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Octavian in Illyricum

(35-33 BCE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Roman soldiers from the late Republic period attack the barbarian fortifications
Roman soldiers from the late Republic period attack the barbarian fortifications | Author: Peter Dennis

In historiography, Augustus is considered the creator of a new political order in Rome and his name is associated with such events as the Battle of Actium or the annexation of Egypt. Relatively little is said about his campaigns in Illyria in 35-33 BCE

There were various reasons for Octavian’s expedition to Illyria. In the 40s of the 1st century BCE Caesar’s two subordinates suffered defeats in battles against the local tribes, losing precious military standards. Therefore it was necessary to avenge these defeats and recapture the standards in the battle. Besides, Octavian bore the name of his adoptive fatherCaesar, which predestined him for the role of a victorious commander. It is possible that he even planned to launch a great military expedition towards the Danube and the lands of the Dacians, whose king had recently posed a threat to the Romans and was the main target of the offensive planned by the murdered dictator.

Octavian’s Campaigns in Illyria – 35-33 BCE

In the 30s of the 1st century BCE in Illyria Roman army fought against many small tribes or clans – in his report to the Senate, written at the end of the campaign Octavian enumerated as many as 30 names of peoples. The most reliable information about this fighting is provided by Appian of Alexandria, who bases it on the memoirs of the emperor himself. Cassius Dio also writes about these events in his “Roman History”. At that time several tribes and peoples were conquered and there were heavy fighting against the Segestani, the Iapodes, the Pannonians, the Dalmatians and the Daesii. In these areas, which abounded in mountain passes, the Roman army marching through the valleys had to place separate troops on the flanks along the mountain ridges to avoid being flanked. The Illyrian campaign was marked by attacks and ambushes combined with sieges of main tribal centers located in the hills.

Octavian’s campaign in Illyria 35-33 BCE
Map based on: A. Goldsworthy, Augustus. From Revolutionary to Emperor, London 2015

After the subjugation of the Carni and Taurisci by the Roman army operating from the military base in Aquileia, Octavian’s legions moved against the Segestani. At the same time, another group of the army after being transported by ship to Senia, moved towards the territories of the Iapodes. According to Appian, Octavian also campaigned against pirates from the islands of Black Corcyra and Melita in the south of the Adriatic and Liburnian pirates in the north. While the pirates of Melita and Corcyra were routed, the Liburni only had their ships confiscated for logistical and transport purposes. Then Octavian’s legions moved against the Iapodes, the Moentini, the Avendeatae, and the Arupini. The tribes of the Moentini and Avendeatae immediately surrendered to the Roman army.

Siege of Metulum

The Iapodes put up the greatest resistance to the Romans. The legionaries captured their town of Terponus and laid siege to their capital at Metulum. The defenders fired from the walls using siege devices captured during fights between Octavian and Antony’s forces and the army of Decimus Brutus. Octavian observed the course of the fighting from his vantage point on a high tower. His legionaries built up a ramp that reached ramparts, but did not touch them. It had at its end 4 drawbridges, which were to be a passage to the walls. 3 of them were destroyed by the fiercely fighting Iapodes or collapsed under the weight of the attacking soldiers. These failures discouraged Roman soldiers from attacking. Seeing this, Octavian set off from his vantage point to cheer them up for the fight with the defenders. When this encouragement did not work, he himself grabbed a shield from the closest soldier and threw himself onto the only drawbridge left, followed by Agrippa and other staff officers. The ashamed soldiers followed them. However, this drawbridge also collapsed under the weight of the legionaries and fell down in between the ramp and the enemy fortifications. Some soldiers died, Octavian himself was wounded in his right leg and both arms.

The commander in chief returned to his vantage point, thanks to which the legionaries, seeing their leader alive and still giving orders, did not lose heart. Octavian ordered them to build new drawbridges for further attacks on Metulum. This effort softened the defenders who, discouraged by this traditional Roman persistence, capitulated.

Further military operations

Then the army set off to the lands of the Pannonians – the Colapiani and the Oseriates and other tribes unknown by name, where it met with strong resistance. The next target of the Romans’ attack was Segesta, the seat of the Segestani, which Octavian wanted to use as a supply base for operations against the Dacians and the Bastarnae. According to Appian, the future emperor ordered ships to be built on the Sava river to transport supplies to the Danube and to the Dacian lands. However, he does not mention fighting on the river near Segesta, described by Dio. It was in the battle on one of the rivers flowing through this city – the Sava or the Colapis that Octavian’s admiral Menodoros died. After the fall of Segesta, the triumvir left 25 cohorts under the command of Fufius Geminus to garrison the city.  However, Geminus is only mentioned by Dio and is not mentioned in Appian’s account.

In the spring of 34 BCE the Roman army set off to attack the Delmatae in the south and other tribes living next to them or on the coast of the Adriatic Sea. Appian describes this stage of the Illyrian war in four chapters of “The Illyrian History”; Dio devotes only two sentences to it and claims that it was Agrippa at first and then Octavian that fought  the Delmatae. During these fightings, the latter ordered the decimation of one of the cohorts that left their posts after the enemy had made a night sally. The situation must have been serious, because 2 centurions from this unit were also sentenced to death. Appian writes about the capture of Promona and Sinotium, where in the time of Julius Caesar the army under the command of Gabinius had been ambushed and lost the military standards now recovered by Octavian. They were then used for propaganda purposes in a dispute with Antony.

In 33 BCE Titus Statilius Taurus captured Setovia. The final chord of the Illyrian campaign mentioned by Appian was the capitulation of the Derbani. After the end of the fighting, in the summer of 33 BCE Octavian returned to Rome with loot and recaptured banners. The latter were placed in the rebuilt Porticus of Octavia.

Cassius Dio mentions that the lands of Illyricum were organized into a new province in 27 BCE, and it fell under the administration of the Senate. Its first proconsul was Gnaeus Bebius Tamphilus Vala Numonianus, who left an inscription at the fountain in Jader and could have built the local forum.

Author: Marcin Bąk
  • Goldsworthy A., , From Revolutionary to Emperor, London 2015
  • Šašel Kos M., The Roman conquest of Illyricum (Dalmatia and Pannonia) and the Problem of the Northestern Border of Italy (w:) Studia Europaea Gnesnensia 7, 2013

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