Having decided to acquire some military glory, in A.D. 39, the 27-year old Emperor
Caligula (r. 37-41) ordered a strong
army concentrated on the Rhine, and then
proceeded thence from Rome.
Upon reaching the Rhine, however,
Caligula found that the German tribes, in deference to him huge host, had lost interest
in fighting and melted away into their forests and swamplands.
Caligula made some forays into the German hinterland, and,
although nary a foeman could be found, declared that he had attained a great
victory, the Germans having fled in terror at his mere presence.
Since every victory needs prisoners, Caligula decided to
capture a few. He sent some of his
German bodyguards a little way into the wilderness with orders to pretend to be
the enemy, and then, with a few friends, pursed them until they were all
"captured." Needing more
prisoners, he scooped up the children of some German leaders who were being
"educated" (i.e., held
hostage) in a Roman school.
Now while Caligula had been preparing for his
"campaign" against the Germans, Prince Adminius, the son of King
Cunobelinus of the Catuvellauni, a Britannic tribe, had been deposed by his
father from his domains in what is now Kent. Adminius fled across the Channel with a small
band of followers, and headed for Caligula's winter quarters, at Lugdunum
[Lyon], where he surrendered to the Emperor some time in the autumn of 39. With his "war" against the Germans
won, Caligula decided it was time to conquer Britain as well, and ordered his
army concentrated at Bononia [Boulogne]
on the Channel.
Reaching Bononia some time in March or April of 40,
Suetonius tells us that Caligula "drew up a line of battle on the shore of
the Ocean, arranging his ballistae and other artillery; and when no one knew or
could imagine what he was going to do, he suddenly bade them gather shells and
fill their helmets and the folds of their gowns, calling them 'spoils from the
Ocean, due to the Capitol and Palatine'."
This second "victory" won, Caligula ordered a
monumental lighthouse raised to commemorate his military prowess. Then, promising his troops a generous
donative, and surprisingly, penalizing some he claimed had been
"cowardly" or "disloyal," he proceeded back to Rome
There are some who suggest that there was a certain
"method" to Caligula's madness.
He may actually have contemplated an invasion of Britain, since
he did order the raising of two new legions in 39. But his attention was drawn to the Rhineland by a reported conspiracy on the part of Gnaeus
Cornelius Lentulus Gaetulicus, governor of Upper Germany,
who commanded two legions at Moguntiacum [Mainz]. Whether the plot was real, or cooked up by
some sycophants to please the emperor, or the product of Caligula's fevered
mind is not known. But Caligula made
impressive haste to Moguntiacum, conducted a round of executions, including
Gaetulicus, and Lucius Apronius the governor of Lower Germany as well, who
happened to be Gaetulicus' father-in-law.
This set the stage for Caligula's "campaign" against the
Germans. By the time that was over, it
was too late in the year to conduct an invasion of Britain, and although he lingered
in Gaul until early Spring, that would have
been too early to make the attempt.
Rather than stay away from Rome
any longer, Caligula proceeded home, lavishly entertained by all the cities
along the way, who donated enormous sums to show him their loyalty.
Meanwhile, even before his "campaigns" had been
"won" Caligula decided he need a triumph to celebrate his “victories.” He sent instructions to Rome to initiate
preparations for the most spectacular triumph ever seen, but, at the same time
with orders that it be carried out at the smallest possible cost. To insure it was sufficiently spectacular, he
even directed that the ship on which he had briefly sailed on the
"Britannic Sea" be hauled to Rome.
To make sure his "prisoners" made an impressive show, on his
journey back to Italy, he selected people whom he deemed "axiotriambeutos
-- worthy of leading in a triumph" because of their appearance, to march
as "prisoners" behind his chariot,
In addition to members of his German bodyguard, these included German
hostages and exiles, and even Gauls whom he encountered during his
travels. In cases where the
"prisoners" didn’t look "German" enough, he ordered that
they dye their hair blond, gave them German clothing, and even subjected them
to German language lessons. But Caligula
decided against celebrating a triumph, settling for the lesser honor of a
Now arguably, Caligula's "wars" against the
Germans and the Britons may have had some propaganda value. Such massive demonstrations of Roman military
resources may well have impressed the locals into behaving themselves. But few disagree that Caligula was, indeed, quite
mad. He was assassinated on January 24,
A.D. 41, having offended just about everyone in the Empire, but most
particularly members of the Praetorian Guard, a serious no-no.
BookNote: Most of what we
know about Caligula – and many of the other early emperors -- comes from the
Roman gossip Gaius Suetonius
Tranquillus, usually known as Suetonius, author of De Vita Caesarum,
which was best Englished by Robert Graves as The Twelve Caesars (Penguin Classics)
Born into a Prussian military family, Frederick William von
Seydlitz (1721-1773) was Frederick
the Great’s finest cavalryman, a paladin as famous in his day as any of
Napoleon’s marshals would be some decades later.
Commissioned as a cornet of cuirassiers in 1740, Seydlitz distinguished
himself in the First Silesian War (1740-1742), attracting the eye of the
equally young King Frederick, who made him a captain. He once again performed superbly in the
Second Silesian War (1744-1745), for which the king made the 24-year old
officer a major.
Seydlitz’ wartime performance – at one point he had
commanded 15 squadrons in action – and his postwar success in leading cavalry
during Frederick's annual maneuvers, the first regular field exercises
undertaken by any modern European army, brought him relatively swift promotion,
so that by 1755 he was a colonel.
Then came the Seven Years’ War
(1756-1763), in which Seydlitz once again demonstrated considerable battlefield
virtuosity, for which the king rewarded him with a promotion to brigadier
general. But Seydlitz was not just a
master tactician, he was also a wily trickster.
In September of
1757, a French-Austro-Allied army was concentrated near Eisenach, in the
mountainous Thuringia region, rather southwest of Berlin, while King
Frederick’s army was near Erfurth, about 30 English miles to the east, but with
Seydlitz and some 20 troops of cavalry (c. 1300 men) posted at Gotha, roughly
half way between the two cities, to make demonstrations suggesting that the
bulk of the Prussian forces were present.
Prince Joseph Maria
Frederick Wilhelm of Saxe-Hildburghausen, who commanded the German
Imperial troops allied with the French, realized that Seydlitz was bluffing,
and convinced the overall allied commander, the French Prince Charles de Rohan, that a surprise raid might seriously discommode
the Prussians at Gotha. So very early Sept. 19th,
three allied columns totaling some 6,000 infantry, 4,000 cavalry, and some
artillery, set out for Gotha,
hoping to trap Seydlitz and his brigade.
The attackers achieved a measure of surprise, falling on Gotha from three directions
at about on the
19th. But the wily Seydlitz
responded quickly, falling back out of Gotha,
to concentrate his troops on some favorable ground along a ridge behind the
Naturally, the Allies occupied Gotha, where Rohan, Hildburghausen, and the
rest of the allied generals arrived at about , as their troops made themselves at home.
Meanwhile, Seydlitz, noticing a fog settling, dismounted a hundred
dragoons to serve as infantry, and then placed the rest of his forces in 22
small bodies deployed on either side of these dragoons, with everyone spread
out so that each group seemed like an entire squadron. At , Seydlitz attacked through the fog with the hussars he had
posted on his left, who made a noisy show.
This attack suggested to the allied commanders that the
whole Prussian Amy was about to fall on them in greatly superior numbers. Fearing encirclement, Rohan and
Hildburghausen ordered a quick retreat, and by Gotha
was once more in Prussian hands.
Seydlitz’ victory at Gotha
was virtually bloodless. His own
casualties were apparently fewer than 20, while the Allies suffered about 40
killed and the same number captured, including two generals, not to mention a
good deal of baggage and stores.
As victories go, Gotha,
though not the most important action of the war, was an outstanding display of
Seydlitz’ military prowess, which he would continue to deploy in Frederick the Great’s
service until the end of the war.
Like most of his contemporaries, Seydlitz, one of the finest
commanders of the mid-eighteenth century, lacks a recent biography in English.