The Annalist: The Year 196

Aerial view of the Bosphorus (photo: Adbar, CC BY-SA 3.0 license)

After a siege of almost three years, Severus’ troops managed to capture Byzantium this year (probably late spring, early summer). The city had been an extremely tough nut to crack. The city’s defences were very strong. It had high walls and all sorts of artillery capable of holding back the enemy, like engines throwing rocks, wooden beams and spears. Byzantium was located on a strategic point on the Bosphorus, with good access to the Black Sea. Its inner harbour – the Golden Horn – was closed off with chains during the siege and defended by many towers on the breakwaters. The city itself was defended by a determined garrison and equally determined citizens, and probably by a few of Niger’s supporters who had fled to Byzantium after their defeat at Cyzicus.

The only way to capture the city was to starve it into submission, which was exactly what Severus’ force tried to do. In the end, Byzantium’s food supplies were exhausted and there was a great famine in the city. The people resorted to eating soaked animal skins and there were even reports of cannibalism. In desperation, part of the population tried to break out with a fleet on a foraging expedition to try and pillage the countryside. On their way back to Byzantium, they were intercepted by a Roman fleet and utterly destroyed. The next day, the citizens of Byzantium that had stayed behind were witness to this total destruction: the whole sea was littered with corpses and pieces of wreckage, and many of the dead bodies washed ashore. The city now had no choice but to surrender.

Severus’ troops took revenge on a prey that had eluded them for almost three years. The soldiers of the garrison and the city magistrates were executed. Byzantium itself was pillaged and its mighty walls were demolished. Severus took away the city’s independence and gave its territories to its rival Perinthus. Soon, however, the emperor began rebuilding the city, as it was of great strategic importance.

War is looming in the West

Bust of Septimius Severus (Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome).

Bust of Septimius Severus (Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome).

Sensing that a violent confrontation with Albinus could not be avoided, Severus gathered all his forces at Poetovium (present-day Ptuj in Slovenia) and marched west. He had his generals occupy the Alpine passes. Meanwhile, Albinus was still trying to rally support from the Gallic and Spanish provinces, which were nominally under his control as Caesar. He called upon their governors to provide him with money and provisions, but quite a few refused. Those who decided to comply, did so to their own ruin, as they would later be severely punished by Severus.

There may have been some initial skirmishes between the forces of Severus and Albinus this year. Dio mentions the adventures of a school teacher named Numerianus, who managed to raise a small force and defeated some of Albinus’ cavalry. The story simply sounds too good to be true. It is possible that Severus’ general Virius Lupus fought against Albinus’ forces this year and suffered a defeat, losing many of his soldiers. It was not a decisive defeat, though, as the final battle of the war would be fought the next year at Lugdunum (present-day Lyon in France).

Sources

Primary sources

– Cassius Dio, Epitome of Book 75 and Book 76;
– Herodianus, The Roman Histories III.6-7.

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