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Legio I Italica


Bust of Nero. Glyptothek München (Germany). Photo Marco Prins.
Nero (Glyptothek, Munich)
Legio I Italica: one of the Roman legions. Its name means 'the Italian legion'.

According to an inscription, the emperor Nero gave this unit its eagle and other standards on 20 September 66. This is confirmed by the Greco-Roman historian Cassius Dio, who also says that this unit was founded by Nero (Roman Histories, 55.24.2). He had recruited this legion, which consisted only of soldiers six-foot tall, for a campaign in Armenia and the far east, as a follow-up to the succesful campaigns of the general Corbulo in the preceding years. Nero nicknamed the new unit "the phalanx of Alexander the Great", which shows what he wanted to do in the east. However, as fate would have it, a few weeks later, another legion, XII Fulminata, was defeated in Judaea, and war broke out inside the Roman empire. The projected Caspian expedition never took place.

It has been assumed that the Roman navy was transporting the new soldiers to the east, when the legion received new orders and was redirected to Gaul: the governor of Gallia Lugdunensis, Gaius Julius Vindex, had revolted in the first weeks of 68. In March or April, I Italica arrived in Gaul. These dates leave us with a problem: where was the legion between September 66 and March 68? To narrow the gap, several scholars have assumed that it was not founded in 66 but 67. This seems unnecessary. A legion founded in the autumn of 66 would have marched to the east, or would have waited until spring if transport by water was preferred. We can assume that I Italica was doing additional exercises in the winter of 66/67, was sent to the east in the spring, returned in the autumn, and arrived in the spring of 68 in Gaul.

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Bust, believed to represent Vitellius. Louvre, Paris (France). Photo Jona Lendering.
Bust, believed to represent Vitellius (Louvre, Paris)

It was too late to join the fighting. The governor of Germania Superior, Lucius Verginius Rufus, had already suppressed the revolt of Vindex (using XXI Rapax, IIII Macedonica and XXII Primigenia). However, in June, the Senate recognized Vindex' ally Galba as emperor, and Nero committed suicide. This caused great tensions in the Rhineland, because the army of Verginius had supported the wrong man. In January 70, they revolted under the governor of Germania Inferior, Vitellius. The soldiers of the First Italian legion immediately sided with the rebels, left the base to which Galba had sent them (Lyon), and joined the Vitellian army on its march to Italy.

Its first battle was fought on 14 April. In the meantime, Galba had been lynched, and he was succeeded by a senator named Otho. Near Cremona, Vitellius' V Alaudae, I Italica and XXI Rapax defeated Otho's XIII Gemina, I Adiutrix, and the imperial guard. According to the Roman historian Tacitus, the First Italian legion was the bravest of all units involved, and its eagle was paraded proudly through the streets of Rome when Vitellius entered his capital.




He did not long enjoy the empire, because in the east, the general that had been sent to suppress the Jewish revolt, Vespasian, was proclaimed emperor. The legions of the Danube sided with him, and on 24 October, a new battle was fought near Cremona. Again, I Italica fought valiantly, but this time, the Vitellians were defeated. 

The victorious new emperor sent the First Italian legion to Moesia, where it was stationed at Novae (modern Svishtov in northern Bulgaria) and replaced VIII Augusta. During the winter, the Sarmatians, a tribe living on the other side of the Danube, invaded the Roman empire, because the tribesmen knew that a civil war was going on, and had learned about the successes of another tribe, the Batavians. The governor of Moesia, Fonteius Agrippa, was defeated and killed in action, and we may assume that I Italica was one of the defeated units. It was only in the course of the year 70 that a new governor, Rubrius Gallus, was able to restore order. The 5,300 six-foot tall men had finally found their base, not far from the place where Alexander the Great had once crossed the Danube.

The legion stayed at Novae for centuries. There are no indications that it was ever stationed somewhere else in Moesia, although subunits were sometimes sent to unquiet parts of the empire. One of those tasks was the occupation of the Crimea, where several Greek towns were protected by Roman units. The Moesian legions were by turn responsible for this outpost. Several inscriptions attest the presence of soldiers of I Italica, and, in the second century, V Macedonica and XI Claudia. Legionaries of the First may have executed Clemens, a Christian leader from Rome who was exiled to the Crimea in c.100.

From Novae, the First Italian legion took part in the Dacian wars of the emperors Domitian and Trajan. The Dacians had invaded the Roman empire in 86 and defeated the legions that were supposed to defend Moesia. In 88, a large Roman army group invaded Dacia and general Tettius defeated its king Decebalus at Tapae; the First was one of nine legions involved. Unfortunately, the revolt of the governor of Germania Superior, Lucius Antonius Saturninus, in 89, prevented the ultimate success.

During Trajan's war of 101-106, I Italica guarded the bridgehead across the Danube, but subunits fought elsewhere in the Dacian heartland. Several inscriptions mention soldiers that were decorated during these campaigns, about which we have not much other information.

Other inscriptions show that (subunits of) I Italica participated in Trajan's ill-fated war against the Parthian empire (115-117). Again, we would like to know more, but our sources are sadly deficient. Whatever their role in the eastern campaign, the soldiers returned to Novae after the Roman defeat.

An inscription from Delphi shows that in 125, the emperor Hadrian used soldiers of I Italica to supervise a building project. We do not know which construction can be meant; Pausanias, the author of a travel guide for ancient Greece, has nothing to say about buildings erected by Hadrian at Delphi. Another inscription seems to suggest that the same emperor employed a subunit in Judaea during the war against a Jewish Messiah named Bar Kochba (132-136), but the interpretation is surrounded by uncertainty.

It is likely that at least one subunit of I Italica was moved to Britain between 139 and 142, because a centurion of this legion was in charge with the building of a part of the Antonine wall between Edinburg and Glasgow. It is possible that another subunit served in Africa to suppress a revolt of the Mauri, but again we have to admit that the inscription that may prove this, is surrounded by uncertainty.


Coin of I Italica from the reign of Septimius Severus.
Coin of I Italica from the reign of Septimius Severus (romancoins.info; ©*)

We know more about the big wars waged by the emperor Marcus Aurelius to protect Dacia and the Danube frontier. The campaigns took place, so to speak, in the legion's backyard. The first of these started in 165 and the emperor desperately needed additional troops; it may be a tribute to the courage of I Italica that the two legions that Marcus founded were called II and III Italica. After almost ten years of fighting, it seemed possible to add land on the other side of the Danube, and a young senator named Aulus Julius Pompilius Piso was placed in charge of I Italica and IIII Flavia Felix, and received a governor's powers.

Unfortunately, a false report that Marcus had died provoked a rebellion in the east, where Avidius Cassius was made emperor (175). Although he was immediately assassinated, Marcus decided to visit the eastern provinces. The fighting on the Danube was interrupted, and the plans to create a new province were never executed. The northern war flared up again in 178-180, the Romans having the upper hand. The details remain a bit obscure, but it is certain that I Italica played an important role. The fighting ended with the death of Marcus Aurelius; his son and successor Commodus concluded a very advantageous peace treaty, and the region remained quiet for a long time. One of the legion's officers, in these years, was Clodius Albinus, the future emperor (Historia Augusta, "Clodius Albinus", 6.2).


The capture of Ctesiphon on the arch of Septimius Severus. Model at the Museo nazionale della civiltà romana. Photo Marco Prins.
The capture of Ctesiphon on the arch of Septimius Severus. (Model at the Museo nazionale della civiltà romana; ©**)

When the governor of Pannonia Superior, Lucius Septimius Severus, was proclaimed emperor in 193, I Italica immediately joined his cause. In a lightning campaign the new ruler marched on Rome, but the First Italian legion can not have taken part, because Novae was too far from Italy. However, it must have played a role in Severus' campaign against his eastern rival Pescennius Niger. Soldiers of I Italica and XI Claudia besieged  Byzantium, forced the Cilician gate, and fought at Issus. It is also possible that they took part in Severus' campaigns against the Parthian empire, which culminated in the sack of Ctesiphon (198).

 
During the reign of Severus' son and successor Caracalla, the southern border of Dacia, which coincided with the rivers Olt and Danube, was pushed some fifty kilometers to the east. The Romans built a wall (the Limes Transalutanus), which began very close to Novae. It is impossible that soldiers of I Italica were not involved in the construction of this fortification.

Several inscriptions prove that during the reign of Severus Alexander, (subunits of) I Italica stayed a Salonae (modern Split) on the Dalmatian coast, but the legion itself stayed at Novae. Even at the beginning of the fifth century, I Italica was still guarding the Danube, although at this time, it had been divided into two halfs: one was still at Novae, the other at Sexagintaprista.

The emblems of this legion were the boar and -less frequently- the bull.
 

Related:

  • article by Emil Ritterling.
  • M. Absil, "Legio I Italica", in: Yann Le Bohec, Les légions de Rome sous le Haut-Empire (2000 Lyon) 228-238
  • M.P. Speidel and J. Reynolds, "A Veteran of Legio I Parthica from Carian Aphrodisias", in Epigraphica Anatolica 5 (1985) 31-35




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