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)|
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 ADConfronted 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 increasesConsequently, 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.
DevaluationTo 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|
The antoninianus can be identified by its obverse on which the emperor is depicted wearing a radiate crown.
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.
More barbarian invasionsWhile 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 (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 ADAfter 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|
The battlefieldThe 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 HarzhornWhen 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|
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 CenturyBy 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.
OrganisationUntil 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|
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 ADIt 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.  The participation of other legions is possible, but highly speculative.
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