The Romans’ success in conquering and maintaining their enormous empire lay partly in their military culture, their weapons and their training. Rome’s ability to provision large armies at long distances was, however, equally as, or more important to its success. The military history of Rome is not one of continuous victory: indeed the Romans often won wars because, after losing battles—and sometimes entire armies and fleets—they could keep replacing them until the enemy was defeated. Polybius, a keen observer of the Roman military at its height, remarked that “the advantages of the Romans lay in inexhaustible supplies of provisions and men.”

A sophisticated logistical system allowed the Romans to exploit their military resources effectively. The Romans recognized the importance of supply and used it both as a strategic and a tactical weapon and the necessities of military supply influenced and often determined the decisions of the Roman commanders at war. Plutarch even mentions the military slang term for such tactics: “kicking in the stomach” (eis tên gastera enallonomenos). Frontinus cites Caesar, certainly Rome’s greatest general, on the use of logistics in military strategy:

I follow the same policy toward the enemy as did many doctors when dealing with physical ailments, namely, that of conquering the foe by hunger rather than by steel. Logistics in Campaign Planning Traditionally, Roman campaigns began on March 1st: in part to ensure the availability of fodder.

The Romans paid close attention both to raising armies and to the preparations for supplying them. Their habitually careful arrangements made a strong impression, and, given the general neglect of logistics in military history, our sources mention such planning remarkably often. For example, Polybius describes the large-scale Roman preparations for a Gallic invasion as early as 225 B. C.:

[The consuls] enroll[ed] their legions and ordered those of their allies to be in readiness. . . . Of grain, missiles and other war materiel, they laid in such a supply as no one could remember had been collected on any previous occasion.

There are many other examples both in the Republican and the Imperial periods.

Commanders naturally wanted to complete their logistical preparations before operations began. When Quinctius Flamininus was preparing his campaign against Nabis, the tyrant of Sparta, in 195 B. C., the arrival of allied troops, including Macedonians, completed his authorized force. Nevertheless, he still waited until the arrival of the supplies (commeatus) requisitioned from the neighboring Greek states before beginning his offensive. At times, troops were moved first and supplies sent after them. When Sulla had obtained the command of the First Mithridatic War, he marched his army over to Greece and then summoned money, auxiliary troops and supplies from Aetolia and Thessaly.

Some wars broke out unexpectedly and preparations had to be made in haste. Sallust notes that when the consul Spurius Postumius Albinus determined to reopen hostilities with Jugurtha, he “hastened to transport to Africa provisions (commeatus), money for paying the soldiers, and other apparatus of war.” The frequency of Roman conflict, and the experience of Roman officials with warfare, made such impromptu preparations much easier. Other times, military campaigns were planned years in advance.

The Security of Supply Lines

Ensuring that the army continued to receive supplies, despite an enemy’s attempts to interrupt them, remained an important priority in Roman warfare in every period. Provisions reached the army in a variety of ways: by sea and river, overland and through foraging and requisition. In each of these circumstances, enemy action was a threat, and the Romans had to deploy military forces, as well as the application of strategy and tactics, to meet this threat. Rome often found it necessary to prevent the enemy plundering Roman or allied territory: it is noteworthy that the fleet of Gaius Duilius, which won the first major Roman victory of the First Punic War at Mylae (260 B. C.), was sent out to prevent the Carthaginians from plundering the territory of a Roman ally.

Security of Waterborne Transport

Protecting sea-borne transport was vitally important in wartime: enemy action could seriously threaten the army’s supply shipments. There are many instances of such threats. In 217 B. C., for example, the Roman grain fleet supplying the army in Spain was captured by the Punic fleet. A Roman task force was immediately mobilized to set out in pursuit, but the damage had already been done. Plutarch notes that the Macedonian king Perseus during his war against the Romans (172–167 B. C.):

. . . made an unexpected attack upon the Roman fleet which was lying at anchor near Oreus, seized twenty ships of burden with their car- goes, and sank the rest together with the grain that filled them. . . .

The navy of Antiochus III, operating from the Hellespont and Abydos during the war of 192–189 B. C., made frequent raids (excursiones) against Roman cargo ships (onerariae) supplying their army in Greece. Later, Mithridates used his naval superiority in the eastern Mediterranean to cut off supplies to Sulla’s forces in Greece in 87–85 B. C. Attacks on sea-borne supply were important elements in the Civil Wars of the Late Republic. In 42 B. C., a Republican fleet under Statius defeated Dolabella’s fleet at Laodicea, cutting him off from supplies. When Octavian sent a large force by sea to reinforce and resupply the Caesarean army at Philippi, it was attacked and destroyed by the Republican navy.

The Romans routinely used their fleet to protect supply transports in wartime. As early as the First Punic War, the Romans assigned a fleet of 120 warships to provide a convoy for merchant ships bringing supplies for the siege of Lilybaeum (249 B. C.). When the commander of the fleet in 209 B. C., Marcus Valerius Laevinus turned some ships over to the consul Quintus Fabius Maximus for use in the assault on Tarentum, they are called by Livy “the ships which Laevinius had for protecting the supply lines (tutandis commeatibus).” Such protection continued in the late Republic: Sallust, in a speech attributed to the consul Gaius Cotta, and set in 75 B. C., refers to the fleet which “guarded our supplies (commeatus tuebatur).”

Such naval escorts were not always successful. The convoy protecting supplies going to Lilybaeum in 249 B. C., mentioned above, did not prevent the Carthaginians from attacking and seizing several of the merchant vessels. The threat of attack was sometimes more destructive than the attack itself: trying to avoid attack by Carthaginian warships, a Roman supply fleet placed its ships in a dangerous anchorage where a storm destroyed the entire fleet including all the army’s supplies. Whenever possible, a fleet put supplies put ashore before a battle. To prevent them from falling into enemy hands commanders of escorts might scuttle conveyed merchant ships, as the Pompeian admirals Lucretius and Minucius did during the Dyrrachium campaign of 48 B. C. 26 Despite the dangers of attack, supplies transported by sea were generally safer from attack than those sent overland, a point made by Tacitus.

Security of Overland Supply

The army provided escorts for supply convoys bringing provisions to troops in garrison even during peacetime, albeit on a limited scale. An incident from the anti-Roman uprising of Athrongaeus in Palestine around 4 B. C. illustrates the small size of such peace- time escorts. Josephus reports that a single century (80 men at full strength) was escorting a convoy of grain and arms to a legion stationed in Jerusalem, when the rebels ambushed the column near Emmaus. The Romans lost half the century and only the intervention of King Herod’s army saved the rest.

Obviously, moving provisions from the operational base to the army over supply lines provided ample opportunities for attack. Due to the increased danger in war, convoy escorts were, of course, considerably larger than in peacetime. A tribune commanded the forces that escorted a supply convoy bringing provisions to the army of Pompeius Aulus in Spain in 141 B. C. Appian does not give the size of the escort, but a tribune would have commanded at least several centuries and possibly a cohort or more.

An escort’s size was not the only factor in successful defense of a convoy. While accompanying a supply convoy to Lucullus’s army from Cappadocia in 71 B. C., a Roman force defeated an attack by Mithridates’s cavalry: the Pontic force had attacked the convoy in a defile, a more easily defensible position, instead of waiting until it reached open country. An escort also had to maintain a disciplined defense cordon, even if the column was proceeding to pick up sup- plies. Tacitus notes the lack of security in an unloaded supply column going to Novaesium from the Roman forces at Gelduba in 69 A. D., during the revolt of Julius Civilis. The troops assigned to defend it moved as if there were no danger:

. . . the cohorts escorting [the convoy] were proceeding as if in time of peace, that there were few soldiers with the standards, that their arms were being carried in carts (vehicula) while they all strolled along at will, he drew up his forces and attacked them, sending first some troops to occupy the bridges and narrow parts of roads.

The column was unable to make it to Novaesium and had to fight its way back to Gelduba without fulfilling its mission. In order to secure its supply lines, an army had to pacify the area between the operational base and the tactical base. This is why Vespasian did not immediately attack Jerusalem when he arrived on the scene in 67 A. D.: if he left hostile forces behind him, in Galilee and Samaria, the rebels would have been in a position to cut off his supply lines. Therefore, he spent an entire campaigning season taking important fortresses in the north of Palestine.

Providing a series of depots between the operational and tactical base was not only a question of “leap-frogging” supplies forward. Depots were generally placed within fortifications, as at Rödgen and South Shields and they served to secure provisions from enemy attack. Therefore, the sources often refer to them as “forts” (castella or phrouria). Vegetius describes this practice:

Among the things particularly incumbent upon a general . . . is to see that the transportation of grain and other provisions . . . is rendered secure from hostile attack. The only way to achieve this is to plant garrisons at suitable points through which our supply-trains pass. These may be cities or walled forts. If no old fortifications are available, temporary forts (castella) are established in favorable positions [and] a number of infantry and cavalry stationed in them on outpost duty provide a safe passage for supplies.

Brutus used fortified lines to protect his supply lines at Philippi (42 B. C.).

The use of fortified depots considerably reduced the risk of attack to supply lines. Once a rear area had been pacified, though, the danger of convoyed supplies, which at first glance seem very vulnerable, was actually rather small. Lacking firearms or explosives, the ambushing party in antiquity usually had to rely on superior numbers to overwhelm a convoy. Even if the enemy knew the likely route of a convoy, the exact time of its movement would not be predictable, so a large ambushing force would have had to wait in enemy territory, itself vulnerable to surprise attack.

Naturally, armies have a tendency to use their worst troops to garrison depots and operational bases, not to mention escort duty, leaving the best soldiers for combat. Livy explicitly states that after the consuls filled their legions with the best troops, they assigned the “surplus” (ceteri ) to garrison duty. In the Republican period, the Romans sometimes used their least reliable Italian allies to defend supply lines, sometimes with unfortunate results. In 218 B. C., Dasius of Brundisium commanded the garrison of Clastidium, in which a great quantity of grain had been stored for the Roman army. He betrayed the city to Hannibal for 400 gold pieces. The city’s capture not only hurt the Romans, but relieved the Carthaginians of considerable supply difficulties. When Manlius Vulso set up an operational base on the Lake of Timavus in his Istrian campaign of 178 B. C., he garrisoned it with a single reserve cohort (repentina cohors) and a few legionary centuries. The Istrians, seeing the weakness of the Roman defense, attacked the base and captured it. Only the barbarian drunkenness that followed, and the timely arrival of Gallic auxiliaries and of part of another legion (which had been foraging nearby) restored the situation, and the base, to the Romans.

Since Roman marching camps also functioned as supply bases, camp security was especially important. The Romans were justifiably famous for their security measures while encamping. Such measures involved both fortification and maintaining the discipline necessary to proper security. This system sometimes broke down, as it did in Albinus’s army in Numidia. Sallust notes that in this case:

. . . [his] camps were not fortified, nor was watch kept in a military fashion, men absented themselves from duty whenever they pleased.

It was no doubt at least partly for logistical reasons that the consul Caecilius Metellus reestablished security in his famous reform of the army in 109 B. C.

Milvian Bridge – Constantine’s Victory






27 October 312

Forces Engaged

Gallic: Approximately 50,000 men. Commander: Constantine.

Italian: Approximately 75,000 men. Commander: Maxentius.


Constantine’s victory gave him total control of the western Roman Empire, paving the way for Christianity as the dominant religion for the Roman Empire and ultimately for Europe.

Historical Setting

Rarely has the course of events followed such a convoluted path to a single decisive event as those that took the forces of the western Roman Empire to the battle at Milvian Bridge. In the 49 years between 235 and 284, Rome was ruled by no less than 26 emperors. Almost anyone with the support of a legion or two battled for, seized, and lost the position of supreme ruler of the Roman Empire. Finally, in 284, Diocletian seized and kept power. Although a soldier from Illyria (along the eastern Adriatic coast), Diocletian, once in power, spent most of his time trying to institute reforms that would stabilize the empire. This involved increased taxation, but the collection was done in a much more equitable fashion than in previous decades. The money was spent on increased bureaucracy and military to the point that some believed there to be more employees of the government than there were taxpayers.

While that did bring about a much more stable atmosphere, Diocletian’s most serious reform involved the system by which the empire was ruled. Realizing that no one man could possibly manage everything from Britain to Persia, Diocletian introduced a tetrarchy, rule by four men. Basing his capital in Nicomedia, at the western end of the Sea of Marmora, he appointed a co-emperor, Maximian, to rule from Italy. Both Diocletian and Maximian would hold the title of augustus. Each man appointed a subordinate, called a caesar, to assist them in ruling their respective halves of the empire. Diocletian named Galerius as caesar in the east, and Maximian named Constantius as caesar in the west. The caesar was to replace the augustus upon his death or retirement and then name a replacement caesar for himself. This was meant to ensure a regular succession, which had not existed for many decades.

When Diocletian decided to retire in 305, he convinced Maximian to do so as well. As planned, Constantius and Galerius rose to augustus, but then they named Flavius Severus as caesar in the west and Maximinus Daia in the east, respectively. Naming those two as caesars seemed a slap in the face to the two who thought that by birth they should have had the positions: Constantine, as son of Constantius, and Valerius Maxentius, as son of Maximian. That resentment came to a head when Constantius died in 306. His army, based in Britain and Gaul, named Constantine not just caesar but augustus, although Constantine declined the higher title. He was confirmed as caesar, but Severus, as acting caesar, became augustus in the west. Unfortunately, troops in Italy named Maximian’s son Maxentius as augustus, ignoring Severus who was next in line. That resulted in a civil war between 306 and 307 in which Severus was finally executed and Maxentius took the western augustus title, but ceded it to his father Maximian who came out of retirement to reoccupy the throne.

Rather than leave well enough alone, Galerius in the eastern empire refused to recognize either Constantine or Maximian as western augustus. Instead, Galerius named one of his generals, Licianus Licinius, as augustus to replace Severus, and he invaded Italy to enforce that appointment. During the invasion, Maxentius forced his father out of power and named himself western augustus. To make matters even more confusing, Galerius’s nephew Maximinus Daia sought and received the title of augustus as well. Thus, six men held the title originally intended for two, while the post of caesar remained vacant. Diocletian finally stepped in, calling a conference in 308 at Carnuntum (modern Hainburg, Austria). Each man except Maximian (retiring a second time) was allowed to retain the title of augustus and was given control over separate regions of the empire.

Diocletian’s mandate lasted but 2 years. Maximian, fleeing from his son to the court of Constantine in Gaul, tried to overthrow his host in 310. For his trouble, he was taken prisoner and allowed to kill himself. When Galerius died in 311, once again four men reigned, all as augustus and none as caesar: Constantine in Gaul, Maxentius in Italy, Licinius in the Balkans, and Maximinus Daia in the east. Had Constantine formally ceded the title of augustus and held that of caesar, Maxentius may never have felt the need to go to war against him. Maxentius, however, was a tyrannical ruler who spent lavishly on himself and his Praetorian Guard while abusing the common people; such men see conspiracies everywhere, and Maxentius suspected Constantine of plotting against him. Determined to rule the western half of the empire alone, in 311 Maxentius began preparations for an invasion of Gaul.

The Battle

Learning of Maxentius’s intentions, Constantine decided to strike first. He had some 100,000 troops under his command, but more than half had to be left to protect the German and British frontiers. In the early spring of 312, Constantine marched his army of 40,000 through the melting alpine snow into northern Italy. Maxentius sent troops northward under a variety of generals, whom Constantine proceeded to defeat at Susa, Turin, and Milan, each of his victories coming over superior numbers. Maxentius sent his best general last; Ruricius Pompeianus too was defeated at Brescia and Verona. As he fought his way south, Constantine maintained a fairly stable number in his army, picking up recruits from the countryside and his defeated enemies. As he approached Rome, his force numbered about 50,000 men. Maxentius, locked up in Rome, commanded about 75,000.

The events that occurred just outside Rome are the stuff of legend. Maxentius misread the omens he received. He was advised via the Sybilline books concerning the upcoming battle “that on that day the enemy of Rome should perish” (Dudley, The Romans, p. 270). Convinced that Constantine and not he himself was the enemy of Rome, Maxentius led his army out from behind the Roman Walls of Aurelian onto the plains near the village of Saxa Rubra, deploying them with the Tiber River at his back.

Constantine also received an omen. The day before the battle, it is said that he had a vision. This vision has been described in a variety of ways, depending on one’s source. Durant’s description, citing the contemporary source Eusebius, says that Constantine saw in the sky a flaming cross, upon which was written the Greek words en tutoi nika, “in this sign conquer.” The following morning, Constantine heard a voice instructing him to place upon his soldiers’ shields “the letter X with a line drawn through it and curled around the top—the symbol of Christ” (Durant, Caesar and Christ, p. 654). Most sources put the wording on the cross as Latin: in hoc signo vinces. Dudley (The Romans, p. 270) states that Constantine had a dream before the battle in which he was told to place the Greek letters chi and rho (the sign of Christ) on his army’s shields.

Constantine had in his army a number of Christians, as well as followers of the equally popular Mithra cult. The followers of Mithra used a cross of light as symbolic of the Unconquerable Sun, a sign of their god. Constantine had also long been a believer in the cult of Apollo, the sun god. At any rate, Constantine later told Eusebius that he vowed before the battle to convert to Christianity if he was victorious.

Details of the battle are sketchy. It seems that both sides placed infantry in the center and cavalry on the flanks. Constantine commanded one of the cavalry wings and led the charge. His Gallic cavalry was more mobile than the heavily armored Roman cavalry under Maxentius, but was heavier than the lightly armed North African cavalry auxiliaries. Thus, it was able to outfight both and crush Maxentius’s flanks. Among the infantry, this caused much panic, and only the Praetorian Guard stood their ground against the attacks of Constantine’s infantry. They were over-whelmed and died where they stood. The rout of the remainder of Maxentius’s force had but one escape route, that of the Milvian Bridge across the Tiber. It was so crowded and the troops so desperate that not even Maxentius could get onto it. He tried to swim across, but the weight of his armor dragged him to his death. His body was brought to the surface the next day.


Maxentius’s death meant that Constantine was the sole ruler of the western Roman Empire. Just before he launched his invasion, Constantine had concluded a truce with Licinius. The agreement included the promise of marriage to Constantine’s sister for Lucinius’s impassivity during the campaign. Licinius was as good as his word, and once the situation had settled down, he and Constantine met in Milan in February 313. There the two issued the Edict of Milan concerning religious tolerance. “I, Constantine Augustus, and I, Licinius Augustus, met under good auspices in Milan, we discussed everything bearing on public advantage and security. First, we considered regulations should be framed to secure respect for divinity on these lines: that the Christians and all other men should be allowed full freedom to subscribe to whatever form of worship they desire, so that whatever divinity may be on the heavenly throne may be well disposed and propitious to us, and to all placed under us” (Dudley, The Romans, p. 271). Constantine seemed to be hedging his bets here, but as time went by he became more solidly supportive of Christianity.

Constantine was soon back in the field, campaigning against hostile Germanic tribes, while Licinius fought and defeated Maximinus Daia. This defeat placed Licinius in control of the eastern Roman Empire. For the next 11 years, the two alternately supported and fought each other. When Constantine defeated Licinius at a battle in 314 and took from him control of almost everything in Europe, Licinius responded by persecuting Christians in the east. He maintained his pagan ways as Constantine became more Christian, until a final showdown between the two resulted in Licinius’s defeat in 323; he was executed the following year.

The city of Rome, which had become an increasingly less important city, lost its title as capital of the empire when Constantine established the city bearing his name, Constantinople. Over time, it became not only the political center of the empire but rivaled Rome for centuries as headquarters of the Christian faith. It was Constantine’s victory outside Rome in 312, however, that put the Christians in a position to be arguing over where the power in their church should rest. The ban on persecution issued in Milan gave the Christians the first breathing room in their history. By 325, they were virtually guaranteed preeminence, for in that year Constantine summoned the Council of Nicea. There leaders of the Christian church branded certain beliefs to be heresies; unfortunately for history, Constantine blamed the Jews for Christ’s death, setting in motion centuries of pogroms.

The depth of Constantine’s conversion has been debated since his own day. The primary source for his statements of faith come from the contemporary Christian historian Eusebius, who was more than a little biased. Certain later statements attributed to the emperor give conflicting views. Constantine rarely followed Christian rituals, and, even though he expressed some religious views at the Council of Nicea, he was more interested in maintaining order than leading the church. His mother was a strong convert and certainly had some influence on him, but, whether he was a Christian by conversion or for political ends, the Christian Church benefited. Other religions soon found themselves persecuted just as harshly by the Christians as the Christians themselves formerly had been. Whatever the merits and drawbacks of later interreligious strife, the fact that Christianity is the dominant faith in Europe today is directly traceable to Constantine.

His foundation of Constantinople set up the division of the Roman Empire into two formal halves. The Eastern Roman Empire grew in power and wealth, later being titled the Byzantine Empire. It stood until overthrown by the power of Islam in 1453. The Western Roman Empire sunk into mediocrity, with occasional glimpses of its former glory when a passing tribe exercised enough power to establish any stability there. Ultimately, Rome came to be a religious rather than a political capital, and its later power emanated from the papacy rather than from the emperor.


Dudley, Donald. The Romans. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970; Durant, Will. Caesar and Christ. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1944; Eusebius. The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine. Translated by G. A. Williamson. New York: Dorset Press, 1984 [1965]; Gibbon, Edward. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Abridged by Frank Bourne. New York: Dell, 1963; Grant, Michael. Constantine: The Man and His Times. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1994. Barnes, Timothy D. Constantine and Eusebius. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981. Cameron, Averil, and Stuart G. Hall. Eusebius: Life of Constantine. Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1999. Durant, Will. Caesar and Christ, Vol. 3, The Story of Civilization. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1944. Ridley, Ronald T., ed. and trans. Zosimus: New History. Canberra: Australian Association for Byzantine Studies, 1982.

The Sixth-Century Army of Justinian

The sixth-century army of Justinian’s era, like its earlier counterparts, was an entirely professional force, but it no longer conformed to the patterns of the Roman army of Caesar or Augustus: overwhelmingly a force of heavy infantry, divided into legions composed of Roman citizens supported by non- Roman auxiliaries. The classic Roman legion of the early empire numbered about five thousand soldiers organized into ten cohorts, each commanded by a centurion, with more or less the same number of non- citizen auxiliary troopers organized in supporting infantry cohorts and cavalry alae (wings). The number of legions slowly increased from the time of Augustus until, in the Severan period in the early third century, it reached a grand total of thirty-three, implying a total paper strength, with an equal quantity of supporting auxiliaries, of around 350,000 men. More or less the entirety of this military establishment was distributed along the empire’s vast frontiers: in northern Britain, along broadly the rivers Rhine and Danube on the European continent, and in Mesopotamia and Armenia facing up to the Persians, while smaller forces patrolled the desert fringes of Egypt and the rest of North Africa as far west as modern Morocco. When larger forces were required for major campaigns, contingents were pulled together from all the legions within reach, but whole legions- each a small expeditionary force in its own right- were moved around the empire only occasionally. By the time of Justinian, the Roman army had changed out of all recognition under the pressure of two sequential periods of military crisis.

The nearest fully comprehensive listing of the Roman army’s order of battle to the time of Justinian is preserved in the eastern portions of the famous Notitia Dignitatum, dating to the 390s. Fifth-century legal materials dealing with military matters and some more episodic pictures of the East Roman army in action provided by fifth- and early sixth- century narrative sources make it clear, however, that the basic pattern of military organization did not alter in the intervening 130 years. Periods of heavy fighting could destroy individual units, and new threats demanded particular recruiting efforts. Sixteen regiments of heavy East Roman infantry were never reconstituted after their destruction at the battle of Hadrianople in August 378, and the Hunnic wars of the 440s both caused heavier casualties and occasioned major recruitment drives in Isauria (south- central Anatolia). But if individual units came and went, the over- all shape of East Roman military organization remained broadly stable. By the late fourth century and on into the mid- sixth, the old pattern of large legionary units stationed at intervals along the major frontier lines had given way to a more complex set of unit structures and dispositions. There were now three broad types of East Roman army grouping: in descending order by status, central (`praesental’) field armies, organized in two separate corps each with its own commanding general (Magister Militum Praesentalis); three regional field armies (one in Thrace, one in Illyricum, the third on the Persian front, each again with its own Magister Militum); and a whole series of frontier guard troops (limitanei) stationed in fortified posts on or close to the frontier line. The last were organized in more local, regional clusters each commanded by a dux (`duke’).

The number and type of military unit found within each grouping had also evolved. The word `legion’ survived in the title of many units, particularly of the limitanei, some of which were direct descendants of very old formations. Legio V Macedonica had originally been raised by Julius Caesar in 43 BC; it still existed in Egypt in the seventh century ad. Like all its late Roman peers, however, it had become a completely different type of unit, for which the standard term was now numerus in Latin, arithmos in Greek. No individual late Roman unit was anything like as large as the old legion of 5,000 men (about the size of a modern brigade). We don’t have exact information, but even the notional manpower of larger infantry formations was no more than 1,000 to 1,500 (much more like a regiment). There were also many more cavalry units in both the frontier limitanei and in the regional and praesental field armies than there used to be; these were smaller still, consisting of no more than 500 men.

The old binary divide between citizen legionaries and noncitizen auxiliaries, likewise, had been replaced by three main categories of soldiers, who received differing rates of pay and enjoyed varying grades of equipment. The highest- ranking palatini and second- ranked comitatenses were distributed across the central and regional field armies, while frontier forces were composed of limitanei and/ or ripenses. Differences in status materially affected military capacity. When a cavalry unit operating against desert raiders in Cyrenaica was downgraded from field army status (as comitatenses) to limitanei, it lost the right to the extra remounts and supplies, making it potentially much less effective against trouble- some desert raiders, much to the chagrin of Synesius of Cyrene. The men themselves presumably also didn’t much enjoy the resulting pay cut. But it is a mistake to write off the effectiveness of limitanei altogether. It used to be fashionable to envisage them as part- time soldier farmers who would have struggled to cope with anything more demanding than a little patrol- ling and the odd customs inspection. But while it is conceivable that their state of readiness and overall training may have varied substantially on different frontiers, the limitanei of the eastern and Danubean fronts were battle hardened. Warfare in the East largely took the form of extended sieges, and in this theatre the garrison forces of many of the major Roman fortresses were composed of limitanei. As such, they bore the brunt of much of the initial fighting in many campaigns. The same was also true of the Danubean front, where heavy fighting had been endemic throughout the fifth century. For really major campaigns, units of limitanei were sometimes also mobilized alongside designated field army formations.

Much of this reorganization can be traced back to the period of extended military and political instability known as the third-century crisis. The fundamental destabilizing factor here was the rise of Persia to superpower status under the Sassanian dynasty, which displaced its Arsacid rivals in the 220s and found new ways to unite the massive resources of what are now Iraq and Iran and turn them against Roman possessions in the East, with extremely negative effects upon the overall strategic position of the Roman Empire. The third- century Persian King of Kings Shapur I (ad 240/ 2- 270/ 2) set out the record of his achievements in a great rock inscription, the Res Gestae Divi Saporis.

I am the Mazda-worshipping divine Shapur, King of Kings . . . , of the race of the Gods, son of the Mazda- worshipping divine Ardashir, King of Kings. . . . When I was first established over the dominion of the nations, the Caesar Gordian from the whole of the Roman Empire . . . raised an army and marched . . . against us. A great battle took place between the two sides on the frontiers of Assyria at Meshike. Caesar Gordian was destroyed and the Roman army was annihilated. The Romans proclaimed Philip Caesar. And Caesar Philip came to sue for peace, and for their lives he paid a ransom of 500,000 denarii and became tributary to us. . . . And the Caesar lied again and did injustice to Armenia. We marched against the Roman Empire and annihilated a Roman army of 60,000 men at Barbalissos. The nation of Syria and whatever nations and plains that were above it, we set on first and devastated and laid waste. And in the campaign [we took] . . . thirty- seven cities with their surrounding territories. In the third contest . . . Caesar Valerian came upon us. There was with him a force of 70,000 men. . . . A great battle took place beyond Carrhae and Edessa between us and Caesar Valerian and we took him prisoner with our own hands, as well as all the other commanders of the army. . . . On this campaign, we also conquered . . . thirty- six cities with their surrounding territories.

It actually took the Roman Empire three political generations to recover from this cataclysm of humiliating defeats and restore balance to the eastern front and thereby to its own internal workings. The most immediate level of response, as you might expect, was a revolution in the empire’s overall military capacity. Some of this came in the form of new unit types. Persian elite forces of the third century AD characteristically took the form of heavily armed lancers-cataphracts-who were responsible for much of the carnage inflicted on the armies of Gordian, Philip, and Valerian. In response, Rome substantially increased the number of cavalry units at the disposal of its commanders and, in particular, created from scratch a number of heavily armoured cavalry units, the plate-mailed clibanarii. These units still formed part of the Eastern praesental field armies at the end of the fourth century.

For the most part, however, the response took the form of a huge expansion in the size of the traditional heavy infantry arm of the Roman military. Because the notional paper strength of the new unit types is far from certain, the exact scale of this expansion is impossible to calculate. But a whole range of evidence, from the size of extant barrack blocks to pieces of specific information, provides the basis for worthwhile calculation. From these materials, no serious student of the late Roman army thinks that its notional manpower strength increased by less than 50 per cent in the century after 230, and a pretty good argument can be made that it actually doubled in size. There could be no more eloquent testimony to the scale of the strategic problem posed by the emergence-better, perhaps, reemergence (Shapur’s great inscription was placed near the tombs of the great Achaemenid kings of antiquity, Darius and Xerxes)- of Persia as a rival superpower to Rome. As a result of this expansion, the Persian threat had been broadly contained by the turn of the fourth century. The first serious Roman victories came in the final decade of the third century, and while one side or the other often held a short-term advantage in subsequent years, the fourth century saw no repetition of the stunning victories recorded by Shapur I.

But the effects of increasing Persian power and of consequent Roman military expansion were felt not just on the battlefield. The rise of Persia to superpower status gave a new importance to the eastern front, which in the longer term destabilized existing political balances of command and control within the empire as a whole. Once Persian power became such a basic fact of life, it demanded imperial- level oversight be available more or less constantly for the eastern front, since only an emperor could safely command the kind of resources that war making in this theatre now required. In the Notitia Dignitatum, about 40 per cent of the entire Roman imperial army was positioned to deal with a potential Persian threat, and this was far too large a force to leave under the control of an unsupervised general, since few could resist the opportunity that such an army provided to bid for the imperial throne. Moreover, given the enormous size of the empire, stretching from Scotland to Iraq, and the catatonically slow speed of movement – Roman armies could move on average twenty kilometres a day for three to four days at a time before needing a rest day – this in turn meant, in practice, that an additional source of command and control had to be available for the empire’s other major European fronts, where a smaller but nonetheless significant increase in the level of threat posed by the new, largely Germanic- dominated confederations of the Rhine and Danube was another characteristic feature of the late imperial period.

After a long period of experiment in the third century, punctuated by repeated usurpations as under supervised generals made successive bids for the purple, the result was a general tendency in the late imperial period- for as long as the Western Empire remained in existence- for political power to be divided between two or more emperors. The knock- on political effects of military reorganization also help explain the relatively complex structure of central and regional field armies. Logistics meant that regional commanders required sufficient forces to respond to most `normal’ levels of threat. It generally took at least a year to concentrate the necessary food supplies and animal fodder and then move the actual troops required for major campaigns, and this was obviously far too long a delay for most frontier problems. But since army commanders also had a long track record of usurpation, emperors wanted to make sure that individual generals did not have so many troops at their disposal that they could easily make a bid for the throne. The field army organization of the fourth to the sixth centuries can be seen as compromise. It redistributed elite portions of the army to allow for quicker, more effective responses to the new strategic demands of the late Roman period but tempered the potential political consequences by carefully dividing units, even of the central, praesental field army, between two separate commanders whose political influence could be counted on more or less to cancel each other out.

The same kind of balance is also visible in another military innovation which had become a characteristic feature of East Roman armies by the time of Justinian. It is not clear when exactly it emerged, but by the sixth century field army generals, the Magistri Militum, all seem to have had substantial forces of officers and soldiers- `guardsmen and spearmen’, as Procopius calls them-who were recruited by them personally and tended to follow their generals on campaign even to far-flung corners of the Mediterranean. Belisarius’s guards served with him in the East, in Africa, and in Italy, and when the commanding general in Armenia was assigned to the Balkans in preparation for an Italian campaign, his guards came with him. The normal term for these soldiers is bucellarii, and the institution clearly grew out of the tendency of the great and good, military and civilian, in the late Roman world to maintain personal armed retinues. The bucellarii of the sixth- century Roman military, however, were different. They were supported at least in part out of state funds (although rich generals, such as Belisarius became, might also employ some of their own money in recruiting and equipping their men, just like richer ships’ captains in Nelson’s navy), and they swore an oath of loyalty to the emperor as well as to their own general. The state funding increased their numbers- at one point Belisarius’s guards amounted to 7,000 men, but 500 to 1,500 seems much the more usual range- and rather than think of them as an expanded personal retinue, they are better understood as elite striking formations whose permanent attachment to successful generals (successful at least in the sense of having been promoted to Magister Militum) meant that they enjoyed higher levels of training and equipment. It is also clear that by the sixth century, bucellarii were being recruited from both outside `barbarians’ and the empire’s own citizens. Here, too, we see the desirability of heightened military effectiveness being balanced by the necessity of preventing individual generals from becoming politically dangerous.

If the size, geographic distribution, and command structure of Justinian’s army can be traced back to the military convulsions of the third century, its unit forms and tactical doctrines had their origins in a quite separate crisis. From the late fourth century, the rise of Hunnic power in eastern and central Europe generated an unprecedented level of threat liability for service- but with the added proviso that the foederatii could preserve their own existing communal and political structures and would always serve under their own leaders. The use of mercenary contingents from beyond the imperial frontier, hired in for particular campaigns, also remained a regular feature of the sixth- century East Roman army. Procopius records a whole range of such contingents, from groups as diverse as the Germanic- speaking Lombards of the Middle Danube to the Turkic- speaking Bulgars (whom he calls Massagetae) from north of the Black Sea. But the empire continued to maintain largely autonomous groups of foederatii on Roman soil, too, even after the departure of the Thracian Goths for Italy in 488, with Heruli in particular playing an important role in Justinian’s campaigns.

In the long term, however, the most important military response to the era of Hunnic domination was tactical. The Romans first met the Huns as small- scale cavalry raiders equipped with a more powerful version of the reflex bow, which had long been a characteristic weapon of Eurasian steppe nomads. This gave different Hunnic groups sufficient military edge rapidly to establish hegemony over large numbers of the semi- subdued, largely Germanic- speaking clients of Rome- Goths and others- who controlled the territories beyond the defended imperial frontier. As a result, the military problem posed by the Huns in the era of Attila evolved into a much more complex one, since the great Hunnic warlord disposed of the combined forces of both the Hunnic core of his empire and of a host of conquered subject peoples: other steppe nomads, such as the Alans, and the largely infantry forces of Germanic Goths, Gepids, Suevi, Sciri, and others. The range of weaponry that Attila could deploy was accordingly varied; it encompassed mounted archers to heavy, mailed shock cavalry equipped with lances to dense groupings of infantry.

The full story of all the experimentation which underlay the Roman adaptation to new patterns of warfare in the Hunnic era cannot be recovered, but its overall effect upon the sixth-century army emerges clearly from the battle narratives of Procopius’s histories and contemporary military manuals, above all the Strategicon of Maurice. As seen in action in these texts, the East Roman army of the sixth century was characterized by a much greater reliance upon its cavalry arm. Now often deployed in the front of the battle line instead of just as flank protection (as had still generally been the case in the fourth century), it comprised two distinct elements. Occupying the van were the lighter cavalry (koursoures in the terminology of the Strategicon) characteristically armed with Hunnic- type reflex bows, whose archaeological remains, in the form of bone stiffeners, start to appear in Roman military contexts in the early fifth century. The koursoures were the first to engage an enemy, using their projectile weaponry at least to inflict some initial losses on an enemy or, at best, to spread disorder in his tactical formations. If this initial assault was successful, the heavier shock cavalry- defensores- could then be deployed almost literally to ram home the advantage. They were armed not only with bows but with cavalry lances to break up an opposition line. Alternatively, if the koursoures ran into trouble, the heavy cavalry would cover their retreat. Procopius’s battle narratives indicate that the new elite cavalrymen of the sixth- century army tended to be concentrated in the bucellarii of the Magistri Militum, but regular field army cavalry units, and some of the foederatii too, were intensively trained in the new battlefield practices.

The bucellarii of field army generals also provided the key military structure of institutional continuity which allowed new weaponry and the tactics to exploit them fully first to be developed and then passed on across the generations. This is partly an argument from silence. There were no officer training schools or military academies in the later Roman Empire where they might have been able to develop new doctrines by discussion in the classroom, which is how modern armies operate. But it is a bit more than that, too. The bucellarii, the new elite arm of the Roman army of the sixth century, enjoyed the highest rates of pay and best equipment on offer from the state factories (not to mention any extras that their often rich commanders chose to provide), so that they could generally attract the best recruits. The officer cadres of the bucellarii were also a source of new field army generals. At least two of Justinian’s initial tranche of his own appointees to the rank of Magister Militum in command of key field army formations in the late 520s- not only Belisarius who will play such an important role in this book but Sittas as well- had served in his bucellarii when the future emperor first held the rank of Magister Militum Praesentalis in the early 520s; several of Belisarius’s household and underofficers from the original African campaign would find promotion to the rank of magister in turn as the reign progressed. Not only were the bucellarii a key element in their own right of the new model East Roman army of the sixth century; they also trans- mitted military expertise across the generations.

Even if the most striking feature of this military revolution was its transformation of the role and equipment of Roman cavalry, it did also affect the battlefield operations of the infantry. Both the lighter and heavier cavalry units were trained to operate in integrated fashion with the infantry, which remained the largest element in every Roman field army and whose tactics and equipment had also been revamped accordingly. The latest interpretation suggests that defensive armour was indeed lightened- as the military commentator Vegetius complained in the later fourth century- but to increase the infantry’s battlefield mobility so that it could work in more integrated fashion with the rapidly developing cavalry arm. The range of infantry equipment was also increased to include more bows and other projectile weaponry so that foot regiments could perform a wider variety of roles: everything from reinforcing and driving home a tactical advantage created by successful cavalry assault to providing a strong covering force should the horsemen be forced to retreat. Experience of combat in the Hunnic era eventually taught Roman commanders that it was no use operating the infantry in dense, relatively static formations, since Hunnic- style horse archery was likely to cause mayhem within the massed ranks before the heavy infantry’s brute force could be brought tellingly to bear at close quarters. The infantry had to become more mobile and less vulnerable to sustained missile and cavalry attack and, by the time of Justinian, had been reordered accordingly. By this stage, it even operated with portable anti-cavalry barricades-munitiones, as an early sixth-century commentator labels them- to help protect it from the unwelcome attention of horse archers.

Two strategic crises, therefore, shaped the armed forces available to the Emperor Justinian on his accession to the throne in 527. The old heavy infantry legions which had conquered an empire had been forced to adapt: numerically, to the threat posed by a newly united Persian superpower in the third century, and tactically, to the intrusion of large numbers of steppe nomads into eastern and central Europe in the later fourth and fifth. Such was the importance of war making in both practical and ideological terms to the overall functioning of the empire that a military revolution on this scale was bound to have equally profound effects on the workings of its internal structures.

Roman External Relations

Roman external relations were defined by territorial ambitions and interests on the part of the Roman state at different stages of its development. These relations shifted during Roman history as it evolved from a republican city-state based in Italy and eventually became a vast empire encompassing three continents.

Early in the republic, most of Rome’s relations were primarily with its Latin, Italic, Greek, and Etruscan neighbors in the Italian peninsula and were focused on guaranteeing its economic health and security in the region. However, Roman military and economic expansion into Europe, the Mediterranean littoral, and the Near East brought the Roman republic (and then the empire after the principate of Augustus) into direct contact and conflict with the Celts (Gauls), the Carthaginians, the Hellenistic kingdoms, and the Parthians, thus expanding its relations from the circumscribed world of the Italian peninsula. Later in the third and fourth centuries CE, in light of its declining military and political strength, the preservation of the Roman empire rested on maintaining friendly relations and alliances with Germanic ethnic groups in its European borderlands, which were characterized by vast German migrations from central Eurasia. Early in the republic, much of Rome’s inter- action with local Italian city-states in terms of trade, alliances, and warfare centered on Roman expansion vis-a-vis these entities. Growing Ro- man preeminence in the central Italian peninsula brought it into direct conflict with other Latin city-states (collectively referred to by historians as the Latin League). Direct military confrontation between Rome and the Latin League in the Latin War ultimately resulted in Roman victory in the Battle of Lake Regillus in 499 BCE. The Latin War ended with a formal treaty (foedus Cassianus) that established normal relations between the Romans and the Latin League and created an alliance for collective security. However, this diplomatic maneuver on the part of Rome was in response to the growing threat of migrations of Volsci and Sabines into Roman and Latin areas in the fifth century. Subsequent warfare with the Volsci and the Gauls made the alliance with the Latins pivotal to Italian security. However, in the midst of the Samnite Wars (the Saminites were erstwhile allies of the Romans) the Latin League grew suspicious of Ro- man hegemony, resulting in a revolt in 340 BCE. Upon the defeat of the Latin League, Rome pursued a policy of incorporating the Latin cities through intermarriage, citizenship, and growing economic bonds, thereby securing their hegemony in Italy. By the end of the Third Samnite War in 290 BCE, they too became incorporated as part of the Roman state, as did the Etruscans and Gauls in subsequent years.

Roman diplomacy shifted onto the great Mediterranean region with the defeat over Epirus in the Pyrrhic Wars and Carthage in the Punic Wars in the third and second centuries BCE. Rome and Carthage had maintained friendly relations prior to the Punic Wars, only insofar as they saw a com- mon enemy in the Greeks and Etruscans. However, with Roman incorporation of these regions, hostility against Carthage in Sicily, Spain, and North Africa resulted in the Punic Wars. In the midst of these wars, Rome garnered support and hostility from adjacent Hellenistic states (some were Carthaginian allies), bringing them into the orbit of Roman national interests. While there were Roman emissaries and what could be construed as diplomats and diplomatic institutions in the modern sense sent or exchanged with these kingdoms, the actual work of diplomacy was done through the Roman military and bureaucracy following orders from the Senate.

In the second to first centuries BCE, small Greek kingdoms, seeking greater autonomy from the Hellenistic kingdoms (that is, the empire of Alexander the Great and his generals), sought Roman support. Roman intervention in Greek affairs brought them into dynastic intrigues and regional disputes, resulting in Roman military actions against Macedon (200 BCE-197 BCE), Syria (190 BCE), and Greek city-states (particularly illustrative with the Roman sack of Corinth in 146 BCE). Rome gradually incorporated these Greek regions as Roman provinces as they were defeated. Roman acquisition of Pergamum in Asia Minor through the will of its last monarch in 133 BCE granted them substantial territory in the East as well. While friendly relations existed with Ptolemaic Egypt, the last of the great Hellenistic kingdoms, Roman political strife combined with Mark Antony’s alliance with Cleopatra also resulted in the conquest of that region by Octavian in 30 BCE.

The Roman empire, particularly during the principate, was a potent force in the ancient Mediterranean world, bringing it into contact with the Parthians in the East and with German cultural groups along its European borderlands. As Rome expanded into Britain, the Levant, and Mesopotamia, it was expedient to rule through client-kings in a form of indirect rule. However, due to revolts such as those in Judea by the Jews (particularly the Zealots) and in Britain by the Iceni in the first century CE, Roman authority was established through the direct incorporation of these regions as Roman provinces subject to direct political and military authority. Relations with Parthia were also characterized by the establishment of formal diplomatic recognition of this Persian kingdom as an equal through the exchange of hostages during times of peace. While wars did characterize this relationship, the inability of either power to force the other to complete capitulation forced this mutual recognition. However, as Rome’s military and political power declined in the third and fourth centuries CE, Rome was forced to develop a series of alliances with neighboring Germanic tribal states along its periphery for mutual defense by allowing Germanic settlement in Roman lands, for Germanic mercenaries, known as foederati, were crucial to Roman defense. In the midst of a massive migration of Germanic peoples coming from central Eurasia and exerting pressure on Roman borderlands, it was pivotal for Rome to establish such relationships to counter its weakening military. While some of these Germanic peoples became thoroughly Romanized and ad- opted Christianity, by the fifth century the Roman empire in the West was no more, having gradually evolved into a series of Germanic successor states. In the East, the Byzantine empire survived for another millennium but through most of its existence as primarily a Greek state based in Anatolia and the Greek peninsula.

Bibliography Eilers, Claude, ed. Diplomats and Diplomacy in the Roman World. Boston: Brill, 2008. Lee, A. D. “The Role of Hostages in Roman Diplomacy with Sassanian Persia.” Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte 40(3) (1991): 366-374. Mattern, Susan P. Rome and the Enemy: Imperial Strategy in the Principate. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. Scullard, H. H. A History of the Roman World: 753- 146 BC. 4th ed. New York: Methuen, 1980.

Xiongnu, Huns and the End of the Roman Empire II

The Threat to Rome

Theodosius I was the last Emperor to rule a unified Roman regime. In AD 393 he placed his 9-year-old son on the throne of the Western Empire under the guidance and protection of a senior general named Flavius Stilicho. Theodosius was then succeeded by his eldest son Arcadius who ruled the Eastern Empire from a bureaucratic court, while the western government fell under the authority of generals assisted by Gothic and Germanic warlords brought into regular imperial service.

Authorities in the Western Roman Empire sought alliances with the Huns who occupied large parts of Eastern Europe and the Pontic-Caspian steppe. By contrast the Eastern Roman Empire was a target for Hunnic raids, aggression and extortion. In AD 395 the Huns sent an army through passes in the Caucasus Mountains to raid the eastern Roman Empire. Jerome describes the sudden terror of these attacks as ‘everywhere their approach was unexpected as their speed overtook any rumour of their coming and they spared neither religion, rank nor age.’ Hunnic armies entered Armenia and rode south to plunder Syria, as the population of Antioch and Tyre retreated into their cities. Roman authorities suspected that the Huns might be planning to plunder gold from Jerusalem and wealthy citizens fled onto ships to avoid capture or death. Jerome confirms the impact of these raids when he writes that ‘the soldiers of Rome who are conquerors and lords of the world are subdued, tremble and withdraw in fear at the sight of those who cannot easily walk on foot.’

The Huns then turned their attentions west and subjugated populations in central Germany prompting a further movement of displaced Germanic peoples into the Western Roman Empire. In AD 405 tens of thousands of Suebians, Vandals, and Alani crossed the Rhine frontiers along with their families to settle in Roman Gaul. Up to 80,000 Vandals migrated through Spain and in AD 429 they crossed into North Africa to seize the rich farmlands that supplied grain to Rome.

During this period, military leaders in the Western Roman Empire recruited Hunnic warriors into imperial service as the elite bodyguards of senior commanders. The Western Emperor Honorius (AD 393–423) maintained 300 Huns in the Italian capital Ravenna and Stilicho, the Magister Militum (‘Master of Soldiers’), was protected by a personal bodyguard of Hunnic troops. In AD 409, the Emperor summoned a mounted force including 10,000 Hunnic allies to help defend Italy from an army of Visigoths who were threatening Rome. Zosimus suggests that the Romans found it difficult to feed and supply this number of horsemen and the riders withdrew allowing the Visigoths to sack Rome the following year. In AD 425 a Roman commander named Flavius Aetius requested the support of a Hunnic army to decide a succession dispute in the Western Roman Empire. He led 60,000 allied Hunnic warriors into Northern Italy before negotiating a peace that allowed him to claim the title Magister Militum. By this period Hunnic armies incorporated the strongest military traditions of their subject peoples and Jordanes describes their varied appearance including ‘Suebi (Germans) fighting on foot, Huns with bows and the Alani forming-up into a heavy-armed battle-line’.

In AD 445 a chief named Attila was proclaimed king of the Huns and, after unifying his subject peoples, ‘he gathered a host of the other tribes under his power.’ Jordanes describes Attila as ‘short of stature, with a broad chest and a large head; his eyes were small, his beard thin and greying; and he had a flat nose and tanned complexion’. He was said to be ‘enthusiastic for war, but restrained in action, mighty in counsel, gracious to suppliants and lenient to those who were received into his protection’.

Under the command of Attila, Hunnic armies reduced the political and military strength of the Roman regime and caused the collapse of the Western Empire. Like the Xiongnu, the Huns wanted to dominate and extract wealth from their imperial rivals, rather than conquer or destroy them. It was said that when Attila captured the Italian city of Milan he saw a painting of the Roman Emperors sitting upon golden thrones and Scythians lying dead before their feet. He ordered the image redrawn to depict ‘Attila upon a throne and the Roman Emperors heaving sacks upon their shoulders and pouring out gold before him’. Attila’s funeral oration was reported to have praised him as the chief who ‘held the Scythian and German realms, terrified both Roman Empires, captured their cities and placated by their appeals, took yearly tribute in place of plunder’.

Attila’s attacks on the Eastern Roman Empire began in AD 441 when Hunnic armies crossed the Danube frontier and plundered the Balkans. The Huns had with them Roman captives with the engineering skills required to bridge rivers. They also brought numerous battering-ram siege engines that they mounted on large steppe-wagons. If threatened by attack, these heavy timber wagons could be quickly drawn into formation to create a fortress-like wooden stronghold. Priscus describes the siege of a fortified Roman city called Naissus when the Huns drove ‘a vast number of siege engines’ against the walls. Archers fired from wicker and hide-protected portholes in these wagons, forcing the defenders from the battlements, as the battering-rams were rolled forward. These rams consisted of a large metal-headed beam fixed to chains so that it could be drawn back with ropes, then swung forward with pendulum force. The walls of Naissus were battered down at numerous points, allowing the Huns and their Gothic allies to scale the rubble with ladders and plunder the city. These sieges were rapid operations conducted with overwhelming force and in AD 443 the Huns threatened, but did not attack, the heavily-fortified imperial capital of Constantinople (Byzantium). Tens of thousands of Roman subjects, including many skilled urban tradespeople, were seized in their raids and conveyed to the Hunnic homelands in Hungary and the Pontic steppe. A Roman chronicle describes the conflict as ‘a new disaster for the east: more than seventy cities were sacked while no assistance came from the troops of the Western Empire’.

The Eastern Empire bought peace terms with the Huns for 6,000 pounds of gold and an agreement that a further 2,100 pounds of gold per annum would be given as tribute (equivalent to 8.4 million sesterces of first-century currency). In addition, thousands of Roman prisoners were returned at a ransom of 8 gold solidi per person. According to Priscus, ‘these tributes were very heavy, as many resources and the imperial treasuries had been exhausted.’ Priscus reports: ‘The Romans pretended that they had made the agreements voluntarily. But because of the overwhelming fear which gripped their commanders, they were compelled to accept gladly every injunction, however harsh, in their eagerness for peace.’ Despite these protests the Eastern Empire had the capacity to pay further tribute and John Lydus reports that in AD 457 the treasury preserved 100,000 pounds of gold, ‘which Attila, the enemy of the world, had wanted to take’.

In AD 449 Priscus was selected by the government of the Eastern Roman Empire to lead an embassy to the court of Attila. He travelled to one of the Hunnic capitals north of the Danube which resembled a vast wood-built village the size of a Roman town. Attila’s royal residence was constructed from close-fitting polished timbers and ornamental wooden boards and, although it had a perimeter adorned with towers, the complex was built ‘for beauty rather than protection’. Priscus reports that a Roman captive taken from the city of Sirmium had built a heated bath-house at the site, confirming the new engineering skills then available to the regime. Attila received envoys and petitions and oversaw legal cases in his royal hall. Priscus records that one of his royal secretaries was a Roman administrator named Rusticius who was another war-captive, employed by the Huns because of ‘his skills in speech and composing letters’. Attila was also promoting his regime using motifs from Sarmatian religion and claimed to have discovered the sacred sword of the classical war god Mars (Ares).

Another incident indicates the Hunnic capacity for acculturation. Priscus met a former Roman merchant in the Hunnic capital who spoke fluent Greek, but was dressed in full ‘Scythian attire’ and cut his hair in their distinctive style. The Greek explained he had been a wealthy inhabitant of Viminacium near the Danube River, but when the city was stormed he was captured and brought into Hunnic service. He had ‘fought bravely in battles against the Romans’ and with the spoils ‘he had obtained his freedom according to the law of the Scythians.’ He could have returned to the Empire, but he married a Scythian woman, had children by his foreign wife and continued to serve the Huns.

While Priscus was attending the Hunnic court he spoke to visiting envoys from the Western Roman government about the threat posed by Attila. They explained to Priscus that ‘no one who ruled over Scythia or any other land has achieved such great things in such a short time.’ They warned that Attila ‘rules all of Scythia, makes the Romans pay tribute and is aiming at greater achievements for he wants to engage the Persians and enlarge his territories’. The envoys explained that Media was no great distance from the Hunnic territories and the Huns knew the main routes through the Caucasus Mountains. They believed that Attila, ‘with little difficulty and only a short journey, would subdue the Medes, Parthians, and Persians and force them to submit to the payment of tribute. For he has a military force which no nation can resist.’ One of the envoys from Rome named Constantiolus warned that if Persia fell to the Huns, then Attila would dictate ruling terms on the Western Roman Empire. Constantiolus claimed, ‘At present we bring Attila gold for the sake of his rank, but if he overwhelms the Parthians, Medes, and Persians, he will no longer endure the rule of independent Romans.’ But contrary to Roman expectations the Huns did not engage the Persian Empire as their next military target.

In AD 450 Attila received a pretext for war against the Western Roman Empire. Honoria, the disgraced half-sister of the Emperor Valentinian III, sent a marriage proposal to Attila. This union would have given Attila controlling interests in the imperial succession, but the marriage was refused by the Roman court who insisted that Honoria marry an aging senator. At the same time the Eastern Roman Empire withheld the annual gold tribute that it had agreed to pay to the Huns. Priscus reports that ‘Attila was undecided who he should attack first, but resolved to begin with the greater war and advance against the West, since his fight there would be against Goths and Franks’ who had fled Hunnic rule for Roman protection.

In AD 451 Attila attacked the Western Roman Empire with a Hunnic army supported by large numbers of subject Goths (Ostrogoths) and Germans. His invasion force would have included more than 60,000 warriors, making it the largest field-army operating in the western world. Attila plundered cities in Gaul and ‘launched a fierce assault with his battering-rams’ on the heavily fortified city of Orleans. In response the Western Roman regime formed an alliance with the Alani, Franks and Visigoths who occupied large parts of Gaul and viewed the Huns as their traditional enemies. The two armies fought a large-scale engagement at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains that ended with stalemate and the withdrawal of the Hunnic army from Gaul.

The following year the Hunnic army crossed the Alps and sacked the major cities in northern Italy before threatening Rome itself (AD 452). On this occasion the Roman regime could not obtain support from their Germanic allies and the remaining imperial units were unable to manage an adequate defence. Jordanes describes how the Hunnic army attacked the fortified city of Aquileia: ‘Bringing forward all manner of war-engines, they quickly forced their way into the city, plundered it, divided the spoils and so cruelly devastated the place that scarcely anything remained.’ He claims that the invaders ‘devastated the largest part of Italy’ before approaching Rome. Pope Leo was chosen as the envoy to Rome and the western government was forced to agree peace terms that made their empire tributary to the Huns. Attila also reasserted his claim to an imperial marriage alliance and demanded the government surrender the princess Honoria, ‘with her due share of the royal wealth’.

The campaign had exhausted the Roman capacity for war and the regime was open to invasion and exploitation by further foreign powers. With the Western Empire subdued, Attila returned with his army to his Hungarian realm to plan new campaigns against the Visigoths and Alani. He was also anticipating conflict with the Eastern Roman Empire as it was withholding the promised tribute payments to the Hunnic court. But in AD 453, on the night of his marriage to a German princess named Ildico, Attila suddenly died from a brain haemorrhage. The fate of Honoria is not known and she may have remained in Rome under imperial custody. The death of Attila caused subject nations to rebel and his empire disintegrated in a series of conflicts. The Hunnic threat diminished, but by this period large parts of the Western Roman Empire were under the direct rule of Germanic nations who had conquered important territories, or been given land in return for military service. The last ever Emperor of Rome was a boy named Romulus Augustus who was deposed by a Germanic king named Odoacer in AD 476. It had taken less than a century for a major steppe incursion with an influx of foreign refugees to destabilize, undermine and destroy the Roman Empire.

In antiquity the Huns were the largest and most significant population group to have travelled across the steppe from the Far East to the Roman frontiers, a journey of more than 5,000 miles. But during the long history of the silk routes many other unnamed, impoverished or dispossessed individuals passed through the empires of Central Asia as the consequence of conflict, slavery or commerce. Archaeologists excavating the ancient site of an imperial estate at Vagnari in southern Italy unearthed the graves of slave workers who had been involved in textile production during the first century AD. DNA testing of skeletal remains revealed that one of the men buried in the plot had Far Eastern ancestry inherited from his mother. In spite of all the wealth associated the silk routes, his sole possession was a plain wooden food bowl, placed next to his body for use in the afterlife. Whoever this man was and however his ancestors had found themselves in the very centre of the Roman Empire, he had ended his days as a slave and was buried in a simple grave on a bleak hillside.

Mark Anthony – public enemy!?

From late in 44 BC Cicero lobbied hard to have the Senate name Antony as a public enemy and formally declare hostilities against him. Most senators were reluctant to take this step, and Fulvia and Antony’s mother Julia were very visible expressing their dismay that a consul of Rome should be condemned in his absence and without trial. Some senators had connections to Antony, although his two uncles, Caius Antonius and Lucius Julius Caesar, were never more than lukewarm in their support and at times hostile. Many had no particular sympathy for Decimus Brutus or the other conspirators; almost all feared the return of civil war and felt that any compromise would be preferable. To Cicero’s disgust, the Senate sent a delegation of three former consuls – Caesar’s father-in-law Calpurnius Piso, Octavian’s stepfather Philippus and Sergius Sulpicius Rufus – to negotiate with Antony.

The fear of civil war was the most powerful emotion, made worse because it remained so uncertain what the sides would be and who was likely to win. Lepidus was now proconsul of Transalpine Gaul and Nearer Spain, and Asinius Pollio governed Further Spain. Both were Caesareans, but that did not mean they would automatically ally themselves with Antony, and the latter was in any case busy enough trying to contain the resurgent Sextus Pompey. On 1 January 43 BC, the new consuls Hirtius and Pansa took office. They were also Caesareans, although they had not been especially close to Antony in recent months.

Antony’s brother Caius had gone out to Macedonia, but the legion left there had been subverted by Brutus. Caius was placed under arrest and Brutus took his place as governor and was soon recruiting more soldiers. More violent confrontations had already erupted in the eastern provinces. On his way to Syria, Dolabella had visited Asia, the province allocated by Caesar to Trebonius. Feigning friendship, Dolabella had taken the proconsul by surprise and had him killed. Cicero claimed that Trebonius was tortured first and there were grisly stories of his severed head being thrown about like a ball until the face was unrecognisable. While Dolabella enthusiastically plundered Asia, Cassius went to Syria and brought the army there under his control. He and Brutus now led armies and governed provinces without any authority to do so. At Rome, Cicero struggled and eventually succeeded in getting this recognition for them.

Sulpicius died on the way back from meeting Antony. The other two delegates returned in February and reported that the latter was willing to give up Cisalpine Gaul, as long as he kept the other Gaul and retained command of his six legions for five years. Antony was insistent that before this period lapsed, Brutus and Cassius must have given up their own commands, tacitly accepting that they held them. He also demanded formal recognition of all his acts as consul and, in due course, discharge bonuses for his soldiers equal to those promised by Octavian.

Since the beginning of the year, the consuls had led the Senate in making preparations for war. Both gathered armies and Octavian was awarded propraetorian Imperium, although he was still a private citizen. A man with his own fiercely loyal army simply could not be ignored. Decimus Brutus was also confirmed in his command. The Senate rejected Antony’s terms, but only after a fierce debate. Lucius Caesar blocked the move to name Antony as a public enemy. The senatus consultum ultimum was passed, but rather than a formal declaration of war, the crisis was termed a tumultus – something closer in sense to a state of emergency. In many ways the situation was similar to the build-up to war in 49 BC. Both sides were reluctant to commit themselves irrevocably and still hoped that the other would make concessions. There was another attempt to form a delegation to go to Antony, but this came to nothing. Lepidus sent letters urging compromise. Yet while all this went on, Decimus Brutus’ army was steadily consuming its stocks of food and would starve or surrender if not relieved within a few months.

By the start of spring, Hirtius, Pansa and Octavian were ready to. move – two former Caesareans and Caesar’s son marching against Antony to save one of the dictator’s murderers. Cicero had decided that the dangers of recognising Octavian were outweighed by his usefulness. He provided three of the seven legions marching to relieve Mutina, the only experienced troops in an army that otherwise was formed of levies. For the moment he placed the Fourth and the Martia under Hirtius’ command, but the soldiers remained loyal to him. Brutus and Cassius both felt that Cicero and the Senate were unwise to trust the young Caesar, but as was so often the case they did not suggest any practical alternative. Three veteran legions could not be ignored and had a fighting power far greater than their numbers. Cicero felt the nineteen-year-old could be used, saying, ‘we must praise the young man, decorate him, and discard him’ (laudanum aduluscentem, ornandum, tollendum).

Hirtius approached Mutina first, but on his own did not have the strength to attack Antony, and this remained true even when he was joined by Octavian. To let Decimus Brutus know that relief was on the way, they tried lighting beacons, but in the end the news was carried by a man who sneaked through the lines and then swam a river. The same method was used to reply and in the coming days Decimus also employed carrier pigeons with some success. In April, Pansa led the four newly raised legions to join them.

Antony had word of his coming and saw an opportunity to destroy these inexperienced troops before the enemy forces combined. It was similar to the bold attacks he had led in Judaea and Egypt, if on a much larger scale. He decided to take the Second and Thirty-Fifth legions, along with two elite praetorian cohorts (one his own and the other raised by one of his supporters), and some of his enrolled veterans, as well as supporting cavalry and light troops. Yet unlike Judaea and Egypt, this time his opponents were a lot more capable. Hirtius and Octavian moved first, sending the Martia and their own praetorian cohorts to rendezvous with Pansa’s column. On 14 April the combined force advanced towards the town of Forum Gallorum, moving along the Via Aemilia, which at this point ran on a causeway through patchy marshland. Patrols spotted some of Antony’s cavalry and then noticed the gleam of helmets and equipment amongst the long reeds.

The Battle of Forum Gallorum

Remembering the executions of the previous summer, the men of the Martia boiled over with rage and attacked immediately, supported by the two praetorian cohorts. As yet they had only spotted Antony’s cavalry and skirmishers, for the Second and Thirty-Fifth were concealed in Forum Gallorum itself. It was a confused, unplanned engagement and the broken terrain produced several separate combats. Pansa sent two of the raw legions up in support, but the battle was already well advanced before these arrived.

The commander of the Martia was another of Caesar’s former officers named Servius Sulpicius Galba, and he later reported that they had formed the ten cohorts of the Martia and the two of praetorians in a single line – an unusually shallow formation for a Roman army. On the right, he led eight cohorts of the Martia and drove back the Thirty-Fifth no less than half a mile. This left his flank exposed and Antony’s cavalry led by the Moors began to envelop the line. In the confusion of this fluid combat, the general found himself riding amongst Antony’s soldiers. Antony himself was some distance behind him, for a Roman commander was expected to direct and encourage from just behind the fighting line. Galba was spotted as he fled back to his own troops. Chased by the Antonians, he had to sling his shield behind him to stop himself being killed by his own side when the recruits coming up in support mistook him for a bold enemy leader.

The veteran soldiers of the Macedonian legions fought each other with a grim and, according to Appian silent, savagery. Octavian’s praetorians were ground down as they stubbornly held the Via Aemilia itself. On the left side of the road, there were only two cohorts of the Martia and Hirtius’ praetorians. Before long Antony’s cavalry was threatening their flank. They were forced to retreat and soon the whole line was giving ground. Pansa was wounded by a missile, but the resistance of the experienced troops permitted the whole army to withdraw to its camp without suffering catastrophic losses. Antony pressed them and tried to make the victory decisive by storming the camp. His men were now weary and the enemy still numerous and determined enough to repulse them.

Antony led his men back to their camp some miles away. They were cheered by their success, but physically tired, emotionally drained and hungry after hours of waiting, marching and fighting. Caesar would probably have camped on the spot and brought supplies to them. Antony saw no danger and as the column marched carelessly along, Hirtius led the Fourth and the Seventh in a surprise attack. The Antonian soldiers fled, surrendered or were killed. The eagle standards of the Second and Thirty-Fifth were captured, along with half of their other standards, and the two effectively ceased to exist as units. The survivors spent the night in the houses of Forum Gallorum.

The blockade of Mutina was still intact, but Octavian and Hirtius moved the combined army closer. A week later they tried to break through the siege lines. A battle developed and Antony was defeated, making him abandon the siege and retreat. When news reached Rome, the Senate was finally persuaded to declare him a public enemy. Yet control of events was slipping away from Cicero and the others eager to prosecute the war against Antony. Hirtius had been killed as he led his men into the Antonian camp. Pansa succumbed to his wounds soon afterwards. Octavian was left in command of the entire army and this was clearly very convenient for him. There need not have been anything suspicious about the consuls’ deaths and neither is it certain that he would not have found them sympathetic to him if they had lived. Neither had shown much enthusiasm for the conspirators.

Octavian asked the Senate for a triumph. Cicero tried and failed to get him the lesser honour of an ovation. Caesar’s triumph after the Munda campaign in 45 BC had shocked people for blatantly commemorating a victory in a civil war. Less than two years later it seemed much easier to discuss such things. On the whole, the Senate was relieved to see Antony defeated, but was not inclined to be generous. Rewards to the soldiers of the Fourth and Martia were reduced and Octavian was not included in the commission tasked with providing land for the soldiers on discharge. It was a sign that moves were now under way to discard the young Caesar.

Antony had been outmanoeuvred and out-fought during the campaign. Once again, it is worth emphasising that this was his first campaign in sole command and his military experience of large-scale operations was limited to Italy in 49 BC and Macedonia in 48 BC. The civil wars were fought by improvised armies containing many inexperienced amateurs. Yet he was at his best during the retreat, sharing the same poor rations as his men, even drinking stagnant water and eating wild fruit and roots scavenged during the march into the Alps. There was encouragement when he was joined by Publius Ventidius Bassus with three legions recruited from the colonies set up for Caesar’s veterans. Ventidius had himself served Caesar in Gaul and the civil war, which probably made it easier for him to re-enlist these old soldiers.

Octavian’s veterans were bitterly opposed to serving under Decimus Brutus, whom the Senate now appointed to overall command of the forces in Cisalpine Gaul. The young Caesar himself was scarcely any more enthusiastic. The victors were divided amongst themselves and this prevented any concerted pursuit, helping Antony to escape into Transalpine Gaul, where Lepidus controlled a powerful army that included many experienced soldiers and officers. The former Magister Equitum had proclaimed his loyalty to the Republic on numerous occasions, but Cicero and many others found it difficult to trust him. It did not help the situation that around this time Cassius received formal recognition of his command, while even Sextus Pompey was finally appointed to a naval command instead of being simply a rebel. Caesar’s enemies seemed to be growing strong and little incentive was being offered to former Caesareans to support the Senate. The veterans were frustrated by the failure to punish his assassins. For Lepidus, as for the other leaders at this time, power and security depended ultimately on control of his army. His men struggled to see Antony as the real enemy and his best troops were re-enrolled veterans, for Lepidus had reformed several of Caesar’s legions including the Tenth.

The two armies camped near each other. Antony made no hostile moves, and no doubt encouraged his men to fraternise with those of Lepidus. Plutarch tells us that he had not shaved since the defeat at Mutina — a mark of mourning Caesar himself had employed until he avenged the massacre of fifteen cohorts at the hands of rebels in 54–53 BC — and that he wore a black cloak. Within days, the army defected to Antony en masse. Lepidus claimed to have been forced to follow his men, but it seems more likely that he preferred to join Antony as he had little to gain from fighting him. One of Lepidus’ legates committed suicide, but everyone else seems to have been happy at the change. In Spain, Pollio protested his loyalty for a little longer, but also eventually aligned himself with Antony. Joined by all the governors of the western provinces, Antony and his allies controlled something like eighteen or nineteen legions. Many were small in size, and not all could be safely deployed in the civil war, but the quality of the troops was high. Within months of his defeat, Antony had grown far stronger militarily.

Decimus Brutus was in no position to confront them. Some of his troops defected and he fled, only to be captured and held prisoner by a Gallic chieftain. Octavian had command of his own and most of the legions of Hirtius and Pansa – with new recruits, some eight legions. He sent some of his centurions to Rome, demanding that he be elected to the now vacant consulship. There was a rumour that Cicero would be his colleague. The orator had vainly tried to persuade Brutus to bring his army from Macedonia to Italy and provide forces to face Antony and his allies. The Senate refused to consider a man who was still weeks short of his twentieth birthday. In response, Octavian marched his army south from Cisalpine Gaul, this crossing of the Rubicon no more than incidental.

Development of Roman Navy up to Actium

Between 190 and the build-up to Actium in the latter half of the 30s, warships larger than “sixes” disappeared from the fleets of the Mediterranean powers. Rome had methodically destroyed her major rivals at sea and emerged from the war with Antiochus as the undisputed naval power of the Mediterranean. One might reasonably ask why the Romans never developed an interest in midsized polyremes, except for their occasional use of “sixes” for flagships. The commonly accepted answer is derived from authors like Polybius and Livy, who chronicled the development of Roman naval power during the Punic Wars. The answer goes like this: the Romans perfected the art of grapple-and-board warfare in order to offset the nautical skill of their adversaries. Their first “fives” were of sturdy build, and although they did not handle as well as the Carthaginian “fives” they faced, they carried the Romans to victory thanks to a special boarding bridge called a “raven” (corax) with a spike on the outboard end that firmly gripped the deck of the attacked ship. The Romans soon dispensed with the cumbersome raven, but continued their preference for grappling their enemies-this time with iron hooks attached to ropes ( ferreae manus )-dragging them alongside so their marines could decide the battle. They so perfected the use of “fives” for this purpose that they did not need or want to build larger ships. When faced with larger ships in battle, they simply grappled them and let their marines do the rest. During the first century, they sometimes employed naval artillery to soften up their enemies from a distance before closing with them, throwing grapnels, and letting their marines finish them off. By this means, for example, Octavian defeated Antony’s larger vessels at Actium.

Distortions stemming from preserved battle narratives that focus on the experiences of the marines. A similar view emerges from the recent study of the Roman navy (up to 167 BCE) by Christa Steinby. She demonstrates convincingly how our sources routinely minimize the nautical expertise of Roman naval personnel and downplay the full measure of the navy’s effectiveness. A more defensible answer to our question (i. e., why the Romans avoided midsized polyremes) will be found in the strategic objectives they built their naval forces to achieve.

We should start with the most obvious reason, namely, that the Romans avoided the desire to build bigger and bigger warships because their primary enemies lacked effective naval siege units populated by midsized polyremes. These enemies included, first and foremost, the Carthaginians, but also the Sicilians, the Macedonians, the Syrians, and the Egyptians. As a result, the Romans were not driven, like the enemies of Demetrius, to compete in this arena to achieve their foreign policy objectives. When they began to build a fleet of any size, we see from Polybius that they matched the Carthaginians’ largest vessels, i. e., their “fives,” and worked to achieve naval dominance with this class. During the course of the first Punic War, they built hundreds of “fives,” and when these were lost in storms or in battle, they resolutely built hundreds more, making sure to surpass their enemy in numbers of units.

During the decade of the 240s, we might have expected Rome, with Syracusan help, to develop a naval siege unit as they struggled to gain control of Drepanum and Lilybaeum in western Sicily (250-41), but they chose not to do so. It seems that the Roman ruling class was simply unwilling to assume the staggering costs such a navy would require on an annually recurring basis. The demands asked of them were already high; in 243, for example, the wealthiest Romans were asked to loan the capital required to prepare a fleet of 200 “fives” (Polyb. 1.59.6-8), which eventually won them the war. Prior to their victory over the Carthaginians at the Aegates Islands in 241, they also lacked the naval superiority required to safeguard a siege unit from attack and insure their unhindered application of force against the besieged Corinthian garrisons.

In general, the strength of Roman naval power depended upon the superior manpower and timber reserves of the Italian peninsula. Drawing from these considerable resources, the Romans produced fleets that achieved naval dominance over their enemies and allowed them to transport superior land forces to the region of conflict. They then counted on their armies to defeat their enemies, rather than relying on city-by-city campaigns waged with military transports and naval siege units. They did indeed wage some campaigns against individual cities such as Lilybaeum, but their overall preference in their major wars seems to have been to establish naval dominance over the seas between Italy and the area of conflict, and then import a land force from Italy. For example, when fighting Antiochus III in the Syrian War (192-88), the Romans transported an army to Apollonia in Illyria and then marched it through Greece to Asia Minor for the crucial battle at Magnesia in Lydia that resulted in peace.

Their naval battles principally resulted from attempts to intercept enemy supplies and reinforcements before they came to specific land bases, generally outside the confines of a harbor. Quite simply, in this kind of warfare, medium-sized polyremes were a liability rather than an asset. There are a few exceptions during the Second Punic War when Roman commanders developed skills in naval siege warfare, but they never felt the need to build midsized polyremes, that is, until the Actian campaign of Antony and Cleopatra almost two centuries later. In order to appreciate the reasons behind Antony’s construction of multiple ships in the range of “sixes” to “tens,” we should first review the Roman accomplishments in naval siege warfare that occurred during the third century.

Battle of Actium 33 B.C.

An engagement was fought on the Ionian Sea on September 2, 31 B.C., just off the coast of this site, near the Ambracian Gulf, between the fleet of Octavian (Augustus) and the armada of Marc Antony and Cleopatra. This naval battle, in which Octavian proved victorious, decided the fate of the Roman world.

By 33 B.C., most political factions striving for power in the Republic had faded, leaving only the Triumvirs Octavian and Antony as rivals. In May 32, they became dire enemies when Antony divorced Octavian’s sister, Octavia, and married Cleopatra. Claiming that Cleopatra aspired to become the queen of Rome, and that in his will Antony distributed the Eastern provinces among his illegitimate children by Cleopatra, Octavian roused the Senate and the Roman mob. They called for war against Antony, stripping him of his offices.

Both sides gathered large fleets and assembled legions, but Octavian, with his normal prudence, took his time. Finally, in 31 he set out with hundreds of ships and 40,000 men, landing in Greece and marching south to Mikalitzi, north of Nicopolis on the Bay of Comarus. Antony, possessing a like number of land forces, also had at his command a combined Roman-Egyptian fleet of 480 ships. The advantage rested with Antony in naval terms, because his vessels were large and heavy. Octavian, however, possessed two elements that were to prove pivotal to the outcome: his admiral Agrippa, and his lighter Liburnian ships, which were equipped with the Harpax, a ram that pinned the opposing vessel and allowed for boarding and capture. Antony, encamped just south of Actium, nevertheless stood a good chance of victory.

The battle was really two encounters in a single day, the fierce naval conflict in the morning and a half-hearted rout on land that afternoon. The naval engagement began with the two fleets facing one another. Octavian’s force was divided into three sections – a center and two wings. Agrippa commanded the northern wing and was admiral in chief. Arruntius led the center, and Octavian was in charge of the southern wing. On the Egyptian side, Antony took command of the northern squadrons, opposite Agrippa. Marcus Octavius was opposed to Arruntius, and Savius sailed against Octavian’s ships. Cleopatra headed a reserve squadron of 60 ships behind the center of the Egyptian fleet.

The tactical advantage would fall to the commander who penetrated the other’s flanks, and here the battle was won by Agrippa. Antony fought valiantly, but the unreliable and disloyal ships of his center and south wing broke ranks. Cleopatra sailed to safety, probably signaled by Antony to do so, although the historian Dio Cassius dismissed her flight as the act of a woman and an Egyptian. Antony, with his own ship pinned by a harpax, transferred to another vessel and also fled toward Egypt. Victory at sea was total for Octavian, and Antony’s general, Candidus Crassus, faced a mutiny in his own ranks and surrendered.

An invasion of Egypt followed in July of 30, but Actium had already established Octavian as the undisputed master of Rome and its far-flung world. By August, Antony and Cleopatra were dead by their own hands. Octavian returned to Rome to become the first Roman emperor, Augustus. Plutarch and Dio Cassius wrote extensive versions of the battle.

The Harpax

HARPAX Roman word for the Greek harpagos or grappling hook used by the Roman NAVY; a combination harpoon and grappling iron consisting of a spar five cubits (2.25m, or 7ft 3in) long with a ring at each end. An iron hook was fastened to one of the rings, and a large number of ropes, twisted together into one cord, to the other. Fitted for use with the ballista, it would be embedded in an enemy vessel when fired, enabling the ship to be hauled in and boarded. An iron casing surrounded the spar, preventing the enemy from hacking it free.

The harpax enjoyed its greatest hour at ACTIUM, on September 2, 31 B. C., when the fleet of Octavian (AUGUSTUS) routed the ships of Antony and Cleopatra. Using the lighter Liburnian vessels, Agrippa, Octavian’s admiral, moved around Antony’s heavier ships, pinning and boarding them.

The naval Battle of Actium (Marc Anthony and Cleopatra versus Octavian) saw yet another ingenious new naval weapon, the harpax, an iron grapple hurled by a catapult at an enemy ship, which was then hauled in by a winch for boarding.

Both sides gathered large fleets and assembled legions, but Octavian, with his normal prudence, took his time. Finally, in 31 he set out with hundreds of ships and 40,000 men, landing in Greece and marching south to Mikalitzi, north of Nicopolis on the Bay of Comarus. Antony, possessing a like number of land forces, also had at his command a combined Roman-Egyptian fleet of 480 ships. The advantage rested with Antony in naval terms, because his vessels were large and heavy. Octavian, however, possessed two elements that were to prove pivotal to the outcome: his admiral AGRIPPA, and his lighter Liburnian ships, which were equipped with the HARPAX. Antony, encamped just south of Actium, nevertheless stood a good chance of victory.

The battle was really two encounters in a single day, the fierce naval conflict in the morning and a halfhearted rout on land that afternoon. The naval engagement began with the two fleets facing one another. Octavian’s force was divided into three sections – a center and two wings. Agrippa commanded the northern wing and was admiral in chief. ARRUNTIUS led the center, and Octavian was in charge of the southern wing. On the Egyptian side, Antony took command of the northern squadrons, opposite Agrippa. Marcus Octavius was opposed to Arruntius, and Savius sailed against Octavian’s ships. Cleopatra headed a reserve squadron of 60 ships behind the center of the Egyptian fleet.

The tactical advantage would fall to the commander who penetrated the other’s flanks, and here the battle was won by Agrippa. Antony fought valiantly, but the unreliable and disloyal ships of his center and south wing broke ranks. Cleopatra sailed to safety, probably signaled by Antony to do so, although the historian DIO CASSIUS dismissed her flight as the act of a woman and an Egyptian. Antony, with his own ship pinned by a harpax, transferred to another vessel and also fled toward Egypt.

Roman Dromedarii

Ancient Warfare XI.5: Horse cavalry has long played a role in warfare. But other, more exotic mounts were also used in the ancient world.

Dromedarii were first raised by Trajan and used as border scouts. Roman Dromedarii. Dromedarii are auxilliary troops recruited in the desert provinces of the Eastern Empire to take the place of light cavalry in scorching desert conditions.

As light troops these men are most useful as screening and scouting forces, although they can be surprisingly effective against other cavalry especially when the enemy horses are unused to the repulsive (to horses) smell of camels. Recruited from among the local desert tribesmen, dromedarii are peculiar to the Eastern Roman Empire and a specific answer to the problem of fielding light cavalry along the frontier.

Camel Riders (Dromedarii)

In the eastern provinces, Roman army units often contained a few camel riders, who were usually attached to a cohors equitata. Between thirty-two and thirty-six dromedarii are listed in the rosters of cohors XX Palmyrenorum equitata at Dura-Europos in the early third century, and one or two were sent on missions with the cavalry and infantry. An entire 1,000-strong camel unit, the ala I Ulpia dromedariorum milliaria, was raised by Trajan and stationed in Syria. There was no consistency in the organization of the dromedarii as either infantry or cavalry. This probably depended on the systems in place in each province. The 1,000 – strong unit just described was categorized as an ala, whereas the camel riders in cohors XX Palmyrenorum in Syria were attached to the infantry centuries. Their names were commonly listed at the end of each entry after all the other infantry soldiers, but in Egypt a dromedarius called Cronius Barbasatis was assigned to the cavalry turma of the decurion Salvianus. He was a volunteer and had not been transferred from another unit, so his skills were presumably recognized immediately on enlistment. However, it is generally considered that a dromedarius would usually enlist as an infantryman and serve for a few years in that capacity before becoming a camel rider.

Eastern auxilia, like those raised in the West, served throughout the empire. Local recruitment diluted a unit’s original ethnic content over time, but many units remained in the East. Syrian units, for example, served in Britain or Mauretania Tingitana but also in Palestine, Egypt, Cappadocia, or even in Syria. Vespasian (69-79) and Trajan (98-117) increased auxiliary cohorts of Roman citizens (units of volunteers often commanded by a tribune rather than a prefect) in the East, where a higher proportion of such to native (non-citizen) units and a greater number of citizens in non-citizen units are attested – perhaps a sign of higher professionalism in these units.

The East, however, did have peculiarities. The relative scarcity of water, especially in desert areas, encouraged use of camels. Corbulo’s dash from Syria (62) to relieve Caesennius Paetus, trapped by the Parthians at Armenian Rhandea, featured the first attested Roman use of camels as pack-animals. Within another century the Ps.-Hyginus (Mun. Castr. 29) could foresee camels on the Danubian frontier (possibly during Marcus Aurelius’ Marcomannic wars); camel bones appear in second- and third-century contexts in Pannonia Inferior. A turma or two of camel-riders (dromedarii) occur in some cohortes equitatae in Syria, Arabia, and Egypt. Trajan established the first regular camel unit, Ala I Ulpia dromedariorum Palmyrenorum; the Notitia attests three such alae of Diocletianic origin in Egypt. Their limited battlefield utility explains the slight number of dromedary units, although dromedaries operated throughout the southern theater as escorts, couriers, patrols, and in various police functions. The governor of Arabia supplemented his equites singulares with a guard of dromedaries.

Dromedaries directly reflect the southern theater’s needs, but other Eastern tactical peculiarities (e. g. archers, cavalry, cataphracts, phalangical infantry formation) only seem a response to Iranian opponents (Parthia, Sasanid Persia) and a legacy of Carrhae. A distinction should be drawn between what is eastern per se, what belongs to empire-wide tactical trends, and what constitutes a reaction to Iranian warfare. Herodotus’ exaggerated contrast of differing eastern and western styles of warfare in the Persian wars of the fifth century BC pictured Greek infantry’s superiority to Persian cavalry. The East was “horse country”: the name Cappadocia derived from the Persian for “land of beautiful horses”; Sophene and Armenia were horse-breeding areas and Median breeds were thought the best. The East’s vast expanses flavored mobile warfare and a fluid style of battle with missiles. If Alexander’s conquests asserted a role for heavy infantry in the East, generalship and superior skill in combined arms forged victory, not an Herodotean superiority of the spear to the bow. Seleucid and Pontic armies of the Hellenistic period retained a phalangical base, but both reverted over time to an Achaemenid Persian multi-ethnic force featuring native specialties. After all, Eumenes II of Pergamum’s cavalry, not Scipio Asiaticus’ legions, proved the decisive factor in Seleucid defeat at Magnesia (190 bc).