The Marcommanic Wars
The ‘German or Marcomannic war – or rather, war of many nations’ (HA Marc. 22.7) is generally regarded as marking a major turning-point for the empire, as the harbinger of what finally took place in the fifth century. From the accession of Trajan until the 160s the Germans seem to have been quiescent. Trajan’s great new Dacian bastion neutralised a large area north of the lower Danube; and, while Hadrian abandoned transdanubian territory attached to Moesia Inferior, he was able to reduce the legionary establishment in Dacia itself to a single unit, XIII Gemina. Likewise, the Sarmatians, the Jazyges of the Hungarian plain and the Roxolani between Dacia and the Black Sea, caused little trouble under Trajan, Hadrian and Pius. Under Marcus the whole northern frontier seemed to explode: ‘all the peoples from the limit of Illyricum as far as Gaul had conspired together’, says the biographer (HA Marc. 22.1). Trouble began with Marcus’ accession – at the western end (HA Marc. 8.9: the Chatti) – but was to centre on the upper and middle reaches of the Danube, whence Italy itself was most vulnerable. The Parthian war diverted three of the northern frontier’s thirteen legions to the east for four years (162-6) and the peoples beyond the Danube showed clear signs of disturbance: the governors were instructed to hold them off (HA Marc. 12.13: Dum Parthicum bellum geritur, natum est Marcomannicum, quod diu eorum, qui aderant, arte suspensum est, ut finito iam orientals bello Marcomannicum agi posset.). Two new legions were raised in 165-6 (II and III Italicae) as part of the preparations for a Roman campaign of major proportions. But a group of tribes from northern Germany (Dio 71.3.1a says six thousand Langobardi – Lombards – and Obii) invaded Pannonia. Marcus and Lucius were to lead the Roman offensive in 167, the year after the triumph for the eastern war was celebrated; but the plague which came back to Rome with the returning troops made them postpone their departure until 168. In that year the emperors went north and crossed the Alps; they stayed at Carnuntum (AE 1982. 777) ‘and settled everything concerned with the protection of Italy and Illyricum’ (HA Marc. 14.6) before going to winter at Aquileia (HA Verus 9.10, claiming pressure from Lucius – urgente Lucio – for this move: this suggests that Marcus had wished to remain on the Danube). The plague was rampant there: it may have claimed many victims already, for, the biographer asserts, Lucius had wished to return to Rome without even making the northward crossing of the Alps, ‘because the prefect of the guard Furius Victorinus had been lost and part of the army had perished’ (HA Marc. 14.5). No cause of death is given, but plague is more likely than enemy action (as Zwikker 66 showed): the biographer speaks of tribes causing trouble (‘cuncta turbantibus’), or threatening war if they were not taken into the empire, being pressed by ‘remoter barbarians’; but the initial arrival of Marcus and Lucius
at Aquileia ended all this; hence Lucius thought the task finished; and to remain further undesirable in view of the prefect’s death. Marcus insisted on crossing the Alps (HA Marc. 14.1-5). The return to Aquileia was clearly intended as a return to winter-quarters, with a further mission planned for 169. But the plague made them decide to depart (Galen 19.17 f.) and Lucius died on the journey south, at Altinum (HA Verus 9.11; Marc. 14.8). Marcus returned to Rome for the funeral and consecration, and did not resume campaigning until Lucilla had been found a new husband, Ti. Claudius Pompeianus (HA Marc. 20.6). Just before Marcus set off again for the north, his younger son Annius Verus died; it was during the games of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, hence in mid-September (HA Marc. 21.3-5, cf. Inscr. It. XIII.1 506 ff.).