197AD and Game of Thrones has come to reality, Roman style. On the plains outside Lugdunum, two rivals prepare for the conclusive engagement that would decide the future of the Empire. A story of alliance, treachery, tales of valour and serious brutality, this has it all. There would be no mercy for the loser, everything was staked on victory. Get ready for an account of one of the largest, yet relatively obscure civil wars in the entirety of antiquity. Roman vs Roman, its end would decide who would rule and who would rot.
Background: Rome in 193AD
Serious upheaval had engulfed Rome at the end of the 2nd Century AD. Following the assassination of the villainous Emperor Commodus with no clear heir, a power vacuum was created. To ambitious Romans, this was a great opportunity to make their own claim for the Empire. Civil war naturally ensued. From it, claimants would quickly rise and fall, usually losing their own life in the process. Yet there were two contenders that stood out from the rest.
Bust of the first African Roman Emperor
Portrayed as a Roman with outstanding quality by Julius Capitolinus, the life of Clodius Albinus is a fascinating one. Although originally from modern day Sousse in Tunisia, this man had managed to outshine nearly all his rivals. A proven military commander and highly regarded throughout the Empire, he was a bastion of Roman virtue. So much so that apparently Commodus, due to the stunning reputation of Albinus, had ordered him be his successor. Clearly his contemporaries viewed Albinus as one of the top Romans of his time.
Despite whether people had wanted Albinus to succeed Commodus, his refusal to accept the offer paved the way for the rise of another. Septimius Severus was one of the most experienced Roman governors in the Empire when Commodus was assassinated. It was in the ensuing pandemonium that this Severus made his move for power. After the legions under his command in modern day Bosnia had declared him Emperor, he marched on Rome, seizing control. Yet this was just the beginning.
An Insecure Emperor
Although critical, geographically, Rome itself was just one minor part of a huge domain. To the East, already a similar claimant now prepared his own challenge for the Empire, while in the West, Severus was aware of another powerful individual. That figure was the then governor of Britain, none other than the aforementioned Albinus. Severus had learnt the harsh lessons of his immediate predecessors; men who did not deal with the challenges they faced. Their deaths had come quickly. To ensure he did not meet a similar end, Severus had to be clever. He needed to find a way that would help cement his rule. An alliance with Albinus was the perfect solution and he got it.
With this alliance, these two men became the faces of the Empire. They agreed Severus would rule as Emperor, whilst Albinus would be his Caesar (his successor). With Albinus having large influence in the Western provinces and Severus in power in Rome, their co-operation was hugely significant. This agreement, after all, gave Severus the security in the West he so desperately needed. Now he was free to head East and defeat the other remaining contender for the Princeps, Pescennius Niger. Let me stress, this was only possible because of the alliance and terms Severus had offered Albinus!
Severus very quickly defeated Niger and civil war looked to be over. Severus and Albinus were in alliance and stability was returning to the Empire.
It was then that everything was thrown upside down. At the time of the agreement between Severus and Albinus, Severus already had two sons; Bassianus (more well known to us as Caracalla) and Geta. You can imagine their reaction to their own father discarding them from the succession in favour of Albinus; they would have been furious! Whether it was the constant pressuring from his sons or his own personal ambitions, Severus quickly changed his opinion on sharing power with Albinus. His desire for a Severan dynasty became clear, with no intention of sharing power with anyone else but his family. The alliance had suited Severus to defeat Niger. Now, it was a hindrance. Although once the great ally of this Emperor, now Albinus was merely another obstacle he had to remove.
Following a failed attempt to have Albinus murdered, the alliance was shattered and war erupted. In Rome, Severus openly declared his former political ally an enemy of the state; a traitor to the Empire. Meanwhile, Albinus gathered his forces in Britain and crossed the channel into Gaul. Severus likewise mobilised his legions and marched to confront his newly-created foe.
Preceding Conflict: The Tale of Numerianus
And so, the theatre of war for these two armies would be Gaul. For a brief time, both forces harassed each other, trying to get the early upper-hand in the conflict. It is here that I must include the fascinating story of a man called Numerianus. Originally a school teacher in Rome, this man travelled to Gaul and impersonated a Roman senator. Succeeding in his pretence, he raised an army and harassed Albinus, performing,
daring exploits in Severus’ interest………he captured and sent to Severus seventy million sesterces (Dio. 76.5).
I find it amazing that a simple school teacher did all this. Someone should make a film out of it!
Despite the incredible antics of Numerianus, overall Albinus had had the better of the fighting before the decisive encounter. Finally, this encounter occurred on the plains outside the Roman town of Lugdunum (now Lyons). These two former political allies lined up their armies to decide through blood who would rule.
The scale of this battle was huge. Although more recently debated by scholars, 300,000 Romans are said to have participated at this battle. Neither force had a numerical advantage, with both sides commanding 150,000 men each. This is a truly staggering amount of troops; three-quarters of the total number of Roman soldiers in the Empire at that time! The 300,000 figure, therefore, does seem excessively large and could easily be an overstated number. Yet if this number is correct, we are learning about the largest Roman civil war battle ever fought!
Geographically, Albinus could count on support from significantly fewer regions than Severus in the Empire. He did however have the support of some key provinces. It was these areas that enabled him to possibly raise such a large army. Britain in particular played a huge role in this.
The Importance of Britain
Its isolation and hostile northern frontier made Britain one of the most troublesome provinces in the whole Empire. Indeed, Rome only maintained control on this land by having a very strong military presence consistently stationed there. The position of governor in this province was therefore one with a substantial amount of sway. Many Romans throughout history would be tempted by this to try their luck for power (men such as Magnus Maximus and Carausius). For Albinus, Britain was therefore a goldmine for troops. Combine that with the reinforcements he would have obtained from Gaul and Hispania and you have a foe that could be more than a match for Severus.
Britain constantly required a strong Roman garrison to help maintain control on this distant, contested island.
The Battle of Lugdunum 197AD
Here began then the largest Roman civil war battle ever fought. Far from one-sided, the result could have gone either way. Whenever Severus appeared to be making a breakthrough on one flank, Albinus countered this on the opposite wing. So close was this engagement that Severus himself was nearly killed. Having fallen from his horse during the battle, Severus found himself fighting for his life for some time. Rumours naturally spread around his troops that their general had fallen and defeat was almost certain. It was Albinus who appeared to be gaining a clear upper hand.
But then the turning point occurred. Severus, realising his army was wavering, showed himself clearly to his troops and rallied them. In doing so he turned the tide of battle back into his favour. It is then that the hammer blow occurred as Dio recalls,
At this juncture the cavalry under Laetus came up from one side and completed their victory. Laetus…so long as the struggle was close, had merely looked on…..but when he saw that Severus’ side was prevailing, he also took a hand in the business.
The siding of Laetus with Severus was the nail in the coffin for Albinus. It was the decision of this cavalry commander that in the end fundamentally decided who won the battle.
The actions of Laetus were very similar to those of Lord Stanley at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. Here, Lord Stanley waited with his forces to see how the battle between Richard III and Henry Tudor for the English crown would pan out. When Henry appeared to be getting the upper hand, Stanley sided his forces with him against the villainous Richard. The resemblances between the actions of Stanley and those of Laetus are staggering.
The result of this close-fought engagement was a swift and bloody end to Albinus. Despite being a very costly victory, it was decisive and Severus took full advantage of it. Albinus soon met his end after the battle either by his own hand or by one of his slaves. His head was sent to Rome on a pike and his mutilated body, having rotted, was thrown into a river.
Those friendly to Albinus met a similarly unhappy end. Severus ordered the entire family of Albinus, including his sons and mother, to be murdered. Any senators believed to have been friendly to this man were also executed as public enemies. Although brutal, these actions of Severus cemented his rule as sole-Emperor. In turn, this allowed him to achieve his ultimate goal of starting a new Severan dynasty.
Yet WHAT IF Severus had not survived his close dice with death on the field at Lugdunum? There would have been no-one to rally his routing soldiers, no-one to change the tide of battle. Laetus, seeing the demise of this Emperor, would very likely have sided with Albinus. In such a case, victory for Albinus would have been assured.
The treatment of Albinus and his supporters after the battle by Severus was one of sheer brutality. Yet would a victorious Albinus have committed similar brutality with the partisans of the recently deceased Severus? Albinus had a golden reputation among the senate and his soldiers, so perhaps he would have been more lenient. Exile comes to mind.
It is also interesting to consider what kind of Emperor Albinus would have been. His sparkling reputation and prestigious military career makes him appear to me very Trajan-esque. With this gleaming military record, the idea Albinus would dedicate much time campaigning to expand the Empire seems likely. No more so than in Britain could this apply. His knowledge of the island would have put him in great stead for launching a successful campaign beyond Hadrian’s Wall. Severus launched a similar campaign late in his reign but it proved rather insignificant. If it had been Albinus who conducted this campaign however, then its outcome could have been notably more successful.
The Arches of Septimius Severus, the Roman History of Cassius Dio and the eccentric reign of Elagabalus. All these things were a direct result of the establishment of a Severan dynasty following Lugdunum. Yet there was one city more than most that this dynasty had a profound impact on.
Benefaction to Lepcis Magna
Lepcis Magna was located on the Mediterranean coast of modern day Libya. Although relatively wealthy because of its coastal location, Rome had always viewed its importance in the Empire as marginal. That was until Severus. Lepcis was the city of his birth and so this man naturally had a strong personal connection to it. This African Emperor therefore commenced a huge building programme for the settlement to improve its renown. Not only was the harbour significantly improved, but a new forum, triumphal arch and multiple new aqueducts were also constructed. Lepcis thrived from its new-found power and wealth. All this thanks to the Emperor Severus.
Now consider a world where Albinus was in this position of utmost power. With him as Emperor, the likelihood of such a ‘Golden Age’ for this Libyan city would have significantly decreased. Yes, Albinus too was African by origin, but he came from the city of Hadrumentum (now Sousse) in modern day Tunisia. What is to say that with Albinus as Emperor, Hadrumentum was the city that was so heavily invested in instead? A map showing these African locations can be viewed here.
The war between Severus and Albinus had everything you would expect from the HBO thriller; an alliance followed by treachery resulting in a huge war and the defeated suffering all kinds of atrocities. As for Lugdunum, its result secured an imperial Severan dynasty for the next 40 years. Yet the sheer closeness of the battle bears witness to why this was such a fascinating engagement. If it had not been for Severus surviving his close dice with death and Laetus then siding with him, this battle had all the chances of having the alternate outcome. It is fascinating to consider how different Roman Imperial History in the 3rd Century AD would look, if Albinus had not had victory snatched from his grasp that fateful day in 197AD.
Notes, Links and Related Reading
Views are my own unless references stated.
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Cassius Dio, Roman History: Epitome of Book LXXVI (76)
Historia Augusta. The Life of Clodius Albinus by Julius Capitolinus
Jstor articles on Lugdunum
Graham, A. J. 1978. ‘The numbers at Lugdunum,’ Historia: Zeitschrift fur Alte Geschichte, 27 (4): 625-630
Van Sickle, C. E. 1928. ‘The Legal Status of Clodius Albinus in the Years 193-96, Classical Philology, 23 (2): 123-127