On this day in 173 AD, or 172, or not even on this day at all, but a different day (the sources are contradictory and a bit imprecise and to be honest it doesn’t really matter… we just wanted an excuse to post a blog) the Roman army of Emperor Marcus Aurelius defeated and subdued a much larger force of Quadi in what become known as the ‘Miracle of the Rain’. The event, which took place in Marcus’ first Marcomannic War, is depicted on the Aurelian Column, which was completed in 193, and contemporaries and historians attributed it to divine intervention. Cassius Dio stated that it was called by an Egyptian magician praying to Mercury, while Christian writers such as Tertullian attributed it to a prayer by Christians.
By 161 AD, the pressures along the Roman frontier had reached a critical point as the Germanic tribes along its borders at the Rhine and Danube came to the conclusion that their survival meant breaking into Rome's territories. Beginning in 162 and continuing until 167, contingents of Chatti, Chauci, Langobardi and Lacringi invaded Roman provinces along this frontier and though these were repulsed with relative ease they gave a taste of what was to come. In their aftermath, the military governor of Pannonia, Marcus Iallius Bassus, initiated negotiations with 11 tribes, with the Marcomannic king Ballomar, a Roman client, acting as a mediator. A temporary truce was agreed and the tribes withdrew from Roman territory, however shortly after, Vandals and the Sarmatian Iazyges invaded Dacia, and succeeded in killing its governor, Calpurnius Proculus. In response the Empire began to mobilise, sending the Legio V Macedonica, a veteran unit of the Parthian campaign, to Dacia Superior to act as a counter force.
In the winter of 169 Marcus Aurelius gathered his forces and marched north with the intention of subduing the independent tribes who lived between the Danube and the Roman province of Dacia. Initially things did not fall favourably for the Roman’s, who were unable to fully commit due to a plague ravaging the Empire. While they were bogged down, Ballomar of the Marcomanni managed to form a coalition of Germanic tribes and crossed into Roman territory sweeping away all opposition that stood before him. Significantly, a large part of his army managed to invade Italy, razing Opitergium (Oderzo) and besieging Aquileia. This was the first time that hostile forces had entered Italy since 101 BC, when Gaius Marius defeated the Cimbri. The army of praetorian prefect Titus Furius Victorinus tried to relieve Aquileia, but was defeated and possibly killed during the battle (other sources have him die of the plague).
The invasion of Italy forced Marcus to re-evaluate his priorities and an army was sent to drive Ballomar out; this was achieve by the end of 171. Marcus was now once more able to turn his attention to the northern frontier. Intense diplomatic activity followed as the Romans tried to win over various barbarian tribes in preparation for a crossing of the Danube. A peace treaty was signed with the Quadi and the Iazyges, while the tribes of the Hasdingi Vandals and the Lacringi became Roman allies.
In 172, the Romans crossed the Danube into Marcomannic territory where they appear to have had some success, defeating both the Marcomanni and their allies. However during this period the Quadi broke their treaty and came the aid of their Germanic kin, forcing the Roman army into a perilous position. It is during this campaign that the Miracle of the Rain occurred, when the Twelfth Legion Fulminata became trapped by a much larger Quadi force. The event was described by Cassius Dio, however his history is partly lost, with only an excerpt by the Byzantine author Xiphilinus surviving. It is quoted below, including an addition by Xiphilinus, who accuses Dio of fraud:
“[71.8] So Marcus subdued the Marcomanni and the Iazyges after many hard struggles and dangers. A great war against the people called the Quadi also fell to his lot and it was his good fortune to win an unexpected victory, or rather it was vouchsafed him by heaven."
"For when the Romans were in peril in the course of the battle, the divine power saved them in a most unexpected manner. The Quadi had surrounded them at a spot favorable for their purpose and the Romans were fighting valiantly with their shields locked together; then the barbarians ceased fighting, expecting to capture them easily as the result of the heat and their thirst. So they posted guards all about and hemmed them in to prevent their getting water anywhere; for the barbarians were far superior in numbers. The Romans, accordingly, were in a terrible plight from fatigue, wounds, the heat of the sun, and thirst, and so could neither fight nor retreat, but were standing and the line and at their several posts, scorched by the heat, when suddenly many clouds gathered and a mighty rain, not without divine interposition, burst upon them. Indeed, there is a story to the effect that Harnuphis, an Egyptian magician, who was a companion of Marcus, had invoked by means of enchantments various deities and in particular Mercury, the god of the air, and by this means attracted the rain."
"[71.9] This is what Dio says about the matter, but he is apparently in error, whether intentionally or otherwise; and yet I am inclined to believe his error was chiefly intentional. It surely must be so, for he was not ignorant of the division of soldiers that bore the special name of the "Thundering" legion - indeed he mentions it in the list along with the others- a title which was given it for no other reason (for no other is reported) than because of the incident that occurred in this very war. It was precisely this incident that saved the Romans on this occasion and brought destruction upon the barbarians, and not Harnuphis, the magician; for Marcus is not reported to have taken pleasure in the company of magicians or in witchcraft. Now the incident I have reference to is this: Marcus had a division of soldiers (the Romans call a division a legion) from Melitene; and these people are all worshippers of Christ. Now it is stated that in this battle, when Marcus found himself at a loss what to do in the circumstances and feared for his whole army, the prefect approached him and told him that those who are called Christians can accomplish anything whatever by their prayers and that in the army there chanced to a whole division of this sect. Marcus on hearing this appealed to them to pray to their God; and when they had prayed, their God immediately gave ear and smote the enemy with a thunderbolt and comforted the Romans with a shower of rain. Marcus was greatly astonished at this and not only honoured the Christians by an official decree but also named the legion the 'thundering' legion. It is also reported that there is a letter of Marcus extant on the subject. But the Greeks, though they know that the division was called the "thundering" legion and themselves bear witness to the fact, nevertheless make no statement whatever about the reason for its name."
"[71.10] Dio goes on to say that when the rain poured down, at first all turned their faces upwards and received the water in their mouths; then some held out their shields and some their helmets to catch it, and they not only took deep draughts themselves but also gave their horses to drink. And when the barbarians now charged upon them, they drank and fought at the same time; and some, becoming wounded, actually gulped down the blood that flowed into their helmets, along with the water. So intent, indeed, were most of them on drinking that they would have suffered severely from the enemy's onset, had not a violent hail-storm and numerous thunderbolts fallen upon the ranks of the foe. Thus in one and the same place one might have beheld water and fire descending from the sky simultaneously; so that while those on the one side were being consumed by fire and dying; and while the fire, on the one hand, did not touch the Romans, but, if it fell anywhere among them, was immediately extinguished, the shower, on the other hand, did the barbarians no good, but, like so much oil, actually fed the flames that were consuming them, and they had to search for water even while being drenched with rain. Some wounded themselves in order to quench the fire with their blood, and others rushed over to the side of the Romans, convinced that they alone had the saving water; in any case Marcus took pity on them. He was now saluted Imperator by the soldiers, for the seventh time; and although he was not wont to accept any such honour before the Senate voted it, nevertheless this time he took it as a gift from heaven, and he sent a dispatch to the senate.”
The remainder of the war saw the Romans mopping up the remaining opposition and by the end of 175 they succeeded in their subduction of the main Germanic tribes in the region. Marcus may have intended to campaign against the remaining tribes, and together with his recent conquests establish two new Roman provinces, Marcomannia and Sarmatia, but whatever his plans, they were cut short by the rebellion of Avidius Cassius in the East, which forced him to divert his attention.
On December 23rd 176, together with his son Commodus, he celebrated a joint triumph for his German victories ("de Germanis" and "de Sarmatis"). In commemoration of this, the Aurelian Column was erected, on which the ‘Miracle of the Rain’ was represented. Peace between Rome and the Quadi and Marcomanni would however be short lived, with the Second Marcomannic War flaring up the following year.
Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the gate:
“To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds
For the ashes of his fathers
And the temples of his gods,
From Horatius at the Bridge by Thomas Babington, Lord Macaulay (1800–1859)
In around 506 BC a large Etruscan army lead by Lars Poresna, King of Clusium, marched on Rome. Among their number was Rome’s recently deposed King, Tarquinius Superbus, who hoped that following a successful campaign, he would be returned to the city’s throne.
Having recently engaged an army of Tarquin’s in an indecisive battle at Aricia, the Romans were expecting an invasion and hastily attempted to construct a fort on the Janiculum, a hill on the western side of the Tiber. However, owing to inadequate scouting, the troops stationed at the fort were surprised and overcome by the Eutruscan force, which proceeded to occupy the hill.
From the Janiculum, Porsena’s army launched an attack and advanced on Pons Sublicius. The Roman forces were now in disarray and the future of the newly formed republic looked bleak. However, just as all seemed lost a soldier named Horatius Cocles, accompanied by two others, namely Titus Herminius Aquilinus and Spurius Lartius (which, intriguingly, are Etruscan names) stepped forward to defend the bridge, using its narrow width to reduce the effectiveness of the large enemy force that bore down upon them. There they fought while to their rear the citizens of Rome gathered and, using but hand axes, began to chop down the bridge. Herminius and Spurius retreated as the bridge was almost destroyed, but Horatius fought on until the bridge had fallen, leaping into the river in full armour and swimming its width while coming under enemy fire. The attack was thus repulsed and Porsena forced into an unsuccessful siege of the city.
You may notice that we’ve avoided using the familiar LEGO Roman Minifigure helmets and armour. This is because during this period the Roman Army was still fighting in the Greco-Etruscan style, where the phalanx was the master of the battlefield. This is over a hundred years before Rome comes into conflict with the Samnites and subsequently adopts the maniple system and around 400 years before Marius implements his reforms. The army was therefore vastly different in appearance and style to the one most people are familiar with. This is why we’ve gone for the Corinthian helmets, Hoplon shields and bronze and Linothorax type armour.
That, at least, is how the story goes according to Rome’s poets and historians. There have however always been questions about the story’s veracity and even Livy, whose history was as much about promoting Augustus Caesar’s legitimacy as it was about recording past events, casts doubt over some of its claims. It’s likely that Porsena succeeded in capturing Rome, for a short period at least (though there is no evidence to suggest that Tarquin’s throne was ever restored), and that Horatius’ exploits were later invented as a means of masking past defeats and promoting the idea of Rome’s inherent superiority. The Romans were, after all, skilled in the art of propaganda, a modern Latin word with ancient roots.
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.
On this day in 52BC, or at least around this day given the vagaries of recording dates in antiquity and our ability to interpret them, Vercingetorix of the Arverni surrendered to Julius Caesar, bringing an end to the Siege of Alesia and an effective end to the Gaulish fight against the Romans.
In the spring of 52 BC the Gallic tribes once again rose against Caesar, this time under the leadership of Vercingetorix, a skilled leader. Though the Gauls experienced some success early on, over the summer Caesar succeeded in scattering their army. Recognising his tenuous position Vercingetorix chose to avoid further pitched battles, instead retreating to the Mandubii fort of Alesia, from where he sent cavalry to raise a fresh army.
Caesar’s response was to embark on a massive feat of engineering whereby he encircled Alesia with two lines of fortification and encamped his army between them. Food ran short in the fort and in desperation Vercingetorix forced out those unable to fight – the old, the sick, the women and the children. Though they begged to be taken into slavery, Caesar refused to accept their pleas and rejected by both friend and foe, they starved to death between the Gallic and Roman lines.
In September the Gallic relieving force, estimated to be a quarter of a million strong, arrived at the Roman lines. Both the relieving force and Vercingetorix army flung themselves at Caesar’s fortifications but were repeatedly driven back.
Two of the Roman legions were encamped together beneath a hillside to the north of the fort. Recognising this weakness, 60,000 of the relieving troops were moved round the back of hill under the cover of darkness. The following day they launched an attack from above the camp, while the remainder of the force attacked on the plane and Vercingetorix attacked from within. The Gauls on the hillside poured over the fortifications and the thinly spread legionaries could do little but hold them at bay, using their pila as spears. Meanwhile Caesar had managed to repulse Vercingetorix and the remaining Gauls and rallying his cavalry charged towards the beleaguered camp. Relieved by their general the Romans launched their pila into the Gallic throng and charged. Caught between the legionaries and the cavalry, the Gauls were slaughtered. Recognising the defeat, Vercingetorix surrendered the following day.
This little model was built by Brick to the Past's Dan Harris as part of a series of scenes on important events in Roman history. It is in fact a bit of a throwback, being the first model he built as a 'grown up'. We plan to post a lot more 'on this day' type articles in the future - be the first to first to see them by following us on Twitter and Facebook.
Here at Brick to the Past we take our inspiration from a variety of sources, including field trips, a range of literature and art. Art can be particularly useful because it can not only provide a view point to the past but can also be the source of scenes and stories to work into a model. So it’s been wonderful to find out that we’ve been able to provide inspiration that others have drawn upon.
This month we were contacted by artist George Brady, who has been working on a lead and glass mosaic. The inspiration for the mosaic comes from our model The Wall: Rome’s Northern Frontier, and in particular a photo of it that shows it’s fort, milecastle and rolling landscape.
The result is an incredible mosaic that is alive with life. According to George, the model took over 3,000 hours to make and contains over 30,000 pieces of lead. He is hoping that this is a world record for a mosaic of this kind and is currently awaiting the decision of the Guinness Book of Records. If you would like to see the mosaic in person, then it go on display at the Harris Museum in Preston over December and January.
George is available for commission and you can send any enquiries you have to firstname.lastname@example.org
On this day in AD 117, Hadrian became the 14th Emperor of the Roman Empire.
Hadrian was born Publius Aelius Hadrianus on January 24th AD 76 in either Italica or Rome. He was the adopted son of the Emperor Trajan, who died on 8th July 117, probably of a stroke. Hadrian's succession was not without controversy, with rumours that his adoption was illegitimate and the letter naming him successor fraudulent. Nevertheless, he quickly secured his position and his reign lasted just under 21 years, ending with his death of natural causes on July 10th AD 138.
During his reign, Hadrian travelled to nearly every province of the Empire and in Britain is perhaps best known for building Hadrian's Wall, which marked the northern limit of the province of Britannia. He also rebuilt the Pantheon and constructed the Temple of Venus and Roma in Rome. He is regarded as the third of the Five Good Emperors.
We have always been fascinated with Roman history and in particular the Empire's effects on the British landscape, its people and their culture. Inspired by this, in 2015 we built an enormous 16 square metre model of Hadrian's Wall, which included a fort, milecastle and Vicus. Find out more and see the photos on our portfolio page:
The Roman villa and iron age village in this model are available to rent, contact us to find out more about prices and options.
The mosaic of the Emperor Hadrian was made by Jimmy and Tommy Clinch and is also available to rent.
We're very proud to be featured in the Smithsonian magazine.
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