Mysterious Ancient Battles

In responding to a thread about which battles I would have liked to have been a spectator, I found that the appeal for me, in watching historical battles, would be to learn why certain battles happened the way they did. I study the late third and early fourth centuries, a period for which the vague and partisan source material is a notorious challenge. For this reason, there is a bunch of battles of great significance that are mired in controversy. Note the following:

1. The Battle of Misiche, between Gordian III and Shapur I, in 244.

Did Gordian get killed in battle (per the Persian sources) or was he betrayed by his praetorian prefect, the future emperor Philip the Arab (the Roman sources)? The Roman and Persian sources are divided, although I suspect the Byzantine accounts are correct when they give the rather mundane reason that Gordian fell off his horse.

2. The Battle of Abrittus, between Decius and Cniva the Goth, in 251.

The army of Decius found themselves being drawn into a swamp, and Decius and his son Herennius were both killed, Herennius by an arrow. Again, the sources are vague (a classic problem for anyone studying the third century). Typical for the period, it was also claimed that the future emperor Trebonianus Gallus, then the governor of Moesia, in some way betrayed Decius. This could equally be true or false. Roman officers were notoriously fickle in this period, but the Romans liked to excuse defeats to foreign enemies (especially northern barbarians) through claims of internal weakness and treachery. Note for example that no Roman source even acknowledges the above-mentioned Battle of Misiche (which we know from the Res Gestae Divi Saporis), but simply says that Philip killed Gordian.

3. The Battle of Edessa, between Valerian and Shapur I, in 260.

The sources are very divided on the matter of how did Shapur manage to capture the emperor Valerian.

4. The Battle of the Catalaunian Fields, between Aurelian and Tetricus, in 274:

The Latin sources claim that Tetricus in some way betrayed his own army to Aurelian out of fear of his own troops. I'd like to know a) if that was truly the case, b) if so, how did he betray them, and c) how did an army without an emperor ultimately fight in those circumstances.

5. The Battle of the Margus, between Diocletian and Carinus, in 285:

The Latin sources claim that Carinus was betrayed by some of his officers. He was killed by one of his tribunes, and after the battle Diocletian rewarded Carinus' praetorian prefect/co-consul Aristobulus for his 'services rendered' by keeping him in his posts and eventually rewarding him with the urban prefecture and an unusually long tenure as a the prestigious proconsul of Africa. There is also some reason to think that the future emperor/Constantine's father Constantius, as the governor of Dalmatia, also betrayed Carinus. But also, some of the sources state that Carinus was winning or had already won the battle. So I'd love to know what exactly went down, and find out how Diocletian managed to wrong-foot Carinus in that situation.

6. The Battle of Satala, between Galerius and Narseh, in 297/8.

Galerius' campaign against the Persians is mired in vagueness, but it was such an important war. It allowed the Romans to effectively avenge themselves on the Persians after their capture of Valerian. They defeated the Persians in Armenia, captured members of the royal family and harem, invaded southern Mesopotamia and forced the Persians to agree to a humiliating peace treaty, the terms of which would not be properly contested until the 340s. The most we really get about the decisive battle is that Galerius stormed the Persian camp in a surprise attack, supposedly after personally scouting the camp.

So, I'd like to know what ancient battles or military events do the rest of you find intriguing and mysterious.

P.S. Let's avoid turning this into another debate about the number of legions at Zama.


Ad Honorem
Aug 2016
Any of the battles of Clovis - Soissons (circa 486), Tolbiac (circa 496), Vouille (507). There were probably other battles that are even less well documented so that we don't even know their names or any other details.
May 2017
The Battle of Emesa between emperor Aurelian and queen Zenobia of Palmyra effectively crushed Palmyra and ended its supremacy over the near east thereby giving Aurelian the nickname of "restorer of the east", yet sources are very spare and some may consider them questionable in terms of accuracy.
Zosimus (and therefore Eunapius) provides the only detailed account of the battle of Emesa. He gives a few tasty hints at what happened, mentioning the roles played by Zenobia's cataphracts and Aurelian's legionaries, club-armed "Palestinians" and Dalmatian cavalry. I certainly wish we had more information on the battle, because, as you say, it was very important.
May 2017
Yes, a good amount of the information we have about the situation in the late 3rd century Roman east came from Zosimus. And if he was to be believed, the Romans were "within an ace" of losing the battle in Emesa as historian Pat Southern puts it, which would make for an interesting "what if".
The part of the Roman army that stayed with Aurelian throughout his campaigns must have been one hell of a fighting force. Just consider the rapid sequence of his campaigns:
1. Defeated his rival Quintillus (270).
2. Defeated a Iuthungian incursion into Raetia (270).
3. Defeated a Vandal incursion into Pannonia (270/1).
4. Defeated a Iuthungian invasion of Italy, winning three battles (271).
5. Put down a rebellion in Rome (271).
6. Defeated the usurpers Domitianus in Narbonese Gaul and Marcellinus in Dalmatia (271) [although these two may have been defeated by loyal armies under subordinates rather than the field army of Aurelian]
7. Launched a punitive expedition across the Danube against the Goths (272)
8. Defeated the Palmyrene Empire of Zenobia, with major victories won at Tyana, Immae, Daphne, Emesa and Palmyra (272)
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 (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) (274)
12. Dealt with unrest in Gaul (275)
12. Defeated a German incursion into Raetia (275)
13. Marched his army towards Persia (275)
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 organise 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 overall picture we get is an army that was incredibly mobile, successful and loyal to its emperor in spite of the third-century zeitgeist.

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