Crushed on the ice: Marcus' victory on the Danube

When Marcus Aurelius led the Roman army north to put an end to the invasions of tribal groups like the Marcomanni and the Quadi, along the northern borders of the empire, it soon became clear that the emperor was not just facing Germanic barbarians, but instead a multi-ethnic alliance of several different peoples.

At the end of AD 169, Marcus had attempted to prevent one of these groups – the nomadic Sarmatian tribe known as the Iazyges – from raiding Roman territory by giving a large bribe to their war chief Tarbus. However, once winter had ended, Tarbus did not keep his word and sent his men to participate in a provincial revolt within the empire, which resulted in the death of the Roman commander Claudius Fronto. Again in AD 170, another Sarmatian tribe known as the Roxolani allied with the Dacian Costoboci tribe and raided as far south as Greece, but were eventually defeated and pushed back.

Marcus was keenly aware of the Sarmatian threat, especially posed by the violent Iazyges. He knew that – unlike the Germanic tribesmen – these nomadic warriors could never be fully incorporated into the Empire, and thus, had to be utterly defeated in order to end their incursions past the border. His hatred for the untrustworthy nomads was so great that he even proclaimed his desire to exterminate every last one of them.

It took a couple of years before Marcus could shift his focus from the Germanic Marcomanni to the Iazyges, but almost immediately afterward, the talented leader won a decisive victory against his nomadic opponents on the frozen Danube River in AD 173. Though not completely crushed, it did not take long for Marcus to follow up the victory with several more successes, leading to the end of the Iazyges threat for several decades.

Defeat of the Marcomanni

In a campaign throughout AD 172, the Marcomanni were so thoroughly beaten that they sued for peace; which resulted in them returning all of their Roman prisoners and even agreeing to give up their access to the Danube River. Since the Quadi had already agreed to peace terms at this point, it gave Marcus the opportunity to completely shift his focus to the Iazyges. Marcus kept his main base at Sirmium in Pannonia, but his first act was to increase his manoeuvrability by establishing two other command centres at Vindobona and Brigetio.

The first Roman victory against the Iazyges came shortly afterward, early in 173; however, the army was led by one of Marcus’ subordinates, not the Emperor himself. For the rest of the year, Marcus’ desire to defeat the Iazyges himself kept him on the front as much as possible, moving from fort to fort mostly within Lower Pannonia in order to find the best place to strike across the Danube in the Hungarian plain, the homeland of the Iazyges.

The Roman shift of focus in the northern campaign had two major consequences. In Rome, wartime propaganda changed from Germanic themes to Sarmatian ones, such as the images printed onto coins. Through the Roman government’s propaganda machine, the Sarmatians would no longer just be Marcus’ and the army’s enemy, but enemies to all of the people of Rome. Even more important, the successes of the Romans against the Marcomanni and their new aggression towards the Iazyges threatened the Quadi to such a degree that the Germanic tribe decided to break their peace with Rome and ally with the Sarmatian nomads instead. It was not difficult for the anti-Roman war leader Ariogaesus and his supporters to remove King Furtius and declare the pro-Sarmatian noble as the new king.

Marcus was so infuriated by this turn of events that he put a bounty on Ariogaesus. The Emperor wanted to punish the insult personally so he offered 500 aurei for the war-leader’s head, or 1,000 if he was brought to Marcus alive. Marcus also declared that his entire backstabbing tribe would share the same catastrophic fate as their new allies. When Marcus had subdued the Marcomanni, it looked as if ultimate victory in the north was in his grasp, yet the alliance of the Iazyges and Quadi threatened to unravel all that he had accomplished. The Emperor needed another major victory in order to keep the momentum in the Romans’ favour.

Battle on the Danube

Reinforced with many Quadi warriors, the Iazyges army decided to raid deep into Pannonia at the end of AD 173. However, their invasion of Roman territory ended quickly because winter came early that year. Therefore, the raiding army headed back north, using the frozen Danube River to cross over the border and return to Hungary. Unbeknownst to the invaders, Marcus and his soldiers had pursued them on foot, ready to attack them from behind. The allied army did not realize they were being followed until they reached the Danube. Surprisingly, the predominately mounted army decided to halt their retreat north and instead face their Roman pursuers on the ice. The Iazyges had trained their horses to run over all kinds of terrain, including frozen rivers, so they were extremely confident in their cavalry tactics overwhelming the Romans soldiers, who were mostly infantry (Cassius Dio,Roman History 72.7 and further).

Once the Romans reached the Danube, Marcus ordered the infantry to form a square with the cavalry surrounded in the centre. Protected on all sides, the Romans stood their ground, as the soldiers on the inside of the square gave their shields to the soldiers in the front to step on in order to increase their balance. In typical nomadic fashion, the Iazyges were the first to strike, dividing their army into three parts: one in the centre to assault the Romans directly, while the other two wings attempted to attack their flanks. The Romans were outnumbered and nearly surrounded, but so compact and protected from every side that the Iazyges could not break through their lines.

Once the engagement entered the close combat phase, the momentum quickly shifted in the Romans’ favor. Instead of striking at the barbarians with their weapons, many of the Romans successfully knocked both riders and mounts to the frozen surface by grabbing reins, bridles, spears and shields. The Iazyges may have trained their horses to run over ice, but the creatures had much more difficulty keeping their balance while being attacked in such a manner. Once prone on the ground, the Romans quickly dispatched their opponents with their quick and efficient gladii. And even if the barbarians managed to bring down the Romans with them, the superior armour and wrestling skills of the Romans gave them the upper hand in that type of close quarters fighting. By the time the battle was over, most of the Iazyges and Quadi had been slain.

Marcus Aurelius Sarmaticus

Both the soldiers and Marcus acknowledged the importance of the victory when the men acclaimed the emperor as imperator for the sixth time; the fact that the ever-humble Marcus allowed this even without the approval of the Senate showed how significant the battle was to him. Although defeated, the Iazyges and Quadi continued to defy Rome in 174, forcing the Romans to split their focus once again on their two enemies.

However, Marcus continued to lead the assault against the Iazyges. He decisively defeated the nomadic barbarians once again in June, and even gained a supernatural reputation among the army after an encounter with the Iazyges in which the emperor prayed and shortly afterward a lightning bolt completely destroyed one of their siege engines. The scene was later called the “Lightning Miracle” and was immortalized upon the Aurelian column built in Rome, and is also shown on the cover of issue VII.6 (forthcoming).

By the end of the year, the Iazyges chief Bandaspus attempted to make peace with Marcus. However, the Emperor quickly declined. This led the more warlike leader Zanticus to remove the former leader and take control of the tribe. The new leader of the Iazyges was just as eager to maintain hostilities as Marcus Aurelius.

In April 175, the Quadi had given up their attempts to defy Rome and were forced to accept even harsher peace terms than the Marcomanni. Shortly afterwards in June, Zanticus pled for peace as well. Marcus may have declined again, in favour of his initial plan to eradicate the entire tribe. However, the rebel Avidius Cassius had proclaimed himself Emperor in the east. Eager to confront the usurper, Marcus was forced to give similar peace terms to the Iazyges as was given to the Quadi. These terms included a provision that required the Iazyges to supply 8,000 mercenary cavalrymen, 5,500 of which were immediately sent to the other end of the empire in order to defend Hadrian’s Wall from the British tribes.

Marcus was never able to utterly eradicate the Iazyges as he had desired, yet his victories against them resulted in him being proclaimed imperator by his soldiers once again, and even earning the title Sarmaticus. Long after Marcus’ death, the Iazyges would not be a concern of the Romans until over a half century later when Emperor Maximinus I campaigned against them from AD 236–238.

Erich B. Anderson is a regular contributor to Ancient Warfare magazine. The editor thanks Jona Lendering (Livius.org) for supplying the thumbnail picture of that stretch of the Danube that Marcus Aurelius actually visited.

Further reading

  • Anthony Birley, Marcus Aurelius: A Biography (New Haven 1987).
  • Richard Brzezinski and Mariusz Mielczarek, The Sarmatians 600 BC–AD 450 (Oxford 2002).
  • C. Scott Littleton, From Scythia to Camelot: A Radical Reassessment of the Legends of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and the Holy Grail (New York 2000).
  • Frank McLynn, Marcus Aurelius: A Life (Cambridge 2009).
  • Philip Sidnell, Warhorse: Cavalry in Ancient Warfare (London 2006).
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