The immense battle that occurred in modern France in the year 197 is little-known. But 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.
Serious upheaval engulfed Rome at the end of the 2nd century AD, and on the plains outside modern Lyon, France, two rivals decided the future of the empire.
Rome in 193 AD
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 and popular administrators. Crucially each of them had a clear and decisive say in who their successor would be. Tthe Roman Empire enjoyed a golden age of peace, prosperity and stability. The 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?
Nicholo Machiavelli argued 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. Commodus (the villain of Gladiator) was a disastrous emperor, famous for his alleged random acts of cruelty. In his reign he managed to undo almost a century of good rule. By 192 AD, the prefect of Commodus’ own bodyguard had him strangled in his bath as he prepared to enter the arena as a gladiator. He then declared an ex-teacher and the son of a freed slave, Pertinax, as emperor.
Pertinax’s intentions are generally seen as worthy, but a desire to discipline the Praetorian Guard led to his own death just five months later. Prefect Laetus then took the extraordinary step of auctioning off the throne, which was bought by a wealthy senator called Didius Julianus.
The people of Rome were outraged. They began to pelt Julianus with filth and stones every time he appeared in public. This chaos was mirrored in the provinces, where the legions who guarded the frontiers were just as incensed by recent developments. Their ambitious generals sensed opportunity.
The first of these was Septimius Severus, the experienced and ruthless North African-born governor of the province of Pannonia. Upon hearing of Pertinax’s death, he raised armies and marched on Rome. There was nothing in his way to stop him, and he had Julianus put to death.
The governor of Syria, Pescennius Niger, however, saw the ease with which Severus had seized power and declared himself emperor, too. While Severus could not endure this challenge to his rule, he also had to consider the safety of the western empire from which he was about to draw 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 and successor if he promised to keep control in Severus’ absence. Portrayed as a Roman with outstanding quality by Julius Capitolinus, Clodius Albinus was a proven military commander originally from modern Sousse, Tunisia. It is even suggested that Commodus had ordered Albinus to succeed him due to the high regard in which he was held.
Albinus agreed to take control of the west. In charge of modern Britain, France and Spain, he had been elevated to equal stature with Severus. With this agreement, Severus was free to head eastward and defeat the remaining contender, Pescennius Niger. When the emperor finally defeated Niger in 194, stability appeared to return to the empire.
Friends turned foes
Severus continued to fight Rome’s Parthian enemies after his victory. For a time the uneasy truce between him and Albinus endured, until Albinus was suddenly replaced by Severus’ son as co-Caesar and declared an enemy of Rome. At the time of the agreement between the two commanders, Severus already had two sons: Bassianus and Geta. Presumably they weren’t pleased when Albinus was declared the preferred successor. But while Albinus had once been useful, now he was an obstacle.
Albinus then declared himself sole emperor, and took 40,000 men from the British legions to Gaul. There he was joined my more men from Spain and set up a vast camp at Lugdunum. Both forces harassed each other, trying to achieve an upper hand. 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 victorious, the clash was not decisive. Neither had not done enough to radically change the odds by the time the two forces clashed.
In the early weeks of 198, possibly as much as two thirds of the empire’s soldiers were fighting for one of the two sides. Number estimates for the battle extend to 150,000 and even 300,000 troops, depending on the interpretation of Cassius Dio’s later report. The scale was undoubtedly huge and the sides seemed to be roughly balanced.
Why was the Battle of Lugdunum significant?
The result of Lugdunum could have gone either way. After a few skirmishes Severus’ men chased Albinus back to his camp at Lugdunum. 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. Whenever Severus appeared to be making a breakthrough on one flank, Albinus countered this on the opposite wing. So close was this engagement that Severus himself was nearly killed.
Eventually, however, Severus rallied his troops and an edge in cavalry swung the battle in Severus’ favour. Dio reports: “At this juncture the cavalry under Laetus came up from one side and completed their victory. Laetus […] so long as the struggle was close, had merely looked on […] but when he saw that Severus’ side was prevailing, he also took a hand in the business.”
The actions of Laetus recall those of Lord Stanley at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. Lord Stanley had waited with his forces to see how the battle between Richard III and Henry Tudor for the English crown would pan out. When Henry appeared to get the upper hand, Stanley sided his forces with him against Richard.
The victory was costly, but decisive. Albinus died somewhere in Lugdunum. His body was beheaded and run over by the victor’s horse in a public ceremony, and his head sent to Rome. Those friendly with Albinus met a similarly unhappy end: senators were executed and Severus ordered for Albinus’ entire family to be murdered. Severus thus cemented his new dynasty, which lasted the next 40 years. He proved to be a fairly successful if extremely ruthless emperor. But his sons continued the recent tradition of dangerous incompetence, plunging the empire into chaos.