History of the West

Central European History from Antiquity to the 20th Century

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Rome – The Republic

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Rise and Fall

Video: Rise of the Roman Republic

Video: The Unification of Italy


Tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento
(Hae tibi erunt artes), pacique imponere morem,
Parcere subiectis et debellare superbos.

You, Roman, make your task
to rule the nations by your government
(these shall be your skills),
impose upon them peace and order,
spare those who have submitted
and pacify the arrogant.

VirgilAeneid”, Bk. 6, L. 847


Until the third century BC, the people living in the north and middle of the European continent – mostly Celts and Germans – appeared on the political map of the known world only by proxy: by virtue of the trade undertaken by the seafaring people, whose commercial and military interests then centred upon the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Of pivotal importance to this age were the great ports, for they not only provided safe havens from the volatility of the sea but served as commercial hubs or, should the need arise, as gathering points for the men-of-war.

Expansion of the Celts

The principal harbours of the Eastern Mediterranean Sea were then among the greatest and most busy towns of the age: Athens and its harbour Piraeus, Ephesos and Miletus in western Anatolia, the ports of Rhodos, Cyprus and Crete, Sidon and Tyrus in Palestine, Trapezos and Chersonesos in the Black Sea, and always Alexandria Egypta, with her famous lighthouse and the greatest library of the world: these were the naval and thus political heavyweights of the period. At this time, the Levant and Northern Africa were far more fertile than they are today: the fabulous wheat harvests along the Mediterranean Africa coast and Sicily provided for many centuries most of the grain that fed southern and western Europe, her coastal cities and hinterlands.

From the sixth to the fourth century BC, the Greek and Phoenician town states around the Eastern Mediterranean Sea engaged in a rapid colonial expansion westward. Among many smaller settlements and ports, towns as famous as Massilia, today’s Marseille, Neapolis, i.e. the “New Town“, today’s Naples, and Gades, today’s Cadiz, were founded at this time. One Phoenician community settled near today’s town of Tunis at the African coast, vis-a-vis from Sicily, and from this promontory began the economic exploration of the West, of Spain, Italy and southern France. In these lesser-known parts of the Mediterranean Sea, large profits beckoned.

Mars and Rhea Silvia by Peter Paul Rubens
Twins and a she-wolf

From the fifth century BC onward, Carthage, as the new settlement became known, established herself as the dominant trading force in the western parts of the Mediterranean Sea by founding new colonies that extended as far as the Atlantic coast, and the Iberian Peninsula was thus linked with the consumers of Greece, Syria and Egypt. In the third century BC, however, her ongoing expansion into the Italian markets was checked by an indigenous opponent, the young city-state of Rome. We know little of Rome’s actual, as opposed to legendary, origins, although archaeological work recently begun on Palatine Hill may soon deliver clues. The primary saga of Rome’s establishment, however, is a well-known tale which draws on various popular elements of foundation myths – two of them, actually, and somewhat intermingled. The first story is about the twins Romulus and Remus, sons of the war god Mars and the Vestal Virgin Rhea Silva, who were abandoned after birth but found, floating down the Tiber River in a basket, by a she-wolf that nursed them to boyhood. They were subsequently adopted by a shepherd and his family, and, in the year 753 BC founded a small settlement on the Palatine Hill, overlooking the Tiber River, and in the distance, perhaps five leagues away, the blue waves of the Tyrrhenian Sea.

Cavalier d’ Arpino – Discovery of the She-Wolf nursing Romulus and Remus

[FN1] As usual, the elements of the myth do not truly fit and are of little original quality (Floating basket, anyone? See Moses and Osiris). By definition, a virgin should not give birth, and why a god and such an honourable lady did not have the pocket change to rear twins properly, must be left to the reader’s imagination. Legend says it was because of an evil prophecy – which promptly came true.

Aeneas killing Turnus

A somewhat different account tells the story that the twins descend from a visit of the heroic Aeneas of Troy on the shores of the Tiber, who arrived after a somewhat complicated journey from the cinders of his home town and a stopover in the arms of Dido (at Carthage) in middle Italy and thus bestowed a claim of noble ancestry to the fledgeling village. He married a certain Lavinia after killing her boyfriend Turnus and eventually becomes the ancestor of the twins (see Wiki)

The Meeting of Dido and Aeneas, by Sir Lawrence Lama Tadema
Building the Walls of Rome – Copperplate

At any rate, peace in the hamlet foundered soon, by virtue of some unexplained family business which led to the murder of Remus by Romulus, as in Cain and Abel. Soon after the ordeal, Romulus was able to welcome new blood. To improve the population count, Romulus declared a zone between the two summits of near-by Capitoline Hill a habitat for fugitives; and it may tell us something about law and order in early Roman history that Romulus soon found numerous prospective citizens; men ejected from their tribes for various offences.

Sabine Hills

While it seemed that crime was as popular and profitable career then as it is today, and Romulus experienced few problems in attracting new associates, it was female company that proved a rare occurrence on the settlement’s campfires and many lecherous thoughts were addressed at the misty hills belonging to the tribe of the Sabines, who were known for an abundance of female members. Given the criminal backgrounds of many of the new Roman citizens, it was no surprise that a solution to the problem was found only within the confines of war; when battle raged in Rome between the Romans and the Sabines, the women brought it to a close. Livy writes:

“[The women], from the outrage on whom the war originated, with hair dishevelled and garments rent, the timidity of their sex being overcome by such dreadful scenes, had the courage to throw themselves amid the flying weapons, and making a rush across, to part the incensed armies, and assuage their fury; imploring their fathers on the one side, their husbands on the other, “that as fathers-in-law and sons-in-law they would not contaminate each other with impious blood, nor stain their offspring with parricide, the one their grandchildren, the other their children. If you are dissatisfied with the affinity between you, if with our marriages, turn your resentment against us; we are the cause of war, we of wounds and of bloodshed to our husbands and parents. It were better that we perish than live widowed or fatherless without one or other of you.”  Livy, Ab urbe condita 1.13

Jacques-Louis David painted the happy end of the story, when the women intervene to reconcile the warring parties (1799) Louvre, Paris

Together with the poaching of any girl they chanced upon in the woods or the coastline, adult entertainment was finally secured and the procreative challenge solved.

A Roman Feast, by Roberto Bompiani (1821 – 1908)

Rome’s early days as a kingdom are shrouded in the veils of oral tradition, because no records exist and only a few inscriptions remain. It is believed that the spot was initially chosen because of a ford, where the river could be crossed, and the hills provided an easily defensible position. What appears to be different from the usual kingdoms around is that the king did not reign because of his descent from a royal family or a god but by authority through the use of imperium, formally granted to the king by the Comitia Curiata with the passing of the Lex curiata de imperio at the beginning of each king’s reign.

[FN1] see Wiki: “The traditional version of Roman history, which has come down to us principally through Livy (64 or 59 BC-AD 12 or 17), Plutarch (46–120), and Dionysius of Halicarnassus (c. 60 BC – after 7 BC), recounts that a series of seven kings ruled the settlement in Rome’s first centuries. The traditional chronology, as codified by Varro (116 BC – 27 BC), allows 243 years for their combined reigns, an average of almost 35 years. Since the work of Barthold Georg Niebuhr, modern scholarship has generally discounted this schema. The Gauls destroyed many of Rome’s historical records when they sacked the city after the Battle of the Allia in 390 BC (according to Varro; according to Polybius, the battle occurred in 387/6), and what remained eventually fell prey to time or to theft. With no contemporary records of the kingdom surviving, all accounts of the Roman kings must be carefully questioned.”

Etruscan Culture
Former Etruscan walled town Civita di Bagnoregio

Around 500 BC, the town state began to change its political organization from a run-of-the-mill monarchy – with kings good or bad – to a republican oligarchy. This was due, it seems, to the influence of the Etruscans, a peculiar people whose pale of settlement reached from Rome north-westward to the vicinity of Pisa, and whose culture displayed no similarity to any of their neighbours, except, perhaps, for the fact that they used an alphabet traceable to the Greek.

The Ancient Quarters of Rome
The head of this bust, the “Capitoline Brutus“, from the Capitoline Museums is traditionally identified as a portrait of Brutus

Myth holds that four men, led by Lucius Junius Brutus, and including Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus, Publius Valerius Poplicola, and Spurius Lucretius Tricipitinus incited a revolution that deposed and expelled the seventh and last king Lucius Tarquinius Superbus and his family from Rome in 509 BC, after the king’s son Sextus Tarquinius had raped the lovely Lucretia, who promptly committed suicide. Brutus and Collatinus then became the first consuls of Rome, which subsequently developed her own intricate form of political government (see Detour One below).

Italy around 400 BC
Triumph of Furius Camillus by Francesco Salviati

The Etruscans were either destroyed or assimilated by the Romans in the third century BC, yet it appears that their laws were an early influence on the first Roman laws, which were written, the legend goes, on twelve clay tablets sometime around 450 BC. With the Roman conquest of the principal Etruscan town of Veii in 396 BC under the leadership of Marcus Furius Camillus [FN1], their culture vanished, and the same year is commonly accepted as the beginning of the Roman expansion. Incorporating Etruscan and other local customs and fashion, the Roman state developed its own cultural identity. In the pictures below, we present a few scenes of typical Roman life.

[FN1] Marcus Furius Camillus is said to have been elected dictator five times, was granted four triumphs and received the honorific “Second Founder of Rome”.

Shopping at the Forum
The Vintage Festival, by Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema
Taberna in Ostia Antica – A sort of Roman McDonalds
A garden party …
Triclinum from Pompeii – Roman Dining Room
A bath, also from Pompeii
A Rug Merchant in Ancient Rome by Eduardo Ettore Forti
Cesare Mariani – The Mask Seller, A Roman Street Scene, 1875

The following years generated fair amounts of local hostilities, which were somewhat amplified in 387 BC by a roving Celtic tribe, the Senones, led by their chieftain Brennus southbound from Gallia Cisalpina. At that time, the population of the wide valley of the Po River was Celtic as well, and forays along the coasts were not uncommon. King Brennus’s men plundered their way southward to Rome, which they sacked: with the exception of the top of Capitoline Hill, whose sleeping sentries were alerted, in the nick of time, by the chatter of a handful of geese. The attack on the hill and its gold cache was thus deflected, although the Senones took everything that moved and left for further adventures. The geese, since then, enjoyed a protected habitat on Rome’s principal hill, fed well by grateful citizens – only to be slaughtered and cooked at the next holiday, perhaps. Sic transit gloria mundi.

He got the girls but not the gold – “Brennus and His Share of the Spoils” also known as “Spoils of the Battle” by Paul Joseph Jamin

After the Senones had vanished, local warfare was speedily reinstated and concentrated upon the Samnites, Rome’s south-eastern neighbours. It took three campaigns to subdue them [343 -290 BC], and as soon as that was over, the nasty surprises continued in the person of Pyrrhus, a general and subsequent King of Epirus. The issue at hand was the Adriatic and southern part of the Mediterranean Sea, especially the status of Tarentum [282 -272 BC]. At the eventual conclusion of these Pyrrhic Wars, the victorious republic extended her tenure over the whole Italian boot: from Ariminum, today’s Rimini, in the north-east, where the northern piedmont of the Apennines mountains meets the Adriatic Sea, to Regium, at the tip of the boot. These conquests more than tripled the size of the Roman territory, and the increasing trade volume on the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea brought the republic at length into contact, and soon into conflict, with the established naval superpower of the time – Ancient Carthage.

Dido building Carthage, or The Rise of the Carthaginian Empire is an oil on canvas painting by J. M. W. Turner.
Carthaginian Possessions in grey

Around the year 250 BC, the Phoenician (=Punic) sphere of dominance comprised the African coast from the Great Syrte of Lybia all the way to today’s Moroccan coast; the islands of Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and the Baleares and Spain from the Ebro River in the north-east to the Rock of Gibraltar, and even a few colonies on the Atlantic Ocean, Gades, today’s Cadiz, being the most important of them (see map, areas in grey).

Carthage was the most important port in the western Mediterranean

The conflict between Rome and Carthage first centred on the island of Sicily, fabulously wealthy then, and in the long run scattered skirmishes turned into open warfare. For the first time in her history, Rome had to fight a naval war, and it took a few attempts to get things right. It helped that around 260 BC an unknown Roman engineer conceived a mechanism that enabled Roman infantry, the pride of the nation, to participate in sea battles (in which the Phoenicians were reported to be masters). A plank (called “corvus”,`raven´) that could be lowered onto an enemy ship allowed Roman legionaries to enter the opposing vessel and fight the way they were used to, on foot, with spear and sword. In 260 BC, the Battle of Mylae, north-west of Messina, brought Rome her first naval victory.

Corvus

A second victory, at the Ecnomos promontory in 256 BC, allowed a Roman expeditionary force in the strength of four legions to set foot on the African continent. Their advance on Carthage was checked, however, by a hastily collected force of Punic mercenaries in an action near today’s Tunis, and the mauled Roman legions, which suffered from logistic problems to boot, did not have the strength to continue the campaign and were quickly forced to return. This tactical success, however, could not save the island of Sicily for Carthage, which became the first Roman “provincia” in 241 BC.

An uneasy truce ensued but lasting peace was out of the question, given the awareness of both sides that only the winner would continue to harvest the fruits of trade. In 227 BC Rome acquired the islands of Sardinia and Corsica from a weakened Carthage; at this time the Romans began to call the Mediterranean Sea “mare nostrum“, our sea.

By 219 BC a new generation of Punic soldiers, more familiar with land warfare than their fathers had been, was ready to renew hostilities. One specific young officer showed great promise in all things military and was entrusted with the command over the whole Punic army in the twenty-fifth year of his life. As the qualities of a man are often best judged by his enemies, we shall contemplate what Titus Livius, his Roman adversary, wrote about Hannibal:

The old soldiers fancied they saw Hamilcar [his father] in his youth given back to them; the same bright look, the same fire in his eye, the same trick of countenance and features. But soon he proved that to be his father’s son was not his highest recommendation. Never was one and the same spirit more skilful to meet opposition, to obey or to command. …

He entered danger with the greatest mettle, he comported himself in danger with the greatest unconcern. By no difficulties could his body be tired, his ardour dampened. Heat and cold he suffered with equal endurance; the amount of his food and drink was gauged by natural needs and not by pleasure. The time of waking and sleeping depended not on the distinction of day and night.

What time was left from business he devoted to rest, and this was not brought on by either a soft couch or by quiet. Many have often seen him, covered by a short field cloak, lying on the ground betwixt the outposts and sentinels of the soldiers. His clothing in no wise distinguished him from his fellows; his weapons and horses attracted everyone’s eye. He was by long odds the best rider, the best marcher. He went into battle the first; he came out of it the last. He served three years under Hasdrubal’s supreme command, and left nothing unobserved which he who desires to become a great captain ought to see and do.” (1)

Legend has it that Hannibal’s father Hamilcar had obliged the son to swear by oath to remain at all times an enemy of Rome. Under the son’s command, Carthage decided to carry the war to the opponent’s own turf, and the gold of the state was liberally spent on the equipment of a fresh army. Carthage opened the second round of hostilities by attacking and seizing Saguntum, a Spanish town that was an ally of Rome, and the Roman senate consequently declared war [Second Punic War, 218 – 201 BC]. Hannibal now faced the strategic choice whether to attack Rome by land or by sea.

The invasion of a defended coast from the sea is one of the most difficult military manoeuvres, and since Hannibal could not ignore how quickly and efficiently the Romans had adapted to naval warfare, he judged the invasion of Italy from the sea an enterprise doomed to fail. The only other way to reach the enemy on his own turf was by land, through Spain and France; a route fraught with the obstacles of the Pyrenees and the Alps. The advantage of the strenuous approach, however, was of tactical nature: it promised surprise, the most cherished of military commodities.

Crossing the Alps

The newly assembled Punic army, including not only the standard infantry and cavalry units but a corps of thirty-seven elephants as well, set out for Italy in 219 BC. The first part of the exercise was the easiest and most comfortable, with the exception of a little mal de mer it brought on for the landlubbers: by ship from Carthage to Mastia [later called “Carthago Nova”, today’s Cartagena]. There the land campaign began. For the greater part following the coastlines, Hannibal’s forces marched over 1,000 miles, or 1,600 kilometres, to their destination. Having hugged the seashore as far as Narbonne in southern France, they changed direction at the Rhone River, which they followed northwards. When they reached the confluence of Rhone and Isere, they branched out eastwards and passed today’s Grenoble and Frejus in traversing the French Alps, touching Italian soil when they descended into the valley of the Po near today’s Torino.

Hannibal, by Francisco Goya
‘Hannibal Crossing the Alps on an Elephant,’ a painting by Nicolas Poussin.

Alas, the exercise proved costly: of the 60,000 troops that had left Mastia, only 26,000 were left to greet Italia; more than half of the horses and sixteen of the precious elephants had perished in the journey. Nevertheless, Fortuna was on Hannibal’s side: when he descended the Alps with his damaged force, he encountered a congregation of Celtic tribes who had their own bill to square with Rome and Hannibal was able to add about fifteen thousand Gauls to the common cause. Surprise was fully achieved. The Roman legions were protecting the beaches of Sicily from Punic invasion, not the rocks of the Alps, and had to be rushed north at best speed. Their hectic advance led them straight into an ambush Hannibal had laid at the Trebia River (218 BC), north-east of Genova, and the Romans were soundly beaten. This victory and the advance of winter, in which campaigning was impossible, permitted the Punic army and their allies to rest, re-equip themselves and stock up supplies, and allowed their commander a thorough planning of the next engagement.

In the spring of 217 BC, a well-replenished Punic/Gallic force began its drive towards Rome. Around the halfway mark of the march, near Lake Trasimene (217 BC), they encountered another hastily approaching Roman army, and a second ambush drove the legions into disarray and retreat. The second defeat in a row astonished the Senate and People of Rome, who had been too long accustomed to hear good news only from the battlefields. Recognizing the qualities of their opponent, caution was urged and obeyed. A reorganization of the available forces resulted in the establishment of a new army in the strength of fourteen legions; altogether over 70,000 men, the largest armed body Rome had ever sent into the field. The command over the forces of the republic was entrusted to the patrician senator Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus, who was in addition appointed to the office of “dictator“, which gave him not only unlimited “Imperium”, the power of command, for six months, but also indemnified him, a priori, from any legal consequences of his actions or omissions.

The Gaul Ducar decapitates Flaminus at the Battle of Lake Trasimene by Joseph-Noël Sylvestre

Fabius advanced cautiously, being informed by his spies of his opponent’s every move, up to a point where his vanguard could barely see the Punic outposts, yet he was sure that their advancement would be reported to Hannibal. At this point, he ordered the legions to stop for the day and erect the standard fortified overnight camp, almost in sight of the enemy. Fabius’s lieutenants, aware that they outnumbered the opposition, recommended various plans of attack for the coming day, which were all denied.

Since it had been the habit of Roman armies for centuries to attack the enemy once contact was established, and Hannibal was aware of this fact, Fabius’s unorthodox behaviour baffled the Punic captain. He decided to break up his own position and move a few miles away, there to reorganize his army for the battle he expected for the next day. But the battle never materialized: Fabius shadowed Hannibal’s every move, but anytime the Punic army proceeded to leave camp and close ranks in anticipation of battle, the Roman legions moved a few miles away and built another god-damn camp. It was very frustrating. The same thing happened the next day and the day after. For weeks and months, the game proceeded, and Fabius acquired the not so glorious nickname of “Cunctator“, the “Hesitater”. While his “Fabian” tactics, as they are still called today, did not earn him a victory, he did not suffer defeat, either.

Consequently, nothing much happened in the next six months, and when his imperium ran out, Fabius handed the control of the legions to his successors, the chief magistrates of the year 216 BC, consuls Lucius Aemilius Paullus and Gaius Terentius Varro. These men and their lieutenants, aware of the fact that they commanded the finest army Rome had ever fielded and that they vastly outnumbered the invaders, were only too cognizant of the glory that the successful delivery of the country from Punic evil would entail. Subsequently, they set out to chase Hannibal down and to compel him to battle. Rumour had it that the Punic army was somewhere near the southern Adriatic coast, and the legions began their approach. Hannibal was indeed discovered in Apulia, about fifty miles north of the “spur” of the Italian boot, in the vicinity of a small town called Cannae.

Cannae

A few days after his spies had informed him about the strength and commanders of the Romans, Hannibal ordered his troops to deploy and the day of confrontation dawned. He arranged his outnumbered force in a slight crescent, but placing his cavalry, a few lightly armed but swift foot-soldiers and the few remaining elephants at the flanks of the arc. When the Roman infantry, perhaps amused over this silly arrangement, formed a wedge and struck right into the heart of Hannibal’s position, the Phoenician centre retreated, which further inspired the attackers’ confidence. When the full weight of the Roman attack was poised upon the midst of the Punic line, Hannibal ordered his centre to retreat a bit more, which drew the Romans further in. When the legions were thus fixed in the midst of his infantry, he ordered the flanks to proceed forward-inward and trapped the whole Roman army in a double encirclement.

Initial Deployments
Destruction

In the subsequent slaughter, tens of thousands of legionaries expired on the field of Cannae and only a very modest fraction of the great army, less than ten thousand souls, made it back to Rome to report. Livy wrote, “Forty-five thousand and five hundred foot, two thousand seven hundred horse, there being an equal number of citizens and allies, are said to have been slain.” As a result of these losses, Rome could not deploy forces big enough to challenge Hannibal for years to come, simply because there were not enough men of the required age and possessions left. At this time only propertied Roman citizens, who had to pay for their own weapons, armour and supplies, served in the legions. Most of these men were now buried at Cannae.

The Death of Aemilius Paullus at Cannae by John Trumbull, 1773
Hannibal, by Giovanni Batista Tiepolo

“Never when the city was in safety was there so great a panic and confusion within the walls of Rome. I shall, therefore, shrink from the task, and not attempt to relate what in describing I must make less than the reality. The consul and his army having been lost at the Trasimenus the year before, it was not one wound upon another which was announced, but a multiplied disaster, the loss of two consular armies, together with the two consuls: and that now there was neither any Roman camp, nor general nor soldiery: that Apulia and Samnium, and now almost the whole of Italy, were in the possession of Hannibal. No other nation surely would not have been overwhelmed by such an accumulation of misfortune.” –  Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, xxii.54, on the Roman Senate’s reaction to the defeat.

Theodore Ayrault Dodge wrote:

Few battles of ancient times are more marked by ability… than the battle of Cannae. The position was such as to place every advantage on Hannibal’s side. The manner in which the far from perfect Hispanic and Gallic foot was advanced in a wedge in echelon… was first held there and then withdrawn step by step, until it had the reached the converse position… is a simple masterpiece of battle tactics. The advance at the proper moment of the African infantry, and its wheel right and left upon the flanks of the disordered and crowded Roman legionaries, is far beyond praise. The whole battle, from the Carthaginian standpoint, is a consummate piece of art, having no superior, few equal, examples in the history of war.” (1a)

Hence, Rome could not afford to go back to the offensive for more than a decade and was restricted to employ defensive measures, denying Hannibal reinforcements and supplies from Carthage. This worked to a degree, and for the next thirteen years, 216 to 203 BC, the Punic army meandered around the Italian countryside, without any opportunity to strike a decisive blow at the enemy. Rome’s defensive policy bore its first tender fruit when an expeditionary corps was able to reconquer Sicily, the important grain source, and a second detail wiped out the Punic towns in Spain. The latter force was commanded by the young Publius Cornelius Scipio.

Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus

A scion of the noble Cornelius family, Scipio had joined the military at an early age and soon distinguished himself in battle. At the scandalous age of only twenty-six years, [FN2] in 210 BC, he was given the command in Spain, which he conquered and turned into a Roman province. He was elected consul in 205 BC, at the age of thirty-one, and developed a plan to circumvent Hannibal by attacking Carthage directly. He invaded Africa successfully via Sicily and was able to beat a small Punic corps in the Second Battle of Tunis, 203 BC. As a consequence of the Roman threat to Carthage, Hannibal was recalled in the same year with the remnants of his force and ordered to prepare for a showdown with the Roman wunderkind.

[FN2] Military command in the early Roman republic was a prerogative of the consuls, who were mostly in their forties or older and had already collected military and political experience in other public offices.

Movements before Zama

The subsequent Battle of Zama, about a hundred miles south-west of Carthage, decided the Second Punic War. The Roman prodigy revealed that he had learned from his predecessors’ mistakes at Cannae, and used an enveloping manoeuvre of his own design to defeat the enemy. Hannibal had to flee Africa and spent the rest of his life in Grecian and Asian exile. Carthage capitulated and was forced to accept a choking peace in which they had to cede Spain and lost all ships, merchantmen as well as men-of-war, to confiscation. Reparations were fixed at 10,000 gold talents, more than 100,000 kilograms, or seventy times the amount of the world’s annual gold production.

Battle of Zama, by H. P. Motte,
… and by Cornelius Cort

Between the Second and the Third Punic wars, another issue had to be solved. In 190 BC, inroads into Greece by Antiochus III the Great of the Seleucid Empire were stopped by the Romans led by the consul Lucius Cornelius Scipio and the Roman ally Eumenes II of Pergamum at the Battle of Magnesia and the Seleucids ceased to be a danger. Different had been the case with the other of Alexander’s successor states, Macedon, whose King Philip V of Macedon set out to conquer the rest of Greece by 200 BC, an undertaking that Rome, allied with Pergamon and Rhodes, cut short in the Second Macedonian War.

In 179 Philip died. His talented and ambitious son, Perseus, took the throne and showed a renewed interest in conquering Greece. With her Greek allies facing a major new threat, Rome declared war on Macedonia again, starting the Third Macedonian War. Perseus initially had some success against the Romans. However, Rome responded by sending a stronger army. This second consular army decisively defeated the Macedonians at the Battle of Pydna in 168 and the Macedonians duly capitulated, ending the war.

Convinced now that the Greeks (and therefore the rest of the region) would not have peace if left alone, Rome decided to establish its first permanent foothold in the Greek world, and divided the Kingdom of Macedonia into four client republics. Yet, Macedonian agitation continued. The Fourth Macedonian War, 150 to 148 BC, was fought against a Macedonian pretender to the throne who was again destabilizing Greece by trying to re-establish the old kingdom. The Romans swiftly defeated the Macedonians at the Second battle of Pydna.

The Achaean League chose this moment to fight Rome but was swiftly defeated. In 146 (the same year as the destruction of Carthage), Corinth was besieged and destroyed in the Battle of Corinth (146 BC), which led to the league’s surrender. After nearly a century of constant crisis management in Greece, which always led back to internal instability and war when she withdrew, Rome decided to divide Macedonia into two new Roman provinces, Achaea and Macedonia.

Conquest of Greece (172–146 BC) , see Wiki

The protracted Iberian, Grecian and Punic wars changed the economy, and hence the whole society, of the winner. Scipio’s successes had added two provinces to the realm, Nearer and Further Spain, which proved particularly valuable for the copious amounts of metals yielded by its mines; copper and silver in particular. The two new provinces were to be governed by praetors, magistrates ranked just below the consuls, of which an additional two had to be elected each year just for this purpose. Four, with the Grecian provinces.

Another huge economic side effect was the expansion of Roman slavery. It had been fuelled since the beginning of the Roman expansion by the taking of prisoners of war, who were enslaved wholesale. Antiquity considered slavery a normal form of human existence. A discussion of this subject is planned for a separate post – here a few classic paintings by Jean-Léon Gérôme on the subject:

The extended war had also necessitated the establishment of a proper arms industry, something Rome had not possessed at a time when every legionary’s equipment was custom-made. The new weapons industry largely depended upon slave labour, which for the first time amounted to a majority of the Roman workforce. Slave labour was also the economic foundation of the newly evolving latifundiae, huge farms which, in theory, belonged to the Roman people as a whole but were in fact let to patrician families for negligible rents under an absentee ownership system. Although Carthage’s days as a competition for Rome were over, its spectre provided a useful bane for fear-mongering Roman politicians. A case in point was Cato the Censor, one of the most obnoxious men of Roman history, if we believe the historians.

Marcus Porcius Cato

Marcus Porcius Cato [234-149 BC], known as the “Elder Cato” or “Cato the Censor”, became a prominent Roman politician against all odds. He had served in the Second Punic War under Scipio, and, by marrying a rich and noble if ugly daughter of good family, qualified for the Senate despite his inferior pedigree. During his youth and adolescence, he had been dreadfully lampooned by the status- and ancestry-conscious sons of Roman nobles because of his rural origins: his family were farmers at Arpinum, a small town south-east of Rome known for its cheese but not much else.

He made up for these frustrations by dedicating much of his later career as a censor to retaliation against his former tormentors. The office of censor invested the holder with the authority to let state contracts for building or tax farming, a duty in which corruption was hard to avoid. But it was the second duty of the censor on which Cato had cast a longing eye: the censor controlled access to and membership in the Senate. There was a means test which required every senatorial candidate to show a minimum fortune of a million sesterces or an equitable area of farmland, and a senator who once fell short of the minimum for any reason could be evicted from the august body – although senators gravitated to fiscal, if not political, solidarity and it rarely occurred that they allowed one of their own to be disqualified. But the censor could also dismiss a senator upon a showing of unacceptable moral conduct, and nobody was truly surprised when Cato declared practically all conduct ethically unbecoming. He hounded the arch-aristocratic Cornelius family relentlessly, and when he was able to ruin Scipio’s brother Asiagenus, the hero was said to have died of a broken heart.

Except for his terrorizing the nobility, Cato’s main contribution to the political debates was an undying hatred of Carthage – or perhaps of mankind in general – which he promoted by invariably ending his senatorial sermons with the phrase “Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam” [‘In addition, I think that Carthage should be destroyed.’]. He trampled on everybody’s nerves like an ancient hybrid of Rush Limbaugh and Ralph Nader until the Senate in 147 BC resolved to destroy Carthage.

The subsequent “Third Punic War” was little more than a completely unnecessary slaughter of a defenceless people. Carthage had never recovered from the Second War and was no threat to anybody save for Cato’s hysterics and the jealousy of another member of the Cornelius family, a grandnephew of the hero of Zama, who saw in a third campaign a risk-free opportunity to crown himself with military glory.

The Punic Wars – Overview

His full adult name was Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus Africanus Numantinus, and his name told much of his biography. He was born in 185 BC as a son of Lucius Aemilianus Paullus, a famous general and statesman, and adopted into the Scipio branch of the Cornelius clan. Like his granduncle, he was elected consul while technically being underage, in 147 BC, and was entrusted with the command against Carthage, whose defenceless people he massacred and buildings he razed in 146 BC. For this heroic act, he received the additional cognomen of “Africanus”, i.e. conqueror of Africa. He was re-elected to the consulship in 134 BC and convinced the Senate to send him to one more campaign. The adversary, or perhaps the victim, was the Spanish town of Numantia, the last former ally of Carthage. The town had resisted Roman attacks for over fifty years, but after a siege of eight months, Scipio’s army breached the walls, and the disgraceful spectacle of Carthage was repeated. Scipio had the males killed without exception and the females sold into slavery, and subsequently received another cognomen, that of Numantinus, destroyer of Numantia.

J. M. W. Turner’s The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire, 1817
Scipio Aemilianus before the ruins of Carthage in 146 BC

Such a man could not avoid making enemies, even in his family. When his brother-in-law, the famous tribune Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus attempted to introduce a land bill in the senate – see below – which would give impoverished veterans a small piece of land to retire on at the end of their service, Scipio turned out his most bitter opponent. When Gracchus was found dead soon thereafter, Scipio could not dispel suspicion, and when he suddenly died in 129 BC, aged only forty-six, his wife, Tiberius Gracchus’s sister, was believed to have poisoned him.

While the political and social structures of the republic had been relatively stable in the centuries between 500 and 130 BC, the following hundred years, until 30 BC, brought great social change amid geographical expansion and, in the end, beheld the replacement of senatorial rule by the principate of Augustus and his successors. Because many institutions, designations and customs of the Roman Republic and early Empire were to exercise influence on political models of the next two thousand years, they shall be briefly reviewed before we proceed.


Detour One: (Separate Blog Entry): https://jvpalatine.com/a-funny-thing-happened-on-the-way-to-the-forum/ Political Procedures of the Roman Republic


Detour Two: (Separate Blog Entry): https://jvpalatine.com/the-power-of-command/ Potestas, Auctoritas and Imperium – Forms of Command


In addition to the politics described in the two posts above, another application of the Roman sense of organization could be observed in the realm of the military. A large part of Alexander’s temporary military superiority had resulted from his innovative use and the tactical flexibility of the Macedonian “phalanx“, an originally Greek form of infantry deployment. The fighters of a phalanx formed a compact body with overlapping shields, from which long spears protruded. The regulative genius of the Romans invented a similar formation but went a step further; they created a unit, the legion, which included all the men, instruments, and supplies to fight a war on its own, and became the predecessor of the modern “division“.

A legion was composed, as far as active soldiers were concerned, of ten “cohorts“, each cohort consisting of six “centuries“, which numbered, confusingly, eighty men, not a hundred. One cohort thus accounted for 480 men (6 x 80), and a legion of ten cohorts hence totalled 4,800 combatants. It employed, however, also non-combatants: artisans, smiths, engineers, cooks, medics and the like in a strength of about 1,200 heads as well as an artillery unit but not, surprisingly, much cavalry. Rome never deployed as much cavalry as other nations did, mindful of the supply problem; Caesar, for example, in his conquest of Gallia, used German cavalry, not Roman riders. If there was a cavalry unit attached to a legion, it was fielded by allies and had its own tactical command.

The decisive geostrategic factors which counted for much of Rome’s military superiority, however, were the roads, which had been built with military necessities in mind. They ran as straight as possible over bridges, passes and tunnels. Roman infantry was used to a daily march of about sixteen miles or twenty-five kilometres but could make forty kilometres a day in a pinch. The legions hence enjoyed the advantage of the “inner lines” more often than not; they could move troops and thus project force in a province or at a border faster than the enemy could.

Last not least, education mattered. While Rome was never given to inventing much philosophy and scholarship and never made schooling a legal obligation, it appropriated Greek culture and spread it over the western parts of the known world, which had never experienced the Grecification of the East that Alexander’s empire had provided. The sons of the better Roman families were schooled by Greek pedagogues who delivered a two-step education: the first part was called the trivium [“the three ways”], and taught the foundations of what Rome considered civilized human intercourse: grammar, rhetoric and logic, and the successful candidate would be awarded the character of a bacchalaureatus, a bachelor’s degree. The trivium exists until today in the sense that basic knowledge is held to be “trivial“; it should be known to everybody who claims an education.

Relief found in Neumagen near Trier, a teacher with three discipuli (180-185 AD)

The second part of the curriculum was composed of the quadrivium [“the four ways”] and consisted of the study and mastery of arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy and astrology, which were a single field of study then. Upon completion of the studies, the pupil would be awarded a degree of magister artium, master of the arts. The teachings of Plato, Socrates and Aristotle were studied in Rome, Athens and Alexandria for centuries, until the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I decreed the closing of all academies in AD 529. The advent of a new religion, Christianity, caused the replacement of education with dogma, and Edward Gibbon angrily noted that “in the revolution of ten centuries [AD 500 — 1500], not a single discovery was made to exalt the dignity or promote the happiness of mankind. Not a single idea has been added to the speculative systems of antiquity, and a succession of patient disciples became in their turn the dogmatic teachers of the next servile generation.” (2)

Indeed, not only intellectual stimulation decreased with the eventual triumph of Christian doctrine, so did progress in general. With the exception of Alexandria, Rome was unsurpassed in her infrastructure and remained for centuries the best-organized community on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Her houses were built, two thousand years ago, with concrete as their principal material, and apartment blocks called “insulae” (islands), reaching heights of up to a hundred feet. Aqueducts carried fresh water from the mountains into the city, which had an underground sewer system and offered dozens of communal bathhouses and public latrines on major street corners.

The markets of Rome offered goods as varied as spices from Taprobane, today’s Sri Lanka, rugs from Persia, amber from Germania or sheep wool from Britannia. Roman banks used cheques and money transfers, sold communal obligations, and leased or financed goods on credit very much like today. It was said that Julius Caesar’s good friend Marcus Licinius Crassus, immortalized in the English language as the godfather of the word “crass”, employed fifty scribes alone to tally his possessions. In many respects, the achievements of the Imperial Roman civilization would not be surpassed until the second half of the nineteenth century.


Detour Three: (Separate Blog Entry): https://jvpalatine.com/heist-of-the-millennium/ One adventurous patrician proconsul, Quintus Servilius Caepio (Consul 106 BCE), loses more men than had perished at Cannae after he had stolen more gold in Gallia than Rome ever had in her treasury.


100 BC

As briefly mentioned above, civil strife began to plague Rome from 130 BC on, concentrating on the relations between rich and poor. The trouble had begun with the Gracchi brothers, relatives of the Cornelius clan. Their ancestry was as patriotic and famous as it could be: their mother Cornelia was the daughter of Scipio Africanus, the hero of Zama, and Aemilia Paulla, sister of the conqueror of Greece; their father was Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, consul in 177 and 163 BC and censor in 169 BC. Their sons, however, displayed shockingly plebeian tendencies. The elder, Tiberius, stood for and was elected a tribune of the plebs in 133 BC; he brought in a law to change the way Rome handled the ager publicus, the lands taken from enemies after defeat, which were legally the property of all Roman citizens. In contravention of the law, affluent senators had established a hold on these areas, which they rented for little money from the censor and added to their latifundiae, the great farms that operated on slave labour. Tiberius Gracchus brought a law in the Comitia Plebis that would parcel out these lands to veterans or even the poor. The aristocrats were convinced that he had gone mad, communist, or both, and when he tried, against the custom, to run for a second term of tribuneship, a gang of senators behaving badly clubbed him to death on the steps of the senate house.

The Gracchi by Eugene Guillaume

His brother Gaius, ten years younger, successfully ran for the tribuneship ten years later, in 123 BC. He was not only willing to give his brother’s land law another try; he had his mind set on a comprehensive reform of the Roman commonwealth. His proposals envisioned free grain for the poor, a reform of military service, public works, a new judicial system, Roman citizenship for the allies and tax reform. It was a challenging program, and the patricians, who felt their power threatened, pulled out all the stops they had, legal or illegal, to ward off the reforms. Gaius, like his brother, had to run for the tribuneship again, in 122 BC, but unlike Tiberius, he did get re-elected and continued the reform package. The senators had figured him out by then, and in his third campaign defeated him by handing out unprecedented bribes. As soon as they began to dismantle his laws, Gracchus tried to putsch, was defeated, and committed suicide. All his reforms were then recalled.

Gaius Gracchus

Yet it proved impossible to push the toothpaste back in the tube. Twenty years later, Lucius Appuleius Saturninus, another three-time tribune elected in 103, 100 and 99 BC, reintroduced Gracchian ideas to the legislative debate and associated himself early with Gaius Marius over the question of securing land for Marius’s veteran legionaries. At the end of 100 BC, insufficient grain harvests in Sicily and Africa caused widespread famine around the Mediterranean coasts and public uproar in Rome. Saturninus used the riotous assemblies to run for tribune yet again and was elected. He swiftly passed a grain law in the Comitia Plebis, which entitled the plebeians to receive free grain from the state.

Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix

The problem with the law was that absolutely no grain was to be had, free or not free, and the treasure refused to pay for no grain. Saturninus blamed the situation, as one would expect, on a senatorial conspiracy; the Senate struck back and accused him of treason. Saturninus’ demise was similar to the death of Tiberius Gracchus, delivered by another gang of young patricians led by one Lucius Cornelius Sulla: they lured Saturninus and his sycophants into the senate house, locked them in, climbed on top of it and killed their opponents with a rain of tiles from the roof. This stopped the land law for a while.

Yet the social issues refused to die, and because war was to occur too frequently in the next decades, the problem of reorganizing and rewarding the legions only gained in importance. Soon it centred on the persons of Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla, who led opposing factions of the citizenry through the next thirty years, from 108 to 78 BC – which brought the defeat of Germanic invasions, some further extensions of Roman possessions and the first extensive Roman civil war. In a wider context, the eighty years from 110 to 30 BC induced the change from Republic to Principate and Empire.

Early Germanic Invasions, Cimbri and Teutones, until the battles of Aquae Sextiae (103 BC) and Vercellae (102 BC)

Gaius Marius [157-68 BC] was a hayseed from Arpinum, which we have encountered above as the town of good cheese and birthplace of the Elder Cato. His status as homo novo, a “new man”, in ancestry-worshipping Rome initially relegated him, despite his wealth, to a place in the legions, where he had a career solid enough to carry him to one year’s service as a praetor. His further ambitions were, however, checked by his most undignified pedigree until he, most probably in return for a financial consideration, was allowed to marry a patrician Julia of the Caesares branch. [FN2] The Julii Caesares were one of the oldest families in town: they traced their ancestry back to the kings of Alba Longa, a town even older than Rome, ten miles to the south. They had that streak of stubborn dignity that does not bid well for financial success: relying on the income of their small agricultural possessions, they could not compete in the bribing race for political offices. The patriarch of the mostly blond-haired family was thus assured of a seat in the Senate, but the family had not produced a consul since the fourth century BC; offices were simply too expensive.

[FN2] Julia (c. 130 BC – 69 BC, aunt of Julius Caesar) was a daughter of Gaius Julius Caesar II (praetor-grandfather of Caesar) and Marcia (daughter of praetor Quintus Marcius Rex). She was a sister of Gaius Julius Caesar III (the father of Julius Caesar) and Sextus Julius Caesar III, consul in 91 BC. At about 110 BC she married Gaius Marius; as a result, she is sometimes referred to as Julia Maria. They had a son, Gaius Marius the Younger. According to Plutarch, it was by marrying her, a patrician woman, that the upstart Marius got the snobbish attention of the Roman Senate and launched his political career. Julia is remembered as a virtuous woman devoted to her husband and their only child. Her reputation alone permitted her to keep her status, even after Sulla‘s persecutions against Marius himself and his allies. Julia died in 69 BC and received a devoted funeral eulogy from her nephew Julius Caesar. (See Wiki)

After a so-so career, Marius received the province of Further Spain (Hispania Ulterior) to govern in 114 BC, where he killed off a few brigands and returned to Rome, his already considerable fortunes miraculously augmented. A few years later, in 109 BC, he was sent as a senior legate to the assistance of then-consul Quintus Caecilius Metellus in his campaign against Jugurtha. Mr Jugurtha was a Numidian, i.e. Berber troublemaker, and the inefficient campaign of Metellus failed to neutralize him for a few years. Marius won the consulship in 107 BC, returned to Africa, and with the aid of his young quaestor Sulla eventually defeated Jugurtha. Competition and finally civil war between these two men, Marius and Sulla, was to determine Rome’s fate for the next thirty years.

Yet Marius perceived Rome’s underlying military problem. The traditional system was based on property requirements for those citizens eligible to serve in the legions, of whom, in an age of increasing economic inequality, fewer and fewer were to be found. [FN3] On the other hand, tens of thousands of Rome’s poor were ineligible.

Thus, Marius came up with the concept of the probably first professional standing army, paid by the state and thoroughly trained. Details please see Wiki – Marian Reforms. The drawback of the reforms, however, was that the legions lost their character as free men fighting for the Republic – they became dependent on their general. The loyalty of the legions shifted away from the Roman state and towards the generals who led the army, as soldiers now had a direct financial incentive to support their generals’ ambitions.

Video: The Marian Reforms

Yet the unbelievable stupidity of Quintus Servilius Caepio and his loss of 80,000 men at Arausio threw the state, only two years later (105 BC) into another existential crisis (see Detour Three, above) and the panicked Republic, quite unconstitutionally but not unprecedented (see Quintus Fabius Maximus), elected Marius in absentia to a second consulship in 104 BC.

Teutones attacking

The first order of business for Marius was to take care of the Germanic threat in Gallia and Gallia Cisalpina. After their decisive victory at Arausio, the Cimbri and Teutones had migrated in different directions and eventually split up. Marius was tasked to rebuild the Gallic legions, more or less from scratch. By disregarding the property requirements and building on his recent glory of the successful Jugurthan war, he succeeded in gathering about 30,000 Romans and 40,000 Italian auxiliaries near the town of Aquae Sextiae, today’s Aix-en-Provence near Marseille, and re-establishing the military defence of the province. His former quaestor Sulla accompanied him as his principal legate, indicating that, at this time, their relation was untroubled. While the danger remained, Marius was reelected to the consulship in 103 and 102 BC (with Quintus Lutatius Catulus).

In the summer of 102 BC, about a quarter-million Germans – Teutones and Ambrones – led by their king Teutobod, had crossed the Durance river, east of where it entered the Rhône. Marius’ men shadowed them, and after a few days of manoeuvring, a battle ensued near Aquae Sextiae, which the new legions won decisively. Only about 17,000 Germans survived to be sold into slavery. The famous instance of the slaughter occurred when, as Roman historians recorded, 300 of the captured women committed mass suicide, which passed into Roman legends of Germanic heroism (cf Jerome, letter cxxiii.8, 409 AD:

By the conditions of the surrender three hundred of their married women were to be handed over to the Romans. When the Teuton matrons heard of this stipulation they first begged the consul that they might be set apart to minister in the temples of Ceres and Venus; and then when they failed to obtain their request and were removed by the lictors, they slew their little children and next morning were all found dead in each other’s arms having strangled themselves in the night.

The Teutonic Women kill their children and commit suicide, by Heinrich Leutemann

That Marius donated the proceeds of the slavery sale to his men and officers, instead of keeping it to himself- to which he was entitled to – only made him the more popular.

In the following summer of 101 BC, the Cimbri finally arrived as well, in Gallia Cisalpina. Most likely, they followed the river Adige after having crossed the Brenner Pass, instead of somewhat illogically turning back west to the modern Vercelli; this way, the location of the battle would be in the modern Polesine instead, possibly near modern Rovigo. It is said that more than 100,000 warriors under the command of the Cimbric king Boiorix descended into the Valley of the Padus (the Po River), where they were met by Marius, who was assisted (or hindered, some said), by his co-consul Quintus Lutatius Catulus.

The outcome of the Battle of Vercellae was never in doubt and the legions had another slaughter-fest. The Cimbri were virtually wiped out and the Germanic threat on the northern border ceased to exist. A grateful Marius granted Roman citizenship to his Italian allies, for which he was criticized, but what could be done? Revoke?

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, The Battle of Vercellae
The Defeat of the Cimbri, by Alexandre Gabriel Décamps
Gaius Marius’ victory over the Cimbri by Francesco Saverio Altamura at the Civic Museum of Foggia

(1) (1a) Theodore Ayrault Dodge., Hannibal, Barnes & Noble 2005, ISBN 0-7607-6896-X (pbk.), p. 120, pp. 378 – 379

(2) Gibbon, Edward, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Modern Library 2003-5, First Citation: Mass Market Edition 2005, Second Citation: 4th Edition 2003-4, ISBN 0-6896-X (pbk.), p. 1174 [1001]


To Be Continued – Sulla and the Social War

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

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Barbarians at the Gate

Raphael’s The Meeting between Pope Leo I, the Great and Attila depicts Leo, escorted by Saint Peter and Saint Paul, meeting with the Hun king outside Rome

And from your city do not
Wholly banish fear,
For what man living, free from fear,
Will still be just?


Aeschylus “The Eumenides“, L. 698


Deos fortioribus adesse.
The Gods are on the side of the stronger.


Tacitus “Histories“, Bk. 4, Ch. 17


Peoples do not, and neither do nations, come into being in a year or two, much less on a single day. Neither do languages and cultures. Consequently, one cannot point to a definitive date on which the natives living north and east of the great rivers of the Danube, Elbe and Rhine became “Germans”. The word “German” itself was not commonly used until, at around AD 100, the Roman historian Tacitus employed the term in a book and thus became godfather to the eventual nation.

The first peoples relevant to this account, who were populating the western and northern reaches of the continent while Rome was still a city-state, were the Celts, or Gauls. Leaving their indigenous settlements in the western heart of Europe around today’s Belgium and central France in the fourth century BC, they migrated for the better part of the next two hundred years over great parts of the continent, the neighbouring isles, and in particular to the south and east: following the Danube river into what are today Austria, Hungary, Serbia and Romania.

Others went north and over the sea. The Celtic colonization of the British Isles and the petty kingdoms they subsequently established are best known to us by the literary influence they extended on the legend, and perhaps the deeds, of King Arthur, the sword Excalibur and the Knights of the Round Table. Written down by Sir Thomas Malory in the fourteenth century and titled “Le Mort D’Arthur”, the tale has become a part of Western culture. T.E. White’s “The Once And Future King” is perhaps the most charming rendering of the epos.

The farthest branches of the Celtic migration expanded as far as Spain, northern Italy and Greece; a few fragments made it as far as Anatolia, then called “Asia Minor”. There they founded the Kingdom of Galatia, with Ankyra [Latin “Ancyra”, today’s Ankara] as its capital, which eventually became a client kingdom of Rome. After frequent clashes between Romans and Celts in the third and second centuries BC, the recurrences of conflict diminished, and subsequent improvement of neighbourly relations eventually gave rise to the spread of Roman civilization into Gallia Transalpina, Gaul on the further side of the Alps. Today’s Provence became the province of Gallia Narbonensis and its great ports of Massilia and Narbo, today’s Marseille and Narbonne, traded goods from near and far. Over a period of roughly a century, a number of adjacent Celtic tribes were introduced to the Roman fold, initially awarded the status of allies, and later that of citizens of Rome.

In 58 BC, Gaius Julius Caesar arrived in “Gallia Comata” (‘long-haired Gaul’), the northern and western unromanized parts of the land, with ten legions, and within seven years transformed all of today’s France, Belgium and the Upper Netherlands into Roman provinces. While he did have temporary problems with the particularly wild tribes of the Belgians, he was aware that the real danger for Rome lurked on the eastern, the far bank of the Rhine; a land where a wholly different and far more ferocious congregation of barbarians skulked in the forests, longing for the riches of civilization. Caution was advisable.

Germanic warriors as depicted in Philipp Clüver’s Germania Antiqua 1616

Caesar knew as much about these wild tribes as it was possible to know at this time, as told by his great-uncle Gaius Marius. Not since the days of Hannibal had the Roman Republic faced an adversary able to threaten her very existence; the “German” danger, however, commanded vigilance and preparedness. This was particularly true after the debacle of Arausio, in which Quintus Servilius Caepio had managed to lose the complete Roman army; that the German throng had not proceeded straight into Italy had been pure luck. For reasons unknown, the victorious German tribes had undertaken various detours, first into Spain, then back to northern Gallia, reaching the beaches of Normandy in the summer of 103 BC, but were back, in the fall of the next year, less than fifty miles from Arausio, at Aquae Sextae, today’s Aix-en-Provence.


Related Post: The Heist of the Millennium – The Gold of Tolosa and the Catastrophe of the Battle of Arausio 105 BC


Migrations of the Cimbri and Teutones

This time, however, a welcoming committee was ready, commanded by the former hayseed from Arpinum, Gaius Marius, and his newly formed army of “head count” soldiers. That these impoverished fellows would primarily depend on their general for their retirement was a foregone conclusion Marius did not forget for a second and planned his long-term goals accordingly: upon leaving service, his veterans would receive a bit of real estate and a small pension; the veteran might farm a bit, have sons, enjoy the sun, and, if need be, visit Rome and vote for his good friend, the general.

AD 410 – The Visigoths sack Rome

At Aquae Sextae, Marius found out that he was confronted with the Teutones only, who had split from the other tribes and were on their way along the Tyrrhenian Coast to Genova. Marius did not hesitate and led the legions to a complete victory over the disorganized enemy, and about 30,000 women and children who survived their men, fathers and suicide were sold on the slave markets of Massilia, the proceeds going, by tradition, to the general alone.

The wives of the Teutones kill their children and commit suicide to escape capture and subsequent slavery at the Battle of Aquae Sextiae, by Heinrich Leutemann

A year later and with the help, or, as some said, despite the hindrance of his co-consul Quintus Lutatius Catulus Caesar, Marius repeated the success of Aquae Sextiae against the second half of the original German horde, the Cimbri. They were coming down from the slopes of the Alps, which they had crossed by way of the Brenner pass and were on the descent into the riches of the Po Valley when they were checked by Marius’s legions before they could rest or gather supplies. At Vercellae, near today’s Rovigo, the legions won another victory and Marius’s purse pocketed the proceeds from the sale of another 20,000 women and children to the slave markets of Rome [101 BC].

Gaius Marius’ victory over the Cimbri by Francesco Saverio Altamura

Yet victory did not always smile upon the legions. Less luck than Marius had had fell upon Proconsul Gaius Varus and his three legions a little over a century later (AD 9). He had been dispatched to Germany by Emperor Augustus in return for a few border violations and a couple of plundered villages. The expedition crossed the Rhine and pursued the malefactors into the lands of the Cherusci, around the Weser River, somewhere in the vicinity of today’s town of Bielefeld.
The Cherusci were commanded by Arminius, a man who had served in the legions and was familiar with their tactics. He laid an ambush in a particularly dense forest which the legions had to traverse, thereby creating a scenario in which he hoped the biggest advantage of the legions, mutual support in a tight formation, would be nullified. The forest split the legions into small groups: not a single man survived. Varus and his men disappeared without a trace, an occurrence unprecedented in the annals of the legions. Rome concluded that the German danger merited unprecedented attention and decided upon the eventual fortification of the border. Jared Diamond comments on the early relations of Romans and barbarians as follows:

Battle at the Teutoburg Forest
Italian Map of the Battle
The Forest
Attack of the German warriors, by Otto Albert Koch

All but a few historical societies have been geographically close enough to some other societies to have at least some contact with them. Relations with neighbouring societies may be intermittently or chronically hostile. A society may be able to hold off its enemies as long as it is strong, only to succumb when it becomes weakened for any reason, including environmental damage. The proximate cause of the collapse will then be military conquest, but the ultimate cause – the factor whose change led to the collapse – will have been the factor that caused the weakening. Hence, collapses for ecological or other reasons often masquerade as military defeats. The most familiar debate about such possible masquerading involves the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Rome became increasingly beset by barbarian invasions, with the conventional date for the Empire’s fall being taken somewhat arbitrarily as A.D. 476, the year in which the last emperor of the West was deposed. However, even before the rise of the Roman Empire, there had been “barbarian” tribes who lived in northern Europe or central Asia beyond the borders of “civilized” Mediterranean Europe, and who periodically attacked civilized Europe (as well as civilized China and India). For over a thousand years, Rome successfully held off the barbarians, for instance slaughtering a large invading force of Cimbri and Teutones bent on conquering northern Italy at the Battle of Campi Raudii [i.e. Vercellae] in 101 B.C.

Eventually, it was the barbarians rather than the Romans who won the battles: what was the fundamental reason for that shift in fortune? Was it because of changes in the barbarians themselves, such that they became more numerous or better organized, acquired better weapons or more horses, or profited from the climate change in the central Asian steppes? In that case, we would say that barbarians really could be identified as the fundamental cause of Rome’s fall. Or was it instead that the same old unchanged barbarians were always waiting on the Roman Empire’s frontiers, and that they couldn’t prevail until Rome became weakened by some combination of economic, political, environmental, and other problems? In that case, we would blame Rome’s fall on its own problems, with the barbarians just providing the coup de grace. This question continues to be debated. (1)

The rise of a threat beyond the banks of Rhine and Danube persuaded the Roman historian Tacitus to investigate the barbarians. Soon he found himself in need of a general classification of the tribes who lived north and east of the rivers, in a land that was covered to ninety per cent by swamps and forests. He christened them “Germani, after a tribe who lived close to the Rhine near Bonna, today’s Bonn, the former capital of West Germany, in his book “De Origine et Situ Germanorum” [“About the Origins and Places of the Germans”], published in AD 98.
Tacitus never saw the land and the people he described: he relied on the words of mouth, perhaps of soldiers who had served there or perhaps on talking to the one or other Latin-speaking German he could find in Rome. Yet by virtue of his one being the only book on the subject, it received attention for centuries to come. He compared, not unfriendly, the simple virtues of the Germani, their sense of family, braveness and honour, but also their impressive vices, a certain predilection for rape, pillage and slaughter, with the decadence prevailing in Imperial Rome. He was the first author to describe the customs of the Germani extensively; earlier contact reports had been restricted to a syllabus of the battle and a count of limbs and bodies. As we have seen, the military results were mixed: Marius won, Varus lost, and the protracted campaigns of Drusus, Tiberius and Germanicus during the principate of Augustus [ca. 12 BC-AD 16] ended indeterminate.

Principal Germanic Movements 750 BC – 1 AD

After a few invasive campaigns, the Romans confined themselves to defensive measures along the Limes, a fortified line of earthworks, moats and watchtowers that protected the area between the Danube, Rhine and Moenus [today’s Main] Rivers. The final offensives into German territory were undertaken by Emperor Marcus Antonius Aurelius [AD 161-180]. The Germani, however, turned out a rather undistinguished tribe; after they crossed the Rhine in the direction of central France they disappeared in the mists of the past; no one knows what happened to the original Germani. Tacitus was intrigued by the strange political customs of the Germani as outlined by Edward Gibbon:

Some tribes, however, on the coast of the Baltic, acknowledged the authority of kings, though without relinquishing the rights of man, but in the far greater part of Germany, the form of government was a democracy, tempered, indeed, and controlled, not so much by general and positive laws as by the occasional ascendant of birth or valour, of eloquence or superstition. Civil governments, in their first institution, are voluntary associations for mutual defence. To obtain the desired end, it is absolutely necessary that each individual should conceive himself obligated to submit his private opinions and actions to the judgement of the greater number of his associates. The German tribes were contented with this rude but liberal outline of political society. … The assembly of the warriors of the tribe was convened at stated seasons, or on sudden emergencies. The trial of public offences, the election of magistrates, and the great business of peace and war were determined by its independent voice. … For the Germans always met in arms, and it was constantly to be dreaded lest an irregular multitude, inflamed with faction and strong liquor, should use those arms to enforce as well as to declare their furious resolves. (2)

Rome faced the problem that these tribes accepted no higher authority, knew no superior body that could arrange a truce or binding peace, nor declare general war, for that matter, and thus Emperor Domitian at around AD 80 came up with the idea to erect a wall between civilization and wilderness along those borders that were not naturally defended by a river. The line of what would become the Limes originated near the Danube’s northernmost point at Castra Regina, today’s Regensburg in Bavaria, then zigzagged through south-western Germany until it met the Main river, then zigzagged a bit more, over the heights of the Taunus Hills, and ultimately reached the Rhine at Bonna. A few miles ahead, down the river, another extensive Roman settlement was founded, Colonia Claudia, today’s Cologne.

The most decisive change of Roman organization relevant to the fate of the German tribes occurred when, as a reaction to the great migration beginning in the fourth century AD, Emperor Diocletian restructured the administration of the Empire. From now on, the state was not to be ruled by a single man but four. He had associated three colleagues in the exercise of the supreme power; and as he was convinced that the abilities of a single man were inadequate to the public defence, he considered the joint administration of four princes not as a temporary expedient but as a fundamental law of the constitution. It was his intention that the two elder princes should be distinguished by the use of the diadem [the Greek equivalent to a crown] and the title of Augusti, that, as affection or esteem might direct their choice, they should regularly call to their assistance two subordinate colleagues; and that the Caesars, rising in their turn to the first rank, should supply an uninterrupted succession of emperors.

The empire was divided into four parts. The East and Italy were the most honourable, the Danube and the Rhine the most laborious stations. The former claimed the presence of the Augusti; the latter were entrusted to the administration of the Caesars. The strength of the legions was in the hand of the four partners of sovereignty, and the despair of successfully vanquishing four formidable rivals might intimidate the ambition of an aspiring general. In their civil government, the emperors were supposed to exercise the undivided power of the monarch, and their edicts,
inscribed with their joint names, were received in all the provinces as promulgated by their mutual councils and authority. Notwithstanding these precautions, the political union of the Roman world was gradually dissolved, and a principle of division was introduced which, in the course of a few years, occasioned the perpetual separation of the Eastern and the Western Empires. (3)

GERMANS AT THE ROMAN BORDER AROUND AD 100, ACCORDING TO TACITUS – AS IT IS EASY TO SEE, THE MAIN BORDER RUNS ALONG THE RHINE AND DANUBE RIVERS.
Governmental Division of the Empire under Diocletian

As far as the German tribes were concerned, the most direct result of the reform was that, from now on, Roman policies affecting them were not formulated in distant Rome any more but in the new residence of the Western Caesar in Augusta Treverorum, today’s Trier at the Moselle River, only fifty miles west of the Rhine, or in Constantinople or Antiochia. This fostered particularism and diminished the already weakened unity of Roman executive coordination. The preponderance of military power went to the two most threatened borders along the Rhine and Danube and the Asian border in the provinces of Syria and Cappadocia facing the Parthians. This, in turn, gave the local commanders power that increased with the number of the legions under their personal control. Many of the usurpers of the Imperial purple in the second to fourth century AD were generals from border provinces who claimed their imperial purple through the strength of their legions.


(1) Diamond, Jared, Collapse, Penguin Books 2005, 0-14-30.3655-6, p.13

(2) (3) Gibbon, Edward, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Modern Library, First Citation: Mass Market Edition 2005 Second Citation: 4th Edition 2003-4, ISBN 0-345-47884-3, pp. 157 (135); 243 (207)


Related Post: The End of the Legions – Gothic Invasions and the Economic Breakdown of the West


(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

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Drusilla and Caligula

Source: caligula.org

The historical Julia Drusilla was born on September 16, AD 16, in Abitarvium (today Koblenz, Germany) as a scion of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, the second daughter and fifth child of Germanicus and Agrippina the Elder to survive infancy, and died at the age of 21 on June 10, AD 38. She had two sisters, Julia Livilla and the Empress Agrippina the Younger, and three brothers, Emperor Caligula, Nero Julius Caesar, and Drusus. She was a great-granddaughter of Emperor Augustus, grand-niece of Emperor Tiberius, niece of Emperor Claudius, and aunt of Emperor Nero. (See Wiki)

YouTube Video

As we have found with many of the family, her reputation is seriously smeared by the negative picture many contemporary historians have painted of the whole clan. What seems clear is that she was her brother Caligula’s favourite, and the scandalous tongues, of which there were many in Rome, credited her with having an incestuous relationship with her emperor brother – who apparently had more than brotherly feelings for all his sisters, whom he awarded the privileges of Vestal Virgins and had coins issued in their likenesses.

Bust of Drusilla

Whether this is true or not, we cannot say. It is possible that Caligula, who was, as we know, of a somewhat disturbed mind, attempted to emulate the pattern of his Roman lineage after the Hellenistic monarchs of the Ptolemaic dynasty where marriages between jointly ruling brothers and sisters had become generally accepted. His contempt for the Roman elite may have played a part in such a scheme. Since what happened in the royal bedchamber was not a matter of public knowledge, some observers registered that the emperor reserved the female position of honour at the imperial dinners always for Drusilla, not her sisters or his wives, which they took as a sure sign of his despotism.

The court of Caligula by Virgillo Mattoni de la Fuente, 1842-1923 ( Note: This work is also known as The Baths of Caracalla)

She died of the one or other epidemic that frequently plagued Rome in these times. Her brother, who reportedly never left her sickbed, posthumously made her an Augusta and had the Senate enact a decree declaring her a Goddess, as Diva Drusilla, on a par with Venus (Aphrodite).

To our eyes, she lives on in the movies – as on the TV series I, Claudius, wherein she is played by Beth Morris, and, more, er …, revealingly, by Teresa Ann Savoy in the famous and notorious movie Caligula ( Link to Movie – for documentation only, please).

As can be seen on the early poster above, Maria Schneider – of Last Tango in Paris fame – was originally cast as Drusilla.

About this scandalous movie, there is a most extensive website, that delves deeply in the myths and legal troubles of the film at caligula.org, which informs in-depth and has never-before-published information and pictures galore.

Pics from caligula.org

  1. Teresa Ann Savoy, Anneka Di Lorenzo, Lori Wagner
  2. Valerie Ray Clark
  3. Anneka di Lorenzo and Lori Wagner
  4. Suzanne Saxon and Carolyn Patsis

(© John Vincent Palatine 2019)

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The Age of Justinian

This is a jump page for the articles covering the Roman Empire at the times of Justinian I, Flavius Petrus Sabbatius Iustinianus Augustus, c. 482 – November 14, 565), traditionally known as Justinian the Great and also Saint Justinian the Great in the Eastern Orthodox Church.


Full Movie (with English Subtitles): The German 1968 production “The Last Roman” (Kampf um Rom) with Orson Welles as Justinian, Lawrence Harvey as Cethegus and Sylvia Koscina as Theodora on YouTube:

Part I (720p)

Part II (480p)


Justinian by Antoine Helbert
Justinian’s Empire at its greatest expanse, around AD 560

I. THE GOTHIC WARS

II. THEODORA

III. PROCOPIUS AND THE SECRET HISTORY

IV: THE END OF THE LEGIONS (socio-economic reasons for the decline)

V. CLOVIS – THE RISE OF THE FRANKS

Tip: Realm of History, a page with gorgeous reconstructed pics of Constantinople.

Tintoretto – The Fall of Constantinople

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

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Clovis – The Rise of the Franks


Caesar’s spirit, raging for revenge,
With Ate by his side, come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines, with a monarch’s voice,
Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war.


William Shakespeare “Julius Caesar“, Act 3, Sc. 1, L. 1270


Related Article: The End of the Legions and the Economic Breakdown of the West


It was a sign of the increasing military faculties of the Franks that the victory over Attila and the Huns at Chalons had been achieved with the aid of a substantial corps of their warriors. The Franks were not one of the early tribes enumerated in Tacitus’Germania“, they were, it appears, part of a secondary conglomerate of smaller tribes, perhaps survivors of intra-German conflicts who banded together around AD 250 and crossed the Rhine River westwards. They followed the trail of an earlier tribal coalition which had included the original “Germani”, who crossed the Rhine in the same direction in the first century BC but seem to have been assimilated fast: Julius Caesar does not mention them in “De Bello Gallico”, his report on the campaigns in Gaul.

The early Franks were allowed to settle in the areas west of the lower Rhine: the Salian tribe settled in today’s Flanders, in the vicinity of Tournai and Arras, while the Ripuarian Franks, under the leadership of the Merovingian dukes,
took up residence slightly further south-east, around the banks of the Meuse and Moselle Rivers. (Tribal identities are somewhat disputed today)

Smaller communities initially settled in the two main tribes’ vicinity. Yet these original settlements of the Franks had multiplied and spread swiftly, and resulted, in the late fifth century AD, in Frankish domination of great parts of northern and eastern Gaul. Because the possessions of the Visigoths in Gaul were concentrated south and west of the Loire and Rhone Rivers, and their acquisitive impetus, under King Euric [rex. AD 466-484], was directed upon the conquest of Spain, the Franks found ample opportunities to enlarge their domains.

Frankish territory in blue, AD 481

Clovis, or Chlodwig, in Latin “Chlodovechus”, a duke of the Franks in the last decades of the fifth century AD, was descended in paternal line from Childeric I, a former “Roman warlord and Frankish king based at Tournai”, (1) who, in the lesser days of his luck, had been exiled to Thuringia. That was where he met Clovis’s future mother Basina, queen of the Thuringians, who accommodated the exile in ways he could not have expected; she had a child with him and left her husband to join Childeric when the latter was restored to his authority. The son succeeded the father, at the tender age of fifteen years, to the leadership of the nation, which amounted, in the estimate of contemporary observers, to approximately 5,000 warriors [Clovis, or Chlodwig, rex.AD 481-511].

The young nobleman was instructed in the business of arms, for which he showed a considerable talent: to the extent that many of the mercenary corps meandering through and marauding the country were attracted to assemble under his banner. In addition to his military abilities, he was praised for applying justice when required and employing passion when permitted. Edward Gibbon wrote that “in all his transactions with mankind, he calculated the weight of interest, of passion, and of opinion: and his measures were sometimes adapted to the sanguinary manners of the Germans and sometimes moderated by the milder genius of Rome and Christianity.” (2) In today’s words, he was – and remained – a killer and a fraud as well.

Baptism of Chlodwig, around AD 496
Baptism of Chlodwig, around AD 496

But his great chess move, and the most important benefit Clovis was able to secure for the eternal felicity of his people were not his military achievements but his uncanny decision to support that species of Christianity which would wind up the winner of the heresy wars between the fourth and seventh century: the Catholic Church of the Athanasian Creed. [1] This accomplishment perpetually improved the relations of the Franks with the Eastern Roman Empire, in particular so because, at the time being, all the other Germanic kingdoms followed Arianism. The Franks thus became natural allies to Byzantium.

The conversion of the Franks to the religion which institutes, as its most ethical and noble achievement, the love of mankind for each other, did not, however, impede Clovis’s acknowledgement of necessary political prudence; “his ambitious reign was a perpetual violation of moral and Christian duties: his hands were stained with blood in peace as well as in war; and as soon as Clovis had dismissed a synod of the Gallican Church, he calmly assassinated all the princes of the Merovingian race.” [… that is, all his blood relatives] (3)

Chlodwig’s conquests

A Frankish victory over the Alemanni at Tolmiac in the north-east had been followed by an extensive border dispute between Clovis and Alaric II, the young king of the Visigoths in the south-west. At length, a meeting was arranged between the two, and the rendezvous proceeded with mutual proclamations of brotherly love and assertions of eternal peace but yielded no written truce or covenant.

Baptême de Clovis, Église Saint-Laurent, Paris

Thus, when the indigenous population of the great and fecund province of Aquitaine asserted, in a confidential embassy, their inclination towards a change from Gothic to Frankish overlordship, Clovis did not hesitate for long; “in 507 he attacked the Visigoths, defeating and killing Alaric II at the Battle of Vouillé, and virtually drove them out of Gaul (they only kept the province of Languedoc, on the Mediterranean coast). The Burgundians held on for a time, but in the 520s Clovis’s sons attacked them too, and took over their kingdom in 534.” (4) Before long, Clovis accepted from Emperor Anastasius the honour of the Roman consulship, as a sign of Imperial support for his Catholic associates. (Some historians believe it was not consul, but “patricius“, the same title as given later to Theodoric). But Clovis died soon, only four years after Vouillé [AD 511] and Italy remained beyond Frankish reach, although Frankish troops invaded Italy in 540 to benefit from Belisar’s Gothic War. His mass murders were soon forgotten and grateful French historians made him the founder of the French empire.

His successors extended the Frankish realm in the same rapacious ways until 555 as seen in the map below (light green areas).

Conquests until 555, the status of Saxonia (north-east) doubtful

Related Article: The Gothic Wars


(1) Wickham, Chris, The Inheritance of Rome, Viking Books 2009, ISBN 978-0-670-02098-0, p. 112

(2) Gibbon, Edward, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Modern Library 2003-5, ISBN 0-345-47884-3, p. 779 [661] (First Citation: Mass Market Edition 2005 Second Citation: 4th Edition 2003-4)

(3) Gibbon, p. 780 [662]

(4) Wickham, p. 92

Footnote: [1] Athanasius, Patriarch of Alexandria, AD 295(?)-373


(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

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The End of the Legions

Juan de la Corte – Battle Scene

Preceding Post: Barbarians at the Gate


Pretty good YouTube – Video


While the frontiers of the Empire were somewhat accustomed to invasions from Germanic tribes and Asian intruders, the heartlands of the realm had been relatively safe from enemy attack. It was the congregation of tribes called the Goths that, from the second half of the Third Century on, mounted protracted expeditions into the settled spheres of Rome.

Led by their King Crivia, the Goths fought a successful raid deep into Greece, conquered Phillipolis, killed Emperor Decius, and were allowed to leave with their spoils.
In 267, Goths and their seaborne allies, the Heruli, began a two-pronged invasion into the heartland and initiated a veritable plunderfest, which was only stopped – barely – by the Emperors Gallienus and Claudius II Gothicus at the Battle of Naissus.

For a while, the Empire continued to function more or less in the usual way, until, about a century later, the character of the threat changed. The appearance of the Huns from the plains of the East exerted pressure upon the Goths to move west- or southward and for the first time the question of an eventual Germanic settlement arose, as opposed to quick forays for spoils.

The Gothic Wars of AD 376 to 382 not only led to the greatest Roman military disaster since Varus in the Battle of Adrianople (9 August 378) and the ignominious death of Emperor Valens but ended with the formal incorporation of the Goths into the Empire as foederati. From this time on, the Roman forces were truly multinational, and the Germanic element began to dominate the military and eventually found access into the ruling class of the Empire. [See Wiki, The Late Roman Army for details]

The stability and continuity of this new, Germano-Roman Empire, was, however, not given much of a chance. It was shattered to the bones only some twenty years later by the extensive campaigns of the Visigoths, in particular under Alaric I, that, after the Battle of Adrianople mentioned above, marked another milestone in the Decline of the Roman Empire. The Visigoths eventually crossed the whole Empire from east to west, ending up in today’s southern France and Spain, plundering and ravaging. They conquered and sacked Athens as well as Rome in 410 AD and, for a time, dominated the Western provinces.

Alaric entering Athens
Alaric in Athens, by Ludwig Thiersch
The Sack of Rome by the Visigoths, August 24, 410

It is the year AD 476, which is commonly cited as the “end” of the Roman Empire, a custom which seems to overlook the fact that the eastern part of it survived for another thousand years. But one could take any of the neighbouring decades and claim an “end” all the same; indeed, it is a mistake to see Roman and Barbarians as either/or, when in reality the cultures mingled; in the words of Chris Wickham, “Crisis and Continuity” were both present between AD 400 and 550. (43) The perhaps most significant change was the end of the centralization of politics, economy and culture that the great empire had provided; particularism set in.

The end of political unity was not a trivial shift; the whole structure of politics had to change as a result. The ruling classes of the provinces were all still (mostly) Roman, but they were diverging fast. The East was moving away from the West, too.
It was becoming much more Greek in its official culture, for a start. Leo I was the first emperor to legislate in Greek; under a century later, Justinian (527-565) may have been the last emperor to speak Latin as a first language. But it is above all in the West that we find a growing provincialization in the late fifth century, both a consequence and a cause of the breakdown of central government. …
Building became far less ambitious, artisanal production became less professionalized, exchange became more localized. The fiscal system, the judicial system, and the density of Roman administrative activity in general, all began to simplify as well. (44)

Mosaic of Justinianus I in the Basilica San Vitale (Ravenna)
Mosaic of Justinianus I in the Basilica San Vitale (Ravenna)

The decisive challenge, and indeed the most “taxing” matter, for any community that would endeavour to follow the Roman example, was how to pay for a standing army, which had been the instrument of Rome’s expansion and maintenance. It is true that in ancient Rome the farmer was expected to perform military service if the need arose, quite like in ancient Gaul or beyond the Rhine. But that had changed at the latest with Marius’s army reform around 100 BC. The Imperial decline and the decrease in political stability six hundred years later resulted in a corresponding shrinking of manufacture and commerce, which, at length, destroyed the Imperial tax base. It seems that the change from a paid to a landed army occurred in the West at the same time as Emperor Justinian I in the East embarked on his Imperial reconquista (which depleted his treasury, too), that is, at the time of Theodoric’s Ostrogoths reign in Italy.

Theodoric the Great, by Fabrizio Castello (1560-1617)
Theodoric the Great, by Fabrizio Castello (1560-1617)

Beginning in the fifth century, there was a steady trend away from supporting armies by public taxation and towards supporting them by the rents deriving from private landowning, which was essentially the product of this desire for land of conquering elites. In 476, according to Procopius, even the Roman army of Italy wanted to be given lands, and got it by supporting Odovacar. Procopius may well have exaggerated; the Ostrogoths state in Italy certainly still used taxation to pay the army, at least in part, probably more than any other post-Roman polity did by the early sixth century.
Overall, however, the shift to land was permanent. After the end of Ostrogothic Italy, there are no references in the West to army pay, except rations for garrisons, until the Arabs reintroduced it in Spain from the mid-eight century onwards; in the other western kingdoms, only occasional mercenary detachments were paid … .

The major post-Roman kingdoms still taxed, into the seventh century. But if the army was landed, the major item of expanse in the Roman budget had gone. The city of Rome, another important item, was only supplied from Italy after 439, and lost population fast, as we have seen. The central and local administration of the post-Roman states was perhaps paid for longer, but in most of them the administration quickly became smaller and cheaper. Tax still made kings rich, and their generosity increased the attractive power of royal courts. But this was all it was for, by 550 or so.

Tax is always unpopular, and takes work to exact; if it is not essential, this work tends to be neglected. It is thus not surprising that there are increasing signs that it was not assiduously collected. In ex-Vandal Africa after 534, the Roman re-conquerors had to reorganize the tax administration to make it effective again, to great local unpopularity; in Frankish Gaul in the 580s, assessment registers were no longer being systematically updated, and tax rates may only have been around a third of those normal under the empire.
Tax was, that is to say, no longer the basis of the state. For kings as well as armies, landowning was the major source of wealth from now on. (45)

Germanic Kingdoms of the West
Germanic Kingdoms of the West

The differentiated Roman structures of administration and command could no longer be maintained. For centuries Rome had continued to grow by her arms while providing reasonable security and the general advantage of being a province of the Imperium Romanum was explained once to a Gaul by a lieutenant of Emperor Vespasian, around AD 70, and preserved by Tacitus:

The protection of the [Roman] republic has delivered Gaul from internal discord and foreign invasions. By the loss of national independence, you have acquired the name and privileges of Roman citizens. You enjoy, in common with ourselves, the permanent benefits of civil government; and your remote situation is less exposed to the accidental mischief of tyranny. Instead of exercising the rights of conquest, we have been contented to impose such tributes as are requisite for your own preservation. Peace cannot be secured without armies; and armies must be supported at the expense of the people. It is for your sake, not for ours, that we guard the barrier of the Rhine against the ferocious Germans, who have so often attempted, and who will always desire, to exchange the solitude of their woods and morasses for the wealth and fertility of Gaul.
The fall of Rome would be fatal to the provinces; and you would be buried in the ruins of that mighty fabric which has been raised by the valour and wisdom of eight hundred years. Your imaginary freedom would be insulted and oppressed by a savage master; and the expulsion of the Romans would be succeeded by the eternal hostilities of the Barbarian conquerors
.” (46)

The tax base that had provided for the maintenance of the legions was evaporating, and consequently no large standing armies could be maintained for the next thousand years.
The unthinkable had happened: Rome had fallen, at least in the West, 1229 years after her mythical creation by Romulus, and for the moment no organized power would defend the western parts of the European continent from the inscrutable advances of Barbarian intruders. Yet nature abhors a vacuum, at least in politics, and before long the competition for the inheritance of Rome was in full progress. It centred on the former provinces of Gaul and eventually led to the “Middle Ages”, which were characterized by a sudden fall and only very slow reintroduction of systems based on centralized administration.
Principally what happened is that the centre broke away – the north-western Germanic states and the Byzantine Empire were to become the pillars of European power, while impoverished Italy lost its political importance. A side effect of this change was that the “Pax Romana”, which had held most of the citizenry harmless from war for a few centuries – unless they lived in border sections – disappeared and was followed by more than a millennium of slaughter.

As far as Italy was concerned, three centuries of civil, religious and secular wars had maimed and mutilated the land of Virgil, Pliny and Seneca, and Edward Gibbon’s gloomy description of the condition of the eternal town and former capital of the world around AD 700 hints at the state of much of the continent:

Amidst the arms of the Lombards and under the despotism of the Greek [i.e. Byzantium], we again inquire into the fate of Rome, which had reached, about the close of the sixth century, the lowest period of her depression. By the removal of the seat of the empire and the successive loss of the provinces, the sources of public and private opulence were exhausted: the lofty tree under whose shade the nations of the earth had reposed was deprived of its leaves and branches, and the sapless trunk was left to wither on the ground. The ministers of command and the messengers of victory no longer met on the Appian or Flaminian Way; and the hostile approach of the Lombards was often felt and continually feared.
The inhabitants of a potent and peaceful capital who visit without an anxious thought the garden of the adjacent country will faintly picture in their fancy the distress of the Romans: they shut or opened their gates with a trembling hand, beheld from the walls the flames of their houses, and heard the lamentations of their brethren, who were coupled together like dogs and dragged away into distant slavery beyond the sea and the mountains. … Curiosity and ambition no longer attracted the nations to the capital of the world: but if chance or necessity directed the steps of a wandering stranger, he contemplated with horror the vacancy and solitude of the city, and might be tempted to ask: Where is the senate, and where are the people?


(43) (44) (45) Chris Wickham, “The Inheritance of Rome“, Viking Books 2009 ISBN 978-0-670-02098-0, pp. 76, 90 – 95, 102 – 103

(46) Edward Gibbon, “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire“, Modern Library 2003-5, ISBN 0-345-47884-3, p. 776 (659); First Page Number: Mass Market Edition 2005; Second Page Number: 4th Edition 2003-4


Next Post: The Gothic Wars of Justinian

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

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The Woman of Amphissa

The Floozies of the Palatine

Ludi Florales – The Feast of Florals

The Roman Orgy (1911) – a short film by French director Louis Feuillade

YouTube Video: Rome – A Perverts’ Paradise


The history of Rome has provided us with a surprising number of nasty girls, and here we will have a look at the most prominent. While the competition is crowded, it remains remarkable that no less than six of them, Claudia Livia Julia (usually called Livilla), Julia Livia (sometimes called Julia Drusi Caesaris filia, daughter of Drusus Caesar), Julia Agrippina the Younger, Claudia Octavia, Julia the Elder, the only daughter of Augustus [read her post on this Blog], and Livia Drusilla (also called Julia Augusta), all came from a single family and all lived within one century (58 BC to AD 68), at the same time as the famous Valeria Messalina [read her post on this Blog], Poppaea Sabina the Younger and Poppaea Sabina the Elder, her mother.

Detail
Threesome at the Nile River – Pompeii
Statue of Hermaphroditus from Pergamum

Caveat: “Some sexual attitudes and behaviours in ancient Roman culture differ markedly from those in later Western societies. Roman religion promoted sexuality as an aspect of prosperity for the state, and individuals might turn to private religious practice or “magic” for improving their erotic lives or reproductive health. Prostitution was legal, public, and widespread. “Pornographic” paintings were featured among the art collections in respectable upper-class households. It was considered natural and unremarkable for men to be sexually attracted to teen-aged youths of both sexes, and pederasty was condoned as long as the younger male partner was not a freeborn Roman. “Homosexual” and “heterosexual” did not form the primary dichotomy of Roman thinking about sexuality, and no Latin words for these concepts exist. No moral censure was directed at the man who enjoyed sex acts with either women or males of inferior status, as long as his behaviors revealed no weaknesses or excesses, nor infringed on the rights and prerogatives of his masculine peers. While perceived effeminacy was denounced, especially in political rhetoric, sex in moderation with male prostitutes or slaves was not regarded as improper or vitiating to masculinity, if the male citizen took the active and not the receptive role. Hypersexuality, however, was condemned morally and medically in both men and women. Women were held to a stricter moral code, and same-sex relations between women are poorly documented, but the sexuality of women is variously celebrated or reviled throughout Latin literature. In general the Romans had more flexible gender categories than the ancient Greeks.”

Hermaphroditus, from the Villa Borghese

Also: “Prostitution was legal throughout the Roman Empire in all periods. Most prostitutes were slaves or freedwomen. Prostitutes in Rome had to register with the aediles. Despite what might seem to be a clear distinction as a matter of law, the jurist Ulpian opined that an openly promiscuous woman brought the status of prostitute upon herself, even if she accepted no money. The Augustan moral legislation that criminalized adultery exempted prostitutes, who could legally have sex with a married man. Encouraged to think of adultery as a matter of law rather than morality, a few socially prominent women even chose to avoid prosecution for adultery by registering themselves as prostitutes.” [See Wikipedia]

Orgy – by Robert Auer

Yet murder and perversion abounded … as seen in the movie “Caligula” [Download] The establishment of the Imperial Court seems to have brought the, er, emancipation of the girls to a flowering …

One may reasonably doubt whether a more murderous, licentious and scandalous breed existed in the annals of mankind, and they certainly matched the infamous males of the clan – the respective emperors of the age, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero.

Tiberius on Capri
Tiberius on Capri
More floozies at the Ludi Floralia (Flower Festival)

Numbers 10 to 8, featuring: Theodora, Faustina the Younger, Fulvia Flacca Bambula

On Fulvia, politically the most interesting of the ladies and by far the most powerful, there is an exhaustive Master Thesis “A Study of Fulvia”, by Allison Jean Weir [Link to PDF].

https://blogs.transparent.com/latin/the-top-ten-scandalous-women-of-ancient-romepart-i/

No. 10: Theodora
No. 9: Faustina
Fulvia With the Head of Cicero by Pavel Svedomsk
No. 8: Fulvia With the Head of Cicero by Pavel Svedomsk

Numbers 7 to 4, featuring: Julia the Elder, Valeria Messalina, Claudia Livia JuliaCleopatra

https://blogs.transparent.com/latin/the-top-ten-scandalous-women-of-ancient-rome-part-ii/

No. 7: Julia by Leon Francois Comerre
No. 6: Messalina by Eugène Cyrille Brunet
Messalina
La Reine Bacchanale by Fritz Zuber-Buhler (1822-1896)
La Reine Bacchanale by Fritz Zuber-Buhler (1822-1896)
No. 5: Claudia Livia Julia (Livilla) as Diana by Francois Boucher
No. 4: Cleopatra by Robert Auer
Venus in the Gardens of Lucullus

And the top three, featuring: Poppaea Sabina the Younger, Julia Agrippina the Younger, Livia Drusilla

Poppea brings the Head of Claudia Octavia to Nero, by G. Muzzioli (1876)

https://blogs.transparent.com/latin/the-top-ten-scandalous-women-in-ancient-romefinale/

No. 3: Poppaea Sabina bathing …
No. 2: Agrippina, murdered by Nero

Livia Drusilla, the long-time wife Augustus, undoubtedly deserves her own article, which is being planned. Praised by the imperial scribes as the faithful wife and mother of the nation, her critics spilled venom and bile about the strange deaths of her adversaries [FN1] and about the willingness with which she fed her husband the youngest girls for the satisfaction of his imperial lust.

[FN1] See Wiki: “Rumour had it that Livia was behind the death of Augustus’ nephew Marcellus in 23 BC. After Julia’s two elder sons by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, whom Augustus had adopted as sons and successors, had died, the one remaining son, Agrippa Postumus, was adopted at the same time as Tiberius, but later Agrippa Postumus was sent into exile and finally killed. Tacitus charges that Livia was not altogether innocent of these deaths and Cassius Dio also mentions such rumours. There are also rumours mentioned by Tacitus and Cassius Dio that Livia brought about Augustus’ death by poisoning fresh figs. Augustus’ granddaughter was Julia the Younger. Sometime between 1 and 14 AD, her husband Lucius Aemilius Paullus was executed as a conspirator in a revolt. Modern historians theorize that Julia’s exile was not actually for adultery but for involvement in Paullus’ revolt. Livia Drusilla plotted against her stepdaughter’s family and ruined them. This led to open compassion for the fallen family. Julia died in 29 AD on the same island where she had been sent in exile twenty years earlier.

Virgil Reading the Aeneid to the Emperor Augustus, His Wife Livia and His Fainting Sister Octavia -  Antonio Zucchi
Virgil Reading the Aeneid to the Emperor Augustus, His Wife Livia and His Fainting Sister Octavia – Antonio Zucchi
Livia and her son, Tiberius

But if you were curious and DID peek, send us a comment on the debauchery you witnessed! Gory details welcome!

Orgia by Édouard Henri Avril
Édouard Henri Avril depicts fun for all the family …
Foursome from Pompeii

(© John Vincent Palatine 2019)

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Cleopatra

Cleopatra by Edward Mason Eggleston
Cleopatra by Edward Mason Eggleston

The rarely seen British Production of “Caesar and Cleopatra” featuring Vivian Leigh and Claude Rains on YouTube

Claudette Colbert in the 1934 movie …
The famous picture of a red-haired Cleopatra

Did she really look like Elizabeth Taylor? We will never know, but the odds are she did not – what we know from coins and ancient busts speaks against it. She may have had red hair, as in the famous picture, but most likely she shaved all her bodily hair, as it was Egyptian custom, and wore elaborate wigs. It seems clear, however, that she knew everything about ancient make-up, using belladonna to dilate her pupils and stibium (also called kohl, antimony sulphide) to colour her eyebrows. Very little, however, speaks against Cleopatra VII Philopator‘s force of personality, wits and political shrewdness.

Although she was, technically spoken, survived for a few days by her and Caesar‘s son Caesarion as sole ruler, she was in practical regards the last true pharaoh of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, successor to the various Egyptian Empires in the lands of the Double Crowns.

Papyrus document, right bottom corner an annotation by the queen’s own hand

Her descent features more than a few incestual, er, complications – within her last four patrilineal generations (father to father), there were three brother-sister marriages and the same number of uncle-niece marriages, so that in the end her family tree looks suspiciously like a vertical line – in fact, she only had two pair of (instead of four) great-grandparents – of which one was the son and daughter of the other!

In her youth as a scion of the royal Macedonian but thoroughly Hellenized family of the Ptolemies, founded in 305 BC by Alexander‘s general, companion and historian Ptolemy I Soter (c. 367 – 282 BC), she stood out by her talent for languages – she was the first of the family to learn the Egyptian language, but also spoke Ethiopian, Troglodyte, Hebrew or Aramaic, Arabic, some Syrian language – perhaps Syriac – Median, Parthian, and Latin in addition to her native Koine Greek.

Robert Auer-Cleopatra
Robert Auer – Cleopatra
The Handmaidens, by John Collier

From 81 BC on, mayhem, murder and very irresponsible financial planning within the royal family ended with the Romans’ – initially under Sulla – titular takeover of Egypt as collateral for outstanding loans. Cleopatra’s father Ptolemy XII succeeded as a client king of Rome hanging on to power – by his nails – from 80 to 58 BC and again from 55 to 51 BC with a small interruption when having been intermittently deposed by his daughter and Cleopatra’s elder sister Berenice IV.

After Berenice’s fall and subsequent beheading, Cleopatra was made co-ruler with her father some time in 52 BC, but faced serious problems after her father’s death in 51 BC.  Irregularities of the Nile flooding had left the land in famine and a debt of 17,5 million drachmas to Rome (it is hard to assign a present-day value to the then-drachma, but for a long time in ancient Greek one drachma represented the daily wage of a skilled worker) petrified the state’s fiscus – aggravated by the lawless behaviour of the largely Germanic/Gallic-Roman garrison left by the financiers of the Empire.

Two factors further complicated Cleopatra’s new royal position – her younger brother Ptolemy XIII, whom she had initially rejected as co-regent but probably married for the sake of tradition – aspired to power and the ascendancy of the Roman civil war, which began to extend to Egypt.

By the summer of 49 BC, Cleopatra was fighting her brother and losing, when Pompey’s son Gnaeus Pompeius arrived from Greece with a request for military assistance against Caesar – which was granted by both Ptolemy and Cleopatra alike in their last concurrent decision. Eventually, she had to flee to Roman Syria, where she attempted to find troops for an invasion of Egypt. Yet the invasion soon stalled, and she was forced to camp outside the town of Pelousion in the Eastern Nile Delta over the winter.

Cleopatra Testing Poisons On Those Condemned To Death by Alexandre Cabanel
Cleopatra Testing Poisons On Those Condemned To Death by Alexandre Cabanel

Having lost the Battle of Pharsalus in August 48, Pompey decided to make Egypt the basis for his tactical retreat but was promptly murdered by agents of Ptolemy XIII soon after having made landfall near Pelousion. Ptolemy believed to have perfected nothing but a masterpiece – having removed Cleopatra’s supporter Pompey, thus weakening his sister, and simultaneously earning Caesar’s gratitude for the removal of his enemy.

Uh oh. Caesar was royally angry about the coward murder and ordered – from the royal palace – both Cleopatra and Ptolemy to stop the nonsense, end the war, kiss and make up. We know what happened then: Ptolemy decided on war and Cleopatra on love, arriving at Caesar’s quarters, as Plutarch recounts, in a rug or bed sack.

Cleopatra Before Caesar
Delivery

Caesar’s subsequent attempts to find a solution for Egypt momentarily fizzled, and he had to endure the famous siege of the palace – protected by 4000 guards and most likely in the arms of the queen – until reinforcements arrived in the spring of 47 BC. Ptolemy XIII, his sister Arsinoe IV (half-sister to Cleopatra) and their supporters were defeated quickly, but Caesar remained wary of the intricacies of Egypt and the preceding chaos of the sole-female-rulership of Berenice and proceeded to set up Cleopatra with her younger brother Ptolemy XIV as co-rulers. While his consulship had expired at the end of 48, Mark Antony had provided him the dictatorship of Rome until the end of 47, and thus he possessed the proper legal authority.

Cleopatra and Caesar by Jean-Leon Gerome
Cleopatra and Caesar by Jean-Leon Gerome
Caesar investing Cleopatra as Pharaoh

In April 47, Caesar departed for Rome, leaving three legions in Egypt, and his son Caesarion was born on June 23. In Rome, Caesar paid respect to his childless marriage with Calpurnia by keeping his mouth horkos odonton in public while Cleopatra blazoned forth the news of his paternity to everyone.

John William Godward painting purported to show Caesar and Cleopatra

In late 46 followed the visit of Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIV to Rome which is so memorably depicted in Joseph L. Mankiewicz‘s Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor. The queen had to remain outside the pomerium, i.e., outside the holy precinct of the inner city, for no monarch was allowed to enter; she was put up in a villa in Caesar’s garden

They were still in Rome – unpopular with most of the senators – when Caesar was assassinated at the Ides of March 44. Perhaps she hoped for Caesarion to be named the heir to Caesar, but when that honour fell to Octavian, she left for Egypt, had her brother killed by poison (it is said) and elevated Caesarion to co-ruler.

Cleopatra and Mark Antony at the Funeral Bier of Julius Caesar, 1878. Lionel-Noel Royer

In the Liberators’ Civil War, forced by Mark Antony and Octavian against the assassins of Caesar, she was initially courted by both sides but quickly declared for Mark Antony. Alas, one of her own lieutenants, the governor of Cyprus, defected to the enemy and subsequently she had to attend a possibly dangerous confrontation with Mark Antony at Tarsus – which she, however, defused easily by a few lavish banquets and her considerable personal charms. Mark Anthony fell for her hook, line and sinker, and Arsinoe IV, who had only been banished before, and the treasonous governor were duly executed.

Antony and Cleopatra meet on a river barge, by Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema
Antony and Cleopatra meet on a river barge, by Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema

The lovely couple was fond of parties and even founded their own drinking club, the “Indestructible Livers” …

The Triumph of Cleopatra by William Etty
The Triumph of Cleopatra by William Etty

But the high life did not last long – trouble developed soon. After the defeat of Brutus and Cassius at Philippi, Octavian faced the task of simultaneously providing land for the retirement of the pro- and contracaesarian veterans of the civil war – most of the latter having been pardoned by Caesar before his death. The choice was either to enrage the citizens by confiscating the required land or enrage the veterans, who then might easily decide to support a possible opponent of the triumvirate. Octavian resolved in favour of the veterans by confiscating no less than eighteen towns and their hinterlands for the soldiers – driving whole populations out – which, of course, resulted in civil unrest.

On the terraces of Philae, by Frederick Arthur Bridgeman

Enter Fulvia Flacca Bambula, widow of two former supporters of Caesar and third wife of Mark Antony (from 47 or 46 BC until 40 BC). She was, through her family connections, by far the most powerful woman in Roman politics ever, and managed even during Antony’s absence in Egypt to raise eight legions – formally commanded by Lucius Antonius, Mark’s younger brother – in Italy for a civil war against Octavian and his veterans, the so-called Perusine War. She apparently committed, however, the critical mistake of not telling her husband of her campaign and Anthony’s supporters in Gaul – for the want of orders – did not come to her aid. The rebels subsequently lost the war and Fulvia fled to her husband in Athens. It would appear that the triumvir, upset with his dear wife, sent her into exile, where she dutifully died and sailed back to Rome to mend affairs within the triumvirate.

Antony thus had to return to Rome on urgent business and Cleopatra was absolutely not amused when he – in a scheme to lessen tensions within the triumvirate – not only married Octavia, the elder sister of Augustus, in Rome but also produced two daughters with her. Yet the Perusine War had critically lessened his subsequent political influence and Octavian gained the upper hand, first in Italy, and then in Gallia.

Cleopatra by Mose Bianchi

This was documented by a new agreement between the triumvirs in the Treaty of Brudisium, in which the West fell to Octavian and the East to Antony, while Lepidus received Africa Provincia as a sort of junior partner. In this context also fell the above mentioned marriage of Antony and Octavia.

Making plans …

Anthony then set out on his grand design, the war against the Parthian Empire – for which Cleopatra and Egypt had to chip in a most substantial contribution. The less is said about the campaign the better – there were a few successes but defeats as well and the “Endsieg” remained a chimaera. At least the campaign had a somewhat positive end when Anthony conquered Armenia in 35 BC.

Yet in the aftermath of this success, Anthony developed a clear case of megalomania – in addition to his infatuation, yes, besottedness with the queen. For a long time, he had followed a strategy to use the prestige and power of the Egyptian Ptolemy dynasty to set up a Hellenistic follow-up state to the Seleucid Empire in Asia and in 36 BC had presented a plan of making pseudo-donations to titular Hellenistic rulers – client kings – which were to form buffer-states on the Parthian borders. At this time, Octavian had agreed and such donations were presented at Antiochia. In 34, however, as Jenny Hill describes …

Frederick Arthur Bridgeman – Cleopatra on the Terraces of Philae

“… During this triumph in Alexandria (for his victory in Armenia the preceding year) , Mark Antony proclaimed Cleopatra the ‘Queen of Queens’ and claimed that he, not Octavian, was the adopted son of Caesar. He also formally pronounced Cleopatra and Caesarion joint rulers of Egypt and Cyprus, Alexander Helios (his first-born son by Cleopatra) the ruler of Media, Armenia and Parthia; Cleopatra Selene II (his daughter, twin of Alexander) the ruler of Cyrenaica and Libya; and Ptolemy Philadelphus (his second son by Cleopatra) the ruler of Phoenicia, Syria, and Cilicia.”

These declarations – usually called the Donations of Alexandria – meant not only the end of the triumvirate but were an invitation to war – not because of the titular land grants but because of Antony’s claim of the Caesarian inheritance for Caesarion – not Octavian. This Octavian could not suffer. His claim to rulership was adoption by Caesar – through which he not only had inherited possessions and authority but also the loyalty of Caesar’s veterans and personal popularity. This status being called into question by a biological son of Caesar – by the richest woman in the world – he could, politically, not possibly survive. Antony’s declaration meant war – but it hadn’t yet begun.

Cleopatra by William Wetmore Story

Sparks began to fly in earnest and a full-fledged propaganda war began. Octavian basically argued – very much in public – that Anthony was not only giving away the spoils of the Armenian war but also possessions that legitimately belonged to Rome and had been paid for by the blood of the legions, that Antony was but the “slave” of a foreign queen, to whom he had bequeathed huge properties – and that to his children, a most non-Roman idea. By his giving away provinces he also deprived deserving senators of proconsulships and was starting wars, as against Parthia and Armenia, without the senate’s consent. The pro-Antony faction in the capital accused Octavian of unspeakable crimes in Gallia and Spain in addition to homosexuality and cowardice. Par for the course, one could say.

In the eyes of most Romans, Octavians arguments were better and thus the political battle developed very much to his advantage. He was also able to rouse the feelings of the citizens of the capital in regard to the various executions without trial that had become standard procedure in the East – and of course in Egypt.

Marc Antony and Cleopatra planning …

In 32 BC, the senate formally deprived Antony of his powers and declared war on Cleopatra – not Anthony. It was very important for Octavius not to appear to start another civil war – thus Cleopatra – still very unpopular in Rome – was the perfect target. Yet the political majorities were not clear and almost half of the Senate left Rome and defected to Antony and Cleopatra in Greece.

War finally broke out, and the naval Battle of Actium on September 2, 31 BC, decided emphatically against the fortunes of the couple. In the August of 30 BC, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa led an invasion of Egypt which the wrought-out country was powerless to resist.

The Battle of Actium – September 2, 31 BC
The Battle of Actium – September 2, 31 BC

Antony committed suicide in the mistaken belief that Cleopatra had done so already. When he, lethally wounded, was informed of the fact that she was still alive, he was brought to her and died in her arms.

Louis Gauffier – Cleopatra and Octavian
Guercino – Cleopatra and Octavian

Octavian captured Cleopatra but allowed her to bury Antony in the usual fashion. She was destined to be led through Rome in Octavians’ subsequent triumph and afterwards ritually murdered. Robby House writes:

Another prevalent form of execution was that of Strangulation. This was perhaps the most popular form of execution for Rome’s greatest enemies although in those cases it was usually referred to as ritualistic strangulation which would often occur after the vanquished and shackled enemy was paraded through the streets of Rome as part of a Roman Triumph. While many of the victims were publicly strangled in the Forum area, perhaps the most famous war trophy was that of Gallic Chieftain Vercingetorix, arguably Caesar’s greatest foe in the field of battle. Perhaps out of some sort of pity, Caesar had him strangled away from the eyes of Rome’s citizens inside the confines of his cell in the Tullianum Prison (a.k.a. the Mamertine Prison).

Cleopatra knew very well what Octavian intended, and hence, after a few failed attempts, she took her own life – either on August 10 or 12, 30 BC.
The popular story goes that she died by the bite of an asp – an Egyptian cobra – but it is also quite possible that she took poison. Egyptian medicine knew many potent toxins, such as HemlockOpiumBelladonna or Aconitine, and combinations of them which yielded deadly potables or ointments.  The snake story is, of course, the best copy, and hence it does not surprise that the subject was taken on by a plethora of painters and sculptors, of which we show a few below.

La mort de Cleopatre. Rixens Jean Andre. 1874.
The Death of Cleopatra by Hans Makart
The Death of Cleopatra by John Collier
The Death of Cleopatra by John Collier
The Death Of Cleopatra – by Louis Jean François Lagrenée
The Death Of Cleopatra – by Louis Jean François Lagrenée
Cleopatra by Alfonso Balzico, 1874

And a few famous statues …

Esquiline Venus in the Capitol Museum – Woman and Snake
Esquiline Venus in the Capitol Museum – Woman and Snake
Cleopatra, by Charles Gauthier, 1880
Cleopatra, by Charles Gauthier, 1880
Cleopatra taking her own life with the bite of a venomous serpent, by Adam Lenckhardt
Cleopatra, taking her own life with the bite of a venomous serpent, by Adam Lenckhardt

Thus ended the life of the last Pharaoh of Egypt.

(© John Vincent Palatine 2019)

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Valeria Messalina

Henrique Bernardelli - Messalina
Henrique Bernardelli – Messalina

[Many pics, please allow for download]

Valeria Messalina (AD 17-20? – 48) was the original Roman floozie and is immortalized in paintings, sculptures, stage productions, films and novels. As in the case of other scandalous women of the Roman world – Julia the Elder, Theodora and Cleopatra, it is hard to say how much in the historical reports is invective – slander for political gain – and how much is true, or, at least, probable.

Cameo

The present author somewhat tends to see the political (in her case, that is, murderous) incidents as more likely than the sexual allegations – sexual defamation and innuendo were par for the course in ancient Roman political discourse. Accusations of sexual misconduct and in particular of adultery were indeed rather suitable political weapons – in particular because of the incongruity of official Roman morals as declared in many laws – e.g. Imperator Augustus’ own Lex Iulia de adulteriis – when compared to Roman reality, which in this respect resembled a gigantic bordello – given that prostitution was always legal in the empire and sex with slaves was essentially unregulated and common.

The main source behind the allegations was, perhaps, originally Agrippina the Younger, who followed Messalina on the throne and into the emperor’s bedchamber. It remains an open question whether she was worse than her contemporaries or not – the ladies of the Julio-Claudian dynasties are generally not remembered for chastity and restraint.

Ms. Agrippina was a busy bee in her own right, and was later rumoured – with the aid of the famous preparer of poisons Locusta – to have poisoned not only her husband Claudius but Britannicus as well, on Nero (her son’s) behalf. It did not help her much in the end – Nero had her eventually removed.

“Locusta testing in Nero’s presence the poison prepared for Britannicus”, painting by Joseph-Noël Sylvestre, 1876

By all reports Messalina must have been quite the catch and a feast for the eyes. Her relation to the Imperial family was intimate. Her family, the gens Valeria, was one of the most ancient and honoured patrician families of Rome. She was the daughter of Domitia Lepida the Younger,  a great  niece of Augustus and her first cousin Senator Marcus Valerius Messalla Barbatus (the rest may be read on Wiki). Both her grandmothers had been not only half-sisters, but also nieces of Augustus Caesar.

Messalina by Eugène Cyrille Brunet
Messalina by Eugène Cyrille Brunet
Messalina and Britannicus (Louvre)

We do not know much of her life before she became the third wife to heir presumptive Claudius – who was her own cousin (once removed) – in AD 38. If one reads a bit about the whole Julio-Claudian dynasty, one may easily get the impression that it was but one incestuous clan – and may not be far off the truth. She bore Claudius two children – Octavia (later Nero‘s wife) and Britannicus. When Caligula was murdered in AD 41, her husband was made Emperor and she found herself Empress.

She realized early that Claudius’ adopted son Nero was a main competitor for her son Britannicus in the imperial succession (although we must remember here that adoption might change the order of succession at any time). What she did about it and what followed is, however, largely conjecture – based on somewhat dubious historical reports.

Hans Makart’s painting of Charlotte Wolter in Adolf Wilbrandt’s tragedy Arria und Messalina.

In general, historians blame her in three regards: that she mingled in the imperial succession to advance her son Britannicus respectively her lovers, that she conspired against various senators for financial gain and, it seems, out of sexual motives, and that she was both adulterous and promiscuous – crimes for which exile was the normal sanction – but for an empress, the death penalty was far more likely. “Adulterium” respectively “Stuprum” – the shame – were crimes of the woman in question only, not the man – apparently the Romans concluded that no “Latin lover” could resist the ladies’ allures …

She is blamed for the executions of Claudius’ nieces Julia Livilla and Julia Livia, of the prominent senators Appius Silanus and Valerius Asiaticus – the former actually being married to Messalina’s mother Domitia Lepida but apparently desired by the daughter, whom he refused – the poisoning of Marcus Vinicius (Consul AD 30) – who is said to have resisted her advances as well – and the execution of the freedman Polybius, Claudius’ private secretary.

Julia Livilla seems to have been involved (AD 39) in a conspiracy to overthrow Caligula and replace him with Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, both her and her elder sister Agrippina‘s lover. She was punished by exile but returned after Caligula’s assassination, only to get in trouble with Messalina in AD 41 and was charged by Claudius (who was her paternal uncle) with adultery, committed, it was said, with Seneca the Younger, She was exiled again and apparently starved to death on Claudius’ orders sometimes in AD 42.

Julia Livia, granddaughter of Tiberius, fell the same way to apparently false charges of immodesty and adultery reported on orders of Messalina to Claudius’ ears by her palace spies, mostly freedmen, and was executed around the same time as Livilla. In both cases there seemed to have been no evidence to the alleged crimes and no official investigation was carried out.

A. Pigma (1911) – When Claudius is away, Messalina will play

The case of Appius Silanus was different. It seems that Messalina herself desired the highly honoured senator, who, as remarked, was married to her mother Domitia Lepida. On his refusal, Messalina and the aforementioned Narcissus reported an assassination plot, which they claimed to have seen in their dreams, to the emperor and the poor man was promptly executed for treason.

Messalina - painting by Joaquin Sorolla
Messalina in the arms of the gladiator – painting by Joaquin Sorolla

Not lust but greed seemed to have been the driving force in Messalina’s persecution of Valerius Asiaticus. He was one of the richest and most prominent men in Rome, having been consul not once but twice, and had bought and further developed the already famous gardens of the legendary Lucius Licinius Lucullus. It would seem that Messalina brought the notorious senator Publius Suillius Rufus (Claudius’ favoured prosecutor) – by what means we do not know, but we can guess – to indict Asiaticus on capital charges – along the usual conspiracy against the state also a charge of adultery with Poppaea Sabina the Elder, mother of the current empress Poppaea Sabina. He was duly found guilty and committed suicide in AD 47. Messalina inherited the gardens when she followed Poppaea Sabina as empress.

Marcus Vinicius was not so easy to crack. He had been consul twice and was a highly decorated officer – apparently above reproach – so he was poisoned. About the reasons for the execution of Polybius we do not know much – gossip holds that Messalina was tired of him as a lover and sought a secretary to Claudius who was more, er, pliable – in her expert hands.

The interesting question is whether or not Claudius was clueless about his wife’s actions – he probably turned a blind eye since they were getting rid of his political enemies, and – simpleton that he was or seemed to be – he could later deny that he knew anything about her actions.

Executions for crimes against the state were everyday occurrences in Roman politics but as their occasions multiplied, senators fearing to share the fate of Silanus and Asiaticus seemed to have started their own smear campaign. A few juicy scandals might, perhaps, advance their designs.

The Orgies of Messalina by Federico Faruffini
The Orgies of Messalina by Federico Faruffini
Messalina working in the brothel of Lisisca, etching by Agostino Carracci, late 16th century
Messalina working in the brothel of Lisisca, etching by Agostino Carracci, late 16th century

Rumours and innuendo of sexual adventures was as common and prevalent in Rome as in any other place, but gossip about the orgies Messalina was reported to host privately and not-so-privately quickly spread everywhere. The story everyone recalls best is the one on the competition in regard to sexual stamina which Messalina reportedly fought out with the prostitute Scylla, to find out who could satisfy more men in twenty-four hours – which Messalina is said to have won with a score of twenty-five lovers – as Pliny the Elder‘s Natural History relates in Chapter 83, n. 237:

Messalina, the wife of Claudius Caesar, thinking this a palm quite worthy of an empress, selected, for the purpose of deciding the question, one of the most notorious of the women who followed the profession of a hired prostitute; and the empress outdid her, after continuous intercourse, night and day, at the twenty-fifth embrace.

Jan Stursa – Messalina, disrobing on the way to the competition …
Gustave Surand - The competition between Messalina and Scylla
Gustave Surand – The competition between Messalina and Scylla

Juvenal described her habits in Satire VI as follows:

Then look at those who rival the Gods, and hear what Claudius endured. As soon as his wife perceived that her husband was asleep, this august harlot was shameless enough to prefer a common mat to the imperial couch. Assuming night-cowl, and attended by a single maid, she issued forth; then, having concealed her raven locks under a light-coloured peruque, she took her place in a brothel reeking with long-used coverlets. Entering an empty cell reserved for herself, she there took her stand, under the feigned name of Lycisca, her nipples bare and gilded, and exposed to view the womb that bore thee, O nobly-born Britannicus! Here she graciously received all comers, asking from each his fee; and when at length the keeper dismissed his girls, she remained to the very last before closing her cell, and with passion still raging hot within her went sorrowfully away. Then exhausted by men but unsatisfied, with soiled cheeks, and begrimed with the smoke of lamps, she took back to the imperial pillow all the odours of the stews.

Messalina, by Édouard Henri Avril
Messalina, by Édouard Henri Avril

What seems to have broken her neck was a party she held on the occasion of a visit of her husband, Emperor Claudius, to the harbour and shipyards of Ostia he was building there. In his absence, his wife gave a lavish party. The freedman Tiberius Claudius Narcissus, another secretary and magistrate, decided to inform his boss about the licentious affair – he had his own reasons in regard to Britannicus, Messalina’s son (check the link, it is interesting).

We have reason to believe that, in his report, Narcissus took a few liberties with the facts or at least with what he could prove. He told his employer that his wife had indeed performed a wedding ceremony with a certain Gaius Silius, who happened to be a designated consul for the following year AD 49.

Marriage of Messalina and Gaius Silius
Marriage of Messalina and Gaius Silius

Whether it was true or not, we do not know. If true, it might have been a plot to tumble Claudius and install Silius as emperor – who might then adopt Britannicus as heir. Silius was not only popular with the people, but also the Praetorian Guard, which made him a true danger.

Claudius hesitated. Back on the way to Rome, he was met on the road by his wife and children in the company of the chief vestal virgin Vibidia who sought to arbitrate in the matter. Yet the horizon clouded when Claudius – while inspecting the house of Silius – found a number of Julio-Claudian family heirlooms that his generous wife had gifted to her lover.

It seems Claudius – still doubtful – lacked the willpower to do what was necessary in the interest of the empire, so Narcissus took it upon himself to order the execution of the empress. She had fled with her mother to the Gardens of Lucullus and was given the chance of an honourable suicide but could not bring it off. So a soldier ran his sword through her.

The Death of Messalina by Georges Antoine Rochegrosse
The-Death-of-Messalina-by-Francesco-Solimena
The Death of Messalina by Francesco Solimena

On hearing the news of his wife’s demise, the emperor is said not have shown a reaction but simply asked for some more wine. The senate, in a gasp of relief, ordered damnation memoriae, the removal of her name from all public places. Yet gossip remained through all those centuries and made her immortal.

Rest well, old girl!

(© John Vincent Palatine 2019)

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The Chastity of Julia

La Meditazione by Luigi Sechhi
La Meditazione by Luigi Secchi

In many respects, it is surprising that Hollywood has not yet identified the story of Julia the Elder (30 October 39 BC-AD 14), the only daughter of Emperor Augustus, and the House of the Julio-Claudians as the subject of a production which easily might rival “Game of Thrones”.

Her family entanglements alone were manifold and on the incestuous side: she was not only (1) the sole child and daughter of the Emperor Augustus, but also (2) the stepsister and second wife (yes!) of the Emperor Tiberius; the (3) maternal grandmother of the Emperor Caligula and Empress Agrippina the Younger as well as the (4) grandmother-in-law of the Emperor Claudius, and last not least (5) the maternal great-grandmother of the Emperor Nero

Like other famous and powerful women of antiquity, Cleopatra or Theodora, the light she was painted in by her contemporary historians is fluctuating between invective and accolade. We must keep in mind though, that scandalous writings, in particular of sexual or murderous nature, was par for the course in ancient politics – especially in the Roman Empire which was characterized by legal and public exhortations of virtue and chastity (countless laws were passed to fortify the public morals), but in reality was but one big brothel, as pretty much all contemporary sources agree. Prostitution was always legal in Rome and sex with slaves essentially unregulated.

Her mother was Augustus’ second wife Scribonia, but as the Emperor had divorced her (to add insult to injury Augustus remarried on the day Julia was born), she grew up with her then-stepmother Livia, the famous court manipulator …

It would appear that her father emphasized a good – if strict – education, and all sources agree on Julia’s ample knowledge of literature and culture. As it would be expected and was Roman custom, at the age of 14, in 25 BC, she was married to the current political favourite among Augustus’ assistants, Marcus Claudius Marcellus, who, alas, died of an epidemic two years later.

A little party in the woods ...
A little party in the woods …

His death in no respect came unwelcome to Marcellus’ great rival and second lieutenant to Augustus, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, who proceeded – two years later – to inherit Julia. And here it gets complicated from the start. Although the marriage resulted in five children, rumours of Julia’s lax interpretation of the holy vows began immediately. Not only did she apparently begin a long-time affair with a certain Sempronius Gracchus (from the famous Republican family, who was later banned for the affair by Augustus and, as it seems, executed by Tiberius after his becoming emperor in AD 14), but, so it was widely rumoured, in addition, developed a passion for the selfsame Tiberius, who, to complicate things, was her stepbrother by adoption.

Yet in 12 BCE, Agrippa suddenly expired as well, and Augustus, after the loss of the second heir presumptive quickly married off his daughter – after a period of mourning as brief as to border on the perfunctory – to the next in line, Tiberius, in 11 BCE.

Yet this marriage seemed to have been blighted from the start. Notwithstanding Julia’s earlier infatuation with Tiberius, he had since married Vipsania Agrippina, a daughter of  Marcus Agrippa, and was reported to be very fond of her. Yet by Imperial command, divorce and subsequent remarriage to Julia could not be circumvented. The union, however, produced no offspring except for a baby-son who died in infancy and after 6 BC, when Tiberius left Rome for retirement in Rhodes, the non-lovers had separated – apparently by mutual assent.

The reasons behind the retirement are somewhat unclear. Historians have speculated that it was motivated because Augustus had adopted his grandsons Gaius Caesar and Lucius Caesar by Julia and Agrippa, and Tiberius had accepted that they would rank before him in the order of succession. In the event, they died AD 2 and AD 4 – both of quick and mysterious illnesses, which caused only more gossip – and hence they subsequently did not matter. Velleius Paterculus and Cassius Dio, however, write that Julia’s “promiscuous and very public behaviour” may have played a role as well.

Reawakening by Giulio Aristide Sartorio

Now we get to the part where the story gets mysterious, for the real motivations for what happened now have never come out. Notwithstanding the rumours of her earlier infidelities (of which the whole Empire was reasonably aware and her father must have known from beginning to end), Pliny reports that in AD 2 she was actually arrested on Augustus’ orders for adultery and for having planed, with unnamed conspirators, the murder of her father and/or her husband Tiberius. As mentioned, Augustus’ motivation is not known – even Tiberius reportedly wrote from Rhodes in favour of Julia. No investigation was held, no Procès-verbal, no explanations given.

But Augustus found himself in a bind he had created himself. In 18 BC, he has passed, among some other bills sponsoring the moral superiority of the Roman race, the “Lex Iulia de adulteriis, which not only punished adultery with banishment, in which the two perpetrators were to be banned on two different islands and their property could be partially confiscated, but allowed fathers to kill guilty daughters and their lovers, if they could lay hands on them, and husbands, depending on the circumstances of the crime, to kill the culprits and required to divorce the wives. The responsibility for punishing a daughter lay with the paterfamilias, hence, in the present case, Augustus himself.

Julia as  Venus - Diego Velázquez
Without doubt, she may have made a fine model for Diego Velázquez

Now the Emperor had to prosecute the daughter, which he did. As Tiberius was absent from the capital, Augustus sent her a letter in his name, asserting that Julia had actually schemed against his life in addition to the sexual crimes and declared the marriage null and void.

Julia in Exile at Ventotene, by Pavel Svedomskiy

Julia was sent to banishment on the tiny island of Pandateria (today’s Ventotene), then a manless and wineless (for she was fond of wine) barren spot in the Tyrrhenian Sea. She was forbidden to receive visitors and spent her last years solely in the presence of her mother, who shared the exile. Later, two of her children were exiled as well, for various other offences.

Augustus moved her back to the mainland five years later and granted her a small allowance, favours which were repudiated when her former husband Tiberius became Emperor in AD 14. She died in the same year – probably starved to death, a favourite method of Imperial providence.

Golden Rain by Leon Francois Comerre
Or maybe a model for Leon Francois Comerre?

Why was Augustus so harsh – harsher, actually, than the law prescribed? He was entitled to do whatever he saw fit – he might simply have ignored the whole affair. Clearly, he did it for matters of state and his own image as a self-proclaimed moral renovator of the Empire. The suspicion of modern historians is that there is, however, a greater context to observe – an offensive against the tendency of Roman women of the late Republic to emancipate themselves from the tight male reign they were held in. Like Sulla, Octavian was an arch-conservative and as some historians have assumed, may have followed no lesser target than to establish himself as the moral paterfamilias of the whole Empire – as the personification of absolute authority.

Perhaps Augustus did indeed suspect a conspiracy against himself and the principate – that the alleged lovers of his daughter planned to replace Tiberius as heir presumptive with Iullus Antonius, the son of Marc Antony (who had been a praetor before, and also proconsul for Asia) – the more likely because important senatorial family members, namely former consul Titus Quinctius Crispinus Sulpicianus, a Scipio, the aforementioned Sempronius Gracchus and one Appius Claudius were implicated in the scandal and banned or drawn to commit suicide.

The drawback of the theory is that Julius Antonius’ succession would have disadvantaged Julia’s own sons Gaius and Lucius Caesar, who had already been adopted by their grandfather Augustus (and were not dead yet at this time) and did have their own place in the pyramid of succession.

What about Julia’s alleged behaviour in the first place? Various ancient historians have criticized her sexual behaviour. For reasons of convenience. I will cite here the respective Wikipedia summary (which I very seldom do):

Odalisque by Jules Joseph Lefebvre
Odalisque by Jules Joseph Lefebvre

Marcus Velleius Paterculus describes her as “tainted by luxury or lust”, listing among her lovers Iullus Antonius, Quintius Crispinus, Appius Claudius, Sempronius Gracchus, and Cornelius Scipio. Seneca the Younger refers to “adulterers admitted in droves”; Pliny the Elder calls her an “exemplum licentiae”. Dio Cassius mentions “revels and drinking parties by night in the Forum and even upon the Rostra”. Seneca tells us that the Rostra was the place where “her father had proposed a law against adultery”, and yet now she had chosen the place for her “debaucheries”. Seneca specifically mentions prostitution: “laying aside the role of adulteress, she there [in the Forum] sold her favours, and sought the right to every indulgence with even an unknown paramour.” Modern historians discredit these representations as exaggerating Julia’s behaviour.

Copperplate by Caracci

Macrobius provides invaluable details of her witticisms and personality.  … On her character, he writes that Julia was extensively celebrated for her amiable, empathetic nature and studiousness despite her profligacy; “She was abusing her standing as fortune’s darling, and her father’s, though in other respects she gained a great deal of credit for her love of literature and extensive learning… and her kindness, fellow-feeling, and lack of cruelty.’

We ought to see the whole picture perhaps within the background of the incessant succession conflicts that were legendary during the Julio-Claudian dynasty. The early Empire was notably different from later forms of dynastic inheritance that the concept of primogeniture did not exist and adoption was a common and entirely legal and accepted alternative in succession issues. Neither existed a legally prescribed formula on how to bequeath the Imperial succession. Since neither Augustus, Caligula or Nero fathered a legitimate son, adoption became the common way for the respective Emperor to manage his succession in the desired route.

Hence, positive selection – usually adoption – and negative selection – murder by poison or execution for treason – competed in a certain balance of which every member of the court was only too accurately aware of. Because so few plain opportunities of genuine succession occurred – normal father-son or grandfather-grandson relations – it was almost expected of family members to contemplate the murder of the heirs apparent to advance the chances of their own offspring, lovers or favourites.

In addition, the return to the Republic was never legally excluded – and always remained a bane to the Imperial family – hence the successively rising power of the Magistri militum, who, by the fifth century, reigned in realitas through tame puppet-emperors.

Whether Julia played the succession game in earnest or simply became the victim of a gambit by her father, we do not know. The real reasons for Julia’s downfall hence remain a mystery – Augustus certainly was a straight-laced sourpuss yet a canny politician.

She was witty. Macrobius writes:

At a gladiatorial show, her stepmother Livia and Julia drew the attention of the people by the dissimilarity of their companions; Livia was surrounded by respectable men, Julia by men who were not only youthful but extravagant. Her father wrote that she ought to notice the difference between the two princesses, but Julia wrote back, “These men will be old when I am old“.

One day she came into his presence in a somewhat risque costume, and though he said nothing, he was offended. The next day she changed her style and embraced her father, who was delighted by the respectability which she was affecting. Augustus, who the day before had concealed his distress, was now unable to conceal his pleasure. “How much more suitable”, he remarked, “for a daughter of Augustus is this costume!” Julia did not fail to stand up for herself. “Today”, she said, “I dressed to be looked at by my father, yesterday to be looked at by my husband.” *

[* Macrobius, Saturnalia 2.5.1-10. ca. AD 400. Tr. H. Lloyd-Jones. L]

Well remembered is the explanation she gave why all her children resembled Agrippa – her then-husband – so much; despite her alleged promiscuity:

“I take on a passenger only when the ship’s hold is full.” [Macrobius, Saturnalia, Book II, 5:9.)  


(© John Vincent Palatine 2019)

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