The last phase of Roman expansion

Civil wars were lost and won in the provinces surrounding the Mediterranean, but it was only possible for peace to be maintained by creating a secure regime in Rome itself. Caesar failed to do this and was stabbed to death in a meeting of the Senate. Only after another period of civil war did his adopted son Octavian at last create a stable regime. Octavian, who was later to be granted the name Augustus by the Senate, created the system known as the Principate, in which he was emperor and monarch in all but name, and reorganized both the army and the provinces. Real power passed to the emperor, but the Senate still provided the governors who ran the Empire and commanded armies in the field. Attempting to disassociate himself from the Octavian who had risen to power through bloody civil war, Augustus made great play of having restored peace to the state, but while he had ended civil war his reign saw constant warfare and expansion against foreign enemies. Roman politicians had always needed military glory and Augustus, who portrayed himself as the greatest of Rome’s magistrates, required the prestige of vanquishing great foreign enemies.

During his Principate Augustus complete the final conquest of Spain, Gaul and Illyria and suppressed rebellions. Africa, Egypt and Syria were all pacified and settled in a process which assimilated and digested the vast conquests of the previous century.

The last tribes of the Alps who still resisted Roman rule and raided traffic through the passes were finally absorbed. In the west, his armies pushed through the Balkans taking the boundary of the Empire to the Danube. Caesar had been careful to portray the Rhine as the dividing line between the Gallic tribes who were fit to be absorbed and the savage shifting hordes of Germans who were not. Augustus’ armies pushed on to the Elbe, explored the Baltic coast and formed a new province in Germany. Augustus served on few of these campaigns in person, but most of the major campaigns were fought by members of his family, such as his old friend and son-in-law Agrippa, his stepsons Tiberius and Drusus, and his grandson Germanicus. By the end of the first century no one from outside the Imperial family was permitted to celebrate a triumph.

Above: Tiberius leas the son from an earlier marriage of Augustus' wife Livia who on reaching adulthood was given command in a series of major wars by the Emperor and proved to be a highly successful commander. A rigid disciplinarian, he campaigned in the Balkans and across the Rhine, and later, after a self-imposed exile, suppressed the massive Pannonian Rebellion (ad 6-9) and helped to restore the situation in Germany after the disaster in ad 9.

Above: The younger brother of Tiberius and father of the Emperor Claudius, Drusus campaigned extensively in Illyria and in Germany, where he conquered most of the territory up to the Elbe. He is said to have hoped to win the right to dedicate spolia opima by killing an enemy commander with his own hand, spending much time pursuing variuos Germanic Kings around the battlefield. He died in 9 вс from injuries suffered in a riding accident.

Above: Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa (63—12 вс) was Octavian’s close friend and political associate, eventually marrying his daughter, Julia. Of obscure family, he proved to be a very efficient military and naval commander, who contributed more than anyone else to Octavian's victories over Sextus Pompey and Mark Antony.

This cameo has the Emperor Tiberius enthroned in power in the centre, with his aged mother Lima to his left. They are surrounded by other members of the imperial family, whilst beneath them crouch representatives of the many nations vanquished by Roman military might. Tiberius ended the expansionist policies of Augustus, allegedly on the latter’s advice.

This memorial commemorates a centurion who was killed in the Teutonberg Wald in ad 9. The inscription reads, 'Marcus Caelius, son of Titus, member of the Lemonian voting tribe, from Bononia (modern Bologna), senior centurion of the Eighteenth Legion, 53 years of age. He fell in the Varian war. If found, his bones may be interred here. His brother, Publius Caelius, son of Titus, of the Lemonian voting tribe, set this up.’ Tacitus claimed that captured tribunes and senior centurions were sacrificed by the German tribesmen. Caelius is depicted carrying the vitis, the vine staff symbolizing his rank, and wearing his decorations on a leather harness. On his head he wears the wreath of the corona civica, the highest of all decorations, given for saving the life of a fellow citizen. Flanking him are the busts of two of his freedmen, who presumably were killed with him.

Things began to go wrong in the last decade of Augustus’ life. In ad 6 the recently conquered Pannonian provinces erupted into rebellion. Large numbers of troops were needed to suppress the rising: Tiberius at one point commanded an army of ten legions, but chose to divide his strength because he felt this was too big an army to control effectively. Casualties were so great and military service so unpopular in war-weary Italy that Augustus had recourse to the desperate measure of freeing slaves and forming them into special units to send to the front. It took nearly three years to put down the rebellion, and almost as soon as this was completed news arrived of a disaster in Germany. The governor Publius Quinctilius Varus, related by marriage to Agrippa, had been tasked with establishing the administration of the new province. Varus was informed of the beginnings of an uprising, but did not realize that its leader was Arminius, a chieftain of the Cherusci who commanded a contingent of auxiliaries in his own army. Varus reacted as any Roman would have done to a report of rebellion, mustering all available troops and marching immediately to confront the rebels. His forces were not supplied or prepared for a full-scale campaign, and his columns were encumbered by the soldiers’ families and an unwieldy baggage train, but Varus hoped that a show of force would convince the rebels to surrender. He had carried out a similar operation with much success in the year 4 вс when as governor of Syria he had marched into Judaea and quelled the disorder following the death of Herod the Great. This time he led his three legions into a carefully prepared ambush. Arminius, who had deserted to the rebels early in the campaign, led the German tribesmen in a series of ambushes as Varus’ clumsy column made its way along a narrow path through the difficult terrain of the Teutonburg Wald. Unable to deploy and force the enemy to fight an open battle, the Romans were whittled down. Varus did what no Roman commander should have done — he despaired, taking his own life. His army was massacred almost to a man. The disaster in Germany marked the end of the great period of Roman expansion, although it was not its main cause. Over the next decade, several Roman armies crossed the Rhine and exacted a bloody revenge for the destruction of Varus’ three legions, but there was never a concerted attempt to recreate a German province to the east of the river.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!