Octavian in Dalmatia

Freed from Sextus Pompeius, Octavian had returned to Rome to celebrate. His stay was short. He led his troops to Illyricum, sometimes called Dalmatia, a region stretching through Albania, Croatia, and Slovenia.

The region had been subject to Roman invasions and increasing levels of Roman control for about a century (see the account in Appian, Illyrian Wars). It had also been unstable in the period around 40-39 with tribal invasions from the north. It seems unlikely, however, that there was a major problem in the region. Octavian needed somewhere to conquer and Illyricum provided him with opportunities, without having to venture far from his power base in Italy.

Octavian’s campaigns pushed Roman control northwards. The precise extent of his conquests are unclear (Appian, Illyrian Wars 4; Dio, 49.34-38). He captured what appears to have been the main town of the region, Metulum, but only after a siege. The people of Metulum eventually made terms and invited a Roman garrison into the city. They then attacked and killed the garrison, burning their own city and killing themselves and their families rather than risk capture, such was their hostility to the incorporation into the Empire (Appian, Illyrian Wars 5.21).

He declared victory in 35 and headed off to Gaul. He may have prepared to invade Britain, but the Illyrian tribes were not convinced that they were defeated. This was something of a theme in the Roman conquest of the wider region: a Roman campaign met success, the Romans declared victory and peace, but within a year or so were back in the field, supposedly facing rebels, but likely just continuing the processes of conquest. It is a pattern we see repeated in Spain and through Illyricum  and Pannonia.

Octavian returned to Illyricum in 34. He pushed much further away from coast, reaching Siscia (Segestica).  This was again a victorious campaign and  once more Octavian celebrated the defeat of his enemy and once more the Dalmatia’s revolted. They recaptured Siscia and the Romans returned to the attack. He also pushed south to Premona, gradually extending Roman control over the coastline (Appian, Illyrian Wars 5). By 33, Octavian had brought the Dalmatians to an uneasy peace. The Dalmatia’s had previously defeated a Roman army led by Gabinius and now Octavian demanded that they return the standards they had captured. They were also forced to pay the taxes they had been not paying during the long rebellion, a task made so much more difficult by the damage the Romans had inflicted (Appian, Illyrian Wars 6).

Octavian himself was wounded, twice. Once he was hit in the leg by a stone and in the second instance he was caught on a collapsing bridge during the siege of Metulum (Appian, Illyrian Wars 4.19; Suetonius, Augustus 20) but Roman power was consolidated. The region was, however, to be beset by conflict for another forty years.

The purpose of the wars is not entirely clear. The local tribes had been restless and had struck towards Italy. Octavian had followed the traditional Roman response to barbarian incursions, by retaking the territory, invading barbarian lands, and destroying their infrastructure.

But the importance of the Dalmatian war was unlikely to have been the Dalmatians themselves. Illyricum had been of little interest to the Romans, which is shown by their failure to absorb and conquer a territory so close to Italy. The point of the Illyricum campaigns was in Roman politics and military preparedness.

The war was Octavian’s first major foreign campaign. Although victorious against Romans in civil wars, he needed to show that he embraced the Roman imperial ethic. He was also a conqueror. This was a pose he continued to adopt throughout his career.

  • The war gave him victories that he could celebrate in Rome.
  • It enhanced his military reputation and the bravery he showed at Metulum almost certainly boosted that reputation.
  • It was ten years since Octavian had led Caesar’s veterans. One presumes that many of the troops that he led in Illyricum were not veterans. But after the war, they were troops who had fought for Octavian and were likely to be loyal. This would be important in the up-coming conflict with Antony.

The end of the wars in 33 coincided (roughly) with Antony’s victories in the East. Both sides were free from external threats and it seems a remarkable coincidence that conflict between the men was slowly approaching.

By 33, Antony and Octavian were moving slowly towards war.

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