by John J. Hartwell


Cognomen: FULMINATA: equipped with a thunderbolt. PATERNA: after Caesar as Pater Patriae. ANTIQUA: Ancient, refering to an early Caesarian origin, VICTRIX: Victorious. VENUSIA: from Venus, Caesar's protector.

Additional nomenclature: Given title "Firma Constans" by Marcus Aurelius for rejecting the rebellion of Avidius Cassius (175). Allowed the epither "Gallieniana" for some unspecified service to the Emperor Gallienus.



This was Caesar's 12th legion, raised in -58 for the campaign against the Helvetii. It served throughout the wars in Gaul (-58 to -49), Italy (-49), and at Pharsalus (-48) Disbanded -46/5, colonists were settled at Parma. Reformed -44/3, probably by Lepidus. Passed to Antony (-41 to -31). Present at Actium, it appears on Antony's coinage as LEG XII ANTIQUA. Colonists were settled at Patrai, Greece, alongside men of Legio X Equestris, perhaps by Antony, more likely by Octavian soon after Actium. (See "Notes on Sources" below).

The legion's whereabouts during most of Augustus' reign is unclear. The 12th was very possibly the unnamed third legion (with III Cyrenaica and XXII Deiotariana) stationed in Egypt. That unnamed legion disappears from Egypt at just about the same time that Legio XII Fulminata is first found in Syria. By early in the reign of Tiberius, the 12th legion was based at Raphanae.

In +55, when the other Syrian legions were transferred to Cappadocia, the 12th remained in Syria, joined there by Legio X Fretensis.


Corbulo's early successes in Armenia had permitted Rome to place a friendly puppet ruler, Tigranes, on the throne of that country. But Tigranes had been unable to sustain himself, being replaced by a Parthian appointee. So, Legio XII Fulminata and Legio IV Scythica were sent to his aid in +59. At the time, the 12th'scommander was Cala... Sabinus.

Lucius Caesennius Paetus, governor of Cappadocia, conducted a disastrous campaign. At first the legions swept everything before them. But Paetus wasted time "overrunning in tedious manner districts which could not be held" (TA xv, all quotes in the following paragraphs are from this book). He neglected to secure sufficient sources of supply, relying on those captured from the enemy, much of which spoiled, due to inefficient distribution. As winter approached, Paetus put his legions into camp at Rhandaeia, and wrote a letter to Nero "as if the war was finished, in pompous language but barren of facts." Paetus was so over confident that he neglected to bring up his third legion (V Macedonica, in Pontus). He also seriously weakened the 12th and fifth "by indiscriminate furloughs."

By the time it was known that Vologases of Parthia was approaching with a huge army, Paetus' force was much reduced. Against better counsel, he led his understrength legions out to do battle in the open. "Then, after losing a centurion and a few soldiers he had sent in advance to reconnoiter the enemy's forces" he seems to have panicked, and ordered a hasty retreat to the camp. There he dispersed his already insufficient force in a series of outposts and detachments. The romans skirmished desultorilly, while Vologases attacked the scattered outposts in detail. Many men fought bravely against impossible odds, but the best and most courageous were the first to fall. Under such incompetent leadership and seriously short on supplies, the legions' morale shattered. Paetus pleaded with Corbulo, in Syria, to "come with all speed and save the standards and Eagles." But Corbulo moved slowly, wanting to make sure his rival, Paetus, was sufficiently discredited before he came to the rescue.

Vologases assaulted the camp vigorously, "seeking to bring them to an engagement. But the men could hardly be dragged out of their tents, and would merely defend their lives, some held back by the general's order, others by their own cowardice." Paetus, meanwhile, entered feeble negotiations with the Parthian king. He finally agreed to leave Armenia, and swore before the Eagles that Romans would never return.

The legions' humiliation was complete. Even before they withdrew, the Parthians entered the camp unopposed. They took clothes, weapons, anything that took their fancy. "The soldiers were utterly cowed and gave up everything so as not to provoke a fight." Vologases made great piles of the bodies of the slain Romans and of the arms his army had captured, as testimony to his victory. Then he turned his back, and would not look upon the shattered men of the 12th and 4th legions as they slunk away. And they left quickly, 40 miles in a single day, Tacitus tells us, leaving their wounded behind to the mercies of the enemy.

Corbulo, at last advancing to the rescue, came upon the refugees on the banks of the Euphrates. He ordered the eagles of his legions covered, so as not to witness the shame of the defeated. "His men, in true grief and pity for the lot of their comrades, could not even refrain from tears... pity alone survived, the more strongly in the inferior ranks." Later, when Corbulo led his legions back to Armenia to take revenge upon Vologases, neither Legio XII Fulminata nor Legio IV Scythica would accompany them. He judged that "from the loss of their bravest men and the panic of the remainder, (they) seemed quite unfit for battle." Both legions were sent back to Syria, in disgrace.

This horrendous experience, however, was only the begining of the 12th legion's misfortunes.

In September of 66, the inhabitants of Jerusalem revolted, driving out the corrupt Procurator, Gessius Florus. Hoping to quickly crush the uprising, Cestius Gallus, the newly appointed governor of Syria, assembled a force of some 30,000 men. The heart of the army was Legio XII Fulminata, together with vexillations from Legio IV Scythica and Legio VI Ferrata, plus auxiliaries and allies. They marched from Ptolemaios about mid-October, taking several cities and towns en route: notably Chabulon, which they burned, and Joppa, where over 8,400 citizens were massacred. While the rest of the army waited in Caesarea, the twelfth legion (commanded by Caesennius Gallus, the governor's son) formed an expedition together with Herod Antipas' Judaean auxilaries, which advanced to Sepphoris, receiving a friendly welcome there. The rebels who had quitted the city fled to the mountains. The Twelfth hunted them down, killing over two thousand.

After Legio XII rejoined the army at Caesarea, the Romans continued on towards Jerusalem. After crushing a Jewish force at Aphek (Majdal Yaba), the army passed through Beth-Horon Pass. They encamped at Gabaon (the Biblical Gibeon) on Nov. 7.

While Cestius Gallus gathered supplies from the surrounding countryside, and Herod Agrippa tried to open communications with friendly factions within Jerusalem, the rebels took the initiative. On Nov. 10th, they staged a surprise attack on the insufficiently fortified camp, killing more than 500 Romans with negligible loss to themselves. Gallus immediately withdrew his army to Beth-Horon, hesitating there another three days.

By the 14th, he had learned that Agrippa's agents had been murdered, and the rebels had slaughtered the leaders of the Pro-Roman factions. Finally stung into action, Cestius Gallus ordered an attack. The Romans marched to Jerusalem, setting up camp just outside the Upper City, in the vicinity of the Royal Palace. For five days, they assaulted the walls. By the end of that time they had set fire to the Temple Gate, and deeply undermined a section of wall, which was on the verge of collapsing. Then, on Nov. 23, Cestius ordered a withdrawl, according to Josephus, "without any reason in the world" (he credited the will of god). But more likely it was the Romans' inability to force a decisive engagement, the insufficiency of their siege train, and, possibly, Cestius' uncertainty as to the reliability of his troops.

The withdrawl was a fiasco. Instead of following standard marching order, for some reason Cestius Gallus had the main body of troops take the lead, leaving the baggage and supply train to bring up the rear, with a very inadequate rear guard. Already heartened by seeing the Romans in retreat, the Jews swarmed out of Jerusalem and fell upon the rear and flanks of the long column. The guards were quickly overwhelmed, and all the baggage and the siege train (including the legions' artillery) was captured.

The now thoroughly demoralized Romans Fled into the Pass of Beth-Horon. There, where Judah Maccabee had crushed the Syrian invaders almost 200 years before, Legio XII Fulminata, and the rest of the Roman army, were trapped and cut to pieces (Nov.25). Huddled together, defending themselves as best they might, only one chance for escape offered itself. In the dead of night, the great Roman war machine ran away, leaving behind almost all their gear so as not to slow them down. They also left behind four hundred brave men, who kept campfires burning, and feigned activity to hide their comrades' flight. In the morning, when the enemy discovered the deception, they attacked, making short work of the covering force. But, by that time, the remnants of Cestius Gallus' army was well away on the road to Antipatris and safety. Within days, Cestius was dead -- of shame or suicide, the sources differ.

Almost six thousand Romans and allies perished in the horror of Beth-Horon. And, in the course of the running fight Legio XII Fulminata not only abandonned all its baggage, its artillery, and what was left of its good name to the enemy, but suffered the consumate dishonor any legion could endure. The Aquilia -- the Eagle -- the symbolic heart and soul of the twelfth legion, had been paraded back to Jerusalem by the triumphant enemy.

The loss of an Eagle to the enemy was the ultimate disgrace that could befall a legion. The "standard practice" (insofar as there was one) appears to have been the disbanding of the legion; the officers cashiered and the men absorbed into other formations with loss of their privileges and seniority. That is what happened to the four legions that had lost their aquiliae in the Civilis Revolt in 70. But, in the face of the rapidly spreading Jewish Revolt, it must have been judged inadvisable to destroy even the battered remnant of a twice-dishonored legion. So, the 12th survived.

In 70, the Legio XII Fulminata had the chance for revenge when it joined the army brought by Titus for the siege of Jerusalem. There, by all accounts they did good service, assaulting the Joppa Gate in conjunction with Legio IV Scythica (their frequent partner in misfortune). The siege lasted some 139 days of hard fighting, the 12th sometimes facing heavy opposition from the very same artillery they had abandonned to the enemy four years before. But, according to Josephus, Titus apparently was not impressed with their efforts. Having "remembered that the 12th had given way to the Jews, under Cestius, their general, he expelled them out of all Syria, for they had lain formerly at Raphanea, and sent them away to a place called Melitene near Euphrates, which is in the limits of Armenia and Cappadocia."(JW vii.1.3)

But at least some members of the legion distinguished themselves during the siege. An inscription on a tomb found at Baalbek, Syria, records the long and distinguished career of Gaius Velius Rufus. He was to hold many exhalted posts, ultimately rising to become Procurator of Pannonia and Dacia under Domitian. But in 70, he was "First Centurion of the XII Legion Fulminata ... decorated by the Emperor Vespasian and the Emperor Titus with the rampart-storming crown, collars, breastplates and armlets, likewise decorated with the mural crown, two parade spears and two vexilliae." These were only the first of many decorations recieved in several campaigns during later service with other legions. (ILS 9200)


Legio XII Fulminata was, indeed, transfered to Cappadocia, joining Legio XVI Flavia firma (which was later replaced by XV Appolinaris). But Cappadocia was an Imperial Province of the first rank, under control of a Consular Legate. And Melitene (now Eski Malatya, Turkey) was no backwater "punnishment post" where the incompetent might be able to do little harm. It guarded an important crossing point on the Euphrates. on the crucial frontier with Armenia, which the Parthians considered to be within their particular sphere. Legio XII Fulminata would spend most of the rest of its history at Melitene, still appearing there at the time of the Notitia Dignitatum, over 300 years later. We have scant further specific record of the doings of the twelfth legion in that often dangerous borderland, but a great deal of history surged back and forth about Melitene, and the legion's part must have been a significant one.

Just when and how the twelfth legion regained its Eagle we don't know. Perhaps it was recaptured at Jerusalem or later. Perhaps a new one was eventually issued. But, by 136, it was certainly returned. For in that year Arrian, Governor of Cappadocia, recorded his orders of march and of battle to be followed in the face of an expected attack by the Alans. He lists a detatchment of Legio XII Fulminata marching "behind their Eagle" in both orders.(Ectaxis contra Alanos).

Vexillations from the twelfth also saw service in many other parts of the Empire. Even as the main body of the legion was encamped before Jerusalem in 70, a detachment was in Italy. It was part of the army composed of vexillations from all the Eastern legions, brought by Mucianus to press Vespasian's claim to the throne.

A unique inscription of Flavian date recording a dedication by "Lucius Iulius Maximus Centurio Legionis XII Fulminatae" has been found on the shores of the Caspian Sea, some 70km south of Batum, Azerbaijan (AE 1951.0263). The locale is well beyond the limits of Roman control. The inscription was doubtless left by troops sent by Domitian in 75 to help the hard pressed client kingdoms of Caucasian Iberia and Albania. We also find inscriptions recording service by men of the twelfth as marines with the Classis Pontica (Black Sea fleet, based at Trapezus).

The legion also participated in Trajan's Parthian War (his 113 campaign into Armenia was launched from Melitene). A vexillation served in Judaea during the great revolt of 132. Also in the 163 reconquest of Armenia by Statius Priscus. By this time it was the practice for a legion to remain in garrison at its base, with detachments (sometimes as much as half it's strength) assigned to form the field armies on campaign. In Avidius Cassius' campaign of 166, the detachment of Legio XII was combined with one from Legio X Fretensis to form an ad hoc legionary unit. Such temporary formations might serve together for many years before the separate vexillations would return to their home bases.

Vexillations more doubtfully might have served in the Balkans in Marcus Aurelius' Marcomannic Wars (169-78). Regarding this, some sources record a curious anecdote. It seems that the Qadi at one point cut off and trapped part of a legion in a rocky defile, waterless and exposed to a burnimg sun. Unable to break out, and almost expiring from heat and thirst, the legion was suddenly saved by a huge lightening bolt out of the clear sky, which caused panic among the barbarians. And the accompanying downpour revived the legionaries, who counter attacked, driving the enemy before them. The earliest, pagan sources do not specifically name the legion involved, but do record such an incident. It is pictured on the column of Marcus Aurelius in Rome, and one of his coins. Dio Cassius (LXXXI, 8-10) credits the incantations of an Egypian mystic accompanying the army with the miracle, while the coin and column illustrations appear to give Jupiter or Mercury the credit. It is Christian writers, the earliest of which we have is Tertullian (Apologeticum, V) who identify the legion as XII "Fulminatrix", and naturally credit the "miracle" to the prayers of Christian soldiers of the twelfth. They also state that it was for this incident that the legion was given the cognomen "Thunderstruck", and that the Emperor was inspired by the 'miracle' to declare tolerance of Christians. But the legion's cognomen had been in use since Augustus' Principate, and Marcus' persecution of the Christians actually intensified about this time. Most probably the story is entirely apocryphal insofar as the 12th legion's involvement is concerned. The latest Parthian War had just recently ended, and the Eastern frontier was by no means entirely secure. It would seem unlikely that the Mytelene legion would have been so weakened at such a time. There is no other mention of the 12th, or any other Eastern legion on the Danube during this period.

For rejecting the rebellion of C. Avidius Cassius in 175, Legio XII Fulminata was given the additional epithet "Firma Constans" by Marcus Aurelius.

In 193, the twelfth once again became embroiled in civil war (this time on the loosing side). Along with most of the Eastern legions, Legio XII Fulminata supported Prescennius Niger's claim to the throne over that of Septimus Severus. Men of the legion were part of the army led by Niger's Proconsul of Syria Asellius Aemilianus, which was defeated at the Battle of Candeto (near Cyzicus) in December 193. Early the next year the twelfth shared in Niger's final defeat at Issus.

The Miletene area was, an early Christian stronghold, and the martyrologies make occasional reference to Legio XII Fulminata. During Valerian's persecution of 259, a Centurion of the legion was put to death, becoming St. Polyeuctus. His offence involved attacking a pagan procession and smashing the idols. 62 years later, when Licinius began a major persecution, 40 men from a detatchment of the twelfth stationed at Sebaste (Sivas), refused to participate in the surpression of the sect. The men were exposed, naked, on the ice of the frozen lake, and all died, refusing to recant. They are still revered in the Orthodox and Catholic churches as "The Forty Martyrs of Sebaste."

Composed sometime around the year 400, the Notitia Dignitatum (oriens, xxxviii.14) lists, under the overall control of the Dux Armeniae, "Praefectus legionis duodecemae Fulminatae, Miletena." After which time we hear no more of "the Thundering Legion."

Notes on Sources

In general in these sketches, I have accepted the accounts of legionary origins put forward by Lawrence 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.



TA: Tacitus' Annals / TH: Tacitus' History / JW: Josephus' Jewish War.

CIL: Corpus Inscriptionem Latinarum (Berlin 1864-)

AE: Annales Epigraphiques (Paris, 1894-)

ILS: Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae (ed. Dessau, Berlin 189-1916)

(Note: These last three are the leading series of Latin inscriptions. Many 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/ )


Paetus' Armenian campaign: Tacitus' Annals, Boox xv, is the main primary source. All quotes in this section are from this source.

Gallus' Jerusalem expedition: Josephus' Jewish War. The best modern analysis is Mordechai Gichon, "Cestius Gallus' Campaign in Judaea" (Palestine Exploration Quarterly, 113, 1980).

Siege of Jerusalem: Josephus' Jewish War

Arrian's Ektaxis can be found online in the original, in translation, and with commentary at: http://www.members.tripod.com/~S_van_Dorst/Ancient_Warfare/Rome/Sources/ektaxis...

"Rain Miracle" Perhaps the best modern accounts are Garth Fowden, "Pagan Versions of the Rain Miracle of AD 172", and Michael Sage, "Eusebius and the Rain Miracle," both in _Historia: Zeitschrift fur Alte Geschichte_, 36 (1986).