In 27 B.C. Octavian took the name Augustus, a title meaning “revered,” which was bestowed on him by the Senate. It was as Caesar Augustus that he would reign for the next forty years; history came to know him as the first emperor of Rome.
Early in that reign, Augustus reformed the Roman army so that each of his twenty-eight permanent legions spread around the empire now had a command structure that began with a commander of brigadier general rank. One military tribune, now called a tribune of the broad stripe, served as each legion’s second in command, and a newly created position, that of camp prefect, a former centurion, was third in command. Five officer cadets—tribunes of the thin stripe and all members of the Equestrian Order—served postings of six months with a legion, from March to October, before moving on to the next step up the promotional ladder, appointment as a prefect in charge of auxiliaries. During those six months the junior tribune served on the legion commander’s staff for three months (later two), and was free to spend the remaining three months at leisure. Some became tourists in the provinces where their legion was stationed, while the more conscientious did voluntary administrative work at the legion headquarters.
After several appointments as a prefect of both light infantry and cavalry over as many as seven or eight years, the young Roman noble qualified for promotion to senior tribune, and then entry into the Senate at age thirty, and a legion command.
The legion was now a self-contained fighting force, with its own small cavalry unit of 124 officers and men plus artillery—ten heavy ballistas and fifty scorpion dart throwers per legion. The imperial legion created by Augustus was made up of ten cohorts, nine of 480 men each and a “double strength” first cohort of 800. The latter was responsible for guarding the legion’s golden eagle standard and always accompanied the legion commander. Under Augustus, a maximum of two legions could be stationed at any one base over winter, and no legion was based in the area where its men were recruited.
Those recruitments took place in mass intakes of young men of seventeen and above, mostly conscripts, with the average recruit being age twenty. Until 6 B.C., recruits signed up for sixteen years of legion service plus another four years of service in the Evocati militia during emergencies once they retired. Between 6 B.C. and A.D. 11, as discharge and reenlistment dates came up for the legions, the service period for legionaries was extended by Augustus from sixteen to twenty years, the service period for members of the Praetorian Guard from twelve to sixteen years, and the obligatory Evocati period postdischarge extended to a total of five years’ service from four.
To fund his standing army of twenty-eight legions, Augustus set up a military treasury that was separate from the Treasury of Saturn, the general treasury. The military treasury was administered by a staff headed by three former praetors, each appointed for three years. Initially, Augustus deposited a large sum into the military treasury from his own funds—most of his fortune was based on the treasure of the Ptolemies that he had “liberated” from Egypt following Cleopatra’s death. For ongoing military funding he depended on contributions from foreign kings and communities and a 5 percent death tax, which he introduced specifically for this purpose. The military treasury bore the cost of paying, feeding, and equipping the legions, and of paying the bonuses that the emperors gave the troops from time to time—on the emperor’s birthday each year, for example.
The 6th Ferrata Legion continued to be stationed in the East through the last part of the first century B.C. and throughout the first century A.D., always based at Raphaneae in Syria, sharing that base with the 12th Legion for several decades. The 6th’s title of Ferrata would be in official use by the third century, but it is unknown at what point Ferrata went from an honorific used only by the men of the legion to a title recognized by the Palatium, the emperor’s headquarters at Rome. It is possible that the legion was among the first to replace its jackets of iron mail with segmented metal armor, the segmentia lorica, in about A.D. 25, from which its proud old Ironclad name of Caesar’s day may have found more general usage, although no Roman writer officially ascribes the title to the legion in the first century A.D.
In A.D. 19-20, the 6th Ferrata conducted an operation to arrest the governor of Syria, Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso, who was accused of the poisoning murder of Germanicus Caesar, a famous, hero-worshiped young Roman general and heir to the emperor Tiberius. Germanicus was the eldest son of Tiberius’ brother Drusus Caesar—both were the sons of Tiberius Claudius Nero. Drusus had married Octavia, daughter of Mark Antony, making Germanicus Antony’s grandson. On Drusus’s death on campaign in Germany, Tiberius had adopted his eldest boy, Germanicus, at the insistence of Augustus.
The blame for Germanicus’s murder, which took place at Daphne near Antioch in Syria, had fallen on Governor Piso, although it was generally believed that the emperor Tiberius had been behind the murder, for he was jealous and fearful of his nephew and adopted son’s fame and popularity. Piso barricaded himself in the fortress of Celenderis in Cilicia, which the 6th laid siege to, led by their commander, Brigadier General Pacuvius, who had refused to support Piso even though some of his own 6th Ferrata centurions had accepted bribes from Piso in return for their loyalty.
With no alternative, Piso surrendered and went back to Rome to face trial in the Senate, only to take his own life in mysterious circumstances just when it seemed likely he would be acquitted. The historian Tacitus and many other Romans felt sure that the insecure Tiberius had been behind the death of his heir, Germanicus, and had forced Piso to suicide.
In A.D. 54, Lieutenant General Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo arrived in the Middle East with secret orders from the young emperor Nero, grandson of Germanicus. A Parthian prince now ruled Armenia, a kingdom that Germanicus had brought into the Roman sphere of influence in A.D. 18. General Corbulo’s orders were to reclaim Armenia for Rome. To achieve this task he took charge of two of the four legions of the Syrian station, the 6th Ferrata and the 10th. Finding both units lamentably run down after years of inactivity, he discharged their most unfit and elderly men; then, using special authority invested in him by the emperor, he instituted a draft among young Roman citizens in Cappadocia and Galatia to fill the empty places in the 6th and the 10th.
This was highly unusual—as a rule the legions did not have their ranks replenished until their twenty-year discharge and reenlistment came around, and by the end of their enlistments legion numbers were usually well below the nominal imperial figure of 5,247 officers and men. Only in the most dire circumstances were legion numbers made up during the course of the normal twenty-year enlistment span. For example, six years later, in A.D. 60, Nero would authorize the transfer of 2,000 new recruits from the 21st Rapax Legion on the Rhine to fill the ranks of the 9th Hispana Legion after it was savaged by Queen Boudicca’s rebels in the British Revolt. In that case the revolt still had to be put down and the reinforcements were urgently needed. The men involved remained with the 9th for the remainder of their enlistment, and the 21st continued understrength for the remainder of its enlistment period.
In A.D. 54 General Corbulo considered the personnel situation of the 6th Ferrata and 10th Legions dire enough to warrant the recruitment of new men to fill their much-depleted ranks. He had been given a task by the emperor, and, methodical and cautious by nature, Corbulo was determined to have his legions at maximum strength before he took on the Parthians. This meant that in the future the 6th Ferrata would have two discharge and reenlistment dates during each twenty-year span—part of the legion would have been discharged, and the empty places filled with a partial new enlistment every ten years thereafter.
Once the 6th and the 10th had their ranks filled out with the new recruits from Galatia and Cappadocia, General Corbulo marched the two legions and half the Syrian station’s auxiliary light infantry and cavalry up into the mountains of Cappadocia, where he trained them relentlessly for four years. In 58 B.C., Corbulo and his legions swept unexpectedly into Armenia, drove out the Parthians, and installed a new king chosen by Rome on the Armenian throne. Four years later, after the Parthians invaded Armenia and then threatened Syria, Corbulo, reinforced by the 15th Apollinaris Legion from Pannonia, took the 6th Ferrata back into Armenia and drove the Parthians out a second time.
During this second campaign, Corbulo’s inept deputy Lieutenant General Caessenius Paetus, leading the ill-prepared 4th Scythica and 12th Legions, surrendered his camp to the Parthians, after which he returned to Rome in disgrace. Fortunately for Rome, his failures were made up for by the efforts of Corbulo and his legions.
In A.D. 66, the 6th Ferrata was intimately involved in the campaigns to put down the Jewish Revolt, losing its commander, Brigadier General Tyrennius Priscus, and a number of men in the initial bungled counteroffensive in Judea led by the governor of Syria, Lieutenant General Cestius Gallus. The new Roman commander appointed by the emperor Nero to put down the revolt, Lieutenant General Titus Vespasianus, who would become the Roman emperor Vespasian, recovered Galilee and most of Judea between A.D. 67 and 69. His son Titus finally took Jerusalem in A.D. 70 after a bloody siege that ended with the destruction of the Jewish Temple.
The 6th Legion played no part in these later Judean operations, sitting out the last three years of the Jewish Revolt at their base at Raphaneae, anxiously watching the Euphrates in case the Parthians decided to invade Roman territory while the Romans were focused on defeating the Jewish rebels. The 6th was in fact the only legion guarding against a Parthian attack, but the Parthians, knowing that another half dozen legions and elements of several others were close by in Judea and Egypt, and that the very capable Vespasian was in command, made no move to threaten Roman territory.
In the summer of A.D. 69, when the legions in the East and several on the Danube and in the Balkans swore allegiance to Vespasian, the war of succession that had erupted the previous year with Nero’s demise moved into a new phase. Now Vespasian challenged the new emperor, Vitellius, who in April had taken the throne from the short-lived emperor Otho, and the 6th Ferrata found itself suddenly in the forefront of the action.
With all the legions of the region but the 6th engaged in the siege of Jerusalem, when the governor of Syria, Lieutenant General Licinius Mucianus, agreed to lead a force from Syria to Rome to make Vespasian emperor, the 6th Ferrata was the only legion available for the daunting task. To support the 6th, Mucianus called up thirteen thousand retired legion veterans living in Syria to march behind their Evocati militia standards, and assembled a number of auxiliaries, creating a force of some twenty-five thousand men.
Mucianus led the 6th and the remainder of his force overland from Syria, through the provinces of the East, across the straits from Asia to Macedonia, then up through the Balkans. While Mucianus was on the march, units in Moesia, today’s Bulgaria, and elsewhere in the Balkans were advancing into Italy to take on the forces of the emperor Vitellius for Vespasian, led by the ambitious Brigadier General Primus Antonius, commander of the 7th Galbiana Legion. Mucianus sent orders ahead for Antonius to wait for him and the 6th Ferrata at Aquileia in northeastern Italy while he dealt with another problem—for, once the legions stationed in Moesia had moved toward Italy, hordes of mounted Sarmatian raiders had flooded across the Danube into Moesia behind their backs, killing the province’s Roman governor and overrunning auxiliary outposts before pillaging and occupying Roman settlements.
Mucianus and the 6th Ferrata swung north, and marched for the Danube to take on the Sarmatian invaders. The details of this campaign are sketchy, but the action was so rapid and the fighting so decisive that the surprised Sarmatian cavalry suffered thousands of casualties. The bloodied Sarmatian survivors quickly fled back across the Danube, while the 6th Ferrata seems to have suffered only minimal losses.
Meanwhile, General Antonius hadn’t waited for Mucianus as instructed. Marching down into Italy, his pro-Vespasian forces had defeated Vitellius’s army at Cremona and then continued on to Rome itself, crossing the Apennines through heavy snow and then, led by the 3rd Gallica Legion, taking the capital in a day of bloody fighting. When Mucianus and the 6th Ferrata arrived a few days later, Vitellius had been killed, his army had surrendered, and the throne was Vespasian’s.
Vespasian was declared emperor by the Senate on December 21, A.D. 69, having deposed Vitellius, who’d deposed Otho, who’d deposed Galba, who’d replaced Nero during two tumultuous years for Rome. In A.D. 70 the 6th Ferrata marched all the way back to its station in Syria, as its brother legion, the 6th Victrix, marched from Spain to help put down a Gallic uprising on the Rhine. Within a year, the empire was settling into a period of peace and prosperity after the harrowing war of succession.
General Mucianus, now acting as Vespasian’s tough right-hand man, was voted a Triumph by the Senate for the 6th Ferrata’s victory over the Sarmatians on the way to Italy, the first Triumph associated with the 6th Ferrata since General Ventidius’s Parthian Triumph of 38 B.C.
The veterans of the original 6th had long since made old bones, at Benevento, Arles, and elsewhere, but the story of the gallant deeds in Egypt and at Zela of Cleopatra’s kidnappers and Pharnaces’ destroyers would have been told to each new enlistment of the 6th when they joined the unit, by their centurions. The strong esprit de corps of the legions was founded on such battle honors. Tacitus tells of how, in A.D. 69, the men of the 3rd Gallica Legion, fighting at the Battle of Cremona for Vespasian, were reminded by General Primus Antonius of how their legion had saved Mark Antony’s skin from the Parthians in Media back in 36 B.C.
There can be no doubt that the soldiers of this enlistment of the 6th Ferrata would have been fully aware of the 6th’s shining record, of its Gallic, Egyptian, Pontic, and Spanish Triumphs of 46-45 B.C., and of its Parthian Triumph of 38 B.C. Their officers would have told the new men how proud their predecessors would have been of them for emulating one of their feats and for maintaining their record by earning a Triumph.
But this time the men of the 6th would not be parading through the streets of Rome. Instead of a street parade, Vespasian awarded Mucianus all the honors associated with a Triumph, including the cash prize, Forum statue, and so-called Triumphal Decorations—the cloak, bay leaf crown, and laurel branch. Vespasian and Titus also celebrated a Triumph, a joint one, for crushing the Jewish Revolt, but they went all the way, with the full street procession. Vespasian and Titus each rode in a golden quadriga in the procession, while Vespasian’s youngest son, Domitian, rode a horse. As tradition required, the parade ended with the execution of a senior prisoner in the Tullianum basement. In this case it was one of the leaders of the Jewish partisans who died by the garrote.
In A.D. 71 Paetus, the Roman general who had disgraced himself in Armenia a decade and a half earlier, came back to Syria, this time as the province’s governor. Two years later, seeking glory at home to rank him with the likes of General Mucianus, he invaded the friendly allied state of Commagene with the 6th Ferrata, on the pretext that the king, Antiochus IV, was planning to change allegiance to the Parthians. Paetus had written to Vespasian to say that he had intelligence to this effect, and sought Vespasian’s permission for the operation. Although Vespasian was surprised, for Antiochus had been a model client and ally until then, he told Paetus to do what he thought best. That was all the invitation needed by Paetus, who was looking for a Triumph.
The Commagenian king’s sons attempted to resist with their small local army, but they were no match for the 6th Ferrata, and the little war was quickly over. The whole affair proved an embarrassment to Vespasian, but he could not lose face and reverse matters. The best he could do was allow the ousted King Antiochus and his family to live in exile at Rome, while Commagene became a Roman province. For his pains, General Paetus earned himself no Triumph.
In the second century the 6th Ferrata participated in the emperor Trajan’s conquests in the East. Between A.D. 113 and 116, those campaigns saw Trajan’s legions reclaim Armenia from yet another Parthian invasion, annex Mesopotamia and the Nabataean part of Arabia, and briefly occupy the Parthian capital, Ctesiphon. In A.D. 114-115, Trajan had two triumphal arches built in Italy to celebrate his military victories. One was erected at the Adriatic port city of Ancona, one of his favorite places. The other arch was built at Benevento, where it still stands today. Why Benevento was honored with the arch we can only speculate. Perhaps the 6th Ferrata performed so creditably for Trajan in his battles against the Parthians that he chose to honor the town that was the traditional settling place of veterans of the 6th.
By A.D. 119 the 6th Ferrata had left its longtime base at Raphaneae, taking up a new permanent station in Arabia. Between A.D. 132 and 135 the legion was brought in to help put down the Second Jewish Revolt in Judea. This was a grueling campaign in which thousands died on both sides before the revolt was finally crushed and Jews were permanently banned from all of Judea.
Immediately following the revolt, the 6th Ferrata was transferred to Legio in northern Spain, a town that grew around a legion base—from which the town took its name. Under Trajan’s successor, Hadrian, men of the legion adopted the new fashion, established by Hadrian, of wearing neat beards. By this time, too, legionaries had increasingly taken to wearing short, tight-fitting breeches under their tunics, following the habit of auxiliaries, who had worn breeches for some time prior to this.
During the reign of Septimius Severus (A.D. 193-211) the 6th Ferrata again served briefly in the Middle East—in A.D. 194, Severus first defeated the rebellious governor of Syria, Gaius Pescennius Niger, and in 197-198 he defeated the Parthians after they invaded Mesopotamia. Under Severus, the single men of the legions were for the first time permitted to marry while still serving in the army. And Severus was the first emperor to permanently station a legion in Italy south of the Po River, installing the new 2nd Parthicae Legion at Albano, the ancient town of Alba Longa, just south of Rome. “What were once vices,” the Romans were wont to say, “are now customs.” Severus also increased the basic rate of pay for legionaries, their first pay raise in more than a century.
By early in the third century, the 6th’s Ferrata title had become official, and this may have been because of the legion’s loyal service to Severus. By A.D. 300, the 6th Ferrata was firmly entrenched at its regular base at Legio in northwestern Spain, its last known station.
The 6th Ferrata’s twin, the second 6th, remained in the West throughout its career. It was based in Nearer Spain from 40 B.C., serving in the Cantabrian War of 29-19 B.C. in northern Spain, which resulted in the final conquest of all of Spain for Rome. The legion continued to be based in Nearer Spain once the war was brought to a close in 19 B.C. It marched to the Balkans to serve in the Pannonian War of A.D. 6-9, which put down the revolt of Pannonian and Dalmatian partisans. As a result of its service in one or other of these campaigns the legion was officially granted the title Victrix, meaning “Conqueror,” by the emperor Augustus. It was officially known as the 6th Victrix thereafter.
The 6th Victrix Legion was based in Nearer Spain for six decades following the Pannonian War. In A.D. 68-69 the 6th Victrix threw its loyalty behind Sulpicius Galba, governor of Nearer Spain, who took Nero’s throne and became the first Roman emperor without any family connection with Caesar. When Galba marched on Rome with a new legion he’d raised in Spain, the 7th Galbiana, or Galba’s 7th, he left the loyal 6th Victrix behind to control Spain in his name.
In A.D. 70, once Vespasian became emperor, a new enlistment of the 6th Victrix Legion was ordered to march to the Rhine to participate in a combined operation to put down a massive Gallic uprising led by a Batavian auxiliary commander, Julius Civilis, who had served with Vespasian in Britain. The Civilis Revolt had resulted in the loss of all Roman bases on the Rhine from the North Sea to Switzerland.
Led by its latest commander, Brigadier General Sextus Caelius Tuscus, the 6th Victrix marched up from Spain to join the deputy commander of the operation, Major General Petilius Cerialis, at Mainz, on the Rhine. General Cerialis not only added the 6th Victrix to his army for his continued push along the Rhine, he also took the 6th’s tribune, its second in command, Colonel Gaius Minicius, and made him commander of one wing of the Singularian Horse, the regiment of German cavalry created the previous year to serve as the emperor’s household cavalry, the mounted arm of the Praetorian Guard.
On the face of it this was a demotion for Minicius, but Cerialis wanted someone he could trust in a senior position with the Singularians, whose Batavian commander, Briganticus, was related to the rebel leader, Civilis. As it turned out, Briganticus was killed in the fighting and Colonel Minicius, a native of Aquileia, led the Singularians in an action that resulted in a spectacular victory for General Cerialis’s army against the rebels beside the Rhine in the Battle of Old Camp. The recently recruited troops of this enlistment of the 6th Victrix performed creditably in the battle, although they advanced too eagerly at one point and it took the 14th Gemina Legion, then the most famous legion in the Roman army, to come up on their flank and drive the enemy back.
Following the termination of the revolt with the surrender of Civilis, the 6th Victrix stayed on the Rhine, based at Neuss in Germany. During Trajan’s reign it moved to Vetera, today’s Xanten in Holland. In A.D. 122 the legion was hurriedly transferred across the North Sea to York, Roman Eburacum, in north-central England, to replace the 9th Hispana Legion, which had mysteriously disappeared, apparently wiped out by Celtic invaders from Scotland. There in Britain the 6th remained until A.D. 406.
The other two legions stationed on the island, the 2nd Adiutrix and the 20th Valeria Victrix, were withdrawn in the year 395 to help defend Gaul and Italy from the barbarian invasions, and eleven years later the 6th Victrix became the last legion to be pulled out of Britain. Despite repeated requests from the Britons for Rome to return legions to British soil to help the islanders fight off raiders from Scotland, Germany, and Scandinavia, no legion ever returned to Britain, and the locals had to raise their own troops and organize their own defense.
Many Britons today are descended from Roman settlers who made England, Wales, and southern Scotland their home between the landings of A.D. 43 and the withdrawal of the legions some 350 years later. A number would be descended from retired legionaries of the 6th Victrix Legion, whose retirees would have increasingly been settled in Britain. There is no way of knowing how many retired legionaries made their homes in Britain, but based on the settlement of veterans from three legions every twenty years in and around the colonies of Britain, at least 170,000 legion retirees would have made their homes on the island and died there, with many raising British families.
As for the 6th Victrix itself, after 406, from the time it landed in Gaul, the legion disappeared from the pages of history, swallowed up in the bloody disintegration of the Western Roman Empire. All this was a long way from the heroics of the little more than nine hundred Spaniards of the 6th Legion who had been plucked from the edge of death at Farsala to kidnap Cleopatra, and to come, to see, and to conquer with Caesar at Zela. We know so much about this legion and its activities during the first centuries B.C. and A.D. because this was the most documented period of Roman history. Later records are less numerous, less detailed, and less reliable.
Other legions would occasionally rise to prominence in later centuries—the 12th Fulminata Legion, winning a battle against Germanic invaders in a thunderstorm for Marcus Aurelius in A.D. 174, for example, after which the emperor formalized the legion’s old republican title of Fulminata (Thunderer). But overall, in later times individual legions seem not to have played such dramatic roles in history as did the 3rd Gallica in saving Mark Antony in Media or in making Vespasian emperor, the 10th in Caesar’s first century B.C. conquest of Gaul and at the Battles of Pharsalus and Munda, the 14th in defeating Boudicca’s rampaging British hordes in A.D. 60, and the sensational 6th’s performance in Egypt and Pontus.
Were the legionaries of that period tougher, more resolute than those who followed them in later centuries? It was not as if they were invincible, were superior fighters to every opponent they faced—whole legions were wiped out during these two centuries. Were their generals better? Certainly, in Caesar and Pompey, Ventidius, Drusus, Germanicus, Corbulo, and Paulinus, Rome had exceptional generals, men who combined courage with charisma, tactics with tenacity.
The men of Caesar’s sensational 6th would have told you that they were a different breed from those who succeeded them. They had not been permitted to marry while in service. Their legion had not been recruited in the areas where they were stationed, as the legions were from the second century. All their men were recruited in the same location, creating a solid camaraderie, but as early as the reign of Nero, in the second half of the first century, different cohorts of the same legion were increasingly recruited in different parts of the world.
Of course, the men of the sensational 6th would tell you that they were different from every soldier who ever served Rome. Publius Sertorius and his comrades in arms would tell you that after years of reverses the Roman gods had looked favorably on them and made them ironclad for the last two years of their service. With the gods looking after them they would have gone wherever they had been sent, kidnap whomever they were told to kidnap, and resolutely fought whoever stood in their way, confident of their ironclad status.
As the old proverb said, wherever they were thrown, there the heroes of the 6th Legion would stand.