History of the West

Central European History from Antiquity to the 20th Century

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The Fall of the West; Vandals, Goths and Huns

Raphael: Pope Leo bargaining with Attila

Theodosius I [AD 379 – 395] had been the last Roman Emperor to rule over both the western and eastern parts of the Empire. His sole daughter, Galla Placidia – a younger, paternal half-sister of emperors Arcadius and Honorius – we have met earlier as the wife of Athaulf, brother-in-law to Alaric, King of the Visigoths, and his eventual successor. When Honorius required the services of the magister militum Constantius III to put down a nasty revolt undertaken by co-emperor Constantine III, who had raised his standard in Britain AD 407, he gave him his widowed sister [ † Athaulf AD 415] as wife in the bargain, who proceeded to give birth to Valentinian III in AD 419, (Latin: Flavius Placidius Valentinianus Augustus; 2 July 419 – 16 March 455) who was Western Roman Emperor from 425 to 455 and one of the chief engineers of the Imperial collapse.

Mausoleum of Gallia Placidia in Ravenna

At that time, the “men” behind Emperor Valentinian III, who was six years of age in the year of his installation, AD 425, were his mother Placidia and the generals Aetius and Boniface. These two officers might have been able to protect the West had they cooperated; as they intrigued against each other, they largely failed, with one glorious exception, to keep the sinking ship afloat. As Edward Gibbon delineates, the designs of Aetius precipitated at length the losses of Spain and Africa:

The abilities of Aetius and Boniface might have been usefully employed against the public enemies, in separate and important commands. … But Aetius possessed an advantage of singular moment in a female reign; he was present; he besieged, with artful and assiduous flattery, the palace of Ravenna; disguised his dark designs with the mask of loyalty and friendship; and at length deceived both his mistress and his absent rival by a subtle conspiracy which a weak woman and a brave man could not easily suspect.
He had secretly persuaded Placidia to recall Boniface from the government of Africa; he secretly advised
Boniface to disobey the Imperial summons: to the one he represented the order as a sentence of death; to the other he stated the refusal as a sign of revolt; and when the credulous and unsuspectful count [Boniface, ¶] had armed the province [Spain] in his defence, Aetius applauded his sagacity in foreseeing the rebellion which his own perfidy had exited [AD 427].
A temperate inquiry into the real motives of Boniface would have restored a faithful servant to his duty and to the republic; but the arts of Aetius still continued to betray and to inflame, and the count was urged by persecution to embrace the most desperate counsels. The success with which he eluded or repelled the first attacks could not inspire a vain confidence that at the head of some loose, disorderly Africans he should be able to withstand the regular forces of the West, commanded by a rival whose military character was impossible for him to despise. After some hesitation, the
last struggles of prudence and loyalty, Boniface despatched a trusty friend to the court, or rather to the camp, of Gonderic, king of the Vandals, with the proposal of a strict alliance and the offer of an advantageous and perpetual settlement. (23)

the little drummer boy, p. 80

Boniface played a Spanish Gambit, so to say, based upon the momentary situation in Spain. The north-eastern parts of the land were controlled by the Visigoths; technically in the name of Honorius respectively Valentinian III, but as a matter of fact, control over the important parts lay in the hands of Athaulf’s successors. The north-western parts of the Iberian Chersonnese, however, known as Gallicia, had been the stage of a protracted tug-of-war between the two German tribes of the Suebi and the Vandals, who for an ancient feud were perpetual enemies.
The Vandals had only recently defeated a large band of Suebi when Boniface’s solicitation arrived. The missive invited them to turn their desires of settlement on the far richer provinces of Africa, which Boniface offered to share. There were, as he explained, no further Roman forces to be concerned with than the two legions routinely stationed in Numidia, which, however, were of low quality, and whose marginally better cohorts were in the process to be redeployed to Germania.

The Migrations of the Vandals

The offer seemed to promise the Vandals [FN1] a chance for permanent settlement, and a fortuitous occasion improved the chances of its acceptance: King Gonderic had had the decency to expire at the proper moment and had been succeeded by his half-brother Genseric [r.AD 428-477, ¶], who, with Alaric and Attila, was to become the third member of the barbarian troika which scourged the Empire in the fifth century AD. The native Celtiberians felt so elated by the Vandals’ intention to leave their soil that they assisted the Germans, who were not a seafaring nation, in the construction of the vessels necessary to get across the Pillars of Hercules, as Gibraltar and its opposite African promontory were called at that time.

[FN1] The bad reputation of the Vandals results from the entirety of their history having been written by their enemies. The Vandals were Arians, thus, in the eyes of the Catholic Church, heretics. But other Germanic tribes that were Arians, like the Goths, did not attempt to convert Catholics to Arianism, but the Vandals did. Chris Wickham observed: “Only the Vandals assumed that their version of Christianity should be the universal one, and that others should be uprooted, as the Romans themselves did: hence also the negative tone of contemporary accounts, which are all written by Catholics.” (25)

The size of the journeying multitude was augmented by the Alani, who had been faithful companions of the Vandals on the long trek from the eastern bank of the Danube to the Atlantic Ocean. Apparently onmipresent, a band of
Goths joined as well. Yet the number of travellers, which is usually given at about 50,000 warriors plus families and slaves, seems lower than it could reasonably be expected from the gathering of two complete tribes plus some Goths. Apparently, more than a few Vandals and Alans liked what they had found in Spain and detested further adventures.

The journey succeeded, and two lucky circumstances soon increased the number of Genseric’s followers in Africa. The indigenous and indigent inhabitants of Mauritania and Numidia had never been assigned a different role by the Romans than that of a feeder race for the slave markets, but when the Moors carefully approached the recent invaders, they could see at first glance that the new arrivées were different from their former oppressors. It took little diplomacy to convince the Moors that the enemy of their enemies was their friend, and “a crowd of naked savages rushed from the
woods and valleys of Mount Atlas to satiate their revenge on the polished tyrants who had injuriously expelled them from the native sovereignty of the land.” (24)
The second beneficial opportunity Genseric was able to exploit was the support of the Donatists, a Christian congregation that had settled in Africa Provincia just after AD 300. They found themselves objecting to the authority of the local metropolitan, Bishop Caecilian of Carthage, whom they labelled improperly consecrated, and after Emperor Constantine judged in favour of Caecilian, a schism occurred, for the Donatists did not give in. (26) Enmity ruled the next century until, after a formal debate in Carthage AD 411, the Catholic Church demanded their persecution, and seventeen years before the Vandals’ arrival, Emperor Honorius authorized the extinction of Donatism and supported the orthodox belief with the strongest of incentives. Edward Gibbon could barely hide his disgust:

The Vandal Kingdom at its greatest extent …

Three hundred bishops, with many thousands of the inferior clergy, were torn from their churches, stripped of their ecclesiastical possessions, banished to the islands, and proscribed by the laws if they presumed to conceal themselves in the provinces of Africa. Their numerous congregations, both in cities and in the country, were deprived of the rights of citizens and of the exercise of religious worship. …
By these severities, which obtained the warmest approbation of St. Augustine, great numbers of the
Donatists were reconciled to the Catholic Church, but the fanatics who still persevered in their opposition
were provoked to madness and despair; the distracted country was filled with tumult and bloodshed; the armed troops of “Circumcellions” alternately pointed their rage against themselves or against their adversaries; and the calendar of martyrs received on both sides a considerable augmentation.
Under these circumstances, Genseric, a Christian but an enemy of the Orthodox communion [being an Arian,
¶), showed himself to the Donatists as a powerful deliverer, from whom they might reasonably expect the repeal of the odious and oppressive edicts of the Roman emperors. The conquest of Africa was facilitated by the active zeal, or the secret favour, of a domestic faction; the wanton outrages against the churches and the clergy of which the Vandals are accused may be fairly imputed to the fanaticism of their allies; and the intolerable spirit which disgraced the triumph of Christianity contributed to the loss of the most important province of the West. (27)


The news of Genseric’s invasion and its success astonished the Emperor, the Senate, the bishop and the people of Rome. The opinion was pronounced by a number of Count Boniface’s supporters that it was hard to believe that a tried and trusted servant of the realm had indeed handled the pearl of the Empire to the uncouth chieftain of a barbarian mob and left the province he was supposed to protect to the doubtful benefactions of vengeful heretics or the savage tribes of the desert. An embassy was dispatched to Carthage post-haste, to investigate and report.

In Ravenna, meanwhile, the correspondence between Boniface, Aetius and Placidia was inspected, compared, and Aetius’ deception easily discovered: but the hastily enacted new resolutions turned out to change too little, and too late, to prevent the loss or to enable the recapture of the key province. Boniface was hastily reinstated to the graces of the court and the command of the African legions: he was able to hold, for a while, the important cities of Carthage, Cirta and Hippo Regius, but the vast domain of Africa and her fertile pastures were lost. Worse, perhaps, it also made the Vandals perpetual enemies of the Empire, as it happened with the Visigoths twenty years later, and Chris Wickham points out that “the conquest of the grain heartland of Africa by the Vandals in 439, which the Romans mistakenly did not anticipate and resist, seems to be the turning point, the moment after which these potential [Germanic] supports might turn into dangers.” (28)

But for the moment, Boniface, who had returned from Hippo Regius to Ravenna, faced civil war when Aetius led a force of German mercenaries from Gaul into the field in Gallia Cisalpina in an effort to overthrow him. Aetius lost the ensuing battle which, however, claimed Boniface’s life and left the Empire vulnerable. But in the following years, it was Aetius who showed the military knack that perhaps saved Italy from both Huns and Goths, by playing them against each other.
In AD 451, the principal Hunnish invasion of Gaul by the united tribes under Attila commenced. It would appear that Attila had received an embassy from Genseric just earlier, which described the mutual benefits that could be achieved by a strategic coordination against the Empire: if, say, the Huns were to invade the north-east while the Vandals attacked Sicily, and then Italy proper, the Empire, its protector Boniface dead, would be caught in a vise. [FN2] Attila may have pondered a similar scenario and his cavalry was in place at the eastern border at the right time: within days of the signal to attack the East was overwhelmed by his rapacious hordes and Theodosius II, successor of Arcadius and last of his line, had to accept a harsh peace treaty which made him, the Augustus of the East, a subaltern of the King of the Huns, and the debtor of an annual payment of twelve thousand pieces of gold.

[FN2] Chris Wickham explains the military and geostrategic factors that much differentiated the fate of the two parts of the Empire as follows: “It probably did derive in part from the greater exposure of heartland areas in the West, Italy and especially central and southern Gaul, to frontier invasion; attacks on the Balkans in the East rarely got past Constantinople into the rest of the empire, but attacks on the western military regions, northern Gaul and the Danube provinces, could get further much more easily. Accepting invading groups into the western empire and settling them as federates was a perfectly sensible response to this, as long as those federate areas did not become so unruly that Roman armies had to be held back to fight them, or so large that they threatened the tax base of the empire, and thus the resources for the regular armies themselves. Unfortunately for the West, however, this did happen.” (29)

Hunnish possessions around AD 450

He was not more of a military man than his uncles Honorius and Arcadius had been, and for all practical purposes, the state of the realm was only improved when his horse, on the Lycus River, threw off its rider who broke his spine and promptly expired. His sister Pulcheria was proclaimed Empress of the East by the courtiers, officers and plebs, and, aware of the sensible position a female reign might be exposed to in the time of war, she married, only a few days later, the senator Mercian, who, at the festive occasion, was invested with the Imperial title, purple and regalia.
The former senator was of solemn nature and an experienced administrator but unused and hostile to the arts of flattery and duplicity which are second nature to courtiers in the palaces of the East, then and now. He dared to send a
reply more independent than servile in nature to the envoys of the King of the Huns, who arrived in Constantinople to demand the delivery of the annual tribute [AD 450]. Yet as much as Attila was enraged by the rebuke, his recent designs had centred on the West, on Gaul and Italy, and the attention of civilization soon centred on Aetius, who seemed to vacillate between being the hope or the dread of the Empire.

After Boniface’s death, Aetius had undertaken a trip to Attila, to borrow a horde of Hunnish cavalry for aiding him to return to Rome with impunity, and “he solicited his pardon at the head of sixty thousand barbarians.” (30) Aetius was also promoted to generalissimo of the Western Empire: it speaks for his caution that he allowed Valentinian to wear the purple and his mother Placidia to sign the documents he supplied. But at AD 450, the balance of powers in the west had changed to the detriment of the Romans: most of Spain now belonged to the Suebi, the rest to the Visigoths, who also filled the south of Gaul. The northern and central parts of the region were held by the Franks, and Africa, alas, had been lost to the Vandals.
Notwithstanding his volatile loyalties, Aetius was well aware that a Hunnish conquest of Gaul and Italy would result in the collapse of the West: the Huns, being nomads, did not know any forms of positive laws or continuous government but the license of their chieftains, whose tyranny, caprice and ignorance could not support the complicated economical interdependencies of the Mediterranean nations nor sustain the regularities of commerce. That a decision, at length, had to be sought with military means became a foregone conclusion for both Huns and Romans, and both sides began to court Gothic mercenaries.

Attila was able to exploit yet another occasion of internal strife among the dukes of the Franks as a pretext for the invasion of Gaul he launched in AD 451, where he was met in the field by his former ally Aetius. The new commander-general of the West had collected a conglomerate of regular legions, mercenaries, and Gaul and German volunteers who had settled in Gallia and were esteemed to fight for their possessions with zeal perhaps superior to that of a common mercenary. In addition to this motivational advantage, Aetius was intimately familiar with Hunnish cavalry tactics and hence able to prepare his troops on what to expect. The typical moments of surprise and confusion, which accompanied Hunnish attacks and often resulted in their breaking the enemy’s lines, failed to materialize at the Battle of Chalons [AD 451]. Aetius’ troops were able to maintain their cohesion and inflicted on the Huns the first defeat they suffered in generations.
The loss at Chalons confused but did not diminish the Huns’ lust for conquest, or, rather, pillage and plunder, for notwithstanding their many military victories, the thought of becoming a settled people never entered their heads. In the spring of the following year, a substantial Hunnish army was discovered marching into lower Italy, but the Gauls and Germans who had defended their possessions in Gallia Provincia had no interest to spill their blood in the preservation of their titular Roman overlords, and no aid against Attila issued from Gaul.

Invasion of the Barbarians or The Huns approaching Rome

The Huns’ eventual appearance in the Po valley, hardly threescore leagues from Ravenna [AD 452], finally alerted the Imperial person. Valentinian’s life would have been safe in the fortress, but his timidity found expression in an urgent embassy to Rome, where he hoped to confiscate sufficiently luxurious and expensive items as might be suitable to deflect Attila’s attention from the conquest of the Italian heartland. In the old capital, he collected not only such valuable things as the owners would freely contribute to the Imperial cause, but resorted to expropriation as well, in the alleviation of his own generosity.
The senator Avienus was chosen, with his colleague Trigetus and Leo, bishop of Rome, to undertake an expedition to the King of the Huns, who reposed at the famous Lago di Garda, the Garda Lake in the Southern Alps, only a few miles west of Verona, the town made immortal by Dietrich von Bern and Romeo and Julia. The deputation was not only carrying goods of secular value: with a huge dowry, a painting of the princess Honoria was delivered, whose hand was promised to the King of the Huns for his moderation. While those financial and amorous offerings may have belonged to diplomacy as usual, it was the keen mind of Leo who had thought of a different approach.

Huns plundering a Roman Villa

The respect that the Huns extended to matters of superstition and divination was well known in the Empire, and Leo recognized their potential usefulness: he guided the attention of the king and his nobles to the recognition of the horrible fates that destiny had imposed on the enemies of the eternal city.
Romulus’s bane lay over the town, the priest explained: no conqueror would live to reign over her but for a year. King Brennus, Leo pointed out, after seizing Rome in 387 BC, had died soon later [nobody had an idea when], and had not Alaric himself, the great king of the Visigoths, failed to survive the end of the year that saw his entry into Rome? Hannibal, Leo further elucidated, the greatest general Rome ever faced, had never even tried to actually take the city, well aware of the curse. Even Gaius Marius had not survived his own conquest of the city in the civil war more than a few weeks; if history punished Rome’s own sons so harshly, what could a stranger expect?

The priest’s arguments were well-chosen, but there was an additional factor which mitigated the Huns’ resolves to destroy the Empire; the fact that the barbarians had begun to cherish the temptations of civilization. The rough sons of the steppe, whose diet had been, for centuries, raw flesh and, perhaps, some fermented goat’s milk, were introduced to the Imperial Roman cuisine; to the taste of condiments and spices; the tender meat of suckling pigs and calves; the multitudes of vegetables and the sweet sensation of honey: they could not resist.
Their tents did not favourably compare to Roman buildings, whose heated floors and concrete foundations were able to withstand the winter’s frost or the whims of floods. But it was wine in particular that tended to undermine their earlier resolves and replaced thoughts of the ravages of war with the contemplation of a sunset drink with friends on the terrace of a villa, perhaps in the company of a few light-skirted nymphs.
Attila eventually granted peace but reminded the Roman delegation that the delivery of the annual financial contribution and the royal bride Honoria was to occur the very same year, to prevent his army’s return to Italy in a more adversarial mood. Thus spoken, the king retired to his eastern possessions and prepared for the royal encounter with Honoria.

Attila at his wooden palace in Pannonnia

Yet, in the meanwhile, Attila relieved his tender anxiety by adding a beautiful maid, whose name was Ildico, to the list of his innumerable wives. Their marriage was celebrated with Barbaric pomp and festivity at his wooden palace beyond the Danube; and the monarch, oppressed with wine and sleep, retired at a late hour from the banquet to the nuptial bed. His attendants continued to respect his pleasures, or his repose, the greatest part of the ensuing day, till the unusual silence alarmed their fears and suspicions; and after attempting to awaken Attila by loud and repeated cries, they at length broke into the royal apartment.

They found the trembling bride sitting by the bedside, hiding her face with her veil and lamenting her own danger as well as the death of the king, who had expired during the night [AD 453]. An artery had suddenly burst; and as Attila lay in a supine posture, he was suffocated by a torrent of blood which, instead of finding a passage through the nostrils, regurgitated into the lungs and stomach. (31)


The simple social order of the Huns ensured that Attila’s realm fell apart the very minute that the news of the king’s death reached the various hordes. The aspirations of a dozen subaltern leaders and the hopes of numerous bastard sons converged in one great conflagration, which removed the traces of the realm of the Huns from the continent, and history in general, in a matter of days. The tribes returned to their homelands in the Asian steppe, and neighbouring tribes found the fields north and east of the Danube empty. The Avares were the first people to inundate the former Hunnish plains and mountains, whence they soon came into contact with the Empire.
The disappearance of the Huns, however, also undermined Aetius’ design to provoke enmity between them and the Goths in Gaul, by which he hoped to have the menaces destroy each other. But now little military power remained available to him in the case of a Gothic invasion, and if the situation had not been bad enough to start with, the emperor himself partook in the acceleration of the realm’s demise by the murder of his general. “From the instinct of a base and jealous mind, he [Valentinian] hated the man who was universally celebrated as the terror of the Barbarians and the support of the republic.” (32)

Constant insinuations of eunuchs and courtiers urged the emperor to be aware of the danger a virtuous man might pose to the throne. The general’s presence was requested for some court business in Ravenna, and in perhaps the sole action history can reliably ascribe to the emperor’s person, the monarch drew his sword and buried it in Aetius’ breast; the breast that had, whatever the general’s moral shortcomings, at various occasions preserved the Empire and the West. The elite of the court assisted the emperor with their own daggers, and as soon as the general had expired, counselled the monarch that the victim’s friends must share his fate, for the good of the realm and to deter revenge. The cabal attracted Aetius’ friends, foremost Boethius, the praetorian prefect, to visit the Imperial Palace on the fabrication of some urgent business, where they were murdered wholesale [AD 454].

The court issued an edict that a conspiracy against the Empire and the monarch had been unveiled and, luckily, averted. Not a single of the emperor’s subjects, who were well aware of Aetius’ mistakes but also his merits, believed the gospel, and what had been public contempt for the feeble emperor was replaced, in Edward Gibbon’s phrase, by “universal abhorrence“. (33)

Consequently, the people were not surprised when Valentinian, after adding to the number and quality of his misdeeds a variety of illicit erotic affairs, which peaked at his rape of the wife of senator Maximus, was assassinated by two officers on the occasion of a military parade on the Field of Mars, outside the city [March 16, AD 455]. Valentinian had barely expired when Maximus, having observed his revenge fulfilled, was hailed as the new emperor by the express consent and salutations of the attending officers and domestics.
The murders of Aetius and Valentinian mark the beginning of the final disintegration of the Western Empire. What might have transpired had Maximus managed to exert any effective governance over his titular possessions no one can say: the sudden appearance of a Vandal war fleet under Geiseric’s command at the port of Ostia, only a dozen miles from
Rome swiftly concluded the reign of Maximus: when he appeared in public, flight on his mind, a furious multitude stoned him to death.

Three days after the emperor’s demise, Genseric led his troops upon the former capital of the known world, and the patience, wisdom and diplomacy of Bishop Leo became the instruments of a second negotiation. At length, Genseric promised to direct certain limitations upon the enthusiasm and the liberties of his army, but the rapacious reality of the second sack of the town within forty-five years broke the city’s vitality, and the catastrophe inflicted upon the eternal city a millennium of political insignificance and economic pauperism.

Genseric – The Sack of Rome

It took over 1,200 years until the mayor of Rome could again tally the same number of inhabitants as had dwelled there in the early fifth century AD. The Vandals’ vessels not only transported away everything of material value, copper and bronze being pilfered just as silver and gold: the empress Eudonia and her two daughters were compelled to share the ride, accompanied by thousands of Romans that were designated to the slave markets of Africa.


The decline of the geostrategic importance of Italy had long since become obvious by the labours of the generals and legions from Gaul, for this was where the action was: the Franks and Alemanni that had crossed the Rhine a century earlier had by now advanced deeply into Gaul, until they encountered the dominions of the Visigoths, who, for the moment, blocked further expansion south- and westward. The south-eastern corner of Gaul was settled by Burgundians, who had been placed there by Aetius himself, but it was the Franks and the Goths that played the main roles in the wake of Maximus’ death. Before his ignominious demise, the emperor had promoted a local Gallic nobleman named Avitus to the post of master-general of Gaul. The promotee considered himself, unlike his military colleagues, an educated man; the embassy sent by the emperor reached him while he was reposing in a precious villa near Clermont. Accepting the lofty rank, Avitus assumed the command of the local troops, which consisted mainly of Visigoths, with a sprinkle of other Germans thrown in. In deference to the factual holder of power, Avitus embarked on a journey to Theodoric II, the king of the Visigoths [r.AD 453-466]. He had barely reached his host when the sudden news of Genseric’s assault on Rome and Maximus’ death was delivered.

Whatever his original designs may have been, on the occasion of the unexpected message Theodoric convinced him to “claim the imperial office” [AD 455]. (34) The new emperor soon appeared in Rome, where, for the sincerity of his motives, he accepted the consulship; yet in a time when the office of the Augustus meant predominantly “toil and danger, [Avitus] indulged himself in the pleasantries of Italian luxury: age had not extinguished his amorous inclinations; and he is accused of insulting, with indiscreet and ungenerous raillery, the husbands whose wives he had seduced or violated.” (35)
The new emperor’s principal armoured support, the Visigoths, was temporarily unable to stabilize Avitus’ tenuous regency, because of their urgent business of fighting the Suebi, the former adversaries of the Vandals, for the dominion of northern Spain. When Count Ricimer, one of the captains of Rome’s few remaining battle-worthy legions, succeeded in annihilating a Vandal war fleet of sixty ships that had felt too secure in its harbour, he was applauded as the deliverer of the nation; and was able to convince Avitus to abdicate after a reign of fourteen months and many seductions of cooks and chambermaids.

After an interregnum of half a year, Ricimer installed his own favourite, Majorian, in the highest office of the West, who arrived in the capital with the news of a great victory he had inflicted upon the Alemanni and was subsequently installed as Augustus in Ravenna [AD 457]. The Alemanni had never heard of him. But it appeared that Majorian showed too much independence for Ricimer’s taste, and thus the magister militum had the emperor quickly assassinated and then ruled “until his death in 472, through a succession of mostly puppet emperors ….” (36) The successor of Majorian was one Livius Severus, of whom history has recorded no worthwhile activities; Ricimer managed the government: declining the purple and the diadem, he organized the treasury, trained the military and performed diplomacy.
Now Genseric reappeared on the radar. The Vandals had been busy rebuilding the fleet they had lost to Ricimer, and southern Italy quickly suffered the renewed and repeated visitations of his hordes. Of an advanced age, the king still commanded the raids. His rapines he explained with the failure of the Imperial court to respectfully entrust him with those parts of the realm that he was entitled to by the rights of inheritance and possession. This right the king claimed on behalf of the recent marriage of his elder son Hunneric to Eudocia, the dowager empress Eudonia’s daughter. The proud father-in-law accordingly considered himself qualified to pre-inherit a substantial portion of the Empire, for his family now represented the last bough of Theodosius’s family tree.

Before long, the Eastern Emperor Leo condescended to bestow an annual financial donation upon the Vandal’s treasury, to ensure the inviolability of his shores. As a consequence of Leo’s liberality, Genseric and his men concentrated their efforts upon the Italian coastline. Confronted with the easy manoeuvrability the enemy enjoyed by its ships, Ricimer, having none,
was at a loss how to counter the raids, and saw no other remedy than to apply to Constantinople in a quest for naval assistance. He addressed the Eastern Augustus Leo with the request to install a person of the emperor’s choice upon the throne of the West, which, luckily, was vacant, for Libius Severus had had the decency to expire at the most appropriate moment. The successful candidate should then be supported with men and ships and sent against the Vandals. Leo selected Anthemius, a court favourite, to fill the vacancy, and announced in a message to the world that after the destruction of the Vandal plague and the recovery of Africa Provincia, he and Anthemius were to govern the realm in philadelphial dedication. An earnest attempt was made to raise and train a new army, and, more important, a new navy: the treasury was considerably depleted and two corps of troops, on two separate fleets, were dispatched to invade Africa in a two-pronged invasion, in the hope to catch the enemy between the pincers and thus end the barbarian affront and Genseric’s hubris [AD 468].

Alas, the operation “was not only a failure but an extremely expensive one.” (37) A good part of the Roman fleet was attacked while still on the open sea, before they could unload their precious cargo, the legions, on the beaches: with the sinking ships much of the infantry found a watery grave. The rest of the force was blown by the winds all over the Syrte and lost contact. The Vandals had no big problem to eliminate the survivors piecemeal wherever they made landfall. The sorry outcome of the campaign resulted in a fall-out between Anthemius and Ricimer; the latter left Africa, gave up Rome and Ravenna, and re-established himself in Milan. He had devised a plan to invest another puppet on the Imperial throne, that is, as soon as Anthemius was gone, and to this end, collected an army of chiefly Burgundian and Suebian mercenaries, which he subsequently led upon Rome. He camped on the Field of Mars outside the town and waited for the arrival of his new Imperial candidate, a fellow named Olybrius.
Nobody had ever accused Olybrius of valour or other virtues, but what he did possess, and represent, in a way, was a most impressive pedigree: he had married Placidia, the younger daughter of Eudonia, the dowager empress still
detained in Africa, and thus was able to present, as his qualification for the office of Augustus of the West, an “illustrious name and a royal alliance.” (38) With the exception of a year’s service as (honorary) consul, the candidate did not profess to possess any education or experience in the business of administering an empire, but, with Leo’s consent, accepted the honours and set out to Italy to enjoy his new possessions.

A protracted siege followed Olybrius’ arrival near the eternal town, which was defended by a troop of Gothic mercenaries in Anthemius’ employment. In due time an assault on the Castle and Bridge of Hadrian found a weak spot in
the defence, whose exploitation resulted in the subsequent slaughter of the defenders, including their leader Gilimer [July 11, AD 472]. The town was sacked again; Anthemius summarily executed and whatever the Vandals might have overlooked seventeen years ago was now picked up by Ricimer’s acquisitive mercenaries.
Before long, however, the mysterious curse of Romulus struck again: the year AD 472, which had observed the town’s third sack in sixty-two years also beheld the demise of the main creators of the present calamity: Ricimer died only forty days after his success, and his Imperial marionette Olybrius followed him in October of the same year. Any semblance of order in Italy disintegrated.

In Constantinople, Leo needed to find a successor to the husband of Placidia, and after a few extended name-dropping sessions, it was remembered, fortunately, that the empress Verina had recently given the hand of one of her nieces to one Julius Nepos, who was, at the moment, the administrator of Dalmatia. This man, the court divined, might be persuaded to accept the glorious promotion.

The wheels of the court, alas, moved so ponderously that before a proper embassy, with a military guard, could be sent to Dalmatia, the Burgundian prince Gundobald – who had inherited the command of Ricimer’s mercenaries in Rome – had already elevated a minor official named Glycerius to the Imperial dignity. Advised of the error, Gundobald corrected his prematurity swiftly and Glycerius found himself demoted to the bishopric of Salona, on the Dalmatian coast. Italy saluted Julius Nepos.

Nepos was quite unaware of the condition of his empire, and, as Edward Gibbon observed, “the treaty of peace which ceded Auvergne to the Visigoths is the only event of his short and inglorious reign.” (39) It did not take very long
until the new emperor was confronted by a mutiny of the legions of Gaul under a general Orestes, and thought it safest to return to Dalmatia, where, five years later, he was “assassinated at Salona by the ungrateful Glycerius, who was translated, perhaps as the reward of his crime, to the archbishopric of Milan.” (40) It was a post apparently suited to Glycerius’ modest talents.
The new strong man was aforementioned Orestes, who had been born in Pannonia and learned the trade of a soldier in the service of Attila. His faculties had propelled him to the lofty position of secretary to the great king, and Attila had not only sought his military opinions but also entrusted him with diplomatic missions to Constantinople and Ravenna. His oath of fealty had expired with his master’s death, and he translated himself to the Imperial service in Italy. He advanced rapidly through the ranks until, at the occasion of Julius Nepos’s investiture, he was promoted to master-general of the
Western Empire, that is, of whatever was left of it.

Orestes was a bona fide hero, a soldiers’ soldier, in contrast to the Imperial domestics and retainers, who were acquainted with the use of daggers solely from banquets. It is reported that he was able to confer, or at least to make himself understood, with the Goths, Suebis and Burgundians who constituted the main part of his troops, but also with those tribes that had only recently presented themselves at the Imperial frontiers: the Heruli, Seyri, Alani, Rugi and Turcilinghi.
After Nepos’s retreat to Dalmatia, Orestes found himself essentially the only figure left in the game and wondered why he not might as well govern himself. Yet in remembrance of his predecessor Ricimer’s modus operandi, he chose to remain the power behind the throne and presented to the gathering of his subalterns as his choice of emperor his son Romulus, who was called “Augustulus” [diminutive of Augustus, i.e. “little Augustus”, ¶]. The young man was installed on the throne of the Occident and supplied with a number of concubines and a monthly allowance to occupy his time, while his father conducted the business of the Empire of the West.

Romulus Augustulus and Odoacer

Orestes had barely reigned a year when he faced another sedition of the legions. It seems that the Italian units demanded benefits equal to those which their colleagues in Gaul and Spain enjoyed, that is, the provision of land at the conclusion of their service. They felt defrauded of this reasonable reward and petitioned Orestes with the proposition to immediately reserve, and swiftly allocate, one-third of Italy’s fertile soil to the use of his supporters.
Sometimes a man is allowed but a single mistake, and so it came to pass in the case of Orestes. His refusal of the modest suggestion immediately effected the ascension of a new favourite of the legions, who promised that should the
men unite under his banner, the delivery of their desires was to occur immediately.

Odovacar, or Od0acer. which was the officer’s name, had been a military tribune and perceived clearly that the demands of the mob could not be gainsaid without provoking an instant mutiny. What he privately thought of the land deal is not known, but the word of his affirmative message spread like the wind and from all duty stations prospective heroes flocked to his standard. The expanse and speed of the insurrection surprised Orestes outside of Ravenna and forced him to retreat to the closest fortified town, Pavia, which was, unfortunately, neither equipped for war nor for a siege. The town was besieged at once and duly taken; Orestes executed for treason, and Romulus arrested [AD 476]. But then Odovacar deviated from the examples of Aetius and Ricimer, as Chris Wickham relates:

Odovacar, the next effective military supremo in Italy (476-93), did not bother to appoint any emperor of the West, but instead got the Roman senate to petition the eastern emperor Zeno that only one emperor was by now needed; Odovacar then governed Italy in Zeno’s name, as “patricius”, i.e. patrician, a title used by both Aetius and Ricimer, although inside Italy Odovacar called himself “rex“, king. (41)


After some hesitation, Zeno granted the supplication and Odovacar, now invested with legal authority, could afford to show leniency toward Romulus. Edward Gibbon applauds:

The life of this inoffensive youth was spared by the generous clemency of Odoacer; who dismissed him, with his whole family, from the Imperial palace, fixed his annual allowance at six thousand pieces of gold, and assigned the castle of Lucullus, in Campania, for the place of his exile or retirement. (42)

Odoacer’s Domain, AD 480

It is this 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)


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 Theoderic’s Ostrogoths reign in Italy.

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The Sack of Rome: Alaric

Alaric entering Athens

Emperor Theodosius [AD 379 – 395] had been able to keep the lid on the boiling kettle of barbarians for a decade; to a large extent by his personality, his knowledge of battle, moderation in judgement and practical hand in the administration of the state. These were qualities that impressed the Goths much more than being literate or educated in Christian hypocrisy, and as long as Theodosius lived the Goths refrained from major transgressions. It should, however, not have come as too big a surprise that, after Theodosius’s sudden demise in January 395, it took the Visigoths less than three months to take up arms and reclaim their independence. The pretext was some complaint about annual subsidies that had arrived too late or not at all, and the Goths stormed into the renewed campaign led by their duke Alaric.

Alaric [ca. AD 370-410, ¶] had served in the legions and risen to command, but had, uncommonly for an officer, sought education in politics and statecraft as well. He was aware that his people had exploited the meagre lands of Thrace for all it was worth, but that the remaining morsel in the vicinity – Constantinople – was too cumbersome to be swallowed, due to its fortifications. He resolved to seek fame and riches in southern Greece, which, as Edward Gibbon remarked, had hitherto escaped the ravages of war. (13)

The Sack of Rome, French Miniature, 14th Century

The nation consequently packed its belongings and set foot upon a trek that was to last more than a hundred years. The first victims of their plunderlust were the famous towns of Mycenae, Corinth, Thebes and Argos, whence Ajax and Agamemnon, Menelaus and Achilles had sailed for Troy. The West sent philadelphial support, if too late to save the towns: in AD 397 the master-general of the West, Stilicho, arrived with the greater part of the western legions. Of Vandal origin, he was, perhaps, a military match for Alaric, but not, as it turned out, in his league as a diplomat. But when he arrived in Arcadia, the mythical home of Pan, he was able to force the Goths to retreat into a fortified camp, which he promptly besieged.
Sieges are vexatious affairs, and after a few weeks, Stilicho left for some well-deserved rest and recreation. He had barely spent a month on the beach when he was informed of the fact that the war was over – Alaric had succeeded in concluding a treaty with Arcadius, son of Theodosius and new emperor of the East. The contract not only reinstated the most amicably relations between Goths and Romans but also promoted Alaric to the rank of master-general for the Illyrian provinces. Thus, the memorable and profane event occurred in a few Greek cities that the barbarian chieftain who had only weeks earlier besieged them was greeted as the new and legitimate general of the commonwealth, and among his new subjects were “the fathers whose sons he had massacred [and] the husbands whose wives he had violated.” (14) He already had a plan to secure the armed superiority of his people. Edward Gibbon relates what followed:

The use to which Alaric applied his new command distinguishes the firm and judicious character of his policy.
He issued his orders to the four magazines and manufacturers of offensive and defensive arms, Margus,
Rataria, Naissus, and Thessalonica, to provide his troops with an extraordinary supply of shields, helmets,
swords and spears; the unhappy provincials were compelled to forge the instruments of their own
destruction; and the Barbarians removed the only defect which had sometimes disappointed the efforts of
their courage.

The birth of Alaric, the glory of his past exploits, and the confidence in his future designs insensibly united the
body of the nation under his victorious standard; and with the unanimous consent of the Barbarian chieftains,
the master-general of Illyricum was elevated, according to ancient custom, on a shield and solemnly
proclaimed king of the Visigoths. Armed with this double power, seated on the verge of two empires, he
alternately sold his deceitful promises to the courts of Arcadius and Honorius; till he declared and executed
his resolution of invading the dominions of the West. (15)

In the first years of Alaric’s western campaign [AD 401-402, ¶], the geographical distance of his arms caused no immediate alarm at the court of Honorius, brother of Arcadius. But when the Goths finally arrived in Italy, the Emperor absented himself to the safety of Gallia, on the yonder side of the Alps. Stilicho, who had returned to his ordinary station in the West, collected the available intelligence and calculated numbers. He decided that he needed the support of the legions deployed on the border to Germany as reinforcement and also recalled the two African legions. The dubious value of some of these troops reflects even stronger on the quality of Stilicho’s generalship when he, with the assorted leftovers of the formerly proud Roman legions, obtained the better end of Alaric at the Battle of Polentia in March 403. The initial success enabled Stilicho to follow Alaric’s subsequent retreat and to defeat him twice again: in Verona and in the mountains of Illyria whither the Goths had withdrawn.
The Gothic danger apparently averted, Emperor Honorius declared to celebrate his victory over the barbarians and the delivery of the realm with a triumph unprecedented in the history of the capital. It was to last for several months: for the last time, cruel games were presented in the Flavian Amphitheatre, known as Coliseum, and the populace fed on free grain from Africa.

The Sack of Rome, by J.N, Sylvestre

That the Emperor’s dear life should not be threatened again in the future, the administrative capital of the West was moved a second time in AD 402, from Trier to Ravenna, an ancient Roman colony south of the estuary of the Po. The town was formidably fortified, and a secure port facility established at a distance of three miles from the citadel. The stronghold was surrounded by morass and swamps at all sides which prevented the employment of heavy siege engines and rendered military conquest of the fortress nigh impossible. The person of the Emperor was now reliably protected.
The defence of the western provinces, however, became a perpetually bleeding wound upon the Imperial resources, for continuous migration pushed German tribes without end over the frontiers. An especially large troop of Goths, with an admixture of Burgundians, Suevians, Alans and Vandals, under the leadership of one Radagaisus [also known as Rhodogast, ¶] crossed the Alps and appeared in the Po valley in AD 405. The throng consisted of perhaps half a million warriors, families and slaves.

It was too big to be handled by the Italian legions alone, and Stilicho had to recall troops from the German frontier a second time, [FN1] which was to have negative consequences later. This time, Stilicho borrowed a page from Julius Caesar’s famous siege of Alesia, the strategy of circumvallation. Like Fabius Maximus, Stilicho closed in on the Germanic throng cautiously, shadowing, but avoiding battle. Once Radagaisus’ undisciplined mass of freebooters and adventurers had to settle down near Florence, tired from the quest, the legions began to construct ramparts, surrounding the enemy camp with a double wall: an inner wall to keep the adversary immobile and inflicting, sooner or later, the horrors of famine and thirst upon them, and a second, outer ring that frustrated any hope of relief from the outside. The method had worked for Caesar and it did not fail against the multitude of Radagaisus’ barbarians. Famine at length reduced them to ignominious surrender: their capitulation was solemnly accepted but their dignity was violated: Radagaisus was ignobly beheaded and those of his community who had survived hunger sold into slavery. Their health was so poor that each head fetched no more than a single gold piece; yet the numbers made it up for Stilicho, who was praised as the deliverer of the Fatherland [AD 406].

[FN1] Chris Wickham reflects: “This was probably a mistake, for it was followed by an invasion of central European tribes led by the Vandals, over the Rhine on New Year’s Eve 406, an eruption into western Gaul and then (in 409) into Spain which was almost unresisted; and also in 407 another invasion of Gaul, this time by a usurper, Constantine III (406-11), at the head of the army of Roman Britain.” (16)

But before the news of Stilicho’s success arrived at Ravenna, Emperor Honorius had already contacted Alaric with a financially attractive proposition to aid the Empire against Radagaisus’ hordes. By Stilicho’s miraculous removal of the menace, however, the basis of Honorius’s proposal had suddenly evaporated, and Stilicho’s and Alaric’s armies eyed each other nervously in Lower Italy: Honorius had discovered that jinni is easier summoned than disposed of.
A sort of three-man chess game developed around AD 407: two armies and their respective generals were vying for the legitimacy that could be conferred on only one of them. Honorius, safely hiding in the fortress of Ravenna, bewailed his fate, but avoided a decision as to whom of the two formidable generals to support, while maintaining, by evenly distributing his pecuniary assistances, his interest in coming out, whichever the end might be, on the side of the winner. At length, Stilicho was ordered to deliver to the king of the Goths a subsidy in the amount of four thousand pounds of gold, with Honorius’s best regards, perhaps, for the Gothic king’s moderation in squeezing out Italy. But in Stilicho’s absence Ravenna’s court politics entered into a cascade of envy and suspicion of the successful general. Honorius, twenty-five years of age and ignorant of the virtues of a statesman or general, was impressed by the flatteries and suspicions conveyed by his two principal ministers Olympius and Heraclian, and at length convinced of Stilicho’s guilt. The Imperial ire awoke and a warrant for the present and immediate execution of the hero was issued, which Heraclian personally effected, on August 23, AD 408. The last great Roman general fell victim to the whims of a knave on the throne of the

Four months after the deed, Honorius presented his subjects with a proclamation that explained the imminent dangers to the Empire that were luckily averted by the timely execution of the traitor: Stilicho, the document divulged, had planned to sell Italy to the Goths [whom he had defeated three times, at Pollentia, Verona and Florence, ¶], or, perhaps, to the Ostrogoths [who had not moved an inch from their Pannonian pastures, ¶], or to some other folks. In addition, he had schemed to invest his son Eucherius with the royal regalia. As soon as the conspiracy had conferred the Imperial purple on his juvenile shoulders, the obedient son had intended to restore idolatry and paganism to the Empire and effect a renewed prosecution of Christianity as a whole and the Catholic Church in particular. By his interception of the unholy design and the fiend’s timely demise, Honorius had not only saved the lives and properties of his subjects but their eternal souls as well.

It is not known what his subjects thought of the story, but the military aspects were soon obvious enough, for the murder of Stilicho had cleared the last obstacle in Alaric’s way. Following Stilicho’s execution, it seems that Honorius instigated a conspiracy to slaughter the families of the barbarian legionaries and to kill any Gothic hostages remaining from earlier occasions, that is, chiefly children of the Gothic nobility. How exactly the intended massacre should have endeared the Goths to the Imperial cause was unclear. The homicidal mob, however, that took upon the encouragement of their monarch appeared surprised when the about 30,000 legionaries of Germanic origin immediately transferred their allegiance to Alaric and the Goths. The Goths’ renewed offensive passed the Alps, marched with little difficulty through Gallia Cisalpina, crossed the Po and descended, upon the Via Salaria, the ancient road traversing the Apennines, in the direction of Rome. The town had not been threatened by foreign military forces since Hannibal, 690 years ago, and it would seem that diplomacy could have halted the Gothic king in his progression, but “the Romans would not consistently make peace with him, even though he blockaded Rome three times.” (17) By the fourth time, the patience of the king had worn out, and the Goths laid siege upon the former capital of the Empire.

By a skilful disposition of his numerous forces, who impatiently watched the moment of the assault, Alaric
encompassed the walls, commanded the twelve principal gates, intercepted all communication with the
adjacent country, and vigilantly guarded the navigation of the Tiber, from which the Romans derived the surest and most plentiful supply of provisions [AD 408]. The first emotions of the nobles and of the people were those of surprise and indignation that a vile Barbarian should dare to insult the capital of the world: but their arrogance was soon humbled by misfortune; and their unmanly rage, instead of being directed against an enemy in arms, was meanly exercised on a defenceless and innocent victim.

Perhaps in the person of Serena, the Romans might have respected the niece of Theodosius, the aunt, nay, even the adoptive mother, of the reigning emperor: but they abhorred the widow of Stilicho; and they listened with credulous passion to the tale of calumny which accused her of maintaining a secret and criminal correspondence with the Gothic invader. Actuated or overawed by the same popular frenzy, the senate, without requiring any evidence of her guilt, pronounced the sentence of her death. Serena was ignominiously strangled; and the infatuated multitudes were astonished to find that this cruel act of injustice did not immediately procure the retreat of the Barbarians and the deliverance of the city. That unfortunate city gradually experienced the distress of scarcity and at length the horrid calamities of famine. (18)

The fighting abilities of the Goths and the strategic abilities of their king and general were little challenged during the siege. After the terrified town had received notice from Ravenna that the Emperor had abandoned their cause, the defenders despaired and the town was eventually sacked, 797 years after King Brennus and his Celts, and 1163 years after her mythical foundation.
The quills of the contemporary observers composed divergent tales regarding the exact frightfulness of the subsequent events. It appears that Alaric had ordered churches exempted from the general pillage, but while this command may have had some effect on the Christian Goths, it was an outlandish directive to the Hunnish mercenaries, who formed the greater part of his cavalry and widely disobeyed. In general, the historical observations report par for the course of a successful siege, that the men were slaughtered, the women raped and gold and glitter stolen. Yet it has been found that only one (1) Roman senator lost his life in the melee, and that the Goths, thank God, left the town within seven days while, for example, the pious Catholic troops of the French King Charles V, in the sixteenth century, stayed for nine months and left smouldering ruins in their wake.

Burial of Alaric in the Busento River

Yet the sack of Rome was something of an accident, in part a result of Honorius’s refusal to work on any reasonable solution, and, as Chris Wickham points out, the sack was “without other repercussions, and was only one step in the long Visigoth road to settlement.” (19) The Goths now headed for Sicily, but a tempest sunk the ships they had procured to take them to Africa and a sudden, rapidly progressing illness struck down the king himself [AD 410]. He was buried, the story goes, in the bed of a temporarily diverted river, a place where no man could disturb his perpetual rest. Alaric was followed in the royal dignity by Athaulf, or Adolphus, whom history, perhaps unjustly, treats much like an afterthought to Alaric. He was an educated man, and his credo was reported to the historian Orosius as it follows here:

“In the full confidence of valour and victory, I once aspired (said Adolphus) to change the face of the universe; to obliterate the name of Rome; to erect on its ruins the domination of the Goths; and to acquire, like Augustus, the immortal fame of the founder of a new empire. By repeated experiments, I was gradually convinced that laws are essentially necessary to maintain and regulate a well-constituted state; and that the fierce, intractable humour of the Goths was incapable of bearing the salutary yoke of laws and civil government. From that moment I proposed to myself a different object of glory and ambition; and it is now my sincere wish that the gratitude of future ages should acknowledge the merit of a stranger who employed the sword
of the Goths not to subvert but to restore and maintain the prosperity of the Roman Empire.” (20)

Athaulf eventually found a way to bargain with Honorius, and, after marrying his daughter Galla Placidia, and in possession of the Emperor’s license, led the Visigoths to Gaul. That did not work, for the province was mired in the civil wars of up to four different usurpers in AD 411, and after a detour to Spain, fighting the Vandals in the name of Rome, they settled in Gallia Narbonensis, today’s Languedoc and Provence in AD 418. The magister militum of Gaul, Constantius, was able to unite Gaul in this decade and, by marrying Athaulf’s widow Galla Placidia, became a short-lived emperor in his own right, before his and Placidia’s son Valentinian III enjoyed a relatively long, if passive, reign [AD 425-455], with his mother as regent. (21)

For the moment not only the East, ignored for half a century by barbarian invaders, but the West “had achieved, after a decade of turmoil, substantial stability as well. Most of the frontier was still manned by Roman troops. There were barbarian’ groups settled in the empire, it is true, separate from the Roman military hierarchy, the Visigoths between Bordeaux and Toulouse and the remnants of the Vandal confederacy in western Spain, Suevi in the north and Hasding Vandals in the south; but all these had been defeated, and the Visigoths at least were in a formal federate alliance with Rome.” (22) Yet before long, fresh trouble approached from the East.

(13) (14) (15) (18) (20) 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 0-345-47884-3, pp. 644 [547], 649 [551], 649 [551], 666 [566], 675 [573]

(16) (17) (19) (21) (22) Wickham, Chris, The Inheritance of Rome, Viking Books 2009, ISBN 978-0-670-02098-0, pp. 80, 80, 80, 85, 82

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/20)

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Floralia – The Feast of Flowers and Easy Virtues

Floralia, detail

It is generally little known that Flora was one of the fifteen principal deities of Rome – she had her own priest, the Flamen floralis – and the Floralia in her honour were one of the principal festivals and special games, the “Ludi Florae” were sponsored in her honour by the plebeian aediles – because the Floralia derived from the plebeian, not the patrician roots of the people.

The Triumph of Flora – Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

The Temple of Flora was built in Rome upon consultation with the Sibylline Books shortly after a drought that occurred around 241–238 BCE. The temple was located near the Circus Maximus on the lower slope of the Aventine Hill, a site associated with the plebeians of Rome. Games were instituted for the founding day of the temple (April 28), and were held only occasionally until continued crop damage led to their annual celebration beginning in 173

Scullard, Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic, p. 110
Floralia, painting by Hobbe Smith

In general, it was a rather licentious affair …

In 238 BC, at the direction of an oracle in the Sibylline books, a temple was built to honour Flora, an ancient goddess of flowers and blossoming plants. It was dedicated on April 28 and the Floralia instituted to solicit her protection (Pliny, Natural History, XVIII.286, cf. Velleius Paterculus, I.14.8, who says 241/240 BC). Sometime later, the festival was discontinued, only to be revived in 173 BC, when the blossoms again that year suffered from winds, hail, and rain (Ovid, Fasti, V.329ff). It was celebrated annually with games (ludi Florales) from April 28 until May 3. These farces and mimes, which received official recognition, were known for their licentiousness. The prostitutes of Rome, who regarded the day as their own, performed naked in the theatre and, suggests Juvenal (Satire VI), fought in the gladiatorial arena. In the Circus Maximus, deer and hares, symbols of fertility, were let loose in honour of the goddess as protector of gardens and fields (but not of woods and wild animals) and, instead of the customary white, colourful garments were worn during the festivities, some of which were celebrated at night (Ovid, Fasti, IV.946, V.189-190, 331ff.). Chickpeas (garbanzo beans, another symbol of fertility) also were thrown to the people in the Circus (Persius, Satires, V.177ff).

Valerius Maximus (II.10.8) relates that it was the custom at theatrical presentations during the Floralia for the spectators to demand that the actresses perform naked on stage. Rather than interfere with the festivities, Cato (the Younger), who was in attendance, walked out. The audience followed him, applauding the fact that, although disgusted and embarrassed, Cato choose to leave rather than have his presence inhibit the performance. They then went back inside. Certainly, the bawdy celebration offended Cato, who is quoted by Aulus Gellius (Attic Nights, X.13) as saying that a participant acted like a harlot, going from the banquet straight to the couch, where she disported herself with others. Martial is not so forgiving of such hypocritical morality, declaring in the preface to his first book of epigrams that they are written for those who are accustomed to watching the Floralia, not for the likes of Cato, who cannot be so naive as not to have known what to expect when he choose to attend “sprightly Flora’s ritual fun, the festal jests and license of the rout.” The fourth-century poet, Ausonius, is equally impatient with such behaviour when he chides those who go to the theatre during the Floralia—”the rites which they long to see who declare they never longed to see them” (Eclogues, XXIII.25).

Floralia, from the workshop of Prosper Piatti
A Sketch for Floralia (1888) by Antonio Reyna Manescau

(© John Vincent Palatine 2020)

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Rome – The Republic

Play Video …..

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.


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.

Domain changes during the Punic Wars

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.


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

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

After the army reforms of Marius had somewhat upset the relations between Romans and Foederati, the open questions of statehood and the eventual grant of civil rights to the allies had to find a practical solution. This problem was attacked and eventually solved in the period between 100 and 80 BC, which was characterized in internal politics by the continuous fight between Marius and his erstwhile lieutenant Sulla respectively their inner political factions, which was augmented in the years 91 to 88 BC by a full-fledged insurgency of some of the former allies, who demanded emancipation and full civil rights [the Social War (from socii (“allies”), in Latin: Bellum Sociale; also called the Italian War, the War of the Allies or the Marsic War]

(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)

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

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

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.

Statue of Iulia Drusilla at the Museo Gregoriano
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.

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 directory and jump page for the eleven articles covering the Demise and Fall of the Roman Empire before and 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.

Our special treat: Full Movie (with English Subtitles) of the big German 1968 production of “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)

Article 1: Barbarians at the Gates

Justinian by Antoine Helbert

Article 2: The End of the Legions

Article 3: Alaric and the Sack of Rome

Article 4: The Fall of the West – Vandals, Goths and Huns

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

Article 5: The Gothic Wars

Article 6: Theodora

Article 7: Procopius and the Secret History

Article 8: Clovis – The Rise of the Franks

Article 9: Breakup of the West after Charlemagne

Tintoretto – The Fall of Constantinople

Article 10: The End of Rome and the Rise of France and Germany

Article 11: The Rise and Fall of the Empire (animated GIF)

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

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/20)

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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

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.

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.

Juan de la Corte – Battle Scene
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)

Hits: 1861

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.

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].


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


No. 7: Julia by Leon Francois Comerre
No. 6: Messalina by Eugène Cyrille Brunet
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)


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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