Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Exercising the legions in the Marcomannic Wars

Equestrian Statue of Roman Emperor Marcus Aure...Image by mharrsch via Flickr
Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius
outside the Capitoline Museums in Rome
By every honorable expedient they [Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius] invited the friendship of the barbarians; and endeavored to convince mankind that the Roman power, raised above the temptation of conquest, was actuated only by the love of order and justice. - Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

When I read this statement claiming Marcus Aurelius was essentially benevolent towards the barbarians, I can't help but remember the opening battle scenes in Gladiator and the observation by the emperor that he had been at war almost continuously for the past 20 years.  To be exact, Gibbon is referring to Hadrian and the two Antonines but I can't believe Gibbon would mean Lucius Verus and not Marcus Aurelius.  Gibbon goes on to acknowledge that there were some minor hostilities on the frontiers but they merely served to exercise the legions.  This leaves the severity of conflicts during the reign of Marcus Aurelius a matter of interpretation I guess.  A war with the Parthians was already in progress when Marcus Aurelius ascended to the purple followed by the Marcomannic Wars that are said to have lasted most of the rest of Aurelius' life.  Perhaps Gibbon was anxious to portray Marcus Aurelius as the ideal philosopher king, probably a viewpoint shared by other 18th century historians who offered up a copy of his "Meditations" as proof.


In reality, however, the Marcomannic Wars were not as benign as we are led to believe.  In the first Marcomannic War, one of the Germanic leaders, Ballomar, crossed the Danube and won a decisive victory over a force of 20,000 Roman soldiers near Carnuntum.  The Germanic force followed that victory with the ravage of Noricum, the obliteration of Opitergium (Oderzo) and the siege of Aquileia. This was the first time hostile forces had entered Italy since 101 BC, when Gaius Marius defeated the Cimbri and Teutones.
Column of Marcus Aurelius 4Image by mharrsch via Flickr
Scenes of the Marcomannic Wars are
depicted on the column of Marcus Aurelius
near the Pantheon in Rome.



I particularly like this video comprised of  a distillation of the ferocious scenes of one such battle of the Marcommanic Wars depicted in Gladiator even though Hans Zimmer's fantastic music has been replaced with another artist's soundtrack.


By the time Marcus Aurelius put down the revolt and signed a treaty in 175 CE, the barbarians had to surrender over 100,000 Roman prisoners they had captured in their various escapades.  These numbers seem to indicate a far more extensive involvement than a skirmish that merely "exercised" the legions.  Perhaps Gibbon is seduced by the fact that thousands of Marcomanni subsequently were enlisted as Roman auxiliaries (another requirement of the treaty) so Marcus Aurelius is perceived as having offered the hand of friendship even after the Marcommani engaged is such widespread destruction.  


The thoughts of Marcus Aurelius   Marcus Aurelius: A Life   Marcus Aurelius: A Biography (Roman Imperial Biographies)



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