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Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo


Bust of Corbulo. Louvre, Paris (France). Photo Marco Prins.
Corbulo (Louvre
Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo (7 CE? - 67): Roman general, active in the Netherlands and Syria. The emperor Nero forced him to commit suicide

The first part of this article can be found here.


When Corbulo returned to Italy, he received triumphal honors, but no new office. Perhaps the emperor Claudius suspected the general who had invaded Germania at a moment when he ought to remain quiet. Another, kinder, explanation is that Corbulo wanted to stay at home because his daughter Domitia Longina had been born. However this may be, in 52/53, Corbulo was governor of Asia, a wealthy province in western Turkey. Although this was one of the most honorable positions a senator could occupy, to a man who had commanded four legions, it must have looked like a demotion.

Bust of Nero. Glyptothek München (Germany). Photo Marco Prins.
Nero (Glyptothek Munich)

Claudius died in 54. His stepson Nero succeeded him and immediately sent Corbulo to the east, where he was to represent Rome's new, more aggressive eastern policy. We do not know Corbulo's official position; but since Cappadocia, the region where he was staying, was technically part of Syria (usually ruled by a procurator) and we find him as an independent commander, he must have been something like "general in Cappadocia", not "governor of Cappadocia".

The main enemy in the east was the Parthian empire and the main theater of war was the independent state Armenia. According to a treaty that had been concluded by the Roman emperor Augustus and his Parthian colleague Phraates IV, the Romans had the right to appoint and crown the Armenian kings. However, in 54 the Parthian king Vologases I, using an internal crisis in Armenia and the change of government in Rome, installed his brother Tiridates as king of Armenia. This deliberate provocation could lead to war.


Coin of Vologases I.
Vologases I (©!!)

Corbulo was not the only Roman commander involved in the Armenian question. The Syrian governor Gaius Durmius Ummidius Quadratus commanded two legions (X Fretensis and XII Fulminata) and had more local experience than Corbulo, who commanded the two legions of Cappadocia, III Gallica, VI Ferrata. The two armies were not strong enough to attack the Parthian king, but the commanders sent clear messages to Vologases, who left Armenia and gave hostages to Ummidius (55). For some time, war was averted. For reasons that are unclear to us, Corbulo demanded that the hostages were handed over to him, and Ummidius gave in. The two men remained rivals ever since.

Map of Armenia in the first century CE. Design Jona Lendering.
Armenia

The Romans used the next year, 56, to build up their army. A new legion, IIII Scythica, arrived from the Danube and Corbulo restored discipline among his legionaries - at least, that is what Tacitus wants us to believe. In the spring of 58, the Romans were still not ready, and Tiridates of Armenia understood that this was the moment to strike. A first skirmish near the Euphrates was a success for the Parthian-born king.

For some time, the war was in balance. The Romans were slow to mobilize, and when they invaded Armenia, Tiridates' army evaded battle, luring Corbulo deeper and deeper into Armenia. However, the Caucasian tribes that allied themselves to the Romans were more successful, which gave III Gallica, VI Ferrata, and X Fretensis the opportunity to advance to Artaxata (modern Yerevan), one of the capitals of Armenia.




Meanwhile, the Hyrcanians had started a rebellion against their Parthian overlords. It is possible that their revolt was coordinated with the Roman offensive; we can not be certain, but it is certain that at a later stage, there were diplomatic contacts and it is possible that the Romans had encouraged the Hyrcanians earlier. However this may be, Vologases was unable to rescue his brother. Late in the summer of 58, the Corbulo's army sacked Artaxata.

In the next year, 59, the Romans marched through the hot desert of northern Mesopotamia and crossed the Tigris. This time, their aim was Tigranocerta, the second capital of Armenia (perhaps modern Siirt). The city surrendered before the legions arrived, king Tiridates fled, and the Roman victory was complete. Now, the emperor Nero could give the Armenians a new, pro-Roman king, Tigranes (a great-grandson of the Jewish king Herod the Great).

When Corbulo returned to Cappadocia, he learned that governor Ummidius of Syria had died, and that he was to succeed him. This was a very prestigious appointment, a worthy reward for a general who had been spectacularly successful. Syria was not only a wealthy province, but also a large one, with the two annexes Cappadocia and Judaea ruled by procurators. Corbulo arrived in his new province in 60.

The Romans knew that the war was not over yet. They continued to reinforce their army in Cappadocia with extra recruits and a new legion, V Macedonica (61). At the same time, the Parthians were preparing themselves. Vologases concluded a new treaty with the Hyrcanians and crowned his brother Tiridates again as king of Armenia.

The Roman plan seems to have been a dual operation. In case the Parthians invaded Armenia, one army was to move from Cappadocia along a northerly road into Armenia (similar to the attack in 58). This would lure the Parthian army to the north, opening the road for a second Roman army, which was to move from Syria along a southerly road towards the Tigris (similar to the attack in 59). If everything went according to plan, the Parthian army would be caught between two Roman forces and could be destroyed.

But for one reason or another, the Romans were unsufficiently prepared when the Parthians started to march to the north and laid siege to Tigranocerta (spring 62): the commander of the northern army had not arrived yet. When Vologases was approaching, Corbulo sent an envoy, and a truce was concluded: the Parthians were to terminate the siege of Tigranocerta, and the Romans were to evacuate Armenia.

In the summer, the second commander arrived, Lucius Caesennius Paetus, who had been consul in the preceding year. He was given the command of V Macedonica, IIII Scythica, and XII Fulminata, and used the two last-mentioned to invade Armenia. He used the bridge at Melitene. Meanwhile, Corbulo bridged the Euphrates and crossed into Mesopotamia. Then, he received bad news: Paetus had marched straight into a trap set by the Parthians and was now besieged in the neighborhood of Arsamosata (near modern Elâzig?).

Immediately, Corbulo moved to Melitene, but he was too late: when he reached the Euphrates, he saw the fourth and twelfth legions arriving - they had surrendered at Rhandeia and now returned home. In the winter, there were peace negotiations, but the Roman position was still too strong and the Romans refused to come to terms, even though their ally Tigranes had lost his kingdom, and Tiridates was effectively ruling Armenia.

However, in the next spring (63), Corbulo invaded Armenia again. He commanded four legions (III Gallica, V Macedonica, VI Ferrata, and the newly-arrived XV Apollinaris. (The disgraced legions IIII Scythica and XII Fulminata were left behind in Syria,  and X Fretensis was to guard Cappadocia.) This was a considerable force, and Vologases and Tiridates knew that this time, the war could no longer be won. On the other hand, Corbulo knew that it would be difficult to prolong the war, because fighting in the mountaineous country was very hard.

Before the armies came to blows, a treaty was concluded. The Roman negotiator was an Egyptian Jew named Tiberius Julius Alexander. The Parthians conceded that in the future, the king of Armenia had to be appointed by the Roman emperor, and the Romans declared that they did not wish to prolong the war. The two parties agreed that Tiridates laid down his crown and was to go to Rome, where he would receive the object again from Nero.


Coin showing the closed gates of Janus at the age of Nero. Valkhof Museum, Nijmegen (Holland). Photo Marco Prins.
Closed gate of Janus (Valkhof Museum, Nijmegen)

In the Roman propaganda, this was seen as a victory without parallels. The gates of Janus were closed, a symbol of peace. The hard facts, however, are that the war had had no winner. But Nero, whose popularity was in decline, needed a hero, and as a consequence, Corbulo received the highest of all possible honors.

In 67, however, Nero ordered Corbulo to commit suicide. We do not know the exact reason, because our main source, Tacitus, does not describe this event. Corbulo did what he was ordered to do, and later generations considered him as another innocent victim of Nero's regime. The result was that later authors, such as Tacitus, did not cast doubt on the Neronian praise of Corbulo or his own boastful autobiography. It was only in the twentieth century that a more balanced view became possible: he was a capable general, but certainly not a genius.

Corbulo was married to Cassia Longina and had a daughter Domitia Longina, who in 70 became the wife of Titus Flavius Domitianus, better known as the emperor Domitian (81-96). She was involved in the assassination of her husband, and died after 126.
© Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2002
Revision: 23 April 2008
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