The tragic history of Quintus Sertorius seems to define the complexion of late Roman Republican politics. One of the most capable generals of the late Republican era, Sertorius opposed the dictatorship of Sulla – and formed a successful shadow Roman Senate as well as Army in Spain. Somewhat surprisingly, Sertorius was not a bitter-ender, and attempted many times to reconcile with the Sullan faction. Ultimately unbeaten in battle, Sertorius was eventually assassinated by one of his own subordinates.
Historian Adrian Goldsworthy chronicles late Republican politics in his biography of Sertorius, as well as how the Marian and Sullan factions interacted post-Marius.
“The same belief in the superiority of Rome that made senators by the second century BC hold themselves the equals of any king ensured that no disappointed Roman politician sought the aid of a foreign power. Senators wanted success, but that success only counted if it was achieved at Rome.
“Roman commanders and senior subordinates were expected to lead and direct their soldiers from just behind the fighting line, a style of leadership which inevitably involved considerable risk of wounding or death. Sertorius led in an especially bold fashion, inspiring his men with his contempt for the enemy and trusting to his personal skill at arms to protect himself from any attack.
“The same drive for absolute victory which made the Romans so difficult to defeat in foreign wars ensured that their internal struggles between enemies were very rare and never proved permanent.
“Sertorius was a tragic, rather romantic, figure who had the misfortune to commit himself to the losing side in a civil war… Although a ‘new man’, he should under normal circumstances have had a highly successful career. His gifts as a leader, administrator and commander were of the highest order.
“A gifted orator and with some learning in law, he began to gain a reputation in the courts before embarking with enthusiasm on a period of military service. As mentioned in the last chapter, he managed to survive the disaster at Arausio in 105, swimming the Rhone in spite of his wounds and still managing to bring away his personal weapons.
*All excerpts have been taken from In the Name of Rome: The Men Who Won the Roman Empire, Orion Publishing Group.
Rather than a rapid triumph over the Byzantines in North Africa, the Arab conquest in fact advanced at a snail’s pace over the course of many decades. In his biography of Justinian II, Peter Crawford reconstructs – as well as analyzes – the Arab conquest from multiple vantage points to highlight the operational and strategic push/pull of the conflict.
“More seriously, in Roman Lazica, a revolt broke out under the patricius Sergios, son of Barnoukios, which succeeded in handing the region over to the Arabs. Any seeming reticence from Leontios to meet the Umayyads in battle may have emboldened Abd al-Malik to target one of the empire’s overseas provinces: the Exarchate of Africa and its great bastion, Carthage.
“Such was the success of this Romano-Berber coalition in defeating Uqba and overturning much of his gains that the Liber Pontificalis, likely echoing papal/imperial propaganda, proclaimed that by 685 ‘the entire province of Africa was again totally subjugated to the Roman Empire’.
“The Exarchate of Africa was in dire straits, undermined by years of incessant Arab raids and drained through heavy tribute paid to both Damascus and Constantinople. Its brief successes were also reliant on Arab distraction and military aid from elsewhere. The Roman forces that had staged the raids on Cyrenaica and killed Zuhayr may well have been reinforcements from the central government, which could not be relied upon to always be around particularly once Justinian II had embarked on war with the Arabs, Bulgars and Slavs.
“Abd al-Malik sent up to 40,000 of his freed-up forces under Hasan b. al-Nu’man to re-establish the Arab position in Africa. With the biggest Arab army yet deployed to Africa, Hasan was to accomplish much more than that. His military achievements and administrative institutions were to create the first real Arab government in Africa, making him ‘in many ways, the real founder of Muslim North Africa’.
“As well as the battle for Carthage, Hasan also had to capture a series of forts along the north coast, such as Vaga and Hippo Regius. It could well be that there were other Roman held forts to the south of Carthage that Hasan either had to capture first or bypass en route to his showdown with John. This suggests that even with his expedition facing an existential threat in the face of a reinforced Hasan, John failed to bring together all of the forces available to him to defend Carthage.
*All excerpts have been taken from Justinian II: The Roman Emperor Who Lost His Nose and His Throne… and Regained Both!, Pen and Sword.
The Byzantines were the strategic culture par excellence of Western civilization for much of their more than thousand year history. The Strategikon was written during the reign of the Emperor Mauricius as a military and diplomatic guidebook for the Byzantine high command. It is a combined arms treatise which synthesizes components of cultural anthropology, psychological operations, tactical dispositions, human intelligence collection, military maxims, reconnaissance techniques, and lessons learned from the era of the Later Roman Empire. The Strategikon – when it was followed – acted as a combat multiplier for the often outnumbered Byzantine military, and even when defeated their opponents usually only won after a close-run contest.
“For it is not true, as some inexperienced people believe, that wars are decided by courage and numbers of troops, but – along with God’s favor – by tactics and generalship, and our concern should be with these rather than wasting our time in mobilizing large numbers of men. The former provide security and advantage to men who know how to use them well, whereas the other brings trouble and financial ruin.
“Warfare is like hunting. Wild animals are taken by scouting, by nets, by lying in wait, by stalking, by circling around, and by other such stratagems rather than by sheer force. In waging war we should proceed in the same way, whether the enemy be many or few.
“Before any fighting the first and the safest thing to do is to choose a few experienced and lightly armed soldiers and have them very secretly carry out attacks against some detachments of the enemy. If they succeed in killing or capturing some of them, then most of our soldiers will take this as evidence of our own superiority. They will get over their nervousness, their morale will pick up, and they will gradually become used to fighting against them.
“Unless it is absolutely necessary, for a few days after a defeat in battle no attempt should be made to line up again and resume the offensive. It is better to rely on stratagems, deception, carefully timed surprise moves, and the so-called fighting while fleeing, until the troops come to forget their discouragement, and their morale picks up once more.
“There can be no rest until the enemy is completely destroyed. If they seek refuge behind fortifications, apply pressure by direct force or by preventing them from getting more supplies for men and horses until they are annihilated or else agree to a treaty to our advantage. One should not slacken after driving them back just a short distance, nor, after so much hard work and the dangers of war, should one jeopardize the success of the whole campaign because of lack of persistence. In war, as in hunting, a near-miss is still a complete miss.
*All excerpts have been taken from Maurice’s Strategikon: Handbook of Byzantine Military Strategy, University of Pennsylvania Press.
Defense strategy in the Roman Empire following the Crisis of the Third Century evolved considerably from the earlier preclusive security apparatus of Hadrian – which emphasized a synthesis of passive and active defense along mostly static lines of effort. Arther Ferrill credits the Emperor Constantine with the transition from the preclusive ideal to a novel defense-in-depth approach, which offered weakened frontier defenses in favor of large mobile field armies. This new model Roman army allowed more centralized control for the Emperor – as well as greater personal security – but with a vastly less controlled border region for the Empire.
“Such obvious advantages, reflecting organization of war-making capacity far beyond that of Rome’s potential opponents, gave the Roman armies a psychological edge, a superiority in morale, often sufficient in itself to deter hostile military action. In the great days of the second century, with an army of about 300,000, the Romans defended an empire of some 50,000,000 people living in the Mediterranean basin.
“More than anything else Roman grand strategy in the High Roman Empire was based on the tactical superiority of the Roman army against all potential foes. To that extent the famous walls and fortresses can be misleading. The army, not the walls or forts, defended the frontiers.
“Roman grand strategy of the second century was predicated on political stability – preclusive security requires the presence of the legions on the frontiers. Civil war and rebellion, especially when they became endemic, diverted legions from the frontiers to the interior, creating marvelous opportunities for enemies across the border. That is what happened in the third century.
“The big change in Roman grand strategy came with Constantine the Great. As Zosimus claimed in the passage quoted above, Constantine organized a large mobile field army (probably 100,000 or more), stationed centrally, by withdrawing units from the frontiers, leaving them in a weakened condition. Zosimus saw this modification of traditional Roman grand strategy as catastrophic, an interpretation endorsed by Gibbon.
“The worst feature of the defense-in-depth is that inevitably the central mobile army will become an elite force and the frontier defenders merely second rate actors in defense policy. Troops that are not expected to defeat the enemy can hardly be blamed for wanting to avoid him altogether.
*All excerpts have been taken from Fall of the Roman Empire: The Military Explanation, Thames and Hudson Inc.
The Battle of Adrianople in 378 often signals a key crossroad in the history of the late Roman Empire, but Alessandro Barbero lays out a somewhat different narrative in his book The Day of the Barbarians. Barbero examines the event within a three century context, and chronicles the cultural evolution of Roman civilization leading up to the battle – as well as the civilizational reaction following the final peace agreement with the Goths. As Roman power began to decline in the fifth century the long ignored aristocracy of Rome began to reassert itself by becoming the foremost voice of the anti-barbarian reaction.
“In the dissatisfaction that the Greek East felt at the political and military hegemony of the Latin West lay the seeds of competition – if not hostility – between the two parts of the Roman Empire; those seeds would not fail to produce fruit, and soon.
“All the rhetoric about the universality of the empire, about its capacity for assimilation, was trotted out to demonstrate that Theodosius had made the right choice. And, to be clear, it wasn’t all empty rhetoric; to a certain degree, that capacity for assimilation genuinely existed.
“The army, which was a community, seemed like the perfect machine for handling this integration process. It absorbed barbarians, ground them down, and transformed them into Roman veterans, into the men whom emperors in their public discourses addressed as ‘comrades in arms’ and who constituted the real pillar of the empire.
“In certain regions of the empire, where the mercenaries had completely replaced the units of the regular army, the change was reflected in the language itself: In Syriac, starting at the end of the fourth century, the word for ‘soldier’ became Goth.
“Most people ultimately shared the assumptions about the empire’s ability to assimilate the barbarians but resisted granting them too much power too quickly and thereby abdicating the civilizing mission of the empire.
*All excerpts have been taken from The Day of the Barbarians: The Battle That Led to the Fall of the Roman Empire, Walker & Company.
When Julian was elevated to the rank of Caesar by his cousin Constantius II it was for the purpose of countering continuous and destructive Germanic raiding into Roman Gaul. Julian had been brought up – and educated – in isolation in Cappadocia, and had survived the dynastic purges of the Constantinian dynasty by Constantius II. This reality made Julian the only option left for Constantius if he wished to have a member of his own dynasty raised to the position of Caesar – because Constantius had no sons.
Julian was an introverted intellectual with no military background, and was not intended to take on an active role within the campaign against the Germans – i.e. Julian was to act only as a figurehead for Constantius. Unexpectedly, Julian quickly took command of the campaign and achieved staggering battlefield successes in Gaul, as well as in Germany. Later, as sole Emperor of the Roman Empire Julian attempted to roll-back Christianity, and return to the primacy of Roman paganism – which earned him his famous cognomen of ‘the Apostate’ from Christian writers.
“In the years before Julian’s appointment as Caesar the frontier along the Rhine and Upper Danube had been stripped of many of its garrisons as men were drawn off to fight in the civil wars. Roman weakness was confirmed when barbarian raiders were able to penetrate deep into the settled provinces and come back with plunder and glory.
“The army of the fourth century was geared towards warfare on a relatively small scale, an impression which Julian’s operations in Gaul confirm.
“In the third and fourth centuries many communities which had not felt the need of fortifications in the early Principate acquired walls. Simultaneously the army was putting far more effort into constructing strong ramparts and projecting towers around its bases. Defence was a much higher priority than it had been in earlier centuries.
“The Roman plan was to launch a major offensive against the Alamani, Julian attacking from the north and Barbatio from the south. Indirect pressure would also be put on the Alamanni by the Augustus’ own operations from Raetia on the Upper Danube.
“It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the soldiers of the fourth century were all too aware of their capacity to dispose of any general and replace him with an alternative of their own choosing, and as a result felt very free to express their opinion.
*All excerpts have been taken from In the Name of Rome: The Men Who Won the Roman Empire, Orion Publishing Group.
Emerging from the Third Century Crisis, the Roman Empire and its military underwent a cultural revolution of colossal breadth. The era before the transition is recognized as the ‘Principate’ – i.e. rule by the First Citizen – and the era after as the ‘Dominate’ – i.e. rule by despot. This evolution was necessary for the autocracy of the Roman central government, because of the unremitting dynastic chaos of the Third Century Crisis. The architects of the revolution were the Emperors Diocletian, and Constantine.
Diocletian created an institutional division between civil and military offices – beforehand the two had often been fused – increased the administrative capacity of the central government, and humbled the Roman aristocracy. Constantine sought to unify the state under a single religious faith – Christianity – as well as establish an enduring administrative division between the Greek East and Latin West of the Roman Empire by founding a second capital city – Nova Roma or Constantinople – with its own Senate. Ian Hughes chronicles all of these events in his book, but with special attention given to the revolution in military affairs which took place under the two Emperors.
“Modern estimates suggest that the number of legions probably doubled between the reigns of Severus and Diocletian, and by the time of the Notitia Dignitatum (early-fifth century) the 30 legions of the Early Empire had grown to more than 200.
“It has been noted that cavalry only has a ‘strategic mobility’ – the ability to march and retain the capability to fight effectively – that is superior to infantry over short distances. Over longer distances – for example, any march taking around a week or longer to complete – cavalry actually have a lower mobility due to the need to rest the horses, so in reality their strategic mobility is actually less than that of infantry. These questions have resulted in the whole idea of a ‘mobile cavalry force’ being seriously doubted.
“The chaos and confusion caused by piecemeal reforms and temporary solutions to short-lived problems in the third century resulted in the Roman army becoming a disorganized and inefficient organization. Despite it winning many battles in the third century, it was hardly capable of protecting the frontiers from the ‘Germanic’ tribes to the north, the Sasanid Persians to the east or even the Blemmye to the south.
“…it is possible to infer that both Maxentius and Daia offered better pay, higher donatives and better retirement benefits than their opponents. However, the fact that these troops were still easily defeated at the Battles of the Milvian Bridge and Tzirallum suggests that, despite the financial benefits, the troops’ opinion of their emperors was low. The further implication is that, rather than being generous, in order to retain their troops in their service the two emperors had little option but to increase their pay and benefits… It is the morale and readiness to fight and die for their emperors that were the main reasons for the victories of both Constantine and Licinius, not Constantine’s access to new types of troops.
“Their ability to plan and finance large-scale military campaigns, alongside their ‘sound and sophisticated logistical organization’, was only equaled by the capabilities of the Sasanid Persian Empire. Rather than simply attempting to defeat an enemy or conduct a raid, the Romans were capable of ‘having goals, knowing routes, terrain and the type and strength of the opposition’, meaning that their campaigns could be focused and their intended outcome clear. Of equal importance, they could gain intelligence concerning enemy location, direction and intentions, either through the means of informers or from the fact that an army on the move deployed a screen of light cavalry to gain information and screen the main body as it marched.
*All excerpts have been taken from A Military Life of Constantine the Great, Pen and Sword.
You must be logged in to post a comment.