The immense battle that occurred in modern France in the year 198 is little-known. This is partially because of how long ago it was, and partially because of how little we know about the actual fighting. However, we can be fairly sure of one thing – despite the great civil wars between Caesar and Pompey and Augustus and Anthony, Lugdunum was the greatest and bloodiest clash between two Roman Armies in history.
Such a battle between two armies who were supposed to be on the same side suggests an empire in decline and a political and military system that simply wasn’t working. Ironically, however, Lugdunum occurred at the end of the greatest and most peaceful century in Rome’s long history. The Emperors from Nerva to Marcus Aurelius (97-180 AD) were all experienced skilled and popular administrators and leaders – and – crucially – each of them had a clear and decisive say in who their successor would be. As a result of this prudence and good administration, the Roman Empire enjoyed a golden age of peace, prosperity and stability. The famous historian Edward Gibbon, writing in the late-18th century, decided that this was the best time in all of history to be born as a free man. So what went so badly wrong? Another great thinker, Nicholo Machiavelli, decided that when Aurelius went against the tradition of adopting a worthy successor and instead made his son Commodus his heir, then Rome’s troubles began. It is hard to disagree. Commodus (the villain of the film Gladiator) was a disastrous Emperor, famous for his insane passions and random acts of cruelty, and in his reign he managed to undo almost a century of good rule.
By 192, the people had had enough. The Prefect of Commodus’ own bodyguard – the Praetorian Guard – had him strangled in his bath as he prepared to enter the arena as a gladiator, and then declared an ex-teacher and the son of a freed slave – Pertinax – as Emperor. Most historians agree that the humble-born Pertinax’s intentions were good, but a sensible if unrealistic desire to discipline the Praetorians lead to his own death after just five months of rule. Now mad with power Prefect Laetus then took the extraordinary step of auctioning off the Imperial throne – which was bought by a wealthy Senator called Didius Julianus. The people of Rome were outraged by this insult to hundreds of years of history, and began to pelt Julianus with filth and stones every time he appeared in public. Unsurprisingly, this chaos in Rome was mirrored in the provinces, where the legions who guarded the frontiers were just as incensed by recent developments, and their ambitious Generals scented opportunity.
The first of these was Septimius Severus, the able and ruthless North African-born governor of the province of Pannonia. Upon hearing of the death of Pertinax, he began to raise armies from the restless nearby legions, and marched on Rome. There was nothing in his way to stop him, and he had Julianus put to death – much to the satisfaction of the populace. The violence had only just started however. The governor of Syria – Pescennius Niger – saw the ease with which Severus had seized power and declared himself Emperor just after his rival in Rome had done so. There was no way that Severus could stand such an early challenge to his rule, but he also had to consider the safety of the western Empire which he was about to strip of troops. His solution was to offer another powerful rival, Clodius Albinus, the governor of Britain, complete control of the western part of the Empire and the rank of Caesar if he promised to keep control in Severus’ absence. Albinus agreed, but now in charge of Britain France and Spain, along with all their legions, he was of equal stature with Severus. When the Emperor finally defeated Niger in 194, a clash between the two became inevitable.
Severus stayed in the east for a while after his victory however, fighting Rome’s Parthian enemies and consolidating his position. For a time the uneasy truce between him and Albinus – which can be compared to Hitler and Stalin’s pact in 1939, held, until Albinus was suddenly replaced by Severus’ son as co-Ceasar and declared an enemy of Rome. The ruler of Britain then declared himself sole Emperor, and took 40,000 men from the British legions to Gaul (France) where he was joined my many more men from Spain and the local armies. He then set up a vast camp at Lugdunum (modern Lyons) and planned his next move. Knowing that the legions in Germany were likely to side with Severus, he decided to strike against them before his enemy returned from the east. Though he was victorious, it was not decisive, and he had not done enough to improve the odds when Severus came for him.
The Emperor was on the Danube meanwhile, gathering more men in his old province to join his soldiers from the eastern provinces. By the time the two armies were both in Gaul in the early weeks of 198, over two thirds of all the soldiers in the Empire were fighting for one of the two sides. It was war on a scale that would be seen again until – arguably – the 20th century. After a few skirmishes Severus’ men chased Albinus back to his camp at Lugdunum, where battle was finally joined. We know little about the fighting, only that it was evenly-matched, bitterly contested and lasted over a day, which was extraordinary in this era of close-combat warfare. The amount of moral and physical endurance required for such a contest defies belief. Eventually, however, a slight edge in cavalry swung the battle in Severus’ favour and Albinus died somewhere in Lugdunum town. His body was beheaded and run over by the victor’s horse in a public ceremony. Severus would prove to be a fairly successful if extremely ruthless Emperor, but his sons would continue the recent Imperial tradition of incompetence and dangerous insanity, once again plunging the Empire into chaos. This, combined with the sheer number of good men dead on the field of Lugdunum, underlines the way in which history’s greatest Empire was the cause of its own downfall.