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Legio III Augusta


Bust of Augustus as high priest. Museo Nacional de Arte Romano, Mérida (Spain). Photo Marco Prins.
Bust of Octavian/Augustus as high priest. Museo Nacional de Arte Romano, Mérida.
Legio III Augusta: one of the Roman legions. Its name means 'the legion of Augustus', but contains a pun on 'august legion'.

This legion was probably recruited by consul Gaius Vibius Pansa and Octavian (the later emperor Augustus) in 43 BCE. It may have been present during the battle of Philippi (42), in which the triumvirs Octavian and Marc Antony defeated the murderers of Caesar.

It is likely that in the next years, the Third legion took part in the war that Octavian and Lepidus waged against Sextus Pompeius, who had occupied Sicily and threatened the food supply of Rome. When Octavian had won this war, he attacked Lepidus, and took his province, Africa (36). It is possible that the legion was sent to this region after this conflict.

However this may be, it is certain that from 30 BCE on, the Third was permanently in Africa, although it was not always stationed in the same camp. An inscription from 14 CE informs us that the soldiers had to build a road from Tacapsa to their winter quarters, which may at this stage have been at Theveste.

Although Africa was usually a tranquil part of the Roman empire, III Augusta saw action in 17-24, when it fought against Tacfarinas, who had organized several Numidian and Mauretanian tribes in an anti-Roman coalition. Perhaps this war was the cause of the legion's transfer to Ammaedara.

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Dedjcation to Gavius Macer. Lepcis Magna, Photo Jona Lendering.
A dedication to Gavius Macer, commander of III Augusta, from Lepcis Magna

After Tacfarinas had been defeated by the governor of Africa, Marcus Furius Camillus, in a regular battle in 17, he launched a guerilla, which was the type of war the Romans least understood. In 18, a subunit of III Augusta was annihilated, and the new commander, Lucius Apronius, punished the legionaries according to an ancestral custom: decimation, i.e. the killing of every tenth soldier. In 21, VIIII Hispana was sent to help III Augusta. Still, the war lasted four more years, until governor Junius Blaesus defeated Tacfarinas. The Ninth was recalled, but immediately, Tacfarinas returned. However, the Third Augustan legion was now able to overcome its enemy. The rebel committed suicide in 24.

The eagle standard of III Augusta. Koninklijke Musea voor Kunst en Geschiedenis, Brussel (Belgium). Photo Marco Prins.
The eagle standard of III Augusta; Koninklijke Musea voor Kunst en Geschiedenis, Brussels (©!!)

In this period, the Third was the only legion in the Roman empire that was commanded by a senator: the proconsul (governor) of Africa. One of them may have been Velleius Paterculus, who is better known as the author of a short Roman History. The emperor Caligula (37-41) thought that this policy was risky, and saw to it that the commander of III Augusta was one of his appointees (a legatus Augusti pro praetore). His successors Claudius and Nero stuck to this policy, although it is possible that Sulpicius Galba -the future emperor- had the old powers in 45-46, when he fought against the local tribes.

During the confused last years of the reign of Nero, the legion's commander Lucius Clodius Macer was one of those who revolted against the tyrannical despot. He recruited another legion, I Macriana Liberatrix, and supported Sulpicius Galba, who became emperor in 69. But the new ruler distrusted Macer and ordered the procurator Trebonius Garutianus to kill the commander of the two legions.


The HQs of the legionary base at Lambaesis.
The HQs of the legionary base at Lambaesis (©!!!)

In January 69, Galba lost control of the situation. He was killed, and civil war broke out between Otho and Vitellius, a former governor of Africa. III Augusta sided with him, but did not see battle. At the end of the year, the legion went over to another pretender, Vespasian, who was able to bring peace to the empire. He was also responsible for the transfer from Ammaedara to Theveste (75). At the age of the emperor Hadrian (117-138), we find III Augusta at Lambaesis in Numidia. It had already been occupied (in 81?) by a subunit or an auxilary unit, but now became a huge military settlement. A famous inscription from this site is one of our most important pieces of evidence about the Roman legions.

With an interruption of fifteen years (below), the Third was to stay here for almost two centuries, guarding the empire against Berber tribes. At times, these nomads could be very dangerous. The war against the Moors during Antoninus Pius (138-161) lasted a long time.


Tombstone of an officer of III Augusta, born in Carthage, buried in Cologne. Römisch-Germanisches Museum, Köln (Germany). Photo Jona Lendering.
Tombstone of an officer of III Augusta, born in Carthage and buried in Cologne. (Römisch-Germanisches Museum, Köln)

Sometimes, legionaries were sent to other provinces. It is known that in 115, subunits were sent to Syria and joined the emperor Trajan in his war against the Parthian empire. There were many casualties, and Syrians were recruited to reinforce III Augusta. (Their tombstones have been found at Lambaesis.) Between 132 and 136, a large subunit served in the war against Bar Kochba, a messianic claimant in Judaea. Some thirty years later, subunits took part in the Parthian campaign of Lucius Verus. In 215-217, Caracalla used legionaries from Lambaesis during his eastern war.

In 175, legionaries of III Augusta took part in the Marcomannic campaign of Marcus Aurelius, which brought the African soldiers to Hungary. Many of them never returned because they were transferred to II Adiutrix, a legion that had suffered heavily during this war. A similar incident had taken place in 126, when III Augusta sent soldiers to reinforce either III Cyrenaica of III Gallica.


The fort at Bu Njem in modern Libya. Photo Marco Prins.
The fort at Bu Njem in modern Libya

The emperor Lucius Septimius Severus, an African, awarded the legion the title Pia Vindex ('Faithful avenger') in 193. This suggests that III Augusta played a role in the civil war after the murder of the emperor Publius Helvius Pertinax, but we have no further evidence for this.

Severus also ordered the construction of a series of forts along the desert frontier, like Ghadames, Gheriat el-Garbia, and Bu Njem (the Limes Tripolitanus). Like Lambaesis, they have survived and have an architectural oddity: the pentagonal towers near the gates. They are unique for buildings by III Augusta.



Gordian I. Bardo Museum, Tunis (Tunisia). Photo Jan van Vliet.
Gordian (Bardo Museum, Tunis)

It seems that during the reign of Caracalla (211-217), Macrinus (217-218) or early in the reign of Heliogabalus (218-222), the Third suffered losses against a desert tribe. It was reinforced by soldiers from III Gallica, which had been disbanded by Heliogabalus.

In 238, the governor of Africa used this legion to suppress the rebellion of Gordian I and Gordian II, who had become emperors. Although they revolt was not successful, the civil war, which saw no less than seven emperors in one year, was won by their descendant Gordian III, who disbanded the legion.


Coin of Valerian. Archaeological Museum of Izmir (Turkey). Photo Jona Lendering.
Valerian (Archaeological Museum, Izmir)

Fifteen years later, the emperor Valerian reconstituted this unit and gave it the title Iterum Pia Iterum Vindex ('Again faithful, again avenger'). The refounded Third Augustan legion now fought a long and difficult war against the "Five peoples", a dangerous federation of Berber tribes. The struggle lasted until about 260, when commander Gaius Macrinus Decianus erected a victory monument at Lambaesis.

That the situation was not really safe can be deduced from the fact that this military settlement was fortified in the years after this victory. In 289-297, the struggle was renewed, and the emperor Maximianus was forced to take personal command of the Roman forces in Africa and Numidia.


Tombstone of Q. Geminius. Museum of Lepcis Magna (Libya). Photo Marco Prins.
Tombstone of Q. Geminius (Museum of Lepcis Magna)

The title Pia Fidelis may have been given by the emperor Diocletian, who at the beginning of the fourth century personally led a war against a rebel governor. Immediately after the victory, III Augusta left Lambaesis, and although it stayed in the region, we do not know where. The legion is still mentioned in the late fourth or early fifth century.

Among the emblems of the legion was probably the winged horse Pegasus. The Capricorn is also attested.

Literature


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