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Marcus Aurelius and the Thundering Legion

Gregory DiPippo

Yesterday, on the anniversary of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ death, we saw the equestrian statue of him on the Capitoline Hill in Rome, the only one of its kind that survives intact from antiquity. Today we will look at the city’s other great monument dedicated to him, the giant victory column in the center of the city which dominates the modern piazza Colonna, right in front of the Italian Prime Minister’s official residence, the Palazzo Chigi.

After the mostly peaceful reign of his predecessor Antoninus Pius, Rome was engaged in significant military conflicts for the entire reign of Marcus Aurelius, first with her long-standing enemy on her eastern border, Parthia, from 161 to 166. But even before the Parthian campaign had ended, various Germanic tribes had begun pushing into Roman territory across various parts of its frontier on the Danube river, north of the Balkan peninsula. The conflicts resulting from Rome’s ensuing attempts to repulse them are now usually called the Marcomannic Wars after one of the most important such tribes, the Marcomanni, but there several other tribes were also involved. These wars would occupy the rest of Marcus’ life.

After a particularly disastrous defeat in 170, the Marcomanni attacked the northern Italian town of Opitergium (the modern Oderzo) and laid siege to Aquileia, the first time a foreign army had touched Italy in 270 years. Marcus Aurelius personally went to the frontier to organize Rome’s defenses. Within a year, the siege of Aquileia had been lifted; shortly thereafter, the Germans were driven out of Roman territory, and the Romans had crossed the Danube to beat them into long-term submission. By 176, Marcus was able to return to Rome and celebrate a triumph for his victories. In 177, war broke out again, and Rome was victorious again, thoroughly routing her enemies, but as the campaign neared its end, the emperor died, and it was left to his son Commodus to conclude a peace treaty with the Germans and celebrate another triumph.

The great column which celebrates these victories no longer has its dedicatory inscription, and so we cannot be certain whether it was made after the celebration of the triumph in 176, or after Marcus’ death in 180, when he divinized. In imitation of the earlier column of Trajan, the events of the campaign are depicted in a continuous frieze about five feet in height, spiraling upwards through twenty-one turns. The column by itself, including its torus and capital, is about 100 feet high, and an ancient inscription refers to it as the “centenaria – the hundred-footer.” However, this does not count the base, part of which is still buried, or its pedestal, which is completely buried, or the statue of the Emperor which originally stood on top. (Amanda Claridge, Oxford Archeological Guide to Rome, p. 219. This last disappeared long ago, and was replaced by a statue of St Paul in the later 1580s.)

The column of Marcus Aurelius; photo by Radomil from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

The chronology of the events depicted on the column is a matter for scholarly debate; there is one particularly famous episode, however, the depiction of which unmistakable. In 173 or 174, while the Romans were fighting against a tribe called the Quadi, one of their legions, the Twelfth, was surrounded by a much larger Quadi force after much fighting, but laid low by fatigue, combined with extreme heat and lack of water. Their position was in fact so unfavorable that the Quadi drew back to let the heat and thirst do most of their work for them. As the legion faced the prospect of surrender or destruction, a sudden storm not only brought them water, but, in the account of the historian Cassio Dio, severely damaged the ranks of their enemies with both hail and lightning.

Within a generation, Tertullian attributed this unexpected deliverance to the prayers of the Christians among the legionaries. In his Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius of Caesarea repeats the story, citing both him and a pagan historian called Apollinaris of Hierapolis, “who says that from that time the legion through whose prayers the wonder took place received from the emperor a title appropriate to the event, being called in the language of the Romans the Thundering Legion.” (“fulminata” or “fulminea”, but in reality, this nickname of the Twelfth legion dates back to the time of Augustus.) The story is repeated by several other writers, both Christian and pagan; the latter, of course, attribute it to the pagan gods, with Dio saying that it was done by an Egyptian magician who accompanied Marcus Aurelius.

Detail of the column’s frieze, with the episode of the thunderstorm. Photo from Wikimedia Commons by Barosaurus Lentus; CC BY 3.0 

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