The winds of change

The amphitheater at Italica in 2018 being prepared for the filming of Game of Thrones later that year.

After defeating Carthage and the Celtiberians, Rome ruled Iberia for six hundred years during which the influence of the empire was stamped on the peninsula, and is still visible all over modern Spain in its architecture, language and laws. In return, Iberia produced Roman Emperors, one of whom was to make a far-reaching decision that still troubles us in this present day.

Standing close to the River Guadalquivir, a day’s march from Hispalis, (Seville) the town of Italica had been founded in 206 BCE by Scipio Africanus. He had Italica built to house the veteran soldiers who defeated Hannibal in the Second Punic War and the name Italica was taken from the name of the italic regiments who were settled there as opposed to locally recruited foederati. Over time, many Romans married Iberians, and the son of one of these marriages, Marcus Ulpious Trajanus, would become emperor, and his adopted son Hadrian would succeed him.


The idea of an adopted son trained to take over from a leader is a clever way to solve leadership contests. In later history, war and political turmoil was caused by having no male heir, or of having one who was totally unfit to rule. Many of the leading Romans used the entirely reasonable practice of adopting sons to facilitate the smooth changeover of power upon death or retirement.

In 96, Emperor Domitan was succeeded by Nerva who was unpopular and lasted only a year in office before being removed by the Praetorian Guard. He adopted Trajanus as his son and when he died in 98, Trajanus, a proved and respected statesman, became emperor. Trajanus similarly adopted Hadrian and trained this very able man to follow him.

Trajanus inherited an empire that was nearly bankrupt, but with great foresight, he identified the dangers facing Rome and soon began preparations for eliminating one threat, and at the same time solve its financial problems. The barbarians outside of Rome’s boarders were mostly tribesmen farmers and not warriors. Very few had swords, which in those days was a high technology weapon. Mining and working steel for swords was a refined skill known by few. Less than ten percent of the Gauls or Iberian fighting men outside Rome’s borders had swords, and those were mostly owned by their nobility.

However, there was one group of tribes outside Roman jurisdiction that was different. Dacia, in the Carpathian Mountains, possessed iron mines in abundance and the skilled artisans to work the metal. The fighting men of Dacia were equipped with well-made swords and other weapons of war, and they had a standing army of over a quarter of a million; enough to mount an invasion. But Dacia also had very productive gold mines, which had caught the eye of Trajanus. He quietly began pulling troops from quieter boarders and shipped them to the Balkans in readiness for an invasion.

In 101 BCE Trajanus obtained the permission of the senate to invade Dacia and over the next five years waged two campaigns which ended in the Roman occupation of Dacia and the capture of an estimated 165,500 kg of gold, and 331,000 kg of silver. With this money, Trajanus funded the expansion of the empire.  A hundred thousand Dacians were shipped back to Rome as slaves and the mines added 700,000,000 Dinari to the annual income of Rome. He was so pleased with the outcome of the campaign, that he announced 123 days of celebrations throughout the empire. 



This painting by Antonio Ciseri, a Swiss artist, shows Pilate asking the crowd to choose

who they wanted to have crucified.

Though large in the history of Rome, the victory of Trajanus would eventually be eclipsed by an insignificant event that had occurred in a relatively quiet corner of the Roman Empire twenty one years before Trajanus was born.

A troublemaker from out of town, who had angered the priests in the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, had been brought before the Prefect of Judea, Pontious Pilate. The Jews were an ancient tribe that had lived in the area for centuries and had often caused trouble before, and Pilate was reluctant to get himself involved in local religious bickering. He listened to the case brought against accused man, Jesus, and found him innocent of any crime against Rome. On hearing that he had been causing trouble in Galilee, too, he passed the case to Herod Antipas, who was prefect there. Herod also found the man innocent and sent him back to Pilate.

In an attempt to avoid what he thought was an unnecessary death, Pilate gave the people a choice. Did they want the local thug and thief Barabbas crucified, or Jesus?  The townspeople shouted for the crucifixion of Jesus, and Pilate reluctantly condemned the man to death. Then he symbolically washed his hands of the whole affair.

Neither Jesus nor Dacia would be washed from Roman hands so easily. The two unrelated events were eventually to bring an end to the Roman Empire, but there was a sequel to the Judean incident that would create an awful recurring tragedy for the Jews for the next two thousand years.

34 years after the crucifixion of Jesus, the Jews of Roman Judea revolted against the domination of Rome. The Romans encircled Jerusalem, which eventually fell, and many of the Jews were taken as slaves or killed. They rose up again in 132 led by Simon Bar Kokhaba, and established the Kingdom of Israel. It lasted three years before the Romans quashed the rebellion at great cost in Roman lives. Hadrian decided to wipe the idea of a Judean Kingdom from the minds of Jews forever. What had been Judea for nearly a thousand years, and had suffered subjugation by the Assyrians, Egyptians, Babylonians and last of all Romans, was renamed Syria Palaestina. Many of the Jews were forced to leave, and those who remained were forever a persecuted minority. The Jewish people were scattered, and never had a country of their own, but they maintained their religion and laws wherever they lived.  It was not until 1948, after the Second World War, the state of Israel was established in more or less the same place as the original kingdom.

The picture shows Emperor Constantine and the bishops of the First Council of Nicea of 235 holding the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381.   

Meanwhile, the Christian religion grew, despite hundreds of years of persecution under the yoke of Rome. In 325, the Council of Nicaea edited all the different written testimonies of Christ’s life, and decided upon the final form of the New Testament that would be the bible for the new religion. Christianity had spread and grown into a powerful ecclesiastical body that would shape the future of the world and undermine the empire. In 385, the council of Constantinople refined the Christian doctrine and decided upon a hierarchy of ministers who would govern the new church, and Christianity became a new power to replace the old Roman Empire.

Twenty five years after the Council of Nicaea, the province of Dacia that Trajanus had annexed to the empire nearly 405 years earlier was about to rebel, and the barbarian tribes would end up sacking Rome itself and cause the empire to be divided in two.

Twenty five years after the Council of Nicaea, the province of Dacia that Trajanus had annexed to the empire nearly 405 years earlier came under attack from Huns in east. The Huns were much feared by the Romans and other Balkan countries. Attila would later lead these expert horse-mounted archers through Italy and France, though their gains there would be short lived. They stormed into Dacia and the Dacian tribes fled before them.

By the summer of 376 between sixty to ninety thousand Dacian refugees gathered along the banks of the Danube. The Thervings, led by their king Fritigern, and the Greuthungi were the largest of several tribes who begged Rome for permission to cross into Roman lands for protection.

Emperor Valens was in Antioch getting ready to fight the Sasanian Empire and granted permission for the Dacians to settle in his lands thinking that they would be useful assistance to his own troops, who would now have to defend his borders against the Huns. It was very unusual for Rome to allow large groups of barbarians to settle in their lands, but Valens gave them favourable terms. Normally, they would be split up and settled all over the empire to prevent them becoming a unified threat, but he was preoccupied with his war in the east.

Roman troops ferried the Thervings across the Danube in boats and improvised rafts, but the Greuthungi were refused entry, and the scant Roman troops that were supposed to be helping the Dacians were detailed to prevent the Greuthungi crossing. The weather turned foul and the river rose, making the crossing difficult and many drowned.  Fritigen assembled his people in their new home and awaited instructions for their dispersal. During the relocation, the Romans were supposed to disarm the Dacians, but the Roman garrison was badly undermanned, and the refugees bribed them to let them keep their weapons. Lupicinus was the Roman lieutenant put in charge of the Dacians, and he was overwhelmed by the number of people seeking safety; he was also corrupt.


He sold off the food that Valens had allocated for the refugees before it reached them, and they began to starve. He offered to sell them dogs to kill and eat, but the price for each dog was a child to be sold into slavery. Needless to say the Thervings became rebellious, and Lupicinus decided to move them nearer to his headquarters further south. Realizing that the Dacians were now ready to revolt, he pulled all his men from defending the river to herd the starving people, and with the Huns at their back, the Greuthungi used the abandoned boats to cross the Danube and re-join their fellow tribesmen. Fritigern and the leader of the Greuthungi were invited to eat with Lupicinus who promptly killed their guards and imprisoned the two kings. The Dacian tribes rose up when they heard what had happened. Wily Fritigern convinced  Lupicinus that he could calm things down if he was released. 

Lupicinus released him and a furious Fritigern led his people in revolt against Rome and ravaged the whole of the Balkans. Two years later, the might of Rome commanded by Emperor Valens met Fritigern’s enlarged and renamed Goth army at the Battle of Adrianople. The Romans were routed, and Valens was killed.


The loss of an emperor in battle shocked Rome to its foundations, but Fritigern continued his rampage for another four years. Finally, the Romans agreed for the Goths to settle on Roman land, a concession unheard of before. The new emperor, Theodosius I, honoured the treaties with the Goths until he died in 395 leaving his two inept sons to inherit the empire. Arcadius ruled in the east and Honorius in the west.

The Goth tribes had grown and spread into Roman territory since the first uprising, and had become a credible threat within the empire. Rome’s chroniclers had divided the barbarian Goths into two groups; the Visigoths, who spread into western parts of the empire and the Ostrogoths, who lived in the east. In the same year that Theodosius died, Alaric I became leader of the Visigoths, and though no wars erupted, it was an uneasy peace. The semi-integration of the barbarian Goths into roman life and her armies was grudgingly accepted by the “true” Romans, but there was a strong underlying xenophobia for the newcomers. Some of Rome’s generals were of German origin, and naturally chose troops who were loyal to them. The shift of real power had moved from the emperor to its army, which was led, and mainly composed of non-Romans.


The event that caused wholesale war and rebellion took place in 408 when the bulk of the Western Roman Army was encamped at Ticinum in Northern Italy. They were preparing to combat both a rebel Roman army and a barbarian incursion. While Honorius was present in camp, the troops rioted and murdered a number of high-level government officials, all closely aligned with the German general Flavius Stilicho. They had heard that Stilicho was planning to kill Honorius and put his own son in as emperor.

Events had been brought to boiling point two years before, when Stilicho had fought the Visigoth king Aclaric I to a standstill and then recruited him to fight for Rome against barbarians in the East. Stilicho was called before the senate to explain why Rome was now giving money to a barbarian, who the year before had been burning and pillaging Italian towns. The bulk of the Italian army was highly suspicious of their general’s motives.


Honorius, suspecting a coup, arrested Stilicho and executed him, and because the general had his own Visigoth legions loyal to him, Honorius had his men round up the Visigothic foederati troops. What happened next was an out of control ethnic cleansing of Visigoths both in the army and in Roman lands in general. Not just the troops, but their families, too, were slaughtered wholesale. In the end, the Romans had killed 30,000 Goths who had been fighting and living alongside Romans.

Whether Alaric was involved in any plot is unknown, but he immediately declared war against Rome. He fought his way to the very gates of Rome and besieged the city until he was bought off by its defenders. During the tortuous negotiations over price, one of the Roman factions foolishly tried to trick Aclaric, who tightened his grip upon the isolated city.

In August 410, Aclaric’s troops gained entry into Rome through the Salarian Gate and sacked the capitol of the Roman Empire. Meanwhile, other Visigoth tribes swept west into Gaul. The western part of the empire was now in retreat from all the lands that it had once controlled. The far-flung western parts of Rome’s dominion, like Britain, were abandoned as the troops were brought back home to defend its shrinking borders.

The Alans, Vandals, and Suevi tribes had swept through the Pyrenees and forced Rome out of Iberia and Honorius was forced to broker a deal with the Visigoths to allow then to control large areas of Gaul and oust the barbarians from Iberia in Rome’s name.

In 418 he gave the new Visigoth king Euric lands in Gallia Aquitania, which formed the administrative centre for Visigoth rule in later years. In the meantime, Visigoth forces subdued the Alan and Suevi tribes, and were de-facto ruling Iberia.