In June of year 363 AD, near the city of Samarra in modern day Iraq,a large professional Roman army was in a state of total chaos. The Romans were led by Princeps Julian, a cultured and competent leader who had led the army to victory near the Persian capital of Ctesiphon a month earlier. Julian however failed tocapitalize on this important tactical victory, and did not siege the city as an incoming force led by the King of Kings Shapur II was closing in from the east. Near Samarra, Julian’s army of 35,000 was intercepted by skirmishing cavalry sent by Shapur. The Persians attacked the roman cohorts who were advancing in square formations to avoid encirclement. Julian, seeing his troops panicking in front of the suddenSassanid attack, rushed forward without his armor in order to encourage his men to fight on. He was however spotted by Sassanid officers who sent an arab regiment of auxiliary cavalry to assassinate him. Julian was hit on his back by a javelin and was immediately rushed to the rearguard. His doctor Oribasius couldn’t do anything, as the Emperor died a few hours later in his tent. The roman army, now without a leader, chose Jovian (Julian’s Comes Domesticorum) as the new emperor. Facing continuous raids from the Sassanids, the Romans were forced to sign a humiliating peace treaty with Shapur II. Shortly after the peace negotiations, emperor Jovian died in his tent in Anatolia (Dadastana) under mysterious circumstances.
In the spring of 327 BC, Alexander the Great, King of Macedon, had conquered most of the persian Achaemenid empire and defeated the King of Kings Darius III in numerous battles. Alexander had arrived in Central Asia, in a region known then as Sogdiana (modern day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) and had encountered stiff resistance from the Iranic peoples that lived in the hereto unexplored region. One of the leaders of the resistance was Oxyartes, a persian nobleman who had a beautiful daughter named Roxanne. Roxanne was sent by her father to a fortified castle near the city of Maracanda (Samarkand). The castle was considered impregnable, as it was located on the top of a steep mountain and therefore nicknamed “The Sogdian Rock”. While Alexander was preparing the troops for the siege, the confident defenders told him that to take their castle he would need “men with wings”. Alexander took 300 volunteers experienced in rock climbing (Macedonia being a mountainous region, his men were skilled climbers)and sent them up the slopes of the mountain. When the men arrived on the top, Alexander sent messangers to tell the Persians that if they looked up on the walls, they would have seen their winged men. The Persians, astonished, surrendered to Alexander. After the siege Alexander married Oxyartes’s daughter Roxanne, who gave him a son, Alexander IV.
By the time teenage emperor Romulus Augustulus was deposed by Germanic general Odoacer in 476 AD, the western Roman world was fragmented and governed by mostly “barbarian” rulers who led the so called “romano-barbarian” kingdoms. There was however a land in northern Gaul, near the city of Noviodunum (modern day Soissons), which still claimed to be part of the Roman Empire. The leader of the domain of Soissons was Afranius Syagrius, the son of the able Magister Militum per Gallias, Aegidius. He was referred to as “King of the Romans” by the Frankish nobles, and tried to maintain a successful Gaullic-Roman state in the middle of a mostly germanic ruled western Europe. Syagrius succeeded in pursuing his objective for about 25 years, but, in 486 AD, he was challenged by the ambitious king of the Franks, Clovis I. Syagrius confronted the armies of Clovis near Soissons, in the modern French department of Aisne. The Franks managed to crush the Roman forces, as Syagrius was forced to flee to the Visigothic court of Alaric II. Alaric, intimidated by the powerful Franks, handed Syagrius over to Clovis, who summarily executed him. Gregory of Tours wrote about the event, claiming that Syagrius was stabbed in secret. With the death of Syagrius, Roman rule in the West came to an end. This is not to say that Roman culture disappeared entirely, as the Eastern Roman Empire was still strong and the new germanic kingdoms viewed Rome as a model, which they copied extensively, from administrative posts to military tactics and ranks.
The Arcani or Areani were a Roman paramilitary group which acted as a secret police force for the state. Their name means “the hidden ones” or “the secret ones” in Latin, which in and of itself, suggest a role of secrecy. The lack of information about the Arcani is another confirmation of their secretive role. The Arcani were mostly tasked with reconnaissance duties and intelligence missions around the frontiers, giving detailed reports about enemy forces and leaders. The majority of them most likely had military experience, especially “field agents”, whose mission it was to infiltrate enemy territory. We don’t know much about their techniques of subterfuge, but most of their covert operations probably took place during diplomatic gatherings, military expeditions or hostage exchanges. During the late Roman period, they were probably responsible for multiple assassinations of foreign chieftains and kings. They may have worked alongside the Exploratores and Praeventores in supervising the frontier. According to late Roman author and military officer, Ammianus Marcellinus, by the second half of the 4th century AD, the Arcani had become an old and corrupt institution. After being accused of collaborating with the enemy, particularly in regards to the Great Conspiracy, a joint invasion of Britain which included the Attacotti, the Franks, the Saxons and the Picts, the Arcani were disbanded by Count Theodosius the elder, father of future emperor Theodosius I. The Arcani were, and continue to be, often subject of romanticized depictions and wild speculation, especially because very little is known about them. Perhaps the mystery surrounding the Arcani was meant from the beginning?
Carnuntum was one of the main roman forts on the Danube frontier, and, in particular, on the Limes Pannonicus, a section of the Danube Limes. Carnuntum is a center of celtic origin, its name deriving from from “kar” or “karn” which means rock in Celtic. During late roman times, the castrum was used by emperor Valentinian I as the main springboard for his aggressive campaigns against the Quadi tribes, germanic people. Carnuntum had a legionary fortress, an auxiliary fort and was home to the Pannonian river fleet. The auxiliary fort hosted the Ala I Thracum, a cavalry regiment, which, as the name suggests, came from the roman province of Thracia, in modern day Bulgaria. Ruins of a large amphitheater built around the second half of the 2nd century AD, which could host around 12.000 spectators, are still visible today.
Additionally, a civil center developed around the forts,most probably inhabited by the family of the soldiers. In 308 AD the city hosted the Carnuntum conference, a diplomatic gathering between the main leaders of Diocletian’s tetrarchy. Emperor Valentinian rebuilt the military forts which had been destroyed by the repeated incursions of the Jazigi, a Sarmatian (Iranian) tribal group. After the death of Valentinian in 375 AD at the fort of Brigetio, in modern day Hungary, the forts of Carnuntum went into disrepair. Today’s emblem of the cityis the so called Heidentor, a monumental archway erected next to the fort probably dedicated to the reunion of the tetrarchs under Diocletian or toValentinian’s victories against germanic tribes.
The so called “amber road”, which can still be walked on, ran through the legionary fort in Carnuntum leading to Aquileia, Friuli Venezia Giulia and Rome. Memories of roman times are still strong, as many streets and hotels are named after roman emperors. Carnuntum remains the most ancient roman fort on the Limes Pannonicus, a true stronghold against barbarian hordes.
Fritigern is one of the most famous Gothic rulers in history. Contrary to popular belief, Fritigern was not born into a primitive and barbarian society. On the contrary, he was part of a group of people, the Tervingi Goths, who had been in contact with the Roman world for years, as a result of trade and Roman attempts at converting the Goths to Christianity. The Romans were even partly successful, with the Goths partly embracing Arian Christianity thanks to the conversion campaign promoted by bishop Ulfilas, with Frigern being one of those converted. In the year 375 AD however, things changed drastically for the Goths as bellicose Hunnic tribes invaded from the North. In 376 AD, in response to the invasions of the Huns, the Goths began amassing on the northern banks of the Danube, in modern day Bulgaria. The river served as the northern boundary of the eastern Roman empire, which at the time was led by emperor Valens. The gothic leaders, including Fritigern, did not want to invade the empire, instead they wished to settle down within its borders and be protected from the Hunnic threat. The gothic chieftains sent ambassadors to the emperor, who was based in Antioch, in modern day Syria.
Valens, planning to enlist the gothic male population into the army, accepted their proposal. Therefore, the Goths crossed over the Danube under Roman supervision. The Roman provincial authorities however, were not able to deal with the immigration wave and, in the city of Marcianople, they slaughtered the gothic authorities. Fritigern was the only chieftain to survivethe carnage. He maintained his pro-Roman policy, facing Roman armies only when necessary. In 378 AD, near the city of Adrianople in Thrace, Fritigern tried to negotiate a peaceful solution to the conflict with the emperor. While Fritigern’s delegation (which included a priest) and Valens were discussing peace terms in the Roman camp, a battle started outside. The confrontation would end with a complete victory for the Goths and with the death of Valens on the battlefield. Fritigern however, would always remain open to negotiations with the Romans. In order to bring them to the negotiating table, Fritigern even tried to besiege Adrianople and Constantinople, failing in both attempts and saying: “I make peace with stone walls”. He then confronted the new eastern emperor, Theodosius I,in three years of guerrilla warfare. During this period, he disappeared from history, probably dead in battle or assassinated by his own men (with the aid of roman gold). Fritigern is arguably the first germanic leader to truly challenge Roman power. He did not want however to replace the Roman culture with that of the Goths, instead wanting cooperation between the two groups. Being the leader of a tribal society, he must have been a truly charismatic and competent character, demonstrating his military prowess in the battles of Marcianopolis, Ad Salices and Adrianople. After his mysterious death, Fritigern was succeeded by Athanaric, who finally managed to negotiate a peace treaty with Theodosius I.
Emperor Majorian was born around the year 420 AD. Coming from a prominent military family, Majorian served as an officer under the Magister Militum Flavius Aetius, a very able commander. Majorian lived in a violent epoch in which most of the western Roman Empire was flooded by germanic tribes or dismembered by civil strife and economic collapse. The professional legions, the traditional core of the Roman army, were disintegrating and increasingly replaced by germanic warriors. The empire was led by Valentinian III, an ineffective emperor, mostly concerned with issues arising from the rapidly growing Christian church. Under Aetius, Majorian distinguished himself as a cavalry tribune against the Franks of King Chlodius. On June 20th 451 AD, the armies of Aetius clashed with the Huns and their allies, led by King Attila, on the plains of Chalons en Champagne in Gaul, modern day France. The Romans, aided by the Visigoths of King Torrismund, were victorious and Majorian managed to survive the bloody battle. In 454 AD, however, Majorian’s commander Aetius was brutally assassinated by emperor Valentinian III in Ravenna, Italy which had become the fortified capital of the western empire.
One year later, Valentinian himself was hacked to pieces by two gothic soldiers loyal to Aetius in the Campus Martius in Rome. The western empire was in disarray. The two most important men of the empire had been killed, and inevitably, a power vacuum soon followed, causing a calamitous situation in ancient Rome. First, a roman aristocrat by the name of Petronius Maximus was elevated to the imperial throne, though his reign lasted just sixty days. The gaul Avitus replaced him, and managed to hold onto power for fifteen months. He was ultimately deposed, however, by Majorian and by his germanic coconspirator, Ricimer. Majorian was subsequently proclaimed emperor by the troops in 457 AD. During his reign, Majorian successfully defended Italy from foreign threats, strengthened the army by recruiting german warriors, and reconquered Gaul with the use of arms and diplomacy. He failed, however, to recapture Northern Africa, which had been previously conquered by the Vandals, as his fleet was destroyed by traitors near Elche, Spain.
Apart from being a great soldier, Majoran was also a cultured man and an admirer of philosopher emperor Marcus Aurelius. Majorian was also a stern legislator as he wrote the Novellae Maiorani, a collection of general laws. The emperor minted coins in gold, silver and bronze and was often depicted with a helmet in order to show his military background. He tried to cooperate with the senatorial elites by involving them in civil administration. He also had a keen interest in safeguarding public monuments which were suffering from looting. The successful reign of Majorian ended when his germanic Magister Militum, Ricimer, betrayed him. Ricimer met the emperorwith a band of troops near Tortona and arrested him. Majorian was deposed and on August 7th 461 AD, and was beheaded near the river Iria, in the Italian province of Liguria. Majorian can be considered the last truly successful western emperor as he was a keen reformer and an able military leader, truly deserving, in my opinion, the title of Last of the Romans.
The Persian army under the Sassanid dynasty of Late antiquity was an extremely efficient force, more loyal and reliable than its Parthian predecessor. The heavy cavalry or cataphracts, taken from the Azadan or minor Persian nobility (feudal nobles) were its core divisions. The 10.000 knights guarding the King of Kings, the Zhayedan or Immortals, were cataphracts as well.
The 1.000 elite Pushtigban were the same type of heavy cavalry and were based at the capital Ctesiphon. The charge of a shock unit like the cataphracts in battle produced massive damage to enemy divisions and also had great psychological impact on the enemy. In fact, these knights were completely encased in armor, including their faces. According to roman officer and author Amianus Marcellinus, cataphracts looked like “moving iron statues”. The military officers of the Sassanid army were drawn from the Wuzurgan nobility. Light cavalry such as skirmishers and horse archers was mostly supplied by the bellicose tribes of Central Asia like the Hepthalites and the Massagetae. Regiments of light Arab cavalry, mostly provided by the Lakhmids, were always present in Persian armies. The Sassanids also had infantry, though most of their footmen were not trained or professional soldiers but levied and seasonal troops, mostly being armed with spears and large wicker shields. However, an elite body of infantry troops also existed: the Daylamite warriors, Daylamig in Middle Persian.
These warriors were drawn from the mountainous regions of Northern Iran, the Southern shores of the Caspian Sea. They reached such a high status that 4.000 of them were chosen as private bodyguards by Shah Khosrow II, thereby forming the Gond-i Shahanshah or Army of the King of Kings. The Sassanid army was a very efficient sieging force, using mining techniques, siege towers, catapults and battering rams to siege walled and well fortified cities like the roman fortress of Dura Europos. War elephants from India carried little fortified towers with archer support on top. The elephant corps was under a special chief, known as the Zend-hapet, or “Commander of the Indians”.
High Ranking Officers:
Erahn Spahbed – Commander in chief of the army, the equivalent of a Roman Magister Militum.
Spahbed – Army commander and field general, Middle Persian Spahpat.
Pushtigban Salar – Commander of the Pushtigban bodyguards based in Ctesiphon, Mesopotamia.
Eran Anbaraghdad – Officer responsible for the army supplies, of crucial importance while campaigning.
Stor-Bizeshk – Senior officer responsible for the health of the steeds, essential for the cataphracts and very knoledgiable about herbs.
Arghbed – Commander of a fort or castle.
Payghan Salar – Chief of an infantry division, guarded by elite Daylamites, Northern Iranian warriors.
Savaran Sardar – Head of a cavalry division.
Varhranighan Khvadhay – Commander of the 10.000 Zhayedan bodyguards (the Immortals).
The Ioviani were created by soldier Emperor Diocletian (284-305 AD) as an elite guard unit. The name Ioviani derives from Iuppiter, the patron god of the legion. Later on, they became part of the Palatina Legions of the new Constantinian army as elite regiments led personally by the emperor. They served under emperor Valentinian the Great as Ioviani Seniores in his aggressive campaigns on the Rhine Frontier, taking part in the Battle of Solicinium in 368 AD.
They also served in the province of Britannia under Comes Theodosius against the Picts, the Franks and the Saxons. In the year 388 AD, the Ioviani fought again in Germany, losing their commander Heraclius in battle. They took part in the Battle of the Frigidus in 395 AD. They served under the Magister Militum Flavius Stilicho and in this period they were headquartered in Pisa, Tuscany. They fought against the rebellion of the Comes Gildo in North Africa alongside the Herculiani Seniores. At the beginning of the 5th century, the Ioviani Seniores were probably still based in Pisa and were one of the last units to dissolve in the west, remaining loyal to the emperor till the very end. The Ioviani were one of the most senior Palatina Legions in the west. They were proficient in the throwing of plumbata, a form of lead-weighted dart carried by heavy infantry. Their shield crest was a red eagle on a blue field. Before engaging in battle, the Ioviani would perform the barritus, a roman war chant of germanic origin that consisted in a crescendo of low pitched noises enhanced by putting the mouth close to the shield. They fought as heavy infantry, armed with a long spatha and an oval shield. They probably also carried short spears.