Roman Empire Civil Wars

193 to 398 A.D.
Roman Emperors — versus — Usurpers and Rivals

The Severan Dynasty, 193 to 245 A.D. Military Anarchy, 245 to 285 A.D.
Constantine, 312 to 353 A.D. The Valentinian Dynasty, 365 to 398 A.D.

The Western Roman Empire lasted from 31 B.C. to 476. For most of the early years of the Empire, the succession from one emperor to the next was relatively smooth. There were a few conflicts, which were quickly resolved, such as the Year of four emperors in 69 AD, and the succession of Septimius Severus in 193, but until 238 AD, the empire maintained considerable unity. The period from 238 until the rise of Diocletian in 285 however, is referred to as the "Military Anarchy", or "Crisis of the Third Century." In this period the leadership of the empire was in near chaos, with numerous generals claiming the throne, often simultaneously, and many dying either in civil wars or more often, by assassination. To make matters worse, this was also a period when Rome faced many threats to its borders, both from Gothic and Alemmani Tribes in the North, also from incursions by the Persian Empire in the East. It would be very difficult, and of little benefit to recount every succession related conflict that occurred in this period, so only the most significant battles of the "Military Anarchy" period are given here.

Civil Wars of the Roman Empire

The rise of Diocletian, who restored order to the empire, and instituted many reforms, very likely prevented the empire from collapsing 150 years before it did. Even more shocking, after reigning for 20 years, dividing the empire into four autonomous regions, and placing trusted generals in charge of each, he retired from the imperial throne, and was only the second Roman Emperor to die a natural death in over 100 years. Even before his death however, a new civil war, which resulted in the triumph of Constantine and the re-unification of the empire was underway. The long and stable reign of Constantine did much to restore vigor and health to the empire, but upon his death, succession problems continued. The empire was again split between his sons, and so opportunities for ambitious generals to seize control of a region, and declare themselves independent abounded. The fourth century saw the rise of several usurpers, but nothing on the scale of the "Crisis of the Third Century". Ultimately, it was not civil wars, but the rise of barbarian nations that brought the Western Empire to collapse.

Year of the Four Emperors, (69 AD is dealt with in another section. The following list of civil wars refer to battles that occurred from 193 to 400 AD

Civil Wars of the Severan Dynasty : 193 to 245 A.D.

The Antonian dynasty that had reigned peacefully and prosperously for most of the 2nd century ended abruptly when Commodius, the degenerate son of Marcus Aurelius was murdered without an heir. His reign had been and ignoble one, especially in comparison with the excellent rule of his forebears, and soon after his death five generals claimed the throne. Two of these were quickly dispatched, leaving Septimius Severus of Pannonia, Pescennius Niger of Syria, and Clodius Albinus of Britain to contend for the throne. Albinus at first supported Severus against Niger, and the issue was finally resolved is favor of Severus after three battles in Asia Minor. Three years later, Albinus rose against Severus, but was also defeated. Severus consolidated power and reigned prosperously for 18 years. He founded the Severan dynasty, which ruled Rome for all but a single year, between 193 and 245. That year was 217 when, upon the death of Caracalla, the Macrinus was appointed emperor by the senate. After suffering a few losses in Persia however, he was quickly deposed by the Severan faction, who put forth as their candidate the teenaged Elagabalus, a cousin of the Severus family.

DateBattle Summary
Battle of Issus (Wars of Severans ) Severus victory
Fought in 194, after a previous engagement at Nicaea between the Imperial forces of Septimus Severus and his rival, Pescennius Niger, who was acclaimed emperor by his legions in Syria. Severus won decisively, and Niger was later killed while attempting to flee to Parthia.
Battle of Lugdunum (Wars of Severans ) Severus victory
Fought 197 between the legions of Britain, under Clodius Albinus, and the legions of Pannonia, under Severus, both generals having been proclaimed Emperor by their respective troops on the death of Pertinax. Albinus was defeated and slain.
Battle of Antioch (Wars of Severans ) Elagabalus victory
Fought June 7, 218, between the Syrian legions, under Elagabalus, and the Imperial troops and Pretorians, under the Emperor Macrinus. The Pretorians, by their superior valour and discipline, broke the legions opposed, and the victory would have been theirs, but at the crisis of the fight, Macrinus fled, and this so discouraged his troops, that in the end they were totally defeated.

Short Biography
Septimus Severus Seized Imperial throne after the death of Commodus. Put down many rebellions.
Pescennius Niger Proclaimed emperor in Syria after the death of Commodus. Vied with Severus for the throne.
Clodius Albinus Proclaimed emperor in Britain after the death of Commodus. First supported, then vied with Severus.
Macrinus Usurper who assumed the throne after the murder of Caracalla.
Elagabalus Third Severan emperor; assumed throne at 14; effeminate and profligate; deposed by army.

Story Links
Book Links
Unnatural Son  in  The Story of the Romans  by  H. A. Guerber
Imperial Savage  in  Historical Tales: Roman  by  Charles Morris

Civil Wars of the Military Anarchy : 245 to 285 A.D.

Civil Wars of the Roman Empire
The crisis of the Third Century began in 235 when Alexander Severus, the sixth Severan Emperor, was murdered by Maximinus, his Thracian bodyguard. Maximinus was of barbarian birth, but had served the Severan family for decades and was a trusted general. When the wars in Persia began going badly, he took advantage of the discontent to seized the throne for himself. During his three year reign he never set foot in Rome and despised and distrusted the Roman Senate. He had many of his enemies killed, and he terrorized the civilian element of the government. His own murder after thee years ushered in an age of utter chaos. Six generals claimed the throne on his demise, four of whom were killed within a single year. Eventually, a few emperors managed to hold onto the throne for a few years, rather than a few months, but during the next fifty years, only a single Roman emperor, among more than twenty who held the throne, died a natural death.

One of the only notable emperors of this period was Aurelian, who reigned from 270 to 275, and managed to reunite the empire. He is best known for his wars against Zenobia of Palmyra, but he also campaigned against the Alemmani in the north, and against a usurper in Gaul. By 273 he had re-established control of the entire empire, but then he too fell to an assassin, and the empire once more began to disintegrate. Ten years later, however, Diocletian defeated the emperor Carinus, and began his 20 year reign which marked the real end of the crisis.

DateBattle Summary
Battle of Châlons (Military Anarchy ) Aurelian victory
Fought 271, between the troops of the Emperor Aurelian, and the revolted legions under Tetricus. Tetricus, who was only a puppet in the hands of his soldiers, concerted measures with Aurelian for their destruction, and so posted his forces as to give the Emperor the advantage, after which he deserted, with a few followers. The revolted legionaries fought desperately, but were cut to pieces.
Battle of Antioch (Expedition to Palmyra ) Romans victory
Fought 272, between the Palmyrenians under Zenobia, and the Romans under the Emperor Aurelian. Zenobia's heavy cavalry defeated and drove from the field the Roman horse, but her infantry was unable to withstand the charge of the legionaries, and she was totally defeated.
Battle of Emesa (Expedition to Palmyra ) Romans victory
Fought 272, between the Romans under Aurelian, and the Palmyrenians under Zenobia. Zenobia was completely defeated, and forced to retire within the walls of Palmyra, to which Aurelian at once laid siege.
Siege of Palmyra (Expedition to Palmyra ) Romans victory
This city was besieged by the Romans, under Aurelian, after the defeat of Zenobia at Emesa in 272. An obstinate defense was made by the Queen, but Aurelian being reinforced by Probus early in 273, Zenobia fled from the city and the place was captured. Zenobia failed to escape, and was brought into Aurelian's camp. During his return march, Aurelian learned that the citizens had risen, and massacred the Governor and the garrison he had left in the place. He thereupon retraced his steps, and destroyed the city, sparing neither young nor old.
Battle of Margus (Military Anarchy ) Diocletian victory
Fought May, 285, between the legions of the Emperor Carinus and those of Diocletian, who had been raised to the purple by his soldiers. The troops of Diocletian, wasted by the Persian War, were all but overpowered by the fresher legions of Carinus, but the defection during the battle of one of his generals turned the scale, and Carinus himself being killed by an officer whom he had wronged, Diocletian gained a complete victory.

Short Biography
Maximinus Thracian giant. Rose to head of army, seized imperial throne, and reigned as a barbarian.
Diocletian Restored order to the empire after fifty years of chaos. Broke empire into four regions.
Aurelian Emperor who reunited the empire during the Military anarchy. Led campaign in Palmyra against Zenobia.
Zenobia Queen of Palmyra. Attempted to control the eastern empire, only to be crushed by Rome.

Story Links
Book Links
Gigantic Emperor  in  The Story of the Romans  by  H. A. Guerber
Prophecy Fulfulled  in  The Story of the Romans  by  H. A. Guerber
Diocletian  in  Back Matter  by  books/horne/soldiers/_back.html

Story Links
Book Links
Zenobia of Palmyra  in  Historic Girls  by  E. S. Brooks
Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra  in  The Story of the Romans  by  H. A. Guerber
Zenobia and Longinus  in  Historical Tales: Greek  by  Charles Morris

Civil Wars of Constantine and his sons : 312 to 353 A.D.

Civil Wars of the Roman Empire
When Diocletian retired, he left the empire in the hands of four generals, and provided a method for an orderly transition of power. Although it was a well-thought out scheme, it was promptly ignored by the generals he left in command. The battles that followed can be thought of as sort of a tournament bracket, with Constantine and Maxentius contending for dominance in the west (312), and Lincinius and Maximinus contending in the eastern division (314). The winners of the first round were Constantine and Licinius, but the title match went into overtime, and was not concluded until 324, when Constantine delivered a decisive defeat to Licinius, and once more unified the empire. The the final years of the reign of Constantine, which lasted until 337, were a much appreciated era of peace and prosperity, after nearly a hundred years of incessant wars and disorder.

Unfortunately the three sons of Constantine, Constans, Constantine II, and Constantius II, did not posses the administrative and military virtues of their father. They fought over the empire, and Constantine II was killed within a few years of his father. The empire was then split between the two remaining brothers, who reigned together for about ten years. Eventually Constans was killed by the usurper Magnentius, leaving Constantius II to fight Magnentius for control of the empire, in one of the bloodiest wars in Roman history. Although he prevailed over the usurper the rest of his reign was spent putting down rebellions and warding off barbarian invaders.

DateBattle Summary
Battle of Turin (Wars of Constantine ) Constantine victory
Fought 312, between the legions of Gaul, 40,000 strong, under Constantine, and the troops of Maxentius, considerably superior in number. The charge of Maxentius' heavy cavalry failed, and he was driven back into Turin with enormous loss.
Siege of Verona (Wars of Constantine ) Constantine victory
This place was besieged 312 by Constantine, with the legions of Gaul, and was defended by a body of rebels, under Pompeianus. After a sortie had been repulsed, Pompeianus escaped through Constantine's lines, and raised a force for the relief of the city. He was, however, met and defeated by Constantine, many thousands of the Italians, including their leader, falling, and Verona at once surrendered.
Battle of Mulvian Bridge (Wars of Constantine ) Constantine victory
Fought October 28, 312, between the Imperial troops, under Constantine, and the legions of Italy, under Maxentius. The Italian cavalry, posted on the wings, was routed by Constantine's horse; the infantry, thus left unsupported, fled from the field, only the Pretorians making a brave resistance, and dying where they stood. Maxentius escaped, but crossing the Tiber into Rome by the Milvian Bridge, was forced by the crowd of fugitives into the river and drowned.
Battle of Tzirallum (Wars of Constantine ) Licinius victory
Fought 313, between the Illyrians, under Licinius, afterwards Emperor of the East, and the troops of the reigning Emperor Maximinus. Licinius was marching with 30,000 men to the relief of Heraclea, when he was attacked by Maximinus, with 70,000. Licinius was at first driven back by weight of numbers, but his skill, and the steadiness of his troops, enabled him to rally, and eventually Maximinus was defeated with heavy loss.
Battle of Cibalis (Wars of Constantine ) Constantine victory
Fought October 8, 315, between Constantine the Great, with 20,000 men, and Licinius, Emperor of the East, with 35,000. Constantine was posted in a defile, where he was attacked by Licinius. The attack was repulsed, and Constantine followed the enemy into the open plain, where Licinius rallied his troops, and resumed the offensive. The day seemed lost, when a charge of the right wing, under Constantine in person, once more broke the Illyrians, and Licinius having lost 20,000 of his best troops, abandoned his camp during the night and retreated to Sirmium.
Battle of Mardis (Wars of Constantine ) Constantine victory
Fought 315, shortly after the battle of Cibalis, between Constantine, Emperor of the West, and Licinius, Emperor of the East. Constantine moved a body of 5,000 men round his opponent's flank, and attacked him simultaneously in front and rear. The Illyrian veterans formed a double front, and held their ground, though with heavy loss, till nightfall, when Licinius, having lost thousands of his best troops, drew off his army towards the mountains of Macedonia. The consequence of this defeat was the acquisition by Constantine of Pannonia, Dalmatia, Dacia, Macedonia and Greece.
Siege of Byzantium (Wars of Constantine ) Constantine victory
In 323 the city was besieged by Constantine the Great after his victory over Licinius at Hadrianopolis. Licinius, finding the place difficult of defense, crossed into Asia and collected an army to raise the siege. He was, however, defeated at Chrysopolis, and Byzantium surrendered in 324. Constantine was proclaimed Emperor of the united Empire, and Byzantium, under its modern name of Constantinople, was made the capital.
Battle of Hadrianople (Wars of Constantine ) Constantine victory
Fought July 3, 323, between Constantine, Emperor of the West, with 120,000 troops, and Licinius, Emperor of the East, with 165,000. Licinius, by the skilful maneuvering of Constantine, was enticed from his entrenched camp into the open plain, and his raw levies being powerless against the Western veterans, he was totally defeated, It is said that 34,000 perished in the battle.
Battle of Hellespont (Wars of Constantine ) Constantine victory
Fought 323, between the fleet of Constantine the Great, consisting of 200 small galleys, under Crispus, and that of Licinius, numbering 350 sail, under Amandus. After two days' hard fighting, Crispus forced the passage of the Hellespont, and totally routed the Eastern fleet, with a loss of 130 ships and 5,000 men.
Battle of Chrysopolis (Wars of Constantine ) Constantine victory
Fought 323 between 60,000 troops under Licinius, Emperor of the East, and a force detached by Constantine from the siege of Byzantium. Licinius was totally defeated, with a loss of 25,000, and surrendered. The result of this victory was the reunion of the whole of the Roman Empire under one head.
Battle of Mursa (Wars of Constantine's Sons ) Constantius victory
Fought September 28, 351, between the usurper Magnentius, with 100,000 troops, and the Emperor Constantius, with 80,000. The battle was severely contested, but finally the legions of Magnentius were driven from the field with a loss of 24,000; that of the victors amounting to 30,000.
Battle of Mount Seleucus (Wars of Constantine's Sons ) Constantius victory
Fought August 10, 353, between the rebels, under Magnentius, and the Imperial legions, under Constantius. Constantius forced the passage of the Cottian Alps, and defeated Magnentius in a sanguinary battle, which dispersed his army and finally broke his power, Gaul and Italy being thus again brought under the Imperial sway.

Short Biography
Constantine First Christian emperor. Unified empire. Moved capital to Constantinople near Black Sea.
Valerius Maxentius Rival of Constantine for power in the west. Defeated at Mulvian Bridge.
Valerius Licinius Rival of Constantine for power in the east. Made a truce in 314, but was eventually defeated.
Constantine II Eldest son of Constatine, ruled briefly in the West.
Constantius II Middle son of Constantine, ruled in the East.
Constans Youngest son of Constantine, ruled West after death of Constantine II.
Magnentius Usurper who took over western empire from Constans; killed by Constantius II.

Story Links
Book Links
First Christian Emperor  in  The Story of the Romans  by  H. A. Guerber
Constantine the Great in  Famous Men of Rome  by  John H. Haaren & A. B. Poland
Deeds of Constantine  in  Historical Tales: Roman  by  Charles Morris
New Rome  in  The Discovery of New Worlds  by  M. B. Synge
Constantine the Great  in  Old World Hero Stories  by  Eva March Tappan

Civil Wars of the Valentinian Dynasty : 365 to 398 A.D.

Civil Wars of the Roman Empire
Since all three of Constantine's sons died without heirs, their cousin Julian was the last emperor of the line of Constantine. Surprisingly, there was no civil war upon Julian's death, but rather a peaceful succession, first to Jovian, and then to Valentinian I. Valentinian split the Empire with his brother Valens, and then founded the Valentian dynasty which ruled both east and west until the fifth century. The Valentinian emperors, however, had their hands full with barbarian invasions, numerous rebellions and four usurpers, each of whom was declared emperor by his respective legions. These usurpers were Procopius, who reigned in Asia Minor in 364-366, Magnus Maximus, who deposed Gratian and reigned in the west from 383 to 388, Eugenius who reigned in the west from 392 to 394, after the murder of the Western Emperor, and Gildo, who raised a rebellion in Western Africa in 398. All four were eventually put down, but not before the civil wars, which were fought largely with foreign soldiers, did much to diminish imperial authority, especially in the West. The next chapter in the history of the Western Empire, after two decades of usurpation, was that of its collapse and fall.

DateBattle Summary
Battle of Save (Wars of Valentinians ) Theodosius victory
Fought in 388 between the forces of Roman usurper Magnus Maximus and the Eastern Roman Empire. Emperor Theodosius I defeated Magnus Maximus in battle. Later Maximus was captured and executed.
Battle of Frigidus (Wars of Valentinians ) Theodosius victory
Fought September 6 and 7, 394, between Theodosius, Emperor of the East, and Eugenius, the usurping Emperor of the West, whose army was commanded by Arbogastes. The first day's fighting went against Theodosius, who was only saved by darkness from a severe reverse, but during the night a force sent by Arbogastes to secure the passes in Theodosius' rear, deserted to his standard, and thus reinforced and aided by a dust storm which blew in the faces of his antagonists and disordered their ranks, he on the following day gained a signal victory.
Battle of Tabraca (Wars of Valentinians ) Romans victory
Fought 398, between 5,000 picked Roman legionaries, under Mascazel, and the revolted Africans, 70,000 strong, under Gildo. At the first onslaught of the legionaries, all the Roman soldiers serving under Gildo deserted, and the Africans taking to flight, Mascazel gained an almost bloodless victory. Gildo was captured and committed suicide in prison.

Short Biography
Valens Eastern Emperor embroiled in wars in Persia and with the Goths. Died fighting Visigoths at Adrianople.
Procopius Cousin of Julian who claimed the throne during the reign of Valens.
Gratian Emperor in west from 375 to 383. Deposed and murdered by rebellious legions.
Magnus Maximus Usurper who deposed Gratian and ruled for five years in the west.
Theodosius Emperor excommunicated by Ambrose for massacre of civilians at Thessalonia.
Eugenius Usurper who ruled for three years in the west.
Guildo Led a rebellion in North Africa.

Story Links
Book Links

Image Links

Battle between Constantine and Maxentius, Romano
 in Famous Men of Rome

Army of Diocletian
 in Back Matter