In late 378 AD, the Eastern Roman Empire was in pieces. Emperor Valens lay dead on the plains of Adrianople, surrounded by the corpses of his best generals and legions. Victorious, the Goths of Fritigern roamed all over the land of Thracia (modern day European Turkey and Bulgaria) like conquerors, and with no emperor or army to curtail or contest them, it must have felt like the end of the world to the Roman people – holed up in the few high-walled cities capable of resisting the Goths.
The stages of the Gothic War (left-right): revolt, pillage and then victory. And that’s where Legionary: Empire of Shades begins – in a fallen land.
Thanks to Osprey Publishing for this excellent artwork.
Theodosius I was the man chosen to tackle this sorry state of affairs. A Spaniard who had proven himself in recent military engagements in Pannonia, he was offered the Eastern throne by his Western counterpart, Emperor Gratian. Gratian’s thinking and the conversations held between the two men must have been quite a thing to eavesdrop upon – for Gratian had only a few years previously ordered the brutal beheading of Theodosius’ father, viewed as a rival. Regardless, Theodosius accepted the offer. Did he fear Gratian? Did he perhaps see the ‘gift’ of the Eastern Empire as a way to prove his loyalty to his father’s killer and guarantee his own safety? Or might Theodosius even have had a hand in his father’s death? We will never know (although I do indulge in a bit of speculation in ‘Empire of Shades’).
After accepting the Eastern purple, Theodosius made his headquarters at Thessalonica. The city, capital of the Diocese of Macedonia, was well-positioned: on the eastern coast of modern-day Greece, far south enough from troubled Thracia so as to distance himself from immediate threat, but close enough to plot a reconquest. There he set about reviving the shattered Eastern Army. Firstly, he erected a great turf wall around the city – partly to bolster its defences but also to enclose an area that could serve as a military campus within which he could rejuvenate the ruined Eastern Army. And that was Theodosius’ next step – to summon to Thessalonica the remaining fragments of the legions shattered at the Battle of Adrianople, who were by now hiding in the hills and woods on the periphery of Thracia.
Left: The Roman city of Thessalonica and its famous Galerius Rotunda. Right: The lay of the land following the Adrianople disaster.
But as these army ‘fragments’ congregated at Thessalonica, it would have quickly become apparent to Theodosius just how few had survived the disaster, and it seems he acted upon this stark truth quickly. Starting in 379 AD, he issued a series of decrees to allow the depleted ranks to be filled and for obliterated legions to be reformed. Retired veterans were obliged to return to duty, as were their sons – attempts at bribery to escape service would now be dealt with severely. Indeed, noblemen were required to supply their slaves to the army, and refusal would result in said noblemen being burnt at the stake! Even peasants, beggars and deserters were swept up in an effort to plug the manpower shortage.
Starting at the same time as this mass-recruitment, and continuing over the next few years, Theodosius raised five new generals, or ‘Magistri Militum’ to command these raw troops. With fresh recruits and new leaders, Theodosius now needed a victory to cement their loyalty and his place on the throne. One of his first retaliatory strikes against the Goths occupying Thracia was carried out by a small Roman expeditionary force: under cover of darkness, they outmanoeuvred and fell upon a drunken, sleeping warband (thought to have been four or five-thousand-strong), descending upon them from a hillside to claim a decisive victory.
News of the triumph was very much welcomed in Thessalonica, but Emperor Theodosius knew it was merely a warband that had been defeated, barely denting the horde. And still, the legions were too few and too thin to consider action against Fritigern’s main force. Thus, in search of yet more manpower, Theodosius was forced to turn his eye towards the north, into the wilds of ‘Barbaricum’ (everything north of the River Danube).
Theodosius was forced to look to the most unexpected of places for fresh recruits… the lands of Barbaricum! (left: the Carpathian Mountains, right: the woods and hills nearby)
Bringing more Goths into the empire – as allies to fight against their marauding kinsmen – was a risky strategy but a wholly necessary one. Indeed, it had been policy in past (albeit far-more stable) years. It is here that the heroes of the XI Claudia Legion come to the fore in ‘Empire of Shades’. Tasked with trekking into Barbaricum and escorting dubious allies back into the war-torn empire, they then face the prospect of once again standing up against Fritigern’s horde. Weaker, fewer, and with recent defeats branded on each legionary’s mind, the soldiers of the empire must learn to believe once more, to stand together, and to rekindle the dying light of the East….
Gordon’s website: www.gordondoherty.co.uk