaries. The following year, AD 82, saw him campaigning near the Solway Firth in unconquered territory west of Annandale. The tribes of this region were swiftly defeated, their capitulation bringing Roman troops to the shore of the Irish Sea. Agricola briefly considered the viability of an invasion of Ireland but decided against it. A more pressing matter – the subjugation of the far north – still preyed on his mind. With all territory south of the Forth-Clyde isthmus now firmly under Roman control, he knew that the free peoples beyond the Firth of Tay represented a lurking menace. Such a situation was intolerable and had to be resolved by a major campaign of invasion and conquest.

In AD 83 Agricola marched across the River Forth at the head of an army of 25,000 men. Three renowned legions – the Second, the Ninth and the Twentieth – provided the core of his fighting strength, the remainder being cohorts of auxiliaries. These cohorts included some highly experienced infantry units together with several thousand cavalry. As well as these land forces, a fleet of warships under the command of an admiral shadowed the army’s progress. The admiral’s task was to keep the troops supplied and to make a detailed reconnaissance of the coast. Aboard the ships were units of tough marines who periodically came ashore to scout the best harbours and terrorise the natives. Sometimes the soldiers, sailors and marines camped together to share tales of their achievements and adventures, or to joke about the bad weather and the harsh terrain. Eventually the land forces reached the River Tay and crossed it, entering for the first time a region called Caledonia. Here they were harassed by a group of people whom Tacitus calls Britanni, ‘Britons’, like the other inhabitants of the island. Modern historians generally refer to these folk as Caledonians. They were a tribe or confederation whose core territory included large tracts of the central Highlands as well as most of eastern Scotland between the Firths of Tay and Moray. A memory of their presence survives today in three place-names within their old heartland: Dunkeld (‘Fort of the Caledonians’), Rohallion (‘Rath of the Caledonians’) and Schiehallion (‘Fairy Hill of the Caledonians’).

Unlike their neighbours in the South, the Caledonians were not content to stand idly by while Roman troops plundered their lands. They retaliated swiftly, launching a series of devastating raids on the forts and camps established by Agricola in the wake of his advance. Using hit-and-run tactics, the native warriors caused such dismay that some Roman officers advised their commander to make a strategic withdrawal. At that moment, however, Agricola learned that the enemy was planning a full-scale attack on his column and decided to thwart it by splitting his army into three divisions. This in turn prompted the Caledonians to amend their original plan by launching a night-attack. Their target was the Ninth Legion as it lay sleeping in a temporary camp, but Agricola anticipated the assault and brought up the rest of his forces behind the enemy’s rear. At the same time, the soldiers of the Ninth rose up to defend themselves, not only to expel the raiders but also to show the relief force that they could win the fight on their own. The Caledonians were routed, the survivors vanishing into impenetrable forests and marshlands. Tacitus observed that the Roman victory would have ended the campaign had not the Highland landscape aided the enemy’s retreat. This was clearly an echo of his father-in-law’s assessment of the battle. Like all Roman generals, Agricola was irritated by an enemy who used hit-and-run tactics. He longed to meet the Caledonians in a pitched battle, but this began to seem like a forlorn hope. Eventually he grew so frustrated by their refusal to stand and fight that he described them as ‘just so many spiritless cowards’. This label was unfair and undeserved: the natives were merely waging war in their own way, utilising the landscape of their homeland to its best strategic advantage.

After the failed attack on the Ninth Legion the Caledonians regrouped. They placed their families in safe locations away from danger and began to muster for the kind of encounter that Agricola wanted. Their reasons for abandoning guerilla tactics are unclear. Perhaps their leaders believed that their superior numbers could overwhelm the Roman force in a set-piece battle? Certainly, by the following summer a huge native army was ready to meet the invaders in a final, decisive engagement. Tacitus speaks of tribes forging ‘treaties’ with each other to unite their warriors under a common purpose, but this is likely to represent a Roman rather than a native way of doing things. In reality, the Caledonians probably rallied around a single paramount leader, the king or chieftain of a powerful tribe, whose authority was strong enough to persuade or coerce other tribal leaders to follow him into battle. Similarly, when Tacitus speaks of native warriors ‘flocking to the colours’ he is applying the imagery of Rome to a people whose military organisation was markedly different. The Caledonian forces did not have well-drilled regiments of professional soldiers, each with its own standard or ‘colours’: they were made up from the personal warbands of individual kings and chiefs.

The great clash of arms occurred in late August or early September at Mons Graupius, a name that later inspired the naming of the Grampian Mountains. The slightly different spelling arose from an error on the part of a fifteenth-century Italian writer who, in preparing the first printed edition of the Agricola, transcribed Graupius as Grampius. This mis-spelt name was subsequently applied to the formidable mountain range which since medieval times has been called ‘The Mounth’, a term of Gaelic origin with the simple meaning ‘mountain’. The precise location of the battlefield of AD 84 is a matter of considerable debate, chiefly because Tacitus gives few clues as to where it lay. The hill of Bennachie in Aberdeenshire has been put forward as a likely candidate: its most distinctive peak, the Mither Tap, is certainly deserving of the Latin description mons. Another candidate, although hardly a mons, is the Perthshire hillock of Duncrub which rises to no great height from the farmlands of Lower Strathearn. Although the name Dun Crub might correspond to a Pictish or Gaelic equivalent of Mons Graupius, the site seems too far south to be acceptable to those who envisage Agricola’s victory taking place north of the Mounth. The line of Agricolan forts and marching-camps running northward from the Tay suggests that he advanced a long way beyond the fertile valley of the Earn. On the other hand, somewhere in the vicinity of Duncrub lies an unlocated Roman fort whose Latin name was simply Victoria, ‘Victory’. Perhaps this name was given in commemoration of a great triumph over local natives? Some historians believe that the victory in question was indeed Mons Graupius, despite the insignificance of Duncrub as a landmark. Opponents think it more likely that the Romans named their fort to honour a different battle.

Wherever Mons Graupius lay, it was on its lower slopes that the Caledonians mustered a huge force of warriors, ranging from young men to old veterans, under the command of many kings and chieftains. Tacitus names one of these leaders as Calgacus, whose name is a Latinisation of a Brittonic term meaning ‘The Swordsman’. Tacitus shows this heroic figure giving a stirring speech about courage, freedom and heroism. It is one of the most vivid passages in the entire narrative of the Agricola. Standing before the assembled multitude, Calgacus gives words of hope to his people and a solemn vow that Rome will never conquer the Highlands. He predicts that the inexorable advance of the imperial army will be stopped in its tracks by the valiant warriors of the North, whose isolation has hitherto protected them from invasion:

We, the choicest flower of Britain’s manhood, were hidden away in her most secret places. Out of sight of subject shores, we kept even our eyes free from the defilement of tyranny. We, the most distant dwellers upon the earth, the last of the free, have been shielded until today by our very remoteness and by the obscurity in which it has shrouded our name . . . Let us then show, at the very first clash of arms, what manner of men Caledonia has kept in reserve.

Tacitus describes how this rousing address was greeted with euphoria by the gathering of 30,000 native warriors, who sang and yelled as they eagerly prepared for battle. Above the din, Calgacus closed his speech with these final words: ‘On, then, into action; and as you go, think of those that went before you and of those that shall come after’. Historians tend to believe that Calgacus was invented by Tacitus to present an idealised image of a noble savage, but the speech and its setting certainly capture the spirit of a proud barbarian people defying the power of Rome. In similar vein, the account of the ensuing battle – embellished from Agricola’s own words – is detailed and full of action. The scene unfolds with the noise of native chariots manoeuvring into position on the flat terrain between the two armies. Both sides then hurl spears at each other before Agricola orders six cohorts of war-hardened German auxiliaries to engage the enemy. Tacitus describes how these tough, disciplined veterans throw the Caledonians into disarray and push them backwards up the hill, ‘raining blow after blow, striking them with the bosses of their shields and stabbing them in the face’. Meanwhile, the chariots are easily dispersed by Roman cavalry and career wildly into their own lines. Other Roman horsemen charge the Caledonian rear and break the ranks, causing many warriors to break and flee. Some bravely stand their ground, or rally in nearby woods to launch small counter-attacks, but by then the battle is already lost. With customary efficiency the Romans ensured that they finished the job, and Tacitus tells that ‘the pursuit went on till night fell and our soldiers were tired of killing’. He may be exaggerating when he puts the Caledonian losses at 10,000, a third of their force, but the intensity of the slaughter need not be doubted. Roman casualties were less than 400.

Mons Graupius was a resounding victory which could have brought the final conquest of Britain within Agricola’s grasp. However, the result did not turn out to be as decisive as he might have hoped or expected. Two-thirds of the barbarian horde survived the onslaught and managed to return to their homes. Moreover, the summer campaigning season was waning and there was no time to establish control over an area as vast as the Highlands. Agricola duly assessed the situation and realised that consolidating his victory would be impossible, especially with autumn approaching and with large numbers of Caledonians still lurking in the hills. The task of rooting them out, while facing the inevitable nuisance of hit-and-run ambushes, presented an unappealing prospect. He and his officers knew that neither the Highland landscape nor its inhabitants were compatible with the Roman way of war. The invading army duly turned about and returned to winter quarters in the south, leaving a small number of garrisoned forts to guard the glens of Perthshire. Hostages were taken from a people called the Boresti, who may have been among the tribes defeated in the great battle, but the Roman advantage was lost. Agricola nominally held sway over all native territory south of the Moray Firth, but political machinations deprived him of an opportunity to consolidate his gains: the emperor Domitian, consumed by jealousy and paranoia after hearing of the victory, ordered Agricola to leave Britain and return to Rome.

After Agricola: The Two Walls

Tacitus tried to portray the victory at Mons Graupius as a spectacular success but could not hide the fact that Caledonia remained unconquered. Calgacus and his warriors, ‘the last of the free’, were still free. One small consolation for Rome came when the fleet that had shadowed the army’s progress completed its operations. After the battle it made a token gesture of dominance by continuing northward along the eastern seaboard and sailing around the top of Scotland, intimidating the natives with a final display of Roman power before sailing home down the western coast. During this voyage the admiral gathered plenty of information about the geography of the northern lands and learned the names of the tribes who dwelt there. This data, together with similar information gathered by Agricola’s army, was later reproduced on a Roman map which survives today in a version drawn by Ptolemy, a Greek geographer of the second century. The map is a unique and fascinating document which shows how the British Isles appeared to Roman eyes. As well as naming and locating important topographical features, it identifies the tribes who inhabited Britain and Ireland and indicates the approximate positions of their territories.

The map shows sixteen tribes inhabiting Scotland, twelve of them occupying areas north of the Forth-Clyde isthmus. A number of place-names, denoting Roman forts and native sites, are also shown, but none appear on the map in areas north and west of the Great Glen. This distribution suggests that Agricola’s land-campaign never reached beyond Loch Ness or the Moray Firth. The people of Caledonia appear on the map as the Caledonii, but it is curious that the Boresti, from whom the Romans took hostages after Mons Graupius, are absent. The map places the Caledonii across the central Highlands, in territory southwest of a people called Vacomagi, who seem to hold Moray and the Spey valley. Much of what is now Aberdeenshire is shown as lying within the territory of the Taezali, while Fife appears to be the home of a tribe called Venicones.

Within a decade of Agricola’s withdrawal, the Romans had become deeply pessimistic about the idea of ever conquering the Highlands. The forts established in Perthshire during the campaigns of AD 80–4 were abandoned, thereby removing the infrastructure for any future invasion. A new legionary fortress at Inchtuthil, on the north bank of the Tay, was dismantled before its construction could be completed. The frontier shrank back to the river’s estuary and was marked by a line of wooden watch-towers, but these and their associated forts were abandoned by AD 90. In the Scottish Lowlands the garrisons lingered on for a further ten years, but the second century dawned with an urgent need for manpower on the Danube causing a major withdrawal of troops from Britain. The northern frontier fell back again, shrinking the limits of Empire to the Tyne-Solway isthmus.

The early years of the second century saw the northern barbarians launch a series of attacks on Roman Britain. Whether or not the Caledonians were among these raiders is unknown, but the incursions left a trail of devastation in their wake. The situation became so serious that the emperor Hadrian ordered his soldiers to build a mighty wall of stone along the Tyne-Solway frontier. This great work was begun in 122 or 123 and was still in progress when Hadrian’s successor, Antoninus Pius, launched a vigorous campaign in the North. The new emperor’s objective was not another attempt to subdue the Highlands but a reconquest of what is now Lowland Scotland and the consolidation of a viable defensive line below the River Forth. Antoninus entrusted the venture to Britain’s newly appointed governor, Quintus Lollius Urbicus, who began the campaign sometime around 140. Within a couple of years Roman authority was restored along the Tay estuary and new forts were built to make the gains permanent. The imperial frontier was fixed slightly to the south, being marked by a barrier – the Antonine Wall – across the Forth-Clyde isthmus. The new barrier was not built of stone, but consisted of a turf rampart with a ditch in front. Sixteen forts sited at regular intervals along its forty-mile length accommodated a total garrison of 6,000 men, while several Agricolan forts and some new ones north of the line were maintained as forward outposts. Despite its impressive appearance and large garrison, the turf wall was probably constructed as a display of prestige by Antoninus rather than for practical defensive reasons. For a while it became the new northern border of the Empire and made Hadrian’s Wall redundant. It did not, however, survive long as a stable frontier. It was briefly abandoned in the 150s, its soldiers moving south to quell a revolt among the Brigantes of the Pennines, before being permanently evacuated in the following decade. The final withdrawal came soon after the death of Antoninus Pius in 161, which allowed his successors to downsize the northern frontier army. A handful of outpost forts beyond the Forth were still garrisoned, but the imperial boundary shrank back to Hadrian’s Wall.

Caledonii and Maeatae

Before the end of the second century the Caledonians were assailing the Scottish Lowlands with increasing ferocity. The Roman writer Cassius Dio described how events took a very serious turn when Hadrian’s Wall was overwhelmed sometime between 180 and 184. Although the onslaught on the Wall was brief, it was a symbolic disaster for Rome and a huge achievement for the barbarians. The great stone barrier was quickly recovered, but all the forts to the north of it were temporarily abandoned to the enemy.

The third century dawned on a rather unsettled situation. The Romans now faced two large groups of hostile natives across the war-ravaged isthmus between the Firths of Clyde and Forth. One was their old enemy the Caledonians, who ended the previous century in some kind of uneasy treaty with Rome. The other was the Maeatae, whose territory corresponded roughly with present-day Stirlingshire. A memory of this people survives in two place-names in the region they once inhabited: Dumyat (from Dun Myat, ‘Fort of the Maeatae’) and Myot Hill. According to Cassius Dio, the Maeatae dwelt immediately beyond the Antonine Wall, while the Caledonians inhabited lands further north. This shows that Caledonian territory still included Perthshire, as had been the case in Agricola’s time, although the precise extent of these lands in either the first century or the third is unknown. Ptolemy’s second-century map shows the name Caledonii covering a wide swathe of northern Scotland from the west coast to the east, but this might denote nothing more than Roman perceptions of the fame and status of this people. On the other hand, it is clear that the Caledonians and the Maeatae were large and powerful political entities, each perhaps an amalgamation of peoples under the sway of a single dominant group. Of the twelve tribes shown on Ptolemy’s map as second-century occupants of the Highlands, some had already been amalgamated into larger groupings during his lifetime. Using information collected by Agricola’s forces, Ptolemy showed four tribes in the area between the Firths of Forth and Moray: the Caledonii, Vacomagi, Taezali and Venicones. By the third century the Caledonii had evidently absorbed the others and subsumed their identities. Given the undoubtedly warlike and ‘heroic’ character of Iron Age society, it is hard to imagine that the process of absorption or amalgamation was voluntary rather than enforced. Even with the threat of a Roman invasion providing a persuasive argument for smaller tribes to join larger ones, the amalgamation was unlikely to have been peaceful. Between the menace of Rome and the dominance of the Caledonii the leaders of the Vacomagi, Venicones and Taezali may have had little choice but to surrender their sovereignty within the Caledonian ‘confederacy’. The alternative was military conquest by one foe or another, the most immediate threat coming not from the legions but from the Caledonians. The Caledonians and the Maeatae are sometimes viewed by historians as voluntary associations formed by separate tribes seeking mutual assurances of protection by amicable agreement. It is more realistic to see these two ‘confederacies’ as the enlarged hegemonies of powerful kindreds who, in a period of uncertainty, exploited the vulnerability of fearful neighbours to forge large groups that they could control as paramount rulers.

In 197, the emperor Septimius Severus emerged victorious from a destructive civil war in Gaul to deal with the growing barbarian menace on his borders. On the northern frontier in Britain the Maeatae were still belligerent and were being held back only by large gifts of Roman cash, while the Caledonians were on the verge of breaking a fragile treaty with the Empire. During the early years of the third century Roman diplomacy maintained control of the frontier but, in 205 or 206, the two confederacies launched an invasion. Britain’s governor appealed to Severus for more troops or, better still, for the direct involvement of the emperor himself. At that time, Severus was eager to take his sons Caracalla and Geta away from the decadence of Rome to give them some experience of generalship. Bringing them to Britain seemed an ideal solution and so, in 208, he arrived on the island at the head of a large army. Taking personal command of the military situation he marched north, crossing the Forth-Clyde isthmus to attack the Maeatae. Fierce fighting ensued, with the barbarians waging a guerilla war on their home territory until they were beaten into submission. At this point, Severus revived the old Agricolan scheme for a conquest of the North and began to plan the construction of a massive new legionary fortress in Perthshire, at Carpow on the Tay.

In 210, however, the Maeatae rose again, at a time when Severus was stricken by illness. The task of crushing the revolt was given to Caracalla, whose brutal methods provoked the Caledonians under their chieftain Argentocoxos (‘Silver Leg’) to join the fight against Rome. The decisive event in the drama came in early 211, when the death of Severus elevated Caracalla to the purple. The new emperor consolidated the Antonine frontier, but he soon realised the futility of a permanent scheme to subjugate the North. He eventually made peace with the barbarians and then, like Agricola before him, withdrew his forces south of the Forth-Clyde line while he himself hurried back to Rome. Construction of the new fortress at Carpow had already begun but was promptly abandoned. With Caracalla’s withdrawal came the end of any realistic hope of conquering the whole island of Britain. No Roman general would ever again march towards the Tay to threaten the tribes who dwelt in the hills and glens. From that moment on, the destiny of the far North lay in the hands of its native inhabitants.

Caesar’s Army

The Republican period ran from a traditional start date established after the last King of Rome in 509BC and ended after Caesar was assassinated and Augustus became supreme ruler in 31BC. Detailed archaeological and historical evidence for this period of Roman military history is somewhat elusive, but we do have three authors who provide us with some evidence of the structure and behaviour of the early Roman army: Livy, Polybius and, of course, Caesar himself. Their descriptions are good as far as they go, but provide us with only a narrow view of the army of the late Republic. The authors, excepting Caesar, do not provide a contemporary view of Caesar’s army and tend to focus only on an idealized image of the legions, with little or no attention given to other units such as allies or mercenaries. The case is not much better with regard to the archaeological evidence. Here we can find some suitable contemporary evidence for the Roman army of the late Republic, but it is extremely limited, focusing on a few camps in Spain and naturally Alesia. Unfortunately, as most of this data was unearthed over a century ago, even this evidence is patchy. Our understanding of Caesar’s army, therefore, is built from a mix of contemporary and not so contemporary sources, scholarly research and debate.

Clearly Caesar’s legions did not simply spring to life fully formed. While they were raised as complete units, this arrangement came about as part of an inherited system of behaviour. To understand the character of the Caesarean legion it is worth taking a brief look at how the legions developed from their foundation. In reviewing the development of the legion as a whole, some of the relationships between Gaul and Rome will become apparent. The legion, as we understand it, was the consequence of a long period of changes absorbed in the wake of military defeat. Although the Roman legion is now seen as the epitome of military genius, the reality was somewhat different; in fact, Rome’s success as a military power seems to have been due more to its ability to learn from its mistakes. Rome’s brilliance was that it could accept its weaknesses and adopt the successful elements of its enemies, whilst all the time placing these within a structured military system. In due course, the legion developed from the propertied man’s annual obligation to fight to protect his land during the summer months, to the requirement for all males to fight lengthy warfare for a campaigning season (usually March to October) and finally to professional soldiers paid to fight constantly over prolonged periods of many years. This transformation was concurrent with the expansion of Roman territory and the change from the protection of the local community to the requirements for a standing army to protect a vast and diverse Empire.

The armies of early Italy were little more than war-bands of infantry and cavalry, raised by local tribes or princes when required, and fighting when the seasons allowed. Charismatic and powerful men led these bands, the best of which could provide protection for the individual and an opportunity for advancement. It could be argued that these traits were enshrined in the system from this early date, as the patronage of wealthy and powerful leaders can be seen in the armies of Rome throughout its history. Caesar was certainly a general who instilled in his legions personal devotion to him. Finally, the early system of ad hoc recruitment became more standardized, in order to provide a more regular and predictable turnout of men. The first Roman armies consisted of around 3,000 men and were organized on the basis of tribal groups, called a legio or a ‘levying’. Each tribe contributed 100 men towards the total force – the origin of the ‘century’ of Caesar’s legion. The wealthy elites in the tribe were relied upon to supply the cavalry for the army, as only they could afford expensive equipment and horses. This group, the equites or knights, survived as a social group long after their original function had vanished, serving as officers in Caesar’s army. In essence these early armies fought in similar ways to most early European armies of the period. Warrior bands would fight under the command of their local leader in unstructured groupings, while commanders would range around the battle, urging them on to fight and selecting suitable enemy leaders for combat. It is interesting to consider that the Gallic armies Caesar faced were very much on a par with these early Roman armies.

After the Roman Republic began in 509BC, the Roman army became far more formalized, along the hierarchical lines society was taking. Greekstyle Hoplite warfare was the most advanced military tradition at the time and represented a significant advancement on earlier military tactics. In Hoplite warfare, troops fought as a densely packed line of heavily armed spearmen. Cohesion was the key to this style of fighting and so the hierarchical nature of Roman society was replicated in the legion. Only those men with property were allowed to fight, giving the men a sense of duty and an interest in preserving the State. It is worth noting here that Roman citizens were providing the entire range of troop types in the army – a situation that was not to last. As Rome expanded the areas coming under its domination, there also came a necessity for an expanded army. The increased wealth of Rome meant that the number of infantry and cavalry centuries could also be increased.

By the fourth century BC, Rome’s experiences of fighting with the Latin and Gallic tribes had revealed serious weaknesses in the Hoplite form of warfare. The more flexible fighting styles of the Gauls and Samnites often highlighted the sluggish and formulaic nature of Hoplite warfare. To counteract this problem the Romans began to adopt less dense formations, which in turn required a revision of their tactics and equipment. The Roman phalanx was reorganized into fighting formations called maniples – literally ‘handfuls’. The overall result was slowly changing the legions from the rigid defensive formation of the phalanx into a cohesive collection of flexible offensive fighting units. The fourth century BC saw the entire Italian peninsula come under the control of Rome and as the sphere of influence increased, so did the embracing of allied Italian peoples into the Roman army. On campaign it became common for allied soldiers to comprise about the same number of troops as the Roman legionaries. Armed like the legionaries, these allied troops formed up either side of the legions in alae or wings. From this time on, allied or mercenary units came to be a significant feature of the Roman army.

‘On the expedition he [Marius] carefully disciplined and trained his army whilst on their way, giving them practice in long marches, and running of every sort, and compelling every man to carry his own baggage and prepare his own victuals; insomuch that thenceforward laborious soldiers, who did their work silently without grumbling, had the name of Marius’ mules.’

[Plutarch, Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, 13]

The turn of the first century BC saw a significant change in the character of the Roman army. This has often been attributed to just one man, Marius, but this may be somewhat overstated and simplistic. Transformations had been taking place over the course of the previous three centuries, therefore Marius’ role is most likely to have been as a catalyst for the changes already developing. The army was now spending long periods away from home and it was becoming a genuine career choice with the possibility of gaining wealth and land from the proceeds of victory. Previously, the Roman army had been an organized militia, galvanized with discipline and training. Increasingly, the army was becoming more specialized and developing a core of professional soldiers as Roman society became geared for on-going war. Pragmatism was required in the face of the demands put on the army by the ever-expanding areas of land to be controlled. This also resulted in a relaxation of the prescribed requirements for entry to the army, which had gradually been eroded almost as soon as the legion was developed. The acceptance of elements of the non-land owning populace into the army had only been done in extremis before, but now Marius attempted to increase the strength of the army by changing the property requirements for service. He allowed the recruitment of proletarii, the landless citizens of Rome, making the class-based system redundant. The state had for some time been supplying equipment to the army and so standardization was already occurring. Hence by Marius’ time, the army was equipped fairly uniformly and the complex strata exhibited in the previous system was removed. Thus Marius was unwittingly responsible for homogenizing both the equipment and structure of the legions, by allowing the process to become formalized.

In accepting the landless into the army, the State also had to accept the responsibility of arming the legions, which, up until then, had been paid for by the soldiers themselves. After their service these landless soldiers were left to fend for themselves, so while they were in the legions they were willing to follow any charismatic leader that promised them land afterwards. Gradually, a subtle difference in the mind-set of the legions emerged, from a landed militia protecting their own Roman lands, to a professional army dominating annexed foreign provinces. Soldiers began to develop greater loyalty to their generals, identifying with their leaders who, like them, sought personal enrichment rather than seeing the maintenance of the structure of the State as the purpose of their fighting. Individual grants of land and money, distributed after military successes and service, were now becoming commonplace. The politics of the late Republic were becoming ever more competitive, hence in the struggle for advancement senators succumbed to more and more aggressive policies and expansionist pressure. This was the world that Caesar made his own.

Caesar leaves out much of the detail of his army because his audience was well informed about the character of the Roman army of the period. Caesar does tell us that he was using a system of cohorts, a simplified version of the previous maniple system. Marius is thought to have been responsible for the change from maniples to cohorts but it is likely that both systems could have been in place together for a period. When Caesar set out on his Gallic adventure in 58BC the cohort system was well established. Manipular legions were made up of three distinct lines of formation, each one equipped differently and socially differentiated. The cohort legion did away with these equipment complexities, replacing them with a flexible body of similarly armed men. It is likely that the system was introduced to deal with the difficult nature of warfare in Spain. Tactics had to be developed to combat both the Spanish guerrilla warfare and the mountainous character of the landscape. The system retained the three-line formation, with a strengthened rear rank as a reserve.

Caesar formed his legions for battle into what is called a triplex acies formation, being four cohorts in front, with two lines of three cohorts behind. This formation was something of a compromise between being wide enough to form a broad frontage and deep enough to have reserves. The middle cohorts provided the reserve for the front cohorts, while the rear cohorts could be used for outflanking the enemy or if the legion was attacked in the rear. The basic building blocks of the legion were the eighty-man centuries, each one commanded by a centurion. Caesar depicts the centurions as the fundamental glue of his legion, providing harsh discipline and motivational inspiration in equal measures. Six of these centuries would provide a 400-man cohort: this played the role of an individual tactical unit on the battlefield, ten cohorts together forming the legion.

In the last century of the Roman Republic the command of the army was removed from publicly elected consuls. Only after their period of office could they command – a circumstance that had the effect of further breaking the army’s connection to a citizenry. Caesar tells us that most of the legions for his Gallic campaigns were raised during the winter months, when campaigning had ceased. As governor of three provinces, he inherited the four legions that were stationed in them and these could be augmented by further recruitment from the provinces. Initially it seems that Caesar would raise the legion out of his own money, then, after gaining acknowledgment of the unit from Rome, the legion would become the responsibility of the State to maintain. Caesar enlisted troops into the legions of both citizen and part-citizen ‘Latin’ status, thus continuing the process of blurring the qualifications for entry to the legions. By collecting these diverse groups into unified legions, and by exerting direct personal control over them, Caesar was able to place himself as the main focus of the legion’s loyalties, before that of any other – even the State. This meant that his forces were extremely loyal to him: a factor that was to play its role in the subsequent Civil War (49–45BC).

The officers of the legions were not trained. In fact, most received their posts as part of their political career. Six tribunes were placed as middle-ranking officers of the legion and these were generally young and untested men of aristocratic birth, often lacking in initiative or bravery. Caesar chose the tribunes personally, many purely on the basis of political expediency and patronage. Above the tribunes was a quaestor, a junior senator who oversaw an entire province and provided Caesar with finances. Overall control of a legion was placed in the hands of a legatus. Caesar chose a number of legati; usually former tribunes, they were senators from a variety of backgrounds and experiences, but were usually politically motivated choices.

Over the course of the Gallic Campaign, Caesar increased his legions from the four he inherited, to twelve at the height of the fighting for the Alesia Campaign. Thus, Caesar could have had up to 57,600 men at his disposal. However, this number was only the paper strength of the legion, based on around 4,800 men per legion. The actual number would, more likely, be half this amount by the campaigning of late summer 52BC. Battle casualties, infirmity, exhaustion and general wastage from the previous months’ campaigning would all have played a part in reducing this tally to less than 30,000 men at Alesia.

The 30 miles of fortifications – making up the circumvallation and contravallation at Alesia – may seem very large, but when one considers that its construction was divided among almost 30,000 available men, each soldier would only have had to dig around 5 feet of trench and rampart in the six weeks it took to prepare. In this light, the defences do not seem such a superhuman task. In fact, when one considers that it was usual for Roman legionaries to build a camp at the end of the day’s march, the building of these fortifications seems well within the capabilities of the average soldier. In truth, the greater task would have been the logistics of the operation, including the planning, design, organization, supply and implementation of the construction. However, this is where the Roman military machine came into its own. If the defences at Alesia are exceptional, this is only because the management of the army was exceptional and equal to the Herculean task. Motivation to create such an engineering feat was an important factor in Caesar’s army. Infantry training tended to focus on physical ability, including running, jumping, marching and building – clearly necessary for the construction work.

Increasingly, espirt de corps was also encouraged. The legions began to be individualized by number and by name. Added to this, individual legions were picked out by nicknames, often recognizing their exploits, and by use of awards and honours on their banners and standards. This is not to say that the legions were uncritically loyal to their leaders. While the soldiers were made to give oaths of allegiance that imposed legal and religious constraints on them, the Roman army was still prone to revolts and indiscipline was common, mainly over pay or ill treatment. Often rewards would be granted to keep the legionaries content. Caesar would often bestow on his soldiers a promotion as part of the system of rewards, especially for centurions. At Alesia Caesar’s handing over of slaves and booty to his soldiers after the defeat of Vercingetorix is a clear example of this. To this was added the spoils of war, along with donativa, one-off payments made by the general in gratitude of service. After the Alesia Campaign, Caesar decided to double the pay to ensure the loyalty of his soldiers for the coming civil wars.

The remaining archaeological evidence from Alesia is confined to the siegeworks themselves. Roman weapons of the late Republic are scarce throughout Europe, most coming from siege sites in Spain. At Alesia there is surprisingly little in the way of Roman military equipment and this is likely to be due in part to biases in the excavation of material. In the main, archaeologists have focused their attentions on understanding the form of the Roman defences. This means the results have concentrated upon the character of ditches that bordered the Roman circumvallation and contravallation. These, it has been discovered, were filled with javelins and arrowheads, which make up the predominant proportion of the total weapons discovered at Alesia. While some Roman pila (the legionary’s offensive missile) have been found, most of the other weapons are likely to be Gallic in origin. If one considers that the ramparts were mainly the focus of incoming missiles from the Gallic army, then outgoing Roman missiles would have been fired into areas further from the ramparts, where little or no excavation has been undertaken. Similarly, all the swords so far discovered seem to be of Gallic origin, and again this may not be unusual, as Roman weapons would have been retrieved after the battle had finished to be used in future campaigns, whereas Gallic ones would only have been recovered if they were considered valuable.

‘Gaius Sulpicius … commanded those who were in the front line to discharge their javelins, and immediately crouch low; then the second, third, and fourth lines to discharge theirs, each crouching in turn so that they should not be struck by the spears thrown from the rear; then when the last line had hurled their javelins, all were to rush forward suddenly with a shout and join battle at close quarters. The hurling of so many missiles, followed by an immediate charge, would throw the enemy into confusion.’

[Appian, History of Rome: Gallic Wars, 1]

Archaeological evidence shows that the panoply of equipment of the Roman soldier differed only in detail from that of the better-equipped Gallic warriors – sword, long shield, helmet, mail armour and spear. Nevertheless, their appearance was different enough for one soldier to comment that soldiers in the distance were not Roman because of their ‘Gallic weapons and crests’. The Romans’ equipment wasn’t the only thing that was different from the Gauls; their fighting techniques varied too. After throwing their pila, the legionaries would engage the enemy adopting a crouching stance and using a juxtaposition of punches with the shield boss and stabs with a sword. It is evident from sculptural and archaeological evidence that the majority of Roman legionaries were equipped to fight in this style, with heavy armour and equipment. A large number of weapons have been found at Alesia, almost 400 in total, 140 of which are either javelins or spears. Unfortunately, these could be either of Roman, Gallic or German origin. Some of the spearheads must be Roman but it is unclear which, as leaf-shaped spearheads were a common form used across Europe at the time. However, using other sources of evidence, we can piece together a picture of Caesar’s legionaries. In the late Republic the average legionary would have a decorative tall bronze helmet with a short neck guard and large cheek pieces, a derivative of Gallic styles. The form was called ‘Montefortino type’ and was sometimes enhanced with horsehair or feather trappings. These decorative helmets were beginning to be replaced by a more easily produced, plain style of helmet called a ‘Coolus’ or ‘Buggenum-type’ helmet. It is likely that both types were in use at Alesia. In general, legionaries would wear a mail coat that reached nearly to the knees, which was hitched up with a military belt. Some sculptures suggest that these coats could have further mail reinforcing on the shoulders. Pieces of chest fastenings from these mail coats have been found at Alesia. However, as the Gauls were the inventors of this form of defensive equipment, defining whether these fittings are Gallic or Roman is very difficult. All legionaries would also carry a long curved wooden shield, strengthened by a vertical central spine and which had a small bronze boss covering the handgrip. On a legionary’s belt there would have been a stabbing sword on the right hip and a long dagger on the left. Both these weapons seem to be copied from types common in Spain.

‘[Caesar’s] … soldiers, hurling their javelins from the higher ground, easily broke the enemy’s phalanx. That being dispersed, they made a charge on them with drawn swords. It was a great hindrance to the Gauls in fighting, that, when several of their shields had been by one stroke of the pila pierced through and pinned fast together, as the point of the iron had bent itself, they could neither pluck it out, nor, with their left hand entangled, fight with sufficient ease; so that many, after having long tossed their arm about, chose rather to cast away the shield from their hand, and to fight with their person unprotected.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, I. 25]

The one piece of the legionary’s equipment that can be directly attributed to Roman invention was his primary offensive weapon, the pilum. Pila were a form of spear with a long thin metal shaft and a small pointed head. Although pila are a Roman invention, examples of similar types of weapons were also developed in Gallic and German contexts. Among the huge number of missile weapons found at Alesia, pila are the predominant Roman weapons evident. Up until recently, only fragments of pila were discovered, mainly coming from the foot of Mont Réa. But in 1991 a complete example of a Roman pilum was discovered in Fort Eleven. The examples from Alesia are characterized by long thin shanks and points that come in pyramidal, leaf-shaped or lance-shaped forms. There are different ways in which pila were connected to the wooden shaft: some were connected by a socket that fitted over the shaft and was riveted to it; other pila shafts had a wide tongue that was sandwiched between the shaft and riveted in place. A final type had a pointed tang that was driven into the shaft and secured by a collar. Usually, a round shaft was used for the socketed and collared pila, whereas a square shaft was used for the tongued versions. It is likely that the socketed pilum was lighter than the tanged pilum, this is because the tanged pilum was often weighted to provide extra penetration on impact. After his excavations at Alesia, Napoleon III had replica pila made and tested. The results showed that the reconstructed examples could be launched 30m and penetrate wood 3cm thick. Heavier pila were weighted with lead and could have been thrown up to 70m. It is likely, therefore, that pila were thrown at the Gauls before they entered the defences of the circumvallation and contravallation at Alesia.

The equipment available for use by the legionary was extensive and the legionary himself carried much of it. The requirement that legionaries carry all their equipment is attributed to Marius: hence the term ‘Marius’ mules’, although the likelihood is that this is a misattribution. The soldiers had always been required to carry their equipment, a regulation that was regularly flouted. It is likely that Marius simply reinforced a standing regulation in an attempt to make the soldiers more self-reliant and less reliant on a baggage train – part of creating a professional army. Vegetius suggests up to 60 pounds of equipment should be carried during training and Josephus claims each soldier carried a saw, a basket, an axe, a pick, a strap, a billhook, a length of chain and three days’ rations. The rest of a soldier’s equipment, his tents and so on, were carried with the baggage. Along with this equipment, the Roman army took with it large numbers of servants and slaves, who were usually not armed but had sufficient knowledge of tactics to be of use. Sometimes these groups were added to the regular army to give the impression of a larger force than was actually available, such as at Gergovia, where they were mounted on horses to look like cavalry. Merchants and camp followers would also be part of the train, providing services that would otherwise be unattainable in foreign countries. Large numbers of followers and baggage had the tendency to slow the column on marches and so attempts were made to reduce these numbers. One way of reducing the reliance on camp followers was the local requisition of supplies and the creation of storage bases along the route of march. In Gaul, where Vercingetorix had instigated a scorched earth policy, this was impossible to maintain and so it is likely Caesar had more followers than he would have wished to have.

The legions also took on campaign with them numbers of artillery pieces. These could be used aggressively, either in open battles and sieges to provide preparatory fire, or defensively to protect camps and siegeworks. Roman artillery comprised various sizes of ballista (sometimes called a catapulta or catapult). The ballista was a torsion catapult that used two twisted skeins of hair or tendons to provide energy for a string that fired projectiles. The ballista was built in various sizes that fired anything from small crossbow-sized bolts to large cannonball-sized stones. Parts of ballistae occur occasionally on archaeological sites. At Alesia three bolt heads were discovered, betraying the presence of ballista there. Ballista would allow Caesar to cover most of the regions outside his defences with a combination of fire from the hills surrounding the defences and the ramparts of the circumvallation. The larger engines were probably fixed in place once built and reserved for siege work, whereas the smaller artillery was often broken down and moved on pack mules, but could also be erected on carts or wheels (carroballista) to make them mobile on the battlefield.

Caesar´s Germanic Cavalry

Caesar’s Allies

‘It was the practice of the Romans to make foreign friends of any people for whom they wanted to intervene on the score of friendship, without being obliged to defend them as allies.’

[Appian, History of Rome: Gallic Wars]

Throughout the Republican period, Rome relied heavily on its allies for additional infantry and cavalry forces to make up for a lack of manpower. In some cases these were specialist fighters recruited on an ad hoc basis and in varying strengths from the locality. More important were the allied light troops who were drawn from Mediterranean regions Rome had long been in contact with and with whom they had the closest relations. These troops were customarily raised for the duration of a campaign, which sometimes led the Romans themselves to questions their allies’ quality and commitment. Allied formations were usually under the control of an individual unit’s chief, and were armed, equipped and fought in the particular unit’s traditional style.

Usually the allied contingent of the Roman army was of equal or larger size than the legionary force and was usually formed along Roman lines. Units regularly seem to have been about 500 or 1,000 strong and broken down into either six or ten centuries. These could be arraigned with the main army in the centre of the Roman line or placed on both wings. Sometimes the more lightly armoured allied contingents were mixed with the heavier armed legionaries to prevent the allies from being picked off. Along with the heavily armed troops, many of the allies provided specialist light infantry troops, such as archers and slingers. These units are likely to have been dressed according to their ethnic origin, although there is no definitive evidence of which units were at Alesia. Over forty arrowheads have been recovered from Alesia and it is thought that some of the Roman forms of arrows with one and two barbs are likely to have been used by allied Roman troops. Roman arrows were manufactured from iron and were up to 7.8cm long and 2.5cm wide. Tests of reconstructed bows suggest they would have had a maximum range of around 300m, and so they would be able to fire at the Gauls beyond even the deepest of Caesar’s defences. Slings were also used and a number of examples of slingshot come from Alesia, most notably three with inscriptions on them. Reconstructed slingshots have shown a range of up to 400m, easily enough to provide covering fire from any of the hilltops around Alesia into the valleys below.

Throughout his campaigns in Gaul Caesar does not define the constitution of his cavalry and so we cannot be certain about their number or ethnicity. It is likely that at least some of the cavalry at Alesia were Roman. At the beginning of the conflict, Caesar was also able to call upon friendly Gallic tribes to provide him with Gallic cavalry and these were employed as warriors, as well as scouts, guides, interpreters and messengers. However, Caesar had always considered them unreliable, a belief which was confirmed once Vercingetorix rebelled and Caesar lost the majority of his Gallic troops to his rival. Some must have been retained however, if only in an intelligence role, but by the beginning of the Alesia Campaign Caesar was forced to employ new cavalry in the form of German mercenaries.

‘Caesar, as he perceived that the enemy were superior in cavalry, and he himself could receive no aid from The Province or Italy, while all communication was cut off, sends across the Rhine into Germany to those states which he had subdued in the preceding campaigns, and summons from them cavalry and the light-armed infantry, who were accustomed to engage among them. On their arrival, as they were mounted on unserviceable horses, he takes horses from the military tribunes and the rest, nay, even from the Roman knights and veterans, and distributes them among the Germans.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, VII. 65]

Caesar tells us that the bulk of the German mercenaries were cavalrymen. Evidence for Germanic cavalry in the archaeological record at Alesia is slight; this is partially because German weapons are hard to distinguish due to their similarity with Gallic weapons. One shield boss with a central projecting stud is almost certainly German, given its similarities to later German bosses. Bones of horses coming from the ditches discovered at the foot of Mont Réa have been identified as coming from a male horse of no more than three years old. These bones may represent the well-bred young stallions given to the German cavalry. If this is correct, the evidence would conform well to the German cavalry attack on this region. Recent interpretation suggests that these horse remains may have been deliberately buried in the ditches, not simply to cover them up, but in a form of sacrificial burial. It was the Gallic custom to bury sacrifices in the peripheral ditches of sanctuaries. In Gallic eyes, the circumvallation ditch may have been associated with the practice of ritual sacrifice in these periphery ditches after the defeat.

‘There is not even any great abundance of iron, as may be inferred from the character of their weapons. Only a very few use swords or lances. The spears that they carry – framea is the native word – have short and narrow heads, but are so sharp and easy to handle, that the same weapon serves at need for close or distant fighting.’

[Tacitus, Germania, VI]

Along with the cavalry, the Germans are described as using spearmen who mingled with the mounted troops. This tactic may explain the successes of the German cavalry during the Alesia Campaign. Tacitus tells us that German warriors were lightly armed, the cavalry often having only a spear and shield. The infantry were armed in a similar manner, with the addition of a number of small javelins. All the Germans were dressed lightly with few wearing armour or helmets. Some even fought completely naked. In the main, German warriors wore breeches and large cloaks that would be draped over their shoulders in regional style. Their clothing was manufactured in simple colours and patterns, the only ostentatious part of their dress being elaborate knotted hairstyles. These varied from tribe to tribe and so identified each warrior as the member of a particular clan, a practice that had continued for hundreds of years.

‘[The Germans are] … a people who excelled all others, even the largest men, in size; savage, the bravest of the brave, despising death because they believe they shall live hereafter, bearing heat and cold with equal patience, living on herbs in time of scarcity, and their horses browsing on trees. It seems that they were without patient endurance in their battles, and did not fight in a scientific way or in any regular order, but with a sort of high spirit simply made an onset like wild beasts, for which reason they were overcome by Roman science and endurance.’

[Appian, History of Rome, 3]

Caesar tells us that the River Rhine marks the border between the Gallic peoples to the south and the Germans to the north. German warriors were famed for their physique, size and fearlessness – attributes which in Roman eyes made them appear as savages. Like the Gauls, the Romans had a stereotype for the Germans, who were seen as brutish to the point of indifference to death (a recurrent image even up until the present). As ever, the reality was very different; the German peoples had as complex a society as any other of the period. There were close affinities between Celtic peoples and Germans, in art, religion and culture. An innate conservatism meant that German tribes were slow to change and reduced access to resources seems to have meant that their technologies were less advanced than in Gaul. What they lacked in technology the Germans made up for in vigour. It was this trait that so impressed Caesar in his brief excursion across the Rhine into Germany – a trait that was to put to great use during the Alesia Campaign.

The World beyond Rome I

The Roman Empire was involved in networks of trade, diplomacy, and influence that, at their greatest extent, spanned Europe, Africa, and Asia. In the north, a Roman glass cup was buried in a fourth-century grave mound in Føre, Norway, above the Arctic Circle. In the east, a Roman glass bowl was buried in a fifth-century tomb in the Nara Prefecture in Japan. In the south, four Roman beads made of glass, silver, and gold were deposited in a third-century context at a trading site at Mkukutu in Tanzania. While these finds trace the outer edges of the reach of Roman trade goods, these regions were too far from the empire to play much role in frontier society. It is doubtful whether the nobles and merchants of Norway, Japan, and Tanzania who received these objects had any conception of the Roman Empire or knew where the luxury goods in their possession had been made.

Some knowledge of Rome reached China, where the Roman Empire was called “Great Qin.” Chinese sources reflect some eclectic but not inaccurate knowledge of Roman geography, government, and law. Romans had a similarly vague knowledge of the Chinese, whom they called “Seres,” being aware that their land was the source of silk and lay to the east beyond Parthia and India, but contacts were neither direct nor regular enough to leave much trace on the frontiers. The peoples, networks, and power centers that had a stronger impact on the frontier were found closer to the territory that the Romans had claimed as their own.

In North Africa, Roman administration covered the coastal agricultural regions, but in the broad zone of marginal lands between the coast and the Sahara desert there were numerous peoples, known to the Romans by such names as Mauri, Gaetuli, and Garamantes, who lived partly in and partly beyond the frontier region. Some of these peoples were dry-zone farmers who managed large-scale irrigation works. Others lived as nomadic pastoralists. There has been a long debate in the scholarship whether the settled and nomadic peoples of Rome’s desert frontiers, in Africa and elsewhere, lived in a state of cooperation or competition; the answer may well be both, depending on local circumstances and the fortunes of their farms and herds.

South of Egypt, on the middle reaches of the Nile, was the kingdom of Kush. In the aftermath of Octavian’s victory over Antony and Cleopatra and the incorporation of Egypt into the empire, Roman and Kushite forces clashed over control of the borderlands. After brief hostilities, Queen Amanirenas of Kush sent ambassadors to make a treaty with Augustus, and the peace held for most of the next few centuries. Occasional diplomatic missions helped keep the peace. One of these, likely from the third century, appears to be documented by a Latin inscription at Musawwarat es-Sufra in which one Acutus from Rome formally presents his good wishes to an unnamed queen. Evidence for the study of Greek in Kush may represent local officials keeping up the necessary language skills to send their own ambassadors in return. Kush also participated in the trade routes that connected the Mediterranean with the Indian Ocean and central Africa. Concern for the security of trade may have encouraged both states to keep relations stable.

The Arabian frontier, like North Africa, presented a mix of settled kingdoms and nomadic peoples. The trade routes that passed through the region brought in substantial wealth but also further complicated the relationships between these societies. The Nabataean kingdom was a Roman client state for the better part of two centuries. Its capital at Petra was adorned with rock-cut temples in ornate Hellenistic style, and its kings were important regional leaders. Trajan annexed the territory in 107 as the province of Arabia Petraea, or “Rocky Arabia.” Other kingdoms and tribal alliances competed for power and control of trade routes, sometimes allying with Rome and sometimes raiding the frontier.

The largest and most powerful of Rome’s neighbors was the Parthian Empire. The Parthian state, though a match for Rome in its ability to muster forces for campaigning, was decentralized, prone to divisive court intrigue, and contained numerous semi-autonomous subkingdoms. The administration of this unruly empire was as unwieldy a task as the administration of the Roman Empire with its restless provincials and ambitious generals. It is no wonder that, in the first century CE, the two empires mostly contrived to leave one another alone. Nevertheless, Parthia loomed large in the Roman imagination. It remained the big prize, the enemy against whom flattering writers and propagandistic artists could always imagine emperors leading the good fight. Rome was equally significant to Parthian policy. The Parthian kings positioned themselves as heirs to the Achaemenid dynasty and champions of the Iranian peoples against western aggression.

The period of relative stability was broken by Trajan, who invaded Mesopotamia and Armenia in 113. Although Trajan’s conquests were quickly reversed by his successor Hadrian, Roman-Parthian relations remained unsettled for the following century. Several emperors initiated or contemplated military action against Parthia, and several Parthian kings pursued more aggressive policies on their western frontier. No substantial changes to the border were lasting, however, and diplomatic relations continued in between bursts of conflict. The historian Herodian even reports that the emperor Caracalla, in the early third century, proposed marrying a Parthian princess, and that Caracalla’s successor, Macrinus, celebrated a peace treaty and hailed the Parthian king Artabanus V as a loyal friend.

On the Black Sea steppes, a variety of nomadic and seminomadic peoples continued to live in traditional ways while some peoples of the region also developed settled kingdoms. Romans tended to describe the region in vague terms that drew as much on the literary tradition going back to Herodotus’ Scythians as they did on contemporary knowledge, but we should not assume that life on the steppe was static. Literary sources name various peoples in this region, including Sarmatians and Alans. In some cases, these names seem to correspond to identifiable ethnic and political groups, but they can also be unreliable, as the complexities of steppe identities were sometimes lost on writers from sedentary cultures.

In the late second century, there is evidence of cultural changes around the northern shores of the Black Sea and the lower Danube that may reflect the arrival of migrating warrior bands from somewhere to the north and west. These new peoples are reflected in a distinct archaeological pattern of settlement types, pottery styles, and burial practices. These features are the earliest evidence for a cultural pattern that would become more pronounced in the third and fourth centuries CE, which modern archaeologists have termed the Chernyakhov culture. It is generally believed that the Chernyakhov culture is related to the people known as “Goths” in the literary sources, but how consistent the Chernyakhov-Goth connection is and how early we can speak of a Gothic presence in the region are matters of debate.

The Romans referred to the peoples who lived along the middle to upper Danube and Rhine as “Germans” (barring a few exceptions, such as the Dacians and Iazyges), but it is unlikely that the tribes and kingdoms of this region felt any kind of shared identity. Many individual tribal names are also known, but, as elsewhere, we cannot be confident that the Roman authors who recorded those names were applying them accurately. Many cultures existed in this region with different kinds of social and political organization. Some, such as the Dacians and Marcomanni, appear to have reached an early stage of state development, with power centralized in well-established royal families. Other peoples, such as the Frisians, lived in small, egalitarian communities with little in the way of formal power structures.

Farther to the north, away from the frontier zone but in close contact with the Roman world, another major power was rising. At Himlingøje in Denmark, a group of lavish burials filled with Roman luxuries marks the center of a commercial and political network that established itself in the late second century and spanned the Baltic Sea and southern Scandinavia. The warrior nobles of Himlingøje fought as auxiliaries in the Roman army and maintained strong trade and diplomatic connections to Rome after they returned home. Through these connections they acquired Roman goods, which they then used as prestigious gifts to expand their network of influence in the North. The numerous ritual deposits they made in Danish bogs of the weapons and armor of their defeated enemies show that they expanded their power in more aggressive ways as well. While many of the peoples who lived closer to the Roman frontier had unsettled histories with Rome, the rulers of Himlingøje appear to have remained on good terms with the Romans throughout their history.

Rome also had staunch allies in Scotland with the Votadini whose power center, a fortified hilltop site at Traprain Law, has yielded an extraordinary wealth of Roman imports ranging from gold brooches to iron door hinges. The precise boundaries of Votadinian power are uncertain, but other peoples certainly lived beyond the British frontier, both in Scotland and Ireland. Some of these peoples had large, settled societies, but others were small and mobile.

The peoples who lived in and beyond the Roman frontier zone varied widely in their ways of life, social organization, and political structures. While some maintained long-term diplomatic ties with Rome, others had volatile relations with the empire. This wide variety of frontier peoples challenged Rome’s limited capacity for maintaining foreign relations and managing the frontiers.

Emperors and Frontiers

The frontier was always an area of special concern to the emperors, even those with little direct experience of it. Imperial power depended on the support of two groups: the army, which was mostly stationed on the frontiers, and the people of Rome, who approved of victories over barbarians. Although imperial activity on the frontier could be haphazard and inconsistent, few emperors could afford to ignore the frontier entirely.

After the defeat of Varus, Augustus soured on expansion. He initiated no more conquests, and his final advice to his successor Tiberius was to keep the empire within its boundaries. The meaning of this counsel has long been debated. It is unlikely he meant that the empire should never expand again. The conquering ideal remained fixed in Roman ideology, and Augustus was not shy of bragging about the conquests accomplished under his authority. More likely it was personal advice to his successor not to embark on a new series of foreign campaigns for political purposes.

On the whole, most of Augustus’ successors followed his advice. On the grand scale, the frontier was mostly stable. There were only a few large additions to the empire in the following centuries: the southern half of Great Britain, parts of North Africa, Dacia, parts of Arabia, Armenia, and Mesopotamia. The conquests of Mesopotamia and Armenia were brief accomplishments of Trajan’s and Septimius Severus’ wars against Parthia and did not long endure. Some of the expansions in Africa and Arabia came from incorporating client kingdoms rather than conquering new lands. On the small scale, however, the frontier was turbulent. Almost every emperor from Augustus to Severus Alexander fought frontier campaigns or faced unrest in frontier provinces. Most of these campaigns added little, if any, new territory to the empire, but few emperors actually treated the frontier as a limit not to be crossed.

Emperors who felt insecure in their position used foreign wars to prove their worth in the traditional expansionist mode. Claudius, who came to power unexpectedly, initiated the conquest of Britain, which the unloved Nero continued. Domitian, another surprise emperor, began his reign with a campaign in Germany that even his fellow Romans criticized as unwarranted. Trajan, though he grew to be one of the most beloved emperors, came to power through obscure political machinations, which may help explain his ambitious program of conquests in Dacia and Mesopotamia. Septimius Severus, the victor of a civil war, spent much of his reign fighting in Mesopotamia, North Africa, and Scotland. These campaigns not only showered military glory on the emperors but also enriched the empire with plunder and slaves while keeping potentially restless soldiers occupied.

Restless soldiers were no trifle. Revolt by troops who felt ignored by the emperors was a recurrent threat to imperial stability. Sometimes this discontent could be softened by letting the soldiers pillage across the frontier. On other occasions, successful frontier generals could harness their soldiers’ dissatisfaction in a bid for the throne. Vespasian and Septimius Severus both came to power in this way, and many more attempted the feat unsuccessfully or managed it only to be quickly ousted by a rival general.

While the Romans pushed the frontier, the frontier pushed back. There were few major incursions on Roman territory in the first centuries of the empire, but some threats demanded the emperor’s attention. Relations with the Parthian Empire remained unresolved as both empires pressed for greater influence along their mutual border, but neither could secure a lasting victory over the other. Trajan, Severus, and Caracalla all led major campaigns against Parthia, but their gains did not last. The Parthians backed Pescennius Niger, a general in Syria who competed with Severus for power, but Pescennius’ bid for the throne failed.

Away from the Parthian front, the most serious threat to the Roman frontier in this period developed along the Danube in the late second century. Termed the Marcomannic Wars by modern scholarship, this diffuse and protracted series of conflicts involved many of the peoples of the region, chiefly the Marcomanni, Quadi, and Iazyges, and kept the emperor Marcus Aurelius occupied from the early 160s to 180. Smaller-scale troubles rarely claimed the attention of the emperors, but raiding, local resistance, and discontent among the soldiers were constant nuisances in the frontier zone that could flare up into more serious trouble if not kept in check.

Emperors undertook a variety of different policies toward the frontier. In the early empire, rulers such as Augustus and Nero were content to govern from a distance and entrust even major campaigns to subordinates, but the rise of frontier generals as claimants to the throne demonstrated that it was dangerous for an emperor to leave the frontier in anyone else’s hands. There were those, such as Trajan and Severus, who threw themselves into aggressive frontier campaigning. Others, notably Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius, were led, either by temperament or circumstance, to focus on consolidating and defending the territory claimed by their predecessors. Only a few emperors such as Antoninus and Elagabalus largely ignored frontier problems, being either fortunate enough to rule in a period of relative calm or else too busy with their own concerns.

Because of the practicalities of governing a continent-spanning state in an age when messages could take weeks and armies months, if not years, to reach the frontier, an emperor’s ability to effectively manage the frontier was limited. At the same time, as proven by generals such as Vespasian and Severus, delegation of too much power was risky. Wars against barbarians or restless provincials were potent propaganda tools, and emperors were wary of letting anyone else get their hands on them. It was a conventional charge against bad emperors that they did not trust their subordinates, but even the most popular emperors understood the importance of preserving personal control over frontier policy. After the Julio-Claudian age, most emperors learned to keep frontier generals on a short leash.