Tuesday, 30 August 2016

The Empire strikes back (part 2): The appearance of the Roman army in 235 AD

Originally published in Slingshot, issue 303, November/December 2015 - the Journal of the Society of Ancients

Archaeological records from the military revival period under the Balkan soldier-emperors of the fourth century reveal an important change of equipment compared to that of the “classic” legionary.

The Infantry

Tunics, scarves and cloaks
Although the Arch of Severus, dedicated in 203 AD, still shows Roman soldiers wearing a style of tunic traditional during the late Republic and early Empire, the third century saw the widespread introduction of long-sleeved woollen tunics.  This was probably due to the increasing influence of Germanic troops and mercenaries serving in the Roman armies, as well as influences from the Eastern half of the empire, where long-sleeved tunics were also commonplace.
There has been much debate on the colour of the Roman military tunic.  The overwhelming impression left by Roman artists is that Roman soldiers wore either white or red tunics, but white tunics are predominant in artistic representations until the end of the third century.  It is now certain that soldiers owned more than one tunic.  By the reign of Diocletian (r. 284-305 AD) at least three tunics of varying quality were available. Senior officers owned numerous tunics and cloaks.  An explanation could be that soldiers wore differently coloured tunics for different occasions, e.g. a white wool tunic for everyday wear, a bleached wool or linen tunic for best, and a red tunic when they went into action.
Most of the paintings seem to show soldiers in undress uniform, which would explain the white tunics. Soldiers that are fully armed are often shown in red.  The colour red was associated with the god Mars, who is represented wearing a red tunic and who had red clothing dedicated to him by the red Circus faction.  Red tunics were popular throughout the ancient world and are found in Greek, Macedonian, Samnite, Etruscan and Ptolemaic sources.  It is interesting that red depicted in paintings is generally not scarlet or deep red, but a pinkish colour.  This might refer to a bright red colour that had faded with use. The number of salmon pink textile fragments found at Masada, Israel, seems to support this idea.

Fresco, Dura Europos, 239 AD
Tombstones discovered at Apamea, Syria, dating from between 214 and 252 AD show a wide range of junior officers, specialists and ordinary soldiers, all of whom wear long-sleeved tunics.  In a fresco at Dura Europos in Syria, dating from 239 AD, the tribune of a cohort and the other soldiers depicted all wear long-sleeved white tunics with purple decorative bands around the sleeves. One soldier wears a white cloak, the cloaks of the other soldiers being a yellow-brown colour, with those of the ordinary soldiers appearing to be of a coarser material. The yellow-brown cloaks were probably made from undyed wool that had retained its natural lanolin and therefore a degree of waterproofing.  The rectangular, later semi-circular sagum cloak, worn by soldiers for centuries, remained the most popular cloak in the third century.  The hooded paenula seemed to have lost its appeal as of the late second century.   Based on available evidence there does not appear to have been a distinction between legionary and auxiliary tunic colours, which is not surprising in view of the use of the same supply sources and perhaps an official policy of “Romanising” the allies.  There is more variation in the colours of cloaks, which may have reflected a system of rank distinction.
The scarf, known as sudarium and later as focale, was primarily worn to protect the neck from chafing when wearing close-fitting body-armour, and from the leather thong which fastens the cheek pieces. As in various sculptures scarves are almost invariably depicted tucked beneath either the body armour or clothing, their exact shape is difficult to determine.  Usually, the scarf was worn inside the laminated lorica segmentata, probably to hold the position of the segmentata armour around the neck. With the other armour its protective function could be realised by wrapping it around the neck.  Hence, the scarf is not often seen with the tunic alone.  Some authors suggest that the scarf was used as a badge to identify individual units through its colour.  Apart from this, the scarf also protected the neck against wind, cold and sweat (hence its name sudarium).

Trousers, leggings, leg wrappings and leg bindings
Fairly tight-fitting long trousers (bracae), breeches or leggings with leg bindings (probably called fascia crurales), had also become commonplace.  Bracae may have been fitted with waist bands to which belt-loops were attached (cf. the find of the trousers found at Thorsberg in Schleswig-Holstein).
Trousers were often tucked into boots, or fastened with leg bindings around the calves.  The Emperor Severus Alexander is known to have always worn them.   The legions of Maximinus Thrax probably wore breeches, whereas long trousers came into fashion in the second half of the third century. Trousers, breeches, leggings, leg wrappings and leg bindings are generally represented as dark red, blue, brown or even grey-black.
Leg wrappings were large rectangular pieces of cloth, probably made from wool or felt.  Some sculptural renditions portray the strings which fastened them below the knee and above the ankle. Leg bindings were made of long strips of bandage-like textiles, wound around the leg like WWI puttees.

There is very little evidence that Roman wore any underwear other than an under-tunic (subucla) and most probably a loincloth (subligatorium).

During the third century helmets became deeper, and with more pronounced sloping neck guards. The distinction between cavalry and infantry models slowly disappeared.  Helmets were of the older Niedermörmter type, the last known Roman helmet to display Gallic origins (ribbing of the nape and a strip of pearled decoration).  Other types were the Niederbieber helmet and the more modern ridge type showing Persian influence.  Deep helmets with raised iron reinforcements like those of the Niederbieber, Niedermörmter and Heddernheim type were fitted with carrying handles fixed on the upper side of the large neck-guards.

Niedermörmter type helmet
Helmets were padded with wool or a felt-like material, secured at the rim with a resin-like material that became sticky when hot water was applied.  Cheek-pieces were equally padded. Strips of leather may have been used to line the bottom of the padding at the rim of the helmet.
To absorb the impact of hits on the head, Russell Robinson assumes that linings, made of a padded fabric – possibly a coarse linen –, did not touch the top of the helmet. Linings would have had four or more tabs that could be drawn together with a lace, so that it could fit any size of head.

Cuirass and greaves
Until the mid-fourth century, when according to Vegetius infantry armour was abandoned, iron mail, bronze scales (lorica squamata) and laminated iron plate cuirasses (lorica segmentata) were still common body armour.   In the first half of the third century iron mail had the shape of a large T-shirt, while in second half it usually had long sleeves and could cover a great part of the thighs.  Scale-armour was reinforced with breast-plates. Additional armour came in the form of manicae (laminated iron arm protection), greaves and even thigh armour.  Lorica segmentata was on its way out, but would be used at least until the middle of the third century.  To the Romans, military equipment that was still in serviceable condition remained useful, regardless of its age.
As body armour would not make the wearer immune to blunt trauma, a padded undergarment of some sort (thoracomachus or subarmalis) was worn underneath, to help absorb the force of a blow, as well as provide an extra protective layer.  It also counteracted the weight and friction of the armour, especially in the case of mail armour.  Greaves were worn by cavalry and officers. Regular infantry and auxiliary troops often wore greaves as well, but less often than under Caracalla.  Cavalry greaves are known to have been exquisitely adorned.

Plumbata or martiobarbulus
Swords and daggers
The longer spatha gained prominence with the infantry, though it did not completely replace the gladius.  The handles were made of wood or bone. Swords were still mainly used to thrust, not to slash with.  To facilitate drawing, the spatha was worn on the left hip, rather than on the right as was the case with the shorter gladius in earlier times, and suspended by a wide baldric. Sheaths were made of wood, covered with leather, and no longer decorated with metal fittings.  Chapes were made of non-ferrous metals.   In the third quarter of the third century, the pugio was still modelled after its original Spanish prototype, though its length had grown to 30 cm.

Shield and spears
The tile-shaped scutum of the legions was still in use during the middle of the third century, but did not survive the century.  Most legionaries were equipped with flat or slightly dished oval shields. Such shields may have been of a laminate wood construction, but finds from Dura Europos (ca. 256-7 AD) have shown that many consisted of a simple plank construction, reinforced with iron bars and edged with stitched-on rawhide.

Technique for throwing martiobarbuli

Though the classic pilum was slowly replaced by defensive thrusting spears and javelins and lead-weighted darts called plumbatae or martiobarbuli, it never disappeared form the standard legionary equipment.  It was gradually replaced by a more modern version called spiculum. This was basically a socketed pilum with a shorter iron point and better useable as a thrusting spear, while still maintaining some of its penetrative power when thrown. Legionaries usually carried five martiobarbuli each, slotted inside their shields.

Military belts were called cingulum or balteus. During the reign of Severus the ring-buckle belt was introduced, which would stay a military symbol until the end of the third century.  Frame-buckle belts were also in use. However, hardly any belts have survived the ravages of time.
A belt was used to hitch up the tunic above the knee to allow freedom of movement.  Civilians generally wore their tunics blow the knee or loose to ankle length. Depriving a soldier of his belt, so that is tunic hung loose like a civilian’s was in fact a minor punishment. This practice continued into the Late Empire.

By the third century the traditional open hobnailed caligae have disappeared completely from the archaeological record, though they still appear on imperial sculptures.  Extremely popular was the front-fastening boot with integrally cut laces (calceus or calceamentum). Though other older techniques continued in use, shoes with openwork cut-outs and straps were now made from a single piece of leather, rather than the layered construction of earlier times. Nailed footwear was still the standard in the third century.

The Cavalry

The presence of cavalry units at the Harzhorn has been established as well.  Radiocarbon dating has established that the bones of a horse found in a pit at the slope, one meter below the surface, belonged to an animal that died at some point between 230 and 240 AD.  The arrangement of the bones indicates that the horse was on its way up.

A recreation of Roman cavalry
The Roman cavalry horse was smaller than modern horses, somewhere between 130 and 150 cm high. None wore shoes.  Cavalry horses operating away from the main body would be carrying a javelin case, water bottle, cooking utensils and rations attached to the saddle.  The soldier’s cloak would be rolled up behind.  Chamfrons to protect the horse’s head were common.  It is unlikely that the Roman cavalry led by Maximinus Thrax contained any cataphracts units, as these are unsuitable for wooded terrain.

Saddles were of the typical four-pommelled type, like modern rodeo saddles, held in place by a girth strap, breech strap and breastplate.  The saddle frame was made of wood with bronze pommel plates, typically padded with felt or hair and covered in goat-skin.  The front pommels held the thighs down, while the back ones fitted tightly to the hips to stop the rider from slipping backwards.

Helmets and masks
The Roman cavalry at the Harzhorn must have worn masks, though none of these have been found. Unlike popular belief, cavalry masks were not limited to cavalry shows, but were meant to protect the face, as was the case with the helmets of mediaeval knights.  Moreover, the psychological terror of enemies facing masked riders makes it unlikely that the helmet was merely used for games – cf. the masks worn by Samurai warriors up to the late 19th century.  A distinction between a 'parade' helmet and a 'war' helmet was not conceivable in the ancient world: both could be used for war, with the most beautiful specimens used also for parades and games.  Most finds of masked cavalry helmets in the third century AD were made along the Limes, where cavalry units were stationed. 

Roman cavalry mask
During staged fights the experimental archaeologist Junkelmann and colleagues found out that they would have incurred heavy facial wounds, had they not been protected by masks.  They also established that sight with Roman cavalry helmets was generally much better than with mediaeval helmets.
A well-known type of cavalry helmet is the “Heddernheim” helmet.  This type of helmet was made of iron, elaborately decorated with applied bronze sheet, and engraved and embossed with designs of Thracian origin.  As was the case with all other helmets of that class, the Heddernheim helmet was fitted with a peak, seated along the top of the brow-plate and secured by a notch in the lower end of the forward serpent and a pair of rivets.  The large antha on the crown of the skull is pierced in the top and probably held a streamer of horse-hair. The manufacture of deep iron cavalry helmets of plainer type continued at the same time. The cheek-guards, however, were now made into a single element, which was not attached to the skull-piece with hinges, but was simply tucked under the brow edge and then strapped behind the nape.  Pseudo-attic helmets of the Theilenhofen type were also common.
Theilenhofen cavalry helmet

Roman cavalry arms and armour
Cavalry armour had to be more flexible than infantry armour, hence cavalry usually wore either mail or scale armour.  Cavalry greaves usually had additional ankle protection. Shields were either oval or hexagonal, made of wood and covered in leather, felt or cloth with metal rim fittings.  Cavalry swords were of the spatha type, similar to the ones should by the infantry.  At the Harzhorn contingents of mounted archers are known to have been present as well.

The German Armies in the early Third Century

Germanic arms and armour
Partly by imitation, partly by trade, the equipment of German warriors of the time was heavily influenced by that of the Roman army and it is often difficult to make clear distinctions between the two.  Roman swords of the spatha type, whose handles were often modified, were widely available in Germania. With certain types of arrow-tips, it is virtually impossible to make a distinction at all.  The difference between Roman and Germanic spear tips is more significant.
The quality and decorations of weapons and shields was an indication of the status and rank of the warrior in question. In the third century AD Germans appear to have been equipped with both a lance and with a spear, both with iron tips.  The lance was meant for stabbing and chopping, while the spear, usually with barbed tips, was used for throwing from a short distance.   It has been established that spears were mass-produced in central workshops and distributed among the warriors.
Germanic spear tip, photo Th. Schwarz
Based on finds, it has been established that Germanic warriors were lightly armed and that the use of chain mail, scale armour or breast plates was not very common and limited to the Germanic elite. The same goes for helmets.  As a result, Germanic light infantry was able to move nimbly, both in fights as well as in woods or swampy areas.
The construction of bows was clearly different. Whereas Roman auxiliaries used humidity-sensitive composite bows, the Germans used longbows made of yew, elm or hazel wood. Experiments have shown that Germanic longbows had a reach of 120 to 140 m. From a distance of 40 to 50 m., if they did not hit bone, arrows could completely pierce a human body.
Northern Germanic tribes often used iron battle axes with ca. 70 cm long handles that were used to hit and cut. Shields were 90 to 110 cm large, round and composed of five to eight single planks.  Research has shown that these shields were made of specially selected wood, were composed in a special way, carefully planed, glued together and covered with a thin sheet of rawhide.  The rawhide cover reinforced the construction, made the shield watertight and was used to be painted with organic colours.  It is likely that shields were produced by central workshops as well.  Shields may have had spiked bosses, which made them useable as an offensive weapon.  Germanic belt-fittings and horse-harnesses were usually made of iron, whereas the Roman variety tended to be made of bronze.  Catapults, slingshots or flaming arrows were not part of the Germanic equipment at all.

Germanic military dress consisted of functional garments, i.e. a pair of long chequered woollen or plain-coloured linen breeches, woollen or linen long-sleeved tunics, a military belt and a pair of leather sandals, usually without hobnails.  The belt was used to carry a large knife, a device to make fire and a piece of sharpening steel.
Below the (chequered) upper tunic a second belt was worn, which was used to store personal belongings, such as coins, a pair of pincers, a comb, a repair-kit and a razor.  This belt was probably worn over a linen short-sleeved tunic, serving as a kind of undershirt, to protect the belt from sweat and the body from chafing.  It is likely that underneath the breeches some sort of linen loincloth was worn.

Army size and tactics
Like that of most warrior societies, early Germanic warfare was an almost ritual part of life. Battles were limited to struggles between families, clans and tribes and were unlikely to become massive affairs.  This changed when contact with the advancing Romans was made. Warfare became more intensive, deadly and was waged on a larger scale.  Weapons and equipment improved and those Germans living close to the Rhine found themselves having to fight for survival.  This also caused tribes to form alliances and confederacies such as the Franks and the Alamanni.
At the same time many Germans started to serve in Roman armies. Those who returned to their tribes brought back with them the Roman ideas of command and control and great early German war leaders such as Ermin/Arminius and Marbod/Maroboduus had seen service in Roman armies, though Roman discipline could never be completely imposed on a typical heroic warrior society.

Leaders and followers
Germanic armies consisted usually of alliances of leaders, each of which had a selected retinue of warriors which would be equipped with weapons by its leader.  The better equipped a particular warrior-elite was, the more prestigious its leader.  Based on ancient sources, it is assumed that Germanic leaders would command between 500 and 2,000 warriors, predominantly in the age group of 15 to 30 years of age.  Not every German male was destined to become a warrior. The warrior was bound to his lord through a code of loyalty.  The chief, the strongest and most able warrior led by example. Tacitus states that “the chiefs fought for victory, the followers for their chief”. The followers had to “defend and protect” the chief, never deserting him and fighting to the death if necessary, since “to any fighting man death is better than a life of dishonour”, a principle still adhered to in WWII by the German SS (cf. “Meine Ehre heißt Treue – my honour is loyalty”).

A recreation of Alamanni
Power of Germanic leaders rested on strength, violence and success in war.  Weakness would lead to a removal from power by a stronger man.  However, in Tacitus’ days the power of Germanic kings was still not absolute or arbitrary.  Capital punishment, imprisonment or even floggings, for instance, were allowed to none but the priests and were in obedience to the god of war (Tiwas, Tyr or Tiu).
As long as things were going well, a Germanic chieftain had a good chance of maintaining an army in the field. However, as soon as it appeared that booty and glory would not be forthcoming, momentum would be lost and a campaign would quickly collapse.
Without a bureaucracy and cash economy to back them up, Germanic armies did not develop more than the most basic logistics.  This tended to keep offensive armies small and mobile, and able to live off the land, if need be.  At the same time, since Germans were unable to maintain a large army in one place long enough to starve out a determined town, they were also notoriously bad at siege warfare.   In Germania itself the latter would not have been much of an issue, due to the lack of fortified settlements there.

Battle tactics
Complicated tactics were difficult to attain, since the men in the ranks had not been drilled to carry out complex manoeuvres. The most well-known formation is the boar’s head, an attack formation which could be used by mounted and unmounted troops. Having a relatively narrow frontage, the boar’s head would have been fairly manoeuvrable and able to make swift changes of direction.  With the experienced men in the front knowing how to conform to the leader’s movement, the others only had to follow the men in front.
When attacking, fights would have been opened by the archers from a distance of 110 to 120 m. Spears and javelins were thrown from a distance of 40m., or less.  The next move would have been to take up formation with lances and shields. Close combat was carried out with axes, swords, spears and shields.  The shield-wall was a well-known defensive position, designed for steadiness and protection. The men would form up a tightly compressed group, shoulder to shoulder, with shields overlapping. This could be a linear formation, several ranks deep, perhaps facing out in all directions.   In open and/or flat terrain, however, Germanic warriors would not have stood a chance against a Roman army.

Sources and Suggestions for further Reading

  • Campbell, Duncan – Roman Legionary Fortresses 27 BC- AD 378, Osprey Publishing, Oxford 2006
  • Connolly, Peter – Tiberius Claudius Maximus, the cavalryman, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1988
  • Cowan, Ross – Roman Legionary AD 287 – 337, Warrior 175, Osprey, Oxford 2015
  • Cowan, Ross – Römische Legionäre, Republik (58 v. – 69 n. Chr.) und Kaiserreich (161 -284 n. Chr.), Siegler Verlag GmbH, Königswinter, 2007
  • Junkelmann, Marcus – Reiter wie Statuen aus Erz, Verlag Philipp von Zabern, Mainz 1996
  • Künzl, Ernst, Die Germanen, Theiss WissenKompakt, Theiss, Stuttgart 2006
  • MacDowall, Simon – Late Roman Infantryman 236 - 565 AD, Warrior Series No. 9, Osprey, Oxford 1999
  • MacDowall, Simon – Germanic Warrior, Warrior Series No. 17, Osprey, Oxford 1996 (reprinted 2004)
  • Petersen, Daniel – The Roman Legions recreated in Colour Photographs, Windrow & Greene, Singapore 1992
  • Russell Robinson, H. – The Armour of Imperial Rome, Lionel Leventhal Ltd, London 1975
  • Simkins, Michael – The Roman Army from Hadrian to Constantine, Men-at-Arms Series, Osprey, London 1979
  • Simkins, Michael – Warriors of Rome, Blandford Cassell, London 1990
  • Sumner, Graham – Roman Military Clothing (2) AD 200-400, Men-at-Arms Series (390), Osprey, London 2003
  • Sumner, Graham – Roman Military Dress, The History Press, Stroud 2009
  • Vegetius – De Re Militari (Het Romeinse Leger, Handboek voor de Generaal, transl. by Fik Meijer), Atheneum, Amsterdam 2002
  • Wiegels, Rainer – Zu den Heeresformationen Roms an Rhein und oberer Donau in der Zeit des Severus Alexander und Maximinus Thrax, Klio 2014; 96(1): 93–143, Osnabrück  University 2014

Thursday, 25 August 2016

The Empire strikes back (part 1): Rome’s second conquest of Germania in 235/6 AD

Originally published in Slingshot, issue 303, November/December 2015 - the Journal of the Society of Ancients

Ever since 100 BC, Rome had been faced with regular incursions of Germanic tribes into Gaul, Italy and Spain.
In 12 BC, however, the Romans turned the tables and undertook a first massive counter-offensive across the river Rhine, under the leadership of Augustus’ stepson Drusus. This was a delayed, but well-prepared, reaction to the raid by the Sugambri and an alliance of Germanic tribes, who in the summer of 17 BC had ambushed a Roman cavalry unit and subsequently defeated a division led by Marcus Lollius Paulinus, governor of Gallia Belgica. Most embarrassingly, the Germans had captured the standard of Legion V Alaudae (“The Larks”), Rome’s first legion recruited in the provinces.

The first conquest (12 BC – 9 AD)
Between 16 and 13 BC Drusus transformed the strip of land along the Rhine between Germania and Gallia into a military zone, establishing military bases in Noviomagus (Nijmegen), Castra Vetera (Xanten), Novaesium (Neuss), Bonna (Bonn) and Mogontiacum (Mainz), and digging out canals for transport purposes.
In 12 BC the Romans were ready to strike. Crossing the Rhine, Drusus defeated the Sugambri on the east bank of the river, as well as in their homelands along the river Lippe. Then he retreated to what is now the Netherlands and forced the Frisians and Chauci to surrender. The following year, he invaded Germania east of the Rhine again, revisited the Sugambri along the Lippe and submitted the Cherusci. He founded a large military base near modern-day Oberaden in 11 BC, the winter quarters for three legions. The Lippe valley, rich in grain, was now pacified.
During a campaign against the Chatti in the summer of 9 BC, Drusus fell from his horse, broke his leg and died from the effects, only 29 years old. He was succeeded by his adoptive brother Tiberius, the later emperor. In the same year Tiberius attacked the Sugambri anew, massacred their entire nobility and deported 40,000 of them to the west bank of the Rhine near Xanten, where he had stationed Legio XVIII. Here, the deported Sugambri became known as the Cugerni, while Legio XIX was positioned in modern-day Haltern, in the middle of the former Sugambri territories.
Subsequently, Tiberius conducted several campaigns along the North Sea coast and, following the course of the river Elbe, southwards into modern-day Saxony and Thuringia. When in 4 AD the greater part of Germania Magna was effectively regarded as a Roman territory, Augustus ordered Tiberius to finish the conquest of its small remainder in the south-east. Germania was to become a normal, tax-paying Roman province, with the Elbe as its eastern frontier. From Strabo’s information (ca. 63 BC–23 AD) published in his Geographica and maps produced by Claudius Ptolemaeus (ca. 90–168 AD), it can be inferred that the Romans were well aware of its general geography.

Roman province of Germania under Varus (6-9 AD)
In the winter of 5/6 AD, the army of Germania Superior marched east along the river Main to build a large military base at modern-day Marktbreit, northern Bavaria. From here the Romans prepared to attack Maroboduus (Marbod) and his Marcomanni, a sub-tribe of the Suevi, who together with a small number of allied tribes in the south were the last serious obstacle on the way of transforming Germania Magna to a fully-fledged Roman province.
To finalise its submission, Tiberius had gathered eight legions at Carnuntum, located halfway between Vienna and Bratislava, from where he planned to march north. It was to be the most grandiose operation ever conducted by the Roman army, but rebellions in Pannonia and Dalmatia obstructed its execution. It took Tiberius until 9 AD to suppress the insurrection. The Varus disaster in September of the same year caused the total conquest of Germania Magna to be put on ice. Though the Emperors Vespasian (r.69-79 AD) and Domitian (r.81-96 AD) developed new attempts, they only succeeded in securing parts of southern Germania, establishing a frontier which is currently known as the Limes.
For a long time it was assumed that the Romans had given up on the conquest of Germania. Recent excavations west of the Harz Mountains in central Germany, however, have uncovered evidence that renders a different picture.

State of the Roman Empire in 200 AD
Confronted with constant barbarian invasions, Emperor Marcus Aurelius (r.161-80 AD) had intended to shorten the northern borders by annexing areas across the Danube. Thus, the number of troops and resources necessary for perimeter defence could be decreased and new sources for financial support be created. However, he died before he could realize this plan.
His son and successor Commodus (r.180-92 AD) chose to follow a different strategy by trying to buy off potential invaders with large sums of money. Still, the problem did not go away.

Tax increases
Consequently, Septimius Severus (r.193-211 AD) decided to increase the size of Rome’s army. He also remunerated it better, which meant even fiercer taxation for the civilian population to pay Rome’s 400,000 soldiers, but in spite of these measures the Imperial frontiers were broken repeatedly by hostile incursions. The reign of Severus, which marked a profound break with the past, may be summarized by the advice he gave to his sons Caracalla and Geta shortly before his death: "Live in harmony, enrich the troops and ignore everyone else." 
Caracalla (r.211-17 AD) ignored the first part of that advice and one of his first acts as emperor was to murder his brother. As for enriching the troops, he doubled the inheritance tax paid by Roman citizens and raised the pay of the soldiers by 50 (fifty!) percent, while allotting land to veterans.
When this was not sufficient to meet his financial needs, he admitted almost every inhabitant of the empire to Roman citizenship in 212 AD. What had formerly been a privilege had now become a convenient means of expanding the tax base. Another advantage of this measure was that it enlarged the pool of inhabitants from which Roman soldiers could be recruited for the depleted legions. As a result, already in 213 AD the emperor could deliver a pre-emptive strike against a confederation of Elbe-Germanic tribes that would become known as the Alamanni (a reference first recorded in 289 AD), who were permanently threatening to cross the Limes.

To meet the resulting financial crisis, Caracalla’s next step was to debase the coinage. The silver denarius introduced by Augustus at about 95 percent silver, was already down to about 50 percent, while in 215 AD the standard gold coin, the aureus, dropped over 10 per cent in weight. 

Antoninus coin with Emperor Caracalla
Since any serious further debasement of the silver coins would give them the appearance of Mickey Mouse money, Caracalla instituted a new silver denomination in the course of 215 AD, known today as the 'antoninianus' (its ancient name is unknown) after Caracalla’s family name Antoninus. It is assumed that a ratio of 1 antoninianus = 2 denarii applied, but the weight was considerably less than that of two denarii. Over time the new coin was slowly debased to bronze.

The antoninianus can be identified by its obverse on which the emperor is depicted wearing a radiate crown.

Rise of the barracks emperors 
The policy initiated by Commodus to buy off imminent invaders with large sums of money would be interrupted by the so-called barracks or soldier emperors, who considered such payments both dishonourable and too expensive. Indeed, it is estimated that the funds involved may well have exceeded the cost for the entire army. The turbulent fifty-year period from 235 through 284 AD would produce no fewer than thirty barracks emperors. The first of these, Maximinus Thrax, succeeded the inexperienced and not a very warlike Severus Alexander (r. 222-235 AD), characteristics that would prove fatal for the young emperor. 
Severus Alexander
In 231 AD Alexander, only 22 years of age, embarked upon his first campaign. His adversary was Ardashir I (also known as Artaxerxes) of the Sassanid Persians, who had started to build a new empire, making incursions into the Roman province of Mesopotamia and threatening Syria and Cappadocia on the side. Unfortunately, Alexander’s campaign against the Sassanids was not very successful and resulted in heavy losses on both sides.

More barbarian invasions
While the Alexander spent the winter of 232/3 AD in Antioch, Germanic Chatti tribes took advantage of the fact that large contingents of Roman troops were tied up in the Near East. Invading the modern-day Wetterau area north of Frankfurt, they destroyed all Limes castella, and pillaged and plundered vast stretches of the Roman provinces.
(see map of Limes).
Further to the west and in the southeast, other tribes crossed the Rhine and Danube in large numbers, attacking castella, provincial towns and villages. Being closer to Italy and threatening the families and the possessions of the many Pannonian and Illyrian soldiers who served the Roman army, these invasions were perceived as a larger threat than the Sassanid Persians.
When Alexander finally arrived at Mogontiacum/Mainz in the spring of 235 AD to deal with the invading Germans, he was not too keen on seeking a confrontation, the heavy losses against the Sassanids still fresh on his mind. However, as his legionaries wanted to avenge the destructive incursions of the Roman provinces, Alexander’s attempt to buy the Germanic tribes off was not very well received.

Maximinus Thrax
Maximinus Thrax (r. 235-38 AD)
Looking to replace the emperor by a more aggressive general commander, the soldiers opted for Gaius Iulius Verus Maximinus, an elderly general from Thrace, then around 63 years of age. A huge man, claimed to be over 8 (!) feet tall and with an excellent military reputation, Maximinus had joined the cavalry as a young shepherd and climbed the ranks, rising eventually to the rank of commander. Very popular with the soldiers, Maximinus was in charge of the recruit corps of Alexander’s field army on the Rhine that was to fill up the depleted vexillationes and legions. Herodian (ca. 170 - ca. 240 AD) portrays him in his History as follows:
”[His] appearance was frightening and his body was enormous; not easily would any of the skilled Greek athletes or the best-trained warriors among the barbarians prove his equal.” 
Backed by his troops and the local Legio XXII Primigenia (nicknamed Pia Fidelis Antoniniana) based at Mainz, Maximinus killed Alexander and his mother Julia Mammaea and was acclaimed emperor by the Praetorian Guard. The displeased Senate grudgingly confirmed the election of a born peasant, referring to him as Thrax (the Thracian) to indicate his barbarian descent. To confirm by action the good reputation and high esteem he enjoyed among the soldiers, Maximinus immediately started military operations, which he continued to conduct during the three years of his reign. He never made his appearance in Rome, which did not help to increase his popularity with the Senate.

The Roman invasion of 235/6 AD
After his successful coup in Mainz, Maximinus transferred the army over a newly built pontoon bridge across the Rhine, and advanced deep into Chatti territory with approximately 40,000 men. Having crossed the Limes, he marched east into the lands of the Hermunduri in modern-day Thuringia. Continuing due north, along the rivers Saale and Elbe, he went as far as to where the Elbe is joined by the river Havel, from where he marched back south to Chatti territory again.
According to Herodian, he met with little opposition as the entire population had fled the plains and was hiding in the woods and the marshes. The letter that Maximinus wrote to the Senate after his campaign in 236 AD is bursting with self-confidence: “We cannot produce as many words as the deeds we accomplished, assembled fathers. Over a distance of 400 to 500 miles we have burned down the villages of the Germans, destroyed the fields with ripening grain, requisitioned the herds, killed the armed and fought a battle in a moor. The number of prisoners is so high, that the Roman Empire can hardly absorb them.” 

Maximinus ordered the scene to be painted on huge canvases to be set up in front of the Curia in Rome, so that the Romans might not only hear about the battle but also be able to see what happened there. This undertaking could never be substantiated, until in the summer of 2008 two amateur archaeologists submitted some Roman artefacts to the Northeimer Kreisarchaeologie in Lower Saxony which they had found some years earlier in the woods of Harzhorn Hill (300 km northeast of Mainz). Excavations started in 2009 have so far produced over 2,000 oft exceptionally well-preserved and mostly military objects. The finds include coins (dating from the reigns of Commodus and Severus Alexander), pilum heads, two completely preserved socket pila, lance and arrow tips, catapult darts, parts of cart-wheels, caligae-hobnails, horse harnesses, armour, tent-pegs, a pickaxe (dolabra), a shovel and a so-called hippo-sandal, a special horse-shoe for horses and mules of a type used only in the Roman army. 

Roman hippo sandal
Normal horse-shoes were not yet known at the time. These iron sandals were tied to the legs with the help of leather straps that were run through the eyes and hooks of the sandal. Because of their weight (ca 500 gr.) and the large hook at the front, they were probably used for mules, as at higher speeds the risk of injury for cavalry horses would have been much too great. The hippo sandal found at Harzhorn is a summer version. Winter sandals would have had hobnails.

The battlefield
The battlefield is located at a narrow passage between Harzhorn Hill to the west and the foothills of the Harz Mountains in the east. The north face of Harzhorn Hill is a steep, 35-meter high slope. Being part of an important ancient trade-route for ore, copper and salt, the pass connects Northern with Central Germany. Since it is also the streambed of a brook, the pass has always been very swampy and in the old days it could only be negotiated at a certain point. Today, it is used by motorway A7 – built on an enormous dam in 1959 – and Federal Highway 248.
The precipitous slopes of the adjacent hills to the west are passable in only a few places. It was here that the archaeologists found the biggest concentrations of weapons, evidence for the Germanic ambush on the legions. Why the Germans did not loot the deserted battlefield afterwards remains a mystery. Smashed carts, hundreds of projectiles sticking up from the ground, and lost items of equipment must have remained visible for years, until they were finally covered by nature.
Normally speaking, battlefields do not remain untouched for a longer period of time. However, the area was never used as agricultural land, and thanks to the chalky soil the metal objects have been preserved in an excellent state. In parts the artefacts are so well preserved that it is possible to reconstruct isolated fighting scenes, such as the impact of arrow salvos or individual infantry attacks. 

The finds corroborate Herodian’s account (Book 7:2.1-2) that under Maximinus’ command “… a vast number of men, virtually the entire Roman military force (i.e. the troops based on the Rhine – rh), together with many Moorish javelin men and Osrhoenian and Armenian archers [were mustered for a campaign against the invading Germanic tribes]. Some were subject peoples, others friends and allies, and included, too, were a number of Parthian mercenaries and slaves captured by the Romans.
This enormous force was originally assembled by [Emperor Severus] Alexander, but it was increased in size and trained for service by Maximinus. The javelin men and archers seemed to be especially effective against the Germans, taking them by surprise, attacking with agility and then retreating without difficulty.

The battle at the Harzhorn
When the Romans returned from their campaign in the north, they found the pass leading south blocked by German warriors, while large numbers of Germans had entrenched themselves along the ridge of the Harzhorn. Unable to withstand the Roman pressure, the Germans withdrew from the pass and retreated on the ridge to join their comrades. The Roman light auxiliary troops tried to force a frontal breakthrough up against the steep slope, but when the attack failed, they fired at the Germans from a distance. In the meantime, Roman infantry hurried 400 m west, climbed the steep slope and managed to encircle the German warriors. On the ridge they started to fire at the Germans with their artillery and archers, forcing the Germans to flee. The impacts of Roman projectile points indicate the Germanic positions.
The pattern of distribution of lost sandal-hobnails makes it possible to retrace the Roman army's route of march. Parts of carts such as linchpins, wheel hubs and harness accessories, as well as fragments of slave chains and tent stakes, are evidence of the army’s baggage train. Catapult bolts document the use of Roman torsion-pressure powered catapults (scorpiones) and carroballistae (catapults mounted on carts). According to Günther Moosbauer, expert for Roman weapons at Osnabrück University, the projectiles could penetrate thick sheet iron at a distance of 80 meters. After the battle, the Romans decided to continue their march in westerly direction towards the valley of the Leine River.  Herodian describes the battle as follows:
“The Germans had left the plains and treeless areas and were hiding in the forests; they remained in the woods and marshes so that the battle would have to take place where the thick screen of trees made the missiles and javelins of their enemies ineffectual, and where the depths of the marshes were dangerous to the Romans because of their unfamiliarity with the region. The Germans, on the contrary, were well acquainted with the terrain and knew which places provided firm footing and which were impassable. They moved rapidly and easily through the marshes, in water only knee-deep.
As a result, most of the skirmishing occurred in those regions, and it was there that the emperor personally and very boldly joined battle. When the Germans rushed into a vast swamp in an effort to escape and the Romans hesitated to leap in after them in pursuit, Maximinus plunged into the marsh, though the water was deeper than his horse's belly; there he cut down the barbarians who opposed him. 

The Harzhorn hill with battle sites marked
Then the rest of the army, ashamed to betray their emperor who was doing their fighting for them, took courage and leaped into the marsh behind him. A large number of men fell on both sides, but, while many Romans were killed, virtually the entire barbarian force was annihilated, and the emperor was the foremost man on the field. The swamp pool was choked with bodies, and the marsh ran red with blood; this land battle had all the appearance of a naval encounter.
This engagement and his own bravery Maximinus reported in dispatches to the Senate and Roman people; moreover, he ordered the scene to be painted on huge canvases to be set up in front of the Senate house, so that the Romans might not only hear about the battle but also be able to see what happened there. Later the Senate removed this picture together with the rest of his emblems of honour. Other battles took place in which Maximinus won praise for his personal participation, for fighting with his own hands, and for being in every conflict the best man on the field.”
After this successful campaign, Maximinus had a second bridge built over the Rhine to secure sufficient supplies. Moreover, he had the destroyed Limes castella restored and new roads built. Since winter had already begun, he went to Pannonia and spent his time at Sirmium (modern-day Sremska Mitrovica) 55 km west of Belgrade, which with its 100,000 inhabitants was one of the biggest cities of its time. Here he made preparations for a final offensive, intending to subjugate the German nations as far as the Ocean and to transform Germania Magna into a Roman province. Similar to what happened to Tiberius two hundred years earlier, a Gothic invasion at the lower Danube in 237AD prevented him from putting his plans into practice. The next year Maximinus Thrax would die at the hands of his own bodyguard.

The Roman Army in the early Third Century
By the end of the second century AD, there were 33 legions, a moderate increase in the total of 28 originally set by Augustus. A further six legions would be created during the crisis of the third century. In 197 AD Emperor Septimius Severus had founded three new legions for his Parthian campaign, Legio Parthica I, II and III. While two of them accompanied him on the journey to Syria, Legio II Parthica was stationed at Castra Albana, modern-day Albano Laziale, only 20 km south of Rome. As the first legion on Italian soil, it became something of an imperial guard division, escorting the emperors on campaign. This legion also comprised special units, such as the lanciarii, equipped with four or five light spears (lanceae), making it possible to deploy them as skirmishers like the velites of the Republic. Caracalla had increased the cavalry of the Legio II Parthica by adding so-called equites extraordinarii, additional horsemen serving in the legions.
In the first half of the third century AD, half of the soldiers from Legio II Parthica came from Thrace and a large contingent came from Pannonia, a trend which would only intensify between the third and sixth centuries. Since the Roman army was desperately in need of fresh blood – and with Italian soldiers becoming scarce – Maximinus Thrax introduced a new systematic recruitment drawing on the youth of the Italian cities, especially in the north.

Until 260 AD most legions were commanded by a legatus, a senatorial civil servant. The legatus had a staff of six tribunes, one tribunus laticlavius of senatorial rank and five tribuni angusticlavii of equestrian rank, who ranked above the centurions. Between 260 and 268 AD, however, Emperor Gallienus decreed that Senators were to be excluded from military command. The new title now used for all commanders of a legion was praefectus legionis. The praefectus probably had a staff of six tribuni angusticlavii. 
Roman legionaries of around 235 AD
As the organisation of the Roman army along the Limes appeared to be unsuitable for engaging invading tribes simultaneously at different points on the border, smaller detachments (vexillationes) were created. These usually consisted of one (quingenaria – 500 men) or two cohorts (milliaria – 1,000 men) and were commanded by a praepositus.
After the reign of Marcus Aurelius it was very seldom that a complete legion left its base in the provinces to move to a critical area somewhere else. Starting with the wars against the Germans and the Sarmatians (168-180 AD), only vexillationes, were deployed. The disadvantage of these flying squads, however, was that they did not smoothly interact with units from other legions, which ultimately resulted in organisational problems that were more severe than those when entire legions were moved. 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.
Legio II Parthica was probably the last legion to fight as a complete unit during the Sassanid War of Gordianus III (r. 242 - 44 AD). Being stationed near Rome, there was no need to split it up in vexillationes. In 257/8 AD, however, parts of the legion were deployed against the Alamanni in Germania and Italy. Essentially, the Roman army was equipped and supplied by the state. State-run factories produced weapons, clothing and armour, while the state provided rations and medical services and ran stud farms to raise cavalry mounts. At the start of the fifth century the Notitia Dignitatum would list 35 state factories (fabricae) across the empire, producing anything from catapults to armour. There were also state-run clothing mills and boot makers

The legions on campaign in Germania Magna in 235 AD
It must be assumed that Legio II Parthica, being the emperor’s escort legion, took part in the campaign, as well as a large number of ethnic units of Germanic origin. A dolabra (pick-axe) found at the Harzhorn indicates the presence of (a vexillatio of) the Legio IIII Flavia Felix, which was based in Singidunum (modern-day Belgrade). Contingents of auxiliary archers were included as well. Herodian rather generally refers to Illyrians and Pannonians. Based on the historical sources, it is assumed that the army contained contingents (numeri) of dark-skinned Mauritanian spear throwers, who could fling their spears unerringly over a wide distance with the help of thongs, as well as a large number of Armenian, North African and Osrhoenian archers. The latter came from northwest Mesopotamia. However, their presence cannot unequivocally be corroborated by the current finds at the Harzhorn.
Nevertheless, armour-piercing spear tips, a plethora of arrow tips and three-bladed arrowheads indicate the presence of oriental archers who used reflex bows. Furthermore it is assumed that units of legions stationed on the Rhine were present, such as Legio I Minervia from Bonna/Bonn, Legio VIII Augusta from Argentoratum/Strasbourg, Legio XXII Primigenia from Mogontiacum/Mainz and Legio XXX Ulpia Victrix from Colonia Ulpia Traiana/Xanten. Wiegels assumes that a part of Legio VII Gemina, originally based in Hispania, may also have been ordered to the Rhine. [19] The participation of other legions is possible, but highly speculative. 

(The sequel to this article is: "The appearance of the Roman army in 235 AD")

Sources and Suggestions for further Reading

  • Campbell, Duncan – Roman Legionary Fortresses 27 BC- AD 378, Osprey Publishing, Oxford 2006
  • Connolly, Peter – Tiberius Claudius Maximus, the cavalryman, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1988
  • Cowan, Ross – Roman Legionary AD 287 – 337, Warrior 175, Osprey, Oxford 2015
  • Cowan, Ross – Römische Legionäre, Republik (58 v. – 69 n. Chr.) und Kaiserreich (161 -284 n. Chr.), Siegler Verlag GmbH, Königswinter, 2007
  • Erdkamp, Paul – A Companion to the Roman Army, Blackwell Publishing 2007-
    • Strobel, Karl – Strategy and Army Structure between Septimius Severus and Constantine the Great
  • Geuenich, Dieter – Geschichte der Alamannen, Kohlhammer, Stuttgart 2005 
  • Goldsworthy, Adrian K. – The Roman Army at War 100 BC-AD 200, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1996 
  • Grant, Michael – The Fall of the Roman Empire, Phoenix paperback edition, Orion books, London 1997 
  • Junkelmann, Marcus – Reiter wie Statuen aus Erz, Verlag Philipp von Zabern, Mainz 1996 
  • Klee, Margot – GERMANIA SUPERIOR, eine römische Provinz in Deutschland, Frankreich und der Schweiz, Verlag Friedrich Pustet, Regensburg 2013 
  • Künzl, Ernst, Die Germanen, Theiss WissenKompakt, Theiss, Stuttgart 2006 
  • Lendering, Jona & Arjen Bosman – Edge of Empire, Rome’s Frontier on the Lower Rhine, Karawansaray BV, Rotterdam 2012 
  • MacDowall, Simon – Late Roman Infantryman 236 - 565 AD, Warrior Series No. 9, Osprey, Oxford 1999 
  • MacDowall, Simon – Germanic Warrior, Warrior Series No. 17, Osprey, Oxford 1996 (reprinted 2004) 
  • Petersen, Daniel – The Roman Legions recreated in Colour Photographs, Windrow & Greene, Singapore 1992 
  • Pöppelmann, Heike, Korana Deppmeyer, Wolf-Dieter Steinmetz – Roms vergessener Feldzug, die Schlacht am Harzhorn, Braunschweigisches Landesmuseum, WBG Verlag, Darmstadt 2013 
    • Fischer, Tomas – Die Soldaten des Maximus Thrax, die Einheiten und Ihre Bewaffnung,( pp 198-206) 
    • Fischer, Thomas – Zur Bewaffnung und Ausrüstung der Kavallerieformationen Roms in der Zeit des Maximinus Thrax, (pp. 228-34)
    • Fuhrmann, Jens and Wolf-Dieter Steinmetz – „Nach seiner Ankunft ließ er das ganze Land verheeren…“- Germanische Besiedlung entland des römischen Marschweges (pp. 135-141)
    • Geschwinde, Michael and Petra Lönne – Die Entdeckung eines Schlachtfeldes das es eigentlich gar nicht geben konnte (pp. 58–64)
    • Lönne, Petra – Die Hipposandale at Harzhorn (p. 65)
    • Meyer, Michael and Günther Moosbauer – Römisch oder germanisch? Wer kämpfte am Harzhorn? (pp. 71-3)
    • Meyer, Michael and Günther Moosbauer – Osrhoener, Mauren und Germanen (pp. 223-6)
    • Wiegels, Rainer – Reiter Roms and Germaniens Grenzen im frühen 3. Jh.n.Chr. (pp. 235-41)
    • Rau, Andreas – Der unsichtbare Gegner, Größe und soziale Zusammensetzung germanischer Kampfverbände (pp. 167-71)
    • Rau, Andreas – Die germanischen Krieger und ihre Bewaffnung im 3. Jh. N. Chr. (pp. 172-9)
  • Russell Robinson, H. – The Armour of Imperial Rome, Lionel Leventhal Ltd, London 1975 
  • Simkins, Michael – The Roman Army from Hadrian to Constantine, Men-at-Arms Series, Osprey, London 1979 
  • Simkins, Michael – Warriors of Rome, Blandford Cassell, London 1990 
  • Sumner, Graham – Roman Military Clothing (2) AD 200-400, Men-at-Arms Series (390), Osprey, London 2003 
  • Sumner, Graham – Roman Military Dress, The History Press, Stroud 2009 
  • Vegetius – De Re Militari (Het Romeinse Leger, Handboek voor de Generaal, transl. by Fik Meijer), Atheneum, Amsterdam 2002 
  • Wiegels, Rainer – Zu den Heeresformationen Roms an Rhein und oberer Donau in der Zeit des Severus Alexander und Maximinus Thrax, Klio 2014; 96(1): 93–143, Osnabrück University 2014