Helmet and Spear - Alfred J. Church

A Century of Revival

An observer of the calamities and disgraces which overtook the Empire in what I have called "A Century of Disgrace," might have supposed that the end was at hand. But an ancient institution does not perish so easily. The Empire still possessed a great prestige, an organisation of government which had been worked out by a succession of able statesmen and rulers, and an army with numberless traditions of victory. Given an able leader, there would certainly be a revival of vigour, or, to say the least, a check to the progress of decay. A better time began with the death of Gallienus, the son of Valerian, in A.D. 268. He perished, it is doubtful whether by treachery or accident, in one of the numberless conflicts that occurred during this period between the possessor of the imperial throne and the numerous pretenders who aspired to it. His successor was a soldier of humble origin, though he bore the old patrician name of Claudius. He had soon an opportunity of showing his qualities as a soldier. In the year after his accession to the throne a huge army of Goths and of other tribes who were accustomed to fight under their standard invaded the provinces south of the Danube. Claudius hastened to encounter them, and fought a great battle at Nissa in Servia in which 50,000 of the barbarians are said to have perished. Little is known of the details of this or indeed of any of the conflicts of the time; the chronicles of the age are wanting in the power of description and, indeed, in all literary gift, but we gather that the legions were beginning to give way when Claudius brought up reinforcements to their help. These fresh troops fell upon the barbarian rear, and wholly changed the fortunes of the day. But the victory of Nissa did not put an end to the war. Nor, indeed, did Claudius live to finish it. He did enough, it is true, to win the title of Gothicus, and to deserve it better than was sometimes the case with Emperors who were similarly honoured. But he died—the victim, it was said, of a plague which had originated in the barbarian camp—after a reign of little more than two years, and left the completion of the war to his successor Aurelian.

Aurelian's reign was but little longer than that of Claudius. It began in August, 270, and was ended in March, 275, by assassination; but this brief period was crowded with great achievements. In dealing with the Goths he showed that he was a statesman as well as a soldier. After conclusively proving to them that he could vanquish them in the field, he turned them, by a seasonable generosity, from enemies into friends. It had become evident that the province which Trajan had added to the Empire could no longer be held with advantage; Dacia, accordingly, was given up to the Goths, and a tribe associated with them, of whom we shall hear again, the Vandals. The Goths remained loyal to Rome, till, as we shall see, they were forced into hostility. They even furnished a body of auxiliary cavalry to the imperial army.

But while Aurelian was thus engaged, Italy and even Rome were endangered by the attack of another multitude of the same German race. The Alemanni, a people of which we know next to nothing except the stock to which they belonged, suddenly crossed the Roman frontier, and made their way as far as the north of Italy. The armies of the Empire were engaged elsewhere, and the invaders plundered the country without hindrance. They had even made their way back to the Danube when Aurelian encountered them. It is not easy to understand the story of what followed. The Emperor outmanúuvres the barbarians, and reduces them to such extremities that they beg for peace. When their envoys are introduced to the presence of Aurelian, there is a sudden change of circumstances. The Alemanni, instead of imploring pardon, dictate conditions. They must have a subsidy, if Rome would have them as allies. The Emperor dismisses them with an indignant refusal, and we expect to hear of the severest punishment being inflicted on them. Nothing of the kind occurs. Aurelian, called elsewhere by some demand which he cannot refuse, disappears from the scene, and leaves the completion of the business to his lieutenants. They neglect their duty or fail to perform it; the Alemanni take the opportunity, break through the cordon  of troops which had been formed round them, and make their way back to Italy. We next hear of them as ravaging the territory of Milan. Aurelian orders the legions to follow them with all the speed that they could manage, and hastens himself to defend Italy with a quickly moving force, partly composed, it is interesting to observe, of auxiliary cavalry levied from the new settlers in Dacia. The struggle that followed is not what we should have expected after hearing of the straits to which the Alemanni had been reduced at the Danube. At Piacenza the Roman army came perilously near to destruction. The barbarians fall unexpectedly upon the legions as they march carelessly through a wooded defile. Only by the greatest exertions does Aurelian rally them. But though the army is saved from destruction, it cannot arrest the progress of the enemy. When we next hear of them the barbarians have advanced more than a hundred miles nearer to Rome. Near the Metaurus, and not far from the spot where Hasdrubal had perished, the Emperor overtook them. This time they must have suffered a serious defeat, for their third and last appearance was in Northern Italy, near Pavia (the ancient Ticinum). Historians relate that they were exterminated, and this is probably true, for it was the fate that would naturally overtake unsuccessful invaders of Italy.

I may mention in the very briefest way that Aurelian restored the Roman power in the East by overthrowing Zenobia, who, since the death of her husband Odenathus, had remained independent at Palmyra, and in the West by putting an end to the usurpation of Tetricus, who had maintained his independence in Gaul and Britain for several years. To all appearance, the Empire was restored to what it had been at the death of Marcus Aurelius.