Gaius Crastinus moved among his men, checking their equipment. He was no longer chief centurion of the 10th. That role had gone to a younger centurion the previous year, on Crastinus’s retirement. But on his recall, Caesar had welcomed Crastinus back to his legion with the rank of first-rank centurion, and for this operation had placed him in charge of 120 volunteers of the 1st Cohort of the 10th Legion, putting them in the front line. Caesar had once more placed the 10th Legion on his extreme right wing, the attacking wing. Much would depend on the 10th today.

Crastinus assured his comrades that they had just this one last battle to face as he moved along the line. He would have noticed a change of attitude among the men of the 10th since his return to its ranks. A lot of them had probably complained that Caesar no longer valued the 10th, that he treated it no better than the new Italian units with their raw, weak-kneed recruits. He’d broken his promise, and used the Germans as his bodyguard, not the 10th.

Now aged between thirty-four and thirty-seven, Crastinus had served Caesar for twelve of his seventeen years with the legions and was fanatically loyal to his general. He would have been quick to remind his comrades that Caesar had chosen the 10th to accompany him in the invasion’s first wave and now given them place of honor on the right wing. But there were apparently many in the 10th who sympathized with their countrymen in the 7th, 8th, and 9th, who were now eighteen months past their due discharge date and yet, as they complained, Caesar had not said a word about when they could go home.

“Remember what Caesar told us at Brindisi before we embarked,” Crastinus would have been telling his men. “One last campaign, one last battle.” Caesar himself records Crastinus saying: “After today, Caesar will regain his position, and we our freedom.”

It was midmorning on August 9, 48 B.C. As Centurion Crastinus took up his position on the extreme left of his front-line detachment, he faced across the field of swaying, ripening wheat to the army of Pompey the Great formed up some 450 yards away. Ever since the two sides had arrived on the plain of Farsala several weeks earlier, each had felt the other out, with cavalry skirmishes bringing a handful of fatalities on both sides, including one of the Allobroges brothers who’d defected to Pompey. More than once, Caesar had formed up his army in battle order in the wheat field, encouraging Pompey to come down off his hilltop and enter into a contest. Each time, Pompey stayed put. And each time, Caesar edged a little closer to the hills.

Then, early this morning, Caesar had broken camp. According to Plutarch, he was planning to march to Scotussa. Caesar himself says he’d decided to keep constantly on the move, seeking supplies for his army and leading Pompey a merry dance until the ideal opportunity for a battle presented itself. Even as his legions’ tents were being folded away and packed onto the baggage train, cavalry scouts came to Caesar to tell him that there was movement at Pompey’s camp. And as the lead elements of Caesar’s column marched out the front gate of his camp, more scouts arrived with the news that Pompey’s troops were beginning to come down from their hill and line up in battle formation—on the plain, giving up the advantage of higher ground. This was an obvious invitation to Caesar, and he accepted it.

“Our spirits are ready for battle,” Caesar says he declared. “We shall not easily find another chance.” He quickly issued orders for his red ensign to be raised as the signal for battle, and for the army to wheel about and form up on the plain opposite Pompey’s troops. According to both Appian and Plutarch, Caesar called out to his men, “The wished-for day has come at last, when you shall fight with men, not with famine and hunger.”

Summoning his senior officers to a brief conference, he’d ordered the same dispositions as the last time the army formed up for battle. Then, turning to General Publius Sulla, who would command the division on the right wing of the battle line, he told him to call for volunteers from the 10th to form the front line and lead the charge, knowing the untried legions in the center would be inspired by the performance of the famous 10th.

Some 120 men had quickly volunteered, among them Centurion Crastinus, which was why they now stood at the front of the 10th Legion’s formation on the extreme right of Caesar’s army, the cohorts stretching back in a total of three battle lines. Beside the 10th, making up the rest of the right division, stood the men of the 11th and 12th Legions. General Sulla had already taken up his position on the right with his staff.

Caesar’s center was commanded by General Domitius Calvinus, who had previously led the screening force in eastern Greece. As was the custom, the weakest troops took the center. In this case the central division was made up of three of the new legions raised in Italy the previous year, the 25th, 26th, and 29th.

The left wing was commanded by Mark Antony, once again holding the post of second-in-command of the army. With him stood the experienced Spanish legions he’d brought over from Brindisi and commanded at Durrës. The 9th was on the extreme outside, with auxiliaries and slingers filling the gap between them and the Enipeus River. The 8th was stationed next to the 9th. Both legions had been so depleted by the flu epidemic and then the casualties at Durrës that Caesar had ordered them to work together during this action and operate as one legion. Next to them stood the men of the 7th Legion, adjacent to the central division. All told, leaving just two cohorts guarding his camp and the baggage, with his 27th and 28th Legions absent in southern Greece, now under General Fufius, and eight assorted cohorts garrisoning three towns on the west coast, he was able to field nine legions in eighty understrength cohorts, totaling twenty-one thousand foot soldiers.

To counter Pompey’s cavalry massing on his right, Caesar deployed his own thousand-man cavalry, Germans and Gauls, supported by auxiliaries, extending from the 10th Legion’s position. His mounted troops and the auxiliaries had cooperated well in skirmishes against Pompey’s cavalry in the week or so leading up to the battle, and Caesar was hoping they would do the same again today to counteract Pompey’s significant superiority in cavalry.

Facing him, at Caesar’s estimation, Pompey had forty thousand infantry and seven thousand cavalry. As he came down onto the plain that morning, Pompey left seven cohorts drawn from a number of his least experienced legions to guard his camp, supported by auxiliaries from Thrace and Thessaly. General Afranius, who’d escaped from Spain to join Pompey, had come under severe criticism from Pompey’s other generals for losing seven legions to Caesar in Spain, despite the fact that he’d managed to bring thirty-five hundred men of the 4th and the 6th with him to Greece, and he’d been given the humble job of commanding the defenders of the camp, accompanied by Pompey’s eldest son, Gnaeus, who was probably in his midtwenties at this point.

Young Gnaeus would have been hugely frustrated at being left in the comparative safety of the camp, with the second-rate troops and thousands of noncombatants. He’d proven his bravery and military skill when he’d commanded the fleet from Egypt that had destroyed Caesar’s shipping along the Adriatic coast during the winter. But his father was obviously anxious to protect his son and heir. This act is indicative of the negative mind-set of Pompey on the day of the battle. Forced to agree to the battle by his impatient supporters at the meeting two days before, he still had little confidence in most of his infantry.

According to both Plutarch and Appian, Pompey had been awakened by a disturbance in his camp in the early hours of that morning: just before the last change of watch, excited sentries had witnessed a fiery-tailed meteor race across the sky from the direction of Caesar’s camp and disappear beyond the hills behind their own. Once awake, Pompey confided to his staff that he’d been dreaming he was adorning the temple of Venus the Victorious at Rome. Julius Caesar’s family claimed descent from the goddess Venus, and Pompey’s supporters were delighted by the dream, seeing it as an omen that Pompey soon would be celebrating the defeat of Caesar. Pompey wasn’t so sure; the dream could also be interpreted that he was saluting Caesar as victor.

Unbeknownst to Pompey, the previous evening Caesar had issued as his army’s watchword, or password, for August 9, “Venus, Bringer of Victory,” quite unaware that Pompey planned to bring on a battle next day.

A new watchword was issued every day in Roman military camps. Polybius tells us the watchword was issued for the next twenty-four hours by the commanding officer just before sunset. The tribune of the watch then distributed it on wax sheets to his legion’s guard sergeants, who in turn passed it on to the duty sentries in a strictly regulated process that required the prompt return of the wax sheets. Anyone trying to enter a Roman camp without knowing the watchword for the day was in trouble.

In battle, especially at times of civil war like this, with both sides similarly equipped, as well as in night fights, a watchword was often the only way to identify men from your own side. There are several instances of watchwords being hurriedly changed just before a battle in case deserters had passed on the latest watchword to the enemy overnight.

Watchwords could be a single word or a phrase. In imperial times, the emperor always issued the watchword to the Praetorian Guard if he was at Rome or to the army if he was in camp with them. Claudius frequently gave lines from epic poems. Nero famously issued “The Best of Mothers” in honor of the mother he later murdered. Dio and Seutonius say Caligula teased a particularly macho Praetorian tribune who came to dread the days when it fell to him to ask the emperor for the watchword; Caligula would call him a girl and give him watchwords such as “Love” and “Venus”— goddess of love. Dio also says that the night before Emperor Marcus Aurelius died in A.D. 180 he gave as the next day’s watchword “Go to the Rising Sun, I Am Already Setting.”

On August 8, 48 B.C., Pompey the Great, knowing the new day would bring the battle he’d been avoiding for a year and a half, had issued “Hercules, the Unconquered” as his watchword for August 9. Like mighty Hercules, Pompey had never been defeated in battle, and he was hoping it would stay that way.

Now that the day had arrived, despite his misgivings, Pompey made his troop dispositions with care. Marshaled by their centurions, the men of his elite 1st Legion confidently took up their assigned positions as the first heavy infantry unit on his left wing. Like Napoleon’s Imperial Guard 1,860 years later, the men of the 1st considered themselves the crème de la crème of their general’s army. Yet, as Pompey knew, despite the 1st’s proud record, most of the men of this enlistment of the legion had never been involved in a major engagement.

Beside the 1st stood Caesar’s former 15th Legion. The men of the 15th had six years’ experience behind them, four of those fighting for Caesar in Gaul, and were probably Pompey’s best troops in terms of experience. Since being given to Pompey by the Senate two years back, the legion had served him without question. Caesar now refused to call it the 15th. Instead, being rather petty, he would refer to it as the 3rd—because, it seems, the 15th came from the same recruiting ground in Cisalpine Gaul as the 3rd, which was one of Pompey’s legions that Caesar had captured in Spain and disbanded. But, deep in his heart, Pompey must have wondered whether, when it came to the crunch, the 15th could be trusted, whether the legion’s old association with Caesar would impact on its reliability in the heat of battle.

Next to the 15th stood two of the newly recruited legions that Pompey had brought out of Italy the previous year, made up mostly of youths in their late teens. This left-hand division of four legions came under the command of General Domitius Ahenobarbus. This was the same General Domitius who had lost Corfinium and Marseilles, but Pompey was a great respecter of rank, and Domitius outranked just about everyone else in his party, so he’d been given this command despite his past failings.

Pompey’s father-in-law, Scipio, held the middle of the line with his two Italian legions, raised five years earlier, survivors of Carrhae who had subsequently been stationed in Syria, plus the third of the new legions made up of untried Italian recruits which had escaped from Brindisi with the 1st and the 15th.

Commanding the division on Pompey’s right wing, General Lucius Lentulus, a consul the previous year, had long been a violent opponent of Caesar and was a dependable commander. Pompey had stationed auxiliaries and 600 slingers all the way to the Enipeus River. The riverbanks dropped down sharply to the Enipeus, like small cliffs, and couldn’t be scaled by either infantry or cavalry, so Pompey knew that he couldn’t be outflanked on his right, allowing him the luxury of leaving this wing without cavalry cover. The veteran soldiers of the seven Spanish cohorts of the 4th Legion and the 6th Legion that had escaped from Spain to join Pompey now held his right wing, behind their own eagles but working together, facing their countrymen of Mark Antony’s 8th and 9th across the wheat field, units that had been similarly combined because of their lack of numbers.

Beside these Spanish cohorts stood the Gemina Legion, the “twin,” so called by Pompey after he’d made up a single legion from two raised in Italy by Cicero in 51 B.C., and taken by him to Cilicia when he was governor there for a year, then left behind on garrison duty after he returned to Rome in 50 B.C. The remaining cohorts of those two original legions were still stationed in Cilicia. Between the Gemina Legion and Scipio’s troops, the seventy-five hundred men of the 24th and 28th, the former Italian legions of Gaius Antony that had come over to Pompey with Centurion Puleio and performed well at Durrës, formed up behind two eagles. Caesar, stung by their defection, would never refer to these two legions by name, simply calling them “some of Gaius Antony’s old troops.”

Pompey had called up another two thousand men, retired veterans who’d settled in Macedonia and on the island of Crete, originally thinking of forming them into a separate legion; but they were no longer young men and were out of practice, so he split them into cohorts and spread them among his other units.

On paper, Pompey had 12 legions made up of 110 cohorts. Caesar would have only considered several of these any threat—the 1st, 15th, the Spanish cohorts of the 4th and 6th, perhaps the Gemina, and probably the two battle-hardened Italian legions Scipio had brought from Syria. Pompey had even less faith in these units than his opponent, and was pinning his hopes of victory solely on his cavalry. He had told his supporters that the cavalry would bring them victory before the infantry could even come to grips. This was wishful thinking. Pompey dreaded the prospect of pitting his infantry against Caesar’s, as he was certain his were not up to the task. So now all seven thousand of his cavalry formed up on his left wing, ready to undertake the tactical strike he had planned for them.

As Pompey and his staff prepared to take their position on the left, behind the 1st and 15th Legions, he and General Labienus parted company. Labienus rode to where his massed cavalry waited on Pompey’s far left wing. He would not have been surprised to see the 10th Legion allocated to Caesar’s right, facing him. He may have even thought that Caesar was becoming predictable. But he would not have taken the 10th lightly. The 10th Legion was by now universally considered, in the words of Plutarch, the stoutest of Caesar’s legions. Labienus had personally led the 10th in Gaul, and he knew what the Spanish legion was made of. Who could forget the day Labienus had sent the 10th splashing back across the Sambre to save Caesar from the Nervii? Overcome the 10th, he knew, and the rest of Caesar’s legions would be likely to buckle. In fact, Plutarch tells us that Pompey’s cavalry were given the explicit task of cutting off the 10th Legion from the rest of Caesar’s army and destroying it.

Behind General Labienus spread his massive mounted force. The twenty-seven hundred long-haired German and Gallic cavalrymen Labienus had brought over to Pompey from Caesar’s army formed the core of his cavalry. Five hundred Italian troopers had been brought up to Greece by sea by Gnaeus Pompey from where they’d been stationed in Egypt as a part of the bodyguard of young King Ptolemy XIII and his sister Cleopatra. King Deiotarus of Galatia had brought Pompey six hundred cavalry. The remaining cavalrymen had been supplied by various rulers from throughout the East, and both their quality and their loyalty were questionable. The main responsibility for the success of the operation lay with Labienus’s own men.

As had become his usual practice, Caesar had decided to station himself on his right wing, usually the hottest place in any battle, the place where victory and defeat were most decided. As he was moving to his position, he saw Pompey’s cavalry spreading directly opposite, saw Pompey himself on that wing, with six hundred slingers and three thousand auxiliary archers from eastern states forming up behind him. Colonel Pollio and other staff officers would have warned their commander that Pompey was aiming to outflank him on the right, but Caesar had already seen the danger for himself. He immediately devised a counter.

“Have one cohort taken from each of the legions in the third line,” he instructed. “Form them into a fourth line, behind the Tenth, where they are to await the order to charge the enemy’s cavalry.” He passed on a particular tactic he wanted this fourth line to employ, then added that the day’s victory would depend on their valor.

The exact number of men taken out of the third line for this special reserve is debatable. The implication, from Caesar himself, is that nine understrength cohorts were involved, one from each of his legions. Plutarch says there were six cohorts, and both he and Appian say they totaled 3,000 men; but in their day six full-strength cohorts numbered close to 3,000 men—2,880, to be precise—and none of Caesar’s units was anywhere near approaching full strength. It’s probable that about 2,000 men were actually involved. From what Appian says, it’s likely that these men were ordered to lie down to conceal their presence, in the same way the Duke of Wellington would, at the 1815 Battle of Waterloo, order his Foot Guards to lie down behind a ridge and await his signal to rise to the charge, a tactic that turned the battle against Napoleon’s advancing Old Guard.

Now, as Centurion Crastinus stood with his men of the 10th Legion in the front line, a familiar voice away to his right called him by name.

“What hopes for victory, Gaius Crastinus? What grounds for encouragement?”

This incident is recorded by several different classical sources, including Caesar himself. The centurion’s head whipped around, to see Caesar riding along the front line toward him accompanied by his staff officers. “Victory will be yours, Caesar,” said Crastinus. According to Plutarch, he reached out his right hand toward his general in a form of salute, adding, “You will conquer gloriously today.”

Caesar would have smiled in response to the centurion’s confident prediction and wished the men under Crastinus’s command good luck, then spurred his horse on. In his memoirs he relates how several times he stopped along the front line to give a short speech, moving on to repeat the same sentiment several times, making separate reference to the glorious record in his service of the individual legions in front of him, then adding, “My soldiers, I call on you, every man, to witness the earnestness with which I have sought peace up till now.” He went on to list the missions of various peace envoys and his failed attempts to negotiate a settlement with Pompey, then said, “It has never been my wish to expose my troops to bloodshed, nor to deprive the state of this army or of that which stands across the field from us today. But I have been given no choice.”

Then he issued his battle orders. The first two lines were to charge on his signal. The third line was to wait for his flag to drop a second time. Men of the front line were to let fly with their javelins as soon as the enemy was within range, then quickly draw their swords and close with the other side. Each time he gave his speech, it was met by a roar from the legionaries within earshot.

Across the wheat field, Pompey the Great was doing the same, pumping up his troops as he rode along their front line, with a speech he likewise would repeat several times. At their council of war two days earlier he’d told his officers that the battle they had all urged on him was at hand and it was up to them to bring the victory they so eagerly sought. According to Appian, he now told his troops, “We fight for freedom and for homeland, backed by the constitution, our glorious reputation, and so many men of senatorial and equestrian rank, against one man who would pirate supreme power.” He urged them to picture their success at Durrës as they advanced to the battle they had been demanding, with high hopes for a final victory. And here, too, the roar of thousands of soldiers rent the air of the summer’s morning in response to their general’s harangue.

As he returned to his position on the right wing, Caesar passed Centurion Crastinus once again. “General,” Crastinus called out as he went by, “today I shall earn your gratitude, either dead or alive.”

Caesar acknowledged him with a wave and cantered on. In Caesar’s mind was probably the morning’s sacrifice to the gods, prior to ordering his army to march, prior to Pompey inviting him to do battle, when the priest conducting the ceremony had informed him that the entrails of the first sacrificial goat indicated that within three days he would come to a decisive action. A little later, the augur had added that if Caesar thought himself well off now, he should expect worse, while if unhappy, he could hope for better.

With the departure to the rear of his commander in chief, Crastinus would have fixed his gaze on the soldiers immediately opposite—men of the 1st Legion, men from Cisalpine Gaul. He would have been glad of that, glad the 10th wasn’t facing the 4th or the 6th. He would not have enjoyed killing fellow Spaniards. But he’d killed plenty of Gauls in his time. He could kill these fellows quite happily, even if they were Roman citizens.


Never before had so many Roman troops faced each other on a single battlefield. Never before had two of Rome’s greatest generals fought it out like this. Pompey, conqueror of the East, fifty-seven, a former young achiever who had made history in his twenties, a multimillionaire, an excellent military organizer, a master strategist, coming off a victory, with the larger army. Caesar, conqueror of the West, who had celebrated his fifty-second birthday only three weeks before in the month that would eventually bear his name, who had been nearly forty before he made his first military mark, an original tactician and engineering genius with a mastery of detail, a commander with dash, the common touch, luck, and the smaller but more experienced army.

Plutarch was to lament that, combined, two such famous, talented Roman generals and their seventy thousand men could have conquered the old enemy Parthia for Rome, could have marched unassailed all the way to India. Instead, here they were, bent on destroying each other.

It probably occurred to Centurion Crastinus that he might know some of the 1st Legion centurions across the field, might have served with them, might have drunk with them and played dice with them somewhere on his legionary travels. He would have watched them talking to their men, animatedly passing on instructions. They were easy enough to spot; like him, they wore a transverse crest on their helmets. It made them easy to identify for their own men, and marked them as targets for the opposition. Centurions were the key to an army’s success in battle. Crastinus knew it, and Caesar knew it. The 10th Legion’s six tribunes were back between the lines. Young, rich, spoiled members of the Equestrian Order, few had the respect of the enlisted men. From later events it is likely that one of the 10th’s tribunes, Gaius Avienus, had done nothing but complain since they set sail from Brindisi that Caesar had forced him to leave all his servants behind.

This day would be decided by the centurions and their legionaries, the rank and file, and as Crastinus had told Caesar, he was determined to acquit himself honorably. Four hundred fifty yards away, men of the first rank of the 1st Legion would have been looking at Crastinus and setting their sights on making a trophy of his crested helmet. The man who took that to his tribune after the battle, preferably with Crastinus’s severed head still in it, could expect a handsome reward. Without doubt they looked confident, these legionaries of the 1st. Crastinus may have imagined they thought they were something special, Pompey’s pets. Crastinus would see how confident they looked in an hour or so.

Around the centurion, his men would have been becoming impatient, knowing in their bones that this day would not be like the others when they’d stood and stared at their opponents for hours on end before marching back to camp at sunset. This day the air was electric, and the tension would have been getting to some of them, wanting to move, to get started.

As if in answer, trumpets sounded behind the ranks across the field. Many of Pompey’s men were more than nervous; the centurions of the newer units were having trouble maintaining their formations, so Pompey decided not to waste any time. Moments before, the thousands of cavalry horses banked up on the extreme left of Pompey’s line had been waiting restlessly, some neighing, some pawing the ground, some fidgeting and hard to control. Now, with a cacophony of war cries, their riders were urging them forward. Within seconds, seven thousand horses and riders were charging across the wheat field.

Behind Crastinus, trumpets of his own side sounded. In response, Caesar’s German and Gallic cavalry lurched forward to meet the Pompeian charge, with their auxiliary light infantry companions running after them. The Battle of Pharsalus had begun.

On Pompey’s side, his thirty-six hundred archers and slingers dashed out from behind the lines and formed up in the open to the rear of their charging cavalry. On command, the bowmen let loose volleys of arrows that flew over the heads of their galloping troopers and dropped among Caesar’s charging cavalry.

The infantry of both sides remained where they were in their battle lines, and watched with morbid fascination as their cavalry came together on the eastern side of the battlefield. General Labienus would have been at the head of his German and Gallic cavalry, cutting down any Caesarian trooper who ventured near him, and issuing a stream of orders.

For a short while Caesar’s cavalry held its ground, but with their men falling in increasing numbers, they began to give way. At least two hundred of Caesar’s cavalrymen were soon dead or seriously wounded, and Labienus saw the time had come to execute the maneuver that Pompey had planned. Leaving the allied cavalry to deal with Caesar’s troopers, probably under the direction of his colleague General Marcus Petreius, he led his German and Gallic cavalry around the perimeter of the fighting and charged toward the exposed flank and rear of the 10th Legion.

Caesarian auxiliaries scattered from the path of the cavalry, and the men of the 10th Legion on the extreme right were forced to swing around and defend themselves as Labienus’s troopers surged up to them. As Labienus urged more squadrons to ride around behind the 10th and as they came to the legion’s third line, Caesar, not many yards away, barked an order.

Trumpets sounded, and the reserve cohorts of the fourth line suddenly jumped to their feet and dashed forward behind their standards, slamming into the unsuspecting cavalrymen before they even saw them. The men of the reserve cohorts had been given explicit instructions not to throw their javelins but to use them instead like spears, thrusting them overarm up into the faces of the cavalrymen. According to Plutarch, Caesar said, when issuing the order for the tactic, “Those fine young dancers won’t endure the steel shining in their eyes. They’ll fly to save their handsome faces.”

Now Caesar’s shock troops mingled with the surprised Germans and Gauls at close quarters, pumping their javelins as instructed, taking out eyes, causing horrific facial injuries and fatalities with every strike. The congested cavalry had come to a dead stop, compressed between the rear ranks of the 10th and the reserve cohorts. There were so many of them there was nowhere for the riders to go; they merely provided sitting targets for the men of the reserve cohorts as they swarmed among them.

As many as a thousand of Labienus’s best cavalrymen were killed in this counterstroke. The panic that was created quickly spread to the allied cavalrymen behind them. Seeing the carnage, with Labienus’s big, longhaired riders falling like ninepins or reeling back and trying to protect their faces from the javelin thrusts instead of pressing home the now stalled attack, the allied riders disengaged from Caesar’s cavalry, turned, and galloped from the battlefield, heading in terror for the hills.

This allowed Caesar’s cavalry to join the reserve cohorts against Labienus’s men, and despite the general’s best efforts to rally his troopers, the combination of infantry and cavalry was too much for them and they broke and followed the allied cavalry toward the high country. Labienus had no choice but to pursue his own men, with hopes of trying to regroup.

As Caesar’s cavalry chased Labienus and his troopers all the way to the hills, Pompey’s left flank was exposed. With a cheer, Caesar’s reserve cohorts spontaneously rushed forward to the attack in the wake of their victory over the cavalry. All that stood in their way were Pompey’s archers and slingers. These men of Caesar’s strategic reserve, high on their bloody success against the mounted troops, quickly crossed the ground separating the two groups, neutralizing the effectiveness of the archers’ arrows and the slingers’ lead shot. The slingers were armed merely with their slingshots. The archers, men from Crete, Pontus, Syria, and other eastern states, were armed, apart from their bows and arrows, only with swords. In close-quarters combat they were no competition for legionaries whose specialty was infighting. As the slingers ran, the archers bravely stood their ground and tried to put up a fight, but they were soon mowed down like hay before the scythe.

Now Caesar issued another order. His red banner dropped. The trumpets of the first and second infantry lines sounded “Charge.”

In the very front rank, on the right of Caesar’s line, Centurion Crastinus raised his right hand, clutching a javelin now. Caesar would later be told of his words. “Come on, men of my cohort, follow me!” he bellowed. “And give your general the service you have promised!”

With that, he dashed forward. All around him, the men of Caesar’s front line roared a battle cry and leaped forward, javelins raised in their right hands for an overarm throw when the order came to let fly.

Ahead, to the surprise of Crastinus and his comrades, Pompey’s front line didn’t budge. Pompey’s men were under orders to stand still and receive Caesar’s infantry charge, instead of themselves charging at Caesar’s running men, as was the norm in battles of the day. According to Caesar, this tactic had been suggested to Pompey by Gaius Triarius, one of his naval commanders. Pompey, lacking confidence in his infantry and anxious to give them an edge in the contest, had grabbed at the idea, which was intended to make Caesar’s troops run twice as far as usual and so arrive out of breath at the Pompeian line.

Caesar was later scathing of the tactic. He was to write that the running charge fired men’s enthusiasm for battle, and that generals ought to encourage this, not repress it. In fact, Pompey’s tactic did have something going for it, as his troops would present a solid barrier of interlocked shields against Caesar’s puffing, disorderly men, who had to break formation to run to the attack. It may have been effective against inexperienced troops, but in the middle of the battlefield Centurion Crastinus and his fellow centurions of the first rank drew their charging cohorts to a halt. The entire charge came to a stop. For perhaps a minute the Caesarian troops paused in the middle of the wheat field, catching their breath; then, led by Crastinus, they resumed the charge with a mighty roar.

On the run, the front line let fly with their javelins. At the same time, in Pompey’s front line, centurions called an order: “Loose!” The men of Pompey’s front line launched their own javelins with all their might, then raised their shields high to receive the Caesarian volley. Then, with javelins hanging from many a shield, they brought them down again, locking them together just in time to receive the charge. With an almighty crash Caesar’s front line washed onto the wall of Pompeian shields. Despite the impact of the charge, Pompey’s line held firm.

Now, standing toe to toe with their adversaries, Caesar’s men tried to hack a way through the shield line. On Caesar’s right wing, Centurion Crastinus, repulsed in his initial charge, was moving from cohort to cohort as his men tried to break through the immovable 1st Legion line, urging on his legionaries at the top of his voice above the din of battle. Crastinus threw himself at the shield line, aiming to show his men how to reach over the top of an enemy shield and strike at the face of the soldier on the other side with the point of his sword. As he did, he felt a blow to the side of the head. He never even saw it coming. The strength suddenly drained from his legs. He sagged to his knees. His head was spinning. Dazed, he continued to call out to his men to spur them on.

As he spoke, a legionary of the 1st Legion directly opposite him in the shield line moved his shield six inches to the left, opening a small gap. In a flash he had shoved his sword through the gap with a powerful forward thrust that entered the yelling Gaius Crastinus’s open mouth. According to Plutarch, the tip of the blade emerged from the back of Crastinus’s neck. The soldier of the 1st withdrew his bloodied sword and swiftly resealed the gap in the shield line. His action had lasted just seconds. No doubt with a crude cheer from the nearby men of the 1st Legion, Centurion Crastinus toppled forward into the shield in front of him, then slid to the ground.

It was a stalemate at the front line. Neither side was making any forward progress. But on Caesar’s right, the reserve cohorts, fresh from the massacre of Pompey’s archers and slingers, were swinging onto the flank and rear of the 1st Legion.

Pompey had seen his cavalry stroke destroyed in minutes, had seen the cavalry he’d been depending on for victory flee the field. And now his ever-dependable 1st Legion was in difficulty. If the 1st couldn’t hold, no one could. Without a word, he turned his horse around and galloped back toward the camp on the hill. A handful of startled staff rode after him.

Plutarch says that as Pompey reached the camp’s praetorian gate, looking pale and dazed, he called to the centurions in charge, “Defend the camp strenuously if there should be any reverse in the battle. I’m going to check the guard on the other gates.”

Instead of going around the other three gates of the camp as he’d said, he went straight to his headquarters tent, and there he remained. He hadn’t wanted this battle, he had known the likely outcome, especially if it came down to a pure infantry engagement. But expecting something and then actually experiencing it are two different things. In a military career spanning thirty-four years Pompey the Great had never once experienced a defeat. And never once, in all probability, had he put himself in the shoes of men he’d defeated, and imagined what defeat might feel like. It would have made the emptiness of failure all the more difficult to comprehend.

The men of the 1st, fighting now on three sides and outnumbered, were in danger of being surrounded and cut to pieces. No orders came from Pompey—he’d disappeared. None came from their divisional commander, the useless General Domitius. Pompey had failed to maintain a reserve, which might have been thrown into support the 1st now in its time of need. With no hope of reinforcement, and with self-preservation in mind, the officers of the 1st decided to make a gradual withdrawal, in battle order, in an attempt to overcome the threat to their rear. Orders rang out, trumpets sang, and standards inclined toward the rear. Their pride and their discipline intact, the 1st Legion began to pull back in perfect order, step by step, harried all the way by the 10th Legion and the reserve cohorts.

Beside the 1st, the 15th Legion did likewise. Away over on Pompey’s right, General Lentulus, seeing the left wing withdrawing, and with his own auxiliaries and slingers already in full flight, ordered his legionaries to emulate the 1st Legion and make an ordered withdrawal, for if they attempted to hold their ground, the center would give way and the right wing would be pressed against the Enipeus and surrounded. Like their comrades of the 1st, the Spanish veterans of the 4th and 6th Legions maintained their formation as they slowly edged back, pressed by their countrymen of the 8th and 9th. But in the center, the inexperienced youths of the three new Italian legions began to waver. They tried to follow the example of the legions on the flanks, but their formations, like their discipline, began to break down.

Now Caesar issued another order. Again his red banner dropped. Again trumpets sounded “Charge.” Now the men of his third line, who had been standing, waiting impatiently to join the fray, rushed forward with a cheer. As the fresh troops of the third line arrived on the scene, the men of the first and second lines gave way and let them through. The impact of this second charge shattered what cohesion remained in Pompey’s center. Raw recruits threw down their shields, turned, and fled toward the camp on the hill they’d left that morning. Auxiliaries did the same, and the entire center dissolved. It was barely midday, and the battle was already lost to Pompey’s side. It was now just a matter of who lived, and who died, before the last blows were struck.

The 1st Legion stubbornly refused to break, continuing to fight as it backpedaled across the plain pursued by the men of the 10th Legion and reserve cohorts. The 15th Legion appears to have broken at this point, with its men turning and heading for the hills. Over by the Enipeus, General Lentulus deserted his men and galloped for the camp on the hill. The 4th and 6th Legions, cut off from the rest of the army, withdrew in good order, fighting all the way, following the riverbank, which ensured they couldn’t be outflanked on their right. Mark Antony pursued them with the 7th, 8th, and 9th, and, apparently, with a charge was able to separate two cohorts of the 6th from their comrades. Surrounded, these men of the 6th, a little under a thousand of them, resisted for a time, then accepted Antony’s offer of surrender terms.

Meanwhile, two cohorts of the 6th and three of the 4th continued to escape upriver, with their eagles intact. Antony would later break off the pursuit and link up with Caesar at Pompey’s camp. These five cohorts of Pompey’s Spanish troops later found a ford in the river, slid down the bank, crossed the waterway, then struggled up the far bank. That night they would occupy a village full of terrified Greeks west of the river before continuing their flight west the next day.

At the camp on the hill, several thousand more experienced legionaries of the 15th, the Gemina, and the two legions from Syria had been regrouped by their tribunes and centurions to make a stand outside the walls. But as tens of thousands of Pompey’s newer troops and auxiliaries swamped around them, a number without arms, their standard-bearers having cast away their standards, and with Caesar’s legions on their heels, they abandoned their position and withdrew to make a stand on more favorable ground in the hills. Behind them, many of the men flooding through the gates began looting their own camp. It seems that the camp’s commander, General Afranius, had already escaped by this time, spiriting away Pompey’s son Gnaeus, probably as prearranged with Pompey.

While Pompey’s guard cohorts and their auxiliary supporters from Thrace and Thessaly put up a spirited defense of the camp, the overwhelming numbers of the attackers forced them to gradually withdraw from the walls. With fighting going on inside the camp, young General Marcus Favonius found Pompey in his headquarters tent. A friend of Marcus Brutus and an admirer of Cato the Younger, Favonius, who’d been serving on Scipio’s staff and just been made a major general, was a fervent supporter of Pompey. Now, horrified by the state in which he found his hero, the young general tried to rouse his commander from his stupor. “General, the enemy are in the camp! You must fly!”

Pompey looked at him oddly. All authorities agree on Pompey’s words at the news: “What! Into the very camp?”

Favonius and Pompey’s chief secretary, Philip, a Greek freedman, helped their commander to his feet, removed their general’s identifying scarlet cloak, replacing it with a plain one, then ushered him to the door. Five horses were waiting outside the tent. According to Plutarch, three of the four men who accompanied Pompey as he galloped from a rear gate before Caesar’s troops could reach it were General Favonius; General Lentulus, commander of the right-wing division; and General Publius Lentulus Spinther. The fourth man would have been Pompey’s secretary, Philip.

The five riders galloped north toward the town of Larisa, whose people were sympathetic toward Pompey. On the road, they encountered a group of thirty cavalrymen. As Pompey’s generals drew their swords to defend their leader they recognized the cavalry as one of Labienus’s squadrons, intact, unscathed, and lost. With the troopers gladly joining their commander to provide a meager bodyguard, the thirty-five riders hurried on.

Many of the men who had found a temporary haven in the camp now burst out and fled toward Mount Dogandzis, where a number of their colleagues were already digging in. The 1st Legion, in the meantime, appears to have withdrawn east. With Caesar summoning the 10th Legion to help him in the last stages of the battle at the camp, the 1st was able to continue to make its escape. It appears to have swung around to the south in the night and then, substantially intact and complete with most of its standards, including its eagle, marched west to the coast and Pompey’s anchored fleet.

Leaving General Sulla in charge of the continuing fight at the camp, Caesar regrouped four legions, his veteran 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th, and set off after Pompey’s men who had fled to the mountain. Upward of twenty thousand in number, mostly armed, and well officered still, these Pompeians continued to pose a threat. As scouts reported that these survivors had now left the mountain and were withdrawing across the foothills toward Larisa, Caesar determined to cut them off before they reached the town and its supplies.

Caesar took a shortcut that after a march of six miles brought his four legions around into the path of the escaping troops in the late afternoon. He formed up his men into a battle line. Seeing this, the Pompeians halted on a hill. There was a river running along the bottom of the hill, and Caesar had his weary troops build a long entrenchment line on the hillside above the river, to deprive the other side of water. Observing this, the men on the hill, all exhausted, hungry, and thirsty, and not a few wounded, sent down a deputation to discuss surrender terms. Caesar sent the deputation back up the hill with the message that he was willing to accept only an unconditional surrender. He then prepared to spend the night in the open.

Adrianople 324 AD

At the beginning of the sixth century Zosimus composed a history of the Roman empire that covered the period from the uncertainty over imperial succession in the early third century to the coming of the barbarians in the early fifth century. Constantine’s reign was hence at the chronological midpoint of his narrative, and in his discussion of the emperor, Zosimus highlighted civil wars. The first was against Maxentius in 312. According to Zosimus’ account, Constantine invaded Italy with an enormous army while Maxentius prepared to defend Rome with an army that was almost twice as large. His defense included the construction of a special breakaway timber bridge over the Tiber. Before the battle Maxentius consulted the Sibylline oracles while Constantine was heartened by seeing a propitious flock of owls on the city’s wall. After his troops were overwhelmed, Maxentius was thrown into the river when the bridge collapsed. The residents of Rome rejoiced when they saw Maxentius’ head on display at the end of a spear.

The second important civil war was against Licinius in 324. Several years earlier Constantine and Licinius had fought an inconclusive campaign. This time Constantine built a huge fleet in the harbor of Athens while Licinius mobilized ships contributed by regions around the eastern Mediterranean. Constantine’s army defeated Licinius’ forces in Thrace, and his fleet besieged the fleeing emperor in Byzantium. At his last stand outside Chalcedon, Licinius was again defeated and then surrendered. Although initially Constantine exiled his rival to Thessalonica, he soon had him executed.

The Campaign

Constantine’s preparations at Piraeus indicated that he was planning a war that would carry his forces into the heart of Licinius’ realm, assisted by a greatly enlarged fleet.

With the legacy of his father’s invasion of Britain still fresh in his mind as well as Maxentius’ more recent invasion of Africa, he may also have felt that he could draw from a reservoir of naval experience that his opponent would be hard-pressed to match. Given the record of hostility between the two regimes, surprise was not an appropriate tactic; massive advance planning was therefore the order of the day. Constantine was not a man to underestimate potential obstacles or to fail to take what he saw as the necessary steps to meet them. News that a fleet was building would give Licinius something to worry about. Was the plan for a direct assault or was it to land troops somewhere in the rear of his army? Anything that would inject a degree of uncertainty into Licinius’ deliberations would be useful-he had shown himself rather too competent when it came to a straight-up confrontation. Constantine’s invasion of the east began in the summer of 324. Meanwhile the empire still had to be governed, and it was to men like Locrius Verinus-last seen dealing with Donatists as  vicarious of Africa and now prefect of Rome-that Constantine turned. One task that he allotted to an official named Dalmatius was to set down the ages at which young people would be considered mature; and Constantine himself sent an important missive to Severus, probably praetorian prefect at the time, telling him that people who merely purchased their ranks at the palace should be booted out-it was “fitting that only those who are employed in the palace or work in the administration should be selected for the bestowal of honors.”

The measure looks like a house-cleaning operation ahead of what would predictably be the complex task of integrating survivors of Licinius’ regime with his own people (Constantine appears to have been totally confident about the likely outcome of the campaign). The last communication on record as the campaign began is also to Verinus: it is a lengthy discussion on the subject of the appropriate rate of pay for swine-catchers.

The same texts that show Constantine in action also reveal a novel feature of the regime: the extensive involvement of members of his immediate family in positions of very great responsibility. One praetorian prefect this year who was traveling with him was one Flavius Constantius. We have no information as to who he was, but the fact that he shared two elements of Constantine’s name (the emperor was formally known as Flavius Valerius Constantinus) suggests that he was probably a blood relative. The Dalmatius mentioned in the preceding paragraph is likely Constantine’s half-brother, and his son Crispus, now in his early twenties, was in command of the fleet.

As Constantine and his family moved east with his entourage and troops, Licinius once again mustered his forces at Adrianople. Following the renewal of hostilities, Licinius established his army near the city of Adrianople (Edirne) in Thracia. His imperial rival soon marched against him from Thessalonica and encamped a short distance away on the opposite bank of the Hebrus (Maritsa) River. The following day, Licinius arrayed his army of 150,000 infantry and 15,000 cavalry on open ground to the north-west of the city near the confluence of the Tonoseius (Tunca) and Hebrus rivers, but Constantine was not willing to hazard a water crossing while his opponent waited in full battle formation. Over the course of the next days, the proximity of Licinius’ army prevented Constantine from traversing the river, as any attempt to cross the watercourse would place his army at the mercy of the awaiting eastern troops. He eventually settled upon a deception to move his army safely across the Hebrus. Upon learning of a location sufficiently narrow to permit men and horses to ford the river, the emperor ordered bridge materials collected at a location far removed from the chosen crossing point. With the enemy misled by the construction of the decoy, Constantine secretly gathered 5,000 infantry and archers and 800 cavalry on a wooded hill in preparation for an assault. He then led a select force of horsemen across the river at the predetermined place and charged Licinius’ formation. The unexpected attack threw the eastern legions into disorder, allowing time for the remainder of the western army to cross the Hebrus and reassemble for battle. There followed a difficult struggle that ended around sunset when Constantine’s men overran the enemy camp. By that time the main divisions of Licinius’ army were put to flight. Eastern losses amounted to almost 34,000 dead. The following morning, Constantine accepted the surrender of those defeated forces now scattered about in the countryside and throughout the immediate vicinity of the previous day’s fighting.

Constantine seems to have led the decisive attack himself, in the course of which he was wounded in the leg, while Licinius fled the field for the city of Byzantium. There he appointed a general called Martianus to command his forces on the far side of the Bosporus (the straits dividing Europe from Asia).

The record of Constantine’s wound reveals not only the continuing importance of the warrior ideology of the imperial position-it was just three years earlier that Nazarius had added Constantine’s secret scouting mission to the story of the Italian campaign-but also further problematizes the narrative of Eusebius. In his Life of Constantine the bishop reports that Constantine went into battle with the aid of a miraculous battle standard. Evidently visualized as taking the form of the labarum first mentioned in relation to the battle of the Milvian Bridge, this standard had amazing power. Carried into battle by fifty select guardsmen, it provided special protection for those around it: if the standard bearer should drop it in fear, the javelin coming his way would skewer him, while the man who then seized the standard was safe from all peril. The standard’s staff acted like a magnet, attracting javelins to itself so that it came to resemble a giant pincushion. As with the story of the cross in the sky before the Milvian Bridge, Eusebius claims Constantine himself as the source for this information “much later.” If this was the case and since Eusebius seemed not to know about the standard or the vision until a year before Constantine’s death when he wrote his speech celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of Constantine’s accession, one might wonder if “much later” in The Life of Constantine means “more than a decade later.” In 325 there seems to have been no need to Christianize this fast-moving narrative, or conceal the emperor’s injury.

With Licinius in Byzantium, the next phase of the campaign took place at sea: the western fleet was unmatchable, as Licinius’ admiral learned at his peril. Having lost control of the Bosporus, Licinius abandoned his men in Byzantium to take command of fresh forces near Chalcedon. Constantine landed his army without opposition north of Licinius’ position, forcing him to fight, probably on September 18, at a place called Chrysoplis (modern Üsküdar in Turkey). The result was now a foregone conclusion as Licinius was plainly outmatched. He fled to Nicomedia, and the troops who had been left in Byzantium surrendered, the campaign all but over. On or just before December 16, 324, Constantia, assisted by Eusebius (bishop of Nicomedia, no relation to Constantine’s biographer), negotiated the surrender of her husband. He was sent into exile at Thessalonica, where he was executed shortly afterward, allegedly for conspiring with barbarians.

Constantine was now sole ruler of the Roman Empire. He may have learned something of the art of government from his father, more perhaps from Diocletian. As we have seen, he knew how to govern: he guided his officials with a firm hand, and he understood his position as emperor within the tradition of imperial power that had developed over the centuries. But the victory of Constantine stemmed from more than just skill in the art of government, from more even than his extraordinary ability on the battlefield. Constantine’s victory stemmed from his own toughness and determination, qualities honed in the train of Diocletian but perhaps instilled earlier in the palace at Trier, or as his mother grasped her dignity and self-respect in the wake of rejection. Constantine had learned that there would be no one upon whom he could rely as much as he relied upon himself, and this is reflected in his belief in the god who guided him. Constantine’s god was still a very personal god, one whom he met on his own and who provided him guidance on an intensely personal basis; the god who Constantine believed to have guided him to victory was the god who had mercy upon him for his failings, and who protected him from evil.

The Principate Roman Army I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imperial Roman High Command

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Principate Roman Army II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Macedonian Monarchy and the Roman Republic

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

PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Macedonians vs. Romans

PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): Northern frontiers of Macedon


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

OUTCOME: Indecisive, except to spawn further warfare.



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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

TREATIES: Indemnity agreement

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

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

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


PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): Southeastern Macedonia


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

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


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


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

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




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

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




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

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

Philip V

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chios 201 BC: A Coalition Command

Phalanx vs Legion: Battle of Cynoscephalae

The Roman World – The Western Empire in the Fifth Century

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roman Invasion Plans for Parthia I

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

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

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

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

The Parthian Stations

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

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

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

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

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

The Invasion Route through Parthia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond Parthia

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

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

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

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

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