Sunday, 17 July 2016

Marcus Aurelius: Rome on the Defensive

Abridged version – originally published in Slingshot, issue 270, May 2010 / the magazine of the Society of Ancients


Marcus Aurelius (r. 161 - 180 AD) was the second emperor of the Antonine dynasty.  His reign marked the end of a long period of relative peace.  An intellectual and no soldier by upbringing, experience or nature, Marcus nevertheless spent more time away on campaign than any of his predecessors.  In this period he also wrote his twelve books of Meditations in Greek, which are still revered as a literary monument to a government of service and duty.  Amongst philosophers, Marcus is remembered alongside Seneca (d. 65 AD) as a pillar of Roman stoicism.
Marcus was born on 26 April 121 AD.  His father died in his early childhood, probably when Marcus was only eight years old. Adopted by his paternal grandfather, Marcus Annius Verus, he served as consul under Emperor Antoninus Pius at the age of eighteen.  Marcus married Antoninus’s daughter Faustina and had at least twelve children with her.  His only son to survive childhood was Commodus, who would be made Augustus and co-emperor in 177 AD, and succeed his father in 180 AD at the age of nineteen.
In 140 AD Marcus was made consul again, with Emperor Antoninus Pius as his colleague.  As the heir apparent, Marcus took the name Marcus Aelius Aurelius Verus Caesar and as such officially became the designated next emperor.

Two emperors

When Emperor Antoninus Pius died in 161 AD, Marcus had spent 23 years learning the ropes of the administrative structures of the administrative structures within the Roman Empire.  The Senate had planned to confirm Marcus alone as Pius’ successor, but he had refused to take office unless his adoptive brother Lucius Verus received the same status and powers as himself.
Lucius Verus (d. 169 AD)
Even though the concept of a dual emperorship was a novelty, the Senate actually welcomed the situation.  Rome’s archenemies, the Parthians, had just invaded the Roman vassal state Armenia in the autumn of 161 AD.  The two imperial brothers acted in unison and the Senate thought is advantageous that one could stay at home and take care of the public administration, while the other one dealt with critical situations at the front.  Upon becoming emperor, Marcus took the name Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus.

Trouble in Paradise

The reign of Marcus Aurelius marked the end of the long period of relative peace and minimal military expansion in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD.  The Emperor faced financial problems caused by frontier wars in the east, in Parthia.  In the west, invading Germanic tribes along the borders made incursions across the Rhine and the Danube.  He also had to deal with a flood that engulfed Rome, causing a severe famine.  To make matters even worse, a virulent disease – probably an extremely contagious kind of smallpox – was brought back from the east after Roman interventions in Parthia.  This resulted in significant loss of life as well as enormous losses in tax income.  The disease reached Rome in 166 AD and would eventually kill off an estimated fifteen to twenty million people (25 to 30% of the empire’s population).  Due to sheer lack of manpower, Marcus had the depleted ranks of the army supplemented with slaves, bandits, gladiators and barbarians.

The Parthians
Conflicts with Rome’s arch-enemies had begun in about 155 AD with a dispute over the kingdom of Armenia. In the early autumn of 161 AD the Parthians invaded Armenia, thereby annihilating the Roman army of governor Severianus, who had foolishly decided to oppose the Parthian general Osrhoes with only one legion.  The army of the governor of Syria Attidius Cornelianus was also beaten, after which part of his province came under Parthian control.
Ruins of Ctesiphon
In response, Lucius Verus left Rome in the summer of 162 AD and reconquered Armenia in 163 AD. From here, he moved on to Mesopotamia, attacked Parthia and destroyed the city of Seleucia in 165 AD.  Avidius Cassius burnt down the palace at the Parthian capital of Ctesiphon, located directly across the Tigris.  King Vologaeses IV sued for peace and was forced to cede northern Mesopotamia to the Romans, who deployed units in the cities of Nisibis and Singara.

When a great number of Roman troops were withdrawn from the Limes in 162 AD in order to deal with the Parthian invasion of Armenia, German tribes decided to cross the Roman border.  In late 165 AD 6,000 Langobards, Obii, Marcomanni and Quadi invaded Pannonia.  Local forces defeated the invaders with relative ease, but two years later northern Italy was shocked to the bone by a combined invasion of a large force of Marcomanni and Quadi.  After achieving a smashing victory over 20,000 Romans near Carnuntum (40 km east of modern Vienna), the larger part of their host moved southwards towards Italy, while the remainder ravaged Noricum.
As the smallpox was ravaging the Empire, the punitive expedition against the invading tribes was postponed until 168 AD. Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus set forth from Rome and established their headquarters at Aquileia.  Here they supervised a reorganization of the defences of Italy and Illyricum, raised two new legions and proceeded to Carnuntum.  The approach of the imperial army was sufficient to persuade the Marcomanni to withdraw.   
Ancient Aquileia, 3D reconstruction, Antica Aquileia
The emperors returned to Aquileia for the winter, but after an outbreak of the smallpox there in January 169 AD, they decided to leave for Rome.  Having travelled barely 80 km, Lucius Verus suffered a stroke and died three days later at the age of 38.  Marcus now returned to Rome alone to oversee his brother's funeral.
With the emperors gone, the Marcomanni razed Opitergium (modern Oderzo) and besieged Aquileia.  Troops from the various frontiers were dispatched against the Marcomanni and a new military command was established to safeguard the roads into Italy, while the Danubian fleet was strengthened. In the autumn of 169 AD Aquileia was relieved and by the end of 171 AD, the invading Marcomanni in Raetia and Noricum were pushed back across the Danube and forced to sign a treaty, promising they would leave a 7 km wide security-zone along the river unsettled.

The Marcomannic Wars (165 – 182 AD)
In the meantime, the Vandals and the Sarmatian Iazyges had invaded Dacia, while, farther to the east, the Sarmatian Costoboci had crossed the Danube, ravaging Thrace and Macedonia.  Only 20 km from Athens they plundered and destroyed the temple of the Eleusinian Mysteries.  Then, in 173 AD, Didius Iulianus, the commander of the Rhine frontier, had to repel another invasion of the Chatti and the Hermunduri, while the Chauci raided the shoreline of Gallia Belgica.
Marcus Aurelius pardoning Marcomannic leaders
The Iazyges were defeated in several battles.  Just as Marcus was just about to invade their territories and “solve this difficulty (…) by wholesale extermination” (Cassius Dio, 72.16), the Quadi revolted again.  The war moved west and in 174 AD the Quadi had to confront the Romans in their homelands (modern Slovakia).  After their subjugation, garrisons were installed throughout their territory and they were forced to surrender hostages and provide auxiliary contingents for the Roman army. 
It was during these campaigns that Marcus Aurelius started writing his philosophical work Meditations, whose first book bears the note "Among the Quadi at the Granua”  (river Hron in Slovakia).
In 175 AD Roman troops crossed the Danube again to finally subjugate the Iazyges.  Although Marcus was ill (which would give rise to rumours that the emperor had died), he decided to join the campaign. The enemy suffered a severe defeat, surrendering 100,000 Roman captives and providing a contingent of 8,000 horsemen, of whom 500 were immediately dispatched to Britain.  Traces of these forces have been found in the Roman cavalry fort at Chesters on Hadrian’s Wall, amongst others.
When in 177 AD the Quadi rebelled, followed by their neighbours the Marcomanni, Marcus Aurelius headed north once again.  From Carnuntum he moved against the Marcomanni and in 179 AD a decisive battle took place against the Quadi near modern Trenčín in Slovakia.  The Quadi were chased westwards, deeper into Greater Germania, where another decisive victory was achieved against them.

The Revolt of Avidius Cassius (175 AD)
In 175 AD the false news of the death of the ailing emperor had prompted a revolt in Syria, led by the indigenous Avidius Cassius.  Commodus, the later emperor, was only 13 years old at the time and the sources indicate that Cassius’ coup was encouraged by Marcus's wife Faustina, who believed her husband to be on the verge of death.  When Marcus recovered, however, Cassius was already fully acclaimed by the Egyptian legions and refused to forego his claim to the throne.  Failing to find widespread support for his rebellion, however, he was killed by a centurion after only 100 days of power.
As Cassius had been very popular with the inhabitants of the eastern provinces, Marcus decided to visit the renegade provinces together with his wife Faustina and his son Commodus and to show clemency with Cassius’ followers and family. This gesture was very well received by the local population.  Unfortunately, Faustina would not survive the trip and she died in 176 AD on the way back to Rome in the village of Halala, Cappadocia.

Change of military tactics
To engage invading tribes simultaneously at different points on the border, smaller detachments (vexillationes) were created to move to critical areas.  However, these flying squads did not smoothly interact, which resulted in organisational problems. In the Late Roman Empire the answer to this dilemma was the creation of the vexillationes comitatenses, reservists that were stationed behind the front lines and who could be deployed where needed.
The Marcomannic wars had exposed the weakness of Rome's northern frontier, and henceforth, 16 of the 33 Roman legions would be stationed along the Danube and the Rhine.  For the Germanic tribes, however, the Marcomannic wars were only the prelude of the great invasions that would eventually disassemble and end the Western Roman Empire in the fourth and fifth centuries.
Roman helmet type Weissenau, Museum of Carnuntum
On 17th March 180 AD the emperor died probably at Vindobona (modern Vienna), either as a result of the smallpox, or of cancer. His ashes were entombed in Hadrian’s Mausoleum (the present Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome) and in his honour, the Senate erected a column in the current Piazza Colonna, the third imperial column to grace the city of Rome.


The Marcomannic wars had exposed the weakness of Rome's northern frontier, and henceforth, half of the Roman legions (16 out of 33) would be stationed along the Danube and the Rhine.  For the Germanic tribes, although checked for the moment, the Marcomannic wars were only the prelude of the great invasions that would eventually disassemble and end the Western Roman Empire in the 4th and 5th centuries.

Sources and suggestions for further reading
  • BIRLEY, Anthony R., Marcus Aurelius: A Biography. New York, Routledge, 2001 (B.T Batsford 1966, rev. 1987)
  • BIRLEY, Anthony R.,Friedensschluß des Kaisers Commodus mit den Germanen in Marc Aurel, Richard Klein (ed.), Darmstadt, pp. 473-502, 1979
  • BRZEZINSKI, R. & MIELCZAREK, M., The Sarmatians 600 BC-AD 450, Osprey Men-at-Arms Series Nr. 373, Oxford UK, 2002
  • BURRELL, Nicholas M., The Antonine Plague:a re-evaluation on the economic structure, military capability and religious thought of the Roman Empire, Honours research thesis for the department of Ancient History and Classics, University of Queensland, Australia, 2005
  • CLAUSS, Manfred, Die Römischen Kaiser, C.H. Beck, München, 2005 (portraits of 55 emperors, with contributions of various authors)
  • DIETZ, Karlheinz, Zum Ende der Markomannenkriege“ in Markomannenkriege-Ursachen und Wirkungen, H.Friesinger, J.Tejral and A. Stuppner (eds.), Brno, 1994, pp.7-15
  • DOBESCH, Gerhard, Zur Vorgeschichte der Markomannenkriege in Markomannenkriege-Ursachen und Wirkungen, H.Friesinger, J.Tejral and A. Stuppner (eds.), Brno, 1994, pp.17-21
  • DOMAŃSKI, Grzegorz, Die Bevölkerungs-zunahme in Mitteleuropa und die Gründe für den Ausbruch der Markomannekriege in Markomannenkriege-Ursachen und Wirkungen, H.Friesinger, J.Tejral and A. Stuppner (eds.), Brno, 1994, pp. 109-114
  • DUNCAN-JONES, Richard P., The impact of the Antonine Plague, Journal of Roman Archeology 9 (1996), 108-136.
  • HEILIGERS, Stijn, Continuiteit bij Antoninius Pius, Marcus Aurelius & Commodus, essay for the Ancient History Department of the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, 2005
  • HEILIGERS, Stijn, Commodus en de Markomannenoorlog, essay for the Ancient History Department of the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, 2007
  • KEHNE, Peter, Das Instrumentarium des kaiserlichen Außenpolitik und die Ursachen der Markomannenkriege in Markomannen-kriege-Ursachen und Wirkungen, H.Friesinger, J.Tejral and A. Stuppner (eds.), Brno, 1994, pp. 109-114
  • KORNEMANN, Ernst, Römische Geschichte, 2 vols., H. Bengtson, Stuttgart 1954
  • ROEBUCK, Carl, The World of Ancient Times, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1966
  • ROSEN, Klaus, Die Völkerwanderung, C.H.Beck, München 2003
  • SPELLER, Elizabeth – Following Hadrian, Review, Headline Book Publishing, London, 2002
  • WEBSTER, Graham, The Roman Imperial Army, A&C Black, London, 1985 
  • WILCOX, Peter, Rome’s Enemies (3): Parthians and Sassanid Persians, Osprey Men-at-Arms Series Nr. 175, London, 1986
Roman sources
  • CASSIUS DIO, Historia Romana, Books 71 to 74
  • HERODIAN, History of the Roman Empire since the Death of Marcus Aurelius, Book I, Ch. 1-6
  • HISTORIA AUGUSTA, or the Augustan History is a late Roman collection of 30 biographies in Latin, of the Roman Emperors, their junior colleagues and usurpers of the period 117 to 284 (from Hadrian up to Numerianus/ Carinus, 117-284/85 AD). It presents itself as an assemblage of works by six different authors, written in the reigns of Diocletian and Constantine I, but the true authorship of the work, its actual date, and its purpose (if any), have long been matters for controversy
Other sources
  • COULSTON, Jon, Evidence for Sarmatians in Britain, Article in Sling Shot Issue 84, July 1979, pp 36-37
  • HAROLD, Roy, Wild and Exulting Horsemen, Article on Sarmatians in Sling Shot Issue 159, January 1992, pp 11-14
  • MALCOR, Linda A., Lucius Artorius Castus, essay in “The Heroic Age”, Issue 1, 1999
  • SULIMIRSKI, T., excerpts from  Sarmatinan-Iazyg presence in the Carpathian basin and western Europe, Vanished Civilizations of the Ancient World, edited by Edward Bacon in the  Journal of the Institute for Hungarian Studies, Vol 1, Nr 2, October 1996

No comments:

Post a Comment