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Military Matters


In 54, the Parthians invaded Armenia, which was a buffer state between them and the Romans. The Romans responded with threatening messages and Nero appointed Domitius Corbulo to the command. Hostages were demanded from Vologeses of Parthia (Tacitus, Annales 13. 6-9). This took the conflict into 55 or even 56.

In AD 58, the war resumed with more vigour. Vologeses wished to secure Armenia for his brother, Tiridates. Corbulo resisted. Corbulo’s campaigns pressurised the Parthian-Armenian alliance and secured more territory and cities, but could not initially bring the Parthians to terms (Tacitus, Annales 13. 34–41). Corbulo took Artaxata. The account resumes for AD 60, but clearly represents an on-going campaign at the conclusion of which Tigranes was imposed as king of Armenia, on Nero’s instruction (Tacitus, Annales 14. 23–6).

The following year, Vologeses pursued the war with a fresh intensity. Roman command was split between Corbulo in Syria and Caesennius Paetus in Armenia. Paetus enjoyed initial success, but Vologeses came up with his army while Paetus was unprepared. Paetus responded to the invasion by going into various garrisons and trying to block the Parthian advance. But by isolating his troops, Paetus simplified the Parthian invasion. Corbulo was summoned from Syria. But Paetus was in difficulties. He was forced to terms and retreated in haste from Armenia before Corbulo could arrive. Weapons and wounded were abandoned in the flight (Tacitus, Annales 15. 1–18). Corbulo adhered to the terms and the generals wrote to Nero for further instructions.

Nero’s response was typically Roman. Vologeses had offered peace on his terms, a Parthian appointee in Armenia, but one who acknowledged Roman authority. The Roman response to make that authority real and Corbulo was ordered to invade. Antoher legion was sent and a new governor appointed to Syria so that Corbulo could concentrate on Armenia. once more took charge of matters in Armenia and in 63 launched an invasion with a fresh army.

In fact, this was but a show of strength. Neither the Romans nor the Parthians were keen on another round. Roman honour would be satisfied by this intimidatory show. But the deal was much as Vologeses and Tiridates had offered. The Parthian nominee would be appointed by the Romans (Tacitus, Annales 15. 24–31).

Both sides could claim victories. The compromise that emerged, a Parthian ruler of Armenia who needed the blessing of the emperor, was to preserve the peace.


We know comparatively little about Neronian military policy. The Parthian campaigns are extensively narrated, perhaps partly because of the involvement of Corbulo. There was limited activity on the German frontier. Suetonius Paulinus was engaged in expansion in Britain, though that seems to have some to an end with the revolt. The Jewish revolt tied up military resources towards the end of the reign. We may wonder whether there were more small scale military episodes.

Nevertheless, it is clear that Nero did not pursue a policy of imperial expansion. He was also considerably less concerned with achieving military glory than Claudius or Gaius. As part of this lack of concern, he seems to have been more initially relaxed than other emperors about generals achieving prominence. Corbulo had been prominent under Claudius and a reputation for old-fashioned strictness and discipline. One might have thought that he had qualities which would make him a possible threat to an emperor, but Nero continued to promote him and maintained him in Armenia even after the campaigns there had gone wrong.

Suetonius Paulinus was likewise an experience general who had enjoyed considerably military success in Africa. His campaigns in Britain show that Nero continued to trust him and to allow him scope to fulfil military ambitions. Even after the suppression of the revolt, he was allowed to stay in the province for some time, before returning to honours in Rome.

It may have been this long-expressed confidence in his generals that led Corbulo and the Scribonii brothers to obey Nero’s summons to Greece. Their deaths marked a change of attitude and an obvious fear on Nero’s part of his generals.

Yet, if we look at the commanders of the important provinces in AD 69, there is not much sense that Nero was worrying about the status of his generals: Galba was an established and respected figure with considerable political and military experience; Vespasian was also a long-serving and experienced military and political figure. Although he may have been from one of the less elevated families of Rome, he and his brother,  Flavius Sabinus were very powerful figures: Sabinus had fought in Britain, been governor in Moesia, and had been praefectus urbi (Prefect of the city of Rome) for an extended period under Nero.

  • Was the attitude of the military towards Nero was substantially different from that of civilians?

Praetorians were central to the Pisonian conspiracy. It was the military in their different forms who eventually brought down Nero. As the revolt of Vindex broke out, soldiers in Spain, Africa, Germany and Rome were prepared to back alternative candidates for the throne. Their loyalty to the julio-Claudians had evaporated.

Although Nero ruled for a considerable period without taking much interest in the military and the immediate causes of his fall were clearly related to the catastrophic situation with regard to the Roman aristocracy, the soldiers played their part. One assumes that the widespread defections from the Julio-Claudian cause in AD 68 reflect a general discontent with Neronian rule.

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