Best military leaders from late antiquity?

Oct 2018
Oh yeah, I'll definitely second Gaiseric. It amazes me that in 406, when Gaiseric was a child crossing the Rhine, the Hasding Vandals were nothing more than a minor group travelling alongside the Sueves, Siling Vandals and the domineering Alans, who appear to have been numerically the largest of the peoples crossing into Gaul. Meanwhile, the Roman Empire in the west was still pretty strong, Alaric had yet to sack Rome and Rome had not yet settled the Visigoths in Aquitaine. By the time Gaiseric died in 477, the empire in the west had devolved into successor kingdoms, the Hasding Vandals controlled a large kingdom in Africa, Sicily, Sardinia and the Balearics, they had a powerful fleet, they had secured the Eternal Peace with the Eastern Empire, they had sacked Rome, they had kidnapped Roman royalty, they had married into the Theodosian dynasty, they had defeated multiple Roman attempts from east and west to overthrow them in Spain and Africa, most notably the armada of 468 (the very last joint-East-West military effort before the East effectively gave up on the Western regime), and their kingdom was set to become a centre of cultural activity, with a Renaissance in classical philosophy, rhetoric and poetry soon to occur under the patronage of Gaiseric's successors. What a life.
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Oct 2018
As for Aurelian, here is why I rate him so highly (apologies to those who have read this spiel before). Aurelian was a career soldier-turned-emperor who reigned for a mere five years (270-275), and he appears to have been quite extraordinary. After playing the decisive role as general of the cavalry during Claudius II's war against the Goths (269-270), and possibly also as a cavalry general in prior campaigns against the Alemanni and (under Gallienus) the Heruli (267-269), he proceeded to lead an incredible number of successful campaigns during a very short reign, defending and reuniting a fractured empire. Note the following achievements:

1. Defeated his rival Quintillus (270).
2. Defeated a Vandal incursion into Pannonia (270/1).
3. Defeated a major Iuthungian invasion of Italy with two major victories (271) - this followed two earlier Alemannic/Iuthungian invasions of Italy (during the 260s) - Aurelian's defeat over this third invasion ended Germanic aggression against Italy until Alaric and Radagaisus in the 400s.
4. Put down a rebellion in Rome (271).
5. Defeated the usurpers Domitianus in Narbonese Gaul and Septimius in Dalmatia (271) - admittedly, these two may have been defeated by loyal subordinates rather than Aurelian himself.
6. In a major victory, he expelled Goths from the Balkans and launched a punitive expedition across the Danube against their homeland, killing the Gothic leader Cannabas (272) - The Goths would not raid the Balkans in serious numbers again until the 320s.
7. Defeated the Palmyrene Empire of Zenobia, with major victories won at Tyana, Immae, Daphne, Emesa and Palmyra (272)
8. Defeated a Persian relief force during his siege of Palmyra (so the sources suggest).
9. Defeated the Carpi (273)
10. Defeated a second Palmyrene rebellion, with one detachment or loyal army putting down a related rebellion in Egypt (273)
11. Defeated the Gallic Empire of Tetricus (274) - supposedly Tetricus betrayed his own army to Aurelian, recognizing that he had little chance against Aurelian and not trusting in the loyalty of his own soldiers - the reunification of the empire was thus completed.
12. Dealt with unrest in Gaul (275)
13. Defeated a Germanic incursion into Raetia (275)
14. Marched his army towards Persia, intending to avenge the defeats that Rome suffered in the previous decades (275)

Against Zenobia, Aurelian toppled Zenobia's regime within the space of a few months in 272, during the height of the Third-Century Crisis. Despite potential criticism, he first withdrew Rome's military and administrative presence from trans-Danubian Dacia, thereby rationalizing the long and undermanned Danubian frontier from which he collected troops, His campaign against Zenobia then involved a large-scale pincer movement. Aurelian marched through Asia Minor and invaded northern Syria, while the future-emperor Probus landed by sea in Egypt, retook the province and marched through Palestine and Phoenicia to southern Syria. Andrade plausibly conjectures that the legion in Arabia was also persuaded to establish a third front.

He was also a keen tactician. He served as a cavalry commander under Gallienus and then Claudius Gothicus, and played the decisive role in Claudius' war against the Goths. He won the first victory over the Goths with his cavalry alone, rushing to the scene of conflict before the arrival of Claudius. Claudius then defeated the Goths in the Battle of Naissus, but Zosimus says that the Romans won by drawing the Goths into an ambush through a pretended flight (1.43.2), which suggests a prominent role for Aurelian's cavalry and appears similar to Aurelian's tactics against Palmyra (see below). Claudius then trapped the Goths in the Haemus Mountains, and the Goths made an attempt at breaking free. Claudius sent in the infantry to stop the breakout without providing cavalry support. The Goths butchered much of the infantry, and were only saved when Aurelian and his cavalry rushed in to help. For the rest of the campaign Aurelian's cavalry harassed the Goths incessantly, diminishing their numbers, slaughtering stragglers and breaking up the Gothic army into smaller, manageable groups.

Against Zenobia, at the Battle of Immae he wore down her cataphracts with false retreats using Moorish and Dalmatian cavalry, before slaughtering them when they were sufficiently exhausted. He attempted the same tactic on one of the flanks at the Battle of Emesa, but it started to go awry since Zenobia's heavy cavalry pressed down particularly hard on Aurelian's light cavalry. Nevertheless, the cataphracts lost order in their charge, and Aurelian's legionaries wheeled about to the flank and turned the tides, massacring the cataphracts. Against the cataphracts in this battle, Aurelian also made strong use of Palestinians wielding clubs and staves, who had defected to Aurelian after the Battle of Immae. Constantius II would repeat this use of bludgeoning weapons against the Persian cataphracts at Singara in 343.

Aurelian did perhaps suffer a defeat to the Iuthungi near Placentia in 271, when the Iuthungi made a surprise attack. The Historia Augusta claims that Aurelian suffered this defeat during the Iuthungian invasion of Italy, before going on to defeat them once at the Metaurus and again (and most decisively) at the Altar of Fortuna. On the other hand, the Epitome de Caesaribus claims that he won all three battles. The Historia Augusta is notoriously unreliable and laden with blatant fiction, and Udo Hartmann, for instance, has argued that we should therefore accept the Epitome de Caesaribus, in which case Aurelian may have defeated two or three different barbarian bands at three different locations. Then again, the Historia Augusta has no clear reason to invent such a narrative, and the Epitome's account is only a brief notice, which may therefore be careless or mistaken in its content. If Aurelian did suffer a defeat, he would of course not be the only great commander to suffer a defeat, and he in any case managed to recover quickly enough to convincingly defeat the invasion soon afterwards.

Interestingly, despite a reputation for cruelty (largely on account of his having executed senators accused of involvement in the rebellion of 271), Aurelian made repeated use of clemency to achieve his reunification of the empire. He gave both the Vandal (270) and Iuthungi (271) invaders the possibility of handing over their loot and prisoners and leaving imperial territory before he fought them in battle. His quashing of the rebellion in 271 was followed by the institution of improved food rations in Rome, including a pork dole, and the building of the Aurelian Wall. During his 272 campaign against the Palmyrene regime he made a sustained show of clemency in relation to both ordinary civilians and high-ranking supporters, a practice that helped Zenobia to hemorrhage units, cities and supporters. Indeed, he took the time between the victories at Immae and Emesa to receive the defections of units from Mesopotamia, Syria, Phoenicia and Palestine. After Emesa, Aurelian marched against Palmyra itself, assisted by the Tanukh Confederation, and his units captured Zenobia as she attempted to cross the Euphrates in her flight to Persia. He spared the life of Zenobia, marrying her to a senator and resettling her in Italy. His reputation for clemency thus appears to have preceded him when in 274 he marched against the Romano-Gallic regime, accepting the defection of their emperor Tetricus, who in turn became the Regulator of Lucania.

Aurelian was assassinated in Thrace en route to Persia because of a conspiracy involving some of his secretaries and officers. Nevertheless, it is telling that the assassins fled to Asia Minor, and that the army did not organize a replacement, but deferred to the senate to appoint their next emperor. This was completely at odds with practice at the time. It shows that the army was blindsided by Aurelian's death and had not been anticipating his replacement in any meaningful way. This seems telling, considering that between 235 and 285 numerous emperors were appointed and replaced by the army. The imperial field army was loyal to Aurelian despite the third-century zeitgeist, and his successors Tacitus and then Probus made sure to hunt down Aurelian's assassins.
Dec 2019
Fryslân, Netherlands
Fair enough re. Belisarius. You evidently place a lot of value on military leaders who played a strong defensive game, specifically Constantius II vis-a-vis the Persians and Diocletian in general. It's refreshing to see, because I find the defensive element is sometimes underrated on this forum. Incidentally, which campaign does this refer to: "In the west he tried to use an ambitious encirclement but like Napoleon trying to set strategy for the Peninsular War Constantius was too far away."

Diocletian was indeed a great military organizer. I was thinking more in terms of active campaigning, but certainly as a military organizer Diocletian's inclusion makes sense. He enacted various important military measures, including the establishment of the comitatenses (so David Potter argues), the strengthening of existing fortifications in the frontier zones, the building of more fortifications to create increasingly densely fortified frontier zones, the establishment of garrisons at important locations in the rear of the frontier zones, the building of forts beyond the frontiers for offensive campaigns, the building of the Strata Diocletiana, the foundation of more legions than any emperor since Augustus, and the increased use of vexillations as permanently separated units.

As for whether he ever suffered a defeat, the one known possibility is the Battle of the Margus in 285. When the armies of Carinus and Diocletian faced one another, Carinus' army appears to have gained the upper hand. Sources vary, but either Carinus had already won the battle or was in the process of winning the battle when he was struck down by one of his tribunes. The hostile sources, influenced by Diocletianic propaganda, claim that Carinus was killed because he had defiled the wives of his officers. Perhaps this is true, but it is a literary trope often applied by Romans to rulers whom posterity has decided were tyrants. In any case, the tribune that slew Carinus was not necessarily the only person involved in the conspiracy. Aristobulus appears to have betrayed his emperor. After Diocletian won the civil war, he allowed Aristobulus to retain the offices of praetorian prefect and consul. To allow Aristobulus to retain an office as powerful as the praetorian prefecture is telling. Aurelius Victor reports that this was because of the services (officia) that he had rendered (Liber de Caesaribus 39.14). The future emperor Constantius I, as the governor of nearby Dalmatia, probably also made a timely switch in loyalty during this campaign, considering his future political career. Indeed, Constantius eventually named a son of his Dalmatius, seemingly in honour of the appointment he held around the time of this civil war. That political intrigue played such a prominent role in this victory speaks to Diocletian's political acumen.
When Barbario and Julian were supposed to move against the tribes together Constantius II planned a large double pincerlike movement.
Oct 2018
And now for my spiel on Galerius (again, apologies to those who have already read this):

Galerius receives little positive attention, in part due to the lack of known details about his campaigns, and in part because Christian sources derided him for his persecution of the Christians. Nevertheless, he strikes me as being the strongest military commander among the Tetrarchs. Like Aurelian and the other Tetrarchs he worked his way up through the ranks from humble beginnings - a non-senatorial career soldier. He became a successful general, at some point in time became Diocletian's son-in-law, and is reported as campaigning on the Danube in c. 290. In 293 he then became Caesar and, in terms of active campaigning, proceeded to play perhaps the greatest role in ending the Third Century Crisis on the frontiers.

He performed the most campaigning among the Tetrarchs, and Diocletian assigned him the war against Narseh of Persia (c. 296-298), the most important campaign of the period. His victory over Narseh was the most decisive victory over the Sassanid Persians won by a Roman until the late sixth century. His victory over the Persians chastized them for decades, and his gains became a source of great upset on the part of the Persians. What's more, we're talking about the Sassanid Persians, who had spent the mid-third century brutalizing the Roman east, Rome's armies and the empire's sense of pride. We're talking about one emperor killed, another captured, Antioch twice sacked, three armies destroyed, fortresses destroyed, a humiliating treaty, Palmyra taking matters into its own hands, etc. Famously, in the contested kingdom of Armenia Major, Galerius performed a surprise attack on the Shahanshah Narseh's camp, seizing much wealth and taking many important captives, including Narseh's wives, daughters and sisters. Supposedly he had personally scouted the enemy camp. Narseh fled into his own territories, and Galerius counter-attacked. He invaded Adiabene, Atropatene and Persian Mesopotamia before travelling back to the west and retaking Nisibis. The Persians sued for peace, and were forced to give up Armenia and seven trans-Tigritanian territories. The Persians would not regain these territories until the war of 359-363.

Galerius' victory was a bright and beautiful moment for the Romans. Yes, Carus beforehand had sacked Ctesiphon when the Persians were distracted with internal rebellions and a dynastic civil war, but Carus did not win any major battle in the field, and he died soon after the sacking, necessitating the army's withdrawal. It was not nearly as satisfying as what Galerius accomplished. Narseh wanted and was ready for war when he took on Galerius. He had mustered a very large army, invaded, and yet proceeded to lose his army and his camp to Galerius. Galerius' capture of his wives, sisters and daughers became the Roman equivalent of Shapur's capture of Valerian, and Galerius' counter-invasion into Adiabene, Atropatene and Persian Mesopotamia sent the Persian king into a lengthy flight. His victory thus showed the Romans and the Persians that the former were back on track; they were indeed the martial superiors of the Persians. And yet the Sassanids were tough. They fought with more determination and aggression than the Parthians did. They defeated more Roman armies and took more Roman cities and fortresses than the Parthians did. They used horse-archers, elite cataphracts and war elephants.

From 293 to 295 Galerius also fought two campaigns against the Nobates, Blemmyes and rebels in the Thebaid, and thereby restored Roman control over its vital Red Sea ports and the Egyptian countryside, one of the breadbaskets of the empire. Moreover, from 299/300 to 307/8 he won two major multi-year wars against the Carpi and Sarmatians respectively. The sources speak of barbarian captives being resettled in the empire, and cities receiving notices of victories in the north.

Moreover, Constantine served as a tribune under Galerius in the Balkans and in the East, and Zonaras says that he was spending time with him in order to learn the military arts. It is thus plausible that Galerius' mentorship is part of the reason that Constantine proved to be such a great commander himself.

Now, Galerius is known to have suffered two defeats, but these should be approached with nuance. I'll begin with Callinicum, fought against the Persians in c. 296. It appears that this defeat has been exaggerated, perhaps in part because of the probably fictional story that Diocletian made a defeated Galerius run before his carriage. Concerning the historicity of this story, it would have been ludicrous for Diocletian to so humiliate his heir apparent, and Lactantius does not mention it, which he could have made suit his invective-laced narrative of a Galerius discontent with being Caesar (cf. Kolb 1987, Diocletian und die erste Tetrarchie, 136). Rather, hostile sources probably misinterpreted a show of deference during an aduentus ceremony, or a symbolic display of Galerius' determination to succeed (see e.g. Rees 2004, Diocletian and the Tetrarchy, 14; Corcoran 2008, Diocletian, in Barrett, Lives of the Caesars, 233).

On the campaign itself, I'll quote Leadbetter 2009, Galerius and the Will of Diocletian, 89-91: 'Diocletian presumed too much on the goodwill, or the distraction, of the new king. In the middle of 296, Narseh broke the fragile peace with Rome by invading Roman Osroene and Arsacid Armenia. There had been a critical failure of intelligence: the Roman forces were unprepared; Diocletian himself was far afield in Pannonia. He hastened to the east, bringing reinforcements. Galerius was in the region and thus was able to take charge of the situation quickly. He had few troops at his disposal; Eutropius speaks of only a slight force (parva manu). It was left to him initially, with such slender resources, to confront the Persians and blunt the force of their attack until Diocletian could arrive with reinforcements.
Some commentators assert that Galerius, attacking rashly, was routed by the Persians and lucky to escape with his life. The sources permit a more nuanced and less clumsy reading of what must have been a genuine military crisis in the Roman east. Eutropius’ full narrative is useful: "At first, Galerius Maximianus, coming against Narseus between Carrhae and Callinicum, suffered a defeat, although he fought foolishly rather than ignobly, since he came against a great and most numerous army with a small force." Other sources provide similar narratives. Lack of immediate resources meant that the Romans could only respond with cunning and guile. Aurelius Victor relates the events of the campaign thus: "Meanwhile, Iovius having departed to Alexandria, the task was assigned to Maximianus Caesar that he should proceed across the border into Mesopotamia in order to hinder the assault of the Persians." A frontal battle was out of the question. Galerius’ advance into Mesopotamia was only intended as a holding action. The sources refer to a number of battles in the vast area “between Carrhae and Callinicum”. Callinicum, which had been recently refortified by Diocletian may have been Galerius’ base of operations. Orosius states that three battles were fought, of which the last was the decisive defeat of Galerius’ force. These are, no doubt, records of skirmishes rather than pitched set-piece battles. Roman tactics, in the circumstances, must have been similar to those of other generals in the same region with the same objectives. The Parthian general Suren, for example, had also harassed rather than confronted, eroding the morale of Crassus’ army until it collapsed. Suren, unlike Galerius, had a considerable cavalry advantage over Crassus’ legionaries. That enabled him to avoid battle. In Galerius’ case it was more likely that Narseh enjoyed the advantage in mounted troops, and so could locate, pursue and destroy Galerius’ skirmishing force. Despite the loss in the field, the campaign was not a failure. Narseh’s force did not cross into Roman territory. Persian success was elsewhere, perhaps indicating their immediate aims. In 297 Narseh occupied Armenia, expelled Tiridates and reclaimed the territory ceded by Vahraran in 287. The Romans were unable to protect their client since their focus was, for the moment, on other matters. Reinforcements were urgently needed in the east. Galerius was sent to the Danube to gather them; Diocletian himself remained in Syria to prepare for the following year’s campaign. Galerius’ mission could not be completed swiftly. He was not merely calling up old soldiers but also raw recruits who required some training. In addition, Jordanes attests that he enrolled some Gothic mercenaries and this surely required some negotiation. Roman problems were augmented by another revolt in Egypt. Persian victories no doubt tempted the provinces’ many disaffected into rebellion. An emperor of their own, Domitius Domitianus, was proclaimed. Diocletian was obliged to take his Syrian army and march on Alexandria in order to quell the revolt. Galerius was left to continue the war alone.' In other words, Galerius conducted a necessary holding action and then returned with sufficient manpower to reverse the calamitous situation on his own, an effort that actually proved much more victorious than a mere reversal of fortune.

As for his failed march on Rome in 307, it must be said that Maxentius appears to have been an exceptionally skillful politician. This was the man who played the 'one true Roman' card better than anyone, and who managed to turn his father's own troops against him, many of whom may well have served him for one or two decades beforehand. If we want to criticize Galerius as a politician, I think that's fair. But with Maxentius sitting tight behind the imposing walls of Rome, using subversion to undermine Galerius' army, and with Maximian and Constantine to his north and thus in a position to corner him in Italy (Constantine was not at war with Galerius, but there was uncertainty surrounding his loyalties), there was only so much Galerius' military skills could do in that situation. Many of Galerius' soldiers also disliked the idea of attacking Rome as a practical effort and as a matter of principle, and many considered his action against a son-in-law to be impious. Galerius clearly felt obliged to crush the man whom he deemed a usurper, but he had to gamble on Maxentius marching his army out of the city and doing battle. But Maxentius didn't risk it. After all, Galerius most likely would have defeated him in such a situation. The situation was different when Constantine marched against Maxentius in 312. By then Rome had been suffering from food shortages, and taxation and a praetorian riot had encouraged civil unrest. Moreover, Maxentius' generals had challenged Constantine at Turin and Verona and lost battles in the process. The dangers of remaining in a restless city and not proving his military worth to his subjects were much more acute than they had been in 307, thus Maxentius' decision to risk a battle. Galerius was never given that opportunity. He next assigned the task of retaking Italy to the emperor Licinius and withdrew from active campaigning as illness took hold. Licinius himself was too cautious against Maxentius, and Galerius was dead by the time Constantine defeated him.

One more interesting thing about Galerius is the claim that in the lead-up to his victory over Narseh in Armenia he personally scouted the Persian camp. Leadbetter (2009: Galerius and the Will of Diocletian, pp. 91-93) argues that this indeed happened:

'By winter 297, Galerius was in position at Satala in the Cappadocian uplands with an army of 25,000 men. The relative paucity of this force reflects the haste with which Galerius was compelled to break off the process of raising and training it and bring it into action. It must nevertheless have been reinforced by the Armenian royal army. ... The Persians themselves were consolidating their rule in Armenia. The
Great King and his household were firmly established. ... Perhaps the Persians considered themselves sufficiently secure, complacent at an easy victory. They were certainly taken by surprise by Galerius’ counter-offensive. Galerius himself had much to do with that surprise, as Festus reports (Festus, Breviarium; Eutr. 9.28.1):

in Armenia maiore ipse imperator cum duobus equitibus exploravit hostes.

(in Armenia Maior, the emperor reconnoitred the enemy himself, along with two horsemen.)

This might be considered folklore if it did not originate from a sober, if laconic source. Moreover there is independent attestation from the Armenian writer P’awstos, who fills out gaps in a surprising and intriguing fashion (P’awstos 3.21). In his narrative, Galerius chose two Armenian nobles (Andovk and Arshavir) who were known to him and, disguising themselves as peasants – marketgardeners selling vegetables – they gained entry to the Persian camp and spied out its weaknesses. In particular, they noted that the royal enclosure was not strongly guarded and therefore particularly vulnerable. One might be tempted to reject this tale as folkloric invention but it occurs in two entirely separate historical traditions with little possibility of interdependence (Synesius tells the more plausible story of an unnamed emperor exploring the Persian camp, while disguised as an ambassador (de regno 17))

P’awstos continues that, on the emperor’s return to his own camp, he roused his army and fell upon the Persians, aiming for the royal enclosure. Ammianus adds the detail of a favourable portent (23.5.11). P’awstos’ account is entirely plausible. The Persians were completely surprised. In a letter to Constantius II half a century later, Shapur II complained (Ammianus 17.5.6):

Ideoque Armeniam recuperare cum Mesopotamia debeo, avo meo composita fraude praereptam.

(And so I am under obligation to recover Armenia, along with Mesopotamia, both of which were torn from my grandfather by a trick.)

The defeat rankled years later, not least because it was achieved by subterfuge rather than a set-piece battle. It was a most effective ploy. According to P’awstos, the Romans raided the Persian camp soon after dawn, taking it totally unawares. A number of Persian grandees were captured but, most significantly, the household of the Great King, including his wives and concubines, fell into Roman hands. The camp was looted and Narseh’s queen, Arsane, captured, as were others of the Great King’s women. The Great King himself escaped and fled to Persia proper (Eutropius 9. 25.1; also Zonaras 12. 31; Amm. Marc. 22.4.8; P’awstos 3.21; see Malalas XII, 307 for the name; Lactantius describes it as an ambush (de mort. pers. 9.7)).'

Whether or not we are persuaded by Leadbetter's argument that Galerius did personally scout the camp, it's interesting to see this argument be made.
Dec 2019
Fryslân, Netherlands
When Barbario and Julian were supposed to move against the tribes together Constantius II planned a large double pincerlike movement.
Chnodomar‘s tribes in Gaul that are. While Constantius II seems to be blamed, it was Julian getting bogged down which ruined the campaign and left Barbatio dangerously exposed. (probably don’t know all the perspectives but that‘s the narrative that I got)
Oct 2018
Chnodomar‘s tribes in Gaul that are. While Constantius II seems to be blamed, it was Julian getting bogged down which ruined the campaign and left Barbatio dangerously exposed. (probably don’t know all the perspectives but that‘s the narrative that I got)
Yeah that's the interpretation of Matthews in The Roman Empire of Ammianus. Ammianus himself blames Barbatio, but he naturally wouldn't want to blame Julian, the emperor under whom he served in the Persian campaign.
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Dec 2019
Fryslân, Netherlands
In not particular order

-Costantius III
-Theodosius the Elder
-Shapur II
-Bahram Chobin
Chobin seems like a very good commander but one of the best of the entire era? Could you explain your choices of Sharbaraz and Bahram Chobin, I know but little on Sassanian history and would be interested to know what they did, I have some knowledge on Chobin but Sharbaraz I know only by name.
Sep 2019
He next assigned the task of retaking Italy to the emperor Licinius and withdrew from active campaigning as illness took hold. Licinius himself was too cautious against Maxentius, and Galerius was dead by the time Constantine defeated him.fl
Any thoughts on Licinius as a military leader?

As I understand it he defeated Maximinus Daia at great disadvantage and managed to outmaneuver Constantine bringing an end to their first conflict. He certainly had alot of battle experience even if he lost almost all of them: Tzirallum, Cibalae, Mardia, Adrinaople, Chrysopolis. Did he have any noteworthy successes against non-Roman foes under Galerius or during his time as emperor?
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