Caesar’s Final Campaigns in Gaul I

Caesar’s own narrative ends with the entry of the legions into winter quarters. This seems to imply that he meant to continue his narrative into the following year but the political chaos at Rome and then the civil war intervened and his narrative was never finished. The book covering his last campaign in Gaul is the work of Aulus Hirtius, one of Caesar’s legates, who completed the work at the request of Caesar’s close friend Balbus. Hirtius’s narrative is our best source for the events of this year but does not have the scope or quality of the work of his former commander. This is most clearly visible in his assertion that the Gauls had an overall war plan at the beginning of 51. He claims that the Gallic tribes had decided that a strategy based on confronting the Romans with a single coalition army had failed and that they now adopted an approach in which the Roman army would be faced with too many simultaneous rebellions to respond to all of them. On the face of it this seems highly unlikely. It would demand a level of consultation and planning among the various tribes that seems impossible. It is much more likely that internal political calculations as well as a continuing underestimation of the threat posed by Caesar’s army determined the war-making policy of the individual tribes.

Leaving his quaestor Mark Antony in charge at Bibracte, Caesar on the last day of 52 moved against the Bituriges who had already suffered heavily at Avaricum. He was accompanied by a guard of cavalry and made his way to the Thirteenth Legion under Titus Sextius, which was too small a force to keep the Bituriges under control, and combined it with the Eleventh under Reginus stationed nearby. After leaving two cohorts behind to guard the baggage Caesar advanced with his customary speed and appeared before the Bituriges were aware of his arrival. He sent his cavalry on a wide sweep, capturing many of the Bituriges who, unaware of his coming, were peacefully working in their fields. Those who were warned in time made their escape to neighbouring peoples but Caesar pursued them relentlessly. He cowed the neighbouring tribes, who abandoned their resistance and so deprived the fugitives of any hope of sanctuary. The Bituriges, unable to oppose Caesar, quickly surrendered. As he had in the case of the Arverni and Aedui Caesar treated them leniently. Once the campaign was over Caesar led his men back to their winter quarters after promising a bonus for their service and returned to Bibracte. He had only been there for eighteen days when a delegation from the Bituriges arrived to complain of an attack by the Carnutes. The attack may have been set in motion by Caesar’s own expedition against them: the tribe, which was seriously weakened by his attack, would have been an attractive target for raiding. Caesar responded immediately. A campaign against the Carnutes would make clear the benefits of being a dependent of Rome and at the same time strike at an important centre of resistance in central Gaul. He took the Sixth and Fourteenth Legions, who were stationed near the Saône on logistical duties, and set out to punish the Carnutes.

The Carnutes were already weakened after having suffered severely during the rebellion. The fate of Cenabum and other towns that had fallen to Caesar had persuaded them to abandon a number of their own and seek safety in temporary shelters scattered over the countryside, even though it was winter. Instead of simply letting his soldiers loose to plunder and burn their lands as he had done with the Bituriges, to spare his men constant exposure to the harsh weather Caesar chose Cenabum as his base and sent out cavalry and auxiliary units to ravage the countryside. These raids were extremely effective and the soldiers returned to Cenabum loaded down with booty. The effects of the weather and the plundering expeditions proved too much for the Carnutes who fled to the neighbouring peoples after suffering greatly.

After these campaigns Caesar considered that there was little threat of any large-scale resistance except among the Belgae. The Bellovaci and their neighbours were planning an attack on the Suessiones, a client of the Remi who lived near modern Soissons. It was less the fate of the Suessiones that concerned him than that of their patrons the Remi. They had been consistently loyal to the Romans even during the rebellion of the year before and had been an important source of supplies for the army. In addition to practical considerations it was absolutely essential that he be seen to offer effective protection to those tribes that supported him. Leaving two legions at Cenabum to keep watch on the Carnutes under Trebonius, he assembled a force of four legions to confront the Bellovaci.

Once he arrived in their territory he sent out cavalry to reconnoitre and to collect prisoners to question about the Bellovaci’s plans. They revealed that most of the tribe had fled except for a few scouts who were captured and brought back to camp. From them Caesar learned that the Bellovaci had assembled a coalition of tribes to oppose him including the Ambiani, the Aulerci, the Caletes, the Veliocasses and the Atrebates. The coalition army had chosen to camp in a naturally strong location on high ground covered with trees and surrounded by a marsh. Their heavy baggage had been hidden out of sight deep in the forests. The precise location is unknown but it was probably in the forest of Compiègne near the town of the same name close to the confluence of the Rivers Aisne and Oise. The Belgae had several leaders but the most important were Correus of the Bellovaci who had earlier conducted successful guerrilla operations against the Romans, and Commius who had served Caesar well in Britain and had been made king of the Atrebates by him but who had joined the revolt and had been one of its major commanders. Commius had sought support from nearby German groups and brought back about 500 cavalry. The Bellovaci and their allies had developed a dual strategy depending on the number of troops Caesar brought against them. If he came with a force no larger than three legions (about 15,000 men) they would face him in battle, but if he had a larger army they would stay in their easily defended position and try to cut off his supplies as Vercingetorix had planned to do. The scarcity of grain and forage in winter would probably have made this an easier task than it had been in the summer of the previous year. Although Caesar does not specify the size of the enemy force, given their plans that might have been perhaps 30,000 men.

The strength of the confederates’ position prompted Caesar to devise a plan to draw them out. If they would engage a force of three legions he would try to persuade them that that was the total of his forces. He placed his three most effective legions, the Seventh, Eighth and Ninth, at the head of the column preceding the baggage, while he positioned the Eleventh at the rear to give the enemy the impression that he only had three legions with him. Perhaps he remembered the attack launched by many of these tribes on his column nearly six years before. His marching formation could be easily reformed to repel an attack or deploy for battle. The Belgae at the approach of the legions, which seemed to be ready for battle, drew up in front of their camp but did not move down from higher ground. They did not engage nor did Caesar, who was surprised at the size of the Gallic force. His plan had failed. He pitched camp facing the enemy with a deep, narrow valley in between. His camp was heavily fortified, with a 12 feet (3.6m) rampart surmounted by a parapet and fronted by a double ditch 15 feet (4.5m) wide with perpendicular sides. These were far more impressive fortifications than the normal marching Roman camp in the field. In addition, towers were constructed on the ramparts with gangways running between them so that the troops would be able to throw missiles at the enemy from two different levels. These defences could be held by a comparatively small garrison, a necessity at this time of year since a number of soldiers were needed for foraging.

Both sides were active and there were often skirmishes between Roman auxiliaries and the Belgae. Nonetheless the Gallic strategy of attacking the foragers was effective. The scarcity of supplies meant that Roman foraging parties were widely spread and that left them vulnerable to attack. The only obvious solution for Caesar was a direct attack on the Gallic camp but the Gauls kept to their camp and the natural strength of the site meant that if he did attack the camp directly he might not succeed and suffer heavy losses. Clearly this was a much more difficult campaign than the relatively easy victories over the Bituriges and Carnutes. He summoned three more legions to join him as quickly as possible. In addition, to defend against the raids on his foraging parties he ordered the Remi, Lingones and other Gallic states to supply additional cavalry. The Belgae set up an ambush using one of the oldest of all tactical tricks. They lured the cavalry of the Remi into the trap by placing a few horsemen where the Remi would easily see them and when the Remi attacked these men they fled back to the much larger cavalry force posted in ambush. The Remi were encircled and sustained heavy casualties.

The attacks and the skirmishing continued until the Bellovaci learned of the approach of the additional legions. The siege of Alesia was still fresh in their minds. They began organizing an evacuation of their camp. The heavy baggage and non-combatants were to form the head of their column, to be followed by their troops. The column was originally scheduled to depart during the night but the need to organize the wagons delayed the column’s departure until dawn, when their preparations were now visible to the Romans. To protect the rear of the column they formed up their infantry in front of their camp facing the Romans. Anxious to stop the enemy’s withdrawal Caesar reconnoitred the marsh and discover a ridge that almost stretched across it to the enemy camp. Only a narrow depression separated it from the enemy’s camp. It is not clear why the ridge had not been found earlier. It may be that the enemy had stationed troops there that hid it from the Romans. Caesar had boards laid over the marsh and quickly crossed it and moved up to the plateau at the top of the ridge. There he drew up the legions in battle formation and set up artillery, as the enemy was still in range.

The Gauls, confident in the natural strength of their position, were ready to give battle. Caesar was equally aware of it so instead of attacking he drew up a screen of twenty cohorts (two legions) and began to build a camp. Once this was completed he posted the cohorts and cavalry with their horses at the ready. Caesar’s new camp created a serious problem for the Bellovaci. They had had to halt their withdrawal as they were afraid that if they began withdrawing the Romans would attack them as they did so. They hit upon a plan to disguise their withdrawal. They collected bundles of straw and piles of twigs and placed them in front of their camp facing the Romans. When they were ready to move they set them alight. Their movements were hidden by the fire and smoke. They withdrew as quickly as they could. The fire and smoke also held the Romans back. Their cavalry was uncertain about what was waiting for them on the other side of the blaze, fearing a possible ambush, and the smoke so obscured their vision that they could not move forward. The Gauls were able to withdraw ten miles in safety and pitched another camp in a second naturally strong position. Despite Caesar‘s claim that they retreated in disorder it is clear that they had executed a well thought out and successful plan. Once in place at their new position they renewed their attacks on Roman foraging parties.

Once again Caesar’s intelligence gathering served him well. He learned that one of their leaders, Correus, had assembled a force 6,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry to set an ambush near an area rich in grain and forage. Caesar hurried to the spot, sending his cavalry ahead with light-armed infantry dispersed among them, and then cautiously following with the legions. The cavalry and light-armed would screen his approach and would be taken by the enemy for a normal foraging party. The place that the Gauls had chosen for an ambush was an isolated valley that extended no more than a mile in any direction and was ringed by a river and forests. The Roman cavalry advanced into it and the Gauls sprung their trap. With the knowledge that the legions were coming up in support the cavalry fought well and for a long time both sides were evenly matched. Then the pendulum began to swing in the Romans’ favour as both sides became aware of the legions’ approach. Their arrival was decisive. The Bellovaci turned and fled, but the woods and river created a death trap. They prevented easy escape and more than half their force was lost during the flight, including Correus. After such a heavy defeat Caesar feared that the Gauls would once again retreat. Knowing that their camp lay only 7 miles (11.6km) away on the other side of the Oise he brought his troops across it and hurried to confront them.

The defeat proved too much for the Bellovaci, who opened negotiations for surrender. They argued that the loss of so many men had been punishment enough for them and they blamed the revolt on Correus, who was now conveniently dead. Caesar recognized the falsity of their second argument but decided that clemency was preferable to continued fighting. The Gauls persuaded the other rebel states to join in the surrender and spare Caesar the trouble of further campaigning. Commius had escaped and remained irreconcilable. Before the rebellion of the previous year he had been agitating among various tribes to restart the revolt. Labienus had discovered this and sent a unit of soldiers to assassinate him. The attempt failed but it ended any possibility of reconciliation. Later in 51, as winter approached, Commius and his men had fought a skirmish with Roman cavalry that was indecisive. But he had not given up hope of inciting his fellow Atrebates to rise in rebellion. Meanwhile, he used his cavalry to launch a number of raids on Roman supply convoys. Antony, the legate stationed in the area, dispatched a cavalry unit in pursuit and finally, after a number of skirmishes, Commius was defeated, although at some cost. Seeing no hope of success he entered into negotiations with the Romans. He handed over hostages and was ordered to remain where he was and follow orders in the future. Commius asked one thing in return: that he might never again have to look on another Roman, and Antony granted him his wish.

Major opposition was now crushed but many of the Gauls were still not reconciled to the new dispensation. To deal with the continuing resistance Caesar dispatched Fabius with twenty-five cohorts to support the two under-strength legions under the command of Rebilus in the land of the Pictones south of the Loire, in what later formed part of the province of Aquitania. The Fifteenth Legion, which had been with Labienus in winter quarters, was sent to Cisalpine Gaul to guard against attacks on the citizen colonies. Caesar feared a repeat of an attack launched in the previous summer against the settlement of Tergeste in Illyria (modern Trieste) and he remembered the attempt in 52 to invade the province.

Caesar now turned his attention to Ambiorix and the Eburones. Ambiorix had been one of his most consistent and unyielding opponents. He had been behind the destruction of Cotta and Sabinus in 54 and had sought to forge an alliance of Belgic tribes, including the Treveri, to oppose the Romans. A number of attempts to capture him had all ended in failure. This would seem to indicate that he could draw on substantial support from his own people. Unable to capture him, Caesar determined on a strategy that would make the price of supporting him too costly. He sent out columns consisting of legionaries and cavalry to ravage the lands of the tribe and to kill or capture as many of the Eburones as possible. Labienus was sent with two legions against the Treveri, who had as usual been unwilling to meet Roman demands and had operated with Ambiorix in 54. Labienus defeated the Treveri and their German allies in a cavalry battle. Despite the devastation inflicted on the Eburones and the defeat of the Treveri Ambiorix was never taken prisoner.

The subjugation of Aquitania in 57 by Crassus had been incomplete and events there were affected by the rebellion in central and the northern Gaul. A large rebel force had gathered in the land of the Pictones and part of it under a leader of the Andes, Dumnacus, was laying siege to the town of Lemonum (Poitiers), held by the pro-Roman Duratius. Learning of the siege, Rebilus set out to bring help. Nearing the town and reluctant to face the enemy with a weak force he camped in a secure location. When Dumnacus learned of his arrival he broke off the siege and turned to attack the Romans. His assault ended in failure and resulted in heavy casualties; he abandoned the attack and turned back to renew his siege of the town.

While these events were taking place another legate, Fabius, had been in action nearby and had received the submission of a number of tribes. Rebilus informed Fabius of the attack on Lemonum and Fabius set out to lift the siege. As he approached, Dumnacus and his army withdrew over the Loire. Fabius, informed by locals about the route of Dumnacus’s retreat, decided to follow the rebels. Reaching a bridge over the Loire they had used he crossed and sent out his cavalry in pursuit. They caught up with the enemy column while it was still in marching formation and inflicted a severe defeat on it, but despite the losses the Andes continued their withdrawal. The next night Fabius sent his cavalry on ahead to slow the progress of the column. They met stiff resistance as the Andes’ cavalry knew that their infantry was coming up in support. The Romans began to also attack the infantry who had formed a battle line. This was not sound tactics as cavalry usually could not successfully break infantry in formation. Its main effect was to fix the enemy column, which was exactly what Fabius had intended. The battle was not going well for the Roman cavalry when the legions came into view. The Gauls had been unaware of their presence and their sudden appearance created a panic among them. Their formation dissolved and many were killed during the pursuit: 12,000 died and their baggage train fell into Roman hands.

Dumnacus survived the defeat and remained at large. There was still the possibility that he could cause further trouble among the tribes that had joined the rebellion but had not been defeated. Fabius moved quickly and the opposition collapsed. Even the Carnutes, who had caused the Roman so much trouble and had never yet surrendered, finally did so. Dumnacus had now become a liability to the Gauls and had to seek safety in flight.

Caesar’s Final Campaigns in Gaul II

Other problems remained. A Senonian chief named Drappes had mustered a small army of 2,000 survivors from Fabius’s campaign and was moving on the province. He had already launched successful attacks on Roman supply convoys. He had been joined by Lucterius the Cadurcan, who had tried to launch a similar attack in 52 but had failed. Rebilus set out in pursuit with his two legions, which were more than sufficient to deal with the small enemy force. The arrival of Rebilus put an end to any hope of invading the province and the two Gallic chieftains halted in the territory of the Cadurci and seized control of the town of Uxellodunum in the modern Dordogne, its identification being uncertain.

Rebilus pursued them there but the capture of the town presented serious difficulties. It was perched on a sheer rock cliff with limited access. Storming it was impossible so that the only practical alternative was to starve it out. Rebilus, dividing his cohorts into three groups, constructed a camp for each of them and then as quickly as he could he began construction of a circumvallation linking the camps and enclosing the town. The sight of the construction of the siege wall stirred memories of Alesia and the other Gallic towns that the Romans had taken among the troops and townspeople. A plan was needed to maintain the town’s grain supply. Two thousand troops remained to defend the town while light-armed infantry was sent out under the command of Drapes and Lucterius to bring in grain while this was still possible. Within a few days a large amount of grain had been collected and the Gauls set up camp about ten miles from the town. Meanwhile, they launched night attacks on various forts that brought the construction of the siege wall to a halt, as Rebilus had too few soldiers to adequately man it and defend against the attacks.

Drappes and Lucterius planned to send small grain convoys to the town in order to avoid detection. They divided their responsibilities between them; Drappes stayed to guard the camp while Lucterius took charge of conveying the grain. Lucterius set out at night to avoid detection but the noise of the wagons alerted the Romans, who sent out scouts who returned and informed Rebilus of what the enemy was doing. Cohorts were dispatched from the nearest forts at dawn and attacked the convoy. The unexpected assault threw the Gauls in the convoy into a panic and they fled back to the guard posts that Lucterius had established along the route. The Romans made short work of these and few of the enemy survived. Lucterius managed to escape with a few men but did not return to camp. This was a stroke of luck for Rebilus, as the Gauls in the camp were unaware of the fate of Lucterius and the convoy. He sent his cavalry ahead along with German infantry who advanced at full speed and followed up with one of his legions. He left the other to guard his own camp and the newly-constructed fortifications. The Germans and the rest of the cavalry launched a vigorous attack on the enemy camp and then the appearance of the legionaries completed the rout. The camp was taken and all of the Gauls were either killed or captured. Drappes was among the prisoners. No longer facing external threats, Rebilus now turned his full attention to the siege of the town.

While this was happening Caesar was making a progress among the rebellious tribes. He left Antony with fifteen cohorts among the Bellovaci to watch Belgica. At this point he received letters from Rebilus informing him of the fate of Lucterius and Drappes and the progress of the siege. He also informed Caesar that although the force in the town was small it was putting up a determined resistance.

Caesar now decided to put an end to all opposition. It was not the importance of Uxellodunum that mattered but the fact that in holding out against him it could serve as a potent symbol of continued Gallic resistance. His failure at Gergovia in 52 had helped ignite the great rebellion and he was determined that there should be no repetition of it. He decided to act immediately. He ordered his legate Calenus to follow him with two legions and raced ahead with all of his cavalry to Uxellodunum.

When Caesar arrived he found the town enclosed by the Roman siege works. The problem that confronted him was how to avoid a protracted siege that would set back other projects, especially as his political position at Rome was becoming more precarious and resistance elsewhere in Gaul had not yet been suppressed. Since the town was well-supplied with grain Caesar turned his attention to cutting off its water supply. A river ran around the base of the hill on which the town sat and served as its water supply. The obvious course was to divert the stream but the nature of the ground made that option impossible. The river also presented difficulties for the besieged. The way down to it was steep and exposed to missile attack. Archers and slingers and artillery were posted covering the easiest approaches to the river. It now became too dangerous to use.

There was another source of water, a spring beneath the town walls that was made use of now that access to the river was cut off. It flowed out at a point where there was an area of about 300 feet that the river did not enclose. Caesar now moved to deprive the Gauls of that water supply as well. Soldiers brought up moveable shelters to protect themselves and began to build an earthwork, although they were subject to constant attack during the construction. The Gauls’ missiles often found their mark as they were thrown down from the town walls. The Romans also began digging mines towards the water channels that fed the spring and its source. Construction of the earthwork stopped when it had reached a height of 60 feet so that it now loomed over the spring. A tenstorey tower was mounted on it, as well as catapults to cover the spring. As it was now too dangerous for the townspeople to approach the spring they began to suffer from thirst.

Their only way to end their torment was to destroy the tower and ramp. They launched a fierce attack trying to set the tower on fire. They pressed the Romans hard and inflicted a number of casualties. To divert the attackers Caesar ordered his troops to climb the hill encircling the town and to pretend to mount a general attack on the walls. The ruse worked. The Gauls recalled their men to defend the walls and ended their attacks on the tower. The Roman mines had now reached the spring’s sources and its flow was diverted. Resistance was now hopeless and the town surrendered. This time Caesar’s clemency was hardly in evidence: he decided on judicious use of terror to deter those still holding out. He ordered that the hands of all those who had fought were to be cut off.

All that now remained in central and northern Gaul were mopping up operations. These were successfully carried out. Labienus won a cavalry engagement with the Treveri and their German allies. He captured the leaders of the revolt and all resistance ended.

Caesar then turned his attention to Aquitania in the south-west where he had never campaigned. His appearance had the desired effect; all of the tribes sent delegations and turned over hostages. All open resistance was now at an end. He turned south to the province and to Narbo its administrative centre. There he heard cases arising from the rebellion and distributed rewards to those who had supported Rome. Caesar once more claims that Gaul had now been pacified and this time he was correct. He sent his legions into winter quarters; four were posted to Belgica to watch for unrest, two were quartered among the Aedui, another two among the Turones who bordered the Carnutes, and the final two on the borders of the Arverni. After completing his business in the province Caesar moved north-east to join his legions in Belgica and wintered at Nemetocenna (modern Arras in the Pas de Calais). Although Gaul was finally at peace the Roman conquest was so recent and the area so large that further revolts remained a possibility. Caesar was especially concerned about this as the situation at Rome grew worse. He adopted a policy of reconciliation with the Gauls and made a special effort to win over the nobles and chiefs who controlled Gallic society with large cash payments.

At the end of winter 51/50 Caesar headed to Cisalpine Gaul to canvass for his quaestor Antony, who was standing for a priesthood. By the time he reached the province he heard that Antony had been elected at the end of September. This was good news as Cato and his enemies were intensifying their attacks. With the problem of Antony’s candidacy resolved Caesar spent his time making a circuit of the communities there to garner support for his own candidacy for the consulship of 49. In addition, Cisalpina was the most prolific recruiting area in Italy. If it came to civil war it was crucial for Caesar to have its support. He then returned to Nemetocenna and conducted a purification of his army, signalling the end of campaigning in Gaul.

The conquest of Gaul north of the old province and extending from the Atlantic to the Rhine was due solely to Caesar. His motivations were those of any other Roman noble in his position: wealth and military glory. The need for both was particularly pressing when Caesar arrived in Gaul in 58. He had obtained his command in Cisalpine Gaul and Illyricum in the face of intense opposition and hatred. His finances were in terrible shape and his creditors barely allowed him out of Rome. Without adequate funds he could not compete politically; Cato and his friends would, if given the chance, politically isolate and destroy him. The triumvirate on whose support he relied was unstable. There was the intense jealousy between Pompey and Crassus that constantly threatened to tear it apart. Pompey, whom Caesar’s enemies found the most acceptable of the three and who eventually moved into the camp of Cato, remained a constant worry for Caesar. Pompey was the most intractable of all of Caesar’s problems. His conquests in the east and his other military successes had given him a status that even his political ineptitude did little to undermine. Caesar needed an arena in which to equal Pompey’s achievements and Gaul provided it.

The addition of Transalpine Gaul to Caesar’s province was merely an afterthought brought about by the fortuitous death of the man who was to have governed the province. It is likely that Caesar had hoped to launch a campaign in Illyricum but the events of 58 changed that. The movements of the Helvetii and the threat of Ariovistus drew Caesar north. In both instances it could be argued that he was protecting Roman interests. The Helvetii did pose a threat to the province and the Aedui as Roman allies had to be protected for the sake of Rome’s prestige if nothing else. The stationing of the legions in the north during the winter of 58/57 was a clear indication that Caesar had adopted a policy of conquest that probably even this early included all of continental Gaul. The area was large enough to allow for extensive campaigning and conquest. Just as importantly, it was agriculturally rich and would offer the prospect of immense amounts of booty. Imperial expansion was a virtue, as it had always been for the Roman ruling class, and here was a vast field in which to exercise it. Political and personal rewards that came with it exerted a magnetic attraction. This explains the two British expeditions of 55 and 54, which were hardly serious attempts to subjugate Britain but brought Caesar a twenty-day thanksgiving and increased his popularity at Rome. The bridge over the Rhine in 55 was a similar undertaking as well as his raids into Germany, which yielded little of practical value. The conquest of all of Gaul north and west of the old province was not a strategic necessity but the product of Caesar’s personality, his needs and desires.

Caesar’s success resulted from a combination of superior Roman equipment, technique and logistics, and Caesar’s individual qualities as a general. Perhaps the most important ingredient was his ability to win and then keep his men’s loyalties. A noticeable feature of Gallic War is the frequent praise for the common soldier and in particular of centurions, who are often mentioned by name and whose individual exploits receive extensive narration. Caesar maintained his bonds with them by a judicious use of favours and rewards. But it is clear both from his own work and that of other writers that his personal bravery and willingness to share the hardships of his men were crucial ingredients in maintaining their loyalty.

His speed of movement was astonishing and time and again he arrived earlier than his opponents thought possible. It was a virtue that could sometimes get him in to trouble, as it did during his first expedition to Britain and as it was later to do in 46 when he landed in Africa with an inadequate force during the civil war. In addition, Caesar had a marvellous ability to discern the enemy’s weaknesses and to devise tactics that capitalized on it. During the rebellion of 52 he deceived Vercingetorix, whom he misled by sending troops ahead who successfully convinced the Gallic commander that the Romans had moved up river and so was able to cross the Allier River without opposition.

At Uxellodunum he saw that the water supply was the key to taking the town and devised tactics that cut off access to it. He personally suffered only one serious defeat, at Gergovia. The first British expedition was a minor failure but his other reverses such as the fifteen cohorts lost with Cotta and Sabinus during the winter of 54 or Galba’s failure in the Alps in 57 were not primarily his fault. He possessed a military machine far more effective than any Gallic army he faced and he used it with great daring and skill.

The conquest of Gaul was more than the product of military force. Crucial to Caesar’s success was his ability to forge ties with the Gallic elite. He built up links to the leading men in each of the Gallic communities. In return for their support he conferred benefits upon them and solidified their position within their own tribes. Perhaps the most striking example was Diviciacus among the Aedui who not only supported Caesar but gave him valuable military intelligence. There were others as well such as the Nervian Vertico or the two leading men among the Remi, Iccius and Andecomborius. Caesar was not always successful in his choices. The most striking example is that of Commius, who Caesar made king of the Atrebates in 57 but who later joined the great rebellion in 52 and then, when it failed, fled to Britain. Other men he supported were either unpopular or murdered by their political enemies, such as Tasgetius of the Carnutes who had loyally supported Caesar who raised him to the kingship. His unpopularity among his fellow tribesmen, as well as political rivalry with other nobles, led to Tasgetius’s assassination. There are other cases as well. But one of the key ingredients of Caesar’s success was his ability to often pick the right Gallic notables and establish lasting ties with them that endured after Caesar left Gaul.

The cost of the campaigns in human life and in the devastation of large areas of Gaul was high. We have little information about Roman losses. There are only occasional references such as the 700 legionaries and forty-six centurions killed in the siege of Gergovia, or the fifteen cohorts or approximately 6,000 men lost with Cotta and Sabinus in 54. Eight years of campaigning, often under difficult conditions, must have taken their toll. The ancient sources do preserve figures for Gallic losses but they vary greatly and their value is uncertain. Plutarch claims that Caesar took 800 towns and conquered 300 tribes. He adds that Caesar faced 3,000,000 men in battle and killed 1,000,000 while taking the same number prisoner. Other sources give 400,000 and approximately 200,000. Probably the latter figures are nearer the truth, although in no case do we know how these writers arrived at their figures, which all refer to combatants. The higher figures may reflect at least in order of magnitude the total of civilian and military casualties including those sold into slavery. The only precise figure we have is for the 53,000 Atuatuci sold into slavery, but such sales are frequently mentioned in Gallic War and the numbers must have been substantial. The devastation certainly led to starvation, which was fatal for many, the Carnutes being an obvious example. It is likely that the total of civilian casualties greatly outnumbered those killed in the fighting.

Before January 49 when the civil war began and Caesar moved to confront his enemies in Italy, he had already begun the work of turning Gaul into a province. He set a relatively-low level of tribute for the new province, which probably reflected the loss and destruction that his years of campaigning had caused.8 Gaul was a relatively unimportant backwater in the four years that the civil war lasted. No major battles were fought there and there were no major actions, except for the siege of the city of Massilia (Marseille), which chose to side with Pompey and which Caesar besieged on his march to Spain in 49. After a courageous and ingenious defence it fell to Caesar’s legate Trebonius and was leniently treated. The major battles of the civil war took place in Spain, Africa and the East. What is striking is the lack of any large-scale resistance after Caesar’s departure.

Gothic Incursions

Map of the Gothic invasions of 267–269 AD (according to the two invasions theory)

The Goths had a momentous impact on Roman history, appearing as if out of nowhere in the early decades of the third century. When we first meet them, it is in the company of other barbarians who, together, made devastating incursions into the eastern provinces of the Roman empire. The mid third century, particularly from the 240s till the early 300s, was an era of constant civil war between Roman armies, civil war that in turn encouraged barbarian invasions. Contact with the Roman empire, and particularly with the Roman army, had helped to militarize barbarian society, and opportunistic raids all along the imperial frontiers exploited Roman divisions and distraction in the civil wars. When the Goths first appear, it is in this world of civil war and invasion. Unfortunately for the modern historian, it is not always easy to distinguish third-century Goths from other barbarians. The problem stems from the way ancient writers talked about barbarians in general and the Goths in particular.

‘Scythians’ and Goths

To the Greek authors who wrote about them, the Goths were ‘Scythians’ and that is the name used almost without exception to describe them. The name ‘Scythian’ is very ancient, drawn from the histories of Herodotus, which were written in the fifth century B.C. and dealt with the Greek world at the time of the Persian Wars. For Herodotus, the Scythians were outlandish barbarians living north of the Black Sea in what are now Moldova and Ukraine. They lived on their horses, they ate their meat raw, they dressed in funny ways, and they were quintessentially alien not just to the world of the Greeks, but even to other barbarians nearer to the Greek world. Greek historical writing, like much of Greek literary culture, was intensely conservative of old forms, and canonized certain authors as perfect models to which later writers had to conform. Herodotus was one such canonical author and his history was regularly used as a template by later Greek historians. In practice, this meant that authors writing 500 or 1,000 years after Herodotus talked about the world of their own day in exactly the same language, and with exactly the same vocabulary, as he had used all those centuries before.

For Greek writers of the third, fourth and fifth centuries A.D., barbarians who came from the regions in which Herodotus had placed the Scythians were themselves Scythians in a very real sense. It was not just that classicizing language gave a new group of people an old name; the Greeks and Romans of the civilized imperial world really did believe in an eternal barbarian type that stayed essentially the same no matter what particular name happened to be current for a given tribe at any particular time. And so the Goths, when they first appear in our written sources, are Scythians – they lived where the Scythians had once lived, they were the barbarian mirror image of the civilized Greek world as the Scythians had been, and so they were themselves Scythians. Classicizing Greek histories often provide the most complete surviving accounts of third- and fourth-century events, and the timelessness of their vocabulary can interpose a real barrier between the events they describe and our understanding of them. However, the testimony of our classicizing texts sometimes overlaps with that of less conservative writings that employ a more current vocabulary. Because of such overlaps, we can sometimes tell when actions ascribed to Scythians in some sources were undertaken by people whom contemporaries called Goths.

The Earliest Gothic Incursions

Because of this complicated problem of names in the sources, we cannot say with any certainty when the Goths began to impinge upon the life of the Roman empire, let alone precisely why they did so. The first securely attested Gothic raid into the empire took place in 238, when Goths attacked Histria on the Black Sea coast and sacked it; an offer of imperial subsidy encouraged their withdrawal. In 249, two kings called Argaith and Guntheric (or possibly a single king called Argunt) sacked Marcianople, a strategically important city and road junction very near the Black Sea. In 250, a Gothic king called Cniva crossed the Danube at the city of Oescus and sacked several Balkan cities, Philippopolis – modern Plovdiv in Bulgaria – the most significant. Philippopolis lies to the south of the Haemus range, the chain of mountains which runs roughly east-west and separates the Aegean coast and the open plains of Thrace from the Danube valley. The fact that Cniva and his army could spend the winter ensconced in the Roman province south of the mountains gives us some sense of his strength, which is confirmed by the events of 251. In that year, Cniva routed the army of the emperor Decius at Abrittus. Decius had persecuted Christians, and Lactantius, a Christian apologist of the early fourth century, recounts with great relish how Decius ‘was at once surrounded by barbarians and destroyed with a large part of his army. He could not even be honoured with burial, but – despoiled and abandoned as befitted an enemy of God – he lay there, food for beasts and carrion-birds’.

The Black Sea Raids

Gothic raids in Thrace continued in the 250s, and seaborne raids, launched from the northern Black Sea against coastal Asia Minor, began for the first time. What role Goths played in these latter attacks is unclear, as is their precise chronology. The first seaborne incursions, which took place at an uncertain date between 253 and 256, are attributed to Boranoi. This previously unknown Greek word may not refer to an ethnic or political group at all, but may instead mean simply ‘people from the north’. Goths did certainly take part in a third year’s seaborne raids, the most destructive yet. Whereas the Boranoi had damaged sites like Pityus and Trapezus that were easily accessible from the sea, the attacks of the third year reached deep into the provinces of Pontus and Bithynia, affecting famous centres of Greek culture like Prusa and Apamea, and major administrative sites like Nicomedia. A letter by Gregory Thaumaturgus – the ‘Wonderworker’ – casts unexpected light on these attacks. Gregory was bishop of Neocaesarea, a large city in the province of Pontus, and his letter sets out to answer the questions church leaders must confront in the face of war’s calamities: can the good Christian still pray with a woman who has been kidnapped and raped by barbarians? Should those who use the invasions as cover to loot their neighbours’ property be excommunicated? What about those who simply appropriate the belongings of those who have disappeared? Those who seize prisoners who have escaped their barbarian captors and put them to work? Or, worse still, those who ‘have been enrolled amongst the barbarians, forgetting that they were men of Pontus and Christians’, those, in other words, who have ‘become Goths and Boradoi to others’ because ‘the Boradoi and Goths have committed acts of war upon them’.

Ten years later, these assaults were repeated. Cities around the coast of the Black Sea were assaulted, not just those on the coast of Asia Minor, but Balkan sites like Tomi and Marcianople. With skillful seamanship, a barbarian fleet was able to pass from the Black Sea into the Aegean, carrying out lightning raids on islands as far south as Cyprus and Rhodes. Landings on the Aegean coasts of mainland Greece led to fighting around Thessalonica and in Attica, where Athens was besieged but defended successfully by the historian Dexippus, who would later write an account of these Gothic wars called the Scythica. Though only fragments of this work survive, Dexippus was a major source for the fifth- or early sixth-century New History of Zosimus, which survives in full and is now our best evidence for the third-century Gothic wars. As Zosimus shows us, several imperial generals and emperors – Gallienus, his general Aureolus, the emperors Claudius and Aurelian – launched counterattacks which eventually brought this phase of Gothic violence to an end. Gothic defeat in 268 ended the northern Greek raids, while Claudius won a smashing and much celebrated victory at Naissus, modern Niš, in 270.

Aurelian and a Problematic Source

In 271, after another Gothic raid across the Danube had ended in the sack of several Balkan cities, the emperor Aurelian (r. 270–275) launched an assault across the river that probably had considerable success. Aurelian was an extremely capable soldier, and one who spent his five-year reign in continuous motion from one end of the empire to the other, rarely out of the saddle, and rarely pausing between campaigns. A Gothic war is entirely in keeping with the evidence for Aurelian’s movements, and a late fourth-century collection of imperial biographies which we call the Historia Augusta records that Aurelian defeated and captured a Gothic king named Cannobaudes. Here, however, we run into the sort of problem with the sources that we will encounter more than once in the pages that follow. The Historia Augusta is the only Latin source we have for large chunks of third-century history, and even where it refers to events known from Greek historians, it often preserves details that they do not. If it could be trusted, its circumstantial and anecdotal content would be invaluable. Unfortunately, the whole work is heavily fictionalized, its anonymous author sometimes using older – and now lost – texts as a jumping off point for invention, sometimes making things up out of thin air. The biographies of late third-century emperors are the least reliable part of the work, and some of them contain no factual data at all. For that reason, even though he appears in many modern histories of the Goths, we cannot be entirely sure that this Gothic Cannobaudes was a real historical figure.

In this case, however, we are able to confirm at least part of the Historia Augusta’s testimony from another type of evidence altogether, because inscriptions make clear that Aurelian did definitely campaign against Goths. From a very early stage in Roman history, whenever a Roman general won a victory over a neighbouring people, he would add the name of that people to his own name, as a victory title. When the Roman Republic gave way to the one-man rule of the empire, the honour of such victory titles was reserved for the emperor, and whether he won a victory personally, or whether a general won it in his name, it was the emperor alone who took the victory title. In this way, a Persian campaign would allow the emperor to add the title Persicus, a campaign against the Carpi would make the emperor Carpicus, and so on. Since these victory titles became part of the emperor’s name, they were included in the many different types of inscriptions, official and unofficial, that referred to the emperor. This provides a wealth of information for the modern historian, because victory titles often attest campaigns that are not mentioned by any other source. Thus we will sometimes be able to refer to a particular emperor’s Gothic campaign only because an inscription happens to preserve the victory title Gothicus – as in the present case, Aurelian’s use of the name shows that he did in fact fight against the Goths and felt able to portray that campaign as a success. We can also infer that success from the fact that his Gothic victory was still remembered a hundred years later, and from the rather limited evidence for Gothic raids in the decades immediately following his reign: although we hear of more seaborne raids in the mid-270s that penetrated beyond Pontus deep into Cappadocia and Cilicia, after that Goths disappear from the record until the 290s, by which time major changes had taken place in the empire itself.

Explaining the Third-Century Invasions 

As the past few pages have demonstrated, the earliest evidence for Gothic invasions of the empire is not well enough attested to allow for much analysis, but that does not mean we should underestimate its impact. The letter of Gregory Thaumaturgus gives us a rare glimpse into just how traumatic the repeated Gothic raids into Asia Minor and other Greek provinces could be. But it does not answer basic questions of causation: what drove these Gothic raids, what made them a repeated phenomenon? The Graeco-Roman sources are content to explain barbarian attacks on the empire with an appeal to the fundamentals of nature itself: to attack civilization is just what barbarians do. That sort of essentialist explanation can hardly be enough for us. Rather, we need to seek explanations in the historical context. Now it happens that the third century was a period of massive change in the Roman empire, which saw the culmination of social and political developments that had been set in motion by the expansion of the Roman empire in the course of the first and second centuries A.D. Against this background, the first appearance of the Goths and the Gothic raids of the third century become comprehensible. Roman expansion had transformed the shape of Europe and the Mediterranean basin. It affected not just the many people who became Romans for the first time, but also the political constitution of the empire and even the many different peoples who lived along the imperial frontiers. One by-product of these changes was a cycle of internal political violence in the third-century empire that produced and then exacerbated the instability of the imperial frontiers.

The Roman empire had been a monarchy since the end of the first century B.C., when Augustus (r. 27 B.C.–A.D. 14), the grand-nephew and adoptive heir of Julius Caesar, put an end to a full generation of civil war that had ripped the Roman Republic apart. Augustus brought peace to the empire, but it came at the expense of the free competition amongst the Roman elite that had created a Roman empire to begin with. In its place, Augustus founded an imperial dynasty that lasted until A.D. 68. By that year, when the regime of the detested emperor Nero collapsed and he himself committed suicide, three generations had passed since the end of the Republic. The imperial constitution was fully entrenched – what mattered most was the relationship of the emperor to the powerful clans of the Roman elite, particularly the senatorial families of Rome itself, who now competed amongst themselves for the emperor’s favour and the offices and honours it bestowed. Until 68, emperors had been made at Rome, and loyalty to the dynasty of Augustus had been an essential element in their creation. The civil wars of A.D. 68/69 changed that forever: their eventual victor was Vespasian, a middle-aged commander born of a prosperous but undistinguished Italian family and raised to the imperial title in the eastern provinces of the empire, just as some of his immediate rivals had seized the purple in Spain or Germany. This revealed what Tacitus called the arcanum imperii, the ‘secret of empire’ – that an emperor could be made outside Rome. Italy remained the centre of the empire, but it was no longer the sun around which provincial planets revolved. These provinces increasingly had a life of their own and political influence that could, in time, impose itself on the Italian centre.

To be sure, the provinces might be very different from one another, and they might stand in different relationships to the imperial capital in Rome. Some provinces, like Spain, southern Gaul, or the part of North Africa that is now Tunisia, had been part of Rome’s empire for a century or more. Others, like Britain, much of the Balkans, or what is now Morocco were only a generation away from their conquest by Roman armies. Well into the late third century, these different provinces continued to be governed according to many differing ad hoc arrangements that had been imposed on them when they were first incorporated into the empire. But all the imperial provinces were more and more integrated into a pattern of Roman life and ways of living, much less conquered territories administered for the benefit of Roman citizens in Italy. Indeed, the extension of Roman citizenship to provincial elites was an essential element in binding the provinces to Rome. As provincial elites became Roman citizens, they could aspire to equestrian or senatorial rank, and with it participation in the governance of the larger empire. Already by A.D. 97, a descendant of Italian immigrants to Spain named Trajan had become emperor. Trajan’s successor Hadrian was likewise of Spanish descent, while his own successor and adopted son came from Gallia Narbonensis, the oldest Roman possession in Gaul.

Roman Citizenship and Roman Identity

These provincial emperors are the most impressive evidence for the spread of Roman identity to the provinces, but the continuous assimilation of the provincial elites into the Roman citizenship was ultimately more important in creating the sense of a single empire out of a territorial expanse that stretched from the edge of the Arabian desert to Wales, from Scotland to the Sahara. These imperial elites could communicate with one another, linguistically and conceptually, through a relatively homogeneous artistic and rhetorical culture. This culture was founded on an educational system devoted almost exclusively to the art of public speaking, the rhetorical skills that were necessary for public, political life. Mainly Greek in the old Greek East, frequently Graeco-Roman in the Latin-speaking provinces of the West, this elite culture nurtured an aesthetic taste devoted, in Greek, to the fashions of the Classical and early Hellenistic period and, in Latin, to those of the very late Republic and early empire. It thereby provided a set of cultural referents and social expectations shared by Roman citizens and Graeco-Roman elites from one end of the empire to the other, and allowed them to participate in the common public life of the empire at large, even if they came from wildly divergent regions.

The use of Roman law, which came with the acquisition of Roman citizenship, provided a framework of universal jurisdiction that, for the elites who used it, also overcame regional differences. Because of the growing elite participation in the Roman world and its governance, those lower down the social scale began in time to feel some measure of the same integration, helped along by the hierarchies of patronage that permeated the whole Roman world. The cult of the Roman emperors, and of the personified goddess Roma, was another effective means of spreading the idea of Rome and participation in a Roman empire to the provinces. Greg Woolf has examined in detail how incorporation into an ordered network of provincial government – with the assimilation of local elites into Roman citizenship – could transform an indigenous society. In northern and central Gaul, less than two generations after the organization of the local tribal territories into a Roman province, both old Celtic noble families and the larger Gallic population had learned to express traditional relationships of patronage and clientship, power and display, in Roman terms, eating off Roman tableware, living in Roman houses, and dressing as Romans should. The same process is observable in the Balkans, at a slightly later date but at the same relative remove from the generation of the conquest. In the Greek world, ambivalent about its relationship to a Latin culture that was younger than – and partially derivative of – Hellenic culture, assimilation was more complicated, but even if Latin culture had little visible presence, the sense of belonging to a Roman empire was very strong in the ancient cities of the East.

This convergence on a Roman identity within the empire culminated in a measure taken by the emperor Caracalla in A.D. 212. Caracalla was himself the heir of an emperor from Africa – Septimius Severus, a man who could attest indigenous Punic ancestry in the very recent past. Much given to giganticism and delusions of grandeur, Caracalla undertook all sorts of massive building projects, and it is in this light that we should understand his decision to extend Roman citizenship to every free inhabitant of the empire in 212. The effects of this law, which we call the Antonine Constitution from Caracalla’s official name of Antoninus, were varied. It both acknowledged the convergence of local elites on a Roman identity and encouraged its continuation, but it also created the dynamic of political violence which dominated the middle and later third century. Once all inhabitants of the empire were Romans, any of them could actively imagine seizing the imperial throne if they happened to be in an opportune position to do so. This was a radical step away from the earlier empire in which only those of senatorial status could contemplate the throne. The Graeco-Roman reverence for rank and social status was extraordinary, and there was a world of difference between accepting the son of a provincial senator as emperor and accepting a man whose father had not even been a Roman citizen. And yet by the middle of the third century, such recently enfranchised Romans not only seized the throne, but their doing so quickly ceased to occasion surprise and horror among the older senatorial nobility.

Warfare and the Rhetoric of Imperial Victory

If the expansion of citizenship and the broadening definition of what it meant to be Roman permitted such men to imagine themselves as emperor, it was increasing military pressures that made their doing so practicable. Much earlier, in the era of Augustus when Roman government was for the first time in the hands of one man, the security of monarchical rule was by no means guaranteed. The authority of the emperor – or princeps, ‘first citizen’, as Augustus preferred to be called – rested on a number of constitutional fictions related to the old public magistracies of the Republic. More pragmatically, however, the authority of Augustus and his successors rested on a monopoly of armed force: that is to say, it rested on control of the army. Empire could not exist without army, and it is hardly an exaggeration to say that the whole apparatus of imperial government developed and grew ever more complex in order to redistribute provincial tax revenues from the interior of the empire to the military establishments on the frontiers. These armies were the ultimate sanction of imperial power, and they needed not only to be paid but also to be kept active: soldiers were far less inclined to mutiny or unrest when they were well supplied and occupied in the business they were trained for, rather than in more peaceable pursuits. This made periodic warfare consistently desirable.

The regular experience of warfare, in turn, fed into the pre-existent rhetoric of imperial victory and invincibility which provided part of the justification for imperial rule: the emperor ruled – and had the right to rule – because he was invincible and always victorious in defending Rome from its enemies. Thus even after imperial expansion stopped early in the second century, the need for Roman armies to win victories over barbarians was ongoing. The result was a constant stream of border wars, which allowed emperors to take victory titles and be seen to fulfill their most important task – defending the Roman empire from barbarians and from the eastern empire of Parthia, the only state to which Roman emperors might reluctantly concede a degree of equality. As we shall see in a moment, the militarization of the northern frontier had for many years had a profound effect on the barbarian societies beyond the Rhine and Danube, but at the start of the third century, a more acute transformation took place on the eastern frontier, again as a result of Roman military intervention.

Usurpation, Civil War and Barbarian Invasions

When Alexander Severus was killed in 235, rival candidates sprang up in the Balkans, in North Africa and in Italy, the latter promoted by a Roman senate insistent on its prerogatives. Civil war ensued for much of the next decade, and that in turn inspired the major barbarian invasions at which we have already looked, among them the attack by the Gothic king Cniva that ended in the death of Decius at Abrittus in 251. Decius’ successors might win victories over such raiders, but the iron link between invasion and usurpation was impossible to break. This is clearly demonstrated in the reign of Valerian (r. 253–260), who was active mainly in the East, and that of his son and co-emperor Gallienus (r. 253–268) who reigned in the West. Our sources present their reigns as an almost featureless catalogue of disastrous invasions which modern scholars have a very hard time putting in precise chronological order. We need not go into the details here, and instead simply note the way foreign and civil wars fed off each other: when Valerian fought a disastrous Persian campaign that ended in his own capture by the Persian king, many of the eastern provinces fell under the control of a provincial dynasty from Palmyra largely independent of the Italian government of Gallienus. Similarly, every time Gallienus dealt with a threat to the frontiers – raids across the Rhine into Gaul, across the Danube into the Balkans, or Black Sea piracy into Asia Minor and Greece – he was simultaneously confronted by the rebellion of a usurper somewhere else in the empire. Thus Gallienus had to follow up a campaign against Marcomanni on the middle Danube by suppressing the usurper Ingenuus, while the successful defence of Raetia against the Iuthungi by the general Postumus allowed him to seize the imperial purple and inaugurate a separate imperial succession which lasted in Gaul for over a decade. Even when Gallienus attempted to implement military reforms to help him counter this cycle of violence, the reforms themselves could work against him: he created a strong mobile cavalry that allowed him to move swiftly between trouble spots, but soon his general Aureolus, who commanded this new force, seized the purple for himself and Gallienus was murdered in 268, in the course of the campaign to supress him. As we have now come to expect, his death inspired immediate assaults on the frontiers, by ‘Scythians’ in the Balkans and across the Upper Danube into the Alpine provinces as well.

Again, a full list of invaders and usurpers is an arid exercise and one unnecessary here. The successors of Gallienus – Claudius, Aurelian, Probus, and their many short-lived challengers – faced the same succession of problems as their predecessor had done. Claudius successfully defeated an invading army of Scythians twice, at Naissus and in the Haemus mountains, and won for himself the victory title Gothicus which assures us that those Scythians were Goths. We have already seen that Aurelian won a Gothic campaign, but his energies and attentions were constantly distracted by other invasions, some reaching as far as Italy, and by the civil wars in which he suppressed the independent imperial successions in Gaul and the East. Aurelian fell to assassins, and so too did his immediate successor Tacitus, the latter struck down while in hot pursuit of Scythian – perhaps Gothic – raiders deep in the heart of Asia Minor. Though Probus managed to hold the throne for a full six years, he too was killed in a mutiny that broke out in the face of yet another Balkan invasion, and his praetorian prefect Carus was proclaimed emperor by the legions.

The Romans Strike Back!

Hannibal’s allies in Italy.

Publius Cornelius Scipio’s military campaign in Africa (204–203 B.C.)

Scipio was in no hurry. In all probability he did not even arrive in Sicily until the late spring of 205, and would not push off to Africa for another year.

There certainly would have been pressure to make his move sooner. Up north, Mago Barca had already crossed over to Liguria with an army and would soon stir up sufficient trouble that the authorities in Carthage would send him reinforcements and Rome would bolster their blocking force in Etruria with more troops and the reliable M. Livius Salinator. However, this probably didn’t satisfy nervous souls along the Tiber. Meanwhile, in North Africa, Masinissa, in the midst of fighting and losing a civil war with Syphax over his father’s kingdom, grumbled about the delay in the Roman invasion. Yet Scipio’s only concession was to send his trusted wingman, Laelius, off on a raid of the African coast, which provided nothing more tangible than a spate of panic in Carthage, some booty, and contact with Masinissa, who met him with a few horsemen and many complaints.

Scipio’s consulship lasted only a year, as did technically his African imperium. Still, Scipio seems to have understood that his support was sufficient to extend his imperium indefinitely (though not without controversy, as we shall see). The New Carthage raid in Spain had removed all doubt that he could move quickly if the situation demanded it. However, he did not move swiftly against Africa. It seems he had his own internal clock, in this case paced by the need to lay his plans carefully, to ensure logistical support for what promised to be a vast operation, and above all to build a winning army out of what amounted to scraps.

Livy (29.1.1–11) opens his description of Scipio’s sojourn in Sicily with an anecdote that may or may not be apocryphal but certainly exemplifies Scipio’s ingenuity in putting together a fighting force. Upon arriving with his volunteers, who apparently were just in the process of being divided into centuries, he withheld three hundred of the most strapping young men, who were neither armed nor assigned to units, and were probably pretty puzzled. He then conscripted an equivalent number of Sicilian horsemen, all of them from the local nobility and none too willing to serve on what was likely to be a long and dangerous expedition. When a nobleman, appropriately coaxed, expressed his reservations, Scipio posed an alternative: house, feed, train, mount, and arm one of the unassigned youths; a proposition all of the remaining Sicilians jumped at, thereby creating an enthusiastic nucleus for his cavalry out of a recalcitrant pack, what amounted to something out of nothing. True or untrue, Scipio was about to attempt something comparable on a much larger scale.

Upon inspecting the troops stationed in Sicily he had inherited, Livy tells us, Scipio selected the men with the longest service records, particularly those who had served under Marcellus and who were skilled in siege and assault operations. Plainly, Livy was referring to the legiones Cannenses—now called the 5th and 6th legions, made up of the survivors of Cannae and the two battles of Herdonea. Scipio did not have any reservations about their record, for he understood, Livy adds, that “the defeat at Cannae had not been due to their cowardice, and that there were no other equally experienced soldiers in the Roman army.”

Yet at this point the military disaster was eleven years in the past, and many would have reached the age of marginal military utility; hence Scipio inspected the men individually, replacing those he thought unfit with the volunteers he had brought from Italy. This process generated two exceptionally large legions, which Livy sizes at sixty-two hundred foot soldiers and three hundred horse apiece—a figure that is open to debate by modern historians but that probably reflected the general’s innovative approach and the danger he faced. It also left him with units that would have been to some degree heterogeneous, and certainly unacquainted with his tactical innovations. In all probability, then, he began training them early, and this process consumed much of the time it took to get ready for the invasion.

Livy also adds that upon selecting the veterans “he then billeted his troops in various towns,” which was significant, since earlier the Cannenses—when they’d been joined by the survivors of the First Battle of Herdonea—had been burdened by the senate with the additional indignity of not being allowed to winter in any settled area. In countermanding this prohibition, Scipio not only thumbed his nose at the establishment along the Tiber, but demonstrated yet again his keen understanding of how to build loyalty. Livy describes the Cannenses ready to depart for Africa as “sure under Scipio and no other general, they would be able … to put an end to their ignominious condition.” For these men understood what they would be up against with Hannibal—had already been served a bitter draft of his trickery—and therefore must have seen Scipio and his new model for fighting as their vehicle to revenge and rehabilitation. Unexpectedly, though, they would have the opportunity of returning the favor, of saving their commander from disgrace, long before they had the chance to confront their Carthaginian tormentor.

It all began with a target of opportunity. Late in 205 a group of prisoners in Scipio’s camp, a group from Locri—deep in Bruttium on Italy’s toe and one of the last cities loyal to Hannibal—offered to betray its citadel to the Romans. Scipio jumped at the opportunity, sending a force of three thousand from nearby Rhegium under two military tribunes, with one Quintus Pleminius acting as legate and overall commander. After some complications, Locri was taken, with the physical abuse and looting proceeding in a particularly brutal fashion, including even the plunder of the famous shrine of Persephone. But that was just the beginning. The Roman garrison formed two rival gangs, one loyal to the tribunes and the other to Pleminius, and began openly fighting over booty. As a result, Pleminius had the tribunes flogged—highly unusual for men of their rank—and was in turn beaten nearly to death by the other side.

When Scipio got wind of the situation, he hopped a galley to the mainland and sought to slap a tourniquet on what at this point was merely a distraction, acquitting Pleminius and having the tribunes arrested. He’d made a bad choice. After the general returned to Sicily, Pleminius had both tribunes tortured and then executed, and did the same thing to the Locrian nobles who had complained to Scipio in the first place.

Word of these outrages reached the senate in early 204, and Scipio’s enemies, led by Fabius Maximus, leapt at the chance to exploit the situation. Compounding matters, the senate had been primed by a string of scandalous rumors pertaining to Scipio’s conduct, the source being the quaestor in Sicily, Marcus Porcius Cato, destined to become Scipio’s lifelong enemy. Cato is known to history as a stern embodiment of austere Roman virtues and as an inveterate hater of things Greek, and of Carthage and Carthaginians. According to Cato, Scipio had been cavorting in Syracuse like a Hellenistic dandy—dressed in effete cloaks and sandals, spending way too much time in the gym, and lavishing money on his soldiers, who were using it to wallow in corrupting activities.

In his denunciation of Scipio, Fabius fastened onto this last aspect. Reminding his colleagues of the mutiny in Spain, which he maintained had cost Rome more troops than had been killed in battle, Fabius argued that Scipio “was born for the corruption of military discipline” and therefore should be relieved of his command forthwith. Pleminius and the situation in Locri were bad enough, but claiming the discipline of the entire expeditionary force had been undermined by indulgence, when that force was largely made up of suspect Cannenses, would not be overlooked. Scipio’s ally Metellus did what he could in the way of damage limitation, but in the end the senate took a very senatorial tack, sending a commission of ten to Sicily to judge Scipio’s culpability and, more to the point, to examine the readiness of his forces. Ready or not, now was the time for the ghosts to step into the limelight.

They did not disappoint. After settling matters in Locri, the commissioners crossed over to Syracuse, where Scipio had assembled his entire army and fleet in a state of readiness sufficient to conduct an immediate amphibious operation. The commission was then treated to a rigorous series of maneuvers, not simply parades but actual tactical evolutions and even a mock sea battle in the harbor. After a further inspection of war materiel, the commissioners were convinced that if Scipio and his army could not defeat Carthage, then nobody could. They left in a mood more reflective of victory than simply of good preparations—a view they impressed upon the senate, which promptly authorized the invasion at the earliest opportunity using whatever troops in Sicily the general desired. The Cannenses had vindicated their commander and were at least partway down the road to redemption.

Probably sometime in the late spring of 204 the invasion force assembled at Lilybaeum on the western tip of Sicily approximately 140 miles across open water from Carthage. Livy’s (29.25.1–2) estimates of the force’s size range widely from around twelve thousand men up to thirty-five thousand, so it’s impossible to say with any precision how big the army really was. But two legions of six thousand, plus two alae of equal size, along with cavalry numbering around 2400—basically a pumped-up consular army totaling approximately 26,400—is a ballpark figure. With considerable ceremony—suitable sacrifices, speechifying, and throngs of spectators lining the harbor—the army, along with forty-five days’ worth of food and water, were stuffed into four hundred transports guarded by only forty war galleys. (Scipio may have been short of oarsmen. Besides, the Carthaginian navy had not proved much of a threat.) Then the fleet headed out to sea in the general direction of Africa.

Without navigational equipment, such a voyage was always something of a leap of faith, but after a foggy night, land was sighted early the next day. Scipio’s pilot declared the spot to be the Promontory of Mercury (modern Cape Bon). But rather than head for what Livy says was his original destination—the Emporia, a rich area far to the south—Scipio allowed the wind to take him forty miles west to the “Cape of the Beautiful One” (modern Cape Farina), where he landed. This put him in the vicinity of the city of Utica and about twenty-five miles north of Carthage, which lay at the base of the semicircular Gulf of Tunis bounded by the two capes. It was a good location, close enough to throw a scare into the Carthaginians but far enough off to allow the Romans some breathing room to get unpacked. It worked.

The sight of the Romans, who set up camp on some nearby hills, panicked the entire countryside, sending a stream of inhabitants and their livestock back toward the safety of fortified places, particularly Carthage. Livy tells us that a thrill of dread spread through the city, which spent a night without sleep and prepared for an immediate siege. The next morning a force of five hundred cavalry under Hanno, a young nobleman, was sent up the coast to reconnoiter and if possible disrupt the Romans before they could fully establish themselves.

They arrived too late. Scipio had already posted cavalry pickets, who easily repelled the Carthaginians, killing a good many in the ensuing pursuit, including Hanno himself. Meanwhile, Roman marauders were already abroad gathering up who and what had not managed to flee. This was a substantial haul, including eight thousand captives, which the savvy Scipio promptly shipped back to Sicily as the first fruits of war paying for war.

More good news for the Romans appeared shortly in the form of Masinissa, who arrived, Livy says, with either two thousand or two hundred horsemen. It was probably the latter, since the Numidian prince was basically on the lam from Syphax, but Scipio understood that when it came to Masinissa, numbers meant nothing; he was a veritable “army of one.”

Back in Carthage, plans to resist were plainly in disarray. Hasdrubal Gisgo, the city’s most experienced available soldier, had been sent elsewhere. He’d belatedly been charged with putting together an army, and was camped about twenty-five miles inland with his hastily formed force, waiting to be joined by Syphax’s Numidians before attempting to engage the Romans. In his absence, the Carthaginians almost reflexively threw together another cavalry force under yet another Hanno—this force composed of a core of Punic nobility and apparently just about any local tribesman who could ride a horse and was available for hire—for a total of around four thousand men.

It was summer, and when Scipio heard the cavalry were quartered in a town rather than camped out in the countryside, he marked them as a bunch of potential victims and planned accordingly. Masinissa would act as the bait, riding up to the gates of the place—Livy calls it Salaeca, about fifteen miles from the Roman position—to draw the Punic riders out with his small detachment. Masinissa would then gradually lure them into a chase, which would end with the main body of Scipio’s cavalry advancing under the cover of hills to cut them off. As it turned out, the enemy was so sluggish that Masinissa had to ride up to the place repeatedly before they would even come out, and he spent additional time in mock resistance and retreat before they took up the pursuit toward the line of hills where the Romans were hiding. But in the end the Punic riders went for it and were surrounded by the Romans and Masinissa’s men for their troubles, losing Hanno plus nearly a thousand men in the initial engagement, and another two thousand in the ensuing thirty-mile chase, two hundred of the Punic nobles being among the victims. Another bad day for Carthage.

It would be hard to maintain that the city reacted promptly or well to the crisis. They must have known it was coming; many Carthaginians remained in Sicily, and Lilybaeum was reputedly swarming with spies. Nevertheless, there seems to have been no attempt by the Carthaginian navy to intercept the Roman armada or contest its landing, nor, Livy tells us, had an army of any strength been prepared in advance.

This is hard to explain, and the explaining is not made easier by history having been written by friends of Rome. Carthage’s fortifications were formidable—Scipio would not even attempt a siege—so it is possible to argue this as a source of negligence and overconfidence. But the invasions of Agathocles and Regulus had already shown just how vulnerable the surrounding areas were, and how much of a danger this vulnerability was to the entire city. Nor does Carthage’s presumed overconfidence explain the obvious terror of the city’s population once Scipio arrived. Arguably the Carthaginians were never very good at war, only persistent, and this could help account for their lack of planning.

A lack of support for this particular war would have been more telling. The political environment within Carthage during the Second Punic War is impossible to reconstruct, but we know from the statements of Hanno the Great that there was opposition to the conflict. Also, a Punic peace delegation would later lay the blame for the war at the feet of Hannibal and his faction. Whether true, partially true, or not true at all, the Romans were not about to accept such excuses from Carthage. Like the proverbial accomplice to the crime, perpetrators or not, the Carthaginians were now caught in the clutches of blame and would suffer the penalty for their weakness.

But they were far from finished. Winter found Scipio cut off from his supply base in Sicily and camped around his beached fleet on a barren promontory (castra Cornelia) about two miles east of Utica, which he had earlier tried and failed to take. Parked in front of him about seven miles away in two separate encampments were the armies of Syphax and Hasdrubal Gisgo, which both Polybius (who is back in another fragment) and Livy maintain totaled eighty thousand infantry and thirteen thousand cavalry—numbers most modern sources reject as too large to feed in the winter, but still probably exceeding those of the Romans.

Other commanders might have been depressed; Scipio took to scheming. First, Scipio plotted to win over Syphax, whom he hoped might be weaned from the Carthaginians once he had tired of Sophonisba, Hasdrubal Gisgo’s daughter, to whom he was now wed. But the spell she had cast over the Massaesylian king proved stronger than merely the pleasures of the flesh; so the Roman commander began playing a deeper and, as it turned out, more infernal game.

He deceitfully accepted Syphax’s good offices in negotiating a peace treaty. Then he sent centurions disguised as servants in his delegations to the enemy camps, and the centurions accordingly scouted the camps’ configuration. The Numidians, Scipio’s spies reported back, were housed in huts made of nothing more than reeds, while the Carthaginians’ were not much better, being put together with branches and available pieces of wood. Like the first two of the Three Little Pigs, they were fatally vulnerable. The talks intensified, framed around the basic principle of mutual withdrawals—the Carthaginians from Italy and the Romans from Africa—and Scipio’s agents continued piling up details on the camps, especially the entrances. Scipio even made it look as though any military plans he had were related to renewing the siege of Utica. For their part, the Numidians and Carthaginians increasingly let their guard down around their camps as the negotiations seemed to mature. Finally, and tellingly in terms of Punic motivation, Syphax was able to send a message that the Carthaginians had accepted terms. Scipio played for time and set about preparing for his real intention—a night attack on the two camps.

It was a barn burner of an operation. Scipio divided his force in halves, and marched them over a carefully surveyed route, timing it so they reached their targets around midnight. The first group, under Laelius and Masinissa, hit the Numidian encampment first, breaking in and torching the reed huts so that within minutes the whole place was engulfed in flames. Many of the men were incinerated in their beds, others were trampled at the gates, and those who managed to get out were cut down by waiting Romans. For the horribly burned, death must have been a form of mercy.

When the Carthaginians saw the conflagration in the other camp, a number concluded it was an accident and rushed out unarmed to help the Numidians—only to fall prey to the other half of Scipio’s legionaries, already lurking in the shadows. The Romans then forced their way into the Carthaginian camp and set fire to the place, which burned just as furiously and with the same deadly consequences. Both Hasdrubal and Syphax managed to escape, the former with around four hundred horse and two thousand foot soldiers, but we can be sure that fire and sword took a terrible toll on those who remained. Livy puts the dead at forty thousand, but this is based on his exaggerated estimation of the size of the force. Polybius provides no numbers, but does say of the attack that “it exceed[ed] in horror all previous events.” But then, putting aside the morality of broiling thousands of human beings in their sleep, Polybius adds, “of all the brilliant exploits performed by Scipio this seems to me the most splendid and most adventurous.” It certainly was a trick worthy of the master; if nothing else, it demonstrated that he was ready for Hannibal.

Back in Carthage, news of the disaster was greeted with dismay and dejection. Many citizens, including a number of notables, had been killed, and there was a general fear that Scipio would immediately lay siege to the city. When the suffetes called the council of elders into session, three positions emerged. There were those who wanted to treat for peace with Scipio immediately (probably a nonstarter, given the results of recent negotiations). The second position was held by those who were for recalling Hannibal to “save his country.” (This could be interpreted as an intermediate position, since it would not only help Carthage defend itself, but might also mollify Rome by removing him and presumably Mago from Italy.) And then there were those who wanted to rebuild the army and continue the war. (Livy tells us that Hasdrubal Gisgo, who was back in the city, plus the whole of the Barcid faction, combined to push this proposition, which “showed a Roman steadfastness.” Hasdrubal retained overall command and took to recruiting Carthaginians, whose enthusiasm probably increased when Scipio failed to show up but instead seemed intent on taking Utica. Meanwhile, envoys were sent to Syphax, who was inland at a place called Abba, to encourage him to stay the course.

But another Carthaginian already had the Massaesylian king well in hand, stiffening, this time, his resolve. Sophonisba had delivered such a passionate plea not to desert her father and the city of her birth that Syphax was now fully in tune with the Punic program and was busy arming every Numidian peasant he could round up. Almost simultaneously further good tidings arrived in the form of four thousand newly enlisted Celtiberian mercenaries, whose presence was something of a trenchant commentary on Scipio’s lack of thoroughness in subduing Spain. Syphax soon marched with these forces to join Hasdrubal’s, so that within thirty days (late April to early May 203) there gathered an army of around thirty thousand at a place known as “Great Plains”—likely the modern Souk el Kremis.

When Scipio heard of this concentration—good intelligence was another advantage of having Masinissa on your side—he reacted immediately. Leaving his fleet and part of his army to maintain the impression that the siege of Utica continued as his primary objective, he headed inland with the remainder of his force—all the cavalry and perhaps most of his infantry, though he may have brought along only the legiones Cannenses, since allied contingents are not specifically mentioned. Traveling light, they arrived at the Great Plains after a march of five days.

Scipio’s objective was clear, to nip this new threat in the bud—to engage posthaste what was obviously an inexperienced and disjointed force, and obliterate it. This should have been equally apparent to his adversaries. The Romans were deep inland, far from their base of supply, without visible means of support. The Punic strategy should have been avoidance, harassment, and then, when Scipio was forced to withdraw, attrition.35 Instead, within four days they allowed themselves to be drawn into a set-piece battle. The outcome was never in doubt.

Hasdrubal Gisgo placed his best troops, the Celtiberians, in the center, with the Carthaginian infantry (those salvaged from the camp fire, plus new recruits) flanked by the Punic cavalry on the right, and Syphax’s Numidians—infantry, then cavalry—positioned on the left. The Romans lined up their own legionaries in the center—possibly but not necessarily covered on each side by an ala—with the Italian cavalry occupying the right wing and Masinissa’s Numidian horse on the extreme left.

According to both Polybius and Livy the battle was over almost as soon as it began, the first charge of each of Scipio’s cavalry wings scattering the Carthaginians and Syphax’s troops, horse and foot soldiers alike.36 It has been argued that Scipio’s cavalry, which would have numbered fewer than four thousand, was simply not numerous enough to break up such a large body of men (around twenty-six thousand) and that there must have been an intervening infantry engagement. Nevertheless, Livy is pretty clear that both the Carthaginian and Numidian components of the Punic force were largely untrained and that it was Scipio’s cavalry specifically that drove them from the field, so this intermediate stage may not have been necessary. At any rate, nobody disputes the result—the Celtiberians were left very much alone.

Even if it was only the legiones Cannenses facing them, the Celtiberians would have been decisively outnumbered. However, they had no choice but to fight. Africa was alien territory if they ran, and they could expect no mercy from Scipio if they surrendered, since he undoubtedly remembered it was Celtiberian desertions that had led to the death of his father and uncle, not to mention their joining the Punic cause after he had supposedly pacified Spain.

The Celtiberians would have been roughly equal in number to the two legions’ worth of hastati facing them. But rather than feeding the remaining elements of the triplex acies directly ahead, Scipio resorted to his now-characteristic maneuver, turning the principes and triarii into columns and marching them right and left out from behind the front line to attack the Celtiberians on the flanks. Pinned by the forces ahead, and beset on each side, the Spaniards met death obstinately. In the end, Livy tells us, the butchery lasted longer than the fighting. The ghosts of Cannae, on the other hand, were very much alive, and, having exacted a measure of revenge for their commander, they were plainly ready for more.

Yet, the sacrifice of the Celtiberians, by keeping the Romans preoccupied until nightfall, had allowed the escape of Hasdrubal Gisgo, who eventually made it back to Carthage with some survivors and Syphax, who headed inland with his cavalry. Determined to retain the initiative, Scipio called a war council the next day and explained his plan. He would keep the main body of the army and work his way back from the Great Plains toward the coast, plundering and sowing rebellion among Carthage’s subject communities as he went, while he sent Laelius and Masinissa with the cavalry and velites after Syphax.

Both Polybius (14.9.6–11) and Livy (20.9.3–9) provide similar but internally contradictory descriptions of Carthage’s reaction to the defeat. On the one hand, they say the news was greeted with utter panic and loss of confidence; but then go on to describe the citizenry’s determined preparation for a siege, plans for manning and equipping the fleet for a naval offensive against Scipio’s armada gathered around Utica, and the recall of Hannibal as the only general capable of defending the city. As always, we can catch only glimpses of the true nature of Punic politics. One possible explanation for Carthage’s apparently contradictory reactions is that the intermediate position of the three courses cited above was now dominant. Livy states clearly that “peace was seldom mentioned,” and it is also probable that the Barcid faction (not to mention the general himself) did not want Hannibal (and presumably Mago) brought back, since it was tantamount to admitting that their great scheme had failed. In the interim, the Punic mainstream seems to have fallen back on the city’s traditional naval shield of war galleys as a way out of their troubles.

It was certainly an audacious scheme, with the fleet and the delegation to Hannibal being launched simultaneously the day after the resolution passed. Scipio, now less than thirteen miles away, having just taken over the abandoned town of Tunis, observed the launch with horror. For he understood that the descent of the Carthaginian flotilla would come as an utter surprise to the Romans at Utica. He also understood that his warships, burdened with all manner of siege equipment, were in no condition to maneuver in a naval engagement. The offensive would have worked had not the Punic battle squadron, which likely was manned mostly by inexperienced oarsmen, dawdled, taking most of the day to arrive and then anchoring for the night before forming up to attack at dawn.

This gave Scipio at least some time to prepare, and as usual he responded ingeniously to what could have been a very bad situation. Rather than have his warships protect his transports, he did the reverse. Polybius tells us just before his narrative breaks off that Scipio abandoned any idea of advancing into battle, drew the ships together near shore, and girded the whole mass with three or four layers of merchant vessels, lashed together with their masts and yards to form a wooden coat of armor.

The next morning the Punic force waited in vain for the Romans to come out, only belatedly moving in to attack Scipio’s transport-encrusted force. What followed bore no resemblance to a sea fight, Livy says, but instead “looked like ships attacking walls,” since the transports’ much greater freeboard enabled the thousand or so picked fighters Scipio had stationed on board to cast their ample supply of javelins directly down at the low-slung Punic galleys, effectively stymieing the attack. It was only when the Carthaginians began using grappling hooks that they achieved a measure of success. They managed to haul away sixty transports, which were greeted back home with more joy than the episode deserved—a small ray of sun shining through an unmitigated series of setbacks. Meanwhile, Scipio’s fleet was saved, and he would soon receive news from the hinterlands that would send Carthage reeling to the brink of surrender.

After a fifteen-day march Laelius and Masinissa were in the heart of Numidia, reaching first the eastern kingdom of Massylia, where the natives joyfully accepted the young prince as their ruler. But there was still the matter of Syphax, who had withdrawn to the home territory of Massaesylia and was again busy reconstituting his army. Yet again he managed to cobble together a force basically as large as its predecessors, but with each iteration the quality had dropped, now to the point where the army consisted of little more than the rawest of recruits. Nonetheless, he brought them forward to confront the advancing Romans in what turned out to be a ragged cavalry engagement, which was eventually decided when the velites stabilized their line to the point where Syphax’s men refused to advance and instead began to flee. Either to shame them or out of desperation, the king charged the Romans, whereupon his horse was wounded and he was captured—and was now very much a sinner in the hands of an angry Masinissa.

But also a shrewd one. Masinissa told Laelius that if he would let him ride ahead with Syphax to Cirta, the eastern capital of the Massaesylians, the psychological impact might cause a complete collapse. It did. Upon arriving, Masinissa arranged a conclave with the city fathers, who remained adamant until he dragged Syphax before them in chains, at which point they opened the gates.

Once inside, Masinissa headed for the palace. Here Livy turns cinematic, staging one of the more romantic, though not necessarily implausible, confrontations in all of historical literature. For at the threshold, “in the full flower of her youthful beauty” and with the mind of a true temptress, was Sophonisba. She clasped Masinissa’s knees, congratulated him on having better luck than Syphax, and told him she had really only one request: “choose my fate as your heart may prompt you, but whatever you do, even if it means my death, don’t surrender me to the arrogant and brutal whim of any Roman…. What a woman of Carthage—what the daughter of Hasdrubal—has to fear from a Roman is all too clear.” As she spoke, Livy adds perhaps unnecessarily, “her words were now more nearly those of a charmer than of a suppliant.”

Masinissa was a goner—probably after the first sentence—and upon further reflection, doubtless from within a cloud of lust, a solution came to mind—marriage … marriage so fast that it would become a fait accompli. (“That’s no Punic subverter of Rome’s allies; that’s my wife!”)

Predictably, the Romans didn’t buy it. When Laelius arrived at the palace, he was ready to drag her out of her marriage bed and send her back immediately to Scipio with Syphax and the other prisoners. Masinissa prevailed upon him to leave her in Cirta while the two of them conducted mopping-up operations. This would give Scipio more time to decide what to do with this veritable man magnet.

Sophonisba’s future was probably a foregone conclusion, but Syphax may have sealed her fate. When Syphax was delivered back to castra Cornelia, Scipio asked his former guest-friend what had possessed him to refuse that amity and instead wage war. It’s not surprising that Syphax fell back on the femme fatale defense. Sophonisba was the venom in his blood, the avenging Fury, who with her plying words and caresses had addled his mind. He then turned the knife by adding that his sole consolation was that this monster of treachery was now his worst enemy’s wife.

When Laelius and Masinissa returned from the hinterlands, Scipio took the latter aside and, recalling his own forbearance in the face of the beauteous captive back in New Carthage, made it clear that political expediency demanded that the young man give up his new wife, either as a prisoner or … He left the alternative unsaid. Masinissa extemporized and had a slave bring Sophonisba a cup of poison as his means of delivering her from the Romans. She drank without flinching, remarking that if this was the best he could do in the way of a wedding present, she would accept it, but she also instructed the slave to tell her wannabe widower that she would have died a better death had she not married him in the first place.

So perished Sophonisba, still another in a long line of aristocratic Punic suicides. Yet she likely had done more in bed to keep her city safe than Hannibal had accomplished on the battlefield. Nor is this meant as a backhanded compliment. Because of her, Syphax had given Scipio far more trouble than he’d bargained for, and a marriage alliance with Masinissa had held out the promise of neutralizing an adversary who would later prove highly instrumental in the city’s ultimate destruction. The match had probably been doomed from the beginning, and she paid for it with her life. But it is hard to deny she died a hero’s death.

Back in Carthage, this sort of resolve was fast becoming a diminishing quantity. The narratives of both Polybius and Livy make it pretty clear that Carthaginian resistance had become increasingly dependent on Numidian support, and news of Syphax’s capture had tilted the political balance, at least in the council of elders, in the direction of the anti-Barcid proprietors of the vast inland food factory, who were sick of seeing their properties ravaged by Romans and now wanted peace.

Sometime in late 203 the inner council of thirty key elders was dispatched to Scipio’s camp to negotiate an end to the war. As Livy tells it, the elders’ inclination was immediately betrayed by their prostrating themselves. Essentially, they begged Rome for mercy, blaming Hannibal and the Barcid party as the instigators of the war. This was plainly self-serving, but it was also likely to have been true.

As it happened, Scipio was ready to deal. He could see the strength of Carthage’s fortifications, and understood that an unacceptably protracted and costly siege was the only option if he wanted to continue fighting. He was also well aware of Rome’s war-weariness and desire to end this terrible conflict. Finally, he must have been aware that there were those back home who wanted his command, so victory on his watch must have had its attractions.

The terms he offered were not unreasonable but were certainly calculated to remove Carthage permanently as a military competitor with Rome. According to Livy, Scipio proposed that the Punic side hand over all war prisoners, deserters, and runaway slaves; withdraw the armies of both Hannibal and Mago; cease interfering in Spain; evacuate all the islands between Italy and Africa; supply large quantities of grain to feed his army and animals; and surrender all but twenty of their warships. As far as a war indemnity, the historian tells us that his sources differed, some saying five thousand talents, others five thousand pounds of silver, and still others double pay for Scipio’s troops. Appian also adds several clauses that, if true, make the terms considerably harsher (e.g., forbidding Carthaginians from hiring mercenaries, restricting their territory to the so-called “Phoenician trenches”—an area inland roughly between the east coast of modern Tunisia and its border with Algeria—and giving Masinissa dominion over his home kingdom and all he could take of Syphax’s). Finally, Scipio gave the Carthaginians three days to accept, whereupon a truce would take hold while they sent envoys to Rome for final negotiations. The council of elders agreed, and envoys were dispatched, but Livy maintains it was all a ruse to give Hannibal time to return to Africa. This is debatable.


Rome and Carthage at War

Dexter Hoyos

Gergovia: Vercingetorix’s Victory

As the survivors from Avaricum neared Vercingetorix’s camp he took special precautions to conceal their flight and the fall of the town. He posted his own supporters as well as tribal leaders at some way from the camp to intercept the fugitives and secretly take them to their own tribes’ quarters.

The next day Vercingetorix gathered his men and delivered a speech that was designed to minimize the impact of the fall of the towns on the Gauls’ morale. He claimed that it had fallen due to superior Roman siege technology and trickery, not because of the bravery of the Romans. He disassociated himself from its fall by rightly claiming he had never been in favour of defending it but had yielded to the pleas of the Bituriges. He glossed over the prior defeats the Gauls had sustained at Cenabum and elsewhere, claiming that such reverses were a normal part of warfare. He promised to extend the alliance to those Gauls who had not yet joined. He then suggested that the best course at present was to fortify their camp.

The speech was well-received. The fall of Avaricum enhanced Vercingetorix’s standing and weakened his opponents. The Gauls were well aware that he had advised against the attempt to hold the town and he had now been vindicated. There was also strong support for extending the war to as much of Gaul as possible. Doing so would not only add to the rebels’ manpower but it would also create problems for the Romans who would find themselves overextended. The capture of Avaricum as well as the earlier victories at Vellaunodunum and Cenabum had brought Caesar no political benefit. They had only served to strengthen Vercingetorix’s position and further unify the rebels.

Vercingetorix took immediate steps to implement his proposals. He sent out representatives to the tribes that had so far kept aloof from the rebellion, enticing them with gifts and promises. He then set about making up the losses suffered at Avaricum by instituting quotas from the tribes and requiring them to come to his camp on a set day. These actions soon made up for his losses. His diplomatic offensive also produced results. Teotomatus, a son of Ollovico, the king of the Nitiobriges who had been given the title of friend by the Senate, joined him with a large cavalry force and with mercenaries hired in Aquitania.

For a few days Caesar remained at Avaricum. The captured town provided him with an abundant supply of grain and the army needed to rest and refit after the strains of the siege. The winter was now almost over, which would make campaigning easier, and he set out in pursuit of the enemy in the hope of bringing them to battle or starving them out by a blockade. Before he could set out the leaders of the Aedui arrived to ask for Caesar’s help. Once again, tribal politics created problems. The election to office of the vergobret, their supreme annual magistrate, was at issue. Two men were claiming that they had been legally elected while only one could hold office. One of them was Convictolitavis, a distinguished young man, while the other, Cotus, was an aristocrat with considerable connections and influence. Both men had strong support and the dispute threatened to tear the fabric of the state apart. The Aedui asked for Caesar’s help to resolve the matter. The delay the request imposed was unwelcome. If he agreed to it, it would postpone the campaign against Vercingetorix and give Vercingetorix further time to prepare. But Caesar could hardly ignore such a request from the Aedui, Rome’s oldest allies in the area. On occasion they had provided useful military support to him, but more importantly they had been a major source of supply. In addition, one side or the other might call in Vercingetorix as an ally. He had already seen some evidence of the tribe’s less-than enthusiastic collaboration. Their negligence in delivering grain during the siege of Avaricum hinted at disaffection among the tribal elite.

To avoid breaking tribal laws which specified that vergobret could not leave Aeduan territory, Caesar summoned the two men involved as well as the entire council to Decetia, modern Decize, at the confluence of the Loire and the Aron, within their territory. After hearing the facts of the case Caesar awarded the office to Convictolitavis. It was a decision that stored up trouble for the future.

After a conciliatory speech calling on the Aedui to set aside their disputes he ordered them to send all of their cavalry and 10,000 infantry to serve as guards for his grain supply. Clearly Vercingetorix’s strategy had had some effect. Caesar divided his army into two columns; four legions were assigned to Labienus to conduct operations against the Senones and the Parisii, while Caesar would take the remaining six legions along the valley of the Allier towards Gergovia, the capital of the Arverni.

Vercingetorix, learning of Caesar’s arrangements, moved up the western bank of the river while Caesar made his way along the eastern side. He kept pace with the Romans, breaking down the bridges over which they might cross, and he posted scouts to deny the Romans the opportunity of constructing their own. This manoeuvre put Caesar in a difficult position. The Allier would not be fordable until the autumn. To wait until then would mean the loss of an entire campaigning season. The only course open to him was to trick Vercingetorix. He encamped in a wood opposite one of the bridges that had been torn down. The next day he hid two of the legions in the woods while he sent on the remainder, who were formed up so as to conceal the absence of the legions he had kept behind. When he estimated that those legions were now in camp he ordered his two legions to rapidly construct a bridge. The task was made easier because the piles of the original bridge had been left standing. He took his two legions across, encamped and summoned the other legions to him. Vercingetorix, realizing what had happened, moved on by forced marches to avoid a fight.

The march to Gergovia consumed five days and on the last day a minor cavalry skirmish occurred. Caesar then examined the site, which posed formidable problems. It was situated on a mountain rising 1,200 feet (367m) above the plain about 3.5 miles (6km) south of Clermont Ferrand. The northern side of the mountain was broken by precipitous cliffs, which made an attack impossible. An attack on the eastern side was equally out of the question. It was rugged, steep and dotted with ravines. Looked at from the south the town was situated on an oblong plateau that formed the mountain’s summit, and the higher terraces were linked to an outlying height by a ridge on which the Gauls were encamped. Their tents were protected by a stone wall that ran for the entire length of the southern side of the mountain. There was no hope of taking Gergovia by storm. Even on the south side where the ascent was easiest the ground was steep and dangerous. The Gallic encampment on that side meant that such an attack could not succeed. The only possibility was to cut off the town’s food supply with a siege. But Caesar could not start the operation until his own grain supply was secure.

Vercingetorix had seized control of a height close to the town and had placed various tribal contingents at intervals along the ridge. He was in constant contact with the tribal chiefs and did as much as possible to involve them in the planning as a way to cement their loyalty and maintain his army’s cohesion. He constantly sent out his cavalry accompanied by archers to keep up his men’s morale.

Opposite the town there was a hill with precipitous sides, the modern Roche Blanche, which was strongly fortified. The Gauls had also installed a garrison on it but only of moderate strength. If Caesar could gain control of it he would greatly ease the difficulties of besieging Gergovia, as he could cut the enemy off from their main water supply, the River Auzon, and prevent their forces from foraging. Caesar launched a night attack by which he was able to dislodge the garrison and seize control of the hill. He built a second smaller camp there with two legions, and linked it by a double ditch 12 feet (3.6m) wide to his main camp.

Despite this success Caesar was threatened by developments among the Aedui that remain difficult to explain. Convictolitavis, whom Caesar had recently installed in the tribe’s chief magistracy, had begun a plot to end the Aedui’s allegiance to Rome. Caesar claims he was bribed, but it is difficult to accept that this was the only reason for his change of heart. The money may have been an incentive, but even for the Aedui who had benefitted from Caesar’s victories the Roman presence was a heavy burden. They had been under constant pressure to provide Caesar with supplies and troops, which must have created extensive unrest. The tribal elite had as much to fear from its Roman ally as the other Gallic states if the Romans established permanent control. The Roman alliance had been attractive when it could be used by the Aedui in their conflicts with their neighbours, but Caesar’s campaigns had ended that possibility. The success of the Gallic revolt would once again open up the options that Caesar’s campaigns had closed.

Convictolitavis seems to have been convinced of the success of that revolt and saw it as an opportunity to enhance his position. He began talks with younger members of the elite who had less to lose and more to expect from a radical change in the political and military situation. The most important faction among these young men was that of Litaviccus and his brothers. The conspirators came to an agreement and began to plan their strategy. They managed to have Litaviccus placed in charge of the 10,000 infantry that Caesar has requested to guard his supply lines to the Aedui. The Aeduan cavalry had already arrived at Caesar’s camp before the infantry had set out. When the infantry had advanced within 27 miles (43km) of Gergovia Litaviccus called an assembly of the troops. With tears streaming from his eyes he addressed them as follows:

Where are we going soldiers? Our entire cavalry force, all our nobility are dead. Eporedorix and Viridomarus without being allowed to offer a defence have been executed. Know this from these men here who escaped the slaughter. I am overwhelmed by grief at the butchery of brothers and all my relations and am unable to speak.

The men who came forward had been coached by Litaviccus and confirmed his version of events. The troops were convinced by the story and begged Litaviccus to tell them what to do. He pressed on them the urgent need to head for Gergovia and to join the Arverni in their struggle with the Romans to avenge the wrongs they had suffered. He then pointed to the Romans who had accompanied his force under his protection and urged the troops to take their revenge on them. Their goods were stolen and they were murdered. An act that he must have known would, as the massacre at Cenabum had done, irretrievably commit the Aedui to the rebel side. He then sent men back to Bibracte to rouse the Aedui to revolt with the same fabrications that had already proved so successful.

Meanwhile further trouble was brewing among the Aedui in Caesar’s camp. Two young men, Eporedorix and Viridomarus, were disputing the leadership of their cavalry contingent. This quarrel was only a continuation of an earlier disagreement they had had over the appointment of the vergobret. After hearing of Litaviccus’s plan Eporedorix had gone to Caesar during the night to inform him of it and to beg him to prevent the Aedui from defecting.

Caesar was clearly upset. Along with the Remi in Belgica the Aedui were his most important allies. His ability to carry on the siege of Gergovia depended on the Aedui provisioning him with grain and other supplies. If they rebelled his position there would become untenable. He immediately assembled a force of four legions and all of his cavalry and marched out of camp after issuing orders that Litaviccus’s brothers should be arrested, but they had already fled. He left his legate Gaius Fabius in charge of the siege with two legions but had had no time to reduce the size of the camp to make it easier for the smaller number of troops to defend it. The Romans advanced 23 miles (37km) and came in sight of the Aeduan column. Caesar sent his cavalry ahead to slow the column’s march but forbade his horsemen to kill any of the Aedui. He also commanded Eporedorix and Viridomarus to accompany them and show themselves to their fellow tribesmen. They rode up and called to them. When they were recognized the lies that Litaviccus had fed them were revealed. They immediately threw down their arms and begged for mercy. Finding himself exposed Litaviccus along with his clients fled to Gergovia. Caesar sent messengers to the Aedui to reassure them and to remind them that he could have put their infantry to death but had generously refrained doing so.

After resting his army for only three hours Caesar began his march back to Gergovia. As he advanced he was met by cavalry sent by Fabius to inform him that the camp was in danger. The small garrison that he had left behind was now under siege by a much larger force. The enemy had sufficient troops to fight in relays and the legions were on the point of exhaustion, since the size of the camp meant that no one could be spared in manning its defences. All of the camp’s gates but two had been blocked and a screen had been erected on the ramparts as a defence against the Gauls’ missiles. The threat to the camp spurred Caesar and his soldiers on. They reached the camp before sunrise.

Litaviccus’s men reached the Aedui before Caesar’s messengers. His accusations against the Romans were accepted as fact and they began to plunder the goods of the Roman citizens in Bibracte and then massacred or enslaved them. The ease with which his news was accepted points to how far the relationship with the Romans had deteriorated. Convictolitavis did all he could to support the uprising. Romans were expelled from Aeduan towns and then attacked and stripped of their baggage: among them was a military tribune, Marcus Aristeus, who was on his way to join his legion. However, once they had learned that their infantry was in Caesar’s power they immediately halted their attacks and approached Aristeus claiming that what had taken place was not done publically but had been carried out by private individuals without community sanction. To give substance to this claim they set up an inquiry into the stolen goods and confiscated the property of Litaviccus and his brothers. An embassy was dispatched to Caesar to try to clear the tribe of any wrongdoing. Regardless of their pleas for forgiveness, the Aedui seem to have taken these steps to rescue their men from Caesar; in fact, they seem to have already decided to throw in their lot with the rebels.

Caesar claims to have been aware of all this and to have decided on a withdrawal from Gergovia. It is difficult to assess the truth of his statement. The fact that he later did so after suffering one of his few reverses suggests that he may be exaggerating his foresight as a way of at least partially excusing his failure at Gergovia. He claims that a chance opportunity arose that offered the possibility of success and that led to a change of plans.

On an inspection tour of the works at the smaller camp Caesar noticed a hill that had previously been fully occupied by the Gauls now appeared empty of defenders. He questioned Gallic deserters and his own scouts and learned that there was a crest along the ridge of high ground on the rear of the hill that gave access to the plateau on which Gergovia sat. To close off this approach Vercingetorix had withdrawn his men from the hill so that they could fortify the line of the ridge. The ridge was probably part of the heights of Risolles, north-west of la Roche Blanche, where Caesar’s smaller camp was located. Questions have been raised as to whether such an action by the Gauls makes any military sense and if Caesar has altered the details to help excuse his failure at Gergovia. It is however perfectly plausible that after the loss of La Roche-Blanche Vercingetorix had decided to create a fallback position from the hill along the ridge to prevent the Romans from reaching the plateau. Caesar, in claiming the hill was devoid of men, is probably exaggerating. Vercingetorix probably left a smaller than normal garrison while most of his men were engaged in fortifying the ridge.

Caesar now saw the possibility of drawing the Gauls off from their main camp below the town so that it could be attacked. He dispatched a number of cavalry to the hill around midnight, instructing them to create as much disruption as possible. The next morning at dawn he sent drovers mounted on their mules and pack-horses disguised as cavalry and interspersed with a small number of real cavalry to ride around the hill and create a diversion. Caesar then sent a legion towards the same high ground but it halted short of the hill and concealed itself in some woods nearby. All of these movements drew off the Gauls from their main camp to defend the height. In preparation for his real objective, the attack on this camp, Caesar began to move his legions to his smaller camp nearer the enemy camp in small detachments to conceal his intentions. He then instructed his legates, each in command of a legion, that it was especially important to keep their men under control. The ground was unfavourable and the speed of the advance was crucial. He reminded them that his plan was not for a full-scale battle but simply to seize an opportunity that had presented itself. He ordered the Aedui to make an ascent to his right to further draw off the defenders.

In a straight line the distance from the town wall to where the ascent began was just over a mile. Although there were paths that led up that were less precipitous, their turnings increased the distance to the walls. The Gallic camp, which was composed of a number of separate tribal encampments, lay halfway up the hill and was protected by a 6 foot stone wall that followed the contours of the mountain. Their tents filled the space between this fortification wall and the town walls. The area in front of the 6 foot wall was unoccupied.

At the signal for attack the Romans quickly reached the fortification wall, crossed it and captured three of the enemy encampments, including that of the Nitiobriges. Caesar claims that this was all he intended and now he ordered that the retreat signal should be sounded. Caesar was with his favourite Tenth Legion, which immediately halted. He says that the others, because of a wide gully, did not hear the call for retreat but were held in check by their officers, but apparently not very effectively. They continued their pursuit of the fleeing rebels. The town wall was reached, creating panic inside the town. Some of the soldiers of the Eighth Legion, led by their centurion Lucius Fabius, managed to scale the town wall. However, the Gauls employed in fortifying another part of the town heard the uproar. They sent their cavalry on ahead and followed with all of their infantry at full speed. The Romans were exhausted by their climb, fighting on disadvantageous ground and faced by a much larger enemy force. Caesar became anxious about the situation and sent to his legate Titus Sextius who was in charge of the smaller camp to bring up cohorts quickly and to station them at the bottom of the hill on the enemy’s right flank. If the Romans were forced back Sextius’s troops would deter the Gauls’ pursuit. Caesar then advanced closer to the fighting with the Tenth and awaited its outcome. Although Caesar does not say so he presumably kept the Tenth as a reserve.

The Roman position deteriorated further when the Aedui, who had been ordered to ascend the hill, appeared and were mistaken for enemy reinforcements. Meanwhile Lucius Fabius and his men were killed and thrown headlong from the walls, while another centurion of the same legion Marcus Petronius, who was attempting to force the town’s gates, saved his men at the expense of his own life by fighting back the enemy and giving his men time to escape. The Romans were overwhelmed and forced back down the hill. The Tenth, stationed on lower ground, served as a rally point while the cohorts of the Thirteenth that had been brought up from the smaller camp and stationed on higher ground moved down to the Tenth’s former position. Once they had reached level ground the legions reformed and faced the Gauls, who now turned and made their way back to their own fortifications. The toll had been heavy, with the loss of 700 soldiers and forty-six centurions.

The next day Caesar assembled his troops and reprimanded them for their The next day Caesar assembled his troops and reprimanded them for their lack of discipline, although he made admiring remarks about their courage after so many tribulations. He then urged them not to despair. The defeat was due not to the Gauls’ bravery but rather to their fighting at a disadvantage because of the uneven ground. Right after the assembly he led the legions out and deployed them for battle on level ground. Vercingetorix brought his own troops down but after a cavalry skirmish in which the Romans prevailed he led his men back to their fortifications. Caesar formed up once again the following day and again the Gauls refused battle. It is clear that Caesar did not expect the Gauls to fight. The manoeuvre was designed to restore his men’s confidence rather than to threaten the enemy.

The fact that this was the gravest defeat that Caesar personally suffered in Gaul is indisputable but there has been much controversy over what Caesar intended at Gergovia. It is clear that his string of successful sieges at Avaricum and elsewhere led him to underestimate the strength of the Gallic resistance. Gergovia was a tempting prize. If he had captured it along with Vercingetorix he would have been able to extinguish a tribal alliance that was by far the most dangerous threat to Roman control of Gaul. However given the natural strength of the site and the large number of Gallic troops he faced, his forces were inadequate. Once he realized that capturing it by storm was a near impossibility his only option was to starve it out but he simply did not have the manpower to do so. The attack on the Gauls’ camp is mystifying. Did he simply intend a demonstration? If he did it is difficult to discern the purpose of it. Was it simply a demonstration to the Aedui and other tribes whose loyalty was ebbing away? It is hard to see what that would accomplish as long as he failed to take the town. It seems likely that Caesar intended to take Gergovia by drawing off the Gauls but that they responded too quickly and the Romans were defeated. Caesar has attempted to disguise his failure by obscuring the purpose of the attack and blaming his losses on his men’s lack of discipline rather than on the failure of his gamble. In spite of Caesar’s attempt to restore Roman prestige by offering battle to the Gauls, the failure to take Gergovia dealt a severe blow to his prestige. His legates had suffered reverses but Caesar had remained undefeated. Gergovia shattered any illusions the Gauls might have held about his invincibility and opened the way for a mass defection of the Gallic tribes now that they thought the Romans could be defeated.

The Roman Annexation of Sardinia and Corsica 238–231 BC

Carthaginian Mercenaries

The example of Sicily stands in stark contrast to that of the western Mediterranean islands of Sardinia and Corsica. Unlike Sicily, when the First Punic War ended these islands remained under Carthaginian control. In reality, this control was tenuous at best as the islands were garrisoned by mercenary forces whose control was unlikely to have spread much beyond the coastal regions. Nevertheless, officially Carthage remained in control of the two islands off the coast of Italy. Whilst on the face of it, it does seem odd that the Roman Senate allowed their enemy to maintain two strategic bases off their coast, there were good reasons for the Romans not to become entangled with controlling these islands. Unlike Sicily, the islands held little in the way of natural resources, and beyond the coastal areas were mountainous territories populated by native tribes who had proved adept at resisting outside forces. Pacifying the islands was beyond the resources of the Carthaginians and would not be as easy a task as securing Sicily was. Furthermore, of the two regions, Sicily presented the perfect staging ground to attack Italy, whereas Sardinia and Corsica had fewer resources to host an invading army and was further away from Africa, requiring control of the seas for any invading force to reach it.

Despite these factors, within just a few years the Senate reversed its earlier decision and in 238 BC Rome annexed the islands of Sardinia and Corsica from Carthage, in an apparent breach of the original peace treaty. This incident originated during the Mercenary War in 240 BC, when the mercenary garrison on Sardinia turned on their Carthaginian paymasters and seized control of the island. Reinforcements sent by Carthage to restore control of the island promptly deserted to the mercenary side, leaving the mercenaries in control of the island. They in turn, however, clashed with the natives, who took this opportunity to rise up and drive all the foreign occupiers from the island. Polybius reports that the surviving mercenaries fled to Italy.

We do not know how much time elapsed between the expulsion of the rebellious mercenaries from Sardinia and the Senate’s decision to invade. Even more importantly, we do not know what prompted the Senate to change their original decision and become involved. If anything, the native revolt had rendered Sardinia neutral territory, with the Carthaginian presence expelled. The Roman expedition of 238 BC was led by one of the Consuls, Ti. Sempronius Gracchus, ancestor of the infamous Tribune of the same name. Gracchus’ activities in 238 BC may shed some light on possible Roman intentions, as he began by leading an invasion of Sardinia but then moved on to campaign in Liguria in north-western Italy (as seen in Chapter Three). Thus we must question whether the move to invade Sardinia formed part of an overall grand strategy for Roman expansion into northern Italy and whether the strategic value of Sardinia lay not in stopping it being used by the Carthaginians to invade Italy, but in allowing the Romans to invade northern Italy themselves, opening up a fresh point of attack.

Naturally, the Romans faced two major obstacles in invading Sardinia. The first, and easiest to deal with, were the Carthaginians, whose empire Sardinia formally remained part of. Polybius says the following:

When the Carthaginians objected on the ground that the sovereignty of Sardinia was rather their own than Rome’s, and began preparations for punishing those who were the cause of its revolt, the Romans made this the pretext of declaring war on them, alleging that the preparations were not against Sardinia, but against themselves.

Thus when Carthage raised a formal objection to the Roman breaking of the peace treaty, the Romans responded by an actual declaration of war against them, which technically meant that the Second Punic War started in 238 BC, not 218 BC. Even though Carthage was winning the war against their rebellious mercenaries, they were clearly in no condition to face Rome once again, and so it seems that the Carthaginians backed down and agreed to Roman demands, amending the original peace treaty, as noted again by Polybius:

Later, at the end of the Libyan War, after the Romans had actually passed a decree declaring war on Carthage, they added the following clauses, as I stated above: “The Carthaginians are to evacuate Sardinia and pay a further sum of twelve hundred talents.”

Interestingly, later sources such as Appian and Eutropius have Sardinia ceded to Rome at the end of the First Punic War, thus reflecting an evolved tradition that exonerates Rome for their actions. Another variant tradition has the Romans taking Sardinia in compensation for Carthaginian attacks on Roman shipping during the Mercenary War. Clearly the lack of a detailed contemporary source, such as Fabius Pictor, denies us the opportunity to fully understand the circumstances behind this phoney Second Punic War. However, what is clear is that faced with no other practical option, Carthage backed down and Sardinia (and Corsica) fell into the Roman sphere of influence.

However, whilst removing Carthage’s claims to Sardinia was one thing, actually securing the territory was another. Neither Carthage nor their mercenaries had been able to secure the islands beyond the coastal regions and this proved to be the case with Rome. Carthage may have stepped aside without a fight, the Sicilians may have capitulated without much struggle, but the same cannot be said of the native inhabitants of Sardinia and Corsica, who were determined to resist any outside rule. Strabo provides us with a description of the natives of Sardinia and Corsica, though we do not know how anachronistic it is:

There are four tribes of the mountaineers, the Parati, the Sossinati, the Balari, and the Aconites, and they live in caverns; but if they do hold a bit of land that is fit for sowing, they do not sow even this diligently; instead, they pillage the lands of the farmers – not only of the farmers on the island, but they actually sail against the people on the opposite coast, the Pisatae in particular.

But Cyrnus is by the Romans called Corsica. It affords such a poor livelihood – being not only rough but in most of its parts absolutely impracticable for travel – that those who occupy the mountains and live from brigandage are more savage than wild animals.

It is unclear exactly what campaigning Gracchus undertook in Sardinia in 238 BC, but as his campaign seemed to be primarily focussed on the war in Liguria, we can only assume that he did little more than secure a coastal region as a secure base of operations from which to stage his attack on Liguria. In all probability, he most likely re-occupied the regions recently vacated by the Carthaginian garrison. There is no mention of Corsica in this campaign and we must assume that it was left alone this year. Therefore, the end of 238 BC saw Sardinia (and Corsica) Roman in name only; Carthage had been forced to cede their claim to the islands, but Rome had not yet been able to secure them.

This situation continued throughout 237 BC, with both Consuls too busy fighting against the Ligurians and the Boii to bother with the islands. It was only in the latter stages of 236 BC that the Consuls were able to turn their attention to the islands once more. Again both Consuls began the year campaigning in northern Italy against the Boii and Ligurians. It was only when these campaigns drew to a conclusion that the Consuls were free to return to the islands. In fact, 236 BC seems to mark the start of the Roman conquest of the islands proper. Given that the vast majority of the campaigning season had been taken with the Gallic Wars, it seems that the Romans decided to limit their conquest to the smaller of the two islands; Corsica, with a full-blown campaign in Sardinia only following in 235 BC.

The Corsican campaign of 236 BC was led by the Consul C. Licinius Varus, for which he won a Triumph. The campaign was not without incident, however, as the surviving sources preserve the story of one of Varus’ legates making a peace treaty with the Corsican tribes which the Senate refused to honour, leading to the legate’s disgrace and perhaps execution, though the details of the story vary from source to source:

Varus set out for Corsica, but inasmuch as he lacked the necessary ships to carry him over, he sent a certain Claudius Clineas ahead with a force. The latter terrified the Corsicans, held a conference with them, and made peace as though he had full authority to do so. Varus, however, ignored this agreement and fought the Corsicans until he had subjugated them. The Romans, to divert from themselves the blame for breaking the compact, sent Claudius to them, offering to surrender him; and when he was not received, they drove him into exile.

After Claudius had made terms with the Corsicans, and the Romans had then waged war upon them and subdued them, they first sent Claudius to them, offering to surrender him, on the ground that the fault in breaking the compact lay with him and not with themselves; and when the Corsicans refused to receive him, they drove him into exile.

The Senate surrendered M. Claudius [Clineas] to the Corsi because he had made a dishonourable peace with them. When the enemy would not take him, it ordered that he be put to death in the public jail.

Thus, despite Varus winning a Triumph for the campaign, it did not get off to a successful start. Given that he had been fighting in northern Italy, it does seem that the early conclusion to the campaign offered the Consul a window of opportunity to campaign in Corsica, but that he had not adequately prepared for this, due to the lack of ships. Varus’ legate Claudius was seemingly sent over with a smaller force to harry the native tribes, possibly until Varus himself could bring across his full forces. However, it seems that the tribes quickly offered terms, whether false or genuine, and Claudius, eager to secure a token victory, agreed. However, this token victory did not seem to be what the Consul had in mind, so he ignored the treaty and secured the tribes’ submission by military might, rather than diplomacy. Claudius himself does seem to have been made the scapegoat for this Roman volte-face, though we will never know whether he did exceed his orders in this matter.

However, despite Varus gaining a Triumph and nominally securing the submission of the Corsican tribes, we must question how secure Rome’s control was, especially when the army was withdrawn at the end of the campaigning season. Firstly, we do not know the scale of Varus’ campaigns or victories, or just how many of the island’s tribes he had defeated, or how severely. Another complete unknown is what, if any, measures had been taken to secure the defeated tribes’ allegiance to Rome and whether they were bound by treaty, as in Italy, or left in limbo, as with Sicily.

Nevertheless, in the eyes of the Senate, the island of Corsica had been secured for the Roman people and the following year their attention turned to Sardinia. The Sardinian campaign of 235 BC was led by one of the Consuls, T. Manlius Torquatus. Manlius is widely credited throughout Roman history as being the commander who conquered Sardinia, but details of the campaign have not survived:

…the Romans made an expedition against the Sardinians, who would not yield obedience, and conquered them.

Sardinia finally became subject to the yoke in the interval between the First and Second Punic War, through the agency of Titus Manlius the consul.

It is interesting that Zonaras (based on Dio) emphasised that the Sardinians had not submitted to Roman control, backing up our hypothesis that the events of 238 BC had brought Sardinia under Roman control in name only. Nevertheless, by the end of 235 BC Manlius was awarded his Triumph and the Senate considered that both islands had been brought under their control.

This, combined with the peaceful conclusion to the renewed war with Carthage and the ending of the Gallic War, saw the Senate take the extraordinary step of declaring the Republic at peace by ceremonially closing the gates of the Temple of Janus. This symbolic act of declaring the Republic at peace was the first time it had been undertaken in the whole Republican period, and had only supposedly happened on one prior occasion, during the reign of King Numa Pompilus (c.715–673 BC). It was not until 29 BC and the time of Augustus that the event happened again, making this occurrence in 235 BC unique in over 650 years of Roman history.

Unsurprisingly, however, the Gates of Janus had to be opened the following year (234 BC), and both Sardinia and Corsica were once again theatres of operation. As is common for this period, we do not know what caused the Senate to dispatch a Consul and a Praetor to Corsica and Sardinia respectively, and so soon after declaring peace, but we must assume that the tribes of the islands rose up against Roman rule once more. This again raises issues about how much control Rome actually had of both Sardinia and Corsica, and how comprehensive the victories in the preceding years actually had been.

Of the two theatres, it seems that Corsica represented the greatest challenge to Rome, as one of the Consuls, Sp. Carvilius Maximus, was dispatched there and one of the Praetors, P. Cornelius, was sent to Sardinia. We only have a brief note in Zonaras covering both campaigns:

The following year the Romans divided their forces into three parts in order that the rebels, finding war waged upon all of them at once, might not render assistance to one another; so they sent Postumius Albinus into Liguria, Spurius Carvilius against the Corsicans, and Publius Cornelius, the praetor urbanus, to Sardinia. And the consuls accomplished their missions with some speed, though not without trouble. The Sardinians, who were animated by no little spirit, were vanquished in a fierce battle by Carvilius; for Cornelius and many of his soldiers had perished of disease. When the Romans left their country, the Sardinians and the Ligurians revolted again.

Zonaras clearly ties all three campaigns (Corsica, Sardinia and Liguria) together, though whether this was the case in reality is unknown. Certainly it is possible that an uprising in one sparked off the others, even if they were uncoordinated. What is clear is that Carvilius was able to pacify Corsica, however temporarily, and was awarded a Triumph for his victory. As we can see, Sardinia proved to be a more difficult proposition, with the Roman Army and its commander succumbing to disease. This meant that Carvilius had to cross to Sardinia with his army, where he apparently won a battle.

The scale of his victory, however, must be judged by the fact the Sardinians rose up in revolt once the Roman Army had left the island, a common theme in these campaigns. The pattern continued in 233 BC, when again one of the Consuls, M. Pomponius Matho, was dispatched to Sardinia. Once again all we know is that Pomponius was awarded a Triumph for his campaigns, indicating a significant military victory over an element of the native tribes, but again the war continued into the following year.

In fact the situation in Sardinia seems to have deteriorated, as 232 BC saw both Consuls dispatched to the island, the fourth year in a row that a Consul had campaigned there. Once again we only have a brief note in Zonaras to cover these campaigns:

When the Sardinians once more rose against the Romans, both the consuls, Marcus [Publicius] Malleolus and Marcus Aemilius [Lepidus], took the field. And they secured many spoils, which were taken away from them, however, by the Corsicans when they touched at their island.

On this occasion, however, no Triumphs were awarded for the Consuls, mostly due to their blunder in losing the spoils they had won in Sardinia on Corsica. Thus it seems that the Consuls again met with some success in Sardinia and then decided to move their operations to Corsica, where they suffered some form of reverse.

It seems that this reverse and the knowledge that these supposedly straightforward campaigns of pacification were dragging on (now entering their sixth year across both islands) spurred the Senate into making a major push to end the wars. Once again, and for the second year running, both Consuls were dispatched to the islands; this time in a concerted effort. M. Pomponius Matho, kinsman of the Consul (of the same name) of 233 BC, was dispatched to Sardinia, whilst his colleague, C. Papirius Maso, was sent to Corsica.

As with all these campaigns, no record of the number of troops has survived for either side, but Zonaras does provide us with a more detailed account of the tactics involved:

Hence the Romans now turned their attention to both these peoples. Marcus Pomponius proceeded to harry Sardinia, but could not find many of the inhabitants, who as he learned, had slipped into caves of the forest, difficult to locate; therefore he sent for keen-scented dogs from Italy, and with their aid discovered the trail of both men and cattle and cut off many such parties. Caius Papirius drove the Corsicans from the plains, but in attempting to force his way to the mountains he lost numerous men through ambush and would have suffered the loss of still more owing to the scarcity of water, had not water at length been found; then the Corsicans were induced to come to terms.

In the scant descriptions we have of both campaigns, the problems facing Rome were laid bare. On both islands the Romans suffered from fighting a guerrilla war, with the native tribesmen retreating to the mountains, negating the superior tactical strength of the Roman military machine. Neither campaign seems to have been a resounding success, even though some measure of peace seems to have been brought to the islands. The nature of such a fragile peace meant that the Romans could never trust that either island would stay pacified for long, with the threat of a native rebellion ever present, especially in an era without a permanent Roman presence.

Again, and for the second year running, neither of the two Consuls celebrated a Triumph for their campaigns, though we do know that Papirius Matho requested one and was turned down, in retaliation for which he celebrated his own Triumph on the Alban Mount.³² Nevertheless, it seems that these six years of continuous campaigning, the final two of which saw both Consuls involved, achieved some measure of temporary peace on the islands as there is no further record of Roman military involvement until 225 BC.

The Roman Provinces of Sardinia and Corsica (227–218 BC)

It was during this lull in military activity that Rome undertook its reform of provincial administration and introduced two new Praetors, one for Sicily and one for Sardinia (and Corsica). Whilst the Praetor for Sicily would have been more of an administrative role, ensuring the regular exploitation of the island’s natural resources, the Praetor for Sardinia and Corsica would have been far more focused on entrenching Rome rule in the islands and preventing native uprisings. Again we are not told what size force the regular Praetor for Sardinia took with him each year. We do know that the first Praetor for Sardinia was M. Valerius (Laevinus), though no details of his activities survive.

The natives of the islands appear to have been quiescent until 225 BC, when the Senate felt it necessary to dispatch a Consul to Sardinia, C. Atilius Regulus, despite the presence of a serving Praetor. This indicates a level of severity akin to the expected Gallic invasion. Again we have no detail as to Regulus’ activities on Sardinia, and it is possible that he wanted to give his freshly assembled forces combat experience against a native enemy, but as will be detailed later, it was an unnecessary distraction that nearly cost Rome dear (see Chapter Six).

Aside from this one incident, which quite frankly we only know about thanks to its connection to the Gallic War, we are not told of any further military activity by Roman commanders on either Sardinia or Corsica for the rest of this period. Furthermore, we have no record of any further Triumphs being awarded for these theatres of operations. What we must assume is that after the large-scale military operations of the Consuls of 232 and 231 BC, the natives of both islands avoided full-scale and open conflict with their new Roman overlords. This does not mean that the annual Praetors were not engaged in operations to ensure compliance, merely that full-scale warfare did not break out to the same extent as the 230s.

Thus we can see that the aftermath of the Fist Punic War saw Rome take her first strides towards overseas empire, with the islands of Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica. However, the two theatres of operations were quite different. On the one hand was the island of Sicily, with a significant degree of urbanization and a long history of undergoing foreign occupation. On the other were the islands of Sardinia and Corsica, composed of native tribes and mountainous terrain, which had only notionally been under foreign occupation.

It was not only these factors that accounted for the differing Roman experience in these islands. Sicily had fallen to Rome as a result of the First Punic War, and it made perfect strategic sense to hold onto the island. Sardinia and Corsica, however, represented something different; the Senate consciously decided to annex the islands, despite earlier leaving them in Carthaginian hands. They also invested heavily in pacifying the islands and bringing them under firm Roman control, despite offering limited material gain.

This move represented an evolution in Roman strategic thinking. From Rome’s earliest days, the territories they conquered allowed Rome to develop a strategic buffer to protect the core Roman territories. At first this buffer was no more than the territories such as Alba and Veii that lay within a few days of Rome itself; however, as Roman territory expanded then so would the buffer zone needed to protect it. With all of Italy under their control, it was only logical that the buffer zone, which the Romans felt they needed, expanded too. Thus Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica all lay within Rome’s outer zone of control, protecting Roman Italy itself, at least from the west and the south. Creating a ‘buffer zone’ of territories to the south and the west to protect Roman Italy raised obvious questions about the other regions; in particular the east and the north. However, it would not be long before the Senate sought to expand Roman control in these regions too.

The Parthian wars of Septimius Severus

Having served c. AD180 as legatus of Legio IV Scythica at Zeugma, Septimius Severus returned to Syria in 194 to confront Pescennius Niger who had proclaimed himself emperor at Antioch in the previous year. 107 It seems that the kings of Osrhoene and Hatra had supported Niger, and the Parthians had taken advantage of the civil war to strengthen their influence in the region. These were the motives for Severus’ campaigns in Osrhoene and Mesopotamia, and later against Hatra. Severus took control of Syria quickly and in 195 successfully campaigned against the Parthians in Mesopotamia where forces from Osrhoene, Adiabene and the Arabians (probably Hatra) had begun to besiege Nisibis. It seems that the Edessan king in particular had conspired to rid the kingdom of Roman control by taking advantage of the civil war between Septimius Severus and Pescennius Niger. The siege of Nisibis indicates that it was under Roman military control at this time, but it is difficult to estimate how much earlier this had taken place.

The result of Severus’ first Parthian campaign was the conversion of part of the kingdom of Osrhoene into a Roman province and the retention of a client-kingdom at Edessa based on a much reduced portion of the former kingdom. Severus prosecuted a second and more significant war against the Parthians in 197-198 in response to an attack on Mesopotamia in which Nisibis had almost fallen. Once successful in Mesopotamia, Severus invaded Parthia, marched down the Euphrates and captured Babylon and Seleucia-Ctesiphon. The emperor attacked Hatra on his return from Parthia late in 198 or early in 199, and again in 200; but he was unsuccessful in both cases.

The important outcomes of Severus’ campaigns in the 190s included the formation of the province of Mesopotamia, the establishment of the province of Osrhoene and the creation of the dependent kingdom of Edessa. Important also was the division of Syria into the two provinces of Coele Syria and Syria Phoenice. The northern half of the old province of Syria constituted Coele Syria and it was in this new, smaller province that the stretch of the Euphrates from Samosata to Dura Europos flowed. The city of Palmyra, more closely linked with the Euphrates through cities such as Dura Europos in Coele Syria, actually became a part of the province of Syria Phoenice. It has also been argued recently that the kingdom of Hatra formed an alliance with Rome soon after the unsuccessful Severan attempts to capture it, but the evidence for such an alliance is not clear until the 230s.

The province of Mesopotamia occupied the area of northern Mesopotamia. It lay to the east of the new province of Osrhoene and the client-kingdom of Edessa, across the Khabur river and as far east as the upper Tigris. The inclusion of much of the Khabur river in the province of Mesopotamia in the third century AD is indicated by a papyrus of 245 from a village thought to be near modern Hasseke, located just to the west of the Khabur. The papyrus is a petition from a villager to Julius Priscus who is named as Praefectus Mesopotamiae, indicating that he had jurisdiction over this section of the Khabur. This is thought to reflect the situation at the time of the province’s formation 50 years earlier.

The province of Mesopotamia was created by 198 and received two of three newly raised Parthian legions. Both legions seem to have been established there after the first war of 194/195, I Parthica at Singara and III Parthica probably at Nisibis. The coloniae and major cities/fortresses of the new province were Nisibis, Singara and Rhesaina. The province was governed by a praefectus of equestrian rank, and its garrison of two legions – the same number as Coele Syria – demonstrates the military and defensive role it was designed to play. The formation of the province took Roman administration and a permanent military presence further east than it had ever been before. It is true that Trajan had established a short-lived province of Mesopotamia approximately 80 years earlier, and from the mid-160s Mesopotamia perhaps experienced a Roman military presence, but Severus’ establishment of the province was a long-term undertaking. According to Dio, Septimius Severus said that he had gained this territory in order to make it a bulwark for Syria. Dio’s report of Severus’ claim is telling with regard to the longer-term significance of Mesopotamia following its formation. Increased power and authority in Syria resulted in the third century. This is the context in which the Roman military presence on the middle Euphrates and Khabur rivers needs to be considered. Dio was ultimately critical of the move because Rome had taken control of more territory that had been traditionally Parthian and this led to the empire becoming even more embroiled in wars and disputes with its eastern neighbour.

It is difficult to be precise about the territory encompassed by Mesopotamia as precision seems not to have existed in antiquity. Roman texts referring to Mesopotamia before the last years of the second century do not always mention the area that would become the province of Mesopotamia from Severus’ reign. In the second half of the first century AD, for example, Pliny the Elder located what he called the Prefecture of Mesopotamia in the western portion of what was then the kingdom of Osrhoene, containing the principal towns of Anthemusia and Nicephorium. Singara, which would form an important legionary base in the province of Mesopotamia under Septimius Severus and later emperors, was described in the same passage by Pliny as the capital of an Arabian tribe called the Praetavi. The province of Mesopotamia in the early third century comprised quite different territory to the earlier descriptions, but it probably bore similarities to its definition under Trajan. Lucian of Samosata, however, complained that contemporary writers in the 160s were so ill-informed about Mesopotamia and where it lay that they made serious errors in locating it and the cities it contained. Some precision, however, can be established. The area that comprised the province was focused on the important cities of Nisibis, Singara and Rhesaina, and part of the Khabur river lay within the province.

In the years between Septimius Severus’ reorganization of the eastern provinces and events late in the reign of Severus Alexander, the most significant developments relevant to Coele Syria, Osrhoene and Mesopotamia took place in the reign of Septimius Severus’ son Caracalla. In 212/213, the client-kingdom of Edessa was itself abolished and became part of the province of Osrhoene, with the city of Edessa becoming a Roman colonia. The provincial reorganization set in train following the territorial gains of Septimius Severus was for now complete. There were two provinces across the Euphrates and one of them lay on a section of the upper Tigris.

In 216, Caracalla, like his father, resolved on a Parthian campaign. This took him across the Tigris to Arbela before his murder near Edessa in 217. Caracalla’s short-lived successor Macrinus met with defeat at the hands of the Parthian king Artabanus V at Nisibis, but Mesopotamia remained under Roman control. The growing Sasanian challenge to the Parthians was developing, which may be reflected in the inability of Artabanus to press his victory in Mesopotamia. It was not until after the Sasanian overthrow of the Parthians was complete that Roman power in Mesopotamia and on the middle Euphrates would be seriously challenged.

Battle of Nisibis

After Caracalla’s assassination, his successor Macrinus (217-18) immediately announced that his predecessor had done wrong by the Parthians and restored peace. In 218, after a battle fought at Nisibis during which both sides suffered heavy losses, a treaty was signed. According to Herodian, the Roman emperor Macrinus was delighted about having won the Iranian opponent as a reliable friend.

Near the city of Nisibis in Mesopotamia, an army led by Parthian King Artabatus V clashed with the legions of Emperor Macrinus. Following a skirmish between opposing troops over control of a water source, the two armies assembled for battle. The Parthian host consisted of large formations of heavy cavalry – both clibanarii and cataphracti – light mounted bowmen and a contingent of armoured camel riders called dromedarii. Macrinus readied his army for battle across the plain: the legions deployed in the centre, with cavalry and Moorish troops placed on the flanks. Arrayed at intervals within the central formation were Moroccan auxilia. Once battle was joined, the Parthian heavy horse and mounted archers inflicted severe casualties on the Roman infantry, while the legionaries and light troops proved superior in all hand-to-hand action. As the contest wore on, the Romans found themselves increasingly at a disadvantage against the speed and manoeuvrability of the enemy cavalry. In an effort to disrupt these incessant attacks, the legions feigned retreat at one point so as to draw the horsemen onto ground littered with caltrops and other devices designed to cripple the horses. Fighting continued unabated until dusk. Battle resumed the next morning and lasted all day, but again ended at nightfall with no clear victor. On the third day, Artabatus attempted to use his superior numbers of cavalry to encircle the Roman formation by means of a double envelopment, but Macrinus extended his battle-line in order to thwart the Parthians’ efforts. Toward late afternoon, the Roman emperor sent envoys to treat for peace, which was readily granted by the king. Artabatus afterward returned to Persia with his army, and Macrinus and his forces withdrew to the city of Antioch in Syria. To deter a resumption of hostilities, Macrinus presented the Parthian ruler with gifts amounting to 200 million sesterces.

Camel Cataphracts

Like most Parthian armies, the forces under Artabanus consisted mostly of cavalrymen and archers. On the other hand, the Parthian army at Nisibis was unique in that it contained a contingent of a rare cataphract–type of warriors who were mounted not upon horses, but rather camels instead. In his History of the Roman Empire, Herodian first mentions the distinctive troops in the events leading up to the battle:

Artabanus was marching toward the Romans with a huge army, including a strong cavalry contingent and a powerful unit of archers and those cataphracts who hurl spears from camels.

The camel cataphracts fought with either spears or lances, and both riders and mounts wore extensive armour like the traditional cataphracts who rode horses. Along with the legionaries, the Roman army also included contingents of light infantry and Mauretanian cavalrymen. The fighting between the two ancient superpowers was brutal and lasted for three long days. Herodian recorded how deadly the Parthian warriors, including the camel cataphracts, were on the first day of the fighting, yet he also described how the Romans eventually managed to gain the upper hand:

The barbarians inflicted many wounds upon the Romans from above, and did considerable damage by the showers of arrows and the long spears of the cataphract camel riders. But when the fighting came to close quarters, the Romans easily defeated the barbarians; for when the swarms of Parthian cavalry and hordes of camel riders were mauling them, the Romans pretended to retreat and then they threw down caltrops and other keen–pointed iron devices. Covered by the sand, these were invisible to the horsemen and the camel riders and were fatal to the animals. The horses, and particularly the tender–footed camels, stepped on these devices and, falling, threw their riders. As long as they are mounted on horses and camels, the barbarians in those regions fight bravely, but if they dismount or are thrown, they are very easily captured; they cannot stand up to hand–to–hand fighting. And, if they find it necessary to flee or pursue, the long robes which hang loosely about their feet trip them up.

However, with the coming of night and no clear victor to the battle, the two armies retreated to their camps to rest for the night. The second day of the fighting ended in a stalemate as well. The third day of the battle, however, decided the outcome when the Parthians changed their tactics to try and fully envelope the numerically inferior Roman force. In response to the encircling attempts of the Parthian soldiers, the Romans extended their own lines to compensate for the extended Parthian front. However, the Parthians were able to exploit the weakened thinner lines of the Romans and achieve a great victory. Knowing he had lost the battle, Emperor Macrinus retreated and, soon after, his men fled to the Roman camp as well. Although the Parthians won the Battle of Nisibis, it was a Pyrrhic victory for Artabanus; the losses were heavy for both sides. Since the Parthian emperor desired peace almost as much as Macrinus, Artabanus accepted only a substantial payment in return for a cessation of hostilities, as opposed to the territory he previously demanded.

Although Emperor Macrinus was quickly defeated, executed and replaced by one of his rivals, Elagabalus (r. 218-222), in 218, the Roman Empire continued to persist for centuries following its defeat at Nisibis. The Parthian Empire, on the other hand, became even weaker after its conflict with Rome and continued on its steady decline. Revolts from within the empire continued to plague Artabanus so he could not sit back and enjoy his success over the Romans. In 220, the leader of the Persians, Ardashir, managed to break free from Parthian rule and exploit the weakness of the empire to extend his control over more and more land. By 224, Artabanus met Ardashir on the field of battle and lost more than his life; the Parthian Empire collapsed shortly after his fall. In place of the Parthians, a resurgent Persian state arose known as the Sassanian Empire. As the new supreme empire of the east, the armies of the Sassanians had some of the greatest warriors of the ancient world. Like its Parthian predecessor, the elite heavy cavalry of the Sassanian Empire were also cataphracts.


Emperor from 217 to 218, and a one-time PREFECT OF THE PRAETORIAN GUARD under Caracalla, whose death he masterminded. He was born to a poor family in Caesarea, in Mauretania, and many details of his life have not been verified, but he apparently moved to Rome and acquired a position as advisor on law and finances to the Praetorian prefect Plautianus. Surviving the fall of the prefect in 205, Macrinus became financial minister to Septimius Severus and of the Flaminian Way. By 212, Macrinus held the trust of Emperor Caracalla and was appointed prefect of the Praetorian Guard, sharing his duties with Oclatinus Adventus. Campaigning with Caracalla in 216 against the Parthians, Macrinus came to fear for his own safety, as Caracalla could be murderous. When letters addressed to the emperor seemed to point to his own doom, Macrinus engineered a conspiracy that ended in early 217 with Caracalla’s assassination near Edessa.

Feigning grief and surprise, Macrinus manipulated the legions into proclaiming him emperor. To ensure their devotion and to assuage any doubts as to his complicity in the murder, he deified the martially popular Caracalla. Meanwhile, the Senate, which had come to loathe the emperor, granted full approval to Macrinus’ claims. The Senate’s enthusiasm was dampened, however, by Macrinus’ appointments, including Adventus as city prefect and Ulpius Julianus and Julianus Nestor as prefects of the Guard. Adventus was too old and unqualified, while the two prefects and Adventus had been heads of the feared FRUMENTARII.

Real problems, both military and political, soon surfaced. Artabanus V had invaded Mesopotamia, and the resulting battle of Nisibis did not resolve matters. Unable to push his troops, whom he did not trust, Macrinus accepted a humiliating peace. This, unfortunately, coincided with plotting by Caracalla’s Syrian family, headed by JULIA MAESA. Macrinus had tried to create dynastic stability, but mutiny in the Syrian legions threatened his survival. The Severans put up the young Elagabalus, high priest of the Sun God at Emesa, as the rival for the throne. Macrinus sent his prefect Ulpius against the Severan forces only to have him betrayed and murdered. He then faced Elagabalus’ army, led by the eunuch Gannys, and lost. Macrinus fled to Antioch and tried to escape to the West but was captured at Chalcedon and returned to Antioch. Both Macrinus and his son DIADUMENIANUS, whom he had declared his coruler, were executed.

The reign of Macrinus was important in that it was the first time that a nonsenator and a Mauretanian had occupied the throne. Further, he could be called the first of the soldier emperors who would dominate the chaotic 3rd century A. D. As his successors would discover, the loyalty of the legions was crucial, more important in some ways than the support of the rest of the Roman Empire.


A strategically important city in Mesopotamia, between the upper reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Nisibis was for many centuries the capital of the district of Mygdonia, situated on the Mygdonius River. Few cities were so bitterly involved in the conflicts between Rome and the empires of PARTHIA and PERSIA. Any advance into Mesopotamia from Armenia would aim for the occupation of Nisibis to allow a further attack against the Tigris or south into Mesopotamia and the Euphrates satrapies. In his campaign against Parthia, Emperor Trajan captured Nisibis in 114 but then lost it in the revolt of 116 that killed his general Maximus Santra. The reliable Moor, Lusius Quietus, was unleashed, and he retook Nisibis as well as EDESSA. Emperor Septimius Severus suppressed an uprising of the Osroene in 194 and created a colony at Nisibis, providing it with a procurator. Upon his return in 198, Severus decreed MESOPOTAMIA a province, with Nisibis as its capital and the seat of an Equestrian prefect who controlled two legions.

Throughout the 3rd century A. D., Nisibis was buffeted back and forth as Rome and Persia struggled against one another. Following the crushing defeat of King NARSES in 298, at the hands of Emperor Galerius, Nisibis enjoyed a monopoly as the trading center between the two realms. In 363, Julian launched an unsuccessful Persian expedition; his successor Jovian accepted a humiliating peace with SHAPUR Nisibis became Persian once again.

Romans in Egypt

At the death of Ptolemy IX in 80 BC, his daughter Berenice III became the sole ruler. But Ptolemy XI, the son of Ptolemy X, was recalled from Rome (where he was a client of Sulla) to be co-regent, thanks to Sulla’s intervention (Appian, Bella Civilia 1.102). This was the first Roman active involvement in Egyptian politics since Popilius Leanas came to Egypt. Yet the reign of Ptolemy XI with his stepmother was short and dramatic, as he murdered her almost immediately. In response, the Alexandrian populace killed him and chose his cousin Ptolemy XII as king of Egypt; Ptolemy XII’s brother became king of Cyprus in order to hinder Rome’s ability to activate Ptolemy X’s will. The first part of Ptolemy XII’s reign, until his banishment by the Alexandrians, who supported his daughter and his sister-wife Cleopatra VI Tryphaena, was mainly devoted to obtaining recognition of his royal title by the Roman Senate. He bribed influential Romans and reinforced his relationship with the Egyptian priestly elite. The army was not involved in many events, except for the soldiers and the military elite in Alexandria, who took part in the riots. Ptolemy XII’s involvement in military affairs translated into financially supporting Pompey’s 8,000 cavalrymen to fight in Judea (Pliny, Naturalis Historia 33.136), rather than sending his own troops. The Ptolemaic army seems to have been reduced to a limited number of men garrisoned within Egypt, since Ptolemy preferred to provide money rather than troops and then had to ask Pompey’s help to put down a revolt; the request was refused. The revolt has often been explained by tax increases that would have allowed the king to bribe the Romans, whereas the state of military organization and the role of the military elite have been overlooked. Heavy taxation has usually been inferred from limited regional evidence from the Heracleopolite nome about inhabitants of villages abandoning their land. But the king may have been able to afford a politics of bribery by saving money on administrative costs, and by lowering military expenses by reducing the number of garrisoned soldiers. Indeed, Ptolemy’s demand to Pompey suggests the lack of a large body of mobilizable soldiers and of support from the military elite in the capital. The economic situation of the population may well have deteriorated due to tax increases, but above all the elite in Alexandria was dissatisfied with Ptolemy XII and had enough military support to oppose him.

In 59 BC the consul Julius Caesar finally recognized Ptolemy XII as king of Egypt, after Ptolemy gave him and Pompey 6,000 talents (e. g. Suetonius, Julius Caesar 54.3). Like many of his predecessors, Ptolemy XII issued an amnesty decree to reassert power. He notably re-stated that cleruchic land could be hereditarily transmitted, as had already been accepted in Ptolemy VIII’s decrees. Everything might have worked well for the king, had not Cyprus been in the process of becoming a Roman province at the same moment. Influential members of the elite criticized Ptolemy’s failure to prevent this loss. Supported by the mob, they expelled him and put his daughter Berenice IV on the throne along with her mother, Cleopatra VI Tryphaena. After having tried for almost three years to obtain Roman military support to regain his position, Ptolemy XII crossed the Egyptian border in 55 BC escorted by Gabinius, the proconsul of Syria, and his troops, with Mark Antony as commander of the cavalry (Plutarch, Antonius 3.4-7). Cicero records Gabinius’ fear of the fleet of Archelaus and the growing number of pirates in the Mediterranean. The promises of 10,000 talents from the king cannot have been entirely unconnected. Gabinius, who led his legions outside his province without official authorization, took the garrison of Pelusium and defeated Archelaos, the queen’s husband. For the first time in Egyptian history, not only did a Roman army enter the country, but Roman troops and Gallic and Germanic cavalrymen, known as the Gabiniani, remained there to protect Ptolemy. They rapidly married local women and became involved in the “defense” of Egypt against Caesar.

Ptolemy XII celebrated his return with his daughter Berenice IV’s death and other murders. His ability to fulfil his financial promises seems to have been somewhat limited. In Rome Gabinius was tried, fined the sum which had been promised him and went bankrupt. In Egypt Rabirius Postumus was appointed by the king to the chief financial post of the country, that of dioiketes, but in spite of abandoning his toga and adopting Greek dress he failed to recover the money owed to Pompey and other Romans; he was driven ignominiously from the country. The Alexandrians who earlier had shown ‘all zeal in looking after those visiting from Italy, keen, in their fear, to give no cause for complaint or war’ now had little time for Roman interference. Two sons of Bibulus, now governor of Syria, who in 50 were sent to recall the Gabiniani from the attractions of Alexandria in order to fight the Parthians were summarily put to death in the city. 34 Slaughter in the streets and in the gymnasium had become regular features of life in the capital city

In the final year of his life Ptolemy XII made his elder daughter Cleopatra VII co-regent. Shortly after his death, in 51 BC, she expelled her twelve-year-old brother, whom she should have married according to tradition and probably according to Ptolemy XII’s will. But the difficult economic situation engendered by a bad flood turned the population and influential men in the court against her.

In 48 BCE Cleopatra incurred the wrath of the Gabiniani; when they killed the sons of the Roman governor of Syria, Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus, she handed the murderers over to Bibulus. This led to Cleopatra’s fall from power: she fled Egypt with her sister, Arsinoe, while Ptolemy XIII assumed sole rule. Pompey ingratiated himself with Ptolemy.

She had to leave the capital and then Egypt. When Caesar arrived in Egypt after Pompey’s murder by Ptolemy XIII’s men, Cleopatra’s troops and those of her brother and the eunuch Pothinus were opposing one another around Pelusium. We know almost nothing about the composition and number of Caesar’s troops. Some Gabiniani probably fought on Ptolemy’s side, while 500 Gallic and Germanic cavalry had been sent to Pompey’s son in 49 BC with fifty warships (Caesar, Bellum Civile 3.4.4, 3.40; Dio Cassius 42.12; Appian, Bella Civilia 2.49). Caesar decided to solve the conflict between the siblings, doubtless hoping to use Egyptian resources to strengthen his power in Rome. He chose to support Cleopatra but may have misjudged the strength of her position.

Soon Caesar was trapped in Alexandria with only two small legions and 800 cavalry (Caesar, Bellum Civile 3.106), whereas Pothinus attacked the city in the name of Ptolemy XIII with 22,000 men under the command of Achillas (Bellum Civile 3.110.1-2). Caesar described these events as the Alexandrian War (48/7 BC), which he won thanks to reinforcement from Asia Minor and Judea. Since Ptolemy XIII died in the encounter, Caesar settled the dynastic conflict by marrying Cleopatra to her younger brother Ptolemy XIV, following his own interests but also their father’s will, and establishing the pair as queen and king of Egypt. The final piece of evidence about the overall composition of the army in Egypt is found in Bellum Civile 3.110 and Bellum Alexandrinum 2.1. In the first passage Caesar divides the army fighting on the side of Ptolemy XIII and led by Achillas – 20,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry – into three groups: the Gabiniani, the mercenaries from Cilicia and Syria, whom he calls “thieves,” and the condemned and exiled people (capitis damnati exulesque) and slaves. It is noticeable that the two cohorts of Gabiniani seem to have quickly played a central role in the Ptolemaic army. It is unclear if the mercenaries who joined them, according to Caesar, were recent additions or already belonged to the army. Yet the mobilization of slaves suggests that Ptolemy did not consider his army strong enough to oppose Caesar’s two legions. The author of Bellum Alexandrinum 2.1 explains that Ptolemy and the Alexandrians had also levied men in Egypt and on its frontier, which suggests that there were still professional soldiers and officers stationed in garrisons. But there is no clear evidence that the cleruchs were active in this period.

Finally, a watershed in the history of the Ptolemaic army occurred when Caesar left three additional legions in Egypt in 47 BC. By then the troops in garrison in the Delta were probably predominantly Roman, with soldiers recruited primarily from Italy or the Greek-speaking provinces. Their movement into the rest of the country, like their integration with existing troops, must have been gradual. The extent to which changes attested in the documentary evidence were representative of the entire army is difficult to estimate, but groups of soldiers with Roman names or even with Roman, Greek and Egyptian names appear here and there, along with dedications by soldiers with Latin ranks translated into Greek. Roman military terminology in Greek translation also gradually comes to be used, until it is completely standardized under Augustus. Military developments between 55 BC and 30 BC can be sketched as follows: the Roman legions became the main source of military power other than a few “Ptolemaic” soldiers in garrisons, while the cleruchic army was no longer active militarily. This is not to say that men born in Egypt played no role in the army, but they were reduced to a small number or were increasingly integrated into the Roman system.  The existence of Ptolemaic hipparchies used as auxiliaries to the Roman army as late as AD 12 convincingly shows that “some Ptolemaic forces survived the Roman conquest.”

The final military event indirectly involving the Ptolemaic dynasty is the naval Battle of Actium between Octavian and Mark Antony in 31 BC. The Egyptian contribution was financial as usual but also naval, the central power having been unable to organize and sustain a functioning land army for decades. According to Plutarch (Antonius 56.1-6), Cleopatra gave Mark Antony 20,000 talents in addition to her 200 ships. For the battle, Mark Antony burned the Egyptian fleet except the best sixty warships that transported 20,000 infantry and 2,000 archers (Antonius 64.2). These are the ships with which Cleopatra broke the Roman blockade to sail back to Egypt (Antonius 66). The 22,000 soldiers on board must be counted as Mark Antony’s Roman legions, not Ptolemaic troops. After their defeat, Antony and Cleopatra lost most of their allies but organized the defense of Egypt. One year later, Octavian and his armies took Pelusium and fought outside Alexandria until Antony’s troops switched sides (Antonius 76). Antony and Cleopatra both committed suicide, and Egypt became an official Roman province.

Cleopatra’s contribution to Antony’s war effort was of paramount importance; the Ptolemaic army and navy were still considerable; the latter, or what was left of it after Actium, went to provide the nucleus of the Alexandrian arm of the Roman imperial fleet. Signs of the Roman military presence are noticeable in 5 5 B. C. after the intrusion of the Gabiniani, and with Caesar’s installation of troops in the aftermath of the Alexandrian War. The Greek translation of cohors occurs in a papyrus of the period from Heracleopolis; a Roman praefectus named C. Iulius Papius makes a dedication in the temple of Isis at Philae in the twentieth year of Cleopatra’s reign. After Actium greater care was taken at a higher level. Senators and illustrious equites were forbidden entry to Egypt without permission of the princeps. One of the few people put to death in the aftermath of the royal suicide had been a Roman senator named Q. Ovinius who had disgraced his senatorial stripe by undertaking supervision of the Queen’s textile factories and perhaps provided an admonitory example of the economic power-base available in Egypt.

The number of soldiers in the Roman army in Egypt remained lower than that in the Ptolemaic army in the third and second centuries BC and was about one-quarter of the size of the land army gathered at Raphia. There were three legions of about 5,000 men, and then only two legions left under Tiberius in AD 23, along with auxiliary units.

Egypt as Princips Province

From the first, care was taken in the establishment of the status and administration of a province which yielded almost as much revenue as did the Gallic provinces added to the empire by Augustus’ adoptive father and twelve times as much as the province of Judaea was to provide. The emperor immediately took on the role of a Pharaoh and the familiar cartouches were to appear on temple reliefs until the reign of Decius (A. D. 249-51); the lamplighters of Oxyrhynchus duly adapted their customary oath of office and swore by Caesar, ‘god, son of a god’ (theon ek theou) in 30/29 B. C. But Egypt was to be anomalous in being governed by an equestrian praefectus appointed by and directly responsible to the princeps (though a freedman could also hold the office as did one Hiberus for a brief period in A. D. 32, replacing the deceased Vitrasius Pollio). The first prefect was the poet Cornelius Gallus who had led Octavian’s army into Egypt from the west in the war against Antony and Cleopatra. His first responsibility, to ensure internal security, was met by prompt reduction of rebellious towns in the region of Coptos in the Thebaid but he boasted, perhaps too vaingloriously, of that and of his feat in carrying Roman arms further south than they had hitherto gone. Within a couple of years he was removed from office, banned from entering the princeps’ provinces and finally driven to suicide.

For the first decade of Roman rule, we have more evidence for the preoccupation with military security than for the development of the civil administration. The history of Egypt in the decade after Actium well illustrates the major features of the Augustan frontier strategy. Cornelius Gallus’ inauspicious foray to the south of the First Cataract was perhaps the first attempt to test the viability of further annexation of territory. In the Arabian expedition of his successor, Aelius Gallus, the security of the Indian trade routes will certainly have been an important consideration, but that need not have been the primary motivation for expansion. In effect, with the Nabataean kingdom to the east left independent until A. D. 106, the trading links maintained with India through the ports of the Red Sea coast and the developing road network of the eastern desert functioned perfectly satisfactorily. The expeditions of the next prefect, P. Petronius, to the south between 2 5 /4 and 22 B. C. brought a short-lived Roman occupation of the region beyond the Dodecaschoenus and a Roman garrison to Primis (Qasr Ibrim), a site which has yielded the earliest Latin literary manuscript, fragments of elegiacs, most probably by Cornelius Gallus. Augustus soon decided, however, to remit tribute, perhaps calculating that the cost of occupation was not justified, and within a few years the formal limit of the province had been set at Hierasykaminos, some 80km to the south of the First Cataract. But the impact of the Roman presence further south, in an area accessible to Rome and to Meroe, was still by no means negligible and served as a reminder of the latent interest and power of Rome. In the southernmost part of the province the most obvious signs of Roman dominion are the great temples, largely constructed in the Augustan period, at Dendur and at Kalabsha (Talmis) where there seem to be two distinct temples of the Augustan period on a site which also shows signs of building in the late Ptolemaic period.

Military sensitivity and the importance of the grain supply help to explain the direct imperial appointment of the prefect and are perhaps sufficient to account for Tacitus’ insistence that the princeps controlled Egypt especially closely. The Senate was thus effectively excluded from any direct responsibility, although even regulations for the administration of the emperor’s Special Account (Idios Lagos) might still be modified or affected by senatorial acts. One factor of obvious importance is that the conquest brought a great deal of land into imperial possession (the patrimonium). There is evidence under Augustus for possession of estates (whether through purchase or gift) by the emperor’s relatives and friends (Livia, Antonia the Younger, Germanicus, Maecenas), though none for direct personal ownership by Augustus. Later emperors did, however, own estates and continued to bestow them on friends and favourites such as Seneca, Narcissus, Pallas, Doryphorus; these latter properties would naturally revert, whether de iure or merely de facto is unclear, to the patrimonium on the death of the individual.

The presence of imperial property, if nothing else, emphasizes that it is very misleading to characterize the whole province as in some sense the ‘personal property’ of the emperor. But Egypt was nevertheless a province with important differences.

The office of prefect of Egypt was to develop, as might have been foreseen, into one of immense latent power, as Tiberius Iulius Alexander was to demonstrate in A.D. 69 with his support of Vespasian’s bid for the imperial throne; Avidius Cassius, the son of a former prefect, was to claim the support of Egypt and its prefect in his unsuccessful attempt at usurpation in A.D. 175.The authority of the prefecture was spelled out in a law, presumably enacted in or very soon after 30 B.C., which gave the incumbent’s acts and decrees the same validity as those of any Roman magistrate. The list of prefects appointed by Augustus and the Julio-Claudian emperors shows some illustrious (and notorious) names: C. Turranius, Seius Strabo, father of Sejanus, Avillius Flaccus, Sutorius Macro. Prefects held office for three years, on average, and in the absence of any specialist Egyptian training relied on their general knowledge of the principles of military and civil administration and law, backed up by readily available local expertise, to cope with the diverse and intricate bureaucratic demands of the job. Promotion from Egypt to the praetorian prefecture is regularly attested in the period A. D. 70-235. Tiberius Iulius Alexander, nephew of Philo and advanced to the prefecture, proceeding later in all probability to the praetorian command; Caecina Tuscus and Claudius Balbillus both held equestrian posts slightly later than Alexander and reached the prefecture earlier. Before them, three examples are known of men who proceeded from the praetorian prefecture to Egypt, namely Seius Strabo, Sutorius Macro and Lusius Geta, all perhaps in circumstances of political sensitivity. member of a prominent Alexandrian Jewish family, is important as the earliest example of an official who held an equestrian post in Egypt (that of epistrategos) and advanced to the prefecture, proceeding later in all probability to the praetorian command; Caecina Tuscus and Claudius Balbillus both held equestrian posts slightly later than Alexander and reached the prefecture earlier. Before them, three examples are known of men who proceeded from the praetorian prefecture to Egypt, namely Seius Strabo, Sutorius Macro and Lusius Geta, all perhaps in circumstances of political sensitivity.