The Battle of Lugdunum was fought on February 19th 197 AD at Lugdunum (modern Lyon, France), between the armies of the Roman emperor Septimius Severus and of the Roman usurper Clodius Albinus. Severus' victory finally established him as the sole emperor of the Roman Empire. The battle is said to be the largest, most hard-fought, and bloodiest of all clashes between Roman forces, with the historian Cassius Dio describing 150,000 soldiers on each side. This figure may be an exaggeration as it would account for about three-quarters of the total number of soldiers present throughout the Roman Empire at that time, however there is no doubt that the numbers were significant and likely in excess of 100,000.
Severus had emerged as emperor through violence as the chaos of the Year of the Five Emperors in 193 and its aftermath played out. Initially, Severus and Albinus had been allies, with the latter supporting the former in his bid for Emperor. In return, Severus elevated Albinus, who was already the powerful commander of the legions in Britannia, to the position of Caesar. In 195 however, with all his enemies defeated, Severus tried to legitimize his power, connecting himself with Marcus Aurelius, and raising his own son to the rank of Caesar. This last act broke Severus' alliance with Albinus, who was declared a public enemy by the Senate.
In 196, after being hailed as emperor by his troops, Albinus took 40,000 men in three legions from Britannia to Gaul, where he established his headquarters at Lugdunum. He was joined there by Lucius Novius Rufus, the governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, who had the Legio VII Gemina under his command.
But Severus maintained a powerful position, notably having the Danubian and German legions on his side. To try to minimise this advantage and possibly win their support, Albinus struck first against the German forces under Virius Lupus. He defeated them, but not decisively enough to challenge their allegiance to Severus. Albinus then considered invading Italy, but Severus had prepared for this by reinforcing the garrisons of the Alpine passes. Not wishing to risk the losses or the delay that forcing the passes would cause, Albinus was deterred.
In the winter of 196/197, Severus gathered his forces along the Danube and marched into Gaul, where, much to his surprise, he found that Albinus' forces were about the same strength as his own. The two armies first clashed at Tinurtium (Tournus), where Severus had the better day but was unable to obtain the decisive victory he needed.
Following the events and Tinurtium, Albinus' army fell back to Lugdunum with Severus in pursuit. The armies met on February 19th and a massive and ultimately decisive battle ensued over two days. The armies. Both lead by their respective leaders, were roughly the same size and it seems the tide shifted many times over the course of the battle. Cassius Dio describes how at one point Severus, seeing his army take heavy losses, attempted to come to their aid with the Pretorian Guard and in doing so very nearly lost them too. Losing his own horse and on foot he attempted to rally his wavering men, helping them hold out long enough for his cavalry to arrive and turn the battle. Exhausted and bloodied, Albinus' army was crushed.
According to Dio:
"Many even of the victors deplored the disaster, for the entire plain was seen to be covered with the bodies of men and horses; some of them lay there mutilated by many wounds, as if hacked in pieces, and others, though unwounded, were piled up in heaps, weapons were scattered about, and blood flowed in streams, even pouring into the rivers."
Albinus fled to Lugdunum where, according to Dio, he took his own life. Severus had Albinus' body stripped and beheaded and rode over the headless corpse with his horse in front of his victorious troops. The head he sent back to Rome as a warning along with the heads of Albinus' family. Dio was critical of this, writing that "this action showed clearly that he [Severus] possessed none of the qualities of a good ruler, he alarmed both us [the Senate] and the populace more than ever by the commands that he sent; for now that he had overcome all armed opposition, he was venting upon the unarmed all the wrath that he had stored up against them in the past".
At some point after this battle, the powerful Roman province of Britain was broken up into Upper and Lower halves (Latin: Britannia Superior & Inferior). Roman forces in Britannia were also severely weakened, which would lead to incursions, uprisings, and a withdrawal of Rome from the Antonine Wall south to Hadrian's Wall. It was while quelling one of these uprisings that Severus himself would die near Eboracum on February 4th 211, only weeks short of the 14th anniversary of his victory at Lugdunum.
This little model was built by Dan Harris as part of a series on important events in Roman history. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
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