In 15 BC, in an alpine gorge, a battle took place between the Roman troops and the reta.
Two years ago, Lucas Schmid, an amateur archaeologist and volunteer at the Archaeological Survey of the Canton of Graubünden, Switzerland, found a well-preserved Roman dagger in the Krap Ses gorge. This gorge was surveyed 20 years before Schmid, a number of artifacts from the Roman period were found, but nothing that would indicate some kind of battle. The new find forced professional archaeologists to reconsider their plans, and specialists from the University of Basel began to explore the gorge.
Hundreds of shoe nails, acorn-shaped lead bullets for slings, fragments of shields – there were a lot of finds. Moreover, these were items of both Roman production and local ones. Some of the bullets are marked with the mark of the XII Roman Legion – reliable evidence of the presence of this particular military unit in Crap Ses. The Romans could cast bullets in the field just in the sand, but if there is an inscription on the bullets, then they used molds for casting, typical only for places where this or that legion was for a long time. The preliminary date of the event is 15 BC. Therefore, we are talking about the Alpine campaigns of Augustus.
As you know, Emperor Octavian Augustus, having come to power, proclaimed a policy of conquest. The conquest of Spain was the first goal, but he also did not forget about the German lands. But here’s the problem: in the north, the Apennine Peninsula is cut off from the rest of Europe by the Alps, which are not the easiest in terms of passability. It was through the alpine passes that the roads to Gaul, to the headwaters of the Rhine and the Danube, ran. And the mountains and rather narrow valleys were inhabited by tribes mainly of Celtic and Ligurian origin. These tribes took full advantage of their position: they collected a toll for travel through their lands – according to Strabo, even Julius Caesar had to pay, on whose troops the highlanders threw stones. And when incomes fell, they simply descended from the mountains, on both sides of the Alps, and robbed everyone who came to hand. Not the most acceptable neighbor for a young empire.
In 19 BC, Spain was completely conquered, which made it possible for Rome to transfer troops to the Alps. At first, there was no question of serious campaigns against the mountaineers – the legions were more likely to provide their rear and conducted reconnaissance in force. But in 15 BC, the Romans launched a large-scale offensive. It is not very clear exactly how many legions took part in it: it is clear that from six to nine. In addition, they were given auxiliary units, including the Gallic and Thracian cavalry. The campaign was led by the stepsons of Augustus – Tiberius and Drusus. The first led troops from Gaul, occupying the Alps from the north, the second from the south, from Italy. The final destination of the route was modern Augsburg, where, as Naked Science already wrote, archaeologists recently explored a large military camp of the Roman period.
The highlanders resisted desperately. Often, the words of the Roman historian Lucius Anneus Florus are cited as proof of the fierceness of the battles: “What was the savagery of the Alpine tribes, it is easy to show on the example of their women: for lack of throwing weapons, they smashed their babies’ heads on the ground and threw them in the faces of the soldiers.” You should not take these words as documentary evidence: the enlightened Romans were inclined to ascribe all kinds of fictions to the “wild” peoples. But, of course, they were resisted quite seriously. Something similar happened in the Krap-Ses gorge.
Separately, it should be noted the discovery of a sling bullet with the mark of the XII Legion.
As stated above, we do not know which legions took part in the campaign. Roman historians, talking about the cruelty of the highlanders, forgot to tell us the basic information about the campaign: for example, to list the military units. So, it is known about participation in the campaign of the XIX Legion thanks to the discovery of an arrowhead from a throwing weapon with a stamp embossed on it. Now we can quite definitely say that the XII Legion also fought in the Alps. But which one?
The problem is that the Romans often gave the legions the same numbers and even names. It is known about the XII Lightning Legion (it is they who are threatened by Pontius Pilate to the high priest in the novel by Mikhail Bulgakov), but we know for sure that from 44 BC the Lightning Legion was in the East and was mainly engaged in suppressing the uprisings of the Jews. In 14 AD, he was stationed in Rafanea (territory of modern Jordan). Most likely, the XII Victorious Legion fought in the Alps, about which practically nothing is known yet, except for the fact of its existence and the fact that it fought on the territory of modern France. The stamps of this unit were found on tiles and bricks that archaeologists excavated in Argentorat (present-day Strasbourg).
Thus, the new find makes it possible to significantly replenish information about the little-known legion and, in general, to better represent the history of the conquest of the Alps by the Romans. After the conquest of Augustus, this region remained under the control of Rome for centuries and was finally lost already in the midst of the Great Migration.
Photo: Bullet for a sling. The stamp with the legion number is clearly visible / © SRF