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An Alternative History of the Roman Empire: The Goths take the Offensive

By Tim Venning

Bust of Gordian I in the Capitoline Museums, Rome

This Series of Articles discusses a hypothetical history of the Roman Empire wherein Marcus Aurelius lives longer and so it's more stable. In the first four articles this took us to the rule of Gordian I.

In this timeline, Gordian I died late in 243, aged 84, after an eighteen-month rule; this former young senatorial admirer of his fellow-Stoic Marcus Aurelius had been planning to establish the principle of Imperial election by the Senate in law as a way to discourage any more attempted military revolts but was talked out of it as too provocative to important generals in the provinces by his Praetorian Praefect and chief minister, Timisetheus. Cynics said that this was to help the latter claim the throne himself by bribing the Guards if Gordian’s family tried to get rid of him, but Gordian managed to get the Senate to approve his inexperienced son Gordian II (born 187), a harmless and personally brave but politically unskilled senator who had had some military service, as his co-emperor as soon as he fell ill. (In OTL Gordian I and II were raised up by the regional administration in Carthage to challenge the tyrant Maximin in 238; Gordian II was killed in battle by Maximin’s men and his father committed suicide. The senate in Rome, who had joined their movement, however managed to use its volunteer troops in Italy to dispose of Maximin.)

But Gordian ‘the Younger’ had no son by his aristocratic Campanian wife, and was duly persuaded by his ministers led by Praefect Timisetheus to elevate his sister Maecia Faustina’s son Gordian III to throne as co-emperor and heir, aged 17. (In OTL Gordian III was forced on the Senate by his family’s supporters after the death of Maximin and the murder by the Guard of the Senate’s own choices to succeed him, Balbinus and Pupienus, in 238.) Timisetheus did not have long to act as the strongman of the new regime, as he died of some unknown illness in 244 while in charge of taking Gordian III to Mesopotamia to nominally lead a major Roman army there to take over some crucial former Parthian fortresses on the upper Tigris near Nisibit which had been seized by rebels against the new Sassanid Persian king Shapur. (In OTL he did die on a campaign there around that date, followed in unknown circumstances by his sovereign.)

Thus in this version it was the adult Gordian II and his teenage nephew Gordian III who were reigning at the time of the celebrations of the capital’s millennium in 247, not (as in OTL) Gordian III’s replacement Philip ‘the Arab’, a former commander from Syria, who in this timeline is still only the new Praetorian Praefect after making a good showing as a Romano-Arab cavalry commander in the early 230s Mesopotamian campaigns by Alexander Severus. As the Romans had held onto Marcommania and the Iazyges territory on the River Theiss in the 180s under a surviving Marcus, they dominated the middle Danube and by now were raising local semi-Romanised Germans as local auxiliary troops for the legions based there. Hence there was no war on the middle and lower Danube against the local Carpi tribe as in OTL; the latter were suitably awed by Roman power and had been supplying troops to the Empire as demanded by the Gordians , not attacking it. No war meant no local command for Philip’s OTL overthrower Decius to win fame and the loyalty of his men; in this version of events he was merely the peacetime governor of Upper Pannonia on the frontier in what is now Hugary, with too few troops to risk rebelling.

There was greater political stability and less military plotting than in OTL, and there was much less of a tradition of successful revolt to inspire provincial generals to challenge their Emperors (as Decius did to Philip in real life in 249); the last such revolt had been that of Albinus in Britain in 196-7, defeated by Severus. The Germanic problems of the 240s and 250s were faced by a more united Empire and better military leadership, and fighting was only on the lower Rhine and the lower Danube below the Iron Gates, plus in the Carpathian gaps; the middle and upper Danube were firmly in Romans hands and the tribes North of them were Roman vassals supplying troops to the Roman army . The Danube area was not ravaged except below the ‘Iron Gates’ in lower Moesia, though the latter meant that the Empire had to divert troops from Marcomannia and the Rhine to protect it as the army on the Persian frontier could not be denuded. There was no persecution of the Christians in 250-1 as Decius was not Emperor as in OTL, and the senior minister to 252 was the shrewd Praefect Philip , Gordian III’s Greco-Arab adviser, a man with a background and military experience in the Levant who was thus well able to know how to train local troops to take on the heavy Persian cavalry and who was raising Arab cavalry and skilled archers from tribes and landowners known to him on the Syrian frontier to turn on the Persians. (He had already died in OTL).

Relief depicting a battle between Romans and Goths.

The Gothic invasion across the lower Danube below the Iron Gates in 250-1 led by Kniva occurred as in OTL, but not against a background of civil war by Decius against Philip . The OTL attacks across the middle Danube in the mid-240s had not occurred, as the Empire held both Dacia and Marcomania; instead the tribes N of the middle Danube were by this stage part of the Empire for over 60 years and semi-‘Romanised’, supplying troops to the Roman army and leavened by Roman military veteran settlers. Moesia and Thrace were still ravaged in 250-1 as in OTL, but more German troops from the Rhine (vassals of Rome since Geta’s expeditions in the 210s) were in the legions to fight the attackers. The Emperor Gordian II was able to send an army East to back up the army in Dacia in reinforcing Moesia as soon as he heard of the invasion in 250, and Decisu brought troops and local Germans from Upper Pannonia to help - as one of three equal-ranked governors, not as sole commander, so he had to stay loyal. But by this time the raiders, several scores of thousands and outnumbering the local Roman garrisons, had broken up into separate groups and it was impossible to catch them all. The Roman general Priscus, governor of Thrace and brother of Philip ‘the Arab’ (the latter the OTL emperor of 244-9 but in this version Pratetorian Praefect) and recommended for a senior role as a result of his reorganising old and recruiting new troops to the enlarged army of ‘Oriens’ (‘the East’) at Antioch in 247-8, managed to catch and destroy one Gothic army. But he did not know the terrain well whereas the Goths had been joined by opportunistic local brigands and runaway Moesian peasants, and many other Goths escaped into the Balkan mountains and hid away in remote valleys and forests for the winter of 250-1.

In spring 251 Kniva’s tribal allies in ‘Gothia’, modern Poland, lured by reports of the loot he had acquired and prodded by his emisaries, joined in the war. They attacked South into Marcomannia and Dacia via the Ostrava Gap, hoping to head South and loot the Roman towns around Alba Iulia. The Romans could not send the planned local help South-East to Moesia, and Priscus was ambushed and killed while awaiting the arrival of Emperor Gordian (II) from Rome with the main Rhine-based army. His best general Decius, now commanding the army in Marcomannia with its governor, defeated the raiders there and joined the Emperor in Moesia, but the losses to the Northern army in the recent war had denuded the amount of men who Decius could bring. The Rhine troops had seen no major action since 235 and were not prepared for the ferocity of the Goths’ infantry charges. Nor had Gordian II ever commanded in battle, and he was not only hesitant about head-on fighting but afraid that if he let the popular and ruthless Decius take the lead he would be eclipsed and deposed by that man – Decius had served in senior offices in Rome in between his military commands and had family links to the old nobility and a rich Etruscan wife of ancient family. As a result, the hesitant Gordian let Kniva get away from a botched Roman entrapment encirclement near Philippopolis in the Hebrus valley, which he was besieging as the Emperor’s army arrived, and retreat back to the Danube plain to link up with reinforcements which made his army much larger, and some Roman soldiers blamed Gordian and had to be talked out of a mutiny by Decius.

Eventually the Emperor managed to trap the Goths near the mouth of the Danube, but he and Decius were still at odds and he ignored Decius’ battle-plan and cautiously arranged a defensive battle, just ‘grinding down’ the enemy by hard combat rather than trying to break them up – and this gave Kniva a chance to send out ‘hit squads’ of battle-hardened warriors in ‘waves’ to unnerve the untried Roman Rhine troops. The latter were better-armed, and Roman archers decimated the Goths who had little protective clothing part from stolen Roman armour – but the fierce Gothic attack still caused large casualties until the weight of numbers gave Rome the advantage and the Emperor was thrown from his horse as the Goths fired volleys of flaming barrels into the Roman ranks from stolen catapults that Kniva had looted from frontier fortresses. Decius rallied the army successfully, and led a brave but in the event suicidal frontal attack on the Gothic leader’s bodyguard that overwhelmed them and left Kniva dead but Decius mortally wounded .

(In OTL, Decius, as emperor since 249, and his elder son and heir Herennius were killed and Rome was left leaderless ; Kniva survived a more stalemated battle with enough of his men to renew his plundering. Rome was left with the nominal leadership of Decius’ teenage younger son Hostilianus.)


Timothy Venning is a respected Historian who won the London University History Prize in 1979 and whose latest straight history book is Cromwell's Failed State. He has also written multiple books of counter factual essays including Caesars of the Bosphorus, Eternal Caesars, King Charles or King Oliver and King Henry IX, all published by Sea Lion Press, and If Rome Hadn't Fallen.


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