The secunda expeditio germanica of Emperor Marcus Aurelius and his son Commodus

178 CE in Rome, Emperor Marcus Aurelius and his son Commodus set forth for the secunda expeditio germanica, the second Germanic campaign against the Marcomanni and Quadi in present-day Slovakia.

“The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it.“ (Marcus Aurelius)

A bas-relief from the Column of Marcus Aurelius,
depicting the emperor showing clemency towards defeated Germanic tribesmen.

There was a storm brewing far beyond the Roman borders along the Rhine and the Danube when Marcus Aurelius became sole emperor in 169 CE. The Goths had begun their epic journey from Scandinavia into Eastern Europe and climate changes along with the pressure exerted by the newcomers on established areas of settlement made various Celtic, Germanic and Sarmatian tribes look for a new home, preferably close to the wonders of the Roman sphere of influence. The Roman client tribes that provided additional security along the great rivers naturally did not agree to this choice of location and during the 160s, political forces among the Marcomanni, Quadi, Vandals and Iazyges, taking advantage of the structures established by Rome itself, questioned the whole idea of the system of alliances along the borders and made covetous glances at Roman territory. Major raids already took place from 161 onwards, but while Rome’s attention was focussed on the war with the Parthians in the Middle East and the so-called Antonine plague that swept back to Europe from the eastern frontier seriously weakening the empire, the raids exploded into a full-scale war that lasted until 175 CE.

Roman troops crossing the Danube (from the Aurelian Column, Rome, around 200 CE)

The ceasefire with the tribes was short. In 177, Marcus Aurelius found it necessary to launch a second expedition into Germanic territory. The main targets were the Quadi, former Roman clients, at the time settling in present-day Slovakia. Whatever happened exactly there is, by and large, unknown since few reliable textual sources survived, but at least one major battle was fought and won by the Romans in the autumn of the next year at a place called Laugaricio, 80 miles northeast of Vienna and Bratislava that laid Quadi ambitions to rest. But only a couple of months later, in March of 180, Marcus Aurelius fell seriously ill and died in Vindobona (Vienna). Interestingly enough, his son and successor, ill-reputed Commodus, was able to conclude a lasting peace for the Pannonian lowland soon after and had to wage only one more campaign, this time in Dacia, north of the lower reaches of the Danube during his reign. But by then, the Crisis of the Third Century that almost was the premature end of the Roman Empire, already began to loom ahead.

The "Miracle of the Rain" in 173 - legio XII Fulminata,, surrounded by a superior Quadi force, is saved from making the bitter choice of either surrendering or dying of thirst by a sudden cloud burst that supplied them with water while lightning bolts hit the Germanics (from the Aurelian Column, Rome, around 200 CE)

Whether the plans of Marcus Aurelius to organise the tribal lands north of the Danube into the provinces Marcomannia and Sarmatia were a later fiction or if they were a real attempt to pacify the region permanently and push the lines of defence into the mountains away from the great river cut short by an immediate lack of funds and his death in 180 is lost in history. However, the Marcomannic Wars had revealed the weakness of Rome’s defences and the inability of the empire to answer several threats at once along the long frontiers from the mouth of the Rhine to the Euphrates in Asia. The sometimes quite haphazard organisation of counter measures during the fourteen years of the Marcomannic Wars marked the beginning of the decline of the Roman military system as well and a couple of decades later, the legions of the days of Augustus, the Flavians and the Five Good Emperors were a thing of the past. The Column of Marcus Aurelius on Piazza Colonna in Rome commemorating the first phase of the war is thus a legacy of the end of an era.

And more about the Marcomannic Wars on: