The Principate Roman Army I

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The Principate Roman Army I

The gradual changes in the nature of the Roman army between
the time of Tiberius and 235 certainly affected both Roman society and the
empire’s internal power-struggles. Did they also affect Rome’s strength at the
periphery? The really big changes were three, though they had all started well
before Tiberius’ accession. The first was the regular organization of
‘auxiliary’ troops into quasi-permanent units in which they would normally
serve for twenty-five years before being made Roman citizens on discharge, a
system set up by Augustus and refined by his successors. As in centuries past,
such troops often outnumbered the legionaries, and their effectiveness was of
profound importance.

That leads, secondly, to the matter of recruitment. In the
era of the civil wars of 49 to 31 bc, and under Augustus, provincials had
entered the legions in large numbers. Recruits came from Roman-colonial or
Romanized communities, but also from others: thus an inscription of the early
Principate (ILS 2483) shows that almost all the soldiers in the two legions
stationed in Egypt had been recruited in non-citizen communities in the eastern
provinces (their lingua franca was Greek). All over the empire, the more
Romanized provinces provided more and more of the legionaries, while Italians –
who made up the bulk of the better-paid praetorian guard – provided fewer and
fewer. The authorities were now quite willing in practice to recruit
non-citizens, giving them citizenship when they were sworn in. This
‘provincialization’ probably reflected some Roman/Italian reluctance to serve
(Italy was too prosperous) but also some intention on the emperors’ part to
bring provincials into the mainstream. From Hadrian’s reign on, the normal
pattern (though not in Britain) was to recruit legionaries in the provinces
where they were needed, but from relatively Romanized/Hellenized elements (and
legionaries were more likely than ‘auxiliaries’ to be literate). This was by
and large a well-organized and disciplined force; and fighting spirit was
probably not lacking either, at least down to Trajan’s time – when
battle-commanders chose to entrust the initial impact of the fighting to
‘auxiliary’ units and keep the legionaries in reserve, a procedure that is
first attested in a major battle at Idastaviso in Germany in AD 16 (Tacitus,
Annals 2.16.3), there could be a variety of tactical reasons.

‘Auxiliary’ recruitment was quite different: the government
concentrated on fringe areas such as Iberian Galicia and Thrace, simply
supplying officers from the core area of the empire; such units were commonly
posted away from their home areas, Britons for example in Upper Germany, while
the auxilia in Britain itself might, for example, be Batavian or Syrian.
Eventually, but unfortunately we do not know when, Rome also began to employ
soldiers who are unlikely to have felt themselves to be Roman subjects: Marcus
sent 5,500 cavalry of the Transdanubian Iazyges, whom he had just subdued, to
serve in Britain (Dio 71.16). There were Goths garrisoning Arabia in 208, and
Goths later took part in Valerian’s war against the Persians. This was probably
an increasing trend, but it is hard to tell how much the armies of, say,
Constantine and Licinius were really dependent on Goths or Arabs, whom they are
known to have made use of.

The other military change of potentially great importance in
the period prior to 235 was not so much that many units in the Roman army
became ‘sedentary’ from generation to generation, becoming deeply involved in
essentially administrative duties, but that many Roman soldiers never
experienced battle. This army had never been invincible, but its deplorable
failure to protect the Danube frontier in 170–1 suggests significant changes for
the worse. Enemy forces reached northern Italy for the first time in some 270
years, while others, as already mentioned, raided as far south as Attica. Our
sources on all this are poor, but it may be conjectured that a shortage of
officers and soldiers seasoned by warfare had a great deal to do with Rome’s
failure, and this in turn was the indirect result of conscious policy. In other
respects, the Romans were normally at an advantage: throughout this period they
were superior to their opponents in important areas such as artillery and
engineering (‘the soldiers are always practising bridge-building’, Dio 71.3).

Temporary causes admittedly contributed, and the Danube line
still had a long future. Marcus Aurelius, as we have seen, had had to raise two
new legions about 165 to replace the three which his co-ruler Verus had taken
from the Rhine and Danube to the east in order to fight the Parthians. Shortly
thereafter, the Roman military in the north suffered seriously from the Great
Pestilence, as recent studies have demonstrated. Marcus himself had had no
military or even provincial experience before 168 – and it showed. Imperial
coin-types furthermore had often exaggerated the emperors’ military
achievements, and there was a risky deception involved when coin-types absurdly
declared in 172–4 ‘Germania subacta’ – ‘Germany has been vanquished’.

Few historians have really tried to evaluate the Severan
army, and the evidence is slippery. Even republican armies sometimes mutinied,
and there were whole rhetorical topoi about undisciplined soldiery. But an army
stationed in Mesopotamia that was mutinous enough to assassinate the provincial
governor (about 227, Dio 80.4.2) was a very negative symptom (and see below on
the year 235).

We have quite a lot of information about how the Roman army
changed between Severan times and Constantine, but assessing its ability to do
its job is nonetheless difficult. On the one hand it never, unlike the
republican army, won battles it might well have lost, on the other it never, unlike
the late-antique Roman army, lost battles that it ought to have won. We have
little option but to judge it by its results, though these may be mainly
attributable not to its own qualities but to those of its generals, or its
logistics, or its enemies, or to any combination of these factors. Recent
accounts of Rome’s military performance in this 100-year period are
unsatisfactory, but our sources are admittedly tenuous to a degree, whether it
is for the defeat at Abrittus in 251 or the battle nine years later in which,
or after which, the Persians captured the emperor Valerian (some Roman sources
naturally preferred to claim that he was captured by trickery).

Tiberius already knew that it was worth keeping two legions
in Dalmatia partly in order to back up the legions on the Danube (Tacitus,
Annals 4.5). Later Roman emperors eventually concluded that the long-standing
dispositions of the Roman army, with the great majority of the soldiers
stationed on or near the frontiers, were ill adapted to resisting major
invasions that might come from different directions. It had always been
necessary to balance the needs of the Danube frontier and the Euphrates
frontier, but both became more dangerous in late-Severan times. Once Rome
surrendered the initiative, the distances involved presented an almost
insoluble problem: it took something over two months, for example, for troops
to travel from Rome to Cologne. The best that could be done was to create a
reserve army that could be sent wherever it was needed without weakening some
vital garrison. It appears to have been Gallienus who created a central cavalry
force (cf. Zosimus, New History 1.40, Cedrenus, i, p. 454 Bekker). The
development of these comitatenses, as they came to be called, is impossible to
follow in any detail, but Constantine apparently expanded their role (Zosimus
2.21.1 may refer to such troops), while also centralizing the command structure
of the army by means of an overall infantry commander (the magister peditum)
and a parallel cavalry commander (the magister equitum). Nonetheless it
remained difficult to counter any large invasion once it had passed the
northern or eastern frontiers. An enterprising governor might raise a local
militia (populares: AÉ 1993 no. 1231b shows us a governor of Raetia doing this
in 260), but they would be largely untrained and untried.

The reliefs on the Arch of Constantine distinguish between
his Roman and his ‘barbarian’ troops, which raises again the complex question
of whether Rome was now relying too much on troops who were merely mercenaries.
According to the emperor Julian (Caesars 329a), Constantine ‘practically paid
tribute’ to the barbarians, and modern accounts suppose that he and his rival
Licinius made Rome significantly more reliant on German and other non-Roman
troops than any previous ruler; but the ill effects do not yet seem to be

The strength of the Roman Empire’s numerous and various
neighbours to the north, east, and south can only be judged, once again, by the
results, their aims likewise. From Tiberius’ time to Trajan’s, those who kept
their freedom from Rome and their territorial integrity were doing well; this
applies mainly to the Romans’ failure to advance far beyond the Rhine and to
hold on to Mesopotamia. The incursions of the 160s–70s and of the 240s–60s
showed a great deal of vigour. The invaders’ goal was often plunder, including
human beings, which the Roman Empire offered in abundance. Dio (71.16) asserts
that the Iazyges had taken far more than ‘ten myriads’ of prisoners in Roman
territory – a five- rather than a six-digit number, one might think. (Some of
the third-century booty has been recovered from the bed of the Rhine, rafts
having apparently sunk). Not even Sasanian Persia, the most powerful external
enemy Rome faced in this period, showed any determination to hold on to any
Roman province, and in fact it had no reliable means of protecting its own core
area against Roman forces that were always relatively near. But northern
peoples had already in the second century extracted territorial concessions of
a sort, obtaining lands within the Roman frontier. This practice went back to
Julio-Claudian times. Initially the advantages to Rome probably outweighed the
disadvantages; whether that continued to hold true in and after Marcus
Aurelius’ time we shall consider in a moment. It certainly looks like a major
surrender to strong outside pres- sure. Purchasing the docility of outside
enemies by means of payments, unless it was a short-lived tactical expedient,
was likewise a recognition of real enemy strength: this started with Domitian,
but involved Trajan, Hadrian, and many later emperors. Yet from a Roman point
of view, this was by no means an irrational policy, within limits.

Fundamental changes had taken place by the time the conglomeration
of Germans known as the Alamanni (‘All Men’), who are first attested in a Roman
source in 213, inflicted quite serious harm in 232–3. This was nothing less
perhaps than the birth of a new national formation. What made a difference here
was probably in the end quite simple: such a new grouping, like the Franks from
about 260, could put larger forces into the field than any single German
people. But the tetrarchs and Constantine could always, it seems, defeat the
northern peoples on the battlefield.

Imperial Roman High Command

The aspirations of soldiers who wished to enter into the
militiae equestres highlight the often strange and convoluted path to
advancement in the Roman army and administration. The usual pattern of
promotion from the ranks of the army (via the primipilate and the Rome
tribunates) bypassed the equestrian officer commands in the militiae and
instead led to the procuratorial career. The opportunities for a former soldier
to be placed in direct command of troops at a more senior level included the
posts of praefectus classis, praesidial procurator, or the prefectures of the
vigiles and praetorian guard. However, there are few indications that the Roman
administration actively preferred former soldiers for these posts, and many a
primipilaris is later found in financial procuratorships. The senior legionary
and provincial commands were restricted to senators; experienced primipilares,
as middle-aged men, were not normally suitable for entrance into the senate.
This meant that there was no coherent career path from soldier to general in
the principate. The promotion of former soldiers into the militiae equestres
represented one challenge to this system, but it was not enough in and of
itself to prompt the overhaul of the military career structure. This only
happened gradually over the course of the late second and third centuries AD.

The emperors traditionally invested military authority in
their senatorial legates, both the governors of consular and praetorian
provinces, as well as any senators appointed to ad hoc supra-provincial
commands, as in the case of Cn. Domitius Corbulo or C. Avidius Cassius.
Important campaigns requiring significant forces, such as Trajan’s Dacian and
Parthian Wars, saw the emperor and his senatorial generals assume primary
command of the legions. Equestrian officers, usually in the militiae equestres,
were placed in control of auxiliary troops or smaller detachments. For example,
in the Parthian War of Lucius Verus, M. Valerius Lollianus, prefect of the ala
II Flavia Agrippiana, was appointed praepositus of vexillations of auxiliary
units in Syria. During this campaign Lollianus answered to the senior
senatorial commanders: the governor of Cappadocia, M. Statius Priscus Licinius
Italicus, and M. Claudius Fronto, who was legatus Augusti in charge of an
expeditionary army of legions and auxiliaries. The majority of Marcus Aurelius’
senior commanders during his German wars, which occupied most of the 170s, were
likewise senatorial generals. The praetorian prefects, who commanded the
cohortes praetoriae and the imperial horse guard (equites singulares Augusti),
were the exception to this roster of senatorial commanders. The praetorian
prefect was occasionally entrusted with more senior authority, as when Domitian
gave Cornelius Fuscus control over the conduct of his First Dacian War after
the senatorial governor of Moesia, Oppius Sabinus, was killed in battle. Marcus
Aurelius likewise invested his prefect Taruttienus Paternus with command of an
expeditionary force at the beginning of his Second German War in AD 177. These
shortterm appointments did not in and of themselves bring about a change in
senatorial military authority.

There was a clear military hierarchy for senators: they
could serve as military tribunes, then as legionary legates, then govern a two-
or three legion province. There was no such well-defined path for equites, and
no opportunity for talented equestrians to lead large expeditionary forces at a
high rank. This meant that ad hoc solutions had to be devised, as happened in
the 160s-170s AD during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. M. Valerius Maximianus,
who began his career in the militiae equestres, was placed in charge of cavalry
units sent to the eastern provinces to assist in suppressing the revolt of
Avidius Cassius. Since he had advanced beyond the militiae, Maximianus’ higher
standing was recognised by giving him the status of centenarius, the equivalent
of a procurator. The same type of promotion was employed for his contemporary,
L. Iulius Vehilius Gallus Iulianus, who had also advanced beyond the militia
quarta. Iulianus was granted the exceptional title of `procurator Augusti and
praepositus of vexillations’, as a way of recognising his seniority in several
campaigns during this period. These commissions at procuratorial rank
represented an attempt to create an equestrian equivalent to the senatorial
legionary legate. The only alternative would have been to promote these
equestrians into the senate at the rank of expraetor. This did eventually occur
in the case of M. Valerius Maximianus and two of his Antonine contemporaries,
P. Helvius Pertinax and M. Macrinius Avitus Catonius Vindex. But Iulianus
remained an eques, eventually ascending to the praetorian prefecture under

It must be emphasised that these promotions did not
represent any attempt to advance hardened soldiers from the ranks to senior
commands. Maximianus was from the curial class of Poetovio in Pannonia, while
Vindex was the son of the praetorian prefect M. Macrinius Vindex. Pertinax was
the son of a freedman, but had obtained equestrian rank and a commission in the
militiae thanks to prominent senatorial patrons. The origins of Iulianus are
unknown, but he certainly began his career in the militiae. There was only one
seasoned solider on Marcus Aurelius’ staff: the praetorian prefect M. Bassaeus
Rufus, who was from a poor and humble background, and had risen via the
primipilate and a procuratorial career. The wars of Marcus Aurelius therefore
introduced some important innovations, which highlighted notable problems with
the developing equestrian cursus. The second century AD had witnessed the
consolidation of the equestrian aristocracy of service, men who were prepared
to serve the state domi militiaeque in the same manner as senators. Yet there
was no clear way for these men to assume high military commands as equites,
resulting in the creation of ad hoc procuratorial appointments.

The reign of Septimius Severus witnessed important
developments for the Roman military establishment, and the place of the equestrian
order within it. Severus created three new legions, the I, II and III Parthica,
each of which was placed under the command of an equestrian praefectus
legionis, not a senatorial legate. The first and third Parthian legions were
stationed in the new province of Mesopotamia, which was entrusted to an
equestrian prefect on the model of the province of Egypt. The commanders of the
legions therefore had to be equites in order to avoid having a senator answer
to an equestrian governor. This had been the practice of Augustus when he
installed the legio XXII Deiotariana and the legio III Cyrenaica in Egypt under
equestrian prefects. The same command structure was maintained in the legio II
Traiana, which was the sole legion stationed in Egypt in the Severan age. The
third new legion founded by Severus, the legio II Parthica, was quartered at
Albanum just outside Rome, and thus became the first legion to be permanently
stationed in Italy. One prefect of the II Parthica, T. Licinius Hierocles, is
recorded with the exceptional title of praefectus vice legati (`the prefect
acting in place of the legate’), though this was probably only a formality,
since no senatorial legates are on record.

The career paths for the officers of the Parthian legions
followed the pattern of the legions stationed in Egypt. Their tribunates were
integrated into the militiae equestres, with some tribunes of the Parthian
legions going on to procuratorial careers in the usual manner. The traditional
route to the prefecture of the legio II Traiana in Egypt was via the
primipilate and the Rome tribunates. The command of this legion ranked as a
ducenarian procuratorship by the Antonine period, and the same status was given
to the prefects of the new legiones Parthicae. The first prefect of a Parthian
legion, C. Iulius Pacatianus, was promoted from the militiae equestres, but
thereafter the commands appear to have been given to primipilares, following
the Egyptian precedent. This suggests that Septimius Severus was following
traditional status hierarchies when establishing his new Parthian legions.
There was certainly no move to replace senatorial legates with equestrian
prefects elsewhere in the empire. This had been attempted by Sex. Tigidius
Perennis, Commodus’ praetorian prefect, after the British legions acclaimed the
senatorial legionary legate Priscus as emperor. When Perennis tried to place
equestrians in command of the legions, this punitive measure provoked a military
revolt that eventually led to his downfall. Severus was not about to repeat
this mistake, and therefore his new legions fitted with existing equestrian
paradigms and career paths.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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