Under the rule of Augustus the Empire achieved relative stability, but the weakness of some Imperial successors led to the emergence of pretenders supported by provincial armies. In the early centuries AD, Roman military power both preserved the Empire – and divided it.
Political and Military Considerations
Augustus was able to establish the authoritarian regime on which Roman maintenance of widespread law and order depended, largely because he had assumed power while young and lived to be nearly 77 years old. Longevity is at any time a matter of some luck. In Roman political circles, whether of the Republican or Imperial epoch, it was a matter of great luck. The unity and continuity provided by a single head of state, exercising uninterrupted power for 44 years, was in fact fortunate for the whole Roman world.
Augustus never contemplated abolishing the time-honoured magistracies of the Republic. He simply assumed all the key titles himself: consul, tribune, proconsul and, after the death of his old triumviral colleague Lepidus, Pontifex Maximus (Supreme Pontiff). He called himself Princeps – a word which in its most general sense meant “leading man”. This was in addition to his other constitutional title of princeps senatus or “leading senator”. He presided over an exhausted world, which had reluctantly realized that law and order can be worth more than liberty, and that authority was destined in the foreseeable future to be based on military power, whatever constitutional forms were adopted. Julius Caesar had shown more respect for constitutional appearances in his last years, as a dictator, than in his early years as a demagogue. It may have been memories of his early career rather than the conduct of his late life that exacerbated Republican sentiment and brought about his murder. Augustus was at all events at great pains to preserve the outward forms of a constitution.
The real source of his power was not merely the army, which now accepted his unrivalled supremacy. From the days which had immediately followed his great-uncle’s death, he had realized the political importance of finance. After Philippi, lack of funds had considerably embarrassed him, but with the downfall of Cleopatra, the vast treasury of Egypt, which for different reasons Cassius and Antony had both failed to commandeer, was at his disposal. His “privy purse” (fiscus) was administered separately from the Roman state treasury (aerarium), but in practice he controlled both funds. Similarly, there was a distinction between imperial and constitutional procedure in provincial administration. The outlying frontier provinces, in which the Roman legions were stationed, were more obviously under command of the emperor; in home territories, where war was not expected, administration was more apparently civil and senatorial.
If we wish to stress the constitutional aspect of Augustus’ rule, we may refer to it as the Principate, but the term Empire is that which has best survived in history, the word “emperor” being derived from imperator, the title by which a victorious general had normally been acclaimed by the celebrating populace in the later days of the Republic.
Apart from the legions in military provinces at the circumference of the Roman world, it was important to the emperors that they should be able to rely on a nucleus of armed strength at the centre. The Republican general’s unit of headquarter troops, the praetorian cohort, developed in Imperial times into the Praetorian Guard, a privileged corps d’élite. The Guard, quartered in the vicinity of the city, was originally composed of nine cohorts, each probably 1,000 strong, and included both infantry and cavalry elements. These served as a bodyguard to the emperors.
In 2 BC, two officers (praefecti) were appointed to command the praetorian cohorts, and as praetorian prefect, Sejanus (Lucius Aelius Seianus), the adviser of Tiberius, Augustus’ successor, attained dangerous power. Later, the Praetorians realized only too well the extent of the emperors’ reliance on them. They became makers and breakers of emperors.
Three urban cohorts were also created for police purposes in the city. They served under their own prefect and were each commanded by a tribune. In practice, their political significance became comparable to that of the Praetorians, though they were not paid so highly.
In addition, there were seven cohorts called cohortes vigilum, who served as firemen and night police. Other troops regularly stationed in Italy were the marines at the naval bases of Misenum and Ravenna. These contingents were sometimes used for fatigue and pioneer duties in support of the army or in aid of public works.
The Roman navy, at such times as it could be said to exist at all, was always the junior service. However, Augustus was at pains to maintain it, for he needed to preserve lines of communication between Italy and the provinces. Of no small account were the naval forces whose allegiances had been transferred to him after the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra, and he was able to establish fleets in the eastern and western Mediterranean and in the Black Sea. Other naval squadrons operated on the Danube, the Rhine and in the English Channel.
Campaigns in Illyricum, under Augustus’ destined successor, Tiberius, had safeguarded the route to the east by the Via Egnatia and Thessalonica, and the freedom of the Adriatic from pirates was further assured by the construction of the naval base at Ravenna. The Mediterranean in general was well policed under Augustus, and his was the last Roman administration to take effective measures against piracy.
Preoccupation with sea routes was the logical accompaniment of provincial road-building which proceeded under the Empire. Italy in the time of the Republic had acquired a good road system. Apart from that, the Via Egnatia, referred to above, and the Via Domitia, which led from the Rhône to the Pyrenees, were also Republican achievements. In Augustus’ time, new Alpine roads were made and communications facilitated with the Danube. The characteristically straight Roman roads, adhering where possible to high ground, were planned to satisfy military requirements. But at the same time, of course, they opened the way to trade and assisted official contacts.
The legions which in the first century AD extended and, later, defended the frontiers of the Empire were distinguished by names and numbers, though some of the numbers were duplicated. The names commemorated the patrons or creators of the legions, as for example the Legio Angusta, or else they referred to some event in regimental history, or marked a local connection, as in Macedonica or Gallica. Augustus’ army originally contained 28 legions. But three of these were annihilated in the great Roman military disaster of AD 9, when Augustus’ general, Publius Quinctilius Varus, was treacherously ambushed by the German chief Arminius in the Teutoburgian Forest. The numbers of these three ill-starred legions were as a consequence never allotted to Roman legions at a later date.
A Roman governor, in charge of an imperial province, ordinarily ranked as a legatos of the emperor. Legions apart auxiliary troops including cavalry contingents were an important element in the garrison of a province. Under Augustus, auxiliaries, which during the first century BC had been composed of foreign troops, once more began to recruit Roman citizens. This was in part because Roman citizenship itself had by now been conferred on many communities and individuals outside Italy. The social distinction being lost, auxiliaries tended to be integrated with legions. In permanent frontier stations auxiliary cavalry and infantry were posted at first from distant provinces. But as a matter of convenience, auxiliaries came to be recruited locally and the distinction between the legionaries and auxilia was accordingly once more obscured. However, military policy favoured independent cavalry tactics. From the reign of Trajan onwards, tribal non-Romanized units, known as numeri, were recruited; their role corresponded in some ways to that of auxilia in more ancient times.
The disaster which the Romans suffered in Germany under Varus was the result of an attempt to establish frontiers farther east, on the Elbe. Its effect was that Roman emperors were from that time onward content, as Julius Caesar had been, to rely on punitive and retaliatory action in order to assert a Roman presence on the Rhine. Augustus himself, at the end of his life, made it quite clear that his territorial ambitions were not unlimited. Defence, however, often entails offensive initiative, and he had been at great pains to secure the line of the Danube.
The most suitable location of frontiers was a question which left room for uncertainty, above all in the reign of an emperor of unbalanced mind, such as Gaius (Caligula) proved to be. His inexplicable vacillations could well have been damaging to Roman prestige, and the expansionist policies of the mild-mannered Claudius, who succeeded him, may have been necessary to ensure that enemies beyond the frontier were left with no illusions about the reality of Roman strength. Claudius, in need of a military reputation, added first Mauretania, then Britain to the Empire. Roman domination was carried farther by Trajan, who annexed Armenia and temporarily occupied much of Parthia. Rome, however, was never able to impose itself finally on the Parthians.
Apart from frontier fighting, Roman forces were on various occasions during the first century called upon to deal with local rebellions. Information at our disposal is often meagre, but such insurrections seem to have been variously motivated. It is not always easy to distinguish between local grievances and national aspirations of the peoples involved. Rebellion might naturally be expected in a recently subdued province such as Britain. The tribe of Catuvellauni, perhaps subjects of the Cassivellaunus dynasty which had confronted Julius Caesar, had by now extended its sway over south-east Britain. A refugee British prince, seeking aid against his father Cunobelinus (Cymbeline) had given the Emperor Gaius pretext for an invasion, but Gaius contented himself with a military demonstration on the Channel coast of Gaul. When a similar opportunity presented itself to the succeeding Emperor Claudius, it was taken in earnest. Caratacus,1 the British prince with whom the Romans now had to contend, was defeated. He took refuge with Cartimandua, a northern British queen, who was a Roman ally, but she betrayed him and he was sent with his family as a captive to Rome. Claudius magnanimously spared his life.
Boadicea (Boudicca), who revolted in the year 60, was not a member of the Cassivellaunus dynasty, but had been left queen of the Iceni at the death of her husband. The harsh and humiliating treatment of Roman administrators drove her to take up arms. The governor of Britain, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, who had played a prominent part in the conquest of Mauretania nearly 20 years earlier, hurried back from the uncivilized regions of north-west Wales where he had been operating, and Boudica’s defeat and suicide followed. Meanwhile, however, Camulodunum (Colchester), London and Verulamium (St Albans) had been sacked with a massive death toll among the Romans and their British adherents.
Gnaeus Julius Agricola – even allowing for the fact that Tacitus was his son-in – law-must have been an able and energetic administrator. He had served under Paulinus in Britain, and in other parts of the Empire as well, before his appointment as governor in 78. His military operations did much to secure Roman rule in Britain. Tacitus would have been a better military historian if he had paid closer attention to geography. He probably had no precise idea himself as to where the battle of Mons Graupius was fought or where the river Tanaus was. We are left to guess that the former site was somewhere in Scotland, and the Tanaus has been identified variously as the Tyne, Tweed, Tay or even Solway. Fortunately, archaeology has come to our aid in the tracing of Agricola’s movements. At all events, he carried his victorious campaigns into the Scottish Highlands. As a demonstration of strength, he circumnavigated the whole island of Britain, and his military successes were accompanied by wise administration.
The conflict with Boudica may be traced in part to extortionate Roman financial practices: such in fact as had, under the Republic, rendered the eastern Mediterranean world sympathetic to Mithridates. Roman rapacity was a recurrent source of trouble and had in AD 21 led to a notable insurrection in Gaul, led by Julius Sacrovir. Sacrovir was a Romanized Gallic noble of the tribe of the Aedui, Julius Caesar’s old allies. He was eventually defeated by the Roman governor of the upper Rhine province (Germania Superior) and committed suicide. But the same record of local misgovernment continued to explain revolt. Administrators like Agricola were the exception rather than the rule. Later in the century (89), an upper Rhine governor himself, Lucius Antonius Saturninus, raised an insurrection and caused the Emperor Domitian to set out in alarm on a northwards expedition. The governor of the lower Rhine, however, remained loyal to the Emperor and Saturninus was defeated and killed, his eastward German allies having been prevented, apparently by a sudden thaw, from crossing the frozen river. The precise occasion of this revolt is uncertain, but again one would guess that finance lay at the heart of the matter.
Among serious rebellions that occurred in the first century of imperial history was the Jewish War, in which Josephus was involved. This was the product not only of economic causes but of outraged religious susceptibilities. The Romans were in general tolerant of religion, but did not know how to deal with religions which were themselves intolerant (as Judaism and Christianity were). The violence did not end when, after a horrifying siege, Jerusalem fell (AD 70) to the future Emperor Titus. Its total destruction, accompanied by appalling loss of life, provoked a series of revolts by Jewish populations in other provinces, which culminated (115–116) in insurrections throughout Syria, Cyprus, Egypt and Cyrenaica. Casualties are reported as running into hundreds of thousands. These events in turn led ultimately to repercussions in Palestine. Of Bar Kokhba’s revolt, something has been learnt from the literature of the Dead Sea caves.
Insurrections during the first century of imperial government suggest that there was often enough provincial discontent to provide ambitious leaders with a cause. They also show that there was sufficient military ability available to provide aggrieved communities with effective leadership. This was all the more inevitable in view of the fusion between Roman and local elements in the army. Sacrovir and Saturninus, and even Arminius, the destroyer of Varus’ legions, were or had been Roman officers. It was only a matter of time before provincial rebellions could aim at the overthrow of the emperor himself and at the transfer of his power into hands of the rebels’ choosing.
The events of the year 69 can be described more accurately in terms of civil war than of revolt, but they are the logical outcome of military and political precedents. A rebellious Romanized Gallic governor (Julius Vindex) had been defeated and killed by troops from the adjacent upper Rhine province. However, Sulpicius Galba, whose specious claims to restore the Republic he had supported, was in command of legions in Spain, and when the Praetorians at Rome proclaimed Galba as emperor, Nero, last of Augustus’ dynasty, tearfully committed suicide. Galba was soon installed at Rome, but his nomination of a successor disappointed one of his military adherents, Marcus Salvius Otho, who now conspired with the Praetorian Guard. Nor did Otho long enjoy the fruits of Galba’s murder, for a secret, as Tacitus observes, had been revealed by Galba’s shortlived success: emperors could be created elsewhere than in Rome. Even the encouragement of the Praetorians was no longer necessary.
Otho was challenged by Aulus Vitellius, a Rhine commander. The legions of the eastern and Danube frontiers apparently supported Otho. But even if the eastern support had been sincere, it was distant, and the Danube troops were slow to move. Vitellius’ officers won the crucial battle for him near Cremona, and he himself, after Otho’s suicide, travelled to Rome at his convenience. The eastern legions, however, now showed their hand and proclaimed as emperor the 60-year-old general Vespasian (Titus Flavius Vespasianus). Vespasian was in a position to block the Alexandrian corn supply. But apart from that, the Danube troops favoured him. Italy was invaded. Fighting again converged on Cremona. Vitellius was prevented by his own supporters from coming to terms with Vespasian’s brother in Rome, and the latter was killed in the fighting which followed. However, the victors of Cremona soon arrived at Rome. Vitellius was hunted down and dragged to his wretched death.
Vitellius had disbanded the Praetorian Guard and replaced them with Rhineland legionaries of his own. As such, they naturally supported him, but they were unable to resist the wrath of the invading provincial legions. The situation in which the legions of one province were not in accord with those of another may from this time on be regarded as familiar. To all appearances, conditions which had prevailed in the last century of the Republic had now been recreated. Until Nero’s death, dynastic prestige had secured continuity of government, but it needed a leader of exceptional ability to establish a new dynasty. Fortunately, Vespasian was such a leader. He reigned ten years and died at the age of 70. His sons Titus (Titus Flavius Vespasianus) and Domitian (Titus Flavius Domitianus) succeeded him in turn as Emperor.
Vespasian’s accession to power was marked by complications in Gaul. Julius Civilis, who commanded Batavian auxiliaries recruited from the Rhine delta, had on the request of Vespasian’s officer in Italy created a diversion hostile to Vitellius. This provided Civilis with the opportunity for an independent uprising. He allied himself with a nationalist movement in Gaul, which purported to set up a Gallic Empire in place of the apparently crumbling Roman authority. The Gallic movement soon collapsed, but there was a military lesson to be learnt. Roman army units composed of foreign nationals under their own leaders could easily become an embarrassment. A trend in future policy was to post foreign troops at a distance from their home territories and to arrange where possible that auxiliary units should contain more than a single nationality. As for Civilis, we do not know what happened to him. Our manuscript sources break off at this point, tantalizingly leaving him still negotiating with an eloquent Roman commander.
The Stabilization of Frontiers
The murder of Domitian in the year AD 96 was the outcome of domestic discord. Nevertheless, it gave great public satisfaction. Apart from his other shortcomings, the tyrant had failed to make adequate arrangements for a successor. The Senate appointed a new princeps, Marcus Cocceius Nerva, and Tacitus was pleased to see in this constitutional gesture a revival of Republican sentiment. Nerva was an old man at the time of his elevation. He was also childless, and after one year of power he appointed a loyal and able officer, Marcus Ulpius Traianus (Trajan), as his colleague and successor. The appointment was timely, for Nerva died early in the following year. Under Trajan, imperial expansion was renewed, and as one of Rome’s greatest soldier emperors, he was shrewd enough to nominate an equally great successor. The formal nomination and adoption which usually secured the imperial succession was much more satisfactory than the common hereditary process. It generally ensured that the successor would be a military commander, for with exceptions, one of which we have just recorded, none but a soldier could hope to survive. The Empire depended for defence and government upon military force. As for the principle of adoption itself, Roman reverence for legal forms lent it all the sanctity of a blood-tie. One may compare the relationship of patron and protégé (cliens), which we have already had occasion to notice.
Hadrian (Publius Aelius Hadrianus) who, as a connection by marriage, was Trajan’s ward and became emperor on his death, in many ways reversed the policies of his predecessor. But this does not prove that either he or Trajan was wrong. Times were changing. The steady westward migration of peoples in Asia and Europe meant that pressure on Rome’s frontiers was steadily mounting. Under Trajan, those frontiers had attained unprecedentedly wide dimensions. Hadrian saw the need for contraction and consolidation, and this policy was marked in vulnerable areas by the construction of fixed fortifications, signal posts and entrenchments. A line of forts linked by palisades, protected the intrusive salient of territory between the upper reaches of the Rhine and the Danube. Hadrian’s name is notably associated with the Roman frontier works across north Britain from the Tyne to the Solway. The line of forts and base camps, connected by a mural barrier, replaced an earlier linked chain of forts slightly to the south. “Hadrian’s Wall” was initiated as the result of the Emperor’s visit to Britain in AD 122; Hadrian spent a great deal of his reign in visiting outlying provinces. The Wall exemplifies the principles of Roman frontier defence as they existed in many sectors of the Empire. A chain of strong-points was connected by a well-defined communicating road (limes) along which troops could move with efficiency and speed.
Antoninus Pius (138–161), who succeeded Hadrian, presided over an epoch of comparative peace and plenty in the Mediterranean core of the Empire. But the price of social well-being was continual vigilance and preparedness on the frontiers. In Britain, Antoninus tried to advance the frontier – as he did in Germany – and built another wall in the form of a turf embankment on a cobblestone base, farther north, from the Forth to the Clyde. But the time came when this could no longer be defended, and after only 23 years it was decided to withdraw southwards once more and rely solely on Hadrian’s stone structure for the defence of Roman Britain.
The recourse to engineering skills in order to solve manpower problems had been Julius Caesar’s answer. Rome’s wars against the barbarians were a continual struggle against numerical odds, and with the help of technology the Romans strove to make good what they lacked in numbers. Twenty-eight legions had been all too few for Augustus’ original ambitions, and when he lost three of them in Varus’ disaster, he saw the need to reduce military commitments and shorten the perimeter of the imperial frontiers.
The military garrisons which manned frontier areas were (as a matter of policy on which we have already commented) not all nationally homogeneous. But they tended to form settled communities as a result of relationships with local women, and the resulting settled habits and lack of mobility in themselves constituted a disadvantage. However, legions were withdrawn from Britain at various dates during the centuries of Roman rule, to meet pressures in other parts of the Empire, and such withdrawals, even though the legions by this time were not all first-line troops, opened the way inevitably to northern or seaborne invaders to make incursions.
The Task of Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, who succeeded to the principate at the death of Antoninus Pius in AD 161, was also of a quiet and philosophic disposition, but unlike his predecessor he was faced with the necessity for continual warfare. The fact that he was able to meet the challenge of military duty with energy and unbroken resolve indicates some kind of spiritual triumph over his natural temperament, at the same time making him a practising as distinct from a purely academic philosopher.
War against Parthia (162–3) was only a prelude to barbarian incursions on the Danube front (166). It was already well recognized that responsibility for imperial defence was more than a single emperor could support. An emperor’s nominated successor, who now ordinarily received the title of “Caesar”, was also a colleague. Marcus Aurelius was not very fortunate in his colleague Lucius Verus, whose adoption derived from a decision of Hadrian. Marcus, showing perhaps poor judgment of character, arranged that the task of imperial government should be shared, and Verus, ruling as an equal on a collegiate basis, took command of the war against Parthia, which was won for him by his able officer Avidius Cassius.
The major cities of Parthia were captured, but this victory, like that of Trajan, though westward territories were annexed, could not lead to permanent Roman occupation of Parthia. The days were past when Romans and Parthians fought each other with characteristic national weapons and battles were a conflict of highly disciplined legionaries with incalculable swarms of mounted bowmen. Arrian, writing on military tactics in the time of Hadrian, testifies to the diversification of arms and armour and the variety of combatant methods employed by the Roman army at that epoch. Trajan’s Column and other monuments tell the same story. The Romans had among their own contingents heavily mailed horsemen on the Parthian model; nor did they lack archers who could retaliate against the Parthians. If they were never able to bring the Parthian Empire within the bounds of their own, this was probably because they lacked sufficient troops to hold what had been conquered. Such vast deserts were in any case ungovernable.
Lack of numbers also told heavily against Roman defence on the Danube, and it should be stressed that Rome was now seriously on the defensive in this area. Various barbarian tribes, forced westwards and southwards by migratory pressures, crossed the Alps and reached Aquileia at the northern extremity of the Adriatic Sea. Italy was threatened as it never had been since the days of the Cimbric invasion, but the barbarians did not capture Aquileia, lacking the equipment for assaults on fortified towns. Marcus Aurelius, despite the inferior ability of his colleague, was well served by his generals on the Danube front. Lucius Verus in any case died on active service in 169, and Marcus was left in sole command.
There seems to have been a good deal of collaboration between the German tribes of the upper Danube and the Sarmatians farther east. Roman armies, relying simply on mobility and speed, had to turn abruptly from one threat to another. The invaders were defeated in a series of arduous campaigns, forced back across the Danube and reduced to quiescence. But such warfare spelt an end to current methods of frontier defence and, in years which followed, Roman strategists had to think increasingly in terms of fortified zones rather than defensible lines.
Unfortunately, the manpower problem in the time of Marcus Aurelius became all the more critical on account of a devastating plague which the army brought back from its eastern wars. Sheer lack of manpower obliged Marcus to establish a German militia, settled within the imperial frontiers, as a way of combating German threats from without. Military service was the price of the land which the settlers occupied. As the frontiers became less distinct, so also did the definition of Roman nationality. The operations of Marcus Aurelius and his officers secured the line of the Danube, but in the large frontier province of Dacia to the north of the river, which Trajan had previously annexed, a right of way was granted to the barbarian tribes, allowing them to preserve communications with their eastward compatriots. In some sense, the Empire was now provided with insulating zones but – to press the metaphor – this insulation could become a semiconductor of extraneous forces.
Marcus Aurelius would probably have rendered the territory beyond the Danube more secure, but in AD 175 he had to meet the revolt of his eastern deputy Avidius Cassius. It would seem that Cassius had been deceived by a false report that Marcus was dead, and his dissident action hardly had time to gather impetus before he was murdered by one of his own centurions. Avidius Cassius would in any case have been a preferable alternative to the Emperor’s ineffective son Commodus, who eventually filled the role of official colleague and successor.
Septimius Severus and his Army
The principate of Commodus lasted 12 years, which should have been long enough to secure the succession, but Commodus did not allow the matter to trouble him. He was eventually murderer as the result of a conspiracy hatched by his Praetorian Guard commander, who had for some time shared the real power with other favourites, and at last decided that the present emperor was no longer necessary. During the next year, two emperors were proclaimed and then murdered, while the Praetorians tried to make up their minds. At last, they gave support to Septimius Severus, who commanded the Danube legions. The legions themselves, in fact, provided a firmer backing than Praetorian caprice.
Septimius had to fight for the imperial throne against other contenders, who were also supported by provincial armies. He was victorious in the ensuing struggle, partly because he commanded more troops than his adversaries and partly because he was nearer to Rome – still the key point. He temporarily came to terms with his northern rival Clodius Albinus, governor of Britain, recognizing him as a colleague. It is surprising that Albinus was deceived so easily. Septimius had time to march eastward and defeat his other opponent, Pescennius Niger, in a series of battles in Asia Minor and Syria. He was then in a position to renew hostilities against Albinus, who had advanced into Gaul and rallied the western provinces of the Empire in his favour. Perhaps Albinus also had been playing for time. The numbers engaged in the decisive battle near Lugdumum (Lyon) are reported as being equal, and the issue for long hung in the balance, but Septimius was completely victorious, deciding the battle by his use of cavalry as an independent arm.
Septimius Severus’ military ability was allied to shrewd political insight. On being proclaimed emperor, he had been quick to occupy Rome and disband the Praetorian Guard. He then re-established the Praetorians to suit his own convenience. In the past, the Praetorian cohorts had normally been recruited from Italy, but Septimius threw membership open to all legionaries. This meant in practice that Praetorians were picked from the Illyrian legions which had supported him. They continued to serve him admirably as an imperial corps d’élite in the course of his eastern campaign.
Having eliminated other imperial pretenders, Septimius undertook an effective punitive expedition against the Parthians, who had given support to Niger, his eastern rival. He also had to act promptly in Britain, for the province, stripped of troops by Albinus for his continental adventure, was badly exposed to Caledonian invaders from the north. But Septimius’ British campaign was incomplete and he was preparing to renew hostilities when he died at Eburacum (York) in AD 211.
Septimius Severus admired soldiers and believed in them, particularly in the soldiers of the Roman army. For him, their welfare was a paramount consideration, and one cannot help feeling that his attitude, despite its serious economic implications, was right. Roman civilization had come to depend completely on military power capable of defending the frontiers, and citizens who enjoyed the peace and comfort of metropolitan territories could at least be expected to support the defence effort with their tax contributions. Septimius, in fact, made sure that they did so.
Among other reforms which favoured the soldiers, he legislated that they should be able to marry legally while on service. This facility had not previously existed, though emperors in the past had given some sort of recognition to the relations which soldiers contracted with local women and to the children which resulted. Official attitudes on this subject seem to have been in conflict. On the one hand, the serving soldier was discouraged from forming local ties which might divert him from his principal allegiance to Rome. On the other, it was desired that he should feel at home in the army. The new legislation rectified anomalies. In any case Septimius’ son, colleague and successor, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (known by the nickname of Caracalla) in subsequent years recognized the Roman citizenship of all freeborn provincials. The new constitutional enactment was not credited by an unimpressed posterity with generous motives, but regarded rather as a means of widening liability to tax. But it meant that civilians in general made a greater contribution to the defence budget. Of such a policy, Septimius would have approved.