A BRIEF HISTORY
by John J. Hartwell
Cognomini: AUGUSTA, created or reconstituted by Augustus (Octavian), or an honor bestowed by him in recognition of a victory. LIBERATRIX, Liberating, title given by rebel Clodius Macer in +68.
Additional nomenclature: "Pia Vindex" (Loyal Avenging), granted by Septimus Severus in 193 as reward for the legion's rejection of overtures by the rival claimant Prescennius Niger. "Valeriana Gallieniana Valeriana", from the co-Augusti Valerian and Gallienus and the latter's son Valerian Caesar. Given at the time of the legion's reconstitution in +253.
Emblem: possibly PEGASUS.
This is surely the least peripatetic of the Imperial Roman Legions, in that it spent its entire active existence in North Africa. And for all of the over three hundred that it can be traced, Legio III Augusta was Africa's only legion, although other troops were posted there for temporary duty, during times of emergency.
The origin of Legio III Augusta is uncertain. Most likely it was raised by Octavian in -41/40. But, it has also been suggested that it might derive from the -43 Consular series of C. Vibius Pansa.
The legion was in Africa by -30, perhaps earlier, based first at Ammaedara (Haidra). Later movements of the legionary base: Thevesta (Tebessa), and eventually Lambaesis (Tazoult-Lambèse) in +75, generally reflect the extension to the south and west of Roman authority in the province.
TACFARINAS & MAURETANIA
During the +1st century, two significant campaigns were waged in Africa. From 17-24, a Musulamin leader, Tacfarinas, conducted almost incessant guerilla warfare against the Roman presence. A former Auxiliary soldier who had deserted, Tacfarinas managed to build up a small core of men trained, armed, and disciplined in the Roman manner. He was also supported by large numbers of Numidian and Mauretanian tribal forces.
In +17, Furius Camillus, Proconsul of Africa and Legio III Augusta's commander, led out "an army insignificant indeed compared with the multitude of Numidians and Moors"(TA, ii) but, with the third legion as the main strike force. Tacfarinas' army was utterly routed, and he fled into the desert. This, however, was only the first round in what would be a long and frustrating struggle.
The very next year Tacfarinas attacked a cohort of the third legion encamped on the river Pagyda in southern Tunisia. The centurion commanding the Romans led his men out of the camp to face the rebels in the open. But Tacfrainas' forces quickly overwhelmed them. The Romans had fled so ignominiously that Lucius Apronius, the new Proconsul, ordered every tenth man of the cohort's survivors flogged to death in front of the entire legion. The lesson was a salutory one, for soon thereafter a detatchment of the third, barely 500 strong tracked down and wiped out Tacfarinas' elite pseudo-legion. The rebels were once again driven into the desert. But a campaign of widespread guerilla warfare soon broke out.
In 20, the situation was considered to have deteriorated to the point that a second legion, VIIII Hispana, was posted to Africa to help. It took four years of hard fighting, culminating in a rare winter campaign, before Proconsul Junius Blaesus so scattered and reduced Tacfarinas' forces that the war was deemed ended, and the ninth legion withdrawn. But, no sooner was it gone than Tacfarinas was back, besieging the town of Thubuscum. Publius Donabella, the next Proconsul, pursuing new tactics, and allied with the forces of King Ptolemaios of Numidia, cornered him and in a great battle at Auzea, Tacfarinas was killed. Throughout the Tacfarinas wars, Legio III Augusta was the principal Roman infantry force engaged.
In +40, the Emperor Caligula removed Legio III Augusta from the direct control of the Proconsul (the previous situation of the governor of a Senatorial Province being also military commander was an anomalous one). A Legatus Augusti of Praetorian rank was named to command the legion. This officer took effective control of Numidia (the western portion of the Province (which would be formally separated from it in 193) as well as all the frontiers of Proconsular Africa.
That same year, Caligula also took steps to secure the borders with Mauretania. The King of Mauretania, Ptolemaios (grandson of Antony and Cleopatra) seemed unable to control the unstable situation within his realm. He was invited to visit Rome, and some time during the journey he was siezed and executed, and the annexation of his kingdom announced. The people of Mauretania reacted predictably, and there began a three year war in which Legio III Augusta was once again the principal Roman strike force. Eventually, Emperor Claudius appointed Suetonius Paulinus as legate, and reinforced the third with vexillations from the Spanish legions. Opposition was finally crushed.
CLODIUS MACER & THE CIVIL WARS
Legio III Augusta was thrust into the field of Imperial politics in April 68, when Lucius Clodius Macer, the legion's legate renounced his allegiance to Nero. Macer appears not to have had a great deal of support outside his own province, but he was in the position, by seizing Sicily, to control the grain supply to the city of Rome -- a very serious threat. He raised a second legion locally, Legio I Macriana, and issued a series of coins paying tribute to both his legions (see photo above and "Third Legion Coinage" below). He gave Legio III Augusta the additional title of "Liberatrix".
Macer led his two legions eastward into the Proconsular Province, and siezed Carthage. It is not recorded that the third legion undertook any further military operations for Clodius Macer. In Spain, Legio VI Victrix acclaimed their legate, Sulpicius Galba, Emperor, and he prepared to march on Rome. Early in June Nero committed suicide, and the Senate named Galba (himself a former Proconsul of Africa) as his successor. He sent agents to Africa to treat with Clodius Macer, but the latter refused to accept the Senate's decision. On Galba's order Trebonius Garutianus, his newly-appointed procurator, executed (murdered?) Macer in October ending the immediate crisis.
But by January 69, Galba was dead, and the succession was in dispute between Vitellius and Otho. Another former governor of Africa, Vitellius was well remembered for his honesty. So, Legio III Augusta swore allegiance to him, and he also called back into service Legio I Macriana, which Galba had disbanded. After the defeat and death of Otho, Titus Flavius Vespasianus came forward to contest the throne. He, as well had served as governor of Africa, but "his term of office had earned him discredit and unpopularity. So the provincials argued that (the two men) would display the same qualities as Emperor." (TH.II.97) The new commander of Legio III Augusta, Caius Valerius Festus, however, was uncertain as to the wisest course. "In official correspondence and proclamations ... (he) sided with Vitellius, but maintained secret contact with Vespasian, intending to champion the winning side." (TH.II.98) When Vespasian triumphed in the Civil Wars, Valerius' temporizing proved wise indeed.
In 71, Valerius Festus also conducted a major campaign against the Garamantes of the Fezzan. That people had been ravaging the hinterland about Leptis Magna in Tripolitania (as they had from time to time for decades). Valerius captured their capital and forged an enduring peace.
In 86, the desert tribes, led by the Nasmondi, rebelled over Roman taxation. They killed the tax collectors, and defeated an Auxiliary cohort sent against them. Legio III Augusta's legate, Cnaeus Suellius Flaccus led the legion in a nine month campaign resulting in the complete annihilation of the rebels. Other serious uprisings occurred in Mauretania 118-22, and 144-52. In the latter instance, vexillations from no fewer than eight Rhine and Danube legions were sent to Africa to help.
Legio III Augusta also sent numerous detatchments to serve in other Provinces: Spain, and Germany, most commonly. In 65, a large task force arrived in Egypt to join preparations for Nero's planned Ethiopian campaign. But, the First Jewish War intervened, and the men of Legio III Augusta remained in Alexandria for another six years, taking the place of Legio III Cyrenaica (the city's garrison) while the latter campaigned in Judaea.
During Trajan's Parthian War of 106, the third legion had also contributed what must have been quite a large vexillation. And considerable losses were clearly sustained, for the legion was reinforced by a sizeable levy of local recruits. This is reflected by numerous grave markers in the necropolis at Lambaesis of veterans of Syrian birth. Lambaesis contains an exceptional number of surviving inscriptions, making some aspects of Legio III Augusta's conditions of service very well documented. We also have record of vexillations from this legion participating in Lucius Verus' Parthian campaign of 162, and in Caracalla's as well.
Most notably, during Marcus Aurelius' Marcomannic Wars (169-79), a sizeable task force from the third legion served on the Danube. There, the legion's long experience against the Moorish light cavalry was put to good use, and men were distributed to train the European legions in appropriate tactics.
The Emperor Hadrian was noted for his wide travels throughout the Empire, and in 128, he visited Lambaesis. A unique series of inscriptions, records an address he made to the third legion on July 1st (extract):
"... your commander (the legate Q. Fabius Catellianus) has himself told me on your behalf of numerous factors which would have excused you in my judgement, namely, that one cohort is absent which every year is sent in rotation to the office of the proconsul, that two years ago you contributed a cohort and four men from each century to supplement your colleagues in the third legion (III Gallica or III Cyrenaica), that many outposts in different locations keep you far apart, that in my own memory you have not only changed camps twice but built wholly new ones. For these reasons I would have excused you if the legion had been dilatory in its manoeuvers ... But you have not been dilatory in any respect at all. ... Of difficult manoeuvers you have completed the most difficult of all ... Furthermore, I commend your morale." (ILS 2487)
Geographically isolated as it was, Legio III Augusta had relatively little impact upon the various rebellions and contests for the throne during the late second century. But Its support was, of course, always sought. We have seen its part in the Clodius Macer usurpation. The legion had been commended by Vespasian for its adherence to the Flavian cause (and Valerius Festus was lavishly rewarded for his duplicity). Over a century later, Prescennius Niger made a bid for the third legion's support, but was firmly repudiated, for which Septimus Severus gave the legion the additional epithet "Loyal Avenger" (pia vindex).
It was Septimus Severus who in 193, set Numidia aside as a separate province, under the authority of the legate of Legio III Augusta -- henceforeward termed an "Augustan Legate with Propraetorian Power." The third legion, with a few auxiliary formations, was responsible for the internal security and defense of the entire North African frontier: Numidia, Proconsular Africa, and Tripolitania.
Himself a native of Leptis Magna in Tripolitania, Severus made special provisions for the improved security of the African provinces. He assembled detachments from several legions (notably those from the East who had most strongly supported Prescennius Niger, thus getting potential troublemakers out of the way), and began building a series of forts from Castellum Dimidi (Messad) in Numidia, to Bu Neja in Tripolitania. Located in most instances at the transition from the narrow coastal zone with the Sahara, these forts were built, inscriptions indicate, by vexillations of Legio III Augusta working jointly with men from other legions.
DISBANDED & RECONSTITUTED
In 238, Civil War again threatened the Empire, and this time Legio III Augusta was deeply involved. Provincial nobles in Africa, in what was essentially a taxpayer's revolt, proclaimed the elderly Governor of Africa, Marcus Antonius Gordianus as Emperor in opposition to the reigning Maximinus I Thrax. On learning of this, the Senate, angered at Maximinus' contempt for their authority and heavy taxation, likewise proclaimed Gordian I Emperor. He, in turn, named his son to reign jointly with him as Gordian II.
If the Gordians had expected the enthusiastic support of Africa's sole legion, they were quickly disabused. Capellianus, Governor of Numidia and a supporter of Maximinus marched eastward with the Auxiliary cohorts at his disposal. When he reached Lembaesis, Legio III Augusta joined him without hesitation. The younger Gordian marched out with what troops he had been able to raise, only to be soundly defeated. On hearing that his son lay dead on the field, Gordian I hanged himself in Carthage, after a reign of only 21 days.
It should have ended there, but back in Italy, Maximinus was murdered by some of his own officers. The Senate thereupon proclaimed Gordian I's thirteen year old grandson Emperor Gordian III. Among the first acts of the new Emperor was to order Legio III Augusta disbanded as punishment for supporting a "rebel." (Actually, the opposite was true -- but the winners write the history.) Officers were cashired, and the men transferred to other units. They lost all their legionary privileges, bonuses, and benefits due them upon discharge. It was a brutal punishment.
But continuing troubles on the frontier made it clear that local Auxiliary formations were insufficient to keep the peace. So, in 253, the Emperor Valerian ordered Legio III Augusta reconstituted. In a dedication to the god Mars, the chief centurion Sattonius Jucundus expresses his pride that "when the legion was reconstituted, (he) was the first to place his centurion's baton beside the eagle." (CIL 8. 2634)
In that year began a hard nine-year struggle with a confederation of desert and mountain tribes referred to as the "Quinquagentiani" (the Five Peoples), and several allied tribes. About the year 260, the commander of Legio III Augusta, Gaius Macrinus Decianus erected a monument in Lambiensis commemorating "the slaughter and rout of the Bavares and the capture of their notorious leader, a people who under the united rule of four kings had broken into the province of Numidia, first in the area of Millev, second on the borders of Mauretania and Numidia, and on a third occasion with the Quinquagentiani of Mauretania Caesariensis, and also the Fraxinenses, who were ravaging the province of Numidia." (CIL.8.2165)
In 289-97, there was more fighting against the Quinquagentiani and Fraxinenses. In order to bring this last war to a successful end, the Emperor Maximianus took the field in person. But, the part taken by Legio III Augusta appears not to have been recorded.
Nor do we have no certain knowledge of the legion's role in 305, when the Governor of Africa rebelled, and the Emperor Diocletian came in person to put it down. Both Carthage and Cirta were sacked and burned. The silence of the record is eloquent. In fact all mention of Legio III Augusta in any context ends about this time, if not earlier. It is safe to conclude that by the second decade of the fourth century, the African legion had ceased to exist.
Apparently the only coinage relating directly to this legion is that of he rebel Clodius Macer. Minted at Carthage between June and August, 68, they show a somewhat crude, but lively, almost "barbarous" style, shared with certain later denarii of Galba from the same mint. All are extremely scarce, only a handful of examples are known to exist. An example of [RIC. 7] was offered for sale in the summer of 2000, with an asking price of $28,000.
[RIC.4], AR denarius. obv. (bust of Africa, draped, wearing elephant's skin), L CLODI MACRI S C LIBERATRIX. rev. (eagle between standards), LEG III AVG LIB
[RIC.5], AR denarius. obv. as above (behind head, javelins). rev. as above
[RIC.6], AR denarius. obv. as RIC.5, L CLODI MACRI LIBERA S C. rev. as above
[RIC.7], AR denarius. obv. (lion's scalp, r.), L CLODI MACRI S C. rev. as above (see photo at top of page)
[RIC.8] AR denarius. obv. as above, L C MACRI S C. rev. as above
[RIC.9] AR denarius. obv. (bust of Victory, draped, r, with wings folded), L CLODI MACRI S C. rev. as above
[RIC.10] AR denarius. obv. as above (with wings open). rev. as above.
(Note: AR=silver / obv.=obverse / rev.=reverse / RIC="Roman Imperial Coinage", see 'Notes on Sources' below)
In general in these sketches, I have accepted the accounts of legionary origins put foreward by Keppie (The Making of the Roman Army, 1984/94). His conclusions are generally well reasoned, and unless strong contradictory evidence is present should be considered at least highly likely.
This sketch makes no pretence to original scholarship, it is assembled from a wide range of mostly secondary sources, some of them ancient, most modern. I have generally referenced in the text only those sources directly quoted (all of them ancient).
AE: Annales Epigraphique (Paris 1893-present)
CIL: Corpus Inscriptionem Latinarum (Berlin 1863-present)
ILS: Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae, H. Dessau (ed), (Berlin 1892-1916)
(The last three are the principal series of publications of Latin inscriptions. Many transcriptions are available online at Epigraphische Datenbank Heidelberg: http://www.uni-heidelberg.de/institute/fak8/sag/edh/indexe.html, or from Seminar für Alte Geschichte: http://www.rz.uni-frankfurt.de/~clauss/)
(Several of the quoted inscriptions appear in Brian Campbell's _The Roman Army, 31 BC to AD 337: a sourcebook_ [New York, 1996])
TA: Tacitus' Annals
TH: Tacitus' History
RIC: Roman Imperial Coinage (var. authors, 10 vols., 1927-93) vol 1 -------------------------
Hewitt, K. V., "The coinage of L. Clodius Macer (AD 68)." Num. Chron. Vol. 143 (1983), pp. 64-80, pls. 10-13
Kunisz, Andrzej, "L'Insurrection de Clodius Macer en Afrique du Nord en 68 de notre ère," Wroclaw/Warszawa 1992
le Bohec. Yann, "La Légion troisième Auguste" (Paris, 1992) [Based largely on the Lambaesis inscriptions, this is by far the most complete study ever made of any Roman legion. I must confess that I have not yet been able to obtain a copy, and the above sketch is composed without benefit of its contents.]
Mildenberg, Leo., "Rebel coinage in the Roman Empire. Greece and Rome," in Eretz Israel Jerusalem, 1990 p. 62-74