The Battle of Austerlitz: War of the Third Coalition

Jules Jacquet, Cuirassiers at Austerlitz (1874)

In a series of lightening campaigns against Austria and Russia, Napoleon led France to victory against overwhelming odds. The Battle of Austerlitz that occurred during the War of the Third Coalition (1803-1806) would forever change the shape of central Europe. 

By Steven Knorr

The Formation of the Third Coalition (August 1805 – December 1806)

Since 1792, France had been at war with all of the major powers of Europe; though peace had been made with each in turn, Great Britain held out the longest. In March 1802, the Treaty of Amiens ended the hostilities between the United Kingdom and France. Europe seemed at peace. But conflict arose quickly as the British and the Swedes made an agreement that would lead to the forming of the Third Coalition against France. Russia and Austria would also join this coalition; Austria in particular was keen on revenge after suffering embarrassing defeats and ceding territory in the First and Second Coalition wars. The first two coalitions were waged against revolutionary France; the Third Coalition however would mark the beginning of what is now known as the Napoleonic wars. In May 1803, before these alliances were finalized, the UK declared war on Napoleon’s France. By August 1805, Russia and Austria had joined in and all Europe was again at war.

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Europe, 1803. Map made from template here.

Napoleon, French Emperor after 1804, developed ambitious plans for invading the British Isles. He assembled a massive invasion force around 200,000 men for the task. But with creation of the Third Coalition and threats looming on the continent, Napoleon abandoned his plans of invasion and turned his attention eastward. Though Napoleon discarded his invasion plan, all was not lost. French troops gained invaluable experience in the months of training that would prove to be of service in their upcoming campaign.

The Ulm Campaign (25 September – 20 October, 1805)

The Austrians moved towards France by concentrating their forces near the city of Ulm, at the time part of the Electorate of Bavaria, a state in the Holy Roman Empire. Karl Mack was the commander of the Austrian forces. He instituted reforms to the army on the eve of the war which would lead to insufficient officer training. This greatly hindered their military organization as officers did not have the proper training to coordinate troop movements. In the previous campaigns against the Austrians, the Italian theater became the primary focus for the French. The Austrians believed the French would focus heavily on Italy again and dispatched 95,000 troops into northern Italy and 72,000 into Ulm. The Austrians hoped with the heavily fortified and mountainous region of Ulm, they could hold out until Russian reinforcements arrived.

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Emperor Tiberius According to Tacitus

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By Steven Knorr

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The second Roman Emperor, Tiberius (r. 14-37 AD) was much loathed by the Senate. As a later member of the senatorial aristocracy, Tacitus (56-120) did not consider Tiberius favorably.

The Bias of Tacitus

The Annals by Tacitus is a written account of Roman history covering the period from the death of Augustus in 14 A.D to the reign of Nero (r. 54-68). Tacitus states that his purpose is to write without bitterness or partiality, but much of his account of the Emperor Tiberius (r. 14-37) seems biased given what we know about his reign. For the large majority of the Roman public, the rule of Tiberius was relatively peaceful. A person would not be in danger of violence unless they were a member of the imperial family or a member of the aristocracy. Tacitus demonstrates his inability to be impartial by stating that historians during the reigns of Augustus through Nero were unable to write the truth out of fear. He writes:

“Fine intellects were not wanting to describe the times of Augustus, till growing sycophancy scared them away. The histories of Tiberius, Caius, Claudius, and Nero, while they were in power, were falsified through terror, and after their death were written under the irritation of a recent hatred.” The Annals,  I

Rome during the imperial age had lost its “fine Roman character” that it had during the republican period and the harsh criticisms of Tacitus come from holding up the empire to the standard of the republic. The personal bias of Tacitus towards Roman Republican virtue seeps into his writing. He is often very critical of the imperial system and the Emperors themselves in the context of Republican virtue.

The Murder of Agrippa Postumus (14 AD)

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Agrippa Postumus was the son of Marcus Agrippa and the daughter of Augustus, Julia. Unlike his father, a favored general and close friend of the first emperor, Postumus was known for his brutish and unpalatable character. His murder in AD 14 was likely orchestrated to prevent him from challenging the succession of Tiberius.

According to Tacitus, the corruption of Rome began with Augustus, who with money and cheap food was able to concentrate on the functions of the senate . With all rivals dead, Augustus ruled unopposed and (according to Tacitus) the remaining nobility were more than willing to accept slavery for the sake of wealth and titles. Tiberius wasn’t originally interested in donning the purple but out of sheer luck (or Livia’s intervention) he became emperor after the death of Augustus. The opening act of his reign was a crime committed in the securing the throne. Agrippa Postumus, another one of Augustus’ adopted children, was murdered by his guards. Tacitus called this a crime, ignoring Tiberius’ claims that he was acting out on Augustus’s orders. Since Tiberius mentioned the death of Postumus to the senate one has to wonder how Tacitus would have known what was said on the matter outside of court records. The historian Walter Allen Jr. claims that historians accept the claim of assassination is because of the opportune time in which it came. Allen states:

“while stories about the death of Agrippa Postumus very likely arose out of similar gossip, Tacitus feels at liberty to treat them as fact because he has a reputable source upon which he depends; since the gossip had somehow crept into history, Tacitus had no qualms about repeating it.”

The liberal usage of gossip as fact is just one of many instances of Tacitus trying to blacken Tiberius’s character.

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