Dedicated to the military history and civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire (330 to 1453)

"Time in its irresistible and ceaseless flow carries along on its flood all created things and drowns them in the depths of obscurity."

- - - - Princess Anna Comnena (1083–1153) - Byzantine historian

Monday, August 8, 2016

The Last Roman Legion - Legio V Macedonica

Legio V Macedonica reenactors
Photo Roman Army Talk.com

Rome's Longest Lived Legion
The life of Legio V Macedonica spanned 680 years 
from 43 BC to 637 AD.

For centuries historians have been excited by the very idea of the Roman Legions. The fact that the legions were organized as identifiable individual units made battles far more interesting.  The lack of proper military histories on the Eastern Roman/Byzantine period stems not just from the lack of records, but also from the lack of these identifiable military units.  Without legions history became a bit less "sexy" for the public.

Legio V Macedonica wins the history "award" for the longest legion in existence. But was it?

Proper records of military events become fewer and fewer as you go deeper into the Byzantine period. In one form or another it is very possible that multiple Roman Legions survived into the 600s just as Legio V did.  We simply do not know.

As far as we can tell Legio V Macedonica was first organized about 43 BC by consul Gaius Vibius Pansa Caetronianus and Octavian.  The symbol of the unit was the bull, but the eagle was also used.

There are no records of the first decades of the legion's existence. We do know two other legions, the V Urbana and the V Gallicia, that might have been connected to our unit or even early names for the unit.

Legio V was most likely fighting in 31 BC at the key Battle of Actium.  The unit was then moved to the Roman province of Macedonia where is gained its name.

In addition to Macedonia the legion also provided troops for bases in the provinces of Moesia and Dacia.

In 62 AD some units (Vexillationes) were sent to Armenia to fight against the Persians. After the Roman defeat at Rhandeia the entire legion was shipped east along with three other legions in the victorious was against the Persians.

The legion was still in the east with the Great Jewish Revolt took place in 66 AD.  Emperor Nero assigned legion V Macedonica, X Fretenisi and XV Apollinaris to put down the revolt under the command of Titus Flāvius Vespasiānus.

V Macedonica conquered Mount Gerizim from the rebels. The legion stayed in the Emmaus area for some time to insure the peace. Tombstones of several members of the legion have been found. After their commander Vaspasian was declared emperor the legion finally returned to their base in Moesia after being gone for 10 years.

In 101 the legion moved north into Dacia to help in Emperor Trajan's war on conquest. In 106 at the war's end the legion was stationed in Troesmis near the Danube Delta to keep an eye on one of the restless tribes in the area.

Over the years sub-units of the legion were detached to fight again against the Persians and again to Judea to put down another Jewish revolt.

Units of V Macedonica with units from I Italica and XI Claudia took turns guarding Roman towns in the Crimea.

Workers in the gold mines of Dacia revolted and hired a mercenary army. V Macedonica defeated the rebels. For their reward in 185 or 187 the Emperor Commudus awarded the legion the title of Pia Constans (Faithful and reliable) or Pia Fedelis (Faithful and loyal).

Click map to enlarge.
Legio V was sent to the eastern front to fight in the
Roman-Parthian War 58 - 63 AD to help force back the
growing power of the Persians in Armenia.

Legio V Macedonica
Fifth Macedonian Legion
 (Legio V Macedonica) from the city of St. Petersburg, Russia was founded in 2002 in order to reconstruct not only the daily life of the Roman legionaries and civil society, but also the atmosphere of ancient Rome

Photo  -  legvmac.ru

Uniform of a soldier from the later Eastern Roman Period.

Middle Roman Period

Entering politics the V Macedonica backed Septimius Severus in his military overthrow of the government and supported him as Emperor until his reign ended in 211.  A mixed unit of our legion and XIII Gemina accompanied Severus to Rome and fought with him against rebels and against the Persians.

During the third century the legion earned many honors. The Emperor Valerian (253-260) awarded the legion the title Pia III Fidelis III (Thrice faithful and loyal). This means they has already been awarded Pia II but we do not know when. Valerian's son Gallienus gave them the title Pia VII Fidelis VII.

The unit may have earn these honors for their mobile cavalry unit which fought against usurpers and in Gaul defeating the Gallic Emperor Victorinus.
Shield pattern of Legio V Macedonica
in the early 5th century

In 274 AD when the Emperor Aurelian gave up Dacia the legion returned to their Balkans base of Oescus for the third time. The legion helped man other limes forts such as Cebro, Sucidava and Variniana.

The cavalry unit of the legion was assigned by the Emperor Diocletian to be part of a central mobile reserve of the Roman Army.

In 293 the cavalry unit was sent to Memphis, Egypt. But when the Romans were defeated by the Sasanian Persians in 296 the unit was rushed to invade southern Mesopotamia.

After the peace treaty was signed the unit returned to Egypt where it stayed until the early 400s.

Eastern Roman Period

On January 17, 395 AD Emperor Theodosius died and we see the birth of the Eastern Roman Empire.  The death of the Emperor led to the final split of the Empire into two political entities, the West (Occidentale) and the East (Orientale). 

No longer would V Macedonica be called upon to campaign in Gaul or Italy. Orders now came exclusively from Constantinople and the defense of the east was the primary concern.

There was no sudden change. For many decades to come the Eastern Roman Army would not have looked or acted much different from its Western counterpart fighting off the barbarian invasions in Gaul and Italy.  Any changes in unit structure, uniforms and tactics would have been very gradual.  The Eastern Roman military evolution would have been based on changes the economy and the types of enemies they faced.

Section of legionary fortress wall
Oescus - Home of V Macedonica
With a population of 100,000 the fortress city of Oescus on the Danube River was home 
for Legio V Macedonica and a major economic and military strong point for the empire.

At this point in Roman history the records of military actions and individual units become thin at best.  We know that the V Macedonica went on but details of wars and fighting vanish.

The legion would have become a Comitatenses unit under the Magister Militum per Orientis. They were not considered just garrison limes troops. They were used as mobile troops that could be rushed to danger points.

Join the army and see the world. Nothing appears to have changed under Constantinople. After 400 AD troops from the legion are now found in Syria.

The legion's main base of Oescus was on the Danube which was also ground zero for endless barbarian invasions by Huns, Avars and other tribes.

Once again we lack any proper military histories from this period, and the fighting along the Danube by Legio V would have made interesting reading.

In 411 AD the Balkans was invaded by the Huns.  These barbarians descended on Legio V's base in Oescus and destroyed the city. And that simple statement on a major event is all history tells us.

Based on previous reports Legio V's units were spread out manning several different fortresses. So we can assume at least part of the legion was destroyed in the city or forced to retreat in the face of the Huns. Other units would have survived.

Legio V Macedonica is mentioned in Egyptian inscriptions in the cities of Antaeapolis and Heliopolis.

The last inscription is dated 635 or 636 AD.

The Fate of Legio V Macedonica

So we have a period from the Hun invasion to this point in Egypt where 225 years have passed with zero information on the campaigns of the legion.

If the main body of the legion in the Balkans survived the Hun invasion its individual units may have been absorbed by other Roman border forces. If the legion continued on more or less intact we have no record of it.

The most appealing possible story is this last Roman Legion gathering its forces in Egypt to fight their last fight against militant Muslim Arab invaders in 637.

The imagination soars thinking of these outnumbered men holding their bull banner high and marching to their deaths in a last defense of western civilization and the Roman Empire.

Legio V Macedonica

Sestertius minted in 247 by Philip the Arab to celebrate Dacia province and its legions, V Macedonica and XIII Gemina. Note the eagle and the lion, V's and XIII's symbols, in the reverse.

Legio V Macedonica
Photo:  legvmac.ru
The legion was based on the Danube River but fought in campaigns in 
Gaul, Italy, Greece, Dacia, Crimea, Armenia, Judea, Mesopotamia and Egypt.

Legio V Macedonica
Photo:  legvmac.ru

(Roman Legions)      (Oescus)      (Roman-Parthian War)      (Roman legions)

(Legio V Macedonica)      (Legio V Macedonica)