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War with Clodius Albinus

Septimius Severus’ victory over his eastern rival Pescennius Niger opened a new opportunity to cement himself as sole emperor and his family as an imperial dynasty. Despite an earlier arrangement with the governor of Britain Clodius Albinus, to keep him from also making a claim for the throne, Severus initiated a policy to establish connections and continuity between himself and imperial predecessors. By late AD 195 Severus identified himself with Marcus Aurelius proclaiming himself the son of the former emperor (and brother of Commodus) to legitimize his claim and renamed his eldest son Bassianus as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. In so doing, Bassianus (who would later be known as Caracalla after the hooded cloak that he wore) was named Caesar to replace the previously appointed Clodius Albinus who was also declared a public enemy. Expectedly, Albinus had himself declared emperor, prepared his legions and crossed the Mare Britannicum (English Channel) into Gaul.

Clodius Albinus, like his rival Severus, was born (c. AD 150) into a wealthy North African family of senatorial distinction and rose rapidly through the Roman political system. Also like fellow imperial claimant Pescennius Niger, Albinus’ displayed distinction in the Dacian campaigns of Commodus reign (early 180’s). He reached the consulship by the middle of that same decade and served various provincial commands and governorships throughout Commodus’ reign before ultimately governing Britannia in AD 192. The Historia Augusta suggests that Commodus either intended to, or actually did name Albinus as Caesar (his heir), but coinage does not reflect this title until after the death of Commodus and the appointment by Septimius Severus to that position following the events of AD 193. Regardless, Albinus did enjoy marginal popularity among the aristocracy and he was undoubtedly considering many possible options even prior to the official break with Severus.

By early AD 196 Albinus had secured support among the aristocracy of Gaul and Hispania and established a continental base at Lugdunum (modern Lyons). Initially, Albinus enjoyed success in battle against Severan loyalists but he was unable to capitalize on these early victories. By mid AD 196, Albinus bid for the throne had stalled in southern Gaul, just short of the Alps and a march on Rome itself. Severus’ personal arrival at the head of a massive army from the east began to turn the tide in his favor.

In early AD 197 (February 19) two massive armies met at Tinurtium (modern Tournus) on the River Arar (modern Saône). Cassius Dio reported 150,000 men on each side though a third, roughly 50,000 men each, of this number is much more likely. The resulting contest was among the bloodiest and hardest fought in Roman history (considering that both sides were ultimately Roman). The battle was in doubt from its onset, with each army facing opportunities for victory and potential for disaster. Albinus’ left flank was initially overrun, but the right held firm and lured the Severan forces into a trap. Severus’ advance was in such jeopardy of being turned into a rout that he attempted to intervene personally. At the head of a detachment of Praetorians Severus launched himself into the battle but this too was nearly a disaster. Severus lost a horse in the ensuing mayhem and was forced to fight valiantly in order to stem the tide of retreat and inspire renewed effort. His personal involvement seems to have allowed his army to hold firm. At this critical juncture, Severus’ cavalry under Laetus intervened and helped overwhelm the army of Albinus.

Cassius Dio describes the resulting aftermath and the ultimate defeat of Albinus:
“Thus Severus conquered; but the Roman power suffered a severe blow, inasmuch as countless numbers had fallen on both sides. 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 took refuge in a house that stood beside the Rhone, but when he saw the whole place surrounded, he slew himself. I am not stating, how, what Severus wrote about it, but what actually took place. The emperor, after viewing the body of Albinus and feasting his eyes upon it to the full, while giving free rein to his tongue as well, ordered all but the head to be cast away, but sent the head to Rome to be exposed on a pole”

Severus’ victory ensured his continued authority and the establishment of his dynasty, but the emperor proved to have cruel streak that would taint his legacy. Many supporters of Albinus (including his immediate family) were executed and purges of the aristocracy were similar to those of Sulla in the Late Republic. While Severus’ victory ensured imperial stability at least temporarily, it also helped establish the continued rise of military and bureaucratic supremacy in the government of the later Roman Empire.

Did you know?

55 BCE saw the first of two consecutive Roman invasions from Gaul, under the command of Gaius Julius Caesar.


War with Clodius Albinus - Related Topic: Roman Britain


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