Not many people in the world would be crazy enough or determined enough to invade the Italian peninsula by traveling over the Alps from what is now France. They certainly wouldn’t do it with an army traveling variously on foot, on horseback or on elephant-back. But the Carthaginian general Hannibal was that crazy, that determined – and that brilliant. Known as “the father of strategy”, Hannibal wasn’t just one of the greatest military tacticians of his age, he was one of the greatest of all time.
No one in Rome thought he’d be able to muster much of a force, having traveled overland fighting the Roman rearguard all the way from Spain. Hannibal led a force of 38,000 infantry, 8,000 cavalry, and 37 war elephants to the foot of the Alps, and crossed them with a massive loss of life, including almost all of the elephants. But the losses were not as high as his enemies had assumed they’d be. 20,000 infantry and 4000 cavalry survived, and the subsequent invasion of Italy was a bloodbath for the Romans.
“Crossing the Rubicon” is now an expression for passing the point of no return: this is the original incident from which it derives. In 49 BCE, Gaius Julius, at that time just a general and not yet Caesar, led his army across the Rubicon river, which marked the border of Rome: to cross it marked him as a treasonous leader of a revolt against the Roman state. Famously, he is said to have quoted the Greek playwright Menander, saying “alea iacta est” – “the die is cast.”
Julius would be successful in his quest for the leadership of Rome and its empire (much of which, particularly Gaul, added by his own military genius): which is why history knows him best as Julius Caesar.
The ancient feast of the god Lupercus, Lupercalia was an annual three day festival that ran from February 13 – 15 each year. It was intended to avert evil spirits and purify the city, releasing health and fertility. It is the ancient predecessor of the Christian festival of St Valentine, which is now better known as the more secular Valentine’s Day.
According to Shakespeare, when Julius Caesar attended this particular one, he was offered the crown of a monarch three times and refused it on each of those times. Nonetheless, the reason why he was stabbed to death a month later was apparently his limitless ambition.
Shakespeare’s version might be better known, but the best historical account of the death of Big Julie was written by imperial biographer (and obsequious toady) Seutonius. It is from Suetonius that we have Caesar’s famous last words (asking Brutus ‘even you, my child?’, which Shakespeare rendered as ‘et tu, Brute?’) – although curiously, Seutonius himself reports those words as claimed by others, and for himself believes that Caesar said nothing.
This is somewhat hard to believe, given that Seutonius also recounts that Caesar was attacked by 60 or more men, and received a total of 23 stab wounds from his assailants – it appears that the proximate cause of death was loss of blood. (Fun fact: Caesar’s autopsy report is the earliest one to have survived to the present day.) In a larger sense, the cause of the death of Gaius Julius Caesar was political ambition – his own, and that of others.
The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest was a stunning defeat of the Roman legions by Germanic tribesmen. 2000 years ago today, the three day battle began, when elements of six different Germanic tribes under the overalll command of Arminius of the Cherusci ambushed three Roman legions under the command of Publius Quinctilius Varus.
The batttle was the first engagement of a war that would last for the next seven years, and end with a Roman defeat. The Romans would end up withdrawing to the opposite bank of the Rhine, which became the border of the Roman Empire for the next four hundred years.
Armininius (or Hermann, as he is known in Germany) has become a folk hero to the German people, a symbol of resistance against invaders, especially Napolean.
The sixth and final ruler of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, Nero was the grand-nephew of his predecessor, the Emperor Claudius and the nephew of Caligula, Claudius’ predecessor. He would become legendary for his cruelty, although most of the accounts attesting to it are from contemporaries who disliked him, and may have been exaggerated. Nero was only 17 when he ascended to the throne – it was only because both these Emperors died without issue that he even got that close to power. If either of the two had had a son, Nero would today be a footnote.
Instead, he would reign for 13 years, being the Emperor during the great fire of Rome in 64 CE (history records that Nero was instrumental in the rebuilding of Rome afterwards – the business about the fiddling seems to have been a rumour spread by his political enemies), and the famed revolts of Britannia (led by Boudicca) and Judea (which ended in the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and the beginnings of the Jewish Diaspora). Upon his death in 68 CE, (also without issue,) Nero threw the Empire into the chaos and civil war of what became known as the Year of the Four Emperors.
Looking at the history of the last three Julio-Claudian Emperors, one can only conclude that for a people so infamous for their orgies, the Romans must have known a thing or two about birth control.
Eparchius Avitus was a member of the Gallo-Roman aristocracy of the empire in his day. He was a strong proponent of keeping Gaul in the empire, even holding his coronation in Toulouse. However, these views were unpopular with the Roman establishment, or rather, what remained of it after the city was sacked by the Vandals earlier that year.
However, he allowed the Vandals to take Hispania, and along with his appointment of other Gallo-Romans to important roles in his administration, this made him immensely unpopular, and he was deposed as Emperor after little more than a year on the throne.
Olybrius is one of the least distinguished Emperors in Roman history. He reigned over the Western Roman Empire for only seven months, and for that whole time, he was little more than the puppet of the men who had put him on the throne, the general Ricimer and his nephew Gundobad.
Olybrius was of the Roman senatorial class, and by his marriage (to Placida, daughter of Emperor Valentinian III) a member of the Imperial House of Theodosius – the last of that House, in fact. He spent most of his reign distracted by religious matters while Ricimer and (after Ricimer’s death) Gundobad ruled in his name. He died of dropsy, and only three more Emperors followed him before the western empire died too.
The Roman Empire had been in decline for centuries by the time Odoacer deposed the child emperor Romulus Augustus in 476 and declared himself ruler of Italy – the first time any non-Roman had done so.
His Italy remained more or less a client state of the Eastern Empire (the portion of the old Roman Empire that would become better known as Byzantium, and last for just under another millennium), and that in itself helps to illustrate the decay of Rome. From the point several centuries earlier at which Roman expansion ceased, to the splitting of the Empire into East and West in 395 after the death of Emperor Theodosius, the signs had been present for some time, and only growing stronger.
Even Odoacer’s sack of Rome was the third in less than seventy years, and when a nation can no longer defend its capital, you know things aren’t going well. Even so, the use of this date as the official Fall of Rome is fairly arbitrary – there are no shortage of other dates that have a just claim to the title.