Cnaeus Domitius Corbulo (died AD 67)
Domitius Corbulo used to say that the enemy was conquered with the pickaxe.1
ULTIMATELY, THE POWER OF AUGUSTUS AND HIS SUCCESSORS RESTED UPON their control of the army. An emperor needed political skill to placate the Senate and prevent popular unrest from becoming a threat, but none of this mattered if his generals were able to emulate Sulla or Caesar and use their legions to fight their way to supreme power. Augustus was able to rely on his extended family to fight the most important wars of his principate, but few of his successors were able to do the same. At first Tiberius employed Germanicus and the Younger Drusus in a similar role, but after their deaths in 19 and 23 respectively there was no one to replace them for the remaining fourteen years of his reign. Caligula, Claudius and Nero had no adult male relatives to fight wars on their behalf (and would probably not have trusted such persons even if they had existed). Unlike Augustus and Tiberius, who had campaigned with great success, their three successors had no military experience, making them all the more reluctant to permit any of their generals to win too distinguished a reputation or gain the affection of their troops.
An emperor could not afford to be outshone by a senator, most especially in the field of military endeavour which remained of central importance to the Roman aristocracy. Yet it was from the ranks of the Senate that the princeps had to draw the overwhelming majority of the men who would govern the provinces and command the legions stationed within them. Senators were considered – not least by themselves – the most suitable men for this task, but it was also important to provide them with opportunities to win fame and distinction in the traditional way. A good emperor ensured that there were enough important tasks given to members of the Senate, encouraging this body to acquiesce in his rule and so reducing the risk of conspiracies against him. The ideal was a relationship of mutual benefit to emperor and senators, but this always contained an element of risk that one of the latter would gain too much power and become a rival for the throne. Tiberius is said to have compared the emperor’s job to ‘holding a wolf by the ears’, to a great extent because of this uneasy bond.2
Roman armies under the Principate were virtually all commanded by senators, just as they had been under the Republic, but these generals now operated in a profoundly different environment. This was reflected most obviously in their title, for they were no longer proconsuls or propraetors, but legates or representatives of the emperor. All save one of the legions maintained by Augustus were stationed in provinces controlled by the emperor, in an arrangement reminiscent of Pompey’s indirect rule of the Spanish provinces after his second consulship. (The exception was the legion garrisoning Africa which was controlled by a proconsul. This arrangement lapsed during Tiberius’ reign.) The emperor possessed imperium superior to other proconsuls (maius imperium proconsulare), although this bedrock of the Augustan regime was rarely mentioned publicly and never paraded in the manner of his other titles, most notably his possession of the powers of the tribune of the plebs (tribunicia potestas). The emperor’s representative placed in charge of a province was entitled the legatus Augusti pro praetore, and his imperium was delegated, not his own by right. Soldiers took and regularly renewed an oath of loyalty to the emperor, and not as in the old days to obey their general as well as the Senate and People of Rome, and it was in the emperor’s name that they received their pay and any additional rewards or decorations. In addition to its other standards, each unit in the army now carried an imago, bearing the bust of theprinceps as an additional reminder of whose men they were.
A senatorial career under the principate continued in the traditional way to include a range of civil and military posts. In his late teens a man would usually serve as the senior tribune (tribunus laticlavius) of a legion for anything from one to three years. The other five tribunes (tribuni angusticlavii) in each legion were equestrians following a different career plan which involved commanding auxiliary units. In his early thirties a senator could hope to become the legate in command of a legion. (The ad hoc appointment of commanding officers for these units which had been usual in Caesar’s day was turned into a formal position – legatus legionis – under Augustus.) On average a legionary legate served in this capacity for about three years. Finally, in his forties he might hope to become a legatus Augusti pro praetore in command of a province, which included the control of up to three, or in a few cases four, legions. Tenure in this post varied considerably, though the average was again three years, and a handful of men might be granted a second command in another province.
In terms of the broad range of different posts likely to be held in a career, and also in the relatively limited scope for gaining military experience, there was little difference between the Republic and the Principate. However, whereas under the former success had depended upon winning elections and gaining influence in the Senate, it was now reliant on the favour of the emperor. Not only that, but in all their military posts, most especially commanding a legion or an entire province, they were the emperor’s men and not free agents. Caesar seems to have reflected a widely held belief when he stated that the freedom of action of a legate was considerably less than that enjoyed by the army commander. Under the Principate this was taken a stage further and the activities of provincial legates were far more closely monitored and regulated than those of any governor under the Republic. This affected not simply the occasions on which they were permitted to wage war, but also how they should do so. According to Suetonius, Augustus ‘believed nothing less appropriate in a general than haste and recklessness and so he often used these adages: “More haste, less speed”; “Better a safe commander than a bold”; and “That is done quickly enough which is done well enough.”’3 A legate was not expected to take risks in order to win a quick victory before a replacement arrived, but instead to act in the emperor’s best interests. Each man received instructions (mandata) from the princeps and, although the scope and frequency of these is fiercely debated by scholars, it is clearthat no major operations – especially offensive operations – were allowed without specific permission.4
The emperor allocated men to provincial commands and decided how long they would remain in a post. He also controlled their activities as governors far more closely than the Senate had ever been able to do. Yet sheer distance ensured that it would have been impossible for the emperor to direct his legates’ behaviour in every detail, and their powers and opportunities for demonstrating their ability remained numerous. A governor was expected to lead his troops to war in response to internal rebellion or the invasion of his province without first seeking approval from Rome. An inscription recording the achievements of Tiberius Plautius Silvanus Aelianus as legatus Augusti pro praetore of one of the Danubian provinces in the second half of the first century AD gives an idea of the range of military and especially diplomatic tasks which a governor might undertake:
In this post he brought over more than 100,000 of the people who live across the Danube to pay tribute to Rome, along with their wives and children, leaders and kings. He suppressed an uprising among the Sarmatians, although he had sent a large part of his army to an expedition in Armenia; he compelled kings who had previously been unknown or hostile to the Roman people to worship the Roman military standards on the river bank which he was protecting. He sent back to the kings of the Bastarnae and the Rhoxolani … their sons who had been captured or taken from the enemy. From some of them he took hostages and in this way strengthened and extended the peaceful security of the province. And the king of the Scythians was driven by siege from Chersonesus, which is beyond the Borysthenes. He was the first to help the corn supply in Rome by sending from his province a large amount of wheat.5
On the invitation of the emperor Vespasian – this courtesy was maintained by all good emperors – the Senate granted Silvanus triumphal honours (triumphalia) to mark his highly successful term as governor. The language of this monument differs in no significant way from traditional aristocratic celebrations of their achievements. Many of the actions themselves, such as resettlement of tribes, diplomacy aimed at instilling respect for Roman power in local peoples, putting down rebellion and defending allies from attack, were those performed by governors since the first permanent provinces were created. An imperial legate was expected to carry out these duties well, but not on his own initiative to extend them, still less to seek glory by new, unauthorized conquest.
CORBULO IN GERMANY
Cnaeus Domitius Corbulo was a large, virile man who looked every inch a soldier and had an instinctive knack of winning the respect of men, and especially soldiers. Relatively little is known about his early life, but the family was wealthy and well established. His father was consul (actually suffect consul) in AD 39 and he had a half-sister – his mother was married no fewer than six times – who was Caligula’s last wife, Milonia Caesonia. In AD 47 Corbulo was appointed by Claudius to be legate of Lower Germany. Before his arrival in the province it was subjected to heavy raiding by the Chauci. From their lands on the North Sea coast the German warriors came in small ships, sailing along to attack parts of Northern Gaul wherever sea or river gave them access. It was a style of activity well established amongst the peoples of this area which in later centuries would become most famous with the Vikings. The Chauci were led by Gannascus, although he came originally from another tribe, the Canninefates (a people related to the Batavi). He was a deserter from a Roman auxiliary unit and thus another in the succession of enemies who were considered to be all the more dangerous because the Romans had taught them how to fight.
On reaching Lower Germany Corbulo responded quickly, employing both the army and the naval squadrons of the fleet which patrolled the Rhine and North Sea, the classis Germanica. Small bodies of troops were sent out to intercept any raiders who had landed, whilst Roman galleys chased down the German ships. Plundering bands were able to attack quickly and were difficult to stop, but tended to be vulnerable as they withdrew, carrying their spoils. After a brief period of operations the Chauci were expelled from the Roman provinces and Corbulo concentrated his army, subjecting the troops to a short, but very rigorous training programme. He is said to have executed two legionaries found labouring in the constructing of fortifications on a marching camp having laid aside their swords. Tacitus, who tells the story, thought that it might be an exaggeration, but felt that even so it hinted at the tough discipline actually imposed on the army. As we have seen, the general whose first task was to retrain and harden an undisciplined and soft army was a familiar figure in Roman literature, so there must always be some suspicion that a description of such activity was merely one of the clichés inevitably attached to famous commanders. However, since the Rhine army appears to have undertaken little serious campaigning for more than a decade before Corbulo’s arrival, it is probable that many soldiers and units had no recent experience of active service. Also, in AD 43 a large part of the army from the two German provinces, including three legions and many auxiliaries, had been drawn off to form the invasion force for Claudius’ expedition to Britain. It is likely that the most battle-ready units were selected for this, leaving the less well-trained soldiers and probably also the least ambitious and aggressive officers behind. It was anyway impossible to maintain the legionaries and auxiliaries in a permanent state of complete preparedness for war, especially since there were so many other tasks soldiers were called upon to perform.6
When he felt that the army was ready, Corbulo crossed the Rhine and advanced through the lands along the North Sea coast. The first tribe he encountered were the Frisii, who had openly attacked Roman troops in AD 28 and not yet been subjected to major reprisals. Impressed by the size and confidence of Corbulo’s army, the leaders of the Frisii immediately surrendered and allowed the Romans to establish a garrison in their territory. The Roman commander then pushed on eastwards towards the lands of the Chauci. Ahead of the army went envoys demanding the tribe’s submission. These men were also able to arrange the murder of Gannascus, who had escaped the defeat of his forces.
As with the betrayal of Jugurtha and murder of Viriathus, this incident again demonstrated the Romans’ willingness to employ dubious and dishonourable methods to dispose of enemy leaders whose existence was prolonging a conflict. However, in this case the assassination provoked the Chauci to resist the Romans all the more fiercely, so Corbulo’s army advanced against them to begin what he expected to be a major campaign. At this point he received instructions from Claudius instructing him to cease operations and return with the army to his province. It is not made clear in Tacitus’ account how the emperor knew where his legate was and what he was doing, but the most probable source of this information would be Corbulo’s own dispatches. Claudius did not desire a renewal of major operations east of the Rhine, especially while the conquest of Britain was still ongoing. Tacitus also claims that such an unmilitary emperor, crippled from birth and long considered even by his own family to be mentally incapable, had no wish to allow Corbulo to win great fame through conquest. Claudius had already faced one attempted rebellion by a provincial governor in AD 42 and had no wish to create an even more dangerous rival.
Corbulo immediately obeyed his orders – anything else risked a swift execution – but his wistful comment of ‘How lucky Roman generals were in the old days’ harked back to the Republic when there had been far fewer restraints on a magistrate’s pursuit of glory. In spite of his recall, he was still rewarded triumphal honours. When all of the troops, including the garrison established amongst the Chauci, had been pulled back west of the Rhine, their commander set them to constructing a canal between that river and the Meuse. Such projects helped to keep the soldiers busy and fit, if not at the peak of their military training, and had the added advantage of benefiting the provinces. The legate responsible was often honoured by the emperor. Tacitus follows his account of Corbulo’s German campaign with an incident involving Curtius Rufus, the legate of the neighbouring province of Upper Germany, who had employed his legionaries to establish a new silver mine. Many men were injured or killed during this project and the yield was poor, yet Rufus too was granted triumphal honours (triumphalia). Tacitus acidly claims that after this the legionaries wrote a letter to Claudius asking him to grant this honour automatically to each legate as he took up his appointment, rather than wait for them to order such arduous and pointless tasks.7
ROME, PARTHIA AND THE ARMENIAN QUESTION
Corbulo’s conduct in Germany won him widespread success, but it was his later campaigns in the east which established his reputation as one of the greatest Roman generals of the first century AD. Before examining these operations in some detail, it is worth reviewing the history of relations between Rome and Parthia.
Parthia was the most powerful kingdom to emerge from the breakup of the Seleucid Empire in the late second century BC. Its Arsacid dynasty of kings came eventually to control a wide swathe of territory including much of modern-day Iran and Iraq. Within this area was a highly mixed population, varying from Hellenistic cities such as Seleucia and Ctesiphon to pastoral and semi-nomadic tribes. Parthian society was essentially feudal, with much of the power that was theoretically in the hands of the king being held in practice by the leaders of the seven great noble families. The army was formed from a combination of the king’s own troops and the retainers of the leading noblemen, who at other times might easily become rivals for the throne. It was therefore not entirely in the king’s interest to allow any aristocrat to create a force that was too large or too efficient lest this be used against him. The internal weakness of Parthia prevented her from becoming a serious rival to the Roman Empire, even for control of the eastern provinces, but she was certainly the strongest independent power encountered by Rome during the Late Republic and Principate.
Parthian armies were essentially cavalry forces, which presented a very different problem to the legions compared with the tribal peoples of the west. Most Parthian horsemen were horse archers wielding very effective composite bows and trained through long practice to fire on the move, presenting a difficult target for the enemy and never closing to close quarters unless they possessed an overwhelming advantage. More prestigious were the cataphracts, where both horse and man were heavily armoured. These men, who were mainly from the aristocracy and their closest followers, for the cost of such equipment was great, were at times willing to charge home, each man thrusting a long lance (kontos) two-handed. In combination, the archers wearing down an enemy before the cataphracts attacked, these horsemen could be devastatingly effective, but Parthian armies were not always well balanced between the two types, or skilfully led. Nevertheless, in spite of the appearance of similar troops in the armies of other nations, no other people at this period were able to match the best Parthian armies in this style of fighting.8
Pompey encountered the Parthians near the end of his eastern campaigns and wisely chose diplomacy instead of the hope of further glory offered by military confrontation. However, in 54 BC Crassus, eager to rival the achievements of his allies Pompey and Caesar, launched an invasion of Parthia. There was scant justification for the war even by Roman standards, although this opinion became more widespread when the expedition ended in disaster. Crassus was over 60 and his last experience of active service had been against Spartacus. At first his running of the campaign was lethargic, as he permitted most of the first year to slip by without pressing the enemy. Both the Romans and the Parthians were overconfident, for their armies were accustomed to defeating the forces fielded by the other kingdoms of the region with great ease.
In 53 BC Crassus encountered a force detached from the main Parthian army under the command of Surenas (which may have been a title rather than a personal name) at Carrhae. It was good cavalry country and the Roman legionaries found it impossible to catch their mobile opponents, who showered them with arrows. The Roman horse, many of whom were Gallic auxiliaries, were under the command of the general’s son Publius, who recklessly led them away from the main force to be surrounded and annihilated. For the remainder of the day the horse archers continued to shoot at the square of legionaries, and the Romans’ hope that the enemy would run out of arrows proved vain, for Surenas had a well-organized supply train of camels carrying spare ammunition.
Many of Crassus’ men were wounded, mostly in the face, legs or right arm which were not covered by the shield, although the legions were not reduced to a state where they could be swept aside by a cataphract charge. Yet Crassus, who after Publius’ death had shaken off his lethargy and tried to supervise and encourage his men in the best Roman manner, despaired and ordered a withdrawal. Retreating from close contact with the enemy was always dangerous, but when the enemy had plentiful cavalry and the terrain was open it was courting disaster. Most of the Roman army was quickly killed or captured. (There is an intriguing theory that some of the prisoners were subsequently sold on as slaves and eventually came into Chinese service, but the evidence for this is inconclusive.) Crassus was killed whilst trying to negotiate a truce and his head taken to the Parthian king. Only a few survivors led by the quaestor Cassius Longinus – one of the men who later murdered Caesar – escaped to Syria and managed to repulse some feeble enemy raids into the province. For a while the Parthians were too busy with internal problems to take great advantage of their victory. In the following months Surenas was executed by the king as a potentially dangerous rival. Obviously this did little to encourage the emergence of any equally talented commanders.9
As Rome was soon plunged into civil war, there was no opportunity to avenge Crassus. Caesar was killed before he could launch his planned invasion. Then in 40 BC King Orodes of Parthia sent an army to conquer Asia and Syria. With them was Quintus Labienus, the son of Caesar’s old legate and later enemy, and some die-hard Pompeians. This was an almost unique case of a Roman aristocrat defecting to an enemy of the Republic, but even here the issue was blurred somewhat and this could be seen as a continuation of the Civil War. Carrhae had confirmed many Parthians in their conviction that their warriors were superior to any enemy, including the Romans. Overconfidence combined with poor leadership resulted in heavy defeats in 39 and 38 BC when Parthian armies rashly attacked well led and prepared Roman forces occupying strong positions. In the second of these defeats the king’s son Pacorus was killed and the attempt to overrun Syria abandoned. Mark Antony had not been present during this campaign, command having rested in the capable hands of his legate Publius Ventidius Bassus. Another of his subordinates expelled a Parthian-backed regime from Judaea in the following year.
In 36 BC Antony himself launched a major attack on Parthia. Learning from Crassus’ misfortune, he supported his legionaries with far more cavalry and light infantrymen armed with bows and slings, and kept where possible to regions which were unsuited to cavalry operations. Antony’s main army pushed through Armenia into Media Atropatene (modern Azerbaijan) where he began to besiege the city of Phraapsa. A Parthian attempt to relieve the city was defeated – the legionaries clashing their weapons against their shields and shouting to panic the horses – but the mounted enemy managed to flee without suffering heavy losses. Antony had driven his army to advance so quickly during the invasion that his heavy siege train had lagged some distance behind. As the Parthians turned their attention to the Roman supply lines a force of their horsemen overwhelmed the train and its escort. Without artillery and other heavy equipment, there was no prospect of taking Phraapsa, and Antony was reluctantly forced to withdraw. As usual the Parthians harried the marching columns, inflicting heavy losses on the encumbered legionaries. Antony’s expedition was not a disaster on the scale of Carrhae, but it was still a major defeat. The growing tension between Antony and Octavian prevented any attempt to renew the war.10
Augustus ignored the Parthians for almost a decade after Actium, but in 20 BC he sent the young Tiberius to the east to install a new ruler on the Armenian throne to replace the current Parthian puppet. Through a combination of diplomacy and the threat of force the Romans managed to secure all of their objectives, including the return of all the standards, most especially the precious legionary eagles, and prisoners lost by Crassus and Antony. The eagles were taken to Rome and installed amidst great ceremony in the temple of Mars Ultor (Mars the Avenger), the centrepiece of the new Forum of Augustus. This diplomatic success avoided the risk of a full-scale war with Parthia when Augustus’ army was already fully committed elsewhere. Both Romans and Parthians by this time had a healthy respect for the other’s military might. The chief source of friction between them was Armenia, which both considered to be within their sphere of influence. For the Romans it was one of a number of client kingdoms and they expected its king to acknowledge openly that his power rested on Roman approval. One of the main reasons for sending Germanicus to the east in AD 18 had been formally to confer power on the new Armenian king at Artaxata. Yet culturally Armenia had much more in common with Parthia, and it was considered an appropriate, as well as advantageous, kingdom with which to reward loyal relatives of the Arsacid king.
In AD 35 a Parthian king established one of his sons on the Armenian throne, although he was swiftly defeated by a Roman-backed rival. In AD 52 Vologaeses I of Parthia took advantage of a period of confusion in Armenia following the murder of the king by his unpopular nephew to replace him with his own brother Tiridates. The ageing Claudius at first made no response to this move, but following his death in 54, his successor and adopted son Nero resolved to take action. In the following year Corbulo was sent to the region. The choice was extremely popular, for it appeared to suggest that the new regime would select men on merit – and of course from the senatorial point of view also on the basis of high birth and wealth.11
CORBULO IN ARMENIA
Corbulo was given an extraordinary province combining Cappadocia and Galatia. These were normally senatorial provinces, but the Augustan system was extremely flexible and the assignment of an imperial legate to control the area caused no difficulty. In fact, since legates were able to second officers and men from the army to form their large staffs, they usually had substantially more administrative personnel at their disposal than a senatorial proconsul. At some stage Corbulo was granted proconsular rather than propraetorian imperium and had a junior legate serving under him to carry out much of the day-to-day administration in his enlarged province. Cappadocia gave best access to Armenia, whilst Galatia had a large population, many descendants of three Gallic or Galatian tribes which had overrun the area in the third century BC, and was considered to be a fertile recruiting ground. Cappadocia was garrisoned by some auxiliary units, but neither of the areas contained a legion and the bulk of the forces placed at the new legate’s disposal were drawn from the army in Syria. Corbulo received two of the four Syrian legions supported by about half of the auxiliary units in the province. Additional troops were to be provided by the client kingdoms of the region. From the beginning there was some friction between Corbulo and the legate of Syria, Ummidius Quadratus, who was forced to give up such a large part of his army and knew that he was bound to be overshadowed by his more famous colleague. However, since Corbulo had superiorimperium the dispute rarely produced anything more than minor bickering.
From the beginning it was hoped that a diplomatic solution, by which Tiridates would agree to travel to Rome and have the kingship formally conferred on him by Nero, would be possible. Accordingly Corbulo dispatched ambassadors – most often centurions – to Vologaeses, but at the same time he began to prepare his army for war in case these overtures were rejected. Nero had already ordered that the Syrian legions be brought up to strength by a levy (dilectus), although it is not clear just what this meant in the context of the Principate. In theory every Roman citizen remained liable for military service, but Augustus’ experiences in AD 6 and 9 had shown just how unpopular conscription was, especially in Italy. The levy in the eastern provinces may have taken the form of organized conscription, widespread use of something like a press gang, or simply the dispatch of a larger than normal number of recruiting parties to find volunteers. By the middle of the first century the number of Italian-born men in the legions was declining, with most recruits being citizens from the provinces. From quite early on there does seem to have been a willingness to enlist non-citizens from some of the more settled regions in the east, the franchise being granted to them when they joined the legions. Augustus had formed an entire legion, XXII Deiotariana, from Galatian soldiers and the province was considered to provide high-quality recruits. Interestingly enough, the levy to bring the legions up to strength occurred at about the time of the Apostle Paul’s missionary journey through Galatia, although there is some debate over his route through the province. His later letter to the Galatian churches contains a striking amount of martial vocabulary and imagery.12
Corbulo found the troops under his command to be in a poor state. Tacitus says that the Syrian legions were unfit and ill-disciplined because the army there had been idle for many years. He claims that there were old soldiers who had never seen or built a marching camp, and others who did not possess a cuirass or helmet. Having reviewed his troops, the general ordered the discharge of all those whose age or health made them unfit for service. Once again we encounter the cliché of the great commander who arrives to find a demoralized army and who swiftly imposes proper discipline and turns it into an effective army. It was also a common literary theme that long service in the east, especially in the major cities, corrupted the morals and destroyed the military efficiency of soldiers. Scholars have rightly pointed out that even the sources that appear to make the claim demonstrate that legions stationed in the east were not invariably of poor quality, and that their recruits were not in any way worse military material than those enlisted in the western provinces. However, this does not mean that in AD 55 Corbulo’s troops were not in need of intensive training. The Syrian army spent the bulk of its time in policing the provinces, the soldiers often distributed in many small detachments. This gave units very little opportunity for regular training, especially at legion level or above. Corbulo’s experience in Germany had already demonstrated how swiftly the combat readiness of troops in a peaceful province declined, so that there was nothing unique about the Syrian army. In addition the legions under him had just discharged many of their older men and received drafts of new recruits. There was a great need to train the latter and to integrate them fully into their new units. Hence, the rigorous training programme which Corbulo imposed on his men was a sensible and normal preparation for what could prove to be a tough campaign.13
The general took his men up into the mountains to train in cold conditions similar to those they might encounter in the highlands of Armenia. Tacitus tells stories of numerous cases of frostbite, of one man whose hands fell off when they became frozen to a bundle of firewood, and of sentries found dead of exposure at their posts. Throughout the winter the army remained under canvas rather than constructing more substantial winter quarters or returning to billets in the cities. Corbulo shared the hardships with his men and, ‘lightly clothed and bareheaded, moved continually amongst the troops in the march column or as they laboured, praising the hardy, encouraging the weary, acting as an example to everyone’.14 As well as trying to inspire his men, the general also punished any crime more harshly than was usual. Desertion was always a problem in the professional army, where men had to serve for twenty-five years and were subject to brutal punishment, and in such tough conditions many more men decided to flee from the army. Corbulo ordered all deserters to be executed, ignoring the normal practice of inflicting lesser punishment on first-and second-time offenders. Some men still ran, but the harshness of this directive ensured that his army lost fewer men in this way than most Roman forces. The two legions from the Syrian garrison, III Gallica and VI Ferrata, were joined by a third, which was most probably IV Scythica from Moesia, although Tacitus claims that the unit was posted to the east from Germany. We do not know when this reinforcement arrived, but it seems more than likely that this unit also underwent a period of training to prepare it for war. Even so, it does not appear to have played a major role in operations until near the end of the war.15
At first it seemed as if diplomacy alone would secure Roman aims, for Vologaeses responded to the envoys by giving hostages. Apart from a petty dispute between the ambassador sent by Quadratus and Corbulo’s envoy over who should gain the credit for escorting these Parthian aristocrats back into the Empire, it seemed that the crisis was over and honours were voted by the Senate to Nero. However, Tiridates was supported by his brother in his refusal to go to Rome and tension once again mounted over the next year or so.
Much of the army was stationed near the border with Armenia and Corbulo established a series of forts manned largely by auxiliaries and placed under the command of a certain Paccius Orfitus, who was a former senior centurion or primus pilus. Under the Principate a primus pilus was automatically elevated to the equestrian order after holding this post, and Orfitus was probably now either an auxiliary prefect or a legionary tribune. He was also a self-confident, aggressive officer who reported to Corbulo that the nearest Armenian garrisons were in a poor condition and asked permission to begin raiding. In spite of a clear order to refrain from any such action, Orfitus was encouraged by the enthusiasm of some recently arrived troops (turmae) of auxiliary cavalry to launch an attack. The Armenians proved to be readier than he had anticipated, and routed the advance guard of the raiding party. Things grew worse when their panic infected the other troops who promptly fled back to their forts. A defeat, even in such a minor skirmish, was the worst possible start to a campaign, especially for an inexperienced army. Usually a general hoped to follow a period of training with some easy victories to boost the men’s confidence. Corbulo was outraged and gave Orfitus and the other prefects a severe dressing down. When they and the units under their command rejoined the main army they were ordered to pitch their tents outside the camp’s rampart, a symbolic humiliation which was often inflicted on the survivors of a decimated unit.
Corbulo may have hoped that isolating the defeated troops in this way and holding them up to the contempt of the rest of the army would prevent the bulk of the soldiers from being infected with a dangerously high opinion of the enemy’s prowess. Later the general allowed himself to be ‘persuaded’ by a petition from the entire army – or more probably from its officers – to allow the units back into the camp. He may well have felt that the object lesson in the importance of obeying his orders had been properly made. It was possibly around the same time that a story reported by Frontinus occurred. According to this, Corbulo discovered that a prefect commanding an auxiliary cavalry unit which had been routed by the enemy had not kept his men properly armed and equipped. As a punishment he ordered this man, one Aemilius Rufus, to report to his tent and had his lictors strip him naked. Rufus was then left to stand to attention in this undignified condition until the general decided to dismiss him.16
With the enemy massing on his border, Tiridates began an active campaign to repress those communities within his kingdom who appeared sympathetic to Rome. Apart from his own retainers, he had been sent additional horsemen by his brother. Corbulo advanced against him and at first tried to intercept the attacks launched against friendly towns. At the beginning he hoped to draw the enemy into a pitched battle, but Tiridates had no intention of risking such a meeting and chose instead to make full use of his mobility. Corbulo broke his army up into a number of smaller columns, hoping to put pressure on the enemy at several points simultaneously. He also instructed the king of Commagene to raid the regions of Armenia nearest to his land. Diplomatic activity managed to win over the Moschi, a tribe on the eastern borders of Armenia some distance from the Empire, and persuaded them to attack Tiridates from yet another direction. At around the same time, Vologaeses was faced with internal rebellion and was no longer able to send significant military aid. Tiridates sent envoys asking why he was under attack in spite of the hostages handed over during the earlier round of negotiations. Corbulo simply responded with the same demand that the king go to Rome to receive his power from Nero.
A meeting was arranged, but the Roman commander ignored Tiridates’ suggestion that he bring only an escort of unarmoured legionaries to face his 1,000 horse archers. Instead Corbulo took all the troops with him, including VI Ferrata reinforced with 3,000 men from III Gallica who paraded under a single eagle to make it look as if only one legion was present. He also ensured that the meeting took place at a location offering him a very good position in case a battle developed. In the event Tiridates, perhaps mistrustful of such a strong force, declined to come close. After several hours, both sides retired to camp for the night, but under cover of darkness the king withdrew and then sent the bulk of his forces in a raid against the Roman supply lines running down from the Black Sea port of Trapezus. Such a move was typical of the Parthian way of waging war and in the past had proved successful against Antony. Corbulo was better prepared, having established a series of forts guarding the road through the mountain passes leading to the sea and arranging for troops to escort each supply convoy.17
The chronology of Corbulo’s campaigns is impossible to reconstruct with certainty, for Tacitus, who provides the only detailed account of these operations, is vague in this respect. For him the description of a war, even one in which a truly senatorial hero performed so creditably, represented little more than a useful digression to break up his account of Roman political life and the vices of the emperor and his court. It is unclear whether the operations described so far took place in AD 56 or 57, or even just possibly in 58. However, following his failure to force Tiridates into a decisive encounter in these initial operations, Corbulo decided to target instead the most important cities and strongholds loyal to the king. The threat to these was intended to draw the enemy forces away from his own supply lines and perhaps even force the king to risk a battle in their defence. Fortified places controlled the land around and were important sources of revenue and military resources, making them valuable in their own right. Even more importantly, a king who could not defend communities loyal to him and who watched impotently as these were taken by siege lost much prestige.
The Roman army moved across the high plateau Erzerum into the valley of the River Araxes. Corbulo himself led a force against the stronghold of Volandum (possibly modern Igdir), whilst simultaneously two of his subordinates moved against smaller or less heavily defended towns. After a personal reconnaissance of the position and time spent ensuring that his men were adequately supplied and had all the equipment needed for their task, he issued orders for the assault, encouraging the soldiers with his confidence in their courage and the hope of glory and plunder. Under cover of supporting fire from artillery, archers and slingers, some legionaries were formed into a testudo – holding their shields above their heads so that they overlapped to form a roof strong enough to deflect all but the heaviest missiles – and began to undermine the wall with picks and crowbars. Another group set ladders against the rampart and fought their way to the top. Volandum fell within a matter of hours without the Romans suffering a single fatal casualty. The defenders were massacred and the women, children and other non-combatants auctioned off as slaves. All the other plunder was given as a reward to the soldiers. Both the other strongholds had fallen to a similar onslaught on the same day. Terrified by the ease with which the Romans had taken these positions and fearful of sharing the same fate as their occupants, most of the nearby towns and villages surrendered to Corbulo without a fight.18
The Roman army concentrated once more and advanced on Artaxata. Before the siege could begin they needed to cross the Araxes, but since the bridge was within range of the city’s walls, Corbulo led his men by a more roundabout route, crossing over by a ford. The threat to the regional capital prompted Tiridates to bring his army to its relief. He deployed for battle in an open plain in the path of the Roman army, hoping either to fight on this ground favourable to his numerically superior cavalry or to feign retreat and lure the Romans into an incautious pursuit. Corbulo’s army was advancing in hollow square, each of the marching cohorts ready to change swiftly into battle order. He had been reinforced at some point by a vexillation – a detachment named after the squarevexillum flag which they carried as their standard – from one of the legions left in Syria, X Fretensis, and these formed the front of the square. III Gallica formed the right and VI Ferrata the left, surrounding the baggage in the centre. The rear was brought up by 1,000 cavalry who had strict orders not to be lured out of position for any reason. More horsemen supported by bowmen on foot were deployed on the wings. Seeing that the Roman army was well prepared to meet a direct attack, Tiridates instead sent forward small groups of horse archers to probe the enemy. These light horsemen galloped forward, shooting arrows at the Romans, and then retired, often pretending to panic in the hope of provoking a careless pursuit. Corbulo kept most of his men tightly under his control – the earlier punishment of Orfitus a reminder of the price of disobedience. However, one decurion eager to make a name for himself charged out ahead of his men only to fall beneath a hail of arrows. It was a further warning that a Parthian apparently in flight remained an extremely dangerous enemy. At nightfall Tiridates withdrew his army.
Corbulo set up camp where he was and for a while considered force-marching the legions against Artaxata that same night, suspecting that the king had gone to the city and hoping to surprise him before he had a chance to organize its defence. He abandoned this idea when his scouts (exploratores) reported that Tiridates had in fact headed off in another direction and appeared to be fleeing to a distant region. Instead he sent out his light infantry at dawn the next day to encircle the city and prevent anyone from escaping, before following with the main force. Abandoned by their king, the inhabitants of Artaxata opened their gates and surrendered to the approaching Romans. They were allowed to go free; but the city was put to the torch and its walls slighted, for Corbulo had too few troops to detach a suitable garrison and the sheer distance from other Roman bases would anyway have made its position precarious. The victorious Roman army formally hailed Nero as imperator for the success won by his legate. It was a title the emperor was pleased to accept, as were the other honours which a sycophantic Senate showered upon him.19
Following on from this success, Corbulo marched on Tigranocerta, probably following much the same route taken by Lucullus’ army over a century before. Communities and individuals who welcomed him were pardoned, those who resisted or fled were punished. In one case where he found that the locals had retreated to mountain caves with their moveable possessions the soldiers were ordered to pile brushwood into the entrances and set this on fire, burning or suffocating the occupants. The Iberians, who were currently allied to Rome, were instructed to plunder the territory of the Mardi, a hill tribe who refused to submit. Corbulo, like all other Roman commanders, employed force or diplomacy on a purely pragmatic assessment of which was most likely to bring advantage. Good treatment of those who submitted to Rome encouraged further surrenders and so helped to weaken the enemy.
It was a hard march through difficult terrain, and as Corbulo kept forcing the pace, provisions ran short; he had probably taken with him the smallest possible baggage train. For a while the soldiers’ ration consisted almost entirely of meat, rather than the usual well-balanced issue, until arrival in the fertile plains around Tigranocerta gave more opportunity for foraging. Here resistance was a little more organized and whilst one fortified town was stormed quickly, the attack on another was repulsed and it had to be reduced by a formal siege. Around this time some Armenian noblemen who had deserted to join the Romans were arrested and executed on suspicion of plotting to assassinate the Roman commander. When the Romans finally reached Tigranocerta, the leaders of the city were uncertain whether or not to resist. A prominent local aristocrat, one Vadandus, had been captured in the recent fighting – or was perhaps one of the suspected conspirators. Corbulo ordered him to be beheaded and then had the head shot over the walls of the city by a ballista. Frontinus claims that ‘by chance it fell in the midst of the council being held by the most important barbarians: the sight of this object, which seemed almost an omen, so stunned them that they rushed out to surrender’.20 Corbulo was presented with a gold crown and, hoping that leniency would win over the population of such an important city, addressed the citizens announcing that they were not to be punished in any way.
Further fighting continued, as the Romans reduced the garrison of a place called Legerda only after a siege and carefully prepared assault. Tiridates was unable to do much to defend his kingdom, for Vologaeses was preoccupied with a serious rebellion by the Hyrcanians who lived near the Caspian Sea. The latter had sent envoys to Corbulo and formed an alliance with Rome. Tiridates did make one attempt to move back into Media, but was stopped when faced by a force of auxiliaries under the command of the legionary legate Verulanus Severus. Learning that Corbulo and the main army was hastening to the spot, he swiftly retreated. The Romans sent punitive expeditions to any part of Armenia which appeared to show loyalty to the Arsacid king, but no longer faced any concentrated opposition within the country. Nero dispatched a prince of the Cappadocian royal house – he was also related to the Herods – to become Armenia’s new king. This man, Tiridates, had spent much of his life as a hostage in Rome and was considered to be reliable by the emperor. Corbulo and the main army withdrew from the kingdom and went to Syria which currently lacked a governor since Quadratus had died a few months before. Corbulo left behind him a force of 1,000 legionaries, three cohorts of auxiliary infantry and two cavalry alae to support the newly installed Tiridates.21
The Cappadocian proved somewhat over-bold, for in AD 61 one of his earliest actions was to launch a heavy raid across the border into Adiabene, a region controlled by Parthia. Complaints from the Monobazus, the ruler of Adiabene, that his Parthian overlord was not providing proper protection to his subjects forced Vologaeses into action to prevent a huge loss of face which would almost certainly be followed by a loss of land. Making a public restatement of Tiridates’ loyalty and claim to the Armenian throne, he loaned him a detachment of his household cavalry under the command of Monaeses and a force raised from Adiabene. He also made peace with the Hyrcanians to allow Tiridates a freer hand in Armenia. With these and the remainder of his own troops, Tiridates set out to regain his throne. Corbulo responded by sending two legions, IV Scythica and XII Fulminata, into Armenia. Although there were three other legions currently under his command, he seems only to have had one immediately available to defend the Euphrates in case the Parthian king should decide to attack Syria. This unit was immediately put to the task of preparing defences, including the construction of a line of forts controlling all the main springs supplying fresh water. He also wrote to Nero requesting the appointment of a new legate to control the war in Armenia, since it was difficult for one man to supervise the conflict there and protect Syria.22
Monaeses led his army against Tigranocerta, but found that Tiridates was well prepared to defend the city, having stored large quantities of provisions and mustered a strong garrison including the Roman troops left by Corbulo. Parthian cavalrymen disliked siegework and were unsuited to performing the necessary tasks, whilst the need to feed their horses placed a great burden on locally available forage. The situation was made worse because much of the local vegetation had recently been consumed by a swarm of locusts. Therefore it was the contingent from Adiabene which both played a leading role in the subsequent assault on the city and paid a heavy price in casualties when this was repulsed and turned into a rout by a Roman sally. Corbulo sent a centurion as envoy to Vologaeses who had brought his court and army to Nisibis, some 37 Roman miles from Tigranocerta. The failure of the siege and the shortage of provisions persuaded the king to order Monaeses to pull back into Parthia. After negotiations it was agreed that Parthian ambassadors should be sent to Nero in Rome and in the meantime the Romans also withdrew from Armenia. Tiridates seems to have gone with them, for the Romans were still prepared to acknowledge Tiridates as long as he clearly acknowledged that he ruled with the emperor’s permission. However, the details of this condition proved unacceptable to the Parthians and the war was renewed in AD 62.23
A new legate had arrived to take command of Cappadocia (and probably also Galatia) with responsibility for the war in Armenia. This was Caesennius Paetus, and it was rumoured that the news of his appointment had discouraged Corbulo from fighting rather than negotiating in the previous year, for he did not want to begin a campaign only to be replaced and let another man finish it. Tacitus does not neglect to mention that some people said that Corbulo was also afraid to risk suffering any reverse which might dent his record of unbroken success. On arrival Paetus took command of two of the Syrian legions, IV Scythica and XII Fulminata, reinforced by V Macedonica recently transferred from the Danubian frontier, whilst Corbulo retained III Gallica, VI Ferrata and X Fretensis. Both forces were supported by auxiliaries, but it is notable that Corbulo kept the legions which had campaigned with him in recent years. Paetus was given troops which may well have been poorly trained and certainly had far less experience. He failed to order – and may not anyway have had the time – a training programme comparable to that with which Corbulo had prepared his men for war. As with the earlier relations between Corbulo and Quadratus, there was little love lost between Nero’s two legates. Paetus was keen to show that he was his own man, not a mere subordinate, and to equal or surpass the achievements of his more famous colleague, whilst Corbulo showed little enthusiasm for aiding him in this task.24
Little is known about Paetus, but his handling of the subsequent campaign was inept. It began well enough, as he led his army into Armenia in response to a Parthian invasion led by Tiridates. He took only two legions, leaving V Macedonica behind (perhaps because there had been insufficient time since its arrival to integrate it into the army). The Roman force marched through the Taurus Mountains and headed for Tigranocerta, but preparations had been hasty and they were inadequately supplied. Several strongholds were taken, but lack of food forced the army to withdraw back into the region bordering Cappadocia rather than winter in central Armenia itself. At first the Parthians seem to have planned to deliver their main attack against Syria, but Corbulo had thrown a bridge of boats across the Euphrates, covering the work parties with artillery mounted on ships, and deployed his troops in a strong position on the far bank. Deterred by his confidence and evident strength, the enemy instead sent the bulk of their forces into Armenia. Paetus was not prepared to meet them, having dispersed his legions and made lavish grants of leave, probably most of all to his officers. When Vologaeses and the main army arrived, Paetus’ mood rapidly swung from overconfidence to panic. At first he advanced boldly across the River Arsanias to a position near Rhandeia, but the loss of some minor skirmishes persuaded him to abandon his intention of seeking battle. Much of the army became infected with their commander’s nervousness and the result was the ignominious defeat of a number of outlying detachments. An additional shock came when a force of Pannonian auxiliary cavalry, who were considered to be élite troops, were routed by the Parthians. In country that should have offered good defensive positions for an infantry army, Paetus found himself outmanoeuvred and surrounded in some hastily constructed and poorly defended camps.
Increasingly desperate messages were sent to Corbulo asking for aid, but before any assistance arrived the Roman general began negotiations with the Parthian king which led to a humiliating surrender. According to Tacitus it was rumoured that Paetus’ soldiers were sent under the yoke, and it is certain that he agreed to the evacuation of all Roman forces from Armenia, with supplies and fortified positions to be given to the Parthians. The legionaries even laboured to construct a bridge across the Arsanias so that Vologaeses could ride across on an elephant to celebrate his triumph. In the event a rumour spread that the soldiers had designed the bridge to collapse under the weight, so the king instead had the animal wade through the water. The retreat of the Roman army resembled a rout as the column was enthusiastically plundered by the local Armenians. They covered some 40 Roman miles in a day, abandoning the wounded and sick who could not keep up. Corbulo, who had taken a vexillation of 1,000 men from each of his three legions and reinforced them with auxiliary troops, was by this time very close and began to meet with stragglers as he crossed the Euphrates. The column was accompanied by a large number of pack camels carrying grain, so that it could move quickly and avoid the need to forage.
Later, in his Commentaries, now sadly lost but available to Tacitus, Corbulo maintained that Paetus’ men had burnt ample store of food when he left his camps and that the Parthians had been on the brink of giving up the siege because their own supplies were virtually exhausted. At the time some suggested that the veteran commander had been deliberately tardy in his relief expedition, hoping to heighten the drama of his arrival. Yet even if this were the case, the disastrous situation had been created by Paetus. Rejecting the latter’s pleas to launch a joint invasion, since he was now legate of Syria and had no orders to invade Armenia, and lamenting the undoing of his earlier work, Corbulo marched back to his province. Paetus returned to winter in Cappadocia. In the following months Vologaeses demanded that Corbulo abandon the bridgehead he had established across the Euphrates and retire to the Syrian bank. The Roman countered by saying that all Parthian troops must leave Armenia first and only gave up their position once this had occurred. Another Parthian embassy was dispatched to Rome. Their demands, coupled with interrogation of the accompanying centurion, made it clear that Paetus’ official dispatch had concealed the extent of his defeat. The legate was soon recalled to Rome, but Nero announced that he was to receive no more than a reprimand, acidly commenting that if such a nervous man were kept in suspense over his fate it would probably make him ill.25
Tacitus had little good to say of Nero, even at the beginning of his reign when his rule was not tyrannical. However, even he approved the emperor’s decision to risk ‘a hazardous war’ rather than submit to a ‘shameful peace’. A new governor, Caius Cestius Gallus, was sent out as legate of Syria, so that Corbulo was once again placed in charge of the Armenian situation with authority to make war if this were necessary to achieve Rome’s aims. His imperium was made superior to all other governors in the region so that Tacitus compared his position to that of Pompey during the war against the pirates. He was also reinforced by an additional legion, XV Apollinaris, sent from Germany. This gave him seven legions, but IV Scythica and XII Fulminata were considered unfit for service and sent back to garrison Syria. A field army was assembled consisting of III Gallica, V Macedonica, VI Ferrata, and XV Apollinaris, along with vexillations from the legions in Egypt and the Danubian frontier, and a great force of auxiliary infantry and cavalry. Before the invasion of Armenia began, he carried out the proper religious ceremonies to purify the army and addressed the men, recounting his earlier successes and laying all the blame for Rhandeia on Paetus.
The arrival of such a large and well-led Roman force immediately made Vologaeses and Tiridates willing to negotiate and the two armies met near Rhandeia. Corbulo delegated Paetus’ son, then serving as a tribune in one of the legions, to take a small party and bury the remains of the men killed in 62. After a period of negotiations, the Roman general and the Armenian king meeting each with an escort of twenty men between the lines and dismounting to greet each other as a mark of respect, a treaty was agreed. Tiridates laid his royal diadem in front of a statue of Nero and agreed to travel to Rome to receive it again from the emperor’s hand. Both sides put on a display of force, parading their armies and sending them through a series of manoeuvres. In the midst of the Roman force was a commander’s tribunal, on which a statue of Nero sitting in a magistrate’s chair was set. When Tiridates and his followers were invited to a feast, Corbulo took great care to explain to them in detail the routine of the Roman camp, always emphasizing the organization and discipline of the army. Such displays of Roman might had been, and would remain, a staple of Roman diplomacy for many centuries. As far as the Romans themselves were concerned, such encounters were never the meeting of equals, but visible celebrations of Roman supremacy.26
In the end, the Romans had achieved their aim of making Tiridates formally acknowledge that his right to the throne relied upon the Roman emperor’s approval. With this made clear, the conflict was considered properly ended. Corbulo was not permitted to occupy Armenia and create a new province, still less to launch a full-scale invasion of Parthia. Throughout these campaigns his freedom of action was constrained by the emperor’s instructions. Yet the supervision of Nero and his advisers had also made it possible to transfer reinforcements from other provinces to bolster the forces in the east. Corbulo was also permitted a longer spell of command than any Republican general, with the exception of a Pompey or a Caesar, had ever been able to secure in normal circumstances. Although he had far less freedom at the highest levels of strategic decision-making, in other respects Corbulo controlled and inspired his army in much the same way as Republican commanders. Though they now operated in a different political environment, Roman aristocrats continued to pursue glory for themselves and their families. The bickering between Corbulo and his colleagues governing neighbouring provinces as each man tried to outshine the other is highly reminiscent of the rivalry between Republican governors.
AN IMPERIAL LEGATE WAS EXPECTED TO PERFORM HIS TASKS COMPETENTLY, and most emperors sought out men of genuine talent to command in the most important campaigns since defeats reflected badly on the emperor himself. Yet unlike Republican commanders, who rarely faced any restraint on their actions until they had laid down their office and returned to Rome, legates were as closely supervised as distance and speed of communications permitted.
In AD 60 much of the province of Britain had erupted into rebellion under the leadership of Queen Boudicca of the Iceni. When the revolt began the legate Caius Seutonius Paulinus, with two out of the four legions stationed in the province, had just captured the Isle of Mona (modern Anglesey), the main centre of the Druidic cult. This was one of the few religions actively suppressed by the Romans, who were disgusted by the important role played in the druids’ rituals by human sacrifice, and also aware that the religion helped to unite anti-Roman elements in Britain and Gaul.
Whilst Paulinus was occupied in storming Mona and massacring the druids and their followers, the rebellion in the eastern part of the province had time to gather momentum. The colony at Camulodunum (Colchester) was the rebels’ first target, for the locals resented the confiscation of their lands to give to the Roman veterans settled there at the end of their military service. Some of the veterans managed to hold out in the massive Temple of Claudius for two days, but the colony had no proper fortifications and the issue was never in doubt. The fury of the Britons resulted in widespread torture and mutilation as they massacred the entire population of the town. In the following weeks Verulamium (St Albans) and Londinium (London) suffered the same fate. Archaeologists have discovered a thick layer of burnt material on each of these sites dating to the Boudiccan revolt.
The first significant response by the Roman army came when a substantial vexillation of Legio IX Hispana marched straight into the heartland of the rebellion, hoping to break the Britons’ spirit with a display of force. Instead the Romans encountered a much stronger army than anticipated. Perhaps in an ambush, or possibly in a night attack on their camp, almost all of the legionaries were killed and only the legionary legate and some cavalry escaped the disaster. Paulinus managed to reach Londinium before it fell, but had only a small body of cavalry with him as he had left the bulk of his army to march on behind. Some refugees left under the protection of the governor and his cavalry, but the bulk of the population remained to be slaughtered. Once he had withdrawn to meet the main army, Paulinus had something like 10,000 men at his disposal. Legio IX was too badly mauled to play any further part in the campaign, but the governor had sent messengers summoning the other legion in Britain, II Augusta, from its station in the south-west to join him. Its acting commander, the prefect Poenius Postumus, for an unknown reason refused to answer Paulinus’ summons. Therefore it was with only his own troops – most of Legio XIV Gemina and part of Legio XX plus some auxiliary units – that the latter was forced to confront Boudicca, whose army was many times larger.
Paulinus chose a spot – which cannot be certainly identified – where a wooded defile offered protection to his flanks and rear. His deployment, with the legions in the centre, auxiliary infantry on their flanks and the cavalry on the wings, was entirely conventional. Like Marius at Aquae Sextiae and Caesar against the Helvetii, he kept his men stationary and silent as the mass of Britons advanced towards them. Only at the last minute did he order them to throw their pila and charge. The volley of heavy missiles robbed the British advance of momentum, but the tribesmen had become so tightly packed together as they had crowded into the defile to reach their enemies that they could not retreat. Like the Roman army at Cannae, they had degenerated into a great mass, incapable of manoeuvre or fighting effectively. Slowly and steadily they were cut down by the Romans, but the latter paid a heavy price for their success. A little less than 10 per cent of Paulinus’ men were killed or wounded in the fighting – a very high casualty rate for a victorious army in the ancient world. In a single day’s fighting the back of the rebellion was broken. Boudicca escaped, but soon afterwards took poison. Paulinus and his men waged a vicious campaign into the winter to stamp out all embers of resistance, their anger deep as a result of the atrocities the Britons had committed.
The defeat of Boudicca was one of the great triumphs of Nero’s reign, the units involved being rewarded with the grant of new battle honours. Legio XIV was granted the title Martia Victrix (Mars the war god’s own, Victorious) and Legio XX may also have earned the name Victrix for its service in this campaign. At the time the popular imagination pitted Paulinus against Corbulo as rivals for glory. Yet in spite of his achievement, in AD 61 Paulinus was recalled after a report from an imperial representative claimed that he was too brutal in the measures he was taking to stamp out all resistance. The concern was less for the welfare of the provincials and more a pragmatic assessment that leniency was more likely to lead to long-term peace and stability in Britain. Corbulo kept within the boundaries of action and behaviour required by the emperor and served as a legate for far longer than the average term. Another man who similarly managed to maintain imperial trust was Cnaeus Julius Agricola, the father-in-law of the historian Tacitus, who was legate of Britain for seven years between AD 78 and 84. During this time he was allowed to expand the province in the north, constructing forts in the newly conquered territory. Tacitus’ biography dwells mainly on these years, seeking to show how a senator could still win fame and respect in a properly aristocratic way even under a repressive regime. The last years of Agricola’s command were spent under the rule of Domitian, who would later order the execution of another governor of Britain, Sallustius Lucullus, simply for permitting a newly designed lance to be named after him.27
Corbulo and Agricola managed to demonstrate conspicuous ability without convincing their respective rulers to suspect them of imperial ambitions and so not grant them important commands. Both proved loyal and won wars on their emperor’s behalf. In the process they also won themselves glory and the respect of other senators. Corbulo is the only general of the Principate from outside the imperial family to figure in Frontinus’ Stratagems, a collection of clever ploys on the part of commanders written by Agricola’s predecessor as legate of Britain. Yet once such men had won their victories and joined the ranks of the foremost senators they could seem to represent a major threat to an emperor who lacked personal military achievements. Prominence under the Principate, and particularly under certain emperors, was accompanied by high risk. In AD 67 – or possibly just earlier in 66 – Nero embarked on a tour of Greece. It was primarily an opportunity to display his artistic talents, although he also took part in the Olympic Games and became the only competitor in history to win all the events, including those which he did not in fact complete. Before Nero and his entourage left Italy a spate of executions had marked the discovery of a senatorial conspiracy – whether real or imagined is impossible to say. One of the alleged ringleaders was Corbulo’s son-in-law Lucius Annius Vinicianus, who had also been legate of Legio V Macedonica in Armenia and had escorted Tiridates to Rome. Corbulo was summoned to join Nero in Greece where he was permitted to forestall execution by committing suicide, a gesture which usually permitted the condemned man’s family to inherit his property. Shortly afterwards the legates of both the German provinces were similarly sent for and instructed to kill themselves. The position of imperial legate was in many ways even more precarious than that of commanding a Roman army during the civil wars which marked the fall of the Republic.28