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Short Rounds

Caligula's Great Victories

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 ovation. 

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)

 

Frederick William von Seydlitz Plays a Little Trick

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 8:00 am 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 city.

Naturally, the Allies occupied Gotha, where Rohan, Hildburghausen, and the rest of the allied generals arrived at about 11:00 am, 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 1:00 pm, 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 3:00 pm 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.

 


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