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German campaign of Corbulo

(47 CE - ?)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Germanic tribes around the mouth of the Rhine, circa 150 CE
Germanic tribes around the mouth of the Rhine, circa 150 CE | Author: Notuncurious | Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo is widely known as the victorious leader of the Armenian campaign during the time of Nero. Relatively little is known to readers about the earlier period of his military career, which included the administration of the province of Germania Dolna (Germania Inferior) in the time of Claudius. It sheds light on Rome’s relations with the neighbouring tribes of the early principate and the powers of Roman leaders and legates during this period.

When in 47 CE Corbulo took over the governance of the province, it was exposed to intense raids by the Chauk tribe. These warriors settled by the North Sea, in small ships they set out along the northern coast of Gaul, plundering the lands of Rome they encountered. Their actions were nothing special to the northern peoples during this period and resembled Viking expeditions in the Middle Ages. The Chauk leader was Gannaskus from a tribe related to the Batawa. He was a deserter from the Roman auxiliary troops, which could have serious consequences for the Romans in the future.

Gnaeus Domitius Corbulon

After taking office, the legate in the province of Corbulo ordered preparations to repel the invasions. Under his command, the fleet (classis Germanica), anchored on the Rhine and on the shores of the North Sea, was tasked with pursuing the enemy’s vessels, and small, separate groups of legionaries were to repel the Chaukas on land. Fighting the barbarian fleet was not a problem for Corbulo, as their ships only moved at high speed during the attacks. During the return from voyages, the burdened with spoils became too heavy and thus were easy prey for Roman admirals. After destroying the barbarian fleet and expelling them from the provinces, Corbulo ordered the army to be concentrated for brief and intensive training. This event, however, is being questioned by some researchers. The description of a commander taking control of untrained legionaries and bringing order to the army is often repeated in Roman literature. Roman historians preferred the didactic nature of their own works and tried to show readers the ideal features of Roman commanders. However, the very fact that Corbulo trained the army should not be questioned. For the last decade, the garrison of Lower Germania did not conduct any hostilities. In addition, the time of Corbulo’s governorship of the province coincides with the Roman expedition to Britain in 43 CE. Part of the Lower German army including the more seasoned legions and auxilia were dispatched overseas to take part in the fighting on the island. Thus, less valuable units led by less ambitious officers were left in place, hence it was necessary to subject them to obligatory drill.

Germania Inferior on the map of the Roman Empire in 116 CE.
Author: ThomasPusch | Under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

After the army had been trained, Corbulo crossed the Rhine, heading along the shores of the North Sea. The first targets of his attack were the Friesians, discredited by the attacks on the legionaries in 28 CE. The leaders of this tribe, stunned by the number and confidence of the Roman army, surrendered to Corbulo and agreed to let the Roman garrison into their lands. They were to hand over hostages to the Romans and agreed to settle in the designated areas. Then the Roman commander directed his column to attack the Chauk lands in retaliation for the previous invasions. Emissaries were dispatched before the invading army to arrange the murder of Gannaskus. As with Viriatus and Jugurtha many years before, this was to eliminate the people who could sustain resistance against the Empire. The death of Gannaskus, however, caused widespread indignation among the Chaukas who turned against Rome. The campaign launched across the Rhine was, however, interrupted at the behest of Claudius. As in the case of Germanicus a few decades earlier, too much enhancement of the prestige of a legate fighting at the borders of the empire was a thorn in the eye of the emperor, fearing usurpation. Moreover, Claudius considered a non-warrior, disregarded by the environment due to his physical ailments, only wanted to take credit for military victories. This was the purpose of the expedition against the Britons, personally arranged by the emperor. Corbulo withdrew from previously occupied territories and withdrew his troops across the Rhine. In order not to leave the legionaries in demoralizing idleness, he ordered them to build a canal between the Meuse and the Rhine, as the possibility of using the waterways along the North Sea coast was not ensured. As a reward for his merits, he received triumphal badges (triumphalia). The right to triumph, which the victorious leaders of the republic had enjoyed now, belonged exclusively to the emperor.

The cancellation of Corbulo’s military campaign illustrates the differences in the competencies of the chiefs of the later republic and principals. While commanders such as Pompey or Caesar had quite a lot of freedom in managing provinces and waging war, it was the emperor’s will that limited the possibilities of action in this respect for the governors of the imperial era. This centralization of power did not diminish the traditional tasks of the provincial administrators, which included suppressing uprisings, repelling attacks on the provinces, diplomatic activity among neighbouring tribes, defending allies and caring for the prestige of Rome among them. In these respects, the legates had complete freedom and did not need the consent of the Caesars. However, unlike in the republic, the appointment of a provincial governor and his dismissal depended no longer on the senate, but on the decisions of successive emperors. Roman governor 1st century CE he was the emissary of the ruler of the empire and could no longer undertake risky ventures on his own. Corbulo, who after the cancellation of the campaign against the Chauci people, envied the freedom of the leaders of the republican era with these words: Happy the Roman generals before my time!1

Author: Marcin Bąk (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  1. Tacitus, Annales, XI.20
  • Goldsworty A., In the Name of Rome. The men, who won the Roman Empire, London 2006
  • Tacitus, Annales

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