Legio V Macedonica – The Last Roman Legion

Throughout the history of the Roman Empire, countless legions were raised and disbanded, but one legion endured the entirety, remaining in service to the Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire, marching on into the Middle Ages – The Legio V Macedonica.

The Legio V Macedonica was levied sometime around 43 BC during the late Republic Era, possibly under Gaius Octavius (the future Emperor Augustus). At the time, two legions, the V Gallica and the V Urbana are recorded in early text, one or both of which, may be the precursor to the Legio V Macedonica.

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When Augustus became sole ruler in 31 BC following the War of Actium, he disbanded around half of the legions, consolidating the remaining legions into a standing military force that became the core of the early Imperial army of the Principate.

The Legio V Macedonica was dispatched to Macedonia in 30 BC, from where it likely earned the title of “Macedonian”. The legion remained there until AD 6, when it was sent to guard Oescus on the Danube River in Roman Moesia (a region between the Lower Danube and the Balkan Mountains).

Oescus began as an important military base as part of the Danubian Limes. The legion maintained its Legionary Fortress there to protect the frontier, with some Vexillationes campaigning in Nero’s Parthian War in AD 58–63 in Armenia, and Alexandria in Egypt.

With the outbreak of the First Jewish War in AD 66 (also called the Great Revolt), Nero sent the general, Titus Flavius Vespasianus (future Emperor Vespasian), to crush the rebellion. Vespasian’s forces consisted of the Legio X Fretensis, and the Legio V Macedonica. He was later joined by his son Titus, who command the Legio XV Apollinaris and the armies of several local allies.

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During the campaign, the Legio V Macedonica distinguished themselves in Galilee during the liberation of the city of Sepphoris, and at the storming of the main shrine of the Samaritans at Mount Gerizim.

The bulk of Roman forces then reached Jerusalem in AD 70, placing the city under siege for four months. After several battles, the entire city and the Second Temple was destroyed, with contemporary historian, Titus Flavius Josephus, stating: “Jerusalem … was so thoroughly razed to the ground by those that demolished it to its foundations, that nothing was left that could ever persuade visitors that it had once been a place of habitation.”

After the proclamation of Vespasian as Emperor and the end of the war under his son, the legion returned to its home base back in Oescus in AD 71.

There it remained until the Dacians attacked the province of Moesia, with the Legio V Macedonica being despatched to campaign against the Dacians in the Battle of Tappae. The legion continued to campaign during the reign of Emperor Trajan against the Dacians between AD 101 to 106, but following the conclusion of the war, the legion was transferred to the north-east of Moesia to Troezmis, another Roman legionary fortress situated on Limes Moesiae frontier system that protected the border from attacks by the Roxolani tribes.

During Hadrian’s reign, the legion was sent to crush the Bar Kokhba revolt in AD 132 to 136, a campaign the Roman’s called the “Jewish Expedition”. The Roman force consisted of six full legions, including the Legio V Macedonica, in addition to auxiliaries and elements from up to six additional legions.

The Bar Kokhba revolt resulted in the extensive depopulation of countless Judean communities. According to the Roman historian and senator, Cassius Dio, 580,000 Jews perished in the war, and many more died of hunger and disease.

By the latter part of the 2nd century AD, the borders of the Roman Empire were under threat when the Germanic Marcomanni entered into a confederation with the Quadi, Vandals, and Sarmatians.

According to the Roman historian, Eutropius, the forces of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (which included the Legio V Macedonica), battled against the Marcomannic confederation for three years, which lasted until Aurelius’s death in AD 180. The Marcomannic Wars had little success, but ensured the Danube remained the frontier of the empire until the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

Aurelius’s successor, Emperor Commodus, awarded the Legio V Macedonica the title Pia Constans (“Faithful and reliable”) or Pia Fidelis (“Faithful and loyal”), in AD 185 or 187, after crushing a mercenary army hired by rebellious gold mine workers in the province of Dacia.

For most of the 3rd century AD, the legion was based at Potaissa, having fought several wars against the Dacian Carp tribe, where the Emperor Valerian, also awarded the legion the title of Pia III Fidelis III (“Thrice Pious and loyal).

Further titles were bestowed by Emperor Gallienus, who gave the legion the title, VII Pia VII Fidelis, with the 4th, 5th and 6th titles awarded probably when the legion was used as a mobile cavalry unit against the usurpers, Ingenuus and Regalianus.

In AD 274, the Legio V Macedonica was transferred back to Oescus and constructed a second Legionary fortress called Oescus II. The cavalry units were detached from the legion and sent to campaign in Mesopotamia against the Sassanid Empire in AD 296.

The legion at Oescus was converted into a comitatensis unit, a field army of the Late Roman Empire, where it remained to guard the frontier as the Western Roman Empire collapsed before them.

In AD 411, an invading force of Huns overrun Oescus and destroyed the city. The Byzantine Emperor, Justinian I, rebuilt the city and re-established the Danube defence system, but this was abandoned during the late 6th century following an invasion by the Avars.

The latter years of the legion is mentioned in the Notitia Dignitatum, a document of the late Roman Empire, detailing the administrative organisation of the Western and the Eastern Roman Empire.

The Notitia Dignitatum documents the Legio V Macedonica (the detached calvary units) having detachments in the Oriental Field Army and in Egypt, where it remained before joining the Byzantine army.

The last remnants of the Legio V Macedonica Legio is mentioned in inscriptions that provide a date of AD 635 or 636. The inscriptions describe the legion fortifying the defences of Heliopolis, a Roman city in Lebanon that fell to the invading forces of the Rashidun Caliphate.

What happened to the Legio V Macedonica is unknown. We can only assume that the remaining detachments were defeated during the Arab invasions of the Levant and Egypt, however, what is striking is the enduring legacy of one of the last legions from the Roman Empire.

The Legio V Macedonica was the longest-lived Roman Legion known to history, spanning around 680 years from 43 BC to around AD 636; the entire history of the Roman Empire in the Classical Era, through to the Middle Ages.

Header Image Credit : Shutterstock


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Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 7,500 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.

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