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.


Pompey’s small flotilla of ships reached the coast near Mount Casius on 28 September 48 BC, just a day short of his fifty-ninth birthday. Ptolemy XIII’s army was waiting for him, the boy king splendidly attired as a commander, but the faction that controlled him had already decided how to welcome the visitor. Pompey’s friendship no longer seemed so attractive in spite of his long connection with Auletes. He was coming to Egypt in the hope of rebuilding his power, which meant that he must take from the kingdom and had little to give in return. He would want money, grain and men, and some of the king’s advisers feared that the Gabinians might well be willing to join him. Ptolemy XIII’s government risked being stripped of the very resources that guaranteed its power. Even then, Pompey was more than likely to be defeated again and his conqueror would scarcely be well disposed towards them. Instead, there was an opportunity to win Caesar’s favour.

A small boat put out carrying a welcoming party consisting of the army commander Achillas and two Roman officers from amongst the Gabinians – one of them the tribune Lucius Septimius, who had served under Pompey back in the 60s. It was a small delegation in an unimpressive craft and scarcely a mark of honour, but they claimed that the conditions made it impossible to employ a more dignified vessel or to permit Pompey to bring his own ship to the shore. Instead, they invited him to climb down and join them, so that they could take him to be properly greeted by the king.

Pompey agreed. He and his companions may well have been suspicious, but it would have destroyed what little prestige he had left to seem frightened by the representatives of a mere client king. His wife Cornelia and most of his staff watched as Pompey climbed down into the boat and was rowed ashore. On the way, he spotted something familiar about Septimius and, addressing him as ‘comrade’, asked whether they knew each other.

The tribune’s response was to stab his old commander in the back. Achillas joined in the attack, as presumably did the centurion. It was a brutal, clumsy murder and afterwards Pompey’s head was hacked off and taken to the king. Another senator was taken prisoner and later executed. Ptolemy’s warships then launched an attack on the Roman flotilla and several ships were destroyed before the rest managed to escape. (Thirteen centuries later, Dante would consign the boy alongside Cain and Judas to the circle of hell reserved for traitors.)

Caesar arrived in Alexandria a few days later. Ptolemy’s court must have been aware that he was on his way, because Theodotus was waiting for him and triumphantly produced Pompey’s head and his signet ring. These did not prompt the hoped for reaction. Pompey had been Caesar’s enemy, but before that he had been his ally and son-in-law; he was also a Roman senator of immense prestige and fame who had been cut down on the whim of a foreign king and his sinister advisers. It is arguable whether or not Caesar could have extended his vaunted ‘clemency’ to his most powerful adversary, and in any case unlikely that Pompey could have brought himself to accept it.

Caesar refused to look at the severed head and wept when he saw the familiar ring. His horror and disgust may or may not have been feigned. Cynics said that it was very convenient for him, since his enemy was now dead and yet someone else would take the blame for the crime. His emotions were probably mixed, with relief that his opponent could not renew the struggle mingled with a sadness at the loss of a rival and a former friend. With Crassus and Pompey now both dead, there was really no other Roman left with whom it was worth competing.

If the boy king’s advisers were disappointed at Caesar’s reaction, they were dismayed at what he did next. For the Romans disembarked and then marched in a column to take up residence in part of the complex of royal palaces. Caesar was consul and he proceeded in full pomp, with twelve lictors carrying the fasces walking ahead of him. It was a blatant display of Roman confidence and authority, suggesting the arrival not of an ally, but of an occupier. The Alexandrians had a fierce sense of their own independence. Some of the royal soldiers left to garrison the city immediately protested and crowds soon gathered to jeer the Romans. Over the next few days, several legionaries wandering on their own were attacked and killed by mobs.

Caesar was not at the head of a large army and had only two legions with him. One, the Sixth, was a veteran formation, but after years of heavy campaigning it now mustered fewer than 1,000 soldiers. The Twenty-Seventh had about 2,200 men, which meant that it was below half its theoretical strength. Its legionaries were far less experienced and the formation had originally been raised by the Pompeians, but had been renumbered when it was captured and the men swore a new oath to Caesar. To support these Caesar had 800 cavalry, who may well have been the bodyguard unit of Germans he usually kept with him. Horses are far more difficult to transport than soldiers and there is a fair chance that most or all of these men were transported without their mounts.

It is tempting to criticise Caesar for tactlessness in parading through the city and antagonising the Alexandrians, especially since he had so few soldiers and could not hope to dominate a population numbering hundreds of thousands. Some would see this as habitual Roman disdain for the feelings of other nations and unthinking arrogance reinforced by his own recent victories. It was more likely calculation. Caesar had no particular reason to expect hostility when he came to Egypt, but knew he had only a small force actually with him. The murder of Pompey was intended to please him, but could also be seen as a threat. Had he slipped quietly through the streets of Alexandria the impression would have been one of fear. This is unlikely to have made the population less hostile, for they had a long tradition of resenting Roman influence, and it could easily have made them more aggressive.

There were several reasons for him to stop in Egypt. Although eager to pursue Pompey, he had already paused in several communities, raising money, dealing with local problems and also placating and pardoning those who had supported the Pompeians. He needed the eastern provinces to accept his supremacy and to be stable, for confusion would more easily provide opportunities for his remaining enemies to continue the civil war. Above all else, Caesar needed funds. The Republic had been massively disrupted by two years of conflict and he needed to find the money to ensure that everything kept running. One major expense was paying his army, which had swollen massively in size as Pompeian soldiers surrendered. It would have been unwise to demobilise these men, and even more dangerous if they were not regularly paid and provided for. The Ptolemaic kingdom was wealthy, offering grain to feed soldiers and revenue to pay them – the same things that had attracted Pompey. Caesar needed to be sure that these resources were kept under his own control and did not fall to recalcitrant Pompeians.

Caesar decided to stay, and soon the decision was reinforced when a change in the weather made it impossible for his ships to leave. Soon after landing he had sent orders for more legions to join him, but this would inevitably take time. At some point, Ptolemy XIII himself and much of his court including Pothinus also arrived in Alexandria. Achillas and the main army of 22,000 men remained to the east for the moment, watching Cleopatra’s forces.

The Roman consul informed the king and his court that he and his sister must disband their forces ‘and settle their dispute through law rather than weapons with himself as judge’. There was also private business. Caesar declared that the heirs of Auletes still owed him 17.5 million denarii according to the agreement of 59 BC and also the loans to Rabirius Postumus, which he himself had underwritten. He demanded 10 million of this to be paid to him immediately to support his army.

Pothinus was by now the king’s dioecetes – the same post held by Rabirius Postumus until he had fled from Egypt – and so the finances were his direct responsibility. Caesar’s very presence was unwelcome, his interference in a civil war that seemed virtually won was appalling and his demands more than could readily be met. It may also have been politically dangerous for the regime that controlled the king to be seen to give in to Roman pressure. Pothinus suggested to Caesar that he ought to leave Egypt for he must have more pressing business elsewhere. For a while – perhaps for weeks – there was an uneasy truce. Caesar occupied part of the royal palaces and brought the king and his courtiers under his control to show the people that the violence was provoked by ‘a few private individuals and gangsters’ and not by the boy himself. Pothinus met Caesar’s demands to feed his legionaries, but gave them the poorest grain he could find. Feasts in the palaces were served on old tableware in direct contrast to the normal opulence of the Ptolemaic court. It was a double message, telling Caesar that his demands could not quickly be met and suggesting to the locals that the Romans were bleeding the kingdom dry.


At some point, Cleopatra arrived. Caesar barely mentions her in his own brief account of his time in Alexandria and the fuller narrative written by one of his officers adds very little information about her. Neither suggest she played any important role in events and do not even hint at intimacy between the Roman consul and the Hellenistic queen, but this is in keeping with the generally impersonal style of Caesar’s Commentaries. Plutarch and Dio both say that the two had been in contact for some time by messenger, although they differ over who initiated this.

If Caesar was to arbitrate in the dispute between brother and sister, then it was natural that he should want to speak to both of them. Even if he chose to back Ptolemy XIII, he would need to deal with Cleopatra or risk the civil war between them continuing and thus leaving Egypt unstable and a source of potential trouble in the future. There was actually little to recommend such a full endorsement of the boy king and the men who controlled him. These had so far failed to deliver properly the supplies and money he wanted, and the attitude of Pothinus was scarcely that of a loyal and suitably subservient ally. Wherever he had gone, Caesar issued judgements as he saw fit, usually emphasising his clemency, but always making clear that this was something he could give or withhold. Backing Ptolemy XIII could easily have seemed to be giving in to coercion. It would also have aligned him very closely with Pompey’s murderers. At the very least, he needed to make sure that Ptolemy and his court worked hard to win his approval.

Until Caesar’s arrival, Cleopatra’s bid to regain power had stalled and looked likely to end in failure. She clearly lacked the military power to defeat her brother’s army and there is no trace at this stage of major political defections to her cause. Caesar had relatively few soldiers with him, but he represented the power of the Roman Republic in an especially real sense, since he was victorious in Rome’s civil war. His public disgust at Pompey’s murder, his refusal fully to endorse her brother’s regime and, most of all, his willingness to talk to her all suggested that he might be persuaded to favour her. In a way now traditional for the Ptolemies, Cleopatra quite naturally wanted to harness Roman power to support her own ambition.

The twenty-one-year-old exiled queen left her army. It is not heard of again, suggesting that the soldiers dispersed. Perhaps the money to pay them had run out or, since she did not have enough strength to win, Cleopatra decided it would be better to appear as the pitiful exile preferring to rely on Roman justice rather than force. Caesar may have formally summoned her to Alexandria, and is certainly likely to have known that she was coming. That did not mean that he could ensure her safe arrival. The Romans controlled only a small part of the city. Outside that area were many soldiers from the king’s army. Pothinus, Theodotus and indeed the young Ptolemy himself are unlikely to have welcomed his older sister. Given the past willingness of the Ptolemies to slaughter their own family, the more or less discreet murder of a sister was not only possible, but likely.

There is no good reason to disbelieve the stories that Cleopatra sailed secretly into the harbour at Alexandria, using stealth or bribery to avoid her brother’s guards. Only Plutarch tells the famous story that she was then taken across the harbour in a small boat and into the palace by a single faithful courtier, Apollodorus of Sicily. They waited until night fell, so as not to be seen, and the young queen was concealed in a bag used for carrying laundry – not the oriental carpet so beloved of film-makers. Apollodorus carried the bag into the palace where Caesar was staying and brought her to his room. Once there, he could undo the tie fastening at the top of the bag, so that the material dropped down as the queen stood up, revealing herself almost like a dancer popping out of a cake.

Some reject the story as a romantic invention, pointing out that Caesar would scarcely have permitted a stranger carrying a mysterious burden to come into his room. Yet their earlier correspondence makes it likely that he knew that either the queen herself or a message was on its way and so demolishes this objection. Apollodorus’ arrival would not then have been so unexpected. Others would modify the story, suggesting that instead of hiding in a bag, the young queen wore a long hooded cloak, throwing this back to show herself when brought into Caesar’s presence. This is possible, but there is no direct evidence for it. The appearance of a story in just a single source does not automatically mean that it is an invention, especially since the accounts describing Caesar and Cleopatra in Alexandria are quite brief. It was in the best interest of the king and his advisers to prevent his sister from reaching Caesar and beyond the latter’s power to guarantee her safety until she was actually with him. That she came without any ceremony and with at least a degree of stealth makes perfect sense.

The Military of Rome I

Rome now dominated southern and central Italy, including Etruria and the Greek cities. Northern Italy, of course, remained largely occupied by the Gauls, and the Gauls remained a menace. The process by which Rome had developed from a small military outpost on a river-crossing to become the dominant power of the Italian peninsula had been by no means swift or continuous. It had taken the greater part of five centuries, and during that time Rome itself had twice been occupied by a foreign power.

According to traditional stories, the last of Rome’s kings, Tarquinius Superbus, an Etruscan, had been expelled late in the sixth century BC after his son had villainously raped the wife of a noble kinsman. Etruscan armies under Lars Porsenna had attempted to restore Tarquinius but had been thwarted by the heroism of Horatius who, with two comrades, defended the Tiber crossing against them until the demolition of the bridge was completed. The Latin cities to the south had then combined to replace the exiled monarch on his throne, but had been defeated by the Romans at the battle of Lake Regillus (where the Romans were assisted by the gods according to the legend!).

Illustrated Etruscan tomb inscriptions, taken in conjunction with the existing legends, suggest that the underlying historical facts were very different. It is clear that Porsenna was not the friend but the mortal enemy of Tarquinius, his fellow Etruscan. He probably conspired with aristocratic, partly Etruscan elements in Rome to precipitate Tarquinius’ downfall, and then himself occupied Rome. He certainly advanced south of Rome, to fight the Latins and their Greek allies of Cumae – where according to one story Tarquinius ultimately took refuge. When the Etruscans were defeated by the Latin League at Aricia (as described by Livy), their fugitives were received and protected in Rome. Moreover, Livy stresses the friendship of Porsenna towards the Romans and his chivalrous respect for their way of life. One would guess that Rome had accepted the position of subject ally to Etruria. The Roman population, despite its Etruscan overlordship, was of course Latin; their Etruscan allegiances brought them into conflict with the other Latin cities, who were allied to the Greek maritime states – Etruria’s commercial rivals.

At Rome, Latin patriotic sentiment may have accepted Etruscan kings and welcomed their leadership against Etruria itself, just as English patriotic feeling in the Middle Ages accepted French-speaking Plantagenet kings as leaders against the French. The early Roman historians, however, did not like to contemplate their city as a mere catspaw in Etruscan dynastic politics, let alone a puppet state to be employed against their Latin brothers. Consequently, these chroniclers substituted history of their own invention, assigning fictional roles to historic characters.

As the strength of Etruria diminished, Rome asserted its authority over both the Etruscans and the Latins, but at the beginning of the fourth century BC the city was overwhelmed, after the disastrous battle of the Allia, by a vast horde of Gallic raiders. The Romans retreated into their citadel on the Capitoline Mount; they eventually bought off the Gauls, whose immediate interest was in moveables and not in land. Roman history records that the great Camillus, Rome’s exiled war leader, was recalled to speed the parting Gauls with military action, but this thinly veils the fact that the Gauls departed of their own accord, having obtained what they wanted. Livy blames Roman decadence and impiety for the disaster, but the Romans must in any case have been vanquished by sheer weight of numbers. Apart from that, they were never at their best when dealing with a strange foe whose weapons and methods of warfare were new to them.

Roman military history is chequered by catastrophes. Few great empires can have sustained more major disasters during the period of their growth. Nobody would deny that the Romans were a formidable military nation; yet the genius which enabled them eventually to dominate the ancient world was as much political as military. Their great political instrument was their concept of citizenship. Citizenship was not simply a status which one did or did not possess. It was an aggregate of rights, duties and honours, which could be acquired separately and conferred by instalments. Such were the rights of making legal contracts and marriages. From both of these the right to a political vote was again separable; nor did the right to vote necessarily imply the right to hold office. Conquered enemies were thus often reconciled by a grant of partial citizenship, with the possibility of more to come if behaviour justified it. Some cities enjoyed Roman citizenship without the vote, being autonomous except in matters of foreign policy. Even the citizens of such communities, however, might qualify for full Roman citizenship if they migrated to Rome; where this right was not available, citizenship could be obtained by those who achieved public distinction in their own communities.

■ The Roman Army in Early Times

Citizenship, of course, implied a military as well as a political status. For the duties which it imposed were, above all, military. The Latin and other Italian allies, who enjoyed some intermediate degree of citizenship, were in principle required to supply an aggregate of fighting men equal to that levied by the Romans themselves. In practice, the Romans relied on their Italian allies particularly for cavalry: an arm in which they themselves were notoriously weak. The Greek cities did not normally contribute military contingents, but supplied ships and rowers. They were known as “naval allies” (socii navales) because of this function.

Any army whose technical resources are comprised by hand-arms, armour and horses, will, at all events in the early years of its development, reflect an underlying social order. Combatants who can afford horses and armour will naturally be drawn from the aristocracy. Others will have little armour and less sophisticated, if not fewer, weapons. This was true of Greek armies and also of medieval armies. It was certainly true of the Romans, whose military class differentiation was defined with unusual care and with great attention to detail. The resulting classification is associated with the military and administrative reorganization of Servius Tullius, traditionally sixth and penultimate king of Rome. His name suggests a sixth-century date for the reforms in question, though some scholars think that the so-called Servian organization was introduced later than this.

The “Servian” infantry was divided into five property classes, the wealthiest of which was armed with swords and spears and protected by helmets, round shields, greaves and breastplates. All protective armour was of bronze. In the second class, no breastplate was worn, but a long shield was substituted for the round buckler. The third class was as the second, but wore no greaves. The fourth class was equipped only with spears and javelins; the fifth was composed of slingers. There is no reference to archers. The poorest citizens were not expected to serve except in times of emergency, when they were equipped by the state. However, they normally supplied artisans to maintain siege engines and perform similar duties.

The army was also divided into centuries (i.e., “hundreds”), as the citizens were for voting purposes. However, a century soon came to contain 60, not 100 men. The first property class comprised 80 centuries; the second, third and fourth class had 20 centuries apiece; the fifth class had 30. A distinction was made between junior and senior centuries, the former containing young men for front-line action, the latter older men, more suitable for garrison duty. A single property class was equally divided between the two age groups.

The cavalry was recruited from the wealthiest families to form 18 centuries. A cavalry century received a grant for the purchase of its horses and one-fifth of this amount yearly for their upkeep. The yearly grant was apparently provided by a levy on spinsters! In general, the financial burden of warfare was shifted from the poor on to the rich. For this imposition, the rich were compensated by what amounted to a monopoly of the political suffrage. Inevitably, it was felt in time that they were overcompensated, but that is a matter which must not detain us here.

During the early epochs of Roman history, as archaeological evidence indicates, Greek hoplite armour was widely imitated throughout the Mediterranean area. Italy was no exception to this rule and, as Livy’s description suggests, Rome was no exception in Italy. Greek weapons called for Greek skill in their use, and this in turn assumed Greek tactical methods. The Romans were in contact with Greek practice, both through their Etruscan northern neighbours, who as a maritime people were more susceptible to overseas influences, and through direct contact with Greek cities in Italy, notably Cumae. The Roman army, as recruited on the Servian basis, must have fought as a hoplite phalanx, in a compact mass, several ranks deep, using their weight behind their shields as well as their long thrusting spears. The light troops afforded by the fourth and fifth infantry classes will have provided a skirmishing arm, and the cavalry held the wings on either side of the phalanx. There were also two centuries of artificers (fabri) attached to the centuries of the first class, and two of musicians (made up of hornblowers and trumpeters).

■ The Military Reforms of Camillus

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

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

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

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

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

■ Officers and Other Ranks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Military of Rome II

■ The Legions against the Phalanx

Rome had clashed with Philip V of Macedon when he cautiously allied himself with Carthage. Roman military commitments had then led to a compromise peace, but war was renewed two years after Zama. The Romans did not wish for a bad neighbour on the other side of the Adriatic, let alone one who often emerged as the ally and patron of pirates. Pretexts for intervention in Greek and Macedonian affairs were not far to seek. Since 273 BC, Rome had been on friendly terms with the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt. Ptolemaic succession difficulties had now arisen, and with avid opportunism Philip had allied himself to Antiochus III, who ruled Syria – the rump of the Seleucid empire – in an attempt to seize the Ptolemies’ overseas possessions. As usual, in a struggle between the successor powers, would-be neutrals were reluctantly involved, and Rhodes and Pergamum, a Greek Asiatic kingdom of culture which had recently stemmed Celtic inroads and defied the Seleucids, appealed to Rome.

The Roman commander who eventually took charge in Greece was Titus Quinctius Flaminius, an ardent philhellene. He finally defeated Philip at the battle of Cynoscephalae in Thessaly (197 BC). Cynoscephalae in Greek means “dog’s heads”, the shape of local hillocks suggesting the name. The uneven ground seriously hindered the Macedonian phalanx, but heavy mist early in the day also hampered Roman mobile tactics. On both sides, the right wing was victorious, but the scales were tipped in Rome’s favour by a tribune whom history has not named. On his own initiative, he diverted 20 maniples from a point where victory was already assured, to surprise the enemy phalanx in the rear. Flaminius, thus victorius, was welcomed as liberator of Greece. Subsequently, however, in 183 BC, he appeared in a less generous light, attempting to extradite the aged Hannibal, who as a harmless exile now lived in the Asiatic kingdom of Bithynia. Hannibal took poison. Even Roman senators did not approve Flaminius’ action, condemning it as officious and harsh.

Rome’s terms with Philip were not unduly severe, but war already loomed with Antiochus, his eastern ally. The logic of Roman military expansion is clear enough. For the sake of security and trade, Rome wanted peace in the eastern Mediterranean, but since she could not countenance any power strong enough to act as peacemaker, she had to exert her own strength in this capacity. Antiochus neglected rather than suspected Roman power and he had, perhaps tactlessly, employed the exiled Hannibal in a military capacity. In the war which followed, Antiochus’ fleets were unable to resist the Roman grappling and boarding tactics which had destroyed Carthaginian naval supremacy. On land, he was defeated first at Thermopylae (191 BC), then at Magnesia near Sipylus (190 BC), in Lydia. This last battle proved decisive. The Roman legions, as at Zama, had the advantage of good allied cavalry support, provided here by Eumenes, king of Pergamum. In their desire to tempt Antiochus from his defensive position, the Romans exposed their right wing, but Eumenes’ attack anticipated and threw into confusion the outflanking movements by Antiochus’ heavily armoured cavalry. The Roman left wing was thrown back by a charge of Oriental horsemen under Antiochus’ personal leadership, but the victors in this section of the field continued their pursuit too long and left the central phalanx unsupported. The phalanx, stationed in dense formations, at intervals, with elephants filling the gaps, was broken when the Romans successfully stampeded the elephants and breached the line.

The peace terms which followed Magnesia reduced Antiochus to impotence as far as the Mediterranean was concerned. But Rome fought a third Macedonian war with Perseus, son of Philip V. The decisive battle which finally established Rome as arbiter of the eastern Mediterranean world came at Pydna in Macedonia (168 BC). The pikemen of the Macedonian phalanx were again at a disadvantage on broken ground and the Roman legionary swordsmen were able to exploit gaps in their ranks. Roman tactical flexibility was, on this occasion, well turned to account by the generalship of Lucius Aemilius Paullus, son of the consul killed at Cannae.

Rome’s victories in these eastern wars cannot be understood unless it is realized that the ponderous Macedonian phalanx of the second century BC differed completely from the original flexible and mobile phalanx of Philip II and Alexander the Great. With the growing tendency towards heavier weapons and armour, it in effect reverted in character to the rigid Greek phalanx of the fifth century BC. At Cynoscephalae, the phalanx, attacked by Flaminius’ tribune in the rear, had been unable to wheel about even to protect itself. This helplessness compares significantly with the alacrity of Alexander’s phalangists at Gaugamela, who faced sharply about to rescue their baggage train from a Persian breakthrough.

Ever since the days of Camillus, when the maniple formation had been introduced, the Romans, unlike the Macedonians, had developed consistently in the direction of flexibility. To this development, the genius of Scipio Africanus had given great impetus, and the commanders who fought Rome’s eastern wars in the second century BC had thoroughly absorbed his tactical principles.

■ Weapons and Tactics

The confrontation between the legion and the phalanx raises questions as to the comparative effectiveness of sword and pike. The pike, of course, had the longer reach, but the sword was a more manageable and less cumbersome weapon, giving greater opportunity for skill in its use.

At Pydna, the Italian allies serving under Aemilius Paullus hurled themselves with reckless heroism at the enemy pikes, trying to beat them down or hew off their points. But they sacrificed themselves in vain; the pike points pierced their shields and armour, causing terrible carnage. The phalanx was eventually shattered as the result of cool tactical judgment. Paullus divided his force into small units with orders to look for gaps in the pike line and then exploit them. The gaps appeared as a result of the rough ground which prevented the phalangists from moving with uniformity and keeping abreast. Forced at last by the infiltrating legionaries to abandon their pikes and fight at close quarters, the Macedonians soon discovered that their small swords and shields were no match for the corresponding Roman arms.

The Macedonian dynasts who relied upon the phalanx were perfectly aware of the dangers to which it was exposed and their awareness explains the hesitation to join battle that marked their encounters with the Romans. The phalanx was considered secure while it remained stationary. The Romans consequently tried to tempt it into action but, even so, had to beware lest in provoking an attack they rendered themselves too vulnerable.

Gaps, of course, might be opened in the enemy lines by the pilum. Something could be expected from the volley of weighted javelins with which the legions normally commenced a battle. But against this, the phalangists were heavily armoured: Perseus’ phalanx at Pydna drew its title of “Bronze Shields” from the round bucklers which his men wore slung round their necks and drew in front of them as fighting started. But wooded or uneven country was the legionary’s best chance against armies of the Macedonian type. The Romans had learnt their lesson as early as the battle of Asculum against Pyrrhus, where they had been able to withdraw nimbly before the intact line of the phalanx, only to rush in where ground obstacles created ready-made breaches in the pike formation.

A similar confrontation of sword and spear is to be found in Italy in 225 BC, when, in the period between the First and Second Punic Wars, Rome fought with invading Gauls at Telamon in Etruria. On this occasion the Romans were the spearmen and the Gauls the swordsmen. The Roman general, in fact, placed some of his triarii in the front line in order that their spears might blunt the Gallic swords: the Gauls, like the Italian soldiery at Pydna, tried to parry or hack away the spear heads. Gallic swords were sometimes made of very soft iron. In fact, Polybius tells us that the Gallic sword was so soft that after striking a blow the swordsman was obliged to straighten the bent iron against his foot. Incidentally, Plutarch tells the same story of poorly tempered Gallic swords in his Life of Camillus. The Gauls seem to have relied on carrying all before them at the first onset; this is understandable if their swords were rendered so quickly unserviceable. Perhaps the defect was localized in certain tribes where ironworking had not advanced beyond a primitive stage or where facilities for obtaining good weapons did not exist. At Cannae, although the Spaniards in Hannibal’s army fought with their short thrusting swords, the Gauls preferred their normal, unpointed, slashing weapons. However, there is no mention here of soft iron and the Gauls, so far from despairing when immediate victory eluded them, doggedly retreated in the face of Roman pressure, until Hannibal’s tactical plans matured. In any case, one feels that Hannibal’s astute generalship would not have permitted the use of soft iron weapons among his troops.

Polybius gives a graphic account of the Gallic invaders of 225 BC. Although the rear ranks wore cloaks and trousers, the huge men of the front line, with traditional bravado, fought stark naked save for their gold collars and armlets.

The sight was formidable, but the prospect of acquiring the gold stimulated Roman efforts to kill the wearer. The shields of these reckless fighters were not large enough to protect them; the bigger the warrior, the more exposed he was to the Roman pilum. The Roman legionary regularly carried two pila, one more slender than the other, perhaps for convenient reservation in the shield hand. The long, barbed, iron head was riveted so securely to the shaft that it would break rather than become detached from the wood. However, this very solidity was later felt to be a mixed blessing, for a spent missile, intact, could be recovered and used by the enemy. Technical measures were taken to neutralize the danger.

■ Sackers of Cities

Advantages cease to be advantages when one becomes too dependent on them. Rome’s dependence upon overseas power and wealth led to neglect of the old self-sufficient Italian economy. Roman overseas wars assumed the aspect of predatory exploits rather than peace-keeping missions; the struggles of the later second century BC characteristically terminated in the pitiless sack of cities rather than decisive battles followed by peace terms. When the Achaean League and its ally Corinth revolted against the Roman settlement of Greece, the Corinthians treated Roman senatorial ambassadors with disrespectful violence. After the short war which followed, the Roman consul Lucius Mummius razed Corinth and enslaved its inhabitants. Mummius was hardly a philhellene. For Greek art treasures, he displayed the enthusiasm of a collector rather than a connoisseur.

The same year (146 BC) had seen the destruction of Carthage, bringing the Third and last Punic War to its bitter end. The Carthaginians had recalled from exile an able general – another Hasdrubal – who organized their very solid defences. Against the 45-foot (13.7m) city walls, the Romans made slow progress. The Roman besieging army itself, at one time in grave danger, was saved only by the energy and resource of Scipio Aemilianus, son of Aemilius Paullus, victor of Pydna, and grandson by adoption of the Scipio Africanus who had defeated Hannibal.

When the Carthaginians were successful in running the Roman blockade by sea, Scipio built a mole across the gulf into which their harbour issued, thus cutting them off. The Carthaginians dug a canal from their inner (naval) harbour basin to the coast and put to sea with a full fleet, but the Romans defeated them in a naval engagement. The walls of Carthage were finally breached, Hasdrubal surrendered and was reserved for the day when Scipio triumphed as a victorious general in Rome, but his wife and children preferred to perish in the flames which enveloped the Carthaginians citadel and temples.

Another appalling siege was that of Numantia in 133 BC. For Rome, the capture of Numantia marked the successful culmination of a savage and often shameful war in which, after the elimination of Carthage, the Romans aimed to impose their rule on the native peoples of the Spanish peninsula. The siege operations at Numantia were, like those at Carthage, conducted by Scipio Aemilianus.

Scipio was something of an expert in sieges. Appian says that he was the first general to enclose with a wall an enemy who was prepared to give battle in the open field. It might have been expected that such an enemy would prove impossible to contain. But Scipio’s measures were very thorough.

Numantia was beset with seven forts and surrounded by a ditch and palisade. The perimeter of the circumvallations was twice as long as that of the city. At the first sign of a sally by the defenders, the threatened Roman sector had orders to hoist a red flag by day or raise a fire signal by night, so that reinforcements could immediately be rushed to the danger spot. Another ditch was built behind the first, also with palisades, after which a wall 8 feet (2.4m) high and 10 feet (3m) wide (not including parapets) was constructed. Towers were sited at 100-foot (30.5m) intervals along the wall, and where the wall could not be carried round the adjacent marshland its place was taken by an earthwork of the same height, thicker than the wall.

The river Durius (Duoro), on which Numantia stood, enabled the defenders to be supplied by means of small boats, swimmers and divers. Scipio therefore placed a tower on either side of the river, to which he moored a boom of floating timbers. The timbers bristled with inset knives and spearheads and were kept in constant motion by the strength of the current. They acted as a barrage, effectively isolating the city from any help which might reach it along the river.

Catapults and all kinds of siege engines were now mounted on Scipio’s towers and missiles were accumulated along the parapets, the forts being occupied by archers and slingers. Messengers were stationed at frequent intervals along the entire wall in order that headquarters might be informed immediately of any enemy action, whether by day or night. Each tower was furnished with emergency signals and each was ready to send immediate help to another in case of need.

Thus invested for eight months, the Numantines starved. They took to cannibalism, and at last 4,000 surviving citizens, now mere filthy and ragged skeletons, surrendered unconditionally.

■ Roman Camps

Excavations at Numantia have brought to light 13 Roman camps in the vicinity. Seven of these have been identified as Scipio’s. Others were those of his less successful predecessors in Spain. The Numantine excavations of Schulten testify in general to the accuracy of Polybius’ description of Roman camps, though some notable differences in internal arrangements and dimensions must be recognized.

A camp containing two legions with an equivalent strength of Italian allied contingents, commanded by a consular general, was normally built in the form of a square. A main road (via principalis), 100 feet (30.5m) wide, separated the headquarters of the general, with those of his paymaster (quaestor)3, staff of officers and headquarters troops, from those of the legionaries and attached cavalry. The via principalis issued on either side through gates in the camp wall. The headquarter section of the camp covered one-third of its total area. The remaining two-thirds was itself bisected by another road (via quintana), 50 feet (15.2m) wide, parallel to the main road. The word quintana indicated that it was adjacent to the tents of the fifth maniple and its attached cavalry. Both these roads were bisected at right angles by a third road, which ran to the general’s headquarters from a gate in the farthest wall. The headquarters (praetorium) was connected by a short road, on the other side, to a gate in the nearer wall.

Between the camp ramparts and the tents inside, a margin (intervallum) of 200 feet (6lm) was left vacant. This placed the tents out of reach of enemy missiles – especially fire darts. In exceptional cases, also, the camp could accommodate extra troops, and there was room to stow booty. Before the battle of the Metaurus, Claudius Nero had managed to smuggle his own legions into the camp of his colleague Livius without the enemy being aware of it. Hasdrubal only knew that he faced two consular armies instead of one when he heard the same trumpet call sounded twice in the same camp.

A Roman army never halted for a night without digging itself a camp. The perimeter was formed by a ditch, normally about 3 feet (.91m) and 4 feet (1.22m) wide. The excavated earth was flung inside to form a rampart, which was surmounted by a breastwork of sharpened stakes. For the purpose of constructing such a camp, each soldier on the march carried a spade, other tools and sharp stakes to set in the rampart.

In wartime, a Roman army encamped at a chosen spot for the winter. In this case, the camp comprised a more solid structure. The tents made of skin were replaced by huts thatched with straw. Each tent or hut held eight men, who messed together. Polybius’ account suggests that the huts or tents were laid out in long lines with streets between them, but the evidence of Numantia excavations points to the grouping of maniples round a square.

■ The Military Achievement of Marius

In the days when Marius had first served in North Africa, the nobiles were once more in precarious control of Roman politics. They were at least sufficiently in control to mismanage foreign wars. When Marius, a member of the equestrian class, declared his intention of standing for the consulate, his aristocratic commanding officer insulted him. However, Marius possessed ability, energy, wealth, influential family connections and a flair for intrigue. He became consul in 107 BC and superseded the general who had slighted him. However, no amount of intrigue could have raised Marius to the eminence for which he was destined if events had not conspired to demonstrate his very real military ability, both in the Jugurthine War and the campaigns against the barbarians.

A land-hungry Germanic tribe, the Cimbri, had left their homes in Jutland and together with other tribes, including the Teutones, whose name is remembered above all in this connection, had migrated southwards, carrying with them their entire families and moveable possessions. The Romans were alarmed and a consular army met the migrants in Noricum, a Celto-Illyrian area north-east of the Alps. In the ensuing battle the Romans were badly defeated. The Cimbri and their allies must have found that the Alps presented a more formidable barrier than the Rhône and they fortunately avoided Italy, moving westward into Gaul (Southern France), an area which was by now under Roman control. Several Roman armies attempted to eliminate the barbarian menace, but they met with a series of humiliating defeats culminating in a major disaster at Arausio (Orange) in 105 BC, which much disturbed Rome.

The campaigns against the migrants could be regarded as offensive wars. The German tribes were fighting in defence of the families they had with them, and the Romans had rigidly, though not unwisely, refused to negotiate or concede any right of settlement to the barbarians. After Arausio, however, the way to Italy lay open to the Germanic invaders and Rome was unquestionably on the defensive. A full state of emergency existed and in these circumstances Marius, who had recently emerged as conqueror of Jugurtha, was elected consul for the second and successive year (105 BC). Legally, ten years should have elapsed before his second election. Constitutional precedent required that the consul should be sponsored by the Senate. But the Popular Assembly, as the legislative body of the Republic, was free to do as it chose. In any case, the Romans rarely insisted on constitutional niceties where they conflicted with military expediency.

Marius gloriously justified his appointment. Fortunately, the Germans had not immediately attempted the invasion of Italy but moved westwards towards Spain. This gave Marius time to train his troops for the coming conflict. Much of his success may be attributed to good military discipline and administration. He was appointed consul for the third time before he came to grips with the enemy. He even had leisure to improve his supply lines by setting his men to dig a new channel at the mouth of the Rhône.

The Teutones and the Ambrones (another allied German tribe) parted company from the Cimbri and the Tigurini (a Celtic people who had joined them). While the former confronted Marius on the Rhône, the latter made for Italy by a circuitous march over the Alps. Marius restrained his men in their camp to allow them to become accustomed to the sight of the barbarians who surrounded them, calculating that familiarity would breed contempt. When the Teutones marched on towards Italy, bypassing his camp, he led his own men out and overtook the enemy near Aquae Sextiae (Aix-en-Provence). Here, he fought a battle on favourable ground and, making use of a cavalry ambush posted in the hills, completely annihilated the Teutones. Their allies, the Ambrones had already been slaughtered in great numbers in a fight at a watering place two days earlier.

Marius’ consular colleague in North Italy fared by no means so happily and was forced to withdraw before the invading Cimbri into the Po valley, leaving them to occupy a large part of the country. In 101 BC, Marius’ legions were brought to reinforce the north Italian army, Marius being now in his fifth consulate. A battle was fought at Vercellae (perhaps near Rivigo). The barbarians’ tactics were not utterly devoid of sophistication and had some success. Nor were the Germans ill-armed. Their cavalry wore lofty plumes on helmets grotesquely shaped like animal heads. Their breastplates were of iron and they carried flashing white shields, two javelins each and heavy swords for hand-to-hand fighting. The summer heat may have been in favour of the Romans, who were accustomed to the Mediterranean climate. Fighting was confused on account of a heavy dust storm. The Roman victory may be ascribed to superior training and discipline. Sulla, on whose account Plutarch relies, suggested that Marius’ tactics were mainly designed to secure glory for himself at the expense of his consular colleague. Sulla himself fought in the battle, but one would not expect his evidence to be unbiased. In any case, the entire Germanic horde was destroyed and Rome was spared a catastrophe that might have proved conclusive to its political existence. For unlike the victors of the Allia, three centuries earlier, the Cimbri were in search of land, not gold. The greatest threat presented by the northern barbarians lay in their numbers, estimated at a total of 300,000; some ancient historians thought that this was an underestimate. The Romans at Vercellae were a little more than 50,000 strong. At the same time, the barbarians’ great trek southward from Jutland, let alone their subsequent victories over Roman armies, cannot have been achieved without leadership. It is surprising that the names of the Germanic leaders are not at least as celebrated as that of Brennus.

■ Recruitments

The wars against the Cimbri and the Teutones are poorly documented. Marius emerges as both strategist and tactician, a leader possessing formidable discipline and great physical courage. Yet the secret of his success may well have lain in his ability as a military administrator and the intelligence of his military reforms.

One has only to consider his methods of recruitment. Constitutionally, these were outrageous and exposed him to the ever-increasing hostility of the Senate. But from a social and strategic point of view, they were precisely what Rome needed. Since the time of the Servian reforms, the poorest section of the population (proletarii) had not qualified for enrolment in the legions, except in times of grave national emergency. The name proletarii in fact signifies those who contributed only their children (proles) to the community – not their taxes or their military service. Plutarch suggests that only propertied classes were required in the army, since their possessions were some sort of a security for their good behaviour. In any case, it must have been felt that they had a greater stake in the society they defended.

At the time when Marius had been appointed by ‘the People’ to his first term as consul, Roman citizens were undergoing a process of proletarianization. The land, from which the farmer was being forced by low overseas corn prices, was brought up by wealthy absentee landlords, who were able to run their estates with the help of cheap labour, supplied by a multitude of enslaved war captives. Meanwhile, the small farmer moved into the city, where he could at least take advantage of the cheap and subsidized corn which often proved to be the price of his political support.

The Senate had ruled that extra levies should be raised for the Jugurthine War. Marius, finding the measure inadequate, and always ready to provoke the Senate, recruited not only volunteers and time-expired veterans – which it was open to him to do – but also offered enlistment to members of the proletariat who wished to go soldiering. Whereas previously the field for recruitment had been progressively narrowing as property requirements became harder to satisfy, Marius raised a strong army and at the same time produced one remedy for the problem of unemployment.

As long as he enjoyed the support of the People’s Assembly and its tribunes, the Senate could not check Marius’ recruiting activities. His methods, however, had an ominous aspect. Roman soldiers, though now members of a fully professional army, owed personal loyalty to the general who enrolled and employed them. This loyalty was enhanced by traditional Roman concepts of the semi-sacred relationship which existed between a protector (patronus) and his protégé (cliens): a relationship which in some contexts acquired legal definition. Marius became a patron to his veteran soldiers, securing for them, through his political associates, a grant of farmland on retirement. The day of private armies, when soldiers owed prime allegiance to their generals rather than to the state, was not far off.

■ Army Reorganization

At the battle of Aquae Sextiae, Marius gave the order to his men, through the usual chain of command, that they should hurl their javelins as soon as the enemy came within range, then use their swords and shields to thrust the attackers backwards, down the treacherous slope. The instructions to discharge javelins and then join battle with swords and shields is such as we might expect to be given to an army which had adopted the pilum and the gladius, but the offensive use of shields and the application of pushing tactics sounds like a reversion to the old fifth- and fourth-century phalanx as it had been used both in Greece and Italy. The probability is that the traditional manipular formation with its three-line quincunx deployment had generally been superseded. In the course of the preceding century, Rome had come into conflict with a wide assortment of enemies, variously equipped and accustomed, and the Romans were nothing if not adaptable. They were ready to improve and to adopt such tactics as suited the terrain and were most likely to prove effective against the type of enemy with whom they had to deal in any particular battle. There were no longer any routine tactics. The maniple which had been the unit of the old three-line battle front was in the first place a tactical unit (see here). Once it had ceased to be tactically effective, there was no reason for its retention. Marius recognized this fact and reorganized his army accordingly.

For purposes of administration a larger unit than the maniple was convenient; and in this, subdivisions were necessary. The legion was consequently divided into ten cohorts, and every cohort contained six centuries, each commanded by a centurion, whose titles, ranging from that of the exalted primus pilus to hastatus posterior, reflected differences of position on the battlefield, rank and seniority. Before Marius’ time, the cohort, notably as used by Scipio in Spain (134 BC), was often a purely tactical formation, employed to cope with special circumstances. On the other hand, it had originated as an administrative infantry unit among the Italian allies. Cohorts had been mobilized originally as 500 and 1,000 strong respectively. Each had been under the command of a praefectus. As a legionary unit, the cohort was 500–600 strong. Its division into six centuries meant that these were each somewhat under 100 strong, larger than the old manipular centuries, which had sometimes contained as few as 60 men.

Marius abolished the velites, the skirmishers of the ancient Camillan army; and with them, their characteristic arms of light spear and small buckler (parma) disappeared. The pilum was now used by all legionaries, and Marius introduced a change in its manufacture. In place of one of the iron rivets which had secured the head to the shaft, he had a wooden peg inserted. When the javelin impaled an enemy shield, the peg broke on impact and the shaft sagged and trailed on the ground, though still attached to the head by the remaining iron rivet. Not only was the javelin thus rendered unserviceable to enemy hands, but it encumbered the warrior whose shield it had transfixed. According to Plutarch, this novelty was introduced in preparation for the battle with the Cimbri at the battle of Vercellae. At the later date, in Julius Caesar’s army, as a further refinement, the long shank of the pilum was made of soft iron, so that it bent even while it penetrated.

Marius was at pains to be sure that every soldier in his army should be fit and self-reliant. He accustomed his men to long route marches and to frequent moves at the double. In addition to their arms and trenching tools, he insisted on their carrying their own cooking utensils and required that every man should be able to prepare his own meals. Flavius Josephus, the Jewish historian who wrote in the first century AD, describes the legionary as carrying a saw, a basket, a bucket, a hatchet, a leather strap, a sickle, a chain and rations for three days, as well as other equipment. If this was a legacy for Marius’ reforms, it is easy to understand why the men who patiently supported such burdens were nicknamed “Marius’ mules”. Campaigning in enemy country or where there was a danger of sudden attack, the Romans marched lightly equipped and ready for action at short notice, while the soldiers’ packs (sarcinae) were carried with the baggage train. Marius is also said to have introduced a quick-release system for the pack.

The Military of Rome III

■ Military Standards and Banners

Another of Marius’ innovations was the introduction of a single silver eagle (aquila), mounted on a staff, as a legionary standard. It is difficult to know just what significance should be attached to this change, because we have no clear information about the military standards which were previously in use. The eagle was a bird sacred to Jupiter. According to one source, there had previously been five legionary standards. Apart from the eagle, these exhibited the forms of wolves, bears, minotaurs and horses, and they were carried severally before the several ranks of the army in battle. But from Marius’ time, they were relegated to subordinate and ceremonial usages.

The legionary eagles were later made of gold and they were embellished with wreaths and other ornaments. In peacetime, they were kept in the state treasury (aerarium) at Rome, the old temple of Saturn. In wartime, they were carried with the legion and had a little sanctuary allotted to them in the camp. They were objects of quasi-religious veneration.

This quasi-religious function of the standards was in conflict with their practical purpose. In so far as the standard was a sacred object symbolizing the corporate existence of a military unit, it qualified for the care and protection of the soldiers whom it represented and could not properly be exposed to danger of capture by the enemy in battle. Its loss was, in fact, regarded as a great disgrace. The standard therefore had to be placed behind the front line and surrounded by troops who would defend it.

Schoolboys are – or used to be – familiar with Caesar’s anecdote of the standard-bearer who leapt down from his ship as it beached on the Kentish coast, with an exhortation to the hesitant legionaries to follow him if they did not intend the betrayal of their eagle into enemy hands. An earlier example of the same attitude occurs in Plutarch’s account of the battle of Pydna. On this occasion, a captain of one of the Italian contingents seized his unit’s ensign and flung it into the enemy phalanx. Thus blackmailed by the threat of dishonour, his men redoubled their efforts to break the phalanx. For, as Plutarch observes, the Italians in particular regarded it as ignominious to desert their standards.

If, however, the standard was a sacred object which required protection, it could not discharge its practical function – which was to serve as a rallying point. As such, its place was in the forefront of the battle. The legionaries could not be expected to look over their shoulders to discover where they should take their stand. The very name of the standards in Latin, signa, suggests that they were in fact signals, and as tactics became increasingly mobile and less uniform, the need for them increased. Incidentally, the Greeks of the fifth century BC had made no corresponding use of military standards in their compact phalanx battles.

A study of ancient references to the position of the standards on the battlefield suggests that they may have been located immediately behind the front line. They were thus protected, and yet at the same time sufficiently far advanced to serve as marking signals for the greater part of the army. On the other hand, the whole point of Marius’ innovation may have been to confer a single standard on the legion, which would serve its emotional needs, at the same time leaving the standards of the smaller units free to be used, without sentimental inhibitions, for practical purposes. By contrast with legionary standards, the old signalling staves of the maniples had embodied no sacred animals. They had exhibited the open palm of a hand on a raised spear, but were later decorated with garlands and other emblems. When maniples were absorbed into cohorts, the cohort took the leading maniple’s standard.

Similarly, the cavalry standards (vexilla), consisting of flags suspended from a kind of yard-arm and identifying units, would lose their more emotional significance with the adoption of the uniform legionary emblem. By Marius’ time, the Italian cavalry had largely been superseded by overseas cavalry forces (auxilia), who perhaps did not share the Italian veneration for standards and banners. The eagle remained a permanent symbol throughout later centuries of military development. But other forms of standard were also imitated from the usage of outlying peoples on Rome’s frontiers. An interesting example is the draco, which was a windsock of coloured silk, with the silver head and gaping jaws of a dragon.

The Italian captain distinguished by his gesture at Pydna had been a Pelignian. Marius came from Arpinum, a town which had enjoyed full Roman citizen rights since the beginning of the second century BC. Arpinum was not far from the territory of the Peligni, and Marius was perhaps acutely conscious of the importance of military standards and banners in terms of local sentiment. As an eminently practical commander, he must also have been aware of the difficulties which such sentiments created. It is possible to regard the silver eagle as his solution.

■ The Frontiers of Empire

The Roman navy, at such times as it could be said to exist at all, was always the junior service. However, Augustus was at pains to maintain it, for he needed to preserve lines of communication between Italy and the provinces. Of no small account were the naval forces whose allegiances had been transferred to him after the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra, and he was able to establish fleets in the eastern and western Mediterranean and in the Black Sea. Other naval squadrons operated on the Danube, the Rhine and in the English Channel.

Campaigns in Illyricum, under Augustus’ destined successor, Tiberius, had safeguarded the route to the east by the Via Egnatia and Thessalonica, and the freedom of the Adriatic from pirates was further assured by the construction of the naval base at Ravenna. The Mediterranean in general was well policed under Augustus, and his was the last Roman administration to take effective measures against piracy.

Preoccupation with sea routes was the logical accompaniment of provincial road-building which proceeded under the Empire. Italy in the time of the Republic had acquired a good road system. Apart from that, the Via Egnatia, referred to above, and the Via Domitia, which led from the Rhône to the Pyrenees, were also Republican achievements. In Augustus’ time, new Alpine roads were made and communications facilitated with the Danube. The characteristically straight Roman roads, adhering where possible to high ground, were planned to satisfy military requirements. But at the same time, of course, they opened the way to trade and assisted official contacts.

The legions which in the first century AD extended and, later, defended the frontiers of the Empire were distinguished by names and numbers, though some of the numbers were duplicated. The names commemorated the patrons or creators of the legions, as for example the Legio Angusta, or else they referred to some event in regimental history, or marked a local connection, as in Macedonica or Gallica. Augustus’ army originally contained 28 legions. But three of these were annihilated in the great Roman military disaster of AD 9, when Augustus’ general, Publius Quinctilius Varus, was treacherously ambushed by the German chief Arminius in the Teutoburgian Forest. The numbers of these three ill-starred legions were as a consequence never allotted to Roman legions at a later date.

A Roman governor, in charge of an imperial province, ordinarily ranked as a legatos of the emperor. Legions apart auxiliary troops including cavalry contingents were an important element in the garrison of a province. Under Augustus, auxiliaries, which during the first century BC had been composed of foreign troops, once more began to recruit Roman citizens. This was in part because Roman citizenship itself had by now been conferred on many communities and individuals outside Italy. The social distinction being lost, auxiliaries tended to be integrated with legions. In permanent frontier stations auxiliary cavalry and infantry were posted at first from distant provinces. But as a matter of convenience, auxiliaries came to be recruited locally and the distinction between the legionaries and auxilia was accordingly once more obscured. However, military policy favoured independent cavalry tactics. From the reign of Trajan onwards, tribal non-Romanized units, known as numeri, were recruited; their role corresponded in some ways to that of auxilia in more ancient times.

The disaster which the Romans suffered in Germany under Varus was the result of an attempt to establish frontiers farther east, on the Elbe. Its effect was that Roman emperors were from that time onward content, as Julius Caesar had been, to rely on punitive and retaliatory action in order to assert a Roman presence on the Rhine. Augustus himself, at the end of his life, made it quite clear that his territorial ambitions were not unlimited. Defence, however, often entails offensive initiative, and he had been at great pains to secure the line of the Danube.

The most suitable location of frontiers was a question which left room for uncertainty, above all in the reign of an emperor of unbalanced mind, such as Gaius (Caligula) proved to be. His inexplicable vacillations could well have been damaging to Roman prestige, and the expansionist policies of the mild-mannered Claudius, who succeeded him, may have been necessary to ensure that enemies beyond the frontier were left with no illusions about the reality of Roman strength. Claudius, in need of a military reputation, added first Mauretania, then Britain to the Empire. Roman domination was carried farther by Trajan, who annexed Armenia and temporarily occupied much of Parthia. Rome, however, was never able to impose itself finally on the Parthians.

■ The Stabilization of Frontiers

The murder of Domitian in the year AD 96 was the outcome of domestic discord. Nevertheless, it gave great public satisfaction. Apart from his other shortcomings, the tyrant had failed to make adequate arrangements for a successor. The Senate appointed a new princeps, Marcus Cocceius Nerva, and Tacitus was pleased to see in this constitutional gesture a revival of Republican sentiment. Nerva was an old man at the time of his elevation. He was also childless, and after one year of power he appointed a loyal and able officer, Marcus Ulpius Traianus (Trajan), as his colleague and successor. The appointment was timely, for Nerva died early in the following year. Under Trajan, imperial expansion was renewed, and as one of Rome’s greatest soldier emperors, he was shrewd enough to nominate an equally great successor. The formal nomination and adoption which usually secured the imperial succession was much more satisfactory than the common hereditary process. It generally ensured that the successor would be a military commander, for with exceptions, one of which we have just recorded, none but a soldier could hope to survive. The Empire depended for defence and government upon military force. As for the principle of adoption itself, Roman reverence for legal forms lent it all the sanctity of a blood-tie. One may compare the relationship of patron and protégé (cliens), which we have already had occasion to notice.

Hadrian (Publius Aelius Hadrianus) who, as a connection by marriage, was Trajan’s ward and became emperor on his death, in many ways reversed the policies of his predecessor. But this does not prove that either he or Trajan was wrong. Times were changing. The steady westward migration of peoples in Asia and Europe meant that pressure on Rome’s frontiers was steadily mounting. Under Trajan, those frontiers had attained unprecedentedly wide dimensions. Hadrian saw the need for contraction and consolidation, and this policy was marked in vulnerable areas by the construction of fixed fortifications, signal posts and entrenchments. A line of forts linked by palisades, protected the intrusive salient of territory between the upper reaches of the Rhine and the Danube. Hadrian’s name is notably associated with the Roman frontier works across north Britain from the Tyne to the Solway. The line of forts and base camps, connected by a mural barrier, replaced an earlier linked chain of forts slightly to the south. “Hadrian’s Wall” was initiated as the result of the Emperor’s visit to Britain in AD 122; Hadrian spent a great deal of his reign in visiting outlying provinces. The Wall exemplifies the principles of Roman frontier defence as they existed in many sectors of the Empire. A chain of strong-points was connected by a well-defined communicating road (limes) along which troops could move with efficiency and speed.

Antoninus Pius (138–161), who succeeded Hadrian, presided over an epoch of comparative peace and plenty in the Mediterranean core of the Empire. But the price of social well-being was continual vigilance and preparedness on the frontiers. In Britain, Antoninus tried to advance the frontier – as he did in Germany – and built another wall in the form of a turf embankment on a cobblestone base, farther north, from the Forth to the Clyde. But the time came when this could no longer be defended, and after only 23 years it was decided to withdraw southwards once more and rely solely on Hadrian’s stone structure for the defence of Roman Britain.

The recourse to engineering skills in order to solve manpower problems had been Julius Caesar’s answer. Rome’s wars against the barbarians were a continual struggle against numerical odds, and with the help of technology the Romans strove to make good what they lacked in numbers. Twenty-eight legions had been all too few for Augustus’ original ambitions, and when he lost three of them in Varus’ disaster, he saw the need to reduce military commitments and shorten the perimeter of the imperial frontiers.

The military garrisons which manned frontier areas were (as a matter of policy on which we have already commented) not all nationally homogeneous. But they tended to form settled communities as a result of relationships with local women, and the resulting settled habits and lack of mobility in themselves constituted a disadvantage. However, legions were withdrawn from Britain at various dates during the centuries of Roman rule, to meet pressures in other parts of the Empire, and such withdrawals, even though the legions by this time were not all first-line troops, opened the way inevitably to northern or seaborne invaders to make incursions.

■ The Task of Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, who succeeded to the principate at the death of Antoninus Pius in AD 161, was also of a quiet and philosophic disposition, but unlike his predecessor he was faced with the necessity for continual warfare. The fact that he was able to meet the challenge of military duty with energy and unbroken resolve indicates some kind of spiritual triumph over his natural temperament, at the same time making him a practising as distinct from a purely academic philosopher.

War against Parthia (162–3) was only a prelude to barbarian incursions on the Danube front (166). It was already well recognized that responsibility for imperial defence was more than a single emperor could support. An emperor’s nominated successor, who now ordinarily received the title of “Caesar”, was also a colleague. Marcus Aurelius was not very fortunate in his colleague Lucius Verus, whose adoption derived from a decision of Hadrian. Marcus, showing perhaps poor judgment of character, arranged that the task of imperial government should be shared, and Verus, ruling as an equal on a collegiate basis, took command of the war against Parthia, which was won for him by his able officer Avidius Cassius.

The major cities of Parthia were captured, but this victory, like that of Trajan, though westward territories were annexed, could not lead to permanent Roman occupation of Parthia. The days were past when Romans and Parthians fought each other with characteristic national weapons and battles were a conflict of highly disciplined legionaries with incalculable swarms of mounted bowmen. Arrian, writing on military tactics in the time of Hadrian, testifies to the diversification of arms and armour and the variety of combatant methods employed by the Roman army at that epoch. Trajan’s Column and other monuments tell the same story. The Romans had among their own contingents heavily mailed horsemen on the Parthian model; nor did they lack archers who could retaliate against the Parthians. If they were never able to bring the Parthian Empire within the bounds of their own, this was probably because they lacked sufficient troops to hold what had been conquered. Such vast deserts were in any case ungovernable.

Lack of numbers also told heavily against Roman defence on the Danube, and it should be stressed that Rome was now seriously on the defensive in this area. Various barbarian tribes, forced westwards and southwards by migratory pressures, crossed the Alps and reached Aquileia at the northern extremity of the Adriatic Sea. Italy was threatened as it never had been since the days of the Cimbric invasion, but the barbarians did not capture Aquileia, lacking the equipment for assaults on fortified towns. Marcus Aurelius, despite the inferior ability of his colleague, was well served by his generals on the Danube front. Lucius Verus in any case died on active service in 169, and Marcus was left in sole command.

There seems to have been a good deal of collaboration between the German tribes of the upper Danube and the Sarmatians farther east. Roman armies, relying simply on mobility and speed, had to turn abruptly from one threat to another. The invaders were defeated in a series of arduous campaigns, forced back across the Danube and reduced to quiescence. But such warfare spelt an end to current methods of frontier defence and, in years which followed, Roman strategists had to think increasingly in terms of fortified zones rather than defensible lines.

Unfortunately, the manpower problem in the time of Marcus Aurelius became all the more critical on account of a devastating plague which the army brought back from its eastern wars. Sheer lack of manpower obliged Marcus to establish a German militia, settled within the imperial frontiers, as a way of combating German threats from without. Military service was the price of the land which the settlers occupied. As the frontiers became less distinct, so also did the definition of Roman nationality. The operations of Marcus Aurelius and his officers secured the line of the Danube, but in the large frontier province of Dacia to the north of the river, which Trajan had previously annexed, a right of way was granted to the barbarian tribes, allowing them to preserve communications with their eastward compatriots. In some sense, the Empire was now provided with insulating zones but – to press the metaphor – this insulation could become a semiconductor of extraneous forces.

Marcus Aurelius would probably have rendered the territory beyond the Danube more secure, but in AD 175 he had to meet the revolt of his eastern deputy Avidius Cassius. It would seem that Cassius had been deceived by a false report that Marcus was dead, and his dissident action hardly had time to gather impetus before he was murdered by one of his own centurions. Avidius Cassius would in any case have been a preferable alternative to the Emperor’s ineffective son Commodus, who eventually filled the role of official colleague and successor.

■ Septimius Severus and his Army

The principate of Commodus lasted 12 years, which should have been long enough to secure the succession, but Commodus did not allow the matter to trouble him. He was eventually murderer as the result of a conspiracy hatched by his Praetorian Guard commander, who had for some time shared the real power with other favourites, and at last decided that the present emperor was no longer necessary. During the next year, two emperors were proclaimed and then murdered, while the Praetorians tried to make up their minds. At last, they gave support to Septimius Severus, who commanded the Danube legions. The legions themselves, in fact, provided a firmer backing than Praetorian caprice.

Septimius had to fight for the imperial throne against other contenders, who were also supported by provincial armies. He was victorious in the ensuing struggle, partly because he commanded more troops than his adversaries and partly because he was nearer to Rome – still the key point. He temporarily came to terms with his northern rival Clodius Albinus, governor of Britain, recognizing him as a colleague. It is surprising that Albinus was deceived so easily. Septimius had time to march eastward and defeat his other opponent, Pescennius Niger, in a series of battles in Asia Minor and Syria. He was then in a position to renew hostilities against Albinus, who had advanced into Gaul and rallied the western provinces of the Empire in his favour. Perhaps Albinus also had been playing for time. The numbers engaged in the decisive battle near Lugdumum (Lyon) are reported as being equal, and the issue for long hung in the balance, but Septimius was completely victorious, deciding the battle by his use of cavalry as an independent arm.

Septimius Severus’ military ability was allied to shrewd political insight. On being proclaimed emperor, he had been quick to occupy Rome and disband the Praetorian Guard. He then re-established the Praetorians to suit his own convenience. In the past, the Praetorian cohorts had normally been recruited from Italy, but Septimius threw membership open to all legionaries. This meant in practice that Praetorians were picked from the Illyrian legions which had supported him. They continued to serve him admirably as an imperial corps d’élite in the course of his eastern campaign.

Having eliminated other imperial pretenders, Septimius undertook an effective punitive expedition against the Parthians, who had given support to Niger, his eastern rival. He also had to act promptly in Britain, for the province, stripped of troops by Albinus for his continental adventure, was badly exposed to Caledonian invaders from the north. But Septimius’ British campaign was incomplete and he was preparing to renew hostilities when he died at Eburacum (York) in AD 211.

Septimius Severus admired soldiers and believed in them, particularly in the soldiers of the Roman army. For him, their welfare was a paramount consideration, and one cannot help feeling that his attitude, despite its serious economic implications, was right. Roman civilization had come to depend completely on military power capable of defending the frontiers, and citizens who enjoyed the peace and comfort of metropolitan territories could at least be expected to support the defence effort with their tax contributions. Septimius, in fact, made sure that they did so.

Among other reforms which favoured the soldiers, he legislated that they should be able to marry legally while on service. This facility had not previously existed, though emperors in the past had given some sort of recognition to the relations which soldiers contracted with local women and to the children which resulted. Official attitudes on this subject seem to have been in conflict. On the one hand, the serving soldier was discouraged from forming local ties which might divert him from his principal allegiance to Rome. On the other, it was desired that he should feel at home in the army. The new legislation rectified anomalies. In any case Septimius’ son, colleague and successor, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (known by the nickname of Caracalla) in subsequent years recognized the Roman citizenship of all freeborn provincials. The new constitutional enactment was not credited by an unimpressed posterity with generous motives, but regarded rather as a means of widening liability to tax. But it meant that civilians in general made a greater contribution to the defence budget. Of such a policy, Septimius would have approved.

Military and Civil Reorganization

The decade following Aurelian’s death was marked by another sequence of short-lived emperors. The year AD 284, however, saw the proclamation of the Emperor Diocletian (Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus) by troops in Asia Minor. Diocletian won the war against his rival and appointed Maximian (Marcus Aurelius Valerius Maximianus) as his colleague.

In 286, Diocletian permitted to Maximian the title “Augustus”, which indicated possession of the supreme power. From that time on, they ruled jointly, and in 293 each “Augustus” appointed himself a colleague who bore the title of “Caesar”. Four Imperial Headquarters, with their staffs, thus resulted. By regularizing procedures which had proved expedient in the past, Diocletian was in fact giving recognition to the inevitability of the collegiate principle. The Empire was too big for a single command. Troops might be transferred from Britain to the Danube in two months: perhaps less, if full use were made of Rhine river transport. But the Euphrates frontier was another matter. East and West were two Empires within a single civilization, and Diocletian wished to ensure that they should remain collegiate, not rival Empires. To some extent, their mutual independence was an accomplished fact which he was forced to recognise.

In re-establishing a co-optive procedure as the basis of imperial succession, Diocletian invoked another traditional expedient. Heredity notably in the family of Septimius Severus – based simply on blood-ties – had been productive of some grotesque results. Similarly, “praetorianism”, whether practised by the Guard itself or by the provincial legions, was simply an invitation to mutiny and murder. Because an emperor needed to be a soldier, it was too easily assumed that he needed to be nothing else. As in the first century AD, a blend of two principles was now expected to give best results. Co-option was confirmed by family affinities. The daughter of Diocletian and the step-daughter of Maximian married Galerius and Constantius, the two co-opted “Caesars”.

It was also arranged that the two “Augusti” should retire from office after 20 years and give place to their “Caesars”, who, assuming the supreme title, should appoint new “Caesars” as junior colleagues. Diocletian himself retired to his palace at Salonae (near modern Split in Jugoslavia). His choice of residence is itself significant. The imperial centre of gravity now lay in the Balkan peninsula and southeast Europe. Diocletian, like several of his imperial predecessors, had been of Balkan extraction. Rome was rapidly becoming no more than the ceremonial capital of empire. In practice, it was already merely a provincial capital, and the Senate was treated by Diocletian as if it were a body of town councillors. He never entered Rome during the first 20 years of his reign.

With his stern eye for realities and disregard for empty forms, Diocletian also realities and disregard for empty forms, Diocletian also relegated the old names of Republican magistracies to purely civil functions, and increasingly used distinct titles for military appointments. Like Septimius Severus, he realized that Rome’s greatest problem was one of recruiting, and he seems to have almost doubled the number of soldiers by increasing their pay. In order to do this, it was necessary to combat the monetary inflation which had long been associated with debasement of the Roman coinage. Diocletian went to the heart of the problem by exacting taxes in kind and maintaining his army with the proceeds.

Above all, Diocletian was an administrator and organizer, but it must not therefore be inferred that he was an “armchair” strategist. His reforms were worked out in the course of action and, like most Roman emperors who survived the first months of power, he had been obliged to fight for his position, suppress revolts and restrain barbarians. Maximian, his fellow “Augustus”, was an ambitious man, but he knew better than to challenge Diocletian on the field of battle.

Maximian, as Emperor of the West, had in fact his own military problems. Of these, the most intractable was presented by Carausius, a rebellious admiral of the British Channel fleet. Irrepressible, Carausius was for some time endured by the two “Augusti” as a kind of supernumerary colleague in Britain and north Gaul. Eventually, Maximian’s “Caesar”, Constantius, drove him from Boulogne and, continuing the war against Carausius’ murderer and successor, restored Britain to its former allegiance.

Caesar’s Blitzkrieg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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