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Cniva › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Joshua J. Mark
published on 24 November 2017
Cniva in Battle (The Creative Assembly)
Cniva (also given as Kniva, c. 250 CE to possibly 270 CE) was the king of the Goths who defeated Emperor Decius (249-251 CE) at the Battle of Abritus in 251 CE. Little is known of him other than his campaign in 251 CE, in which he successfully took Philipopolis, killing over 100,000 Roman citizens and enslaving survivors, lay siege to the city of Nicopolis, and defeated the Romans under Decius, killing both the emperor and his son.
Cniva may have learned strategic skills and tactics in the Roman army, as many Goth warriors were enlisted or served as mercenaries, or could have simply had a natural talent for warfare. Either way, he proved a formidable adversary to Romeand defeated their forces so completely that, after the death of Decius, the Romans had no choice but to allow him to safely depart their territory with all the booty and prisoners he had taken from Philipopolis.
Scholar Michael Grant observes that “in Kniva the Goths had a leader of unprecedented caliber, whose large-scale strategy created the gravest perils the empire had yet undergone” (31). Even so, after the campaign of 251 CE, nothing else is heard of Cniva unless one accepts the theory that he is the same person as King Cannabaudes (also given as Cannabas, c. 270 CE) who was killed in battle, along with 5,000 of his troops, in an engagement with Aurelian (270-275 CE).
This engagement was a decisive victory for the Romans, and if one accepts that Cniva and Cannabaudes are the same man, it would explain why Cniva was able to successfully take a walled city through siege while later Goth armies could not: those with the knowledge and skill for siege warfare were killed in 270 CE.

THE CRISIS OF THE THIRD CENTURY

Cniva lived and fought during the period in Roman history known as the Crisis of the Third Century (also the Imperial Crisis, 235-284 CE). This period is marked by almost constant civil war, plague, economic uncertainty, threats of invasion, the breakaway empires under Postumus (260-269 CE) and Zenobia (267-272 CE), and a crumbling and unstable Roman Empire governed by leaders who, for the most part, were more interested in their own personal glory than the good of the state.
The Crisis of the Third Century began with the assassination of the emperor Alexander Severus (222-235 CE). Alexanderwas controlled by his mother who dictated most, if not all, of his policies, and this proved to be a great liability. On campaign with his troops against the German tribes, Alexander followed his mother's counsel to pay the Germans for peace instead of engaging them in battle. This decision was seen by his troops as dishonorable and cowardly and killed him and his mother, raising the commander Maximinus Thrax (235-238 CE) to replace him.

DURING THE CRISIS OF THE THIRD CENTURY, ELEVATING A MAN TO THE POSITION OF EMPEROR WAS ON PAR WITH ISSUING HIM A DEATH SENTENCE.

Between 235-284 CE over 20 emperors would come and go, some quite quickly, as compared with the 26 who reigned from 27 BCE - 235 CE. These rulers are now referred to as the “ barracks emperors ” because they were supported by and largely came from the army. The emperor of Rome had always relied on the support of the military to one degree or another but now such support became vital to an emperor's success and even survival. The difference between these emperors and those who came before – and after – was that they were largely motivated by personal ambition and relied on their popularity with the army, and so continued military support, for their authority to rule.
During the Crisis of the Third Century, an emperor's worth was gauged by immediate, discernable, results; a thoughtful or cautious man would not survive in the position any longer than one inept or cowardly, and yet these judgments were entirely subjective. Throughout this period, it is no exaggeration to say that elevating a man to the position of emperor was on par with issuing him a death sentence; if an emperor failed to produce results, he was killed and replaced by another who showed more promise.

CNIVA, DECIUS, & THE FALL OF PHILIPOPOLIS

This paradigm was adhered to as Maximinus Thrax was assassinated by his troops in favor of the young emperor Gordian III(238-244 CE) who was possibly assassinated by his successor Philip the Arab (244-249 CE) who was then killed by Decius.In each of these instances, the assassination did not take place in a vacuum nor was it orchestrated by a single man. If an emperor fell out of favor with his troops, he could more or less count on a conspiracy forming which would result in his death.
It was in the midst of this unstable period that Cniva marched into Roman territory in 250 CE at the head of an army comprised of different peoples: the Carpi, Bastarnae, Taifali, Vandals, as well as his own Goths. He first attacked the border city of Novae but was driven back by the general (and future emperor) Gallus (251-253 CE). Cniva moved on and lay siege to the city of Nicopolis ad Istrum while the Carpi contingent of his army attempted to take the city of Marcianopolis. Both of these citiesrepelled the attacks, thanks to their fortifications, and Decius arrived with his army to relieve the siege of Nicopolis.
Decius

Decius

Decius had been in the Danube region since 249 CE when he deposed Philip and took over as emperor. He had been kept quite busy with various incursions into Roman territory because Philip had stopped the payments to the Goths, SassanidPersians, and various other tribes, initiated by Maximinus Thrax, which had kept them at bay (or, at least, not openly hostile).Decius drove Cniva's forces from Nicopolis but did not decisively defeat him. Cniva led his forces north, ravaging the country, and was pursued by Decius.
In the north, near the city of Augusta Traiana, Decius paused to rest his army and was attacked by Cniva's forces. The Romans were taken completely by surprise and suffered severe casualties while Decius and his commanders fled the field with whatever they could gather of their army. Cniva gathered what supplies and weapons were left behind and marched again south toward Philipopolis.
He lay siege to the city in late spring 250 CE while Decius was trying to recover his army. Philipopolis was garrisoned by a Thracian force under the command of Titus Julius Priscus (c. 250 CE) which was far too small to defeat the immense force of the Goths and their confederates outside the walls. The Thracians declared Priscus emperor, perhaps to empower him to legally negotiate with the Goths, and he brokered a deal by which the city and its people would be spared if they surrendered without resistance. Once the gates were open, however, the Goths ignored the agreement, and the city was sacked and burned. Priscus was either killed or captured at this time since he is not heard of in later reports.

THE BATTLE OF ABRITUS

Cniva completely looted the city and took thousands of citizens captive. He turned his forces around and headed back for the borders and his homeland with his treasures while Decius was still recovering his forces. Once finally organized and regrouped, the Roman forces again pursued Cniva's army as it moved north toward the border. Cniva, hearing of the pursuit, halted his retreat from Roman territory and took up position in a marshy area near the city of Abritus, a region he seems to have known well.
The Goth leader divided his forces into a number of different units (sources record at least three and possibly seven separate divisions) around a large swamp. His front line was positioned across the far side of the swamp while he and another unit took position behind it; other units were placed on either side. When Decius heard that the Goths had stopped their march and were encamped, he hurried to the site, arranged his forces, and attacked Cniva's front line; the only opposing force he could see.
Gothic Invasion 250-251 CE

Gothic Invasion 250-251 CE

The Goths fell back before the Roman forces and took flight through the swamp, drawing Decius and his army after them. The swamp completely nullified any advantages of the Roman formations, and they found themselves trapped and then attacked from three sides by Cniva's army. Decius and his son were both killed and the rest of the army almost annihilated. The commander Gallus, who was now proclaimed emperor, led the remnants of the army out of the swamp and retreated.
Cniva took his men and the booty from Philipopolis and continued on his way home. Gallus has been criticized since for not pursuing the Goths and rescuing the captives, but as scholar Herwig Wolfram points out, he had little choice in the matter:
[Gallus] had to allow the Goths to move on with their rich human and material spoils and even had to promise them annual payments. This is why he is charged to this day with treason and incompetence. But in fact, his actions were forced upon him by circumstances. After the defeats at Deroea and Philippopolis, and especially after the catastrophe at Abritus, the new emperor had no other choice. He had to get rid of the Goths as quickly as possible. (46)

CNIVA AS CANNABAUDES

After Cniva leaves Abritus in 251 CE there is no further news of him. Between c. 253 and 270 CE, however, the Goths were masters of the Danube territories and no Roman emperor could unseat them. They launched ships on the Black Sea and ravaged the coasts as pirates as well as continuing to do as they liked throughout the region. The Battle of Naissus in 268/269 CE was a major Roman victory over the Goths but still did not drive them back from Roman borders.
In 270 CE, however, the emperor Aurelian engaged a large force of Goths under a king whose name is given in the Historia Augusta as Cannabaudes/Cannabas. This was a decisive Roman victory with Goth casualties given at 5,000. Aurelian drove the survivors out of the Balkans and into Dacia, improved the Black Sea defenses and broke Goth power in the region. He then left Dacia to the Goths and returned to his objective of unifying the empire by defeating Zenobia of Palmyra and her powers in the east and then reducing the Gallic Empire under Tetricus I (271-274 CE) in the west.
Coin Depicting Roman Emperor Aurelian

Coin Depicting Roman Emperor Aurelian

It would not be impossible for the same man to have led the Goths in 251 CE and in 270 CE, even if Cniva would have been fairly old by that time. The success of the Goths in their engagements with Rome between 251 and c. 269 CE remained consistent until the Battle of Naissus pit the emperor Claudius II (268-270 CE) against a Gothic force led by an unnamed king who could have been Cniva. Claudius II earned the title Claudius Gothicus for his victory, but his success was actually due to the tactics of his cavalry commander Aurelian who, once he became emperor, would use the same tactics effectively against the forces of Palmyra.
Having defeated the Goth forces once under Claudius, Aurelian seems to have had no problem doing so again in 270 CE as emperor, when he killed the king Cannabaudes and 5,000 of his men. After this engagement, the Goths are pushed into Dacia and lose their hold on the territories they had gained since 251 CE. After 270 CE, the Goths pose no great threat to Rome until almost the middle of the next century. It is likely, therefore, that their previous success was due to a powerful king who was skilled in warfare.
One of the most interesting aspects of Cniva's story is his ability to lay siege to Roman cities. Over 100 years later, the Gothic leader Fritigern (c. 380 CE) was unable to take fortified cities because he lacked siege engines and the required skills. Even though Philipopolis was surrendered by the garrison commander, the siege must have been effective enough to warrant that decision.
Since it is clear that Cniva was able to reduce a large city by force – while Fritigern studiously avoided trying to take cities – it must be assumed that these skills were lost between his time and that of Fritigern. It is quite probable, therefore, that Cniva was the Cannabaudes killed in 270 CE along with any of his commanders who would have also had the knowledge and skills conducive to siege warfare.
Regarding this possibility, the scholar Herwig Wolfram writes:
Although in a formal sense we may be dealing with an equation of two unknowns [specifics of Cniva's and Cannabaudes' lives], a hypothetical solution would be as follows: Cniva, a successful Gothic commander and king of the army in the western tribal territory, is killed in battle as Cannabas against Aurelian. With him perish his people, supposedly five thousand men; the kingship is extinguished. (35)
If Cniva were the king of the Goths defeated at Naissus, it would have made Claudius II's victory all the more glorious in avenging the death of Decius and his son at Abritus in 251 CE. It would seem, however, that if that were the case then some mention would be made of the king's identity. As it stands, the king of the Goths at Naissus goes unnamed and Claudius II's great victory is celebrated simply as driving the Goths from the Balkan borders with no addition of avenging Decius. This has led some scholars to conclude that the Goth king at Naissus could not have been Cniva, but it is possible that the Roman writers simply did not know the king's name.
By the time Aurelian's battle with the Goths is recorded the Goth king is known as Cannabaudes/Cannabas and, although some scholars have suggested that this was Cniva's son, there are no ancient accounts to support that claim. Taking into account the loss of military knowledge evident in Goth engagements following Aurelian's victory in 270 CE, the most probable scenario is that it was Cniva himself who finally fell to Aurelian, an adversary who could best even the greatest of warrior-kings.

The Battle of Abritus › Antique Origins

Definition and Origins

by Joshua J. Mark
published on 19 December 2017
Battle of Abritus (The Creative Assembly)
The Battle of Abritus was an engagement fought between the armies of Rome under the emperor Decius (249-251 CE) and a coalition of Goths under the leadership of Cniva (c. 250 - c. 270 CE) in 251 CE resulting in a victory for Cniva and the death of Decius and his son in a total defeat of the Roman army. The Romans had no choice afterwards but to allow Cniva to march out of Roman territory with all the booty and slaves he had captured on campaign.
The forces met in the valley of the Beli Lom River, near the town of Dryanovets, in modern-day Bulgaria. Cniva had already attacked the Roman cities of Novae and laid siege to Nicopolis ad Istrum, where he first met Decius, before the decisive battle at Abritus. Had Cniva capitalized on this victory and returned for another attack, he could have destroyed whatever forces Rome had left in the region to mount against him; he did not, however, and chose to take his substantial booty home to fight against Rome another day.
He has been identified with the Goth leader Cannabaudes who was defeated by Aurelian (270-275 CE) in 270 CE and was killed, along with 5,000 of his troops. Whether Cannabaudes was the same king as the victor of Abritus is disputed, but there is no doubt that Cniva's victory in 251 CE was a severe blow to Rome and the first time a sitting emperor – as well as his son and successor – was killed in battle.
[ca-empiredivided]

THE CRISIS OF THE THIRD CENTURY & THE GOTH INVASION

At the time of the battle, Rome was going through the turmoil known as the Crisis of the Third Century (235-284 CE) which began when the emperor Alexander Severus (222-235 CE) was assassinated by his own troops while campaigning in Germania. Severus decided to follow his mother's advice and pay his German adversaries off instead of meeting them in battle, and this was seen as dishonorable and cowardly by his commanders who then removed him in favor of the Thracian Maximinus Thrax (235-238 CE). This paradigm then became standard operation; if an emperor proved disappointing, he was killed and replaced with a more promising candidate.
Maximinus Thrax was assassinated by his troops in favor of the young emperor Gordian III (238-244 CE) who was then killed by his successor Philip the Arab (244-249 CE) who was then disposed of by Decius. Decius came to power following Philip the Arab's unpromising campaigns against Shapur I (240-270 CE) of the Sasanian Empire and Shapur I and his son Hormizd I (270 - c. 273 CE) had again mobilized their armies to strike at Roman holdings in Mesopotamia. At the same time, there were domestic issues to be handled in Rome and a plague which was stalking the citizenry as well as numerous other problems Decius had to focus on.

IN THE MIDDLE OF ROME'S CHAOS, CNIVA OF THE GOTHS & HIS COALITION MARCHED INTO ROMAN TERRITORY TO PILLAGE, KILL, & ENSLAVE AS MANY AS HE COULD.

In addition to these challenges, Decius considered the new faith of Christianity a threat to Rome's stability and inaugurated a series of persecutions of the sect. Anyone suspected of being a Christian was forced to perform a single sacrifice to the traditional gods of Rome; if they did, they were issued a Certificate of Sacrifice stating the ceremony had been carried out and witnessed, and if they did not, they were executed. Although this policy seems to have been popular among many Romans (Decius was lauded as “Restorer of the Cults”), it obviously was not among the Christian population and, further, diverted time and energy to religious persecution which could have been better directed to the other far more pressing issues.
In the middle of Rome's chaos, and with a new emperor in power trying to contain it, Cniva of the Goths and his coalition marched into Roman territory in 250 CE to pillage, kill, and enslave as many as he could. His army was comprised of a number of different tribes, not just his Goths, and among them were the Carpi, Bastarnae, Taifali, and Vandals. His first strike was against the border city of Novae but he was driven back by the general (and future emperor) Gallus (251-253 CE). Cniva avoided another encounter with Gallus and moved to lay siege to the city of Nicopolis ad Istrum while his Carpi contingent attempted to take the city of Marcianopolis. Both of these cities repelled the attacks, and Decius arrived with his army to relieve the siege of Nicopolis.

PHILIPOPOLIS

Decius had been in the region since 249 CE when he had been a commander before he deposed Philip and took over as emperor. Since Philip's assassination, Decius had been on the move trying to contain or prevent invasions into Roman territories. Philip had stopped the payments to the Goths, Sassanid Persians, and various other tribes, all instated by Maximinus Thrax, which had kept them from open hostilities, and now there were threats against Rome from all sides. The most pressing at the moment, however, was Cniva and so Decius directed his forces against the Goths.
He drove Cniva's forces from Nicopolis but did not defeat him, and Cniva was able to leave the field with his army intact. Cniva led his forces north, ravaging the country as he went, followed ineffectually by Decius. In the north, near the city of Augusta Traiana, Decius paused in his pursuit to rest his army, and this was just the opportunity Cniva seemed to be waiting for. The Romans were attacked without warning by Cniva's forces and scattered. They had been taken completely by surprise and Cniva was able to inflict heavy casualties while sustaining few of his own. Decius and his commanders fled the field with what remained of the army and regrouped while Cniva gathered the weapons and supplies they had left on the field and then marched again south toward the city of Philipopolis.
Gothic Invasion 250-251 CE

Gothic Invasion 250-251 CE

He lay siege to the city in late spring 250 CE while Decius' forces were still scattered and the emperor was trying to reform his army. Philipopolis was garrisoned by a Thracian force under the command of Titus Julius Priscus which was far too small to defeat the much larger force of the Goths and their confederates outside the walls. The Thracians declared Priscus emperor, perhaps to empower him to legally negotiate with the Goths, and he brokered a deal by which the city and its people would be spared if they surrendered without resistance. Once the gates were open, however, the Goths ignored the agreement, and the city was sacked and burned. Priscus was either killed or captured at this time; there is no further record of him.

THE BATTLE OF ABRITUS

Battle of Abritus

Battle of Abritus

Cniva divided his forces into different units (sources record either three or seven separate units) and deployed them around a large swamp. His front line was positioned across the far side of the swamp while he and another unit took position behind it;other divisions were placed on either side but masked by the front line. When Decius heard that the Goths had stopped their march and were encamped, he most likely hoped to inflict the same kind of damage on the resting army that Cniva had on him earlier. He marched his army quickly to the site and arranged his forces in traditional battle formations against Cniva's front line.
When the Romans charged, the Goths fell back, broke ranks, and took flight through the swamp. The Romans interpreted this as a rout and followed them, confident of victory. The swamp, however, completely nullified any advantage of the Roman formations which soon fell apart as they pursued the fleeing Goths. The Roman soldiers found themselves trapped in the thick, muddy water, unable to advance in unison, and then Cniva unleashed his attack from three sides. Decius and his son were both killed, and the rest of the army almost annihilated.
Cniva in Battle

Cniva in Battle

Decius' commander Gallus was now proclaimed emperor and led what was left of the army out of the swamp in retreat. Cniva and his army took the booty from Philipopolis and resumed their march back home. Gallus has been criticized since shortly after the battle for not pursuing the Goths and rescuing the captives but, as scholar Herwig Wolfram points out, he was given few options:
[Gallus] had to allow the Goths to move on with their rich human and material spoils and even had to promise them annual payments. This is why he is charged to this day with treason and incompetence. But in fact, his actions were forced upon him by circumstances. After the defeats at Deroea and Philippopolis, and especially after the catastrophe at Abritus, the new emperor had no other choice. He had to get rid of the Goths as quickly as possible. (46)

CONCLUSION

The story of the Battle of Abritus is first told by the Greek historian Dexippus (210-273 CE) and is the only account extant by a contemporary of the event. Dexippus and later Christian writers would call attention to Decius' persecution of the Christians as the reason for his defeat and death. According to this view, the Christian God was avenging the deaths of his followers at Abritus. These claims aside, a simpler explanation is that Cniva knew the terrain and was a better military leader than Decius and so won the battle without the need for any supernatural ally.
The site of the battle was disputed for centuries until 2014-2016 CE when archaeologists positively identified the site through finds of Roman and Goth artifacts discovered near the modern-day city of Razgrad and the town of Dryanovets in the valley of the river Beli Lom. The Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus (c. 325 - c. 400 CE) describes how Decius was lured into the trap at Abritus by the Goths and his description matches the terrain outside of Razgrad as well as that given by Dexippus.
Tombstone from Abritus

Tombstone from Abritus

The Battle of Abritus was not a decisive turning point in Rome's history but was a telling blow against the former might of the empire. In the past, except for a few extraordinary cases, the Roman army led by their emperor was usually victorious and was recognized as a formidable fighting force. At the Battle of Abritus, however, the army, under the experienced leadership of Decius, was destroyed and the emperor and his successor killed in an engagement which the Romans had every reason to believe should have gone the other way.
It would be events such as Abritus which would lead Latin writers to conclude that the city – and, by extension, the empire – had been deserted by the traditional gods who were upset by the new religion of Christianity and would lead later writers such as Orosius (5th century CE) to write defenses against this claim. Whether the rise of Christianity contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire has long been debated, but that question aside, the empire was already in turmoil and crumbling, and the Battle of Abritus stands as a telling example of the kinds of problems which beset Rome during the Crisis of the Third Century.
Emperors were no longer masters of the realm who could dictate sound policy as they saw fit; they were now at the mercy of the military who could kill and replace them if they seemed weak or ineffective. Whatever may have gone through Decius' mind in choosing to launch his attack on Cniva at Abritus, he must have been aware that, if he did not, he ran the risk of assassination by his own troops.
This model of leadership, as noted, was standard throughout the era of the Crisis of the Third Century and even though it was rectified under the reign of Diocletian (284-305 CE), Rome would never be the same power it had once been following the events of the 3rd century CE. A different Rome would emerge afterwards, which would face further difficulties in a new incarnation as the Eastern and Western empires until its eventual fall.

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