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.
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