Following the death of Commodus (December 31st, 192), within the year 193 Rome saw five persons proclaimed emperors, two in Rome and then three in the provinces of Britain, Pannonia (modern Hungary) and Syria. The eparch of Pannonia, Lucius Septimius Severus, managed in June of 193 to have the senate of Rome recognize him as emperor. Almost at the same time, in March of 193, the eparch of Syria Pescennius Niger proclaimed himself emperor and managed to become recognized by all the provinces east of Bosporus. In the spring of 193 a race begun between the two contenders with the objective of capturing the Dardanelle Straits and Bosporus, two strategically crucial areas, that would allow the winner to cut off his opponent’s access to the opposite coast.1
2. The siege of the city of Byzantium
Coming from Syria, Niger arrived first in the region with his army, and managed to capture Byzantium. He failed, however, to control neighbouring Perinthus, which was protected by the army of Severus that had marched in from the borders on the Danube under Lucius Fabius Cilo.2 Niger retreated to Byzantium, where he installed consul Caecilius Capella as commander of his troops.3 In many cases during civil wars smouldering antagonisms between eminent neighbouring cities come to the surface, like in the case of Byzantium and Perinthus, where each city chose to side with a different contender, considering her champion's antagonist an usurper of the throne and aiding his opponent. The same behaviour can be observed in the cases of the cities of Nicomedia (Severus) and Nicaea (Niger) in Bithynia, as well as of Antioch (Niger) and Laodicea (Severus) in Syria.4
The position of Byzantium changed dramatically when, in the fall of 193, a second army under Tiberius Claudius Candidus5 managed to cross the Sea of Marmaras and gain in Cyzicus an overwhelming victory against the troops of Niger under the command of Asellius Aemilianus.6 A second battle on Asian soil, somewhere between Nicaea and Cius (late 193-early 194) resulted in another defeat for Niger, although this time he commanded his army personally having abandoned Byzantium. Niger then escaped to Syria, only to be defeated again in a battle on the plain of Issus, where Alexander the Great had vanquished the Persian king Darius. This last defeat in April of 194 cost him his life.7
The severed head of Severus’ opponent was placed on a pole in front of the besieged Byzantium’s city walls, in plain view, with the aim of inducing fear to the city's population and forcing them to surrender; initially this attempt bore no results. The contemporary historian Cassius Dio, who was born and raised in the nearby city of Nicaea in Bithynia, before recounting in detail the siege and the situation inside the besieged city, describes the advantages the various sections of the city's defensive walls afforded, which contained, among else, war machines using various defensive techniques. To these we should add the city’s impressive fleet of 500 ships, which were equipped with rams and featured one or two rows of oarsmen.8 Indeed the army besieging the city under the command of Lucius Marius Maximus9 did not succeed in capturing it by storming its walls, and was forced to adopt the tactic of maintaining prolonged siege in order to starve the city into submission. Byzantium, however, had large food reserves and for a long period was supplied via the sea; daring merchants risked entering the blockaded port, gaining exorbitant profits when they succeeded.10
Time was against the besieged though, as their food supplies and raw materials gradually run out. They demolished houses to use the timber for warships and hurled the debris, as well as bronze statues removed from theatres, as missiles against their besiegers. When the hunger became unbearable, many citizens tried to escape to nearby areas, lunging themselves into the sea during storms, believing that in this way they would not be noticed by the besiegers. Many drowned trying this. A large number was also forced to abandon their city. Most of them perished, as they were carried in overloaded vessels which sunk or became easy pray to the besiegers’ fleet.
3. The city’s fall
According to Cassius Dio (75.14.1), these scenes of terror unfolding before their very eyes made the citizens realize their situation was hopeless and they had to surrender. Severus had left Marius Maximus in charge of the siege, while he was engaged in operations against the Parthians east of the Euphrates. The news of Byzantium’s surrender reached him when he was in Mesopotamia, which led to him being proclaimed emperor once more (for the eighth time), a fact which allows us to date the event late in 195.11 The siege, therefore, lasted approximately two and a half years.
The punishment meted out was terrible, but as similar occasions show, it was unexceptional and predictable. The remainder of the army in the city under Caecilius Capella12 and Byzantium’s leading politicians who had harboured Niger were shown no mercy. The city's most distinguished public buildings, the theatre and the baths were demolished13 and its famous fortifications destroyed. Cassius Dio who had witnessed these fortification prior and following their destruction lauds the seven ‘talking’ towers of the land fortifications; they were named thus because when a sound was produced on the first tower it was transmitted to the other six. Cassius condemns their subsequent deplorable state, which no one wanted to believe it was the doing of the Romans themselves.14
Finally the city lost not only its independence, but also the right to be termed as a ‘city’, being politically relegated to the lesser status of a village, belonging to the domain of its hated adversary, Perinthus, located 90 km to the west. The inhabitants of Perinthus missed no opportunity to humiliate the citizens of Byzantium.15
Cassius Dio attributed the destruction of Byzantium to the persons in charge and to its strategic location for the defence of Bosporus, opposite the “barbarians from Pontus and Asia”,16 i.e. from the direction of the Black Sea. As it appears, the internecine strife that prevailed in the Roman Empire allowed the Scythians to make designs (“Scythian designs”, as Cassius Dio describes them)17 for incursions in the Roman provinces located in the region of the Black Sea. Their expedition was cancelled due to the appearance of unfavourable omens.
Such considerations sanctioned the restoration of Byzantium, as well as the provision of support to the city, carried out by the son of the emperor Caracalla, must have led Severus some years18 later to take the decision to provide financial support for the rebuilding of the ruined edifices and restore Byzantium to the previous status of a free and independent city.19
1. The basic sources for the events described below are the following: Cassius Dio 75.6-14; Herodian 3.1-2.6; Historia Augusta, Sev. 8.6-9.2. See also Zimmermann, M., Kaiser und Ereignis. Studien zum Geschichtswerk Herodians (München 1999), pp. 178-184.
2. AE 1926, 79; ILS 1141: "praepositus vexillationibus Illyricianis Perinthi tendentibus"- PIR2 F 27.
3. Birley, A.R., "Caecilius Capella: Prosecutor of Christians, Defender of Byzantium", GRBS 32 (1991), pp. 81-98.
4. Robert, L., "La titulature de de Nicée et de Nicomédie", HSCP 81 (1977), pp. 22-27 = Opera minora selecta VI (Amsterdam 1989), pp. 232-237.
5. Alföldy, G., Die römischen Inschriften von Tarraco (Madrider Forschungen 10, Berlin 1975), 130: "dux exercitus Illyrici expeditione Asiana"- Cassius Dio 75.3.5-6.
6. Birley, A.R., "The coups d’état of the year 193", Bonn. Jahrb. 169 (1969), p. 270; Cassius Dio 75.6.2, 3.4; HA, Sev. 8.13, 16.
7. For details and information on issues of chronology see Birley, A.R., The African Emperor. Septimius Severus (London 1988), pp. 112-113.
8. Cassius Dio 75.10-11.
9. ILS 2935: "dux exercitus Mysiaci (=Moesiaci) apud Byzantium", see PIR2 M 308.
10. Cassius Dio 75.12.3.
11. Birley, A.R., The African Emperor. Septimius Severus (London 1988), p. 119.
12. Cassius Dio 75.14.1; Birley, A.R., "Caecilius Capella: Prosecutor of Christians, Defender of Byzantium", GRBS 32 (1991), p. 97.
13. Hdt. 3.6.9.
14. Cassius Dio 75.14.4-5.
15. Cassius Dio 75.14.3.
16. Cassius Dio 75.14.4.
17. Cassius Dio 75.3.1.
18. Probably 202, after the 2nd Parthian War he returned to Italy via Asia Minor and the Balkans, see Birley, A.R., The African Emperor. Septimius Severus (London 1988), p. 142.
19. Historia Augusta, Carac. 1.7; Robert, L., "La titulature de Nicée et de Nicomédie", HSCP 81 (1977), p. 27, no. 134 (= Opera minora selecta VI, p. 237).