Its easy to be condescending about the past. We look back with the benefit of hindsight, scholarship and having watched well made documentaries, and assume that we know better what was going on than the people actually involved. But I doubt we are justified. People usually know exactly what is going wrong.
As the crisis of the third century continued we read how the emperor Claudius spoke to his troops.
“With the authority of a veteran commander, he represented to them that the relaxation of discipline had introduced a long train of disorders, the effects of which were at length experienced by the soldiers themselves; that a people ruined by oppression, and indolent from despair, could no longer supply a numerous army with the means of luxury, or even of subsistence; that the danger of each individual had increased with the despotism of the military order, since princes who tremble on the throne will guard their safety by the instant sacrifice of every obnoxious subject.”
He went on to point out how the frequent civil wars had weakened the empire leaving it wide open to attack by barbarians.
Leaders rarely risk telling people something they don’t already agree with, and most people must have known that the root of the empire’s problems was the fact that nobody could control the army. The emperors could not afford to pay the troops without risking ruining the productive economy with excessive taxes. But if the troops didn’t get their pay they would simply get a new emperor.
Two huge chunks of the empire in the West and East had completely broken away. Even the continued existence of the empire was doubtful. Claudius had taken the first step – he had identified the problem. The question was, could he do anything about it?
But I am getting ahead of myself. In the last show the hapless Gallianus was conspicuously failing to cope with the problems of the empire. There had been many rebellions against Gallianus. The chronicles of the time refer to 30 – a nice round number but probably an exaggeration. But even so there were a lot, and in 268 there was yet another. A successful general called Aureolus was hailed as Caesar by his army on the Danube. He marched into Italy and occupied Milan, with the obvious intention of seizing Rome itself. Gallianus gets a poor write up in Decline and Fall but his personal courage is at least acknowledged. He led an army in person to meet his challenger and laid siege to Milan. The situation of Aureolus was soon bleak. In fact the only strategy he could come up with was to spread libels about the emperor via his contacts on the other side.
Amazingly enough this desperate tactic had some effect and before long there was a live conspiracy amongst the emperor’s chief officers to do away with him. A plan was hatched. Late one night, just after dinner, they made up a story that the defenders were attempting a break out. Gallianus instantly took to his horse without his armour and in the dark and confusion was dispatched with a dart. His dying wish was that the empire should be passed to Claudius, who was also the plotters preferred candidate although he apparently knew nothing about it.
This at least is the story as Gibbon relates it. It all sounds very convenient and not very likely but strange things do happen, so maybe that was how it occurred. Claudius was, at least, generous to his former commander’s supporters and family which is not the action of someone with either a guilty conscience or something to hide.
He was 55 years old and had worked his way up through the ranks of the army from a humble beginning. In this respect his background resembled Maximin rather than the aristocratic Gallianus whom he succeeded. But unlike Maximin he didn’t have a chip on his shoulder about his origins. He was reasonable in his dealings with the Senate and the people. His aggressive instincts were channelled into the much more useful activity of fighting the enemies of what was left of the empire. The reunification of the break away parts would have to wait. The immediate problem was a major invasion by the Goths into the Balkans with a supporting fleet in the Black Sea. This was their biggest invasion yet and the prospects were poor as we can tell from the tone of the address of Claudius to the Senate.
“Conscript fathers, know that three hundred and twenty thousand Goths have invaded the Roman territory. If I vanquish them, your gratitude will reward my services. Should I fall, remember that I am the successor of Gallienus. The whole republic is fatigued and exhausted. We are in want of darts, of spears, and of shields. The strength of the empire, Gaul, and Spain, are usurped by Tetricus, and we blush to acknowledge that the archers of the East serve under the banners of Zenobia. Whatever we shall perform will be sufficiently great.”
It was a sober assessment of the situation. Not for Claudius the overweening confidence of Decius who was prepared to seek out the Goths wherever they were and give battle to them. In the two decades since the death of Decius at the hands of the Goths the Romans had often been defeated by the barbarians, sometimes in the most shameful of circumstances. It was no longer inevitable that a Roman emperor could expect to even survive an encounter with the enemy let alone that he could be sure of victory.
But despite his shortages of men and materials, Claudius was to be victorious. The Goths were engaged in a serious attack on the centre of the empire by both land and sea and in enormous numbers. The sophistication of the attack as well as the scale was unprecedented. Accounts give the size of the fleet at between 2,000 and 6,000 vessels. Surely an exaggeration, but it was big enough to transport them to Greece where they proceeded to lay siege to Thessalonica which at the time was one of the major cities of the region.
On hearing of the approach of Claudius the Goths broke off the attack and set out to meet him. This was another marked contrast to a few years earlier when they would routinely avoid any confrontation with a large Roman force.
The Romans attacked the main Gothic force at Naissus and succeeded in surrounding them by skilful use of the territory and a feigned retreat. This tactic, so successfully used against the Romans by Hannibal in earlier centuries, is the hallmark of an army that is obliged to use discipline, training and stealth against a larger but less well organised enemy. It also requires a very high level of ability on the part of the general. Claudius clearly had that high level of ability.
But even so the battle didn’t go completely as planned. Although 50,000 Goths were supposed to have been killed a large body of them managed to escape. Claudius used his knowledge of the terrain to gradually force the Goths into an area around Mount Haemus where they could be contained. The Goths were soon starving and suffering from a plague. Meanwhile their fleet had been destroyed.
It was only a shade of the terrifying barbarian host of the previous year that broke out the following spring to try and fight their way home. A brief pursuit ensued and the Goths were taken prisoner.
The empire had survived one of the most determined attacks yet made on it. The recaptured plunder of the campaign was largely in the form of cattle and slaves. Presumably the more portable wealth had already been taken on earlier raids. Each member of the army received 2 or 3 enslaved Gothic women as their share of the spoils – which sounds like an odd form of bonus. They would probably rather have had cash, but no doubt they made the best of it. The presence of so many women among the captives strongly suggests that the aim of the invasion may well have been settlement rather than plunder. That was not going to happen now.
But the Goths did have a form of revenge on Claudius. He contracted the plague that had been rampant in the Gothic camp and died. His short reign of two years had done much to restore the prestige of the empire, and had removed one its biggest threats. He was later to get a very good press from Roman historians when his relative Constantine was to come to power. Some of the praise lavished on him was no doubt purely down to sycophancy. But his reputation is based on solid achievement. There is no doubt that the empire did indeed owe him much. And not least of the reasons for gratitude was that he handed over the reigns to a man who had just the right skills at just the right time. This was Aurelian who continued the work his predecessor with skill and energy.
But it was Claudius who turned the tide. He is still known to prosperity as Claudius Gothicus, the conquerer of the Goths.