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Expeditions

Renovatio Imperii

While the Western Roman Empire started to disintegrate in the first half of the 5th century AD, the Eastern Roman Empire was still intact and flourishing. Eastern armies guarded the frontier from the Danube to the border with the Sassanid empire. The main Christian centers of the late Roman world were situated in the east, in Constantinople, Antioch and Alexandria of Egypt.

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Mosaic depocting Emperor Justinian in his imperial regalia. His earrings are a symbol of imperial power. San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy.

Into this world was born Flavius Petrus Sabbatius Iustinianus, known to posterity as Emperor Justinian I. When Justinian ascended to the throne of Constantinople in 527 AD, he envisioned a plan for the reconquest of the old Western Empire. In order to launch this great invasion, he first however needed a general and an army. The general he ultimately selected to lead this campaign was Flavius Belisarius, a Thracian with a keen strategic and tactical mind as well as  experience gained through conflict with the Sassanids. The army was duly formed after signing a peace treaty with the Sassanid Empire.
In 533 AD, Belisarius’ army landed in North Africa, a rich Roman province controlled by the Vandals, a Germanic people who had migrated there during the last years of the Western Roman empire. Belisarius acted swiftly and effectively, defeating the Vandals, led by King Gelimer. The conquest of North Africa was made easier by the religious divisions between the Romans and the Vandals, as the Vandals were Arian Christians while the Romans were Nicene Christians. The Vandals had also encountered difficulties in integrating with the local Roman elites.

After the conquest of North Africa, the next step in Justinian’s plan was to recover the Ostrogothic kingdom of Italy, founded by Amal king Theodoric the Great. In the Ostrogothic kingdom, relationships between the old Roman elites and the recent Gothic arrivals had plummeted. After the death of Theodoric, power had passed to his daughter Amalasunta, who was deeply pro-Roman and fascinated by Greek and Roman culture. When Amalasunta was imprisoned and disposed of by Theodahad, count of Tuscany, Justinian declared war on the Goths. Belisarius was swiftly sent to Sicily in 535 AD, where he occupied the island with little resistance, before crossing into mainland Italy in 536 AD, where he captured Naples and Rome.
The recapture of Rome had a powerful symbolic meaning although real power was now located in the east. After defending Rome from a Gothic onslot, in 540 AD Belisarius took the city of Ravenna, the old western imperial capital. After having refused the Ostrogothic offer of getting crowned as Emperor of the Western Empire, Belisarius was sent back to the east by Justinian, to deal with the renewed Sassanid threat and probably because of the emperor’s envy of his military prowess. The Ostrogoths under king Totila exploited the absence of Belisarius to mount a counteroffensive that while initially successful, ultimately failed. Justinian’s dreams of reconquering Western Rome was fulfilled at great cost.

The “Gothic wars” caused institutional damage, farmland devastation and civilian casualties in the Italian peninsula. The wars also overstretched the Eastern Roman army and their supply lines. Eastern Rome had few soldiers to spare and it needed most of the legions at the frontier. Belisarius’ expedition had weakened the frontier and the troops which remained were not enough to hold the whole Italian peninsula and North Africa. This situation was exploited by the Lombards, a Germanic people who waged a violent war against the remaining Eastern Roman troops in Italy. The Lombards conquered most of the Italian peninsula except for a few coastal areas. Both Ravenna and Rome remained under Eastern control as they were supplied by the powerful Eastern Roman navy. The segments of Italy controlled by Eastern Rome would remain under the command of the exarch of Ravenna, a military commander subordinate to the emperor. The territories acquired in North Africa were governed by an exarch based in Cathage. These territories were always on the defensive as Constantinople could not supply enough military resources to mount a counteroffensive. The bishop of Rome gradually detached himself from the control and influence of Constantinople. While initially seeking help from Constantinople to defend Rome against the Lombards, the pope eventually found a new defender in the king of the Franks.

In the end, we can say that the Eastern Roman empire under Justinian did not have sufficient manpower or resources to maintain control over the new conquered lands. Although we have little information about the Eastern Roman army of the time, we know that the core of the army was made of Scutati or Scutatoi (shield bearers), which were essentially late Roman legionnaires, equipped with oval shields, Spathas, mail armor and ridge helemts. The role of the cavalry was increased as mobility was more valued on the battlefield. Most cavalry regiments were provided by Germanic peoples, the Huns, the Alans or the Sarmatians, all horse breeding peoples. However, the elite arm of Belisarius’ army was made of Bucellarii, privately owned soldiers who were loyal to their commander. They were the best trained as well as the best equipped of Belisarius’ troops. Belisarius could afford to employ thousands of them. It is also probable that some Limitanei regiments served under Belisarius in North Africa and Italy. Most of the information relating to Belisarius’ campaign comes from Procopius of Caesarea, Belisarius’ personal attendant and secretary.

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The Brother Emperors

Valentinian I “the Great” is an extremely fascinating character.

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Coin of brother emperors Valentinian I and Valens. Wien, Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Münzkabinett. Photo credit to Adriano Zampolini.

A man mostly forgotten by history, Valentinian was a great military strategist and was prone to incredible bursts of anger. According to Ammianus Marcellinus, he was good looking, loved sober elegance, had good memory, was envious of other successful individuals, disliked the rich and the shy, being one himself and used to impose rigorous discipline on soldiers. However, underneath the harsh military exterior and the wrathful temper, he did have an extremely sensitive side, full of empathy and passion.

When he was acclaimed Emperor by the troops and the imperial Council on February 26th 364 AD, Valentinian was already an experienced military officer who had served both on the Rhine and in Mesopotamia, where he was promoted tribune of the elite Scutarii regiment. He was insecure, however, about the stability of his future reign, as immediately preceding him there had been a bloody civil conflict between the relatives of emperor Costantine. Therefore, to avoid further roman blood being shed and to impose his power on the imperial Council, he made his loyal younger brother Valens co-emperor in the eastern half of the Roman Empire. According to Ammianus Marcellinus, who disliked Valentinian, it was Germanic general Dagalaifus who pressured the emperor into choosing his brother Valens, despite him being inexperienced in civil and military matters. Though, according to the Late Roman historian, despite being greedy and quite lazy, Valens would turn out to be an excellent administrator. He was good looking and got a cataract in his eyes by the age of 50.

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Medallion of emperor Valens. Wien, Kunsthistorischesmuseum, Münzkabinett. Photo credit to Adriano Zampolini.

At Sirmium, in modern day Serbia, the two emperors divided their military personnel. The legions that were to serve Valentinian were dubbed Seniores while those under Valens were called Iuniores. Immediately, Valens’s power in the east was challenged by a usurper named Procopius, while Valentinian was occupied against the Alamanni tribe on the Rhine frontier. Valens was alone against Procopius, and as he had always been more of a follower than a leader, upon receiving news of the revolt, he faltered and even considered suicide. After this initial crisis of confidence, Valens strengthened his resolve to fight, ultimately managing to defeat Procopius in Anatolia (modern day Turkey) at the Battle of Thyatira. Procopius was captured and beheaded on the spot by Valens’s officers, and his head was sent to Valentinian as a trophy.

Meanwhile, Valens’s older brother was achieving victory after victory against the Alamanni in the West. An exceptional military man, Valentinian designed aggressive campaigns against the tribes living outside the Roman borders. One of these was the 368 AD expedition in which the Emperor gathered a massive army, including the Italian Comitatenses (professional troops) led by the Comes Italiae Sebastianus. He achieved a great victory at the Battle of Solicinium after which he then fortified the frontiers by building fortresses both inside and outside the established borders. Valentinian was the last western emperor to fortify the Roman frontiers and to lead an expedition outside the Roman Limes. By 370 AD, the empire seemed relatively stable after other successes against the Saxons.

 

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Colossal bronze statue of Valentinian I in Barletta, Apulia. Photo credit to Adriano Zampolini.

 

According to Ammianus Marcellinus, death for Valentinian came in the form of a bursting blood vessels during one of his angry outbursts while negotiating with tribes on the Rhine (14 November 375 AD). This account is questionable.

Power in the west fell to Valentinian’s young son Gratian while the east remained under Valens. Valens had obtained victories over the Goths under Athanaric in the Balkans by the year 369 AD while Armenia was invaded by the powerful Persian King of Kings Shapur II. The bloody military encounters that followed ended in a stalemate in the East, with the persian armies kept at bay for the time being. In the year 376 AD, Valens was forced to rush to the Danube frontier, as the gothic tribe Tervingi had crossed the river and had defeated a roman force near Marcianople. After some initial success by the Roman general Sebastianus, the Goths, led by chieftain Fritigern, managed to defeat Valens’s imperial army at Adrianople, in Thrace.

Valens was among the dead, though his body was never found. Thus the Valentinian brothers came to an end, a period in history which has been undervalued to say the least, but was nevertheless rich of heroism, intrigue, imperial might and cruelty. This period is also proof of the Late Roman Empire’s military and civil might, charateristics that will be preserved in the Eastern half of the Empire and deteriorate over time in the West after the demise of Valentinian.

 

Introduction to the Late Roman Army

After the military reforms of Emperor Costantine the Great (306-337 AD), the traditional Roman army as we know it morphed into a more mobile and specialized force, able to deal quickly with foreign and domestic threats that arose throughout the empire. The new army of Costantine was composed of three main groups: the Comitatenses, the Limitanei or Riparienses and the Palatina legions.
 

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Constantine the Great, Capitoline Museums, Rome. Copyright © 2016 Adriano Zampolini. All rights reserved.

The Comitatenses, heirs of the classical roman legionnaire, were the professional heavy soldiers armed with the long spatha and an oval shield. Their commanders were the Comes, a military figure who later gave birth to the medieval Count.
 

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Comitatenses

The Limitanei or Riparienses were paid less, had lower physical requirements but were still full-time professional soldiers who guarded the precarious roman borders, operating as an initial defensive line and an efficient scouting force. They only dealt with small-scale attacks and were usually withdrawn if the situation got extremely dangerous. Their commanders were the Duces, a word later used to indicate all kind of commands.
 

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Limitanei or Riparienses

The Palatina legions, which included the Ioviani, were elite regiments of soldiers and guards associated with the emperor’s presence. Contrary to popular belief, these legions were extremely successful against enemy incursions because of their structure but were considerably drained by civil conflicts.
 

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Herculiani seniores, Palatini

This new defensive model provided by the army of Costantine was called “in depth”, as it guaranteed different levels of protection.

 

As can be seen in the Battle of Strasbourg (357 AD), the late Romans, guided by Caesar Julian, were more than capable of forming disciplined and effective armies. Therefore, we cannot solely blame the army for the Fall of the Western Empire. In fact, the army remained a capable and efficient force almost until the last breath of the Roman West.

To further prove this, we can look at the Battle of Adrianople (378 AD), during which there were no morale or disciplinary failures by the army, with troops retreating only when the situation became hopeless. The late Roman army was not weaker than its predecessor, instead it had to face extremely precarious situations, often prevailing over insurmountable odds. Despite common belief, the considerable “barbarization” of the army did not cause it to decline in efficiency. According to Ammianus Marcellinus, the soldiers whose origins were outside the Roman Empire were extremely competent and reliable. 

 

Death between the Dunes

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Al-Mutawakkil Great Mosque and archaeological site (9th century AD). In June 363 AD, it must have been boiling hot and wearing roman heavy armor certainly did not help.

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 to capitalize 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 sudden Sassanid 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.

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Emperor Julian (361-363 AD) is famous for his struggle against the now dominating Christian faith in the Roman Empire. Julian’s beard symbolyzes his philosophical erudition and his attachment to the pagan tradition.

 

The Sogdian Rock

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Babak Castle, located in North-Western Iran. The Achaemenid and Sassanid Persians were famous for building their castles on top of steep mountains.

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.

An Expedition to Carnuntum: The Main Roman Fort on the Limes Pannonicus

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Map of the Danube frontier around Vindobona. Down the river to the east, the Romans built the fort of Arrabona, modern day Györ, Hungary.

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.

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A photo of me in the town’s roman amphitheater built around 200 AD. Petronell-Carnuntum, Lower Austria. 19 January 2017. 

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 city  is the so called Heidentor, a monumental archway erected next to the fort probably dedicated to the reunion of the tetrarchs under Diocletian or to  Valentinian’s victories against germanic tribes.

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Heidentor, monumental archway erected around 300 AD. Petronell-Carnuntum, Lower Austria. 19 January 2017. 

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.

 

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