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What if Rome had never fallen to the hands of the barbarians?
By Pascal Lemaire
Chapter I : A throne in peril
Chapter I, section 1 : Two centuries and a half of Empire
When Emperor Augustus died in 14 AD he left behind to his successor Tiberius a
powerful empire with strong natural borders and a powerful army some 20 legions
strong ready to repulse any barbarian invasion. For some 200 years the Empire
knew peace and prosperity despite the murder of numerous emperors. Barbarians,
while a constant threat, were ignored by most peoples as a distant and
negligible threat. Emperors like Marcus Aurelius had beaten them repeatedly on
the borders, some more adventurous like Trajanus going as far as taking their
lands in Dacia in 106 AD and Parthia in 116 AD.
Even if some emperors had been really awful like the mad Nero, the cruel
Commodius and the demented Caracalla their actions had no real consequences on
the life of the Empire and the economy kept growing.
But then came a period of troubles : from 215 onwards emperors only ruled for a
few month before being killed by rebellious generals taking with them the border
armies to battle the armies of the legitimate emperor. They were exceptions,
like the rule of Severus Alexander ( 222-235 AD ) but the situation worsened to
the point that in 238 no less than 6 emperors ruled on various parts of the
empire, leading to widespread destruction in northern Africa and northern Italy
at a time when barbarian armies attack in both Germania and Dacia.
Finally came Gordianus III who managed to restore order in Italy before going to
Syria where the Parthians are getting restless, restoring the peace in Dacia
while going there. For five years he ruled, mainly fighting in the east, before
he died from a battle wound that left his prefect of the praetorium in charge of
This man was called Phillipus and later generations would remember him for his
birthplace by calling him Philippus the Arab.
Chapter I, section 2 : From Phillipus the Arab to Publius Licinius Egnatius
In 244 AD Phillipus had become Emperor of a nation in trouble. He who was not of
the senatorial elite had been appointed by the army without support from the
Senate was also at war with the Parthians. His priorities were thus to make an
honourable peace with Shapur I and then get back to Rome before a rival arose.
So after an agreement where he paid 500 000 gold coins to the Parthians for his
prisoners, kept the newly conquered lands and gave a free hand to the Parthians
in Armenia Philipus retreated to Antiochos where he received the news that the
Senate agreed to his accession to the throne. There he re-organised the eastern
armies before going back to Rome, crushing the Carpes in the danubian area while
But soon his power began to dissolve as rebellion sprang in various parts of the
Empire, mostly in the east due to the heavy taxes his brother imposed on the
locals. To quell the unrest Phillipus sent Gaius Messius Quintus Trajanus Decius,
his Prefect of the Praetorium, with an army. But as soon as Decius ended his
mission his troops revolted and put him as the new emperor. Immediately
Phillipus began to raise new troops but was unable to train them well enough in
time and thus, less than 5 years after getting on the throne he was defeated at
Veronnes. Yet Decius had not time to celebrate since new troubles on the Danube
called for his immediate attention, Gothic tribes having invaded the area.
While on the way he published a number of edicts in order to restore the moral
integrity of the Empire after his Christian liking predecessor. In those edicts
he ordered to all the citizens of the Empire to pray the Gods for the well being
of the Empire, with the death penalty for all those who wouldn’t, thus causing
a Jew and Christians hunt in all the Empire.
But in 251 the Goth killed Decius and for two years the succession was uncertain
until 253 when Publius Licinius Valerianus and his son Publius Licinius Egnatius
Gallienus took power, dividing the empire between themselves in order to
stabilise the borders. In 259 a renewed Parthian aggression forced Valerianus to
go fight them while his son had to face barbarian invasions on both the Rhine
and the Danube. He faced them when news came of his father capture and later
death in 260, making him sole emperor 7 years after gaining power.
Chapter II : The warriors emperors ( 261 AD - 284 AD )
Chapter II, section I : Gallienus' reign
Following the news of Valerianus' capture by the Parthians and his subsequent
death revolts erupted in various parts of the Empire, the worst being Ingenuus'
revolt. Unable to operate on all fronts Gallienus decided to let Postumus, the
so called "gallic emperor", defend the Rhine border and send
Odenaethus as Dux to restore order in the east. Himself would stay in the center
of the Empire in order to re-organise the country in order to strengthen it and
professionalise the army's officers corps. One of his main decision was to
transfer all the army commands from the senators to the equites whom he hoped
would revolt less often against the Emperor.
Yet in 265 Postumus tried to invade Italy from his holdings in Gaul and was
repulsed, thus beginning a 3 years long war which ended in a pitched battle near
Augustodunum ( Autun ) where Gallienus victory was total. In order not to weaken
the border too much the Emperor spared the life of Postumus' soldiers for he
knew that the Germans had attacked in 262 and remained a real threat.
But while he was in Gaul another crisis erupted in northern Italy for an
alemanic invasion force had crossed the border. Too occupied by his operations
in Gaul Gallienus sent Marcus Aurelius Claudius to restore the situation. After
a hard fought battle near the Lago di Garda* Claudius was able to repulse the
Alamans but had no time to rejoice for another and far more dangerous invasion
was taking place in the Balkans. Indeed gothic tribes had crossed the Danubius
and had gone as far south as Athens which they had taken and pillaged like they
had pillaged many other cities and sanctuaries on their ways. The barbarian had
gone as far as building a fleet with which they had also attacked coastal cities
of Asia Minor.
After a great battle on the Nestus river and a serie of other minor engagements
Claudius was able to get back all the stolen treasuaries and repulse the fleeing
barbarians outside of the realm, thus gaining the surname of "Gothicus".
During this time in Italy a cavalery officer of Mediolanum ( Milano ) called
Aureolus thought the time good to revolt. Yet he had acted on bad informations
since he thought that Gallienus was still in the north when the Emperor was in
fact coming home after having re-organised the Rhine defense. In late 268
Aureolus was defeated in battle and then killed by the Emperor who had little
respite since another barbarian invasion happened then, Juthunges and Vandales
tribes having crossed the border. It was not until 271 and a battle near
Paduvium ( Padua ) that the threat was eliminated.
Yet peace was not to last for long since Zenobia, the queen of Palmyra, decided
to declare war on the Empire in order to control all of Syria and Judea.
Gallienus, feeling too old, decided to send Claudius Gothicus, promoted to the
rank of Master of the Horses, to this new eastern war, where it took 2 years to
capture Zenobia and bring peace to the area.
Impressed Gallienus decided to adopt Claudius as his heir to the throne. The
next year Gallienus finally died after 21 years of rule, almost a miracle after
years of instability.
Chapter II, section II : Claudius II the Gothic
Claudius' accession to the throne happened rather well, without any major
insurrection for his efficiency in the recent campaigns against the Goth and
Zenobia he had led in the name of Gallienus had shown to everyone he was an
efficient soldier able to defeat anyone on the field. Also the reforms of the
army made by Gallienus had deeply changed the composition of the officer corp,
also leading to a greater stability in the Empire.
Immediately Claudius thought about his succession and associated Claudius
Quintillus, his brother, to the throne, and gave him the command of the danubian
border with the title of Dux Danubii. He also promoted in 275 AD the general
Probus, whom he had met during the campaign against Zenobia, Dux Orientalis with
order to secure the eastern borders including Armenia, which had seen a return
of parthian influence.
Claudius himself dealt with the Gallic border where a large invasion by
thousands of Alamans and Franks had occurred. Cutting their way outside of the
country the Emperor forced them to battle and after defeating them he crossed
the Rhine and lay waste to all territories east of the river. Some writers of
the time spoke of as much as 400 000 barbarians killed or captured, and a huge
drop in slaves price occurred on the markets of the western half of the Empire.
Also a lot of the loot was given back to the ravaged towns of the area.
Thanks to this swift reaction the border would be safe for years to come, but
the Emperor took no chances as he ordered a massive fortification program with
many communities getting sturdy walls able to resist any barbarian siege.
While Claudius was thus occupied Probus had to deal with an invasion of Egypt by
the Blemmyes, those desert warriors living far in the south along the Nile. At
the same time Claudius Quintillus had to face two different barbarian invasions
on the Danube. After defeating the Vandals and the Burgundies in Rhetia he had
to run for Thracia where sarmatians troops ravaged the area. During the fight
against the enemy's heavy cavalry the Dux Danubii was wounded and died shortly
after, to the great despair of the Emperor who then named in 279 AD Probus as
his successor and Marcus Aurelius Carus Dux Danubii.
The wars had depleted the ranks of the Gallic and Danubian armies. Claudius thus
decided to revive an old practice dating back to the days of the republic : the
military colonies. Poor citizens from the city of Rome were given lands in the
border area and had an obligation to serve in the army.
Gallienus' reforms and Claudius' peace had given the economy a new strength,
with exchanges coming back between the provinces. This gave the treasury a boost
in taxes incomes which in turn allowed those taxes to be lowered by the Emperor,
in a successful attempt to help the economy.
He strengthened the economic recovery by introducing a monetary reform combined
with a program of retiring old coins from circulation. Another measure he took
was to allow large scale wine production outside Italy, to which it had been
long restricted, a decision who allowed the Gallic provinces to recover more
quickly than would have been possible otherwise.
Thus when Claudius II the Gothic died in 282 he left behind a stronger Empire to
his designed successor, Probus.
Chapter II, section III : Probus Parthicus
Marcus Aurelius Probus, the new Emperor, was born in Sirmium in Pannonia, one of
the key places of the Danubian Limes. Since he was a child the soldiers had been
all around him and his whole career had been in the military. Having been made
Dux Orientalis from 275 until his recall in Rome by Claudius II in 279 he had
been sent back in the East in 280 in order to forge a peace treaty with Varham
II, the Parthia's Emperor, something he achieved in 281. He was thus on the way
home when he learned of the death of Claudius and sped on to Rome in order to
receive the purple of the Imperial office from the Senate.
He hoped the treaty with Parthia and the police actions led against the
barbarians during Claudius' reign would give him some peace but he soon learned
that the oriental empire had betrayed the pact between Rome and Ctesiphon and
that armies were on the way toward Apamea.
Immediately he took the elite imperial forces with him and set forth toward the
East by land, reviewing the danubian defenses on the way. As he was near his
birth town of Sirmium he met a party of soldiers doing some reparation work on
the road. Seeing those soldiers lacked discipline he ordered some harsh
punishments on them but they revolted and attacked the numerii ( barbarian
imperial bodyguard, 200 men strong ) escorting the Emperor. A fierce fight
erupted, quickly ended when the Praetorian Guard intervened to protect the
Emperor. Yet they couldn't prevent the wounding of the emperor by one of the
rebels. Luckily the wound proved harmless but shacked Probus who realized he had
not named any successor yet. He thus named his Prefect of the Praetorian Guard
Marcus Aurelius Carus, another veteran of the eastern wars, his heir and tasked
him with the defense of the west of the Empire while he was in the East.
He then continued his road, taking with him 3 danubian legions which he joined
with the forces he had ordered to prepare for action, including half of the
Egyptian legion and all of the oriental legions, for a total of 14 legions and
numerous auxiliary units ranging from plain infantry to archers to clibanarii
and cataphracti heavy cavalry units in order to fight off the powerful parthian
Quickly he was able to pocket the parthian invasion army in Syria, destroying
them swiftly before invading the enemy's lands. Soon he had taken control of
most of Mesopotamia and Probus decided that those lands would be kept by the
romans. He thus re-created the old provinces created by Trajanus in 117. He
decided to embark on a grand scheme that would see roman control of all the
lands from the Caspian sea and the Caucasus chain in the north to the Persian
gulf to the south, only the Arabian peninsula staying free from roman rule. But
this required him to crush the minor kingdom of Armenia, client state of the
romans and the parthians depending on the time. Currently it was under parthian
control and thus Probus embarked on it's conquest, a task that took him most of
the spring and summer of 283 when he annexed Armenia as a direct roman province.
He was still at Tigranocerta when a parthian embassy came and asked for peace
terms. Crushed as their armies were they had no hopes left of ever wining
against the romans in this war.
They thus recognized their defeat in the treaty and left all lands west of the
iranian mountains to the Romans. They then relocated their capital to the old
Persian imperial capital of Persepolis and would never be a threat to Rome any
more for internal troubles and foreign invasions would lead them in a long
period of decay.
After this extraordinary victory the Emperor Probus went back to Rome but caught
a disease and died suddenly in Athens, to the great sadeness of the whole
Chapter II, section IV : An hard fought succession
The news of the Emperor's death came as a thunder out of a blue sky in the
Empire. In Rome a saddened Senate named M. Aurelius Carus as the new Emperor,
following the succession arrangements made by Probus. But in Athens C. Aurelius
Diocles Diocletianus was also named Emperor by it's troops while a third
contender named Julianus appeared in Illyria.
Immediately Carus called a legion from Gaul and raised two new legions in Italy,
training them until the spring when he left for Illyria. There he won an hard
battle against Julianus who had only one legion but this only unit was made of
veteran soldiers who inflicted massive casualties on the legions of Carus. As he
rested after the battle he was struck by the three legions under Diocletianus,
veterans of the recent campaign in Parthia. Crushing the Gaulish legion they
force the two other units to surrender while Carus dies leading an ultimate
charge against Diocletianus who is then the only master of the Empire.