The Antonine Wall runs between the Forth and Clyde in Scotland, about 100 miles (160 km) north of Hadrian’s Wall. It was built under the orders of Antoninus Pius in the early 140s, and was permanently abandoned in the 160s. His Roman biographer states that he built a turf wall in Britain once the governor, Lollius Urbicus, had defeated the ‘barbarians’. Pius may have needed to establish a reputation for himself as a firm ruler, but perhaps there were local problems like idle soldiers, the tying up of too many troops in the numerous garrison posts of Hadrian’s Wall, and difficulties with supplying the remote central sector forts. There may even have been a change of policy requiring more exact control of the area north of Hadrian’s Wall, perhaps connected with the fact that the latter cut across the tribal lands of the Brigantes, the principal tribe of northern Britain. The plan may even have been to create a kind of ‘neutral zone’ between the Walls, through which individuals and groups could pass.
The new frontier was only 37 Roman miles (59 km) long, or around half that of Hadrian’s Wall. It was modelled on its predecessor, but was built entirely of turf on a cobble base 14 Roman feet (4.1 m) wide. The new frontier had a forward ditch, about 20 to 30 Roman feet (6 to 9 m) wide, but no equivalent to the Vallum was ever dug. Unlike Hadrian’s Wall, the forts were designed to be part of the new frontier from the beginning, and even preceded the turf curtain in some cases; however, a second wave of forts seem to have been added during construction. The forts were interspersed with fortlets, but there is no positive evidence for a regular series of turrets. Their combined capacity means that the total garrison cannot have been very much less than that on Hadrian’s Wall. In military terms, this supplied twice as many men per mile of frontier than before. It was backed up by the garrisoning of forts in the land between the Walls. At High Rochester, an old Flavian fort site was utilized to create a new stone fort. At Birrens, the Hadrianic fort seems to have remained in occupation, with rebuilding work apparently undertaken by detachments of Rhine legions.
Controlled movement across Hadrian’s Wall is thought to have been abandoned: the milecastle gates were either removed or left open, and crossings were installed on the Vallum (the latter remain the clearest trace of this policy today, but are not easily datable). As far as the forts are concerned, their garrisons were probably transferred to the new Wall. Unfortunately, so few early garrisons on Hadrian’s Wall are known that this is difficult to show, but the First Cohort of Hamian archers, stationed at the Stanegate fort of Carvoran under Hadrian, was posted to Bar Hill on the Antonine Wall for a while before returning to. Even so, it is unlikely that the Hadrian’s Wall forts were abandoned. At Birdoswald there is no discernible gap in datable finds of the second century. However, some parts of the fort, unbuilt on since its construction, remained open; as these included the site of the later granaries, it has been suggested that the fort was only manned by a reduced garrison.
It’s unfortunate that we know so little about the history of later Roman Britain. Most of our detailed historical information dates to the first century, such as the accounts written by Tacitus. Thereafter, historians and archaeologists have no choice but to piece together a chronology from brief literary references to Britain, inscriptions, coins, and archaeology. Even this deteriorates because inscriptions, never common, become even scarcer after the early third century, and literary references increasingly sporadic and more unreliable. So it has proved difficult to avoid making much from little. This is far from unusual in archaeology, even for the Roman period. Britain was a backwater, a testing ground for premier military careers, but otherwise of only secondary importance to the Empire. She became useful and productive, but was always dispensable, making headline news in Rome only when war broke out. This forces a reliance on what is recovered from the ground. There is no avoiding the reality that pottery and coin evidence is far too imprecise, however carefully researched, to provide exact chronologies when historical references and inscriptions are lacking.
In the period 142-4, around the same time as the Antonine Wall was begun, coins were struck depicting Britannia, and were followed by a similar issue (which is normally only found in Britain) for the years 154-5. Such coins were usually produced at times of military success, but they do not always explicitly state this. The geographer Pausanias describes a phase of warfare during Pius’ reign which may have taken place in northern Britain, but he appears to have been mistaken, or had confused two different wars. The arrival of legionary reinforcements at Newcastle from Germany or the return of detachments temporarily sent to Germany, and rebuilding at Birrens, about this time might suggest something was afoot. Destruction and repair on the Antonine Wall may be attributable to these implicit phases of warfare.
But archaeologists have no doubt that the Antonine Wall saw two distinct phases of occupation, following careful examination of two levels of destruction and demolition debris. The problems are when and for how long, and whether the phases ended because of defeat or deliberate withdrawal. These have proved difficult to resolve.
The reoccupation of Hadrian’s Wall
Hadrian’s Wall was recommissioned by the 160s, though repair work is testified by 158. Calpurnius Agricola was sent to govern Britain around 163. He is mentioned by the biographer of Marcus Aurelius, and his name appears on inscriptions at Carvoran and Stanwix. It seems reasonable to assume that the Antonine Wall had, by then, been given up for good. If there was any Turf Wall left in the western sector of Hadrian’s Wall, it was now replaced in stone. Some of the turrets were demolished between this period and c. 220, being reduced to their lower courses, and the Wall restored to full width over them. It is unlikely that the Walls were occupied simultaneously. So, a logical assumption would be that somewhere between the late 150s and early 170s a decision was made to give up the Antonine Wall. The forts to its rear, such as High Rochester, remained in use, showing that withdrawal did not mean that the Roman command regarded the area beyond Hadrian’s Wall as abandoned. The visible fort at South Shields seems to belong to this period, and reinforced control of the lower reaches of the river Tyne to the east of the end of the Wall at Wallsend.
The Roman army retained a precarious hold on northern Britain. Cassius Dio, describing the reign of Commodus (180-92), mentions a war in Britain which he said was the most troublesome of the reign. Damage at some forts, such as Haltonchesters, has been attributed to this event, but only on the loosest circumstantial association. Dio does not specify the Wall (though he makes clear he means just one), so we can only assume that he was referring to Hadrian’s Wall. The tribes were apparently suppressed, because in 184 coins were issued with legends stating explicitly ‘Vict[oria] Brit[annica]’.
A massive programme of propaganda, of which the Forum complex was only a part, celebrated the victory in Dacia. Had Trajan simply wanted military glory to confirm his position as emperor, it is unlikely that he would have sought other opportunities for aggressive warfare. His rule was as popular as that of any emperor, and subsequent generations preserved his memory as the Optimus Princeps, the best of emperors, only rivalled in prestige by Augustus himself. His relations with the Senate – always the most critical factor in determining a ruler’s treatment in our literary sources – were generally very good, his rule considered both just and successful. Even Trajan’s vices – he was prone to infatuations with boys and youths – were pardoned, since his behaviour never reached a stage which Romans considered excessive or made him vicious. His decision to launch an invasion of Parthia in AD 114 was, according to Dio, motivated by a desire to win renown.
Trajan had spent more of his life with the army than most Roman aristocrats, and certainly appears to have enjoyed the military life. The pretext for war was, once again, a dispute over the relationship of the Armenian king to Rome, for a new monarch had been presented with his diadem of authority by the Parthian ruler and not by a Roman representative. The peace with Parthia had always been uneasy, since for the Romans their eastern neighbour represented a deeply unsatisfactory thing – the former enemy who had not been reduced to subordinate status and remained fully independent and strong. Trajan appears to have planned to win a permanent victory, for his campaign was from the beginning far more than simply a struggle to show dominance over Armenia. Massive Roman and allied forces – some seventeen of the thirty legions went in their entirety or as a substantial vexillation to the war – were backed by huge quantities of supplies which had been massed in the east for several years in preparation for the conflict. At the back of his mind the emperor was eager to emulate the great conquests of Alexander in the very region through which the Macedonian king had passed centuries before. The culture of the Roman Empire was firmly Greco-Roman and the heroes of the Hellenic world every bit as worthy of emulation as earlier generations of Romans.
Trajan’s eastern war began well, as in successive years he overran Armenia, Mesopotamia and most of Parthia itself. The Parthian capital of Ctesiphon and the major city of Seleucia were both captured, after which Trajan sailed down the Tigris to reach the Persian Gulf. If Trajan had any plans to follow further in the footsteps of Alexander – and it seems unlikely that he did – these were then dashed when major rebellions erupted throughout his newly acquired territories in AD 116. Roman columns had to operate throughout the new provinces, putting down insurrection. Matters were made worse by a major rebellion by the Jewish communities in Egypt and other provinces – though not Judaea itself – which required substantial numbers of troops to defeat. Trajan himself began a siege of the desert city of Hatra in Arabia. During the siege, when his own guard cavalry took part in at least one of the assaults, Trajan himself was almost struck by a missile as he rode past the walls. Dio notes that the emperor was not wearing any symbols of rank, hoping not to stand out amongst the other officers, but his age – he was now 60 – and grey hair made his seniority clear. He was missed, but a cavalryman riding beside him was killed. Hatra withstood the Roman onslaught until Trajan’s men, desperately short of water and other provisions, withdrew. The emperor was planning fresh operations when he suffered a stroke and died soon afterwards.
Trajan was succeeded by his relation Hadrian, but there was considerable doubt over whether in fact he had formally nominated him before he died. Thus, at the beginning of his reign, Hadrian’s position was somewhat insecure, making him reluctant to spend several years away from Rome fulfilling his predecessor’s eastern ambitions. This, combined perhaps with a feeling that Rome’s military resources were overstretched, led to the abandonment of the territories taken from the Parthians. Another casualty was Trajan’s great bridge across the Danube, which was partially demolished to prevent its ever being taken and used by an enemy. There were to be no wars of conquest during Hadrian’s reign from AD 117 to 138, and in most cases the wars which developed in response to rebellion or attack were fought by the emperor’s legates without his on-the-spot supervision. Lacking Trajan’s aggressive ambitions, Hadrian nevertheless spent much of his reign touring the provinces and in particular visiting and inspecting the army. Dio noted that he ‘subjected the legions to the strictest discipline, so that, though strong, they were neither insubordinate or intolerant’. A cult of Disciplina – one of a number of Roman deities personifying virtues – flourished in the army at this time, especially with the troops in Britain and Africa, and may well have been encouraged by Hadrian himself. Even when the army was not at war, the emperor could still conform to the ideal of the good general by ensuring that the troops were well trained and ready to fight if necessary. According to Dio:
He personally viewed and investigated absolutely everything, not merely the usual appurtenances of camps, such as weapons, engines, trenches, ramparts and palisades, but also the private affairs of the men serving in the ranks and of the officers themselves – their lives, their quarters and their habits – and he reformed and corrected in many cases practices and arrangements for living that had become too luxurious. He drilled the men for every kind of battle, honouring some and reproving others, and he taught them all what should be done. And in order that they should be benefited by observing him, he everywhere led a vigorous life and either walked or rode on horseback on all occasions … He covered his head neither in hot weather nor in cold, but alike amid German snows and under scorching Egyptian suns he went about with his head bare. In fine, both by his example and his precepts he so trained and disciplined the whole military force throughout the entire empire that even to-day [i.e. a century later] the methods introduced by him are the soldiers’ law of campaigning.
Hadrian watched the troops on exercise, just as a commander did in battle, praising and rewarding skill and criticizing and punishing poor performance. An inscription set up by an auxiliary soldier named Soranus survives, recording – albeit in rather poor Latin verse – an incident when the emperor commended his skill as an archer. Much fuller inscriptions found at Lambaesis in North Africa include selections from a number of speeches delivered at a parade of the provincial army as a culmination to a series of rigorous exercises. Hadrian’s style is very direct, referring to Legio III Augusta as ‘his’ legion and its commander as ‘his’ legate. He shows a detailed knowledge of the legion’s recent history, noting that it was seriously under strength through having detached a cohort for service in a neighbouring province. He also mentions that it had subsequently sent a cohort, strengthened by men drawn from the rest of the unit, to reinforce another legion. Stating that under such conditions it would have been understandable if III Augusta had failed to meet his high standards, he reinforces his praise by declaring that they had no need of any excuse. The centurions, especially the senior grades, are singled out for specific praise. Both in this section of the speech and in those parts delivered to individual auxiliary units, the emperor repeatedly pays tribute to the diligence of the legate Quintus Fabius Catullinus. His address to the cavalry element of a mixed cohort (cohors equitata) gives a good indication of the style of these speeches:
It is difficult for the cavalry of a cohort to put on a pleasing display anyway, and especially difficult not to displease after an exercise performed by an ala; the latter fills a greater expanse of plain, has more riders to throw javelins, makes frequent wheels to the right and performs the Cantabrian ride in close formation, and, in keeping with their higher pay, has superior horses and finer equipment. However, you have overcome these disadvantages by doing everything you have done energetically, in spite of the hot temperature; added to this, you have shot stones from slings and fought with javelins and everywhere mounted quickly. The special care taken by my legate Catullinus is very obvious…
Some criticism is contained in the speeches, for instance when a cavalry unit is reprimanded for pursuing too quickly and falling into disorder which would have made them vulnerable to a counter-attack. Yet overall Hadrian sought to encourage his soldiers and make them feel that they and their units were valued and respected. Apart from the specific details there is little that would seem out of place in a similar address by a modern general or manager.
Hadrian’s successor Antoninus Pius was not a military man, and spent no time on campaign. It was a mark of the security of the time that he was content to trust his legates to fight the major conflicts of the time. These were all in response to problems on the frontiers. From the late first century AD the military bases on the fringes of the Roman Empire had taken on more and more of an air of permanence, with old timber fortifications and internal buildings being replaced by stone. Hadrian had taken the process further in his visits to the provinces, ordering the construction of new installations and frontier boundaries. In Northern Britain the army laboured to construct the Wall which bears his name and stretched for 80 Roman miles from coast to coast. Such barriers were only ever intended to restrict outsiders, and never to hinder the movements of the Roman army, instead providing them with secure bases from which to launch aggressive operations. Rome sought to dominate its neighbours, not merely to repel any invasion or raid on the provinces, but attempts at permanent occupation of new territory were rare.
He always marched on foot with the rank and file of his army, and he attended to the ordering and disposition of the troops throughout the entire campaign, leading them sometimes in one order and sometimes in another; and he forded all rivers that they did. Sometimes he even caused his scouts to circulate false reports, in order that the soldiers might at one and the same time practise military manoeuvres and become fearless and ready for any dangers.
After the death of Augustus, the Roman Empire gained little new territory. Throughout the remainder of the first century AD a number of allied kingdoms were annexed to become directly ruled provinces, but the only major new conquest came when Claudius sent an army to invade Britain in AD 43. The great conquerors of the last decades of the Republic had also been the principal leaders in the civil wars which had torn the State apart, and it was simply too great a risk for an emperor to permit any of his commanders to win fame and glory in a similar way. It was absolutely vital that the military achievements of the princeps never be overshadowed by those of any other senator. Even Augustus had sacked a Prefect of Egypt who had celebrated his victories too boldly, and forced him to commit suicide, though the man in question had only been an equestrian and not a member of the Senate. Tiberius, Vespasian and Titus already had distinguished military records before they came to the throne, but Caligula, Claudius, Nero and Domitian had not this advantage and were thus even more reluctant to permit potential rivals to gain too much prestige. We have already seen how Claudius recalled Corbulo from beyond the Rhine rather than permit him to expand the war and reoccupy part of the German province lost in AD 9. The same emperor made sure that he was in at the kill for the culmination of the first campaign of his British expedition in AD 43.
Claudius spent less than a fortnight in Britain, but was present at a major defeat of the Britons north of the Thames and the capture and occupation of the tribal capital at Camulodunum (Colchester). How active a role he actually played in the running of any of these operations is questionable, but it is significant that he felt it was worth considerable travel and six months away from Rome to preside over the army’s success. Brief though the visit was, it helped to associate the emperor very personally with the subjugation of a mysterious island visited, but not conquered, by Julius Caesar. Claudius was then able to return to Rome and ride in triumph along the Sacra Via, something emperors did not normally do as a result of the victories won vicariously through their legates. In the flood of propaganda, which included games, the construction of a number of monuments, and both Claudius and his son adopting the name Britannicus, it was always made clear that this was the emperor’s victory. For a man whose reign had begun when he was discovered hiding behind a curtain in the chaos following Caligula’s murder and raised to power by the praetorian guard in spite of the wishes of the Senate, it was a great proof of his right and capacity to be Rome’s first citizen.
In the long run, the political system created by Augustus discouraged further expansion of the Empire. Most emperors were reluctant to spend the long periods of time on campaign carrying out fresh conquests and did not trust anyone else to do this for them. Some authors in Augustus’ day were in any case already proclaiming that Rome controlled all the best and most prosperous parts of the earth and that further expansion would prove more costly than any profits it might yield. There was some truth in this, although the suggestion put forward by some modern scholars that the Romans stopped expanding because they now bordered on peoples whom their military system could not readily defeat is not supported by the evidence. Yet it is certainly true that the professional army as constituted under the Julio-Claudians could not quickly or easily be expanded in size to provide troops for new military adventures. Conscription was deeply unpopular, as Augustus had found in AD 6 and 9, and avoided if at all possible by all subsequent emperors. The imperial army was on average a far more efficient fighting force than the pre-Marian militia, but it lacked the seemingly limitless pool of reserve manpower which had proved such a strength in the Punic Wars.
Under the Principate the army’s main roles were controlling the provinces – a task which involved them in everything from minor policing to putting down rebellions – and securing the frontiers, usually achieved by a combination of diplomacy and the aggressive domination of neighbouring peoples through real or threatened punitive expeditions against them. Wars of conquest were rare, although the ideology of the Empire and its rulers remained for centuries essentially one of expansion. It was still considered a fundamentally good thing for the imperium of Rome to increase, but as had always been the case, this did not necessarily require the acquisition of more territory. Roman power could be respected in a region even when it was not physically occupied by the army or governed by a Roman official, and many areas which were never controlled in this way were still felt by the Romans to be part of their empire. The determination to protect and increase Rome’s imperium provided the motivation for most of the wars fought under the Principate.
Domitian spent several years supervising his armies fighting on the Rhine and Danubian frontiers, although it seems unlikely that he ever exercised direct battlefield command. A line of frontier forts was established in Germany further forward than had been the case in the past, but only a relatively small area was annexed in this way. In the main these conflicts were especially large-scale versions of the frequent campaigns to maintain Roman dominance over the tribes bordering on her frontier provinces. Dacia was invaded in response to heavy raids on the province of Lower Moesia, but it is unlikely that permanent occupation was anticipated, and in the event the operations there met with little success. One army – commanded by the Praetorian Prefect Cornelius Fuscus, much to the annoyance of the Senate who felt that any army ought to be led by a member of their class and not a mere equestrian – was defeated, and perhaps annihilated, by the Dacians in AD 86. Domitian’s relationship with the senatorial class steadily worsened throughout his principate, denying him the popularity – and favourable treatment in our sources which were mainly written by senators for senators – of his father and brother. In the end he was murdered in AD 96 through a palace conspiracy and replaced by the Senate with one of their own members, the elderly Nerva.
Nerva was the first of what Edward Gibbon termed the ‘five good emperors’ who presided over the Roman Empire at the height of its power and prosperity in the second century AD. He was succeeded by Trajan, who devoted much of his efforts to renewed expansion. His conquest of Dacia grew from Domitian’s unsatisfactory campaigns in the area and had its root in frontier problems. In contrast the invasion of Parthia and the march to the Persian Gulf had little motive beyond the traditional desire of a Roman aristocrat to win glory by defeating powerful enemies.
TRAJAN’S BACKGROUND AND RISE TO POWER
Trajan was born and brought up at the city of Italica in Spain. His family claimed descent from some of the original Roman and Italian troops who formed this colony established by Scipio Africanus after his victory at Ilipa in 206 BC. Italica prospered and grew to be one of the largest and most important cities in Spain. Its citizens seem to have had Latin status, although the local aristocracy could gain full Roman citizenship through the holding of local magistracies. If they had sufficient wealth – and political success even at a local level always required money – then these families were able to become equestrians and send some of their sons into imperial service. Over time some gained the riches and favour to enter the Senate. In the first century BC, especially under Augustus, many Italian noblemen were made senators. Under his successors a growing number of men from the provinces joined the House. Some of these men were descendants of Roman colonists, but an increasing number were drawn from the indigenous aristocracy who had been granted citizenship. Claudius introduced a number of Gauls into the Senate. By the end of the first century there were also men from Spain, North Africa and the Greek east.
All of these men were Romans, both in law and in culture, regardless of their ethnic background, and their behaviour in public life differed in no significant way from that of senators of Italian or strictly Roman ancestry. Under the Principate Rome’s ruling élite gradually absorbed the rich and powerful of most of the provinces without losing its traditional ethos. This process did a great deal to make widespread rebellion extremely rare throughout most of the provinces, save for those where the local aristocracy remained outside the system. Trajan was the first emperor whose link with Italy was extremely distant. He was succeeded by his cousin Hadrian, another Spaniard whose provincial accent earned the scorn of many other senators when he first came to Rome. Near the end of the century the throne would be seized by Septimius Severus, a senator from Lepcis Magna in North Africa. Later there would be Syrian, Greek, Pannonian and Illyrian emperors.
Trajan’s father and namesake, Marcus Ulpius Traianus, had had a fairly distinguished senatorial career, although it is not clear whether he was the first of the family to enter the Senate. In AD 67 he was the legionary legate commanding X Fretensis under Vespasian during the campaign in Galilee, and supported him during the Civil War. This brought him a consulship, perhaps in AD 70, and appointment as legatus Augusti first of Cappadocia and then of Syria. During this time there appears to have been some friction with the Parthians and Traianus’ skilful handling of this affair led to his being awarded triumphal ornaments. It is uncertain whether the operations involved actual fighting or just vigorous diplomacy. During these years the family was granted patrician status. Scarcely any genuine patricians still survived by this time, for such prominent men had inevitably suffered much in the purges of successive emperors, and Vespasian had decided to create new patricians to add dignity to his Senate. Most of the beneficiaries were men who had shown themselves to be reliable during the Civil War, including the family of Tacitus’ future father-in-law, Julius Agricola.
Trajan’s own upbringing appears to have been fairly conventional by the standards of the senatorial class, although it was claimed that he proved no more than adequate at rhetoric and other academic pursuits. At an early age he developed a passion for hunting which persisted throughout his life, and excelled at physical and especially military exercises. At the end of his teens, probably around AD 75, he became a senatorial tribune (tribunus laticlavius) in one of the legions in Syria, serving under his father’s command in the manner of many young aristocrats. Later he transferred to a legion on the Rhine frontier and saw further service against the local tribes. Some tribunes were notorious for wasting their military tribunate, but Trajan embraced the military life with great enthusiasm and served for far longer than was usual. The Younger Pliny in his Panegyric – a written version of a speech praising the emperor and originally delivered in the Senate – claimed that he served for ten years, the traditional term required to make a man eligible for political office in the Republic. This may be an exaggeration, but his account of Trajan’s time as tribune may well give an accurate picture of the enthusiastic young officer:
As a tribune … you served and proved your manhood at the far-flung boundaries of the empire, for fortune set you to study closely, without haste, the lessons which you would later teach. It was not enough for you to take a distant look at the camp, stroll through a short period of duty: while a tribune you desired the qualifications for command, so that nothing was left to learn when the moment came for passing on your knowledge to others. Through ten years’ service you learnt the customs of peoples, the localities of countries, the opportunities of topography, and you accustomed yourself to cross all kinds of river and endure all kinds of weather … So many times you changed your steed, so many times your weapons, worn out in service!
A number of civil posts followed this spell in the army, until in the late 80s AD Trajan became the legate of Legio VII Gemina at the town of Legio (the root of its modern name, Léon) in the peaceful province of Hispania Tarraconensis. In AD 89 Lucius Antoninus Saturninus, the legate of Germania Superior, rebelled against Domitian. Trajan was ordered to march from Spain to confront the rebel army. In the event he did not arrive before Saturninus had been defeated, but his loyalty and prompt action won him the emperor’s trust. It seems that his legion remained on the Rhine and mounted a successful punitive expedition against a German tribe – perhaps the Chatti who had made an alliance with Saturninus. In the 90s he gained a further reputation as a commander, and served as a provincial legate, perhaps in both Germania Superior and Pannonia on the Danube. During his tenure in the latter he fought and defeated some of the Suebic tribes. When Domitian was murdered and Nerva elevated to the throne, Trajan was widely respected as one of the gifted generals of an age for active service – he was then in his fortieth year. Facing pressure from the praetorians who demanded the punishment of Domitian’s murderers, and probably nervous of rivals emerging from amongst the provincial legates, in AD 97 Nerva adopted Trajan, marking him out as his heir. The choice was a popular one, especially with the army, and did much to secure the new regime. A year later Nerva died and Trajan became emperor. Within a year he was touring the Danubian frontier, and in 101 he began a major campaign in this area, aimed at the defeat of King Decebalus of Dacia.
THE DACIAN WARS, AD 101–2 AND 105–6
In 58 BC Julius Caesar had considered attacking Dacia (an area roughly equivalent to modern-day Transylvania) until the Helvetii gave him an even more attractive alternative opportunity for winning military glory. Only his murder in 44 BC prevented a revival of his original plan for such a war from being fulfilled. The Dacians were at that time united under the rule of Burebista, a charismatic war leader who controlled a far larger force of warriors than most tribal leaders. Not long after Caesar’s death the Dacian king was himself assassinated, and no comparably strong ruler emerged amongst his people for over a century. This changed when Decebalus rose to power in the last decades of the first century AD, once again massing a strong force of warriors – he was especially keen to recruit deserters from the Roman army – and subjecting many neighbouring peoples, such as the Sarmatians and Bastarnae, to his rule. Dio described him in conventional terms as the ideal commander, who was:
shrewd in his understanding of warfare and shrewd also in the waging of war; he judged well when to attack and chose the right moment to retreat; he was an expert in ambuscades and a master in pitched battles; he knew not only how to follow up a victory well, but also how to manage a defeat.
Under Decebalus’ aggressive leadership the Dacians had raided across the Danube, and inflicted serious defeats on the Romans. Domitian’s campaign against them ended in a deeply unsatisfactory way with a treaty by which the Romans paid Decebalus an annual indemnity and provided him with engineers and artillery to strengthen the fortifications of his realm. Such terms indicated that Rome had not won the war and even hinted that she had lost, and added to Domitian’s unpopularity with the Senate. When Trajan launched an invasion of Dacia in AD 101, its main aim was to achieve a far more satisfactory peace, based on a Roman victory which would allow the imposition of an appropriate treaty, making Rome’s superiority over Dacia obvious to all. At first he does not appear to have planned to annex the kingdom.
Trajan subsequently wrote Commentaries describing his Dacian Wars, but only a few tiny fragments of these have survived. Cassius Dio, a senator of Greek extraction who wrote in the early third century AD, provides our best narrative of these operations, but even this remains only in the form of epitomes produced centuries later and lacking detail. A few other sources provide a little information, but it is impossible to produce a narrative of this conflict in anything like the detail of the other campaigns examined so far. The spoils from the conquest of Dacia funded the great Forum complex later constructed by Trajan in Rome. Little of this has survived beyond its massive centrepiece, a column 100 Roman feet high (97 feet 9 inches), decorated with a sculpted spiral frieze telling the story of the wars. Several hundred scenes depicting thousands of individual figures of Roman soldiers and their enemies were laid out to form a clear narrative. Originally it was highly colourful, the figures painted and equipped with miniature bronze weapons, the sculpture incorporating levels of detail which cannot possibly have been visible to the observer at ground level.
Trajan’s Column tells a story, but it is a narrative which we can read only with difficulty. The task would be similar to looking at the Bayeux Tapestry, but without the captions and with only the haziest idea of the events and personalities of the Norman Conquest. Although many attempts have been made to relate the reliefs to the topography of Romania and to reconstruct the course of the wars in detail, none of these have ever carried much conviction and can never move beyond conjecture. Yet in another sense Trajan’s Column provides us with a fascinating glimpse of how Roman commanders liked to be depicted in art. A range of artistic conventions influenced its style, but much of it drew on a centuries-old tradition of Roman triumphal art, for generals riding in triumph through the city almost invariably included in their processions paintings showing their own and their armies’ deeds. Such pictures were often used to decorate temples or other monuments constructed with the spoils of war. The Trajan of the Column represents the ideal commander of Roman art, and it is interesting to compare this to the literary figure of the great general. Scenes from another monument at Adamklissi in Romania probably also show episodes from the war, but the story they tell is even harder to reconstruct. Trajan may be one of the officers depicted in the Adamklissi metopes, but these are too badly weathered to allow definite recognition.
Preparations for the campaign were extensive and probably occupied at least a year. Ultimately nine legions – at full strength or at least in the form of a substantial vexillation – were concentrated on the Danube to take part in or support the operations. Other legions sent smaller vexillations and the already substantial auxiliary forces of the region were augmented by whole units and detachments from other provinces. Perhaps a third of the Roman army as then constituted was to take part in the war, although these troops were never massed in a single field army but operated in a number of separate forces and in supporting roles. It was a formidable force, but the task ahead of them would not prove easy. Dacia was defended by the natural strength of the Carpathians. The kingdom was rich in gold deposits and Decebalus had used this wealth to create a large army and to establish well-fortified strongholds controlling the main passes through the mountains. Excavation at a number of these sites has confirmed their formidable nature, with walls and towers which combined native, Hellenistic and Roman methods of construction.
Dacian warriors were brave, though perhaps no more disciplined than those of other tribal peoples. Their religion, based around the worship of the god Zalmoxis, often prompted men to commit suicide rather than surrender. In battle few appear to have worn armour, apart from the allied Sarmatian cavalry who fought as cataphracts, with both horse and man covered in metal or horn armour. Weapons consisted of bows, javelins, Celtic-style swords, and also the scythe-like falx, a two-handed curved sword with the blade on the inner side and ending in a heavy point. This last weapon was capable of reaching past a shield to inflict terrible wounds, and appears to have encouraged some Roman legionaries to be equipped with greaves and an articulated guard to protect their exposed right arm.
Trajan’s Column begins with scenes showing the Roman frontier posts along the Danube and a force of legionaries marching behind their massed standards over a bridge laid across river barges – the Roman equivalent of a pontoon bridge. Then the emperor appears, holding a consilium of senior officers to discuss the forthcoming operations. Trajan usually appears to be slightly larger than the men around him, but he never dominates by sheer size in the manner of the monumental art of other ancient rulers, such as the pharaohs of Egypt. High-level planning and the issuing of orders to the army’s high command is followed by other preparations from the campaign. His head veiled in accordance with his office as pontifex maximus, Rome’s senior priest, the emperor puts a circular ritual cake, or popanum, on to the flames of an altar, as around him the rite of the suovetaurilia is performed with the sacrifice of a bull, a ram and a boar to Mars. This important ceremony was held outside the ramparts of the army’s camp near the start of any major campaign to purify the troops and ensure the support of Rome’s deities. Just as they did in political life in Rome itself, magistrates played a central part in the regular religious ceremonies of the army. There is then a curious scene which shows Trajan watching a peasant clutching a large circular object fall off a mule, and which may be connected with an anecdote in Dio in which allied tribes sent a message to the emperor written in Latin on an enormous mushroom. Then the commander mounts a tribunal and makes a speech to a parade of his legionaries, an address known as an adlocutio. Afterwards the soldiers fortify several positions – presumably on the enemy bank of the Danube – the emperor moving amongst them as they labour and supervising the work.
Its crossing place secure, the main army advances into the hills, probably moving towards the pass in the Carpathians known as the Iron Gates. Trajan and one of his officers are shown inspecting an enemy hill fort, which appears to have been abandoned, before he returns to oversee a group of legionaries clearing a path through the thick woodland. A prominent theme on the Column, as indeed in much literature, is the engineering skill and dogged perseverance of the citizen soldiers of the army, and very often Trajan and his officers are shown overseeing the labour. He is also shown interrogating a Dacian prisoner, just as Caesar and other commanders had done, before the action moves rapidly on to the first major battle. In this the legionaries are shown formed up in reserve, whilst the auxiliaries, who include amongst their number bare-chested barbarians – probably Germans or perhaps even Britons from the irregular units known as numeri – wielding wooden clubs, do the actual fighting.
The savagery of these non-citizen soldiers is emphasized in this and other scenes. One regular auxiliary infantryman grips in his clenched teeth the hair of an enemy’s severed head so that his hands are free to keep fighting. To the rear two more auxiliaries present severed heads to the emperor. In this scene Trajan appears to look away, but in a later, similar scene, he is shown reaching out to accept two such ghastly trophies. The Romans had outlawed headhunting in the provinces of the Empire, but it was evidently acceptable for soldiers to practise this when fighting against foreign enemies. Yet with one possible exception, only auxiliaries are shown on the Column taking heads and it seems likely that such behaviour was acceptable amongst these less civilized troops, but not amongst legionaries.
The bringing of trophies to the commander echoes incidents in the literature, such as the cavalryman at Jerusalem who picked up a rebel and brought him to Titus. The general, and even more the emperor, could reward such heroic feats and his role as witness to his men’s behaviour was vital. Such a task meant keeping relatively close to the fighting, so that the men believed that they could be seen as individuals. One of Domitian’s generals is supposed to have ordered his men to paint their names on their shields to make themselves feel more visible. Later on the Column Trajan is shown distributing rewards to auxiliary troops, although other evidence suggests that these men no longer received medals (dona) like the legionaries so that the awards must have taken another form. Auxiliary units gained battle honours, and sometimes an early grant of the citizenship which was normally given on discharge, so perhaps promotion and sums of money or plunder were the most common form of reward to an individual auxiliary soldier.
This first battle probably took place near Tapae, where in AD 88 one of Domitian’s generals had won a victory which did something to remove the shame of Cornelius Fuscus’ defeat. A god hurling thunderbolts at the Dacians is shown at the top of the frieze, but it is unclear whether this is simply intended to show Rome’s deities fighting on her behalf or indicates an action fought during, or perhaps terminated by, a storm. Some commentators have suggested that the reliance on auxiliaries to do the fighting whilst the legionaries remain in reserve reflected a Roman desire to win victories without the loss of citizen blood. Tacitus praised Agricola for winning the battle of Mons Graupius in this way, but in fact such a sentiment is rarely expressed.
It does seem to have been fairly common by the late first century AD to form the first line of infantry from auxiliary troops, whilst the legions formed the second and subsequent lines. This was certainly logical, for the higher organization of the legions, with ten cohorts coming under the command of a legate and being used to operating together (unlike auxiliary cohorts which were all independent units), made them easier for the army commander to control. For this reason legionaries were more effective as reserve troops to be committed as and when the fighting line needed reinforcement. In some cases, the battle may have been won by the auxiliaries without the need for any reserves. It is impossible to tell whether this was the case at Tapae in AD 101. It is equally possible that the sculptors chose simply to represent the opening phase of the battle begun when auxiliary infantry and cavalry launched an attack on the enemy. Dio tells us that the fighting was extremely fierce and that victory cost the Romans heavy casualties. When the Roman medical aid stations – medics are shown treating soldiers in one of the later scenes on the Column – ran out of bandages, Trajan sent them much of his own store of clothes to cut into strips and make up the shortage. To commemorate the fallen, he also established an altar on the site of the battle.
Following up on their success, the Romans are shown continuing the advance and putting captured settlements to the torch. The parapet of one Dacian fort is shown decorated with a row of heads mounted on poles, whilst in front of the rampart are stakes concealed in pits, resembling the ‘lilies’ made by Caesar’s men at Alesia. Dio tells us that in one such captured fort the Romans found standards and equipment captured from Fuscus’ army. The Romans then cross a river, this time without the benefit of a bridge. One legionary is shown wading through the water with his armour and equipment carried in the rectangular shield raised over his head. After this Trajan addresses another parade, before meeting with a group of Dacian ambassadors, and subsequently a group of native women. Then the action moves to another area as the Column shows Dacian warriors and Sarmatian cataphracts swimming – and in some cases drowning in the attempt – across the Danube to attack some Roman garrisons held by auxiliary troops. One group of enemies employ a battering ram with an iron tip shaped like the animal’s head in an effort to breach a fort’s wall, and this may perhaps be an indication of the knowledge of siege techniques which Decebalus had acquired from deserters and the treaty with Domitian.
In response to this new threat, we see Trajan and a mixture of praetorian guardsmen and auxiliaries embarking on a warship and a barge. They are bareheaded, wearing travelling cloaks (paenulae) and burdened with bundles – perhaps folded tents or simply supplies. The force moves along the Danube, then disembarks. Trajan is always at their head, and rides with a group of auxiliary infantry, cavalry and barbarian irregulars to hunt for the enemy raiding force. Two auxiliary cavalrymen seem to report to the emperor – presumably scouts who have found the Dacians – and this is followed by a massed Roman cavalry attack. Surprise appears complete – the goddess of Night is shown at the top of the scene suggesting an attack under cover of darkness – and the Sarmatians and Dacians are routed and cut down around their four-wheeled wagons. Caesar noted that Gallic armies were always accompanied by carts carrying their families, and it is possible that the Dacians followed a similar practice. However, it may be that these scenes represent not a raiding force, but a migration by some of the local peoples, perhaps tribes allied to Decebalus.
The Adamklissi metopes also show fighting around barbarian wagons and a dramatic Roman cavalry charge led by a senior officer, perhaps Trajan himself. Although cruder in style, these reliefs are less stylized than those on the Column and appear to show three distinct types of barbarian, probably Sarmatians, Bastarnae and Dacians. It is possible that the Adamklissi metopes correspond with these scenes on the Column, but they might equally depict entirely different events.
After this Roman victory Trajan is seen receiving another Dacian embassy, this time consisting of aristocratic ‘cap-wearers’ (pileati) rather than the socially inferior warriors who were sent by Decebalus at the start of the war. Dio mentions several attempts at negotiation, which failed due to Decebalus’ mistrustful nature and, most likely, the uncompromising nature of Roman demands. This is followed by a major battle, in which legionaries are shown fighting alongside auxiliaries. The Roman troops are supported by a scorpion mounted in a cart drawn by a team of two mules and known as a carroballista. Trajan supervizes from behind the fighting line, an auxiliary presenting him with a captive – perhaps one he had captured personally. Behind him is the famous field dressing-station scene, which may mean that Dio’s story about the bandages should be associated with this battle rather than the earlier encounter. As always with the Column, we simply cannot know.
After the defeat of the Dacians – many of whom are shown held captive in a compound – Trajan mounts a tribunal to address his paraded soldiers, and then sits on a folding camp chair to dole out rewards to brave auxiliaries. Yet in the midst of these scenes of Roman celebration is a bleaker scene off to the side, where several bound, naked men are brutally tortured by women. The men are most probably captured Roman soldiers and the women Dacians – in many warrior societies the task of humiliating and killing with torture enemy captives has often been performed by the women of the tribe. The scene may well be intended to show that the war was still not finished, for such a savage enemy needed to be defeated utterly.
At this point the narrative of the Column contains a clear break, perhaps indicating the end of the first year’s campaigning, so that subsequent scenes should be assigned to AD 102. Another river journey is shown, then a column of legionaries marches across a bridge of boats and two Roman armies join together. In these and the following sections we see Trajan formally greeting arriving troops, making speeches to parades, taking part in another suovetaurilia sacrifice to Mars, receiving Dacian embassies, and accepting a prisoner or other trophies brought to him by soldiers. As the army advances through the mountains, making roads, building forts, fighting battles and besieging forts, the emperor is always with them, watching, directing and inspiring. He does not wield a tool or a weapon to join the soldiers in their tasks, for his role is to direct their efforts rather than share in them. Eventually the Romans overcome the difficult terrain and their stubborn and ferocious enemies. The First Dacian War ends with the formal surrender of Decebalus and the Dacians, kneeling or standing as suppliants before the emperor, who sits on a tribunal surrounded by the massed standards of his praetorian guard. Then Trajan stands on this or another tribunal to address his parading soldiers. Trophies and the goddess Victory mark the end of the conflict.
The peace was to prove temporary. Decebalus agreed to the loss of some territory, gave up his siege engines and engineers, handed over Roman deserters and promised not to recruit any more of these. In most respects the war had ended in an entirely satisfactory way for the Romans, with their enemy reduced to the status of a subordinate ally, and Trajan was justified in taking the honorary title Dacicus. Yet in the following years Decebalus broke most of the terms, beginning to rebuild his army and strengthen his power, occupying some of the lands of the Iazyges, a Sarmatian people, without seeking Roman approval for this expansion. The king was clearly not behaving in an appropriate manner for a Roman ally and war, which was threatened in 104, was openly renewed in 105 when the Dacians began to attack some Roman garrisons. The commander of the most important garrison, Cnaeus Pompeius Longinus – a former legatus Augusti who may still have been holding this rank – was treacherously imprisoned during negotiation. However, Decebalus’ attempts to use him as a hostage came to nothing when the Roman managed to obtain poison and committed suicide. At some point the Dacian also enlisted a group of deserters to assassinate the emperor, but this plan also failed.
Trajan was in Italy when the Second Dacian War erupted, and the Column’s narrative begins with his voyage across the Adriatic to be greeted by local dignitaries and the wider population. Two scenes of sacrifice follow. Even greater forces seem to have been mustered for the Second War. Trajan raised two new legions which were named after him, II Traiana Fortis and XXX Ulpia Victrix, both of which probably served in the Second War, although it is unclear whether they took part in the First. In the conventional Roman way the emperor combined force with vigorous diplomatic activity in AD 105, accepting the surrender of individual Dacian chieftains who abandoned their king, and negotiating with ambassadors from all neighbouring peoples. Decebalus appears to have had far fewer allies as a result. Even so the Column shows a heavy attack against some auxiliary outposts, which held out until relieved by a force led by Trajan himself.
The main Roman offensive may not have been launched until 106, and most probably followed a different route to the earlier campaign. It began with another sacrifice on the bank of the Danube, before the army crossed the river at Dobreta. This time they did so not on a temporary bridge of boats, but on a monumental arched bridge, built in stone and timber and supported by twenty piers each 150 feet high, 160 feet in width and 170 feet apart. It was designed by Apollodorus of Damascus – who would later plan Trajan’s Forum complex and presumably had much to do with the construction of the Column – and built by the soldiers. A roadway was cut into the cliffs of the Danube to permit easier approach to the bridge. Dio’s account describes this feat of engineering in loving detail strongly reminiscent of Caesar’s account of his bridge across the Rhine. It was a great and magnificent victory for Roman engineering, in its way as admirable to the Romans as any feat of arms. The Column provides a detailed, if stylized depiction of the bridge as the background to the scene of sacrifice.
After this Trajan joins the army – the soldiers are shown cheering him enthusiastically, much as Velleius described the legionaries welcoming Tiberius – takes part in another suovetaurilia purification ceremony, with the ritual processions walking round the camp, and then addresses legionaries and praetorians at a parade. At a consilium, Trajan briefs and discusses the campaign with his senior officers. The usual preliminaries over, the army advances, harvesting grain from the fields to supplement their supplies. The Column suggests some fighting, though not perhaps as much as in the First War, and Dio tells the story of an auxiliary cavalryman who, discovering that his wounds were mortal, left the camp to rejoin the battle and died after performing spectacular feats of heroism. The culmination of the campaign was the siege of Sarmizegethusa Regia, the religious and political centre of the Dacian kingdom set high in the Carpathians. After a stiff resistance, and it seems an unsuccessful Roman assault, the defenders despaired and set fire to the town before taking poison. The war was not quite over, but its issue was no longer in doubt as the Romans pursued the remaining Dacians. Decebalus was eventually cornered by a group of Roman cavalry scouts, but slit his own throat rather than be taken alive.
The leader of the Roman patrol was a certain Tiberius Claudius Maximus, who had joined the army as a legionary before becoming a junior officer in the auxilia. On the Column he is depicted reaching out to Decebalus, and by chance his tombstone has survived, carrying an inscription describing his career and giving another version of the scene. Decebalus was beheaded and the head taken back to Trajan, who ordered it to be paraded before the army. The war was over, and victory was completed by the discovery of the king’s treasure, buried in a river bed, after much labour by Roman prisoners.
A new province was created, guarded by two legions supported by auxiliaries and with its main centre at the newly founded colony of Sarmizegethusa Ulpia – a grand city built on fertile land at the foot of the Carpathians, unlike Decebalus’ mountain fastness. Settlers came from many parts of the Empire, but especially the eastern provinces, and Roman Dacia soon prospered. The fate of the Dacians, whether they were completely expelled or simply absorbed in the more normal way, has been the subject of fierce debate in recent centuries, most especially amongst the Romanians – contemporary politics has had a major influence on whether they believe their ancestors to be Romans or Dacians.
The Gallic sack of Rome can be best described as a catalyst for Rome. Although the arrival of the Gauls can possibly be credited with a few developments in its own right, most notably the use of the heavy javelin, its biggest impact was in accelerating a number of existing trends in Roman society. This included bringing the community, and particularly the local clans, together into a single, cohesive whole and unifying them all under the banner of Rome. Although this process was well under way previously, the Gallic sack seems to have demonstrated in no uncertain terms that the archaic way of life, and particularly the clan-based approach to war, was no longer a viable option. In the aftermath of the sack, Rome did everything she could to increase her manpower and develop a military model to protect against further attacks. This included incorporating new peoples into her citizen body (and military ranks) via the creation of new tribes and municpia, along with the full-time reversion to the consular tribunate and eventually the creation of the consulship.
Rome’s increased internal unity and cohesion also allowed a more concerted approach to land acquisition and ownership, generally exploited through the creation of ager publicus, which gradually developed into a territorial empire. Evidently initiated to satiate the Romans’ increased appetite for land, but tempered by the desire to maintain her manpower reserves and control both the territory and those occupying it (in contrast to previous practice), Rome very quickly carved out a massive Central Italian empire during the course of the fourth century BC. This led the city into increased conflicts with a number of Italian peoples, including the other Latin communities and tribes, as her aggressive and expansionist policies started to impact upon them. This ultimately resulted in a series of wars against the Latins, Samnites, Etruscans and Greeks of Magna Graecia in the second half of the fourth century BC, which further shaped Rome’s military and imperial designs.
The fourth century BC also saw the introduction of some new military equipment in the Roman army, which seems to have come from two different sources. The first source was local, and was perhaps a result of an increasing number of urban, and probably ‘middle class’, men engaging in warfare under the banners of the consular tribunes, and later consuls. These men, although by no means poor (arguably analogous with the zeugitae or ‘hoplite-class’ in Greece), were not from the wealthiest segments of society either and also had very little previous connection to warfare. As a result, we can probably link to these soldiers the increasing use of simple but functional helmets, like the increasingly popular montefortino type, and a general ‘democratization’ of military equipment across the board. Associated with this is the use of a new type of heavy javelin, which makes it appearance in Central Italy at this time. Prior to this time, javelins are rather hard to identify in the archaeological record. Although spears had most likely been thrown for centuries, if not millennia, in Italy, for the most part they were of the ‘multi-purpose’ variety – spears which could be used as either a thrusting weapon or a thrown one. During the course of the fourth century BC, however, there is increasing evidence for purpose-designed heavy javelins being used throughout Italy – a development which may be associated with the growing number of Gauls in the peninsula. Although by no means unique to the Gauls, the type of heavy javelin which appears in the fourth century BC in Italy is very close to the type of weapon favoured by those living in the modern-day regions of southern Austria and southern France, just the other side of the Alps. It is therefore probable that this military development arrived with the Gallic tribesmen in Italy and was slowly adopted by the Italic peoples.
The fourth century BC marked a major turning point in Rome’s relationship with the Latins. All of the developments of the previous century, including the rise of more cohesive polities/communities, the decline of the region’s mobile clans/gentes, the increased importance of land and agriculture and the arrival of the Gauls, served to break apart any regional unity which had previously existed and created new, more localized divisions. Rome and the Latins still shared a culture and a language, but they no longer shared a single vision for regional security. Rome, in the north, found herself increasingly in opposition to the communities in the south of Latium, who seem to have viewed the Samnites (and perhaps Rome herself) as a far greater threat than the Gauls. Each community in Latium seems to have developed its own distinct identity, which led to an increasingly fractured and factionalized region and ultimately resulted in a final war between Rome and those Latin communities who felt most threatened by her rise to power, generally those located in the southern half of the region. Rome’s victory over these communities, and the resultant settlement of 338 BC, allowed for a reinterpretation of the relationships in Latium which took into account the changing political situation. Rome emerged as the undisputed master of Central Italy and had at her disposal a huge reserve of manpower through the creation of a number of municpia as well as a series of alliances.
This situation changed the Roman army forever. First, it gave Rome a reserve of men which allowed the city to compete with the major Hellenistic powers around the Mediterranean. Without the settlement of 338 BC, Rome would have probably never defeated the Samnites in the final decades of the fourth century BC, let alone a force like that led by Pyrrhus in the early third century BC. The creation of so many new citizens, albeit most of them without voting rights, gave Rome the resources to fight in major conflicts and to come back from defeats time and again. Second, the fourth century BC and the rise of cohesive polities in Latium, most notably at Rome itself, allowed greater strategic vision and planning. With more cohesive communities came the ability and motivation to invest in military infrastructure – roads, colonies and navies. This type of expenditure would have been unthinkable under the more flexible model of the fifth century BC, where Rome’s leaders and Roman warfare seems to have had only an ephemeral connection to the city. But with the rise of a Roman nobility, which maintained links to the community for generations, and an increasing realization by the community that warfare could benefit everyone and not just the soldiers involved – generally through the creation and use of ager publicus – war became a community endeavour. Finally, the settlement of 338 BC and Rome’s conquest of Central Italy created a situation where continued conquest and warfare was almost unavoidable. While the principle of ‘defensive imperialism’ as the main cause of Rome’s expansion has been rightly criticised by scholars such as W.V. Harris and Nathan Rosenstein, Rome’s new position in Central Italy did make conflict likely. Rome’s involvement in Campania had already drawn her into conflict with the Samnites and this would continue for another fifty years. Rome was also increasingly involved with the Greek communities of Magna Graecia, which would ultimately lead to the arrival of Pyrrhus. So while Rome might not have been an entirely reluctant and defensive conqueror, the city also had quite a few new borders and interests to protect.
The late fourth and third centuries BC saw Rome’s armies and envoys venturing further and further afield, for increasingly diverse reasons and interests, the core themes of integration and a developing civic identity are still evident and arguably still driving much of Rome’s military expansion and development.
Rome’s wars during this period, from the mid-fourth century to the mid-third century BC, have been the subject of intense study and debate – particularly during the past fifty years. Beginning with Rome’s great conflict with the Samnites (most notably the Second Samnite War or The Great Samnite War), and followed by Rome’s war against Pyrrhus and the first conflict with the Carthaginians, the city’s foreign interactions during this period were influenced heavily by her new alliance structures and her purported desire to defend the interests of her allies against foreign enemies. Rome’s histories for this period are therefore often framed in terms of a ‘defensive imperialism’, where Rome is portrayed as the reluctant conqueror – being dragged into war after war by her allies, arguably against her will or in pursuit of a greater strategic security. These wars are therefore seen as iura bella (‘just wars’), or defensive wars, although once Rome became involved in a conflict, however reluctantly, the city pursued it to the end – throwing the entirety of her resources into it. It was this dedication to warfare on the part of the Romans, the ability and determination to return to the battlefield time and again after defeats to Pyrrhus or to build a fleet from scratch in order to engage with the Carthaginians, which is often thought to be the secret to their success in this period. That, and an increasingly evolved army which learned from and adapted to each enemy it fought. Or at least this is what the Romans later claimed.
This simple motif of Rome as the reluctant conqueror has rightly been challenged in recent decades, with W.V. Harris and more recently Nathan Rosenstein both presenting the case for Rome being anything but an unwilling or unenthusiastic participant when it came to war.1 Warfare formed an important part of elite identity going back to the early Iron Age, and Rome’s aristocracy – although increasingly sophisticated and urban – retained a strong martial character throughout the Republican period. However, the tension between the Roman elite’s desire to engage in warfare for personal reasons and the evident awkwardness and unpreparedness which seems to have marked the city’s approach in the aftermath of this warfare has generally defied a single explanation. Rome’s apparently ad hoc approach to empire in the middle Republic suggests that a grand strategy was lacking during this period. But at the core of Rome’s foreign interactions, underpinning her reaction and response to the requests of her allies and driving the ambitions of her elite, were a set of cultural principles with their origins back in the Archaic period. As a result, although this period clearly represents a new stage and period in Roman warfare and the development of empire, it also needs to be understood as a continuation of previous practices and the result of the same forces which led to Rome’s consolidation and her domination over the Latins. The present chapter will endeavour to lay out some of these principles (although a full treatment would require an entire volume – indeed perhaps several! – on its own).
Our understanding of the development of the Roman army as a fighting body, and as a social and cultural institution, has also been revised in recent years. The nature and characteristics of the Roman army during this period have been a subject of interest since the time of Livy, as this period marks the first time that the surviving literary accounts offer anything which resembles a real description of battlefield tactics and organization (Livy 8.8, discussed in detail later, being the most obvious example). This period is therefore generally recognized as the point of origin for not only Rome’s territorial empire, but also the Roman army which won it – the so-called manipular legion – although what made the Roman army so different during this period is sometimes hard to determine. Rome’s historians all held that the Roman army, at its core, had remained remarkably stable and static during the Republic. The Servian Constitution, supposedly set out in the late Regal period, created the wealth and age-based framework whereby Rome’s population was divided up, equipped and organized into a civic militia. While many superficial details changed during the following centuries (most notably the equipment), and sometimes quite quickly, the core principles which underpinned the army were thought to have remained roughly the same. What made the army so successful was therefore thought to be the way in which it changed its superficial aspects – its equipment, formation and tactics – in response to different enemies and situations. And as Rome faced off against more and stronger opponents during the late fourth and third centuries BC, these enemies were thought to have shaped the Roman army – like a whetstone on a sword edge – into the supreme fighting force which ultimately conquered the entirety of the Mediterranean world. However, this development narrative has been slowly revised as the major changes which are evident in Roman society during the sixth, fifth and fourth centuries BC have also been applied to the army, and as military change is more clearly understood. It was once thought, based on military models produced during the Enlightenment, that armies acted rationally and could change their tactics and equipment as easily as one might change a set of clothing. However, an increasing body of sociological and anthropological work has revealed that these types of superficial changes are subject to the same social and cultural rules which govern other aspects of society – and indeed these rules are arguably more important in the sphere of warfare. Military changes very rarely occur in response to the simple arrival of a new technology or approach, but are instead dictated by a range of principles which actually favour conservatism over innovation. The emergence of the manipular legion of the fourth century BC, although most likely a response to new stimuli, was therefore also probably part of a much longer sequence of development in Rome.
In early republican days, each legionary was expected to provide his own uniform, equipment and personal weapons, and to replace them when they were worn out, damaged or lost. After the consul Marius’ reforms, the State provided uniforms, arms and equipment to conscripts.
The tunic and personal legionary equipment remained basically unchanged for hundreds of years. By Augustan times, the legionary wore a woolen tunic made of two pieces of cloth sewn together, with openings for the head and arms, and with short sleeves. It came to just above the knees at the front, a little lower at the back. The military tunic was shorter than that worn by civilians. In cold weather, it was not unusual for two tunics to be worn, one over the other. Sometimes more than two were worn—Augustus wore up to four tunics at a time in winter months.
With no examples surviving to the present day, the color of the legionary tunic has always been hotly debated. Many historians believe that it was a red berry color and that this was common to legions and guard units. Some authors argue that legionary tunics were white. Vitruvius, Rome’s chief architect during the early decades of the empire, wrote that, of all the natural colors used in dying fabrics and for painting, red and yellow were by far the easiest and cheapest to obtain.
Second-century Roman general Arrian described the tunics worn by cavalry during exercises as predominantly a red berry color, or, in some cases, an orange-brown color—a product of red. He also described multicolored cavalry exercise tunics. But no tunic described by Arrian was white or natural in color. Red was also the color of unit banners, and of legates’ ensigns and cloaks.
Tacitus, in describing Vitellius’ entry into Rome in July AD 69, noted that marching ahead of the standards in Vitellius’ procession were “the camp-prefects, the tribunes, and the highest-ranked centurions, in white robes.” These were the loose ceremonial robes worn by officers when they took part in religious processions. That Tacitus specifically notes they were white indicates that he was differentiating these garments from the non-white tunics worn by the military.
The one color that legionaries and auxiliaries were least likely to wear was blue. This color, not unnaturally, was associated by Romans with the sea. Pompey the Great’s son Sextus Pompeius believed he had a special association with Neptune, god of the sea, and in the 40s to 30s BC, when admiral of Rome’s fleets in the western Mediterranean, he wore a blue cloak to honor Neptune. After Sextus rebelled and was defeated by Marcus Agrippa’s fleets, Octavian granted Agrippa the right to use a blue banner. Apart from the men of the 30th Ulpia Legion, whose emblems related to Neptune, if any of Rome’s military wore blue in the imperial era, it would have been her sailors and/or marines.
Whatever the weather, and irrespective of the fact that auxiliaries in the Roman army, both infantry and cavalry, wore breeches, Roman legionaries did not begin wearing pants, which were for centuries considered foreign, until the second century. Some scholars suggest that legionaries wore nothing beneath their tunics, others suggest they wore a form of loin cloth, which was common among civilians.
Over his tunic the legionary could wear a subarmalis, a sleeveless padded vest, and over that a cuirass—an armored vest. Because of their body armor, legionaries were classified as “heavy infantry.” Early legionary armor took the form of a sleeveless leather jerkin on to which were sown small ringlets of iron mail. Legionaries and most auxiliaries continued to wear the mail cuirass for many centuries; there was no concept of superseding military hardware as there is today.
Early in the first century a new form of armor began to enter service, the lorica segmentata, made up of solid metal segments joined by bronze hinges and held together by leather straps, covering torso and shoulders. This segmented legionary armor was the forerunner of the armor worn by mounted knights in the Middle Ages. By AD 75, a simplified version of the segmented infantry armor was in widespread use. Called today the Newstead type, because an example was found in modern times at Newstead in Scotland, it stayed in service for the next 300 years.
On his head, the legionary wore a conical helmet of bronze or iron. There were a number of variations on the evolving “jockey cap” design, but most had the common features of hinged cheek flaps of metal, tied together under the chin, a horizontal projection at the rear to protect the back of the neck, like a fireman’s helmet, and a small brow ridge at the front.
First- and second-century legionary helmets unearthed in modern times have revealed occasional traces of felt inside, suggesting a lining. In the fourth century, the Roman officer Ammianus Marcellinus wrote of “the cap which one of us wore under his helmet.” This cap was probably made of felt, for Ammianus described how he and two rank and file soldiers with him used the cap “in the manner of a sponge” to soak up water from a well to quench their thirst in the Mesopotamian desert. By the end of the fourth century, legionaries were wearing “Pamonian leather caps” beneath their helmets, which, said Vegetius, “were formerly introduced by the ancients to a different design,” indicating the caps beneath helmets had been in common use for a long time.
After a legion had been wiped out in AD 86 by the lethally efficient falx, the curved, double-handed Dacian sword, which had sliced through helmets of unfortunate Roman troops, legion helmets had cruciform reinforcing strips added over the crown to provide better protection. It was not uncommon for owners of helmets to inscribe their initials on the inside or on the cheek flap. A legionary helmet unearthed at Colchester in Britain had three sets of initials stamped inside it, indicating that helmets passed from owner to owner. In Syria in AD 54, lax legionaries of the 6th Ferrata and 10th Fretensis legions sold their helmets while still in service.
During republican times, Rome’s heavy-armored troops, the hastati, wore eagle feathers on their helmets to make themselves seem taller to their enemies. By the time of Julius Caesar, this had become a crest of horsehair on the top of legionary helmets. These crests were worn in battle until the early part of the first century, before being relegated to parade use. The color of the crest is debatable. Some archaeological discoveries suggest they were dyed yellow. Arrian, governor of Cappadocia in the reign of Hadrian, described yellow helmet crests on the thousands of Roman cavalrymen under his command. The feathers of the republican hastati were sometimes purple, sometimes black, which possibly evolved into purple or black legionary helmet crests.
The helmet was the only item of equipment a legionary was permitted to remove while digging trenches and building fortifications. Helmets were slung around the neck while on the march. The legionary also wore a neck scarf, tied at the throat, originally to prevent his armor from chafing his neck. The scarf became fashionable, with auxiliary units quickly adopting them, too. It is possible that different units used different colored scarves. On his feet the legionary wore heavy-duty hobnailed leather sandals called caligulae, which left his toes exposed. At his waist he wore the cingulum, an apron of four to six metal strands which by the fourth century was no longer used.
THE LEGIONARY’S WEAPONS
The imperial legionary’s first-use weapon was the javelin, the pilum, of which he would carry two or three, the shorter 5 feet (152 centimeters) in length, the longer, 7 feet (213 centimeters). Primarily thrown, javelins were weighted at the business end and, from Marius’ day, were designed to bend once they struck, to prevent the enemy from throwing them back. “At present they are seldom used by us,” said Vegetius at the end of the fourth century, “but are the principal weapon of the barbarian heavy-armed foot.” By Vegetius’ day, a lighter spear, with less penetrating power, was used by Roman troops.
The legionary carried a short sword, the gladius, its blade 20 inches (50 centimeters) long, double-edged, and with a sharp point for effective jabbing. Spanish steel was preferred, leading to the gladius becoming known as “the Spanish sword.” It was kept in a scabbard, which was worn on the legionary’s right side, in contrast to officers, who wore it on the left.
By the fourth century, the gladius had been replaced by a longer sword similar to the spatha carried by auxiliary cavalry from Augustus’ time. The legionary was also equipped with a short dagger, the pugio, worn in a scabbard on the left hip, which was still being carried into the fifth century. Sword and dagger scabbards were frequently highly decorated with silver, gold, jet and ceramic inlay, even precious stones.
The legionary shield, the scutum, was curved and elongated. Polybius described the legionary shield as convex in shape, with straight sides, 4 feet (121 centimeters) long and 2½ feet (75 centimeters) across. The thickness at the rim was a palm’s breadth. It consisted of two layers of wood fastened together with bull’s hide glue. The outer surface was covered with canvas and then with smooth calf-skin, glued in place. The edges of the shield were rimmed with iron strips, as a protection against sword blows and wear and tear. The center of the shield was fixed with an iron or bronze boss, to which the handle was attached on the reverse side. The boss could deflect the blows of swords, javelins and stones.
On to the leather surface of the shield was painted the emblem of the legion to which the owner belonged. Vegetius, writing at the end of the fourth century, said that “every cohort had its shields painted in a manner peculiar to itself.” While Vegetius was talking in the past tense, several examples suggest that each cohort of the Praetorian Guard may have used different thunderbolt emblems on their shields. The shield was always carried on the left arm in battle, with a strap over the arm taking much of the weight. On the march, it was protected from the elements with a leather cover, and slung over the legionary’s left shoulder. By the third century, the legionary shield had become oval, and much less convex.
Artist’s rendering of the Colosseum during a naumachiae. The Water Battles at the Colosseum were documented by Ancient Roman writers who recorded that the Colosseum was used for naumachiae (the Greek word for sea warfare) or simulated sea battles.
The greatest structure erected during the age of the Flavian emperors (69-96 A.D.) and arguably the finest architectural achievement in the history of the Roman Empire. The Colosseum was originally called the Flavian Amphitheater, but it became known as the Colosseum after a colossal statue of Nero that once stood nearby. Its origins are to be found in the desire of the Emperor VESPASIAN to create for the Romans a stadium of such magnitude as to convince both them and the world of Rome’s return to unquestioned power after the bitter civil war.
Construction began in 72 or 75 A.D. Vespasian chose as the site a large plot between the Caelian and Esquiline hills, near the lake of Stagnum Neronis and the GOLDEN HOUSE OF NERO. His intent was obvious – to transform the old residence of the despot Nero into a public place of joy and entertainment. He succeeded admirably, and his achievement would be supplemented in time by the Baths of Titus, built in order to use up the rest of the Golden House. The work proceeded feverishly and the tale that 30,000 Jews were pressed into service persists. Yet Vespasian did not live to see its completion. Titus took up the task in his reign, but it was Domitian who completed the structure sometime around 81 A.D. The official opening, however, was held on a festal day in 80. Titus presided over the ceremonies, which were followed by a prolonged gladiatorial show lasting for 100 days.
The Colosseum seated at least 45,000 to 55,000 people. Vespasian chose an elliptical shape in honor of the amphitheater of Curio, but this one was larger. There were three principal arcades, the intervals of which were filled with arched corridors, staircases, supporting substructures and finally the seats. Travertine stone was used throughout, although some brick, pumice and concrete proved effective in construction. The stones came from Albulae near Tivoli. The elliptically shaped walls were 620 feet by 507 feet wide at their long and short axes, the outer walls standing 157 feet high. The arena floor stretched 290 feet by 180 feet at its two axes. The dimensions of the Colosseum have changed slightly over the years, as war and disaster took their toll. Eighty arches opened onto the stands, and the columns employed throughout represented the various orders – Doric, Ionic and Corinthian – while the fourth story, the top floor, was set with Corinthian pilasters, installed with iron to hold them securely in place.
The seats were arranged in four different sections on the podium. The bottom seats belonged to the tribunes, senators and members of the Equestrian Order. The second and third sections were for the general citizenry and the lower classes, respectively. The final rows, near the upper arches, were used by the lower classes and many women. All of these public zones bore the name maeniana. Spectators in the upper seats saw clearly not only the games but were shaded by the velaria as well, awnings stretched across the exposed areas of the stadium to cover the public from the sun. The canvas and ropes were the responsibility of a large group of sailors from Misenum, stationed permanently in Rome for this sole purpose.
Every arch had a number corresponding to the tickets issued, and each ticket specifically listed the entrance, row and number of the seat belonging to the holder for that day. There were a number of restricted or specific entrances. Imperial spectators could enter and be escorted to their own box, although Commodus made himself Can underground passage. Routinely, the excited fans took their seats very early in the morning and stayed throughout the day.
The stories told of the games and of the ingenious tricks used to enhance the performances and to entertain the mobs could rarely exaggerate the truth. Two of the most interesting events were the animal spectacles and the famed staged sea battles of Titus, both requiring special architectural devices. In the animal spectacles the cages were arranged so expertly that large groups of beasts could be led directly into the arena. Domitian added to the sublevels of the arena, putting in rooms and hinged trapdoors that allowed for changes of scenery and the logistical requirements of the various displays. As for the sea fights, while Suetonius reports that they were held instead in the artificial lake of Naumachia and not in the amphitheater, Die’s account disagrees. The Colosseum did contain drains for the production of such naval shows, although they were not installed until the reign of Domitian. The abundance of water nearby made the filling of the Colosseum possible, although architecturally stressful. The drains routinely became clogged, causing extensive rot in the surrounding wood. The year 248 A. D. saw the last recorded, sea-oriented spectacle called a naumachia.
A number of other practical features were designed for the comfort of the thousands of spectators. Spouts could send out cool and scented streams of water on hot days, and vomitoria (oversized doors) were found at convenient spots for use by those wishing to relieve themselves of heavy foods. Aside from the statues adorning the arches, the Colosseum was solid, thick and as sturdy as the Empire liked to fancy itself. The structure was Vespasian’s gift to the Romans, whose common saying remains to this day: “When the Colosseum falls, so falls Rome and all the world.”
Although the Colosseum is the most famous Roman amphitheater, nearly 200 others survive archaeologically throughout the former Roman Empire, mostly in its western provinces. Factors of urban topography or available building materials create variations and regional groupings among surviving amphitheaters. Architects in Britain and other northern provinces used turf-and-timber construction – but this cheaper construction material did not lessen the building’s status as a prestige project or a symbol of connection to Rome. Specialized structures to control wild animals appear only in North Africa and sites on the shipping routes from North Africa to Rome, not in the rest of the empire. Thus, the amphitheaters at Capua and Pozzuoli (south of Rome) have extensive subterranean passages and other features for handling animals, while the equally luxurious amphitheaters at Arles and Nîmes do not. In the east, there was less need for purpose-built gladiatorial structures since preexisting theaters and stadia could be adapted to the same purpose. Once again, eastern and western provinces show different forms of adaptation to Roman rule.
In AD 270 Aurelian became emperor, the Gallic Empire collapsed and Britain was once more subsumed into the Roman Empire. Aurelian, however, lasted only five years before his assassination and a period of turmoil led to the murder of his successors Tacitus and Florianus. Probus assumed power in AD 276 and over the next six years succeeded in giving the empire some stability, though not in Britain, where there was rebellion. Probus sent Victorinus, a Moorish officer, to sort out this problem. Zosimus said that Victorinus put down the rebellion by a clever trick but unfortunately does not elaborate on this. Probus also used Britain as a place to send captives including Burgundian and Vandal prisoners, intending that they should settle in the province; whether the intention was to get rid of them or, as Zosimus said, to use them to assist in putting down the rebellion is not clear. Probus lost the empire to Carus, his Praetorian Prefect, in AD 282 and Carus’s son Carinus took charge of the western part of the empire, assuming the titles of Britannicus Maximus and Germanicus Maximus.
Stability was not restored to the empire until Diocletian secured the imperial throne in AD 284. The next year he appointed Maximian as Caesar, his deputy with control over the western part of the empire. A year later, because of his successful rule in Gaul, Maximian was elevated to the position of joint emperor. A signet ring found in Britain portrayed their relationship. Diocletian was represented as Jupiter making decisions while Maximian was Hercules roaming the world to protect the empire against the forces of destruction. As Maximian had married Diocletian’s daughter this also indicated the link with Hercules as a son of Jupiter.
Maximian’s main task was to prevent pirate raids, which were increasingly occurring along the coasts of Britain and Gaul. This brought him into conflict with M. Aurelius Mausaeus Carausius, a Menapian from a region within modern Belgium. With his command covering the coasts of Belgica and Armorica and probably Britain, he was in charge of a fleet to drive off the pirates, mainly Franks and Saxons.
From his base at Boulogne, Carausius was successful in putting down piracy, so much so that he made himself a wealthy man. He was accused of letting pirates raid the coast, then capturing them when they left, and seizing their booty. This did not fit in with Maximian’s scheme of government for the west. He put a price on Carausius’s head whereupon Carausius, in either AD 286 or 287, sailed for Britain and declared himself emperor. Britain was now a province worth governing, as it was one of the most secure, prosperous and relatively peaceful in the empire. Why, therefore, it supported Carausius is not clear. He may have secured enough wealth to pay subsidies to troops to bring them over to his side or the troops in Britain may have become alienated towards, or indifferent to, the present imperial government. Carausius might have been an officer in a Roman legion for part of his career and was therefore known to the troops. Civilians, such as wealthy villa owners or merchants, may have resented paying taxes to Rome and taken an opportunity to rid themselves of this burden.
Maximian could not move against Carausius immediately as he was concerned with suppressing rebellions on the Rhine frontier. By 289, however, he had gathered a fleet but Carausius’s sea tactics ensured that he drove off the Roman fleet and Maximian appears to have been unable to secure a decisive victory. Instead, he put the best face he could on the matter and gave Carausius the title of Augustus. How far Carausius’s empire extended is uncertain. He had control of Britain and possibly the coastal areas of Gaul – coinage found in northern Gaul has his name stamped on it. The coins had been struck at several mints, one being in London and another at Rouen. He needed this coinage to pay his troops but the coins also show his imperial expectations. Early ones depict him clasping hands with a figure of Britannia and the legend ‘Expectate veni’ (Come, we have expected you). Others legitimate his authority with the words ‘Pax AUGGG’ (Peace of the three emperors).
Carausius’s empire was not destined to last. He was assassinated by Allectus, his financial officer, whose plot against him succeeded in AD 293, probably because Carausius had been weakened when Constantius, elevated by Maximian to the post of Caesar, seized Boulogne. This had loosened Carausius’s grip on the coast of Gaul. Constantius was now determined to seize back control in Britain, but he did not organize an attack until AD 296, possibly finding it difficult to raise sufficient ships until then. He divided his fleet into two separate parts. One, led by Constantius himself, sailed from Boulogne towards the Thames estuary; the other, under the command of the Praetorian prefect, Asclepiodotus, sailed from the Seine estuary. He was extremely lucky for a thick sea mist enabled him to avoid been seen by Allectus’s fleet, which was stationed off the Isle of Wight. He landed somewhere in the region of the Solent and, once he had embarked, ordered his men to burn the boats. He may have wished to prevent the enemy getting hold of them or perhaps he did not have enough men to leave some to guard the ships. Burning the boats also ensured that his men knew there was no way back.
Constantius’s fleet had been delayed by bad weather and only a few ships got through to land troops near Richborough. The greater danger, however, came from the troops of Asclepiodotus, who was advancing towards London. Allectus may not have been with his fleet but was somewhere in the south-east, for he was able to raise an army to meet the oncoming forces. The two armies met either in Hampshire or West Sussex. The battle resulted in the total defeat of Allectus and his subsequent death. The remnants of his forces retreated towards London, only to be trapped by those soldiers who had managed to land from Constantius’s ships. Allectus’s forces included Frankish soldiers who sacked the city before probably intending to return to their homes across the North Sea. They were slaughtered without mercy.
Constantius quickly sailed for Britain and was able to enter London in triumph. A bronze medallion, struck at Trier, records his entry. On one side is the head of Constantius with his titles. The other shows him riding into a walled city identified by the letters ‘LON’ for Londinium underneath. Before the wall kneels a figure with arms raised in supplication at his entry. His fleet, represented by a boat, has obviously sailed up the Thames. The inscription Redditor Lucis Aeternae (Restorer of the light that burns for ever) indicates the gratitude of the citizens.
Constantius immediately focused his attention on ensuring control over the army as well as securing the defences of the province, for Irish pirates were now menacing the west coast, the Picts were restless in the north and there were also pirate attacks on the eastern seaboard. A number of forts had already been constructed on the south-east and south coasts of Britain and these were reconditioned. These have been called the Saxon Shore forts but they were not built at the same time to form one coordinated defensive structure. Brancaster (Norfolk) and Reculver were built about AD 230. To these were added Burgh Castle (Norfolk), Walton Castle (Suffolk), Bradwell (Essex) and Lympne (Kent) in the 270s. At that time the small fort of Richborough was given more defensive walls and Dover was refortified. Carausius may have added Portchester but the fort of Pevensey (East Sussex) was not built until AD 370.
These were not forts in the strict military sense of housing units of troops trained to attack. Their stout walls and formidable turrets seem to have been designed for defence. Ballistae and catapults could be placed on these turrets. Soldiers and their families, who normally lived outside the forts, could take shelter in them. Their defences were against raiders coming across the North Sea, drawn by the wealth of the province. Yet raiders could easily slip between the forts and land anywhere along the undefended parts of the coast so it would have been necessary to construct a unified system of command that would ensure the defence of the whole eastern coast and its hinterland. It is also possible that a line of watchtowers was constructed along the Thames estuary, as one has been excavated at Shadwell. London would have been a great prize for seaborne raiders and early warning of their coming was essential. The western coastline was not left unprotected. Forts were built to guard the estuaries from Cardiff to Lancaster from raiders coming from Ireland and Scotland.
All these forts would have had to be used by the fleet. The Classis Britannica (the British fleet) already had bases at Dover and Richborough and after Carausius’s rule the latter became its chief base. Gaius Aufidius Pantera, prefect of the fleet, dedicated an altar to Neptune at Lympne, which suggests it was another base. Other forts would have provided facilities to moor and repair ships. It would have been easy to link the forts by sea and arrange patrols along the coast. There is no evidence of a road system linking one with another. In the south roads lead from Richborough, Dover, Reculver and Lympne to Canterbury, which has been suggested as being an off-duty station for the troops.
The northern frontier required extensive restoration, not because of destruction, but from decay. There had been no programme of repairs since Severus’s reign. It was time for intensive refurbishment and this was continued beyond Constantius’s visit. Some forts had their garrisons reduced; at Wallsend and Chesters buildings were demolished in one area of the fort and not rebuilt. In other forts, buildings were abandoned. It has been suggested that these open spaces were to house the tents of mobile forces that could move out quickly to put down uprisings. Constantius appeared to have ordered forts to reduce in size their principal buildings, as happened at Great Chesters and Housesteads. At Birdoswald the principia (headquarters), the praetorium (commander’s residence) and the baths needed extensive repair.
There were also differences in how the troops were housed. At some forts, such as Housesteads, rather than restore the barrack blocks, ‘chalets’ were built, laid out in rows, as if indicating that soldiers and their families could live there. Alternatively these may have housed the exploratores (scouts) whose duties took them into the Scottish lowlands. Restoration was also made to the south of Hadrian’s Wall at Lanchester, Binchester, Malton and Ilkley. In addition the walls of the fortress of York were rebuilt and the riverfront enhanced with a series of multangular towers, both for protection and to demonstrate the power of military might. This restoration took place over a long period and extended into the fourth century.
Constantius returned to Gaul in AD 297 to concentrate on the problems there. He took skilled men from Britain to rebuild part of the city of Autun in France, which may indicate that the towns in Britain had not suffered during Carausius’s rule. A panegyric on Constantius Caesar, compiled in AD 297, recorded that the Britons had greeted him, ‘with great joy after so many years of most wretched captivity … At last they were free, at last Romans, at last restored afresh by the true life of the empire.’ Allowing for the hyperbole it would seem that a new era had begun in Britain but to ensure that it would continue to be a prosperous province its defences had to be secured. That all was not yet secure is indicated by the return of Constantius in AD 305 to sort out further problems in the north.
Constantius had to leave Britain in AD 297 to deal with events in Gaul. Soon after Diocletian and Maximian abdicated and Constantius was proclaimed as Augustus with control over the west while Galerius ruled as Augustus in the east. One of their purposes was to separate the civil and the military administrations. The provincial governor was no longer a legate at the head of his troops but a civilian officer with total control of administration and the empire was split into dioceses under the control of vicarii (governors).
Renewed fighting in the north of Britain forced Constantius to return in AD 305 to lead a campaign against the Picts who had moved towards Hadrian’s Wall from their area of eastern Scotland. His son Constantine joined him but the details of their campaign are unclear. A panegyric to Constantius suggested that he penetrated into the furthest parts of Scotland, probably moving up the east coast. Other literary sources suggested that he moved north against the Picts and the Caledonii, and pottery evidence from this period found at Cramond on the Forth and Carpow on the Tay suggests that if he did move north he was making use of the fleet to bring supplies.
Either Constantius did not intend to complete the conquest of the north or he realized that he could not do this. He returned to York where, in AD 306, he died. According to Eutropius, his son Constantine, the offspring of a somewhat undistinguished marriage, was made emperor. Zosimus added a little more. He implied that Constantine had joined his father in Britain with the intention of seeking the empire. When Constantius died the next choice to succeed him as the western Augustus was Flavius Valerius Severus, Constantius’s Caesar. In Rome, the Praetorian Guard had already moved to declare Maximian’s son, Maxentius, as Augustus and this was supported by the Senate. The army in Britain, deciding that the son of Constantius was capable of ruling, had declared him to be emperor but for a while he was forced to accept the lesser rank of Caesar. Severus eventually was accepted as Augustus and Constantine became his official Caesar, which gave him some legitimacy. In AD 307 Maxentius moved against Severus and deposed him. Constantine gathered troops from Germany, Gaul and Britain, marched from Gaul across the Alps into Italy and decisively defeated Maxentius and his troops at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in AD 312.
Constantine was, however, forced to share authority with Licinius as co-emperor. They divided the empire between them with Constantine basing himself in Milan not Rome. In AD 324 Constantine finally seized complete control and forced Licinius to commit suicide. Licinius had based himself at Byzantium on the Bosporus and in AD 330 Constantine moved his court there, proclaiming it to be the New Rome, and with great ceremony decreed that it should be called Constantinople.
Eusebius said that Constantine did return to Britain at least once in his reign but once ‘he had subjugated it’ he returned to Rome and concentrated his attention on other parts of the world. Coins produced at the London mint were struck with the legends Constantinus Aug (ustus) and Adventus Aug (the arrival of Augustus). The implication is that there were problems in the province but what they were is unclear. There may have been other visits. Coin evidence suggests that these were in AD 307, 312 and 314. He also declared himself Britannicus Maximus, suggesting that he had won a victory.
It may have been on one of these visits that he made changes to the government in Britain. About AD 312–14 Britain was split into four provinces, which are recorded in the Verona List. Two might have been named after the two Caesars – Maxima Caesariensis and Flavia Caesariensis; the other two were Britannia Prima and Britannia Secunda. Maxima was to the south-east with its capital as London. Prima was in south Wales and the south-western part of Britain. An inscription found at Cirencester, which formed the base of a Jupiter column, was dedicated by ‘Lucius Septimius … Governor of Britannia Prima’, which seems proof that Corinium was the capital. Flavia Caesariensis, possibly created from land in both the provinces of Britannia Inferior and Britannia Superior, covered the centre of Britain from north Wales to the Lincolnshire coast with its most important town of Lincoln as the capital. It may have included some of East Anglia in its territory but Maxima Caesariensis may have included the whole of that area. Britannia Secunda covered the northern area of Britain including the Wall with York, headquarters of Legio VI, as its capital.
Confirmation of these provinces is given by the report on the bishops attending the Council of Arles in AD 314. Eborius was Bishop of York in provincia Britannia. Restitutus was Bishop de civitate Londiniensi (London) in provincia suprascripta. Adelphius was bishop of civitate colonia Londiniensium, probably a mistake for Lindinensium as Lincoln was a colonia while London was not. He was accompanied by a priest and a deacon, which might indicate his superior status.
Collectively these provinces formed one of the twelve dioceses of the empire so that Britain was ruled by a vicarius. The British diocese was under the overall command of the Praetorian Prefect of Gaul who also controlled Transalpine Gaul and Spain. This effectively eliminated the direct access that governors of Britain had once had to the emperor. Equally, it increased the possibility of more taxation being imposed on the diocese, money that was needed to support the military forces.
Constantine also seems to have instigated other reforms such as improving the road system, judging by the number of milestones attributed to his reign and the following one. These would have helped communications between the forts. The army was reformed following the work which Diocletian had begun in two areas. Firstly, the officer class became more professional so that now they served their entire career in the army without alternating it with civilian office. Secondly, greater mobility was ensured with increased mobile field units (limitanei) being placed on the frontiers and their hinterlands. Evidence for this comes from the Notitia Dignatatum, which listed chains of commands and detailed civil and military officials of the empire and the units controlled by them. This is assumed to have been completed by AD 395 with corrections and alterations over the next thirty years. How far it was kept up to date is uncertain.
The forces in Britain were listed under three commands. The south and east were under the command of the Count of the Saxon Shore (Comes Litoris Saxonici) who obviously controlled the Saxon Shore forts and the areas between them. The northern area, which included Hadrian’s Wall, was under the control of the Duke of Britain (Dux Britanniarum) with his headquarters at York. Both of these commands had extensive forces on which they could call against attacks from the sea or from the north. Much later, probably on the command of Stilicho in AD 395, a new command was instituted, the Count of the Provinces of Britain (Comes Britannarium). These commands came into being over several years. Constantine had given the first two commands roving commissions by creating more cavalry and infantry regiments. The army had moved from being a garrison army to mobile units trained to move swiftly to counter any attack. These commands were not linked to the civil administration but covered wide areas across frontiers.
Constantine died in AD 337 and the empire again fragmented when his three sons divided it between them. Britain, Spain and Gaul were under the control of Constantine II, who invaded Italy in AD 340 to attack his brother Constans, who ruled Italy, Africa and the Illyrian provinces. Constantine II was defeated and killed at Aquileia. In spite of this warfare Britain seems to have remained relatively peaceful until about AD 342 when Libanius reported that Constans crossed to Britain in mid winter ‘with everything, cloudy, cold, and swell roused to total fury by the weather’. Julius Firmicus Maternus confirmed his ‘crossing the swelling, raging waves of Oceanus, in winter time, a deed unprecedented in the past, and not to be matched in the future’. As the Romans disliked crossing the sea during the winter storms the implication is that the revolt in Britain was serious; in fact, Libanius said that Constans did not announce his coming or give any warning. Possibly Constantine II had withdrawn troops from Britain in his bid for complete command of the empire and the northern tribes had taken the opportunity to revolt.
A particular type of shelter known as the musculus appears only rarely in ancient writings. Vegetius describes it as a small machine, reminiscent of the Hellenistic ditch–filling tortoise in its role of protecting men as they brought forward building materials (Veg., Epit. rei mil. 4.16). However, he is surely mistaken. From Caesar’s description of the musculus in action during the siege of Massilia in 49 BCE, it is clear that it was an enormously robust gallery, constructed when the standard vineae and plutei failed to stand up to the defenders’ formidable artillery; its name, meaning ‘little mouse’, is surely another example of soldiers’ humour. The extra protection was required by men moving up to the enemy wall for undermining work. In other words, it was the Roman equivalent of the Hellenistic ‘digging tortoise’. Caesar’s version was 60ft (18m) long, 4ft (1.2m) wide, and 5ft (1.5m) tall, with a pitched roof. It was built out of 2ft–thick (0. 6m) timbers, and entirely covered with a fireproof layer of tiles and clay, followed by a waterproof layer of rawhide, to foil any attempts at dissolving the clay (Caes., BCiv. 2.10). It was perhaps unusual to mobilize such a structure; at any rate, the defenders were taken by surprise when it was suddenly advanced to the wall on sets of rollers normally used to transport ships. With the musculus in place at the wall foot, the defenders were powerless to prevent the Romans from undermining one of the city’s towers.
VINEA: COVERED GALLERY
Like the musculus, but open along one side, was the vinea. This is especially used to shield soldiers when they were undermining the city’s walls by driving tunnels under them, or prizing out the stones at the base with sharp iron tools called terebrae.
Roman law specifically prohibited generals from bringing their legions into Italy proper without the express approval of the Senate. On the Adriatic coast, the border was marked by the Rubicon River south of Ravenna. Yet on January 10 or 11 (sources differ), 49 BCE, announcing that “the die is cast,” Caesar defied the Senate and crossed the small Rubicon with his army into Italy proper. Although Caesar had only one legion immediately with him, he retained eight other battle-tested legions in Gaul. His total force thus numbered some 40,000 men, plus 20,000 auxiliaries. Ranged against Caesar, Pompey and his allies in the Senate could call on two legions in Italy(with eight more being raised there), seven in Spain, and substantial military resources in Greece, the East, and North Africa.
Caesar hoped to counter this formidable imbalance by the decisive approach that had brought him victory in Gaul. Moving swiftly south along the Adriatic, he collected additional forces and recruits. Pompey declared that Rome could not be defended, and he and most of the senators abandoned the city to Caesar in order to buy time to gather additional resources in southern Italy. The only setback for Caesar to this point was the news that Labienus, a former lieutenant of Pompey, had defected to him. All of Caesar’s other key subordinates and legions remained loyal.
Because Pompey was slow both to react to the threat posed by Caesar and to mobilize his own legions, he and 25,000 men and most of the senators who had fled to the south withdrew to Brundisium (Brindisi). Pompey also rejected calls from Caesar that they end the fighting and restore their former alliance, Pompey claiming that he was Caesar’s superior.
Pompey was confident of ultimate victory. He expected to raise substantial forces in the eastern Greek provinces and, with control of most of the Roman Navy, institute a blockade of the Italian coast. In March 49 BCE Pompey and a number of his senatorial allies sailed from Brundisium for Epirus.
Before Caesar could contemplate proceeding against Pompey in Greece, he had to eliminate the threat to his rear posed by Pompey’s sizable army in Spain. Leaving Marcus Aemilius Lepidus as prefect in Rome and Mark Antony in charge of the rest of Italy, Caesar marched for Spain. Gaius Antonius held Illyria for Caesar, while Cisalpine Gaul was under Licinius Crassus. Caesar sent Gaius Curio with other troops to secure Sicily and North Africa.
Pompey supporter Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus landed by sea at Massilia (present-day Marseille) with a small number of men and persuaded its leaders to declare for Pompey. Caesar, having sent most of his army ahead to secure the passes over the Pyrenees that would give him access to Spain, invested Massilia in April with three legions. Caesar then hurried on to take charge of operations in Spain, leaving Gaius Trebonius to continue the siege operations by land and Decimus Brutus to raise a naval force and blockade Massilia from the sea. The siege continued during the entire time of Caesar’s operations in Spain, although Brutus won a naval victory off Massilia against a joint Massilian-Pompeian force.
Taking advantage of Pompey’s absence from the Italian mainland, Caesar moved quickly. In June 49, his legions secured the vital Pyrenees passes just in advance of a large force of 65,000 men loyal to Pompey and commanded by Lucius Afranius and Marcus Petreius. Frustrated by their inability to reach and secure the passes first, the two Pompeian generals awaited Caesar’s arrival in Spain. Two additional Pompeian legions and about 45,000 auxiliaries under Vebellius Rufus and Marcus Terentius Varro held the remainder of Spain.
Both sides engaged in extended maneuvering in what is known as the Ilerda Campaign. Caesar was anxious to avoid pitched battle because of his considerable inferiority in numbers. His opponents were equally reluctant to engage because of Caesar’s military reputation. Finally, through adroit maneuvering and rapid movement, Caesar cut off the withdrawal of the two legions and surrounded them, securing their surrender at Ilerda on August 2, 49. Following his victory, Caesar disbanded the two legions, gaining recruits in the process. He then marched to Gades (Cadiz) to overawe all Spain. Then, leaving a small force to complete the pacification of Iberia, Caesar returned to Massilia, which surrendered on September 6. Domitius escaped by sea.
An example of aggressive siegecraft is provided by the attack on coastal Massilia by Caesar’s deputy, Caius Trebonius, in 49 BCE. He began to construct two embankments at different points on the landward side, but was severely hindered by the town’s ballistae, which had allegedly been engineered to discharge 12ft (3.5m) iron–pointed spears instead of the usual rounded stone balls. The legionaries’ standard wickerwork shelters (vineae) could not stand up to such punishment, so Trebonius arranged for the workers to be protected by galleries made out of timber 1ft thick (30cm). In addition, he had a 30ft—square (9m) brick refuge built close to the town, so that the workers could shelter within its 5ft–thick (1.5m) walls; but he quickly realized how useful a tower would be in this location, and again exploited the legionaries’ engineering skills to raise the structure, under constant threat of enemy missiles, until it had six storeys. This opened up new possibilities, and Trebonius ordered a massive gallery to be built, 60ft (18m) long, stretching from the brick tower to the town wall. Realizing the danger posed by the gallery, the Massiliotes tipped blocks of masonry and blazing barrels of pitch onto it from the battlements above. But they were driven back by the artillery in the brick tower, and their improvised missiles were easily deflected by the gallery’s 2ft–thick (60cm) gabled roof, with its coating of padded rawhide over clay. Then, concealed within the gallery, Trebonius’ legionaries undermined the town wall, whereupon the townsfolk lost hope and surrendered.
TREBONIUS (died 43 BCE)
C. Trebonius illustrates perhaps better than any other figure of the Late Republic the independence of the “everyday senator” from any “party affiliation” in ancient Roman politics, as compared, for instance, with the modern American political scene. Characterized by scholars as vacillating between political factions (particularly, the factions of Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great), Trebonius, in reality, did as many Roman senators, searching out the best advantages for himself and sticking with one powerful leader or another only as long as he considered their goals appropriate and personally beneficial.
Trebonius emerges from the ancient sources for the first time in 60 BCE, when he held the office of quaestor (financial magistrate) in Rome. During his term, he was one of those politicians who opposed the intentions of P. Claudius Pulcher (commonly known as Clodius). Clodius had developed an intense hatred for one of Trebonius’s good friends, the famous orator Cicero; he intended to utilize the office of plebeian tribune (the powers of which he considered ideal for the purpose) to destroy Cicero’s life. To become tribune, however, Clodius had to relinquish his status as a patrician (a member of Rome’s most blue-blooded families) and apply for adoption into a plebeian family. He had this all arranged, but Trebonius, along with the consuls of 60 (Afranius and Metellus Celer) and other magistrates, opposed and prevented the adoption, since they understood its true purpose.
In the following year, though, Clodius got his way in all things, with the strong backing of Julius Caesar and his associates, Crassus and Pompey, the so-called First Triumvirate. Trebonius apparently continued to resist Clodius, however, endangering his own life against such a loose cannon in the efforts launched to recall Cicero, who had been exiled, thanks to Clodius.
After all this dust had settled, Trebonius teamed up with the Triumvirs. As plebeian tribune in 55 BCE, he proposed a law to grant provincial commands to Crassus (who received the province of Syria and oversight in the neighboring territories) and to Pompey (who received the provinces of Spain), each for a period of five years. In addition, the motion authorized each man to levy as many troops from both Roman citizens and allies, as well as to make war or arrange peace in their provinces, as each saw fit. Two of his colleagues in the tribunate, C. Ateius Capito and P. Aquilius Gallus, attempted to derail Trebonius’s measure; the young Optimate orator M. Favonius also spoke out in opposition, as did M. Porcius Cato, leader of the Optimates. Cato, at least, recognized that there was no way to prevent the measure with the coalition of Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey behind it, but he still made the best stand he could against it; by talking out his allotted time and forcing Trebonius to make a show of dragging him off the Speakers’ Platform and into detention, Cato gave the assembled voters a clear proof of the unjust power being exercised by the Triumvirs.
At this informal meeting (contio) of the People of Rome, so many private citizens took the opportunity to express their opinions on this heated matter that the two opposing tribunes did not even have a chance to speak their views. Gallus decided, therefore, to sleep overnight in the Senate House so that he could be the first one to ascend the Speakers’ Platform (located right outside) at dawn on the following day; Trebonius, however, locked him inside the building and did not let him out for hours. In the meantime, the latter’s supporters crowded into the assembly area (Comitium) outside; they tried to stop Capito, Favonius, Cato, and other opponents from entering, but these found clever ways to do so anyway. For instance, Cato and Capito climbed on the shoulders of those standing around the edge of the Comitium and, from his perch, Capito proclaimed a warning about bad omens, which normally would have necessitated dissolving the meeting.
In the event, however, the supporters of Trebonius, many of whom were soldiers Caesar had furloughed from his army, turned to roughing up opponents of the proposal, including Capito and Cato; many people were driven from the Forum in this way, many badly wounded in the confrontation, including Gallus, and a few even killed. Capito, however, incensed by the sight of his colleague all covered in blood, and building on popular disgust at this, soon stirred up renewed resistance to Trebonius. Pompey and Crassus, as consuls, then entered the scene with their bodyguards, restored order to the assembly, and compelled a vote on Trebonius’s motion. Not surprisingly, it passed into law. They followed this up with a law of their own to extend also the provincial command of Caesar for an additional five years and under the same terms as theirs.
For his efforts as tribune, Trebonius received a reward, a posting as legatus, a lieutenant commander, in the army of Caesar from the end of his term of office through 50 BCE. He accompanied Caesar on his second expedition into Britain, commanded forces against the Belgae (especially in the punitive operations after the rebellion of Ambiorix), and expertly countered the assaults of Vercingetorix’s troops during the famous Siege of Alesia (alongside Marc Antony).
Trebonius continued to serve Caesar when the Civil War broke out between the latter and Pompey. After the city of Massilia in southern Gaul (Marseilles, France) declared itself for Pompey’s side in the first year of the conflict, Caesar placed Trebonius in charge of ground forces to conduct the siege of the town, an ever-challenging business that ended in success for Trebonius after six months. In the following year, 48 BCE, Caesar welcomed Trebonius back to Rome with another reward, the office of urban praetor, which placed him just one rank below Caesar himself as consul and made him the chief judicial official over Roman citizens. This placed Trebonius at odds with another of Caesar’s supporters, M. Caelius Rufus, who had hoped for that appointment himself; even though Caesar gave him the next best thing, the peregrine praetorship (the judicial official over resident aliens and foreign visitors to Rome), Caelius resented it and lashed out at Trebonius by vetoing everything he did in office. Indeed, Caelius went further by opposing Caesar’s laws on loans and rent payments, attempting to foment a sort of social revolution in Rome of debtors and renters against their creditors and landlords; in this uprising, Trebonius almost lost his life (which is what Caelius really wanted) and barely escaped the city in disguise. The Senate and Caesar’s consular colleague, Servilius Isauricus, put a stop to all this within Rome itself; Caelius fled southward to try to stir up support for his cause but failed and was eventually killed by Caesar’s cavalry.
The rest of Trebonius’s praetorship appears to have gone smoothly and he proceeded in the next year to the governorship of Further Spain. Since the summer of 49 BCE, both Spanish provinces had come under Caesar’s authority, but his legions there and some of the local communities had grown restless and, in fact, mutinous. Part of Trebonius’s mission was to restore order; he had previous experience of the region, having fought against the lieutenants of Pompey there in the first year of the Civil War. However, the agents of Metellus Scipio, father-in-law of the now-deceased Pompey and acknowledged leader of the survivors of his faction, had come to Spain to reclaim it by inciting more trouble for Caesar’s side; chief among those agents was Pompey’s eldest son, Cnaeus Pompeius. Inspired by his arrival, the mutinous legionaries and rebellious locals eventually forced Trebonius out of the peninsula. Caesar then personally took up the campaign against the Pompeians in Spain. He apparently sent Trebonius back to Rome and, on his own victorious return in the fall of 45 BCE, appointed his loyal legate as suffect (“fill-in”) consul for the remainder of the year. Again, Trebonius had received his ample reward.
After all this, however, Trebonius turned against Caesar. In fact, he seems to have done so already before Caesar’s return from Spain; he even mentioned something to Marc Antony, who kept it secret instead of reporting it to Caesar. The reason, evidently, for Trebonius’s change of heart was animosity toward Caesar’s kind of dictatorship, which made everyone, including his old comrades, feel like pawns in a game played only by Caesar. In wartime, this might have been satisfactory, but it was not once peace resumed. Thus, many Caesarians participated in the Conspiracy of the Liberators to assassinate Caesar in 44 BCE. While other members of the plot attacked him during a meeting of the Senate on the Ides of March, Trebonius fulfilled his assigned task by keeping Marc Antony outside, engaged in conversation. Trebonius later expressed in a letter to Cicero his pride in the part he had played, the sense of achievement he felt in ridding Rome of a “tyrant.” Cicero had applauded the assassination, but he blamed Trebonius (and Brutus) for not eliminating Antony, too.
Before his death, Caesar had officially assigned Trebonius to govern the Roman province of Asia (western Turkey today), and under the turbulent conditions in Rome following the fallen dictator’s funeral, Trebonius literally had to sneak off to his province so as not to set off any further popular uproar against himself. Soon, the leaders of the Conspiracy, Brutus and Cassius, secretly contacted him, asking him to collect money and troops for the looming head-on confrontation with Antony. He did so, and went further in fortifying key towns in the province against possible attack.
The attack came, but not from Antony. Another adversary appeared, a much more cunning one, in the person of P. Cornelius Dolabella. He had served under Caesar for a number of years and the latter planned to reward him with a suffect consulship in 44 BCE; that is, if Caesar had left for his projected war against the Parthian Empire, he would have handed over the remainder of his own term as consul to Dolabella. Instead, Caesar was assassinated, but Dolabella still wanted that office; the other consul of that year, Antony, stood in opposition, however. Dolabella turned on Antony, posed as a friend of Caesar’s assassins and assumed the consulship anyway, receiving from the Senate a special appointment as governor of the province of Syria to boot.
This proved to be the undoing of Trebonius, who did suspect treachery from Dolabella, but not quite as much as he should have. Early in 43 BCE, when the latter passed through Asia on the way to his own province (engaging in wholesale plunder all along), Trebonius did not permit his entry into the important towns of Pergamum or Smyrna, but, out of respect for his office, he did allow him and his men to gather provisions from Ephesus. All the while, a detachment of Trebonius’s army followed Dolabella. Having done so until nightfall, and seeing no cause for concern in Dolabella’s actions, most of the troops returned to Smyrna, leaving only a few to keep watch on him.
Yet, Dolabella set an ambush for them, captured and killed them, and then turned around unexpectedly and arrived at Smyrna under cover of darkness. His men carefully scaled the walls of the city, secured it for themselves, and even captured Trebonius, sleeping in his bed. One of Dolabella’s centurions, on explicit orders, cut off the head of Trebonius rather than taking him alive and brought it to his commander, who put it on display the following morning on the chair from which Trebonius had delivered his official pronouncements. Dolabella’s soldiers took the rest of the body and furiously attacked it; they also played with his head as though it were a game ball in the streets of the city. A fitting punishment, as they saw it, for the man who had helped to kill Caesar by preventing Marc Antony from coming to his rescue.
The death of Trebonius and the mutilation of his corpse sent a clear signal to the other Conspirators; he was the first of their number to be punished for the killing of Caesar and each of them had to fear such an end now.
The “bronze-bearded” (ahenobarbi) Domitii traced their distinguished lineage at least as far back in Rome’s history as the fifth century BCE. Not all of them possessed the greatest of virtues, but they did share a tendency toward obstinacy and temper and, like many others of the Roman elite, an exalted sense of dignitas. Certainly, these qualities characterized L. Domitius Ahenobarbus, who stood with the Optimates in the Senate against Julius Caesar, challenged the latter through much of his career, confronted him on his invasion of Italy, and fought against him across the empire from southern France to Greece.
According to the famous orator and statesman Cicero, Domitius, even as a young man early on in his political career, held to the moral standards of those senators who styled themselves Optimates. Little is known about that early career, aside from his testimony, in 70 BCE, against Verres, the corrupt Roman governor of Sicily. For this, Cicero praised Domitius as a distinguished young man, first among his peers.
By the summer of 61 BCE, Domitius joined up with the most prominent spokesman of the Optimates, Cato the Younger, to bring two proposals before the Senate regarding bribery. One motion declared as treasonable the sheltering or housing of those who distributed bribes (known as divisores in Latin) among the voters; the other authorized the searching of magistrate’s homes for such individuals. Undoubtedly, these motions targeted the chief adversaries of the Optimates at that time, who were also the men possessing the greatest wealth to spread around through bribery, that is, Pompey, Crassus, and Caesar. Ironically, Domitius’s own comrade, Cato, engaged the very next year in large-scale bribery of the voters to guarantee that his own son-in-law, Bibulus, would gain election to the consulship as a counterweight to Caesar. By the fall of 59 BCE, Domitius found himself implicated in an alleged plot to assassinate Caesar and Pompey, accused by the informer, P. Vettius, of conspiring with the consul Bibulus to do so; Vettius even claimed that the house of Domitius had served as the base of operations for the scheme. Fortunately for Domitius, few believed the accusations, which were probably trumped up by Pompey and Caesar themselves to discredit their opponents.
In the following year, Domitius attained some legal cover through his position as praetor and, together with his colleague Memmius, insisted on holding an inquiry into Caesar’s official misconduct while consul, his blatant disregard of customs and taboos. The Senate as a body refused to take up the matter, so Caesar ignored the praetors’ charges and left Rome for his provincial command. Other proceedings were instituted against him and one of his subordinates, likely all instigated by Domitius, but still these came to nothing.
In the summer of 58 BCE, Domitius attempted to get at Caesar again by standing up for M. Tullius Cicero; the latter had been forced into exile to keep him quiet through the efforts of Caesar and his associates. The plebeian tribune, Clodius, who had orchestrated Cicero’s downfall, found a constitutional means to order Domitius to be silent on the question of Cicero’s recall and the matter of the reconstruction of his house, which had been destroyed at Clodius’s orders.
Undeterred, though obstructed at every turn by the so-called First Triumvirate and its minions, Domitius campaigned relentlessly in 56 BCE for the consulship of the following year, hoping to utilize that office against the opponents of the Optimates. According to the Imperial historian Cassius Dio, Domitius was actively canvassing for votes right up to the very last day before the elections. Another Imperial historian, Appian of Alexandria, asserted that the intention of Domitius in all this was to challenge Pompey; this probably means that, even if Pompey obtained one of the consulships for the upcoming year, Domitius sought to obtain the other and use it as a check on Pompey’s actions and power within the state. Domitius also made clear his intention of removing Julius Caesar from his provincial command. In all this, he had the support of the Optimates in the Senate and especially of their leader, his brother-in-law, Cato.
Caesar had other plans. Pompey and their associate, Crassus, came to meet Caesar at his winter quarters in the town of Luca (modern Lucca) in northern Italy (what Romans referred to as the province of Cisalpine Gaul). Behind the scenes, the three men agreed to cooperate in squeezing Domitius out of the race and obtaining the consulships of 55 for Crassus as well as Pompey.
Even before dawn on the morning of the elections, Domitius arrived in the Campus Martius (Field of Mars) where Roman voters cast their ballots for consuls in the Popular Assembly known as the Comitia Centuriata (Assembly of Centuries). Pompey showed up at about the same time; both men, as was customary, came with a crowd of supporters around them. It did not take long for these hangers-on to begin quarreling, eventually brawling, with one another over their candidates; in the escalating confrontation, one of Domitius’s torch-bearers (recall that it was still dark out when all this took place) was attacked by a follower of Pompey with a sword. Legally, no one was supposed to enter the voting area with weapons, and the fact that one of Pompey’s men was armed suggested that more of them must have had concealed weapons; in fact, Cassius Dio recorded that Publius, the son of Crassus, had brought soldiers from Caesar’s army on furlough to vote in this election, likely secretly armed. Domitius’s entourage melted away and he himself barely escaped to his own home; Cato also escaped, but badly wounded in the right arm as he had tried to delay retreating while also protecting Domitius. Clearly, fair and free elections were not going to happen this time. When the voters assembled, Pompey and Crassus secured both consulships; indeed, they managed to secure many other elective offices for their cronies by the end of the year.
In the elections for the consulships of 54 BCE, however, despite the fact that Crassus and Pompey presided, they were unable to prevent Domitius from securing one of the two positions. His hostility toward Pompey never abated and he unleashed it especially against the latter’s key followers, such as A. Gabinius, who was brought to trial on various charges and forced into exile. Yet, he lost another election important to him thanks to the efforts of Caesar; the latter, despite being far away in his provincial command, worked together with others to deny Domitius the open spot in the priestly college of augurs. Winner of the election was one of Caesar’s chief lieutenants, Marc Antony, making Domitius’s loss an even greater insult. He raged against those who had orchestrated what he considered a travesty and an injustice.
The Optimate members of the Senate pushed for the recall of Caesar from his provincial command and clamored for Domitius to replace him. By this time, Crassus had died fighting the Parthians and Pompey had begun to distance himself from Caesar. When a letter arrived from Caesar insisting on retention of his provincial command until which time as Pompey also laid down his own (so that they would both retire into private life and not pose an imminent threat to one another), the Optimates got their wish; Domitius received the Senate’s mandate to take over Caesar’s provinces and he proceeded to gather forces for that purpose.
Before anyone expected it, however, Caesar had moved with a relatively small force into Italy proper and was on the march toward Rome. By then, Pompey had been selected by the Senate as supreme commander against Caesar’s invasion, but he had retreated from Rome to gather supplies and recruit troops in southern Italy. Domitius had the task of confronting Caesar first. He did not maneuver against him but instead took up position in the town of Corfinium, strategically located on the Via Valeria, a major Roman highway in southern Italy, and at the best crossing for the River Aterno (Aternus). Here, Domitius hoped to halt Caesar and provide Pompey the time he needed to rise up against Caesar.
Caesar could have bypassed Corfinium altogether on his march against Pompey, but he chose not to; he could not allow Domitius to hold such a defiant position against him, one which could have been utilized as a base for enemy operations behind his own line of advance. Domitius’s forces slightly outnumbered those of Caesar, but the latter’s were battle-hardened veterans, while the former’s were fresh recruits from the citizenry of the region. These facts did not deter Domitius, however. He sent some of his troops to destroy the bridge over the Aterno so that Caesar could not use it to cross; the latter’s advanced forces prevented this and chased Domitius’s men back to town. While Caesar’s army camped outside Corfinium, Domitius detailed his troops along the walls, complete with artillery emplacements, and tried to rouse his men to imagine the rewards of victory, to take heart, and to stand firm.
Domitius hoped desperately for military assistance from Pompey, who was only about sixty miles away, and the orator Cicero, in his letters from those days, reveals how he and many other senators hoped for the same. They expected Pompey to concentrate his forces together with those of Domitius and others at Corfinium for the showdown with Caesar. Pompey sent word, however, that he disagreed with Domitius’s strategy of holding Corfinium against Caesar (no matter how brave or patriotic that might have seemed to be), that he had never ordered him to do so, and that he would not now trap himself in that town, too; he criticized Domitius roundly not only for allowing himself and his own force to get stuck but also for not sending on two legions of reinforcements he (Pompey) had requested from Domitius. Pompey urged Domitius to withdraw from Corfinium before it was too late (even if that meant laying open to Caesar the estates of their wealthy comrades in the process) and work toward joining forces in Apulia (modern Puglia). This terribly disheartened Domitius because by waiting for the “hero” Pompey, in whom he had reposed great confidence, he had allowed Caesar the time to flank Corfinium with two military camps, surround it with a rampart and forts, and double the size of his force with new reinforcements. In writing to his friend Atticus on the matter, as news came to him of it, Cicero described Domitius as a fool for having trusted Pompey and criticized the latter for basically deserting the former.
Domitius dared not let on to his own men that they were being abandoned by Pompey to their own devices; the only possible escape, as he saw it, was for himself and those few senators close to him, and he kept this idea secret. The plan was discovered by his troops, however, and after a heated discussion and argument, they decided to hand their untrustworthy commander over to the enemy. A day later, the town of Corfinium received Caesar peacefully and he pardoned all of Domitius’s troops, allowing them to join his own army if they wished; he also permitted Domitius and the other senators with him to go free.
Domitius could have gone into peaceful retirement at that point, but he chose instead to continue the fight against Caesar, his next theater of operations being the defense of Massilia (modern Marseilles) in Gallia Transalpina (modern Provence). In other words, he now proceeded to the provincial command he was supposed to have assumed from Caesar in the first place. An excuse for doing so presented itself in the appeals from the nobility of Massilia, who declared their allegiance to Pompey’s side; the great wealth and powerful fleet of that maritime city could prove tremendous assets in the Civil War and could not be allowed to fall into Caesar’s hands.
The Massiliotes kept Caesar at bay with false negotiations for neutrality until the arrival of Domitius; the oligarchy of the city then handed over its defense to him. Under his orders, they gathered a large store of food and other necessary supplies and commandeered all the vessels in the area for military service. Massilia prepared for a long siege by land and blockade by sea, with which Caesar soon obliged them.
Domitius made his first target the enemy fleet, under the charge of Brutus Albinus, one of Caesar’s most trusted lieutenants. They engaged in difficult and bitter combat in two naval encounters, both sides attempting to maximize their advantages either in maritime skill or fighting prowess. Pompey, finally, came through for Domitius, sending him reinforcement warships all the way from Greece. Domitius also had the full support of the Massiliotes; he called upon every able-bodied man to serve, whether aristocrat or commoner. The remainder of the population did their part as well, by praying to the gods for the success of their fleet. The latter did cause great damage among the enemy vessels, even sinking the flagship of Brutus Albinus (who managed to escape) but were deserted by Pompey’s reinforcements and suffered too many losses of their own to break the blockade.
In the meantime, Caesar’s ground troops, under the command of another of his trusted lieutenants, Trebonius, conducted the siege of Massilia by land. As they erected various devices for that purpose, the Massiliotes, directed by Domitius, attempted to drive the enemy away with artillery fi re and assaults by Gallic warriors armed with firebrands. After some time of this sort of fighting, Trebonius’s sappers undermined and brought down a portion of the defensive wall of Massilia; out of the opening streamed civilians who begged Trebonius for a chance to negotiate peace with Caesar. An uneasy truce ensued, punctuated by skirmishes of differing sorts, until the Massiliotes decided it was, indeed, time to surrender.
Domitius had learned of this decision a few days earlier and prepared ships for his escape. He hoped that inclement weather would deter Brutus Albinus from trying to stop him but that was not the case. Of his three vessels, only his own escaped. Having arrived in Greece, he joined up with Pompey’s main force.
Almost a full year later, Pompey and Caesar fought their major battle at Pharsalus in northern Greece. Up to that moment, Pompey’s three leading lieutenant commanders, Domitius, Metellus Scipio, and Lentulus Spinther, fully expected to destroy Caesar and his army; they had even wasted their time bitterly quarrelling over which of them would succeed Caesar in the post of Pontifex Maximus, the most prestigious priesthood of Rome. Domitius went further in his imaginings about the future; he suggested that, after their victory, the senators who fought on their side should pass judgment on those who stayed out of the conflict or proved useless in it, either exonerating them of wrongdoing, ordering them to pay a fine, or condemning them to death.
Pompey assigned Domitius to command the left wing of his army as it stood to face Caesar’s. The Battle of Pharsalus did not go as Pompey’s side expected. In the turmoil following the victory of Caesar’s troops, Domitius fled the battlefield and headed into the nearby hills for safety. Some of Caesar’s cavalry took off in pursuit and, eventually, captured and killed him.
Having been the first official defender of the Republic against Caesar, Domitius Ahenobarbus carried that duty through to the end of his life. His entire career, in fact, epitomized the determined resistance of the Optimates to the rise of any one senator too far above the others.
Further Reading Carter, J. 1996. Appian: The Civil Wars. New York: Penguin Publishing. Carter, J. 1997. Caesar: The Civil War. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. Foster, H. B. 2010. Dio’s Roman History in Six Volumes. Alvin, TX: Halcyon Press Ltd. Graves, R. 2007. Suetonius: The Twelve Caesars. New York: Penguin Publishing. Greenwood, L. H. G. 1988. Cicero: The Verrine Orations. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Gruen, E. 1974. The Last Generation of the Roman Republic. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. Syme, R. 1939. The Roman Revolution. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press. Wiseman, T. P. 1985. Roman Political Life 90 B. C.-A. D. 69. Exeter, UK: Exeter University Press. Seager, R., and R. Warner. 2006. Plutarch, Fall of the Roman Republic. London and New York: Penguin. Shackleton Bailey, D. R. 1978. Cicero’s Letters to Atticus. New York: Penguin Publishing. Shackleton Bailey, D. R. 1978. Cicero’s Letters to His Friends. New York: Penguin Publishing. Syme, R. 1939. The Roman Revolution. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press. Wiseman, T. P. 1985. Roman Political Life 90 B. C.-A. D. 69. Exeter, UK: Exeter University Press.