Imperial Japanese Army Legacy 1920-45

On August 16, 1945, Maj. Sugi Shigeru led about 100 young soldiers from the army’s air signal training school in Ibaraki prefecture to Tokyo in order to protect the emperor from the imminent allied occupation. The Guard Division, which was responsible for defending the palace, shooed them away, but the group congregated at Ueno Park, eventually occupying the art museum. More arrivals from the school swelled their numbers to around 400 armed and emotional young men. Sugi ignored senior officers’ orders to disband, and the next day Maj. Ishihara Sadakichi, a Guard Division officer and friend of Sugi’s, was sent to convince him to leave. While the two were talking, a second lieutenant assigned to the training school walked up and shot Ishihara to death. Sugi in turn shot and killed the lieutenant. The murders broke the spell of an imperial rescue mission, and the disillusioned troops drifted away. That night Sugi and three other junior officers committed suicide. The scene of the army’s decisive victory in 1868 over supporters of the Tokugawa shogunate became the backdrop for the imperial army’s violent curtain call in 1945.

Radical young reformers had created the new army of 1868 and forged intensely personal relationships as young men at war bonded by danger. Their personal ties created a web of informal connections that transcended the emerging political, military, and bureaucratic institutions. The first generation of leaders not only held the various levers of state power but also knew how to use them. They also possessed a self-assertiveness that attracted adherents and repelled opponents.

The army’s formative experiences left it riven with competing internal factions dominated by strong contending personalities who held diametrically opposing visions of a future army. Reaction to the Chōshū-Satsuma domination of senior military ranks produced anti-Yamagata stalwarts like Miura and Soga who simultaneously represented a French faction that opposed Yamagata’s and Katsura’s Prussian clique. Arguments about the merits of differing force structures and the functions of a general staff consumed most of the 1880s. Though the army successfully adapted division formations and staff organizations, it failed to institutionalize the highest decision-making process and formalize command and control arrangements.

Lacking that apparatus, army leaders had to rely on the emperor to resolve disagreements and authorize policy. From beginning to end, the army depended on its relationship with the throne for authority as well as legitimacy and enshrined its unique connection to the emperor in the Meiji Constitution. Although the army steadily increased its power, it still remained one of many government institutions (which were simultaneously expanding their influence) competing for imperial certification. Initially, army leaders used the symbols of the throne to promote nationalism or a sense of nationhood, but by the early 1900s they were manipulating the imperial institution to secure larger force structures and budgets. By the 1930s they used appeals to the throne to justify illegal acts at home and aggression overseas.

The formative period realized its immediate goal, which was the preservation of domestic order. Had Japan fallen into civil chaos during the 1870s or 1880s, the nation might have shared a fate similar to China’s. By quelling civil disturbances and crushing armed insurrections, the army guaranteed domestic order and became the bedrock of the oligarchic government. Thereafter a series of midrange objectives carried Japan through two limited regional wars. In each the army initially sought to protect previously acquired gains on the Asian continent, and successive victories brought in new acquisitions that in turn required protection and ever-larger military forces.

Between 1868 and 1905 the army played a significant role in achieving the nebulous but shared national strategic goal of creating “a rich country and a strong army.” At the least, the slogan suggested a general approach to modernize Japan in order to fend off potential enemies. The well-ordered colonial world of nineteenth-century western imperialism fit the conservative approach of Japan’s oligarchs and military leaders, who were often the same individuals. Working in a well-defined international system, men like Yamagata cautiously developed the army’s strategy in reaction to events.

Successors built on Yamagata’s foundation, modified the army’s institutions to meet new requirements, and institutionalized doctrine, training, and professional military education. The steadily expanding conscription system indoctrinated youths, who in turn transmitted military values to their communities, as the army became an accepted part of the larger society. But the second generation of leadership faced the problem of perpetuating the oligarch consensus, an impossible task because of the emergence of other strong competing elites—the bureaucracy, political parties, big business—whose demands for their shares of power and influence inevitably shifted national priorities and international policies.

Furthermore, once the nation had achieved the goals of the Meiji Restoration, a new strategic consensus was required. It never materialized. The army responded with strategic plans that reflected narrow service interests, not national ones. Army culture increasingly protected the military institution at the expense of the nation. One might say the army had always put itself first, but after 1905 the tendency was exacerbated by the absence of an agreed-upon common opponent, a strategic axis of advance, and force structure requirements.

Until the Russo-Japanese War fierce debates raged within the army about Japan’s future. Should the government be satisfied to be a minor power defended by a small territorial army, or should Japan, undergirded by an expanded army and navy, aspire to a dominant role in Asia? Imperial sanction for the 1907 imperial defense policy set Japan on the latter course because of fears of a Russian war of revenge, rising anti-Japanese sentiment in the United States, and an obsession to preserve continental interests acquired at great cost in blood and treasure. International pressures helped to shape the army, but perhaps the internal debate, division, and dissension were decisive in its overall evolution. In other words, the formulation of strategy, doctrine, and internal army policy decided the army’s and the nation’s fate.

Japan’s post-1905 aspirations for regional security enlarged the army’s responsibilities to encompass garrison and pacification duties in Korea and the railroad zone in Manchuria. The army’s emphasis in the 1907 imperial defense policy aimed to protect those newly acquired interests by conducting offensive operations against a resurgent Russia. The navy, intent on expanding south, identified the United States as its potential opponent. Military objectives were not focused, and the formulation of long-term military strategy foundered as the army compromised internally on force structure issues and externally with the navy over budget shares and the strategic axis of advance.

Too often after 1907 long-term strategic planning was sacrificed for short-term service-specific goals to protect budgets and resolve internal doctrinal and philosophical differences. Formalized strategic planning reflected parochial service interests, not national ones, and military strategy habitually depended on unrealistic plans that the nation could not afford. Military strategy was never integrated into a comprehensive national strategy and never fully coordinated from the top. The last cabinet consensus was for war with Russia in 1904, but even then there was no service agreement on how to fight the campaign. Decision-making had less to do with national unanimity than with the absence of an agreed-upon national strategy.

Unable and unwilling to resolve fundamental differences, the services went their separate strategic ways and produced operational and force structure requirements whose implementation would have bankrupted the nation. Recognizing this, the Diet and political parties consistently rejected the army’s more radical proposals for higher appropriations into the early 1920s. At a time of unprecedented global flux, internal fissures plagued army planning and operations while external friction with the legislature, the imperial court, and the public disrupted hopes for service expansion.

Economic austerity intensified the bitter factional disputes over strategy and force structure that erupted between Tanaka Giichi, Ugaki Kazushige, and Uehara Yusaku. These were not idle disagreements about abstract numbers of divisions but fundamental expressions of substantially different approaches to future warfare. Put differently, the army had moved from its personality-based cliques of the nineteenth century to professionally based groups led by officers holding competing and incompatible visions of future warfare. Traditionalists argued there was no need to match the technology of the West because Japan’s next war would be in northeast Asia, not Western Europe. Excessive reliance on technology would detract from traditional martial values and fighting spirit. And the divergent proposals became zero-sum choices; the army either funded personnel or modernization.

Major international realignments after World War I, particularly in Northeast Asia, reinvigorated the army’s mission. Under the revised postwar international structure, Japan confronted a growing Chinese nationalism, a resurgent Soviet Union in North Asia, and a weakening of the western grip on Asia. New ideologies of communism, democracy, and national self-determination threatened the army’s core values by questioning the legitimacy of the imperial throne. During and after World War I, changing requirements for national security rewrote the rules governing international relations. Alliances that had been the basis of international stability were suspect. Treaties to reduce armaments or guarantee commercial opportunity appeared anti-Japanese. Most of all, modern warfare meant total war—whose preparations had to extend beyond national borders, making it impossible to pursue a conservative foreign policy in a well-ordered international framework and simultaneously achieve military goals of self-sufficiency required to wage total war.

Japan’s new theorists of warfare deemed the acquisition of China’s resources vital national interests and thereby elevated China to a central place in army strategy. Army officers became more aggressive and assertive toward China and made radical, often unilateral, decisions about national security that converted a traditionally defensive strategy into an aggressive, acquisitive one. This decisive strategic alteration set Japan on a course that challenged the postwar international order. Unilateral action by army officers failed in China in 1927 and 1928, but the army’s stunning “Conspiracy at Mukden” in 1931 rendered Manchuria and North China essential national interests. Instead of the army serving the interests of the state, the state came to serve the army.

Senior army leaders, however, were unable to agree on the limits of continental expansion or the type of army required for the changing ways of warfare. The bitter clashes between Araki and Nagata about the timing for war with the Soviet Union and army modernization were not resolved, only carried forward as disputes between Ishiwara and Umezu over China policy, rearmament, and a short-war or long-war strategy. Likewise, the war ministry and general staff often found themselves at odds over strategic decisions during the Siberian Expedition, the China Incident, and the 1941 decision for war with the Soviet Union. They continued to argue about strategy during the Asia-Pacific War, disagreeing about the merits of holding an extended defensive perimeter, Burma operations, and homeland defense, among others. The internal bickering was masked by a united front adopted against the navy, the Diet, political parties, and the foreign ministry. As much as army leaders disliked it, even in wartime they had to deal with these competing elites, compromise with them, and bargain to gain their ends.

Between 1916 and 1945, six army generals served as prime minister. Only one, Tōjō Hideki, displayed an ability to control subordinates and administer the cabinet, but his attempt to consolidate control made powerful enemies within the army who collaborated to assure his downfall. A dominant war minister like Terauchi Masatake fell victim to the rice riot mobs, Tanaka Giichi resigned after the Zhang Zuolin fiasco, and Hayashi Senjūrō quit so soon after taking the premiership that pundits nicknamed it the “eat-and-run” cabinet. Abe Nobuyuki served briefly with little distinction, and Koiso Kuniaki resigned after the defeats in the Philippines and Iwo Jima, unable to coordinate military and national strategy.

The outbreak of full-scale warfare in China in 1937 ended the army’s ambitious modernization and rearmament plans. But the army did not prepare for the last war. It planned well for the next war, only against the wrong opponent. Japan could not afford to prepare simultaneously for the army to fight the Soviet Union in Manchuria and the navy to fight the United States in the Pacific. Stated differently, the services consistently produced a military strategy that the nation could not afford. Only the United States had the resources and industrial capacity to underwrite a global maritime and continental military strategy. Japan went to war against the one opponent it could never defeat. Appeals to warrior spirit to offset American material superiority pitted merciless men against impersonal machines in a savage war that ended in atomic destruction.

Suicide tactics, fighting to the last man, and brutality during the Asia-Pacific War became the legacy of Japan’s first modern army. Yet the concept of literally fighting to the death did not gain popular acceptance until the late 1930s and was not institutionalized until 1941. After the Boshin Civil War and the Satsuma Rebellion there were no mass suicides by the defeated rebels. The collective suicides by sixteen members of the White Tiger Brigade during the Boshin War represented a tragedy of such unusual proportions that the event became enshrined in popular memory. It is true that the Meiji leaders meted out cruel punishments to high-ranking rebels and instigators, but the new government took pains to reintegrate most of the former insurgents into society. Government propaganda and the deification of wartime heroes during the Russo-Japanese War intersected with a popular reaction to western values that revived derivative samurai ideals as somehow representative of true Japanese spirit to create new standards for battlefield conduct. This attitudinal change eventually metastasized into tactical and operational doctrine that prohibited surrender, coerced soldiers to fight to the death, and ultimately endorsed the desperation kamikaze tactics of 1944–1945.

Ordinary soldiers did not fight ruthlessly to the bitter end because of a common samurai gene pool or military heritage. The great paradox is that the only samurai the new Meiji leaders ever trusted were themselves. Appeals to a mythical warrior ethos were government and army devices to promote the morale of a conscript force that neither the civil nor military leaders held in much regard.

In macro terms, soldiers fought because the educational system inculcated a sense of national identity and responsibility to the state, patriotism, and reverence for imperial values that the army in turn capitalized on to indoctrinate pliable conscripts with idealized military values. At the micro level, they continued to fight when all hope was gone for various institutional and personal reasons. Army psychologists identified tough training, solid organization, army indoctrination, and small-unit leadership as factors in sustaining unit cohesion in extremis. Personal reactions were as varied as the conscripts. Some fought to uphold family honor (usually sons of veterans), others simply to survive one more day, and most to support others. Based on recent, preliminary research, it appears that the vertical solidarity between junior leaders (lieutenants and senior sergeants) and the conscripts they led played a more significant role in combat motivation than in western armies.

Any generalizations about the army’s Asia-Pacific wartime performance require caveats. Battles or campaigns that ended in the almost total destruction of army units usually occurred when they were surrounded, as happened at Nomonhan, or defending isolated atolls such as Peleliu and smaller islands like Attu, Saipan, and Iwo Jima, where retreat was impossible. Conversely, on Guadalcanal, New Guinea, Luzon, and China, large Japanese army forces conducted tactical and operational retreats to preserve unit integrity. True, those armies suffered heavy losses, but most occurred after their logistics systems collapsed. There were also times such as at Leyte when withdrawal was an option but senior commanders’ stubbornness and ordinary soldiers’ docility had predictable disastrous results. Mutaguchi’s Burma campaign is probably the most notorious example, but even his battered army did not fight to the last man.

An assessment of the Japanese army must address its brutality. The army’s conduct in the Boshin War, the Satsuma Rebellion, and the Taiwan Expedition was at times reprehensible and reflected a combination of traditional Japanese military practices of the samurai class and late nineteenth-century western colonial pacification policies against indigenous peoples. In 1894, however, the Second Army’s massacre of Chinese at Port Arthur went beyond accepted international standards, and the army reacted by protecting its interests, not punishing the perpetrators. Just a few years later, during the Boxer Expedition, Japanese soldiers were models of good behavior, operating under draconian discipline designed to impress the western allies with the nation’s enlightened and civilized military forces. If nothing else, the experience suggests that the army could enforce strict field discipline when it found it to its advantage. The army’s conduct during the Russo-Japanese War was likewise exemplary; prisoners of war were well treated, European residents of Port Arthur were not harmed, and international rules of land warfare were observed. A decade later, German prisoners taken at Tsingtao were similarly well treated. The army’s conduct during the Siberian intervention was at times atrocious, but perhaps comprehensible, as the consequence of fighting a nasty guerrilla war in the wasteland.

A sea change in attitudes about civilians and prisoners seems to date from the 1920s. Notions of total war made civilians an essential component of an enemy’s overall war-making capability and therefore legitimate targets to one degree or another by all major military powers. The army’s hardening attitude during the 1930s about being captured complemented a growing contempt for enemies who surrendered. The permissible violence that unofficially suffused the barracks drew on concepts of superiority to toughen the conscripts while the gradual militarization of Japanese society, abetted by a national educational system that glorified martial values, contributed to a sense of moral and racial superiority. Popular stereotypes of devious Chinese made their way into field manuals, and when full-scale warfare broke out in China in 1937, officers at all levels condoned or connived at murder, rape, arson, and looting.

War crimes may afflict all armies, but the scope of Japan’s atrocities was so excessive and the punishments so disproportionate that no appeal to moral equivalency can excuse their barbarity. Between July 1937 and November 1944 in China, for instance, the army court-martialed about 9,000 soldiers for assorted offenses, most involving either crimes against superior officers or desertion, indicating that internal discipline mattered more to the army than external brutality.

By the late 1930s the Japanese army relied on violence to terrorize Chinese opponents and civilians into submission. The army was as ruthless with Japanese citizens (Okinawa being the case in point) as it was with indigenous populations under its occupation because it placed the institution’s prestige first and justified illegal acts to protect it. First readily observable after the Port Arthur massacre, the trend accelerated in the late 1920s with field insubordination (1927 Shandong), assassination (1928 Zhang Zuolin), criminal conspiracies (1931 Manchuria, 1932 Shanghai, and 1936 Inner Mongolia), and the sack of China, which began in July 1937 and continued into August 1945. The government, the army, and the navy ignored reports of mistreatment of Allied POWs and crimes against civilians to perpetuate the institution, not the nation.

Violence was idiosyncratic, depending on commanders’ attitudes and orders. Too often senior Japanese officers ordered the execution of prisoners and civilians, the destruction of villages and cities, and condoned or encouraged plunder and rape. Junior officers followed orders (or acted secure in the knowledge that no punishment awaited them), and the enlisted ranks followed the permissive lead and took out their frustration and anger on the helpless. Not all Japanese soldiers participated in war crimes, and those who did cannot be absolved because they were following orders or doing what everyone else in their unit was. They were the “ordinary men” in extraordinary circumstances who became capable of the worst.

Between the cease-fire of August 15 and Japan’s formal surrender on September 2, the cabinet ordered all ministries to destroy their records—orders that were soon extended to local government offices throughout Japan. The imperial army tried to conceal its past, particularly its long record of atrocities throughout Asia. A week-long bonfire consumed the war ministry’s and general staff’s most sensitive, and likely most incriminating, documents. Imperial general headquarters also transmitted burn-after-reading messages to overseas units ordering them to destroy records related to the mistreatment of Allied prisoners of war, transform comfort women into army nurses, and burn anything “detrimental to Jap[anese] interests.” Finally, former army officers concealed significant materials from the occupying American authorities so that they could write an “unbiased” account of what they called the Greater East Asia War after the occupation ended.

Throughout the war, the army had routinely starved and beaten prisoners and had murdered tens of thousands of Caucasian prisoners and hundreds of thousands of Asian captives. Disturbed by the postwar outpouring of such revelations, in mid-September Foreign Minister Shigemitsu Mamoru conveyed his thinking on the matter to Japanese diplomats in neutral European nations. “Since the Americans have recently been raising an uproar about the question of our mistreatment of prisoners, I think we should make every effort to exploit the atomic bomb question in our propaganda.” Instead of confronting the issue of war crimes, Shigemitsu tried to shift attention from it, a precedent the Japanese government has followed ever since.

The Allies’ dragnet for Japanese war criminals covered most of East Asia and identified and punished Japanese for war crimes committed throughout the area of Japanese conquest. Besides the twenty-eight leaders designated Class A war criminals (a number that included fourteen army generals) for plotting aggressive war, 5,700 Japanese subjects were tried as Class B and C war criminals for conventional crimes, violations of the laws of war, rape, murder, mistreatment of prisoners of war, and so forth. About 4,300 were convicted, almost 1,000 sentenced to death, and hundreds given life imprisonment.

Others escaped justice. The most notorious example was Unit 731, a biological warfare unit in Manchuria that conducted human experiments on prisoners to test the lethality of the pathogens they manufactured. At war’s end the unit destroyed its headquarters and germ-warfare facilities as its commander, Lt. Gen. Ishii Shiro, and his senior officers escaped the advancing Soviet armies and made their way back to Japan. Ishii later traded his cache of documents to Supreme Commander Allied Forces (SCAP), Japan, in exchange for immunity from prosecution as a war criminal.

For all the bluster about one’s responsibility to emulate samurai values, only about 600 officers committed suicide to atone for their roles in bringing Japan to defeat and disaster. That number included just 22 of the army’s 1,501 army generals. Other general officers disarmed their troops throughout Asia and the Pacific in accordance with Tokyo’s August 17 notification to major commands that surrendering soldiers were not to be considered prisoners of war and that unit order and discipline would be maintained.

The immediate military problems were the repatriation of overseas Japanese and the dissolution of the army. Even with Japanese cooperation, these were staggering tasks. More than 6.6 million Japanese were outside home islands (more than half of them soldiers and sailors), and there were one million Chinese and Koreans brought to Japan as forced laborers during the war who had to be returned home. About two million Japanese were in Manchuria, one million in Korea and Taiwan, and about one-and-a-half million in China. Others were scattered across Southeast Asia, the Southwest and Central Pacific, and the Philippines. The enormous mass migration was carried out between 1945 and 1947, using U.S. Navy and Japanese ships, many crewed by Japanese seamen. Repatriation and demobilization went smoothly, and Gerhard Weinberg has noted the paradox between the turmoil in Asia that followed Japan’s defeat and, notwithstanding the desperate conditions, the relative tranquility in Japan itself.

In mid-September 1945 SCAP dissolved the imperial general headquarters and made the war and navy ministries responsible for demobilization of the armed forces. By December 1945 the ministries had disbanded all military forces in the Japanese home islands. SCAP then converted the ministries into demobilization boards that continued to muster out returning overseas veterans until October 1947, when the boards too were inactivated. After a generation of insubordination, conspiracy, and iniquity, in one of the great surprises of World War II Japanese officers obeyed orders and presided over the dissolution of their army. Perhaps nothing befitted the army so much as its self-administered demise

The rapid rise of Japan’s first modern army was a remarkable accomplishment that succeeded against long odds. Army leaders faced difficult options whose outcomes were never certain. Their choices set the army on a course whose direction was buffeted by foreign threats, altered by personalities, and changed by domestic developments. What continues to define the army, however, is its fall, a descent into ruthlessness and barbarity during the 1930s whose repercussions are still felt today through much of Asia. That legacy will forever haunt the old army.

The Praetorian Guard (180–235) I

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, emperor of Rome, together with his Praetorian Guardsmen

The death of Marcus Aurelius marked a turning point not only for the Roman Empire but also for the Praetorian Guard. The accession of his weak and reckless son Commodus created a power vacuum into which the praetorian prefects and the praetorians themselves, as the most significant force in Rome, were inevitably sucked. The emergence of opportunistic and self-serving praetorian prefects of a type unseen since the days of Tigellinus under Nero added to the problems caused by a greedy, lazy and indulgent Guard. The murder of Commodus in 192 heralded a protracted age of instability, beginning with a massive power struggle, orchestrated in part by the Praetorian Guard. It would culminate in the whole Guard being cashiered in 193 by Septimius Severus, and its reformation. The Guard of the third century increasingly found itself operating as an integral part of the emperor’s field army in an era of unrestrained military ambition and chronic frontier instability.

Commodus was the first weak emperor for more than eighty years. As the blood son of Marcus Aurelius he was also the first filial heir since Titus a century earlier. Whereas Titus was up to the job, Commodus was not. In 177 he had been made joint Augustus with Marcus Aurelius so the legitimacy of his sole reign was never in doubt. Aurelius recognized that Commodus, then aged only about nineteen, would be susceptible to poor advice because of his inexperience. On his deathbed he urged his advisers and relatives to support him, and recommended him to the support of the army, something Commodus claimed his father had done ever since he was a boy. Aurelius died shortly afterwards, on 17 March 180 in Vindobona (Vienna).

A few days later, Commodus was taken by those same advisers to the camp at Vindobona so that he could address the soldiers and offer them a donative. The troops were summoned to the parade ground outside the fort where Commodus made his speech. He appealed to their loyalty, experience and support. One of the great values of the evidence for this period is that our principal sources, Cassius Dio and Herodian, had not only lived through the times they were describing, but had also known the emperors concerned, though this does not mean that their accounts always accord; all too often they do not. Dio entered the senate during Commodus’ reign and thus witnessed events as they unfolded. Herodian was only a teenager when Commodus died, but his proximity to the period and its records make him equally invaluable. Dio’s opinion was that Commodus was not innately evil, but that he lacked guile; as a result he was easily led astray by his companions.

Commodus immediately made peace with the Marcomanni, a decision that instantly alienated the army. On his arrival in Rome, which was eagerly awaited, he boasted to the senate about his exploits. He thanked the soldiers who had been left in Rome, presumably the rump of the Praetorian Guard, for their loyalty. He was immediately the focus of plots. He had inherited Publius Tarrutenius Paternus as praetorian prefect, but by 181 or 182 had also appointed Tigidius Perennis to the post. Paternus became involved in the first of a series of plots against Commodus. The conspiracy was a complicated one, and not made easier to understand by the piecemeal references in the sources, which provide quite disparate detail. Commodus’ sister Lucilla was married to Claudius Pompeianus, a man whom she hated and who was also an adviser to Commodus. Pompeianus had a son, Claudius Pompeianus Quintianus, by (probably) a previous marriage. Egged on by Lucilla in the hope that her husband would be permanently ruined by the association, and apparently all under the guiding hand of Paternus, Quintianus attacked Commodus. Herodian, however, attributes the plot to Lucilla’s lover Quadratus, who was desperate to please her because she resented the precedence now awarded Crispina at her expense. Either way, Quintianus made a physical assault on Commodus, claiming it was being done in the name of the senate, but failed to kill him.

In the aftermath, Commodus forced Lucilla, and then his wife Crispina, into exile. He removed Paternus from the prefecture by awarding him honorary consular status and then killed him anyway in c. 182. Commodus decided that he hated the senate and also now fell under the influence of the remaining praetorian prefect, Tigidius Perennis, who turned out to be only the first in a record-breaking series of new praetorian prefects for a single reign. On the face of it, Perennis ought to have been the perfect candidate: he was both Italian and considered to have an excellent military reputation, though this has proved impossible to substantiate. He was presented with an extremely challenging job because it appears he was expected to do a great deal more than manage the Guard, with Commodus effectively delegating to him all the duties of the emperor. This exposed him to resentment. This is Dio’s perspective and, although critical of Perennis, the blame is also laid squarely on Commodus. Conversely, Herodian depicts Perennis as a cynical opportunist who identified Commodus’ vulnerability and capitalized on the chance to maximize his own power. There is more than a passing resemblance to the portrayals of Sejanus and Tigellinus here, even if the nature of the emperors involved was different. It is possible that this version of Perennis is therefore effectively a redrawing of the Sejanus episode, but it is just as likely that the circumstances of a vulnerable emperor and an ambitious prefect could generate similar consequences. There is no suggestion that the praetorians themselves were involved. Herodian describes Perennis as maintaining Commodus in a state of licentious intoxication. This would allow him to run the Empire in order to make as much money out of it as possible in preparation for seizing it by offering the army a huge payout. Perennis began by encouraging Commodus to believe he was surrounded by enemies in the form of rich senators, who could be executed and their property seized. This appears really to have taken hold after the crushing of the plot involving Paternus, Pompeianus, Quadratus and Lucilla. Perennis is said to have persuaded Commodus to transfer the army in Illyricum to his sons, though these are unknown, as the next stage in his plan to seize power.

The fall of Perennis followed shortly afterwards in 185. Herodian’s version is that Commodus was chastened by a theatregoer ‘dressed as a philosopher’ who publicly criticized him for attending a performance while Perennis was plotting his coup. The man was executed but Commodus turned on Perennis. In Dio’s account, fifteen hundred soldiers arrived in Rome from the garrison of Britain to alert Commodus to Perennis’ machinations; the implication is that they were bitterly resentful of how Perennis had been managing the army. This had been orchestrated by Commodus’ chamberlain, Cleander, who is discussed in more detail below. The story is amplified in the Historia Augusta, where Perennis is said to have been installing equestrians, instead of senators, as legionary commanders in Britain during a war in 184. This remarkable breach of a long-established tradition was probably a device to ensure the army was under the control of men who would owe their allegiance to Perennis and not be troubled by his non-senatorial status. Commodus apparently believed them and handed Perennis over to the praetorians themselves, who killed him, his wife and their children. In Herodian’s version, Perennis was killed by someone sent secretly on Commodus’ orders. This was followed by sending two agents to Perennis’ son, before he heard the truth about his father, to pretend they brought orders for him to come to Rome. Perennis’ son, whose name is unknown, fell for the ruse and was murdered when he reached Rome. The various problems with the details do not alter the fact that Commodus permitted his sole praetorian prefect to become far too powerful at his expense. The dangers were the same as under Tiberius and Nero, although the timescale was considerably shorter. Clearly, as with Sejanus, Perennis’ power began with commanding the Guard, though in his case he went a great deal further in his attempts to secure control over the legionary forces dispersed around the Empire. Britain’s garrison was an interesting and intelligent choice. With three legions concentrated in a geographically small area, along with a large number of auxiliary units, it presented significant opportunities to men of ambition.

Commodus decided to appoint two praetorian prefects, believing that this would be safer. If he was aware of the story of Sejanus, and he must have been, the two episodes would now have functioned as very salutary warnings. The names of the prefects concerned are not certain, complicated substantially by Commodus’ mercurial nature, which led him to hire and fire prefects in rapid succession, sometimes after only a few hours. Pescennius Niger seems to have been one of the replacements, and Titus Longaeus Rufus the other, but Niger lasted only six hours. Marcus Quartius lasted five days, and it appears a number of other, unnamed, incumbents may have followed in the reckless days of 185.

The driving force seems to have been Marcus Aurelius Cleander, a freedman and chamberlain (cubicularius) of Commodus. Cleander was responsible for selling all sorts of positions under Commodus’ nose and effectively took over the metaphorical vacancy of opportunist-in-chief created by the execution of Perennis. In or around 187, Publius Attilius Aebutanius was made prefect but was also executed; it is not known if he secured the position by simply bidding for it. At that point Cleander became praetorian prefect, an appointment (or, perhaps, self-appointment) with no precedent, along with two others whose names are unknown, creating another precedent in their being three praetorian prefects. It is inconceivable that the Guard had done any more than look on in consummate disgust, but Commodus had perhaps allowed Cleander’s advancement on the basis that he distrusted the Guard already, and any prefects appointed by the conventional route. Cleander had gone too far. He engineered the execution of a popular official called Arrius Antoninus. Even Commodus realized that Cleander would have to be sacrificed. The occasion in 189 or 190 appears to have been a food riot caused by a famine that was exacerbated by the prefect of the grain supply, Papirius Dionysius. He put it about that Cleander had been stealing from the stores to enrich himself so that the mob would believe Cleander was responsible for the shortage. The riot broke out in the circus with the mob cursing Cleander. Commodus ordered the equites singulares Augusti to attack them, but the crowd’s resolve was bolstered by praetorians fighting with them, the praetorians allegedly hating the equites singulares, though not before a large number of civilians had been killed. A terrified Commodus handed Cleander over to be torn to pieces on the spot.

Two of the last praetorian prefects of the reign were Lucius Julius Vehilius Gratus Julianus and Regillus. They lasted so little time that nothing is known of them apart from the fact that they were executed in short order. Another, Motilenus, followed shortly afterwards when he was fed poisoned figs. Commodus descended further into delusional grandeur, depicting himself as Hercules on numerous statues in Rome and some of his coins while toying with the idea of renaming Rome Colonia Commodiana. He engaged in increasingly reckless bouts of murdering prominent men. The accounts of his profligate expenditure on horseracing, chariot-racing, gladiatorial bouts, grandiose costumes and other indulgences seem impossible. Dio, however, insisted that he had seen and heard everything he described. He pointed out that it was precisely because he was an eyewitness and knew no one else who had his own level of access to what was going on that made his account reliable. Dio and the other sources, however, were susceptible to the tradition of depicting ‘bad’ emperors as bad in every possible way.

The end, when it came, was the result of a plot by his mistress, Marcia, and the then praetorian prefect, Quintus Aemilius Laetus. Aemilius Laetus, and Eclectus, Commodus’ cubicularius, had been obliged to wait on Commodus as he fought as a gladiator in the arena. Commodus would compete, and inevitably win, and then kiss Laetus and Eclectus through his helmet. The two men tried to dissuade Commodus from his more extreme acts, but they were terrified of what might happen to them. Commodus was planning to kill the two consuls on 1 January 193. Laetus and Eclectus took Marcia into their confidence and persuaded her to poison him. Commodus’ consumption of alcohol meant that he vomited some of the poison up and instead the conspirators had to persuade an athlete called Narcissus to throttle Commodus. He was killed on the last day of December 192.

The plotters had taken the precaution of planning for the succession in advance. Their choice was Publius Helvius Pertinax, a man of similar vintage to Nerva almost a century earlier. At the age of sixty-seven he was a wealthy senator, having risen from being the son of a freedman through a series of military commands to provincial governorships. These included being sent by Commodus to Britain to pacify the troops there after the death of Perennis. In 192 Pertinax was consul for the second time when Laetus and Eclectus approached him. With Commodus dead they informed Pertinax, and he went to the Castra Praetoria to present himself to the Praetorian Guard so that the all-important oath of loyalty could be secured. The praetorians already seem to have tried to elevate their own nominee, a senator called Triarius Maternus Lascivius, but he fled, perhaps wisely. The oath was secured, but at the price of 12,000 sestertii, economizing on the 20,000 sestertii allegedly paid on the accession of Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, despite Pertinax’s claim that he had matched their handout. In one version of the events Pertinax allegedly only paid half the 12,000 sestertii anyway. Moreover, the people of Rome had been so worried the Guard would refuse to be ruled by Pertinax that a huge crowd had gone to the Castra Praetoria to coerce the soldiers to accept Pertinax, who had earned their respect thanks to his military reputation and time as prefect of Rome.

A very dangerous development followed. Pertinax informed the Guard that he would be setting right all sorts of distressing circumstances, which formed part of a more widespread and popular programme of reforms. The praetorians had become accustomed to various indulgent privileges that Commodus had allowed them. They now grew concerned that these were about to disappear in Pertinax’s new age of discipline and order. For the moment they suppressed their resentment, largely because Pertinax sold off or melted down everything he could that had belonged to Commodus to raise the money after he discovered that the deceased emperor had emptied the imperial coffers. Ending their freedom to do as they pleased alienated both the praetorians and imperial freedmen. The result was that Laetus became embroiled in another plot to topple an emperor, this time with the active participation of the Guard. Their first plan was to seize power while Pertinax was at the coast inspecting the grain supply, and to place a consul called Falco on the throne. The plot was uncovered but Pertinax refused to execute Falco because he was a senator, even though Dio and the other senators were fully prepared to condemn him to death.

Laetus, perhaps to divert attention from himself, turned on the praetorians and started executing some of them, claiming that Pertinax had ordered him to do so. Two hundred praetorians promptly headed off to the Palatine Hill and forced their way into the imperial palace. Pertinax made no attempt to use the vigiles or the equites singulares Augusti to protect himself, preferring instead to try negotiating with the irate praetorians. But one praetorian stopped him from going out while palace staff let the soldiers in through all the other entrances. When they confronted Pertinax they were momentarily stopped in their tracks; one praetorian darted forward and stabbed Pertinax and Eclectus, announcing that ‘this sword is sent you by the soldiers’. Pertinax’s body was decapitated and the head displayed on a spear. What followed was the unedifying auction of the Roman Empire, conducted by the Praetorian Guard. The long period of silent acquiescence and discipline that had ended during the reign of Commodus gave way fully to a period in which the praetorians were the kingmakers. They were motivated by greed and a reckless disregard either for their own interests or the emperors’ and those of the Roman people. This set in train a disastrous series of events that would last for decades.

Didius Julianus secured his position as emperor by promising the Praetorian Guard 25,000 sestertii each. It was a generous offer, but proved too generous because Julianus had failed to consider whether he could pay it. He was gathered up by the praetorians who, displaying their standards, escorted the new emperor to the forum and the senate. The public display of power was deliberate and obvious and had the desired effect. Julianus indulged the conceit that he had come alone to address the senate while a large number of armed troops secured the building outside and a number came with him into the senate. It was a clear demonstration of where the real power lay, reminiscent of the accession of Otho in 69. Under the circumstances it was hardly surprising that the senate confirmed by decree that Julianus was emperor. He also ingratiated himself, or tried to, with the Guard by acceding to their personal nominees for the prefecture, in this case Flavius Genialis and Tullius Crispinus. His limited coinage focused to some extent on the army, with ‘Harmony of the soldiers’ being the principal offering. Conversely, Pertinax’s coinage had been far more general in its themes. Unfortunately for Julianus, not only did he lack the personal resources to fund the donative, but the imperial treasuries also remained barren after Commodus’ reckless reign. The praetorians were infuriated and started publicly humiliating Julianus, who was already gaining a reputation as greedy and indulgent.

Didius Julianus’ short-lived regime was already crumbling. In the east, Pescennius Niger, governor of Syria, had been declared emperor by his troops after news of the murder of Pertinax reached them. News of Niger’s ambitions reached Rome, where a frustrated populace started to protest in his favour. Part of the reason appears to have been a belief that Pertinax had been capable of arresting the rot that had set in under Commodus but had not been allowed to finish the job by the otiose and wasteful Julianus. Fighting broke out between the crowd and ‘soldiers’, which probably included the urban cohorts and the praetorians. Niger was by no means the only potential challenger. Lucius Septimius Severus, governor of Upper Pannonia, had allied himself to Pertinax, but on the latter’s death Severus had been declared emperor on 9 April 193 by his own troops. There was an irony in Severus’ status. He had been made one of twenty-five consuls appointed by Cleander, just before the latter was made praetorian prefect. In the west, Decimus Clodius Albinus, the governor of Britain, had also thrown his hat into the ring. The stage was set for another civil war. Severus was an arch manipulator. First he bought Albinus’ cooperation by offering him the post of heir apparent. Next, he set out first to secure Rome and then to destroy Niger. Severus was confident that in the meantime Julianus would be deposed; he could then turn against Albinus, destroy him and emerge, as Vespasian had in 69, as the supreme power in the Roman world.

For the moment Julianus depended almost entirely on the fragile loyalty of the praetorians, men to whom he had promised a vast sum of money that he was unable to pay. His first move was inevitable, but futile. He ordered the senate to declare Severus a public enemy. His second was to have a defensible stronghold constructed and prepare the whole city for war, which included fortifying his own palace so that he could hold it to the end. Rome filled up with soldiers and equipment, but the preparations turned into a farce. Dio mocked what the praetorians and other available forces had become. Years of easy living, cultivated in the indulgent days of Commodus’ reign, had left the soldiers without much idea of what they were supposed to do. The fleet troops from Misenum had forgotten how to drill. According to Herodian, the praetorians had to be told to arm themselves, get back into training and dig trenches; this implies that they were accustomed to being unarmed and were completely out of condition. This depiction of the Praetorian Guard, however, suited the purpose of Dio and Herodian. A stereotyped derelict and incompetent Guard amplified the impression of the decadence of Commodus’ reign and the incompetence of Didius Julianus, as well as creating a gratifying image of grossly overpaid and indolent public servants getting their comeuppance. Nevertheless, the indolence probably had a basis in truth and might also have been linked to a conservative attitude to equipment. By the end of the second century AD praetorian infantrymen were still habitually equipping themselves with the pilum, while legionaries had spurned this in favour of various new forms of javelin.

The praetorians became agitated. Not only were they completely overwhelmed by all the work they had had to do, but they were also extremely concerned at the prospect of confronting the Syrian army under Severus that was approaching through northern Italy. Julianus toyed with the idea of offering Severus a share in the Empire in an effort to save his own skin. The praetorian prefect Tullius Crispinus was sent north to take a suitable message to this effect to Severus. Severus suspected that Crispinus had really been sent on a mission to murder him, so he had Crispinus killed. In his place Julianus appointed a third prefect, Flavius Juvenalis, whose loyalty Severus secured by writing to him confirming that he would hold the post when he, Severus, took power. There is some confusion here. The Historia Augusta calls the third prefect Veturius Macrinus, so conceivably two new prefects had been appointed, both of whom seem to have transferred to the Severan regime. Severus sent letters ahead, perhaps via Juvenalis, promising the praetorians that they would be unharmed if they handed over Pertinax’s killers. They obliged, and this meant that Julianus was finished. Severus also sent an advance force to infiltrate the city, disguised as citizens. The senate, realizing that the praetorians had abandoned Julianus, voted that Julianus be executed. This happened in short order on 2 June 193. Next they declared Severus to be the new emperor. Didius Julianus had reigned for a little over two months. In the space of five months in 193 the Praetorian Guard had played their first truly significant role in imperial events for well over a century. They had toppled an emperor and installed another, only to abandon him with unseemly haste, contributing significantly now to the inception of a new dynasty whose members would rule the Roman world until 235. Not since 69 had the praetorians made so much difference, though, ironically, it seems that in 193 as troops they were no more than a shadow of their former selves. They were to pay a heavy price for their interference in imperial politics.

The transition of power was not as smooth as the praetorians hoped. Their tribunes, now working for Severus, ordered them to leave their barracks unarmed, dressed only in the subarmilis (under-armour garment) and head for Severus’ camp. Severus stood up to address them but it was a trap. The praetorians were promptly surrounded by his armed troops, who had orders not to attack the praetorians but to contain them. Severus ordered that those who had killed Pertinax be executed. This act was to have consequences forty-five years later when another generation of praetorians believed they were about to be cashiered too.30 Severus harangued the praetorians because they had not supported Julianus or protected him, despite his shortcomings, completely ignoring their own oath of loyalty. In Severus’ view this ignoble conduct was tantamount to disqualifying themselves from entitlement to be praetorians; oddly, the so-called ‘auction of the Empire’ seems to have gone without mention.

Severus had a very good reason for adopting this strategy. It avoided creating any impression that he was buying the Empire as Didius Julianus had, even though previous emperors, including very respectable ones like Marcus Aurelius, had paid a donative. Firing the praetorians en masse also saved him a great deal of money, in the form of either a donative or a retirement gratuity. Given the cost of Severus’ own war, and the appalling state of the imperial treasuries, this must have been a pressing consideration. The normal practice would have been for the emperor to pay a donative out of his own pocket. Severus was prepared to spare the praetorians’ lives but only on the condition that they were stripped of rank and equipment and cashiered on the spot. This meant literally being stripped. They were forcibly divested by Severus’ legionaries of their uniforms, belts and any military insignia, and also made to part with their ceremonial daggers ‘inlaid with gold and silver’. Just in case the humiliated praetorians took it into their heads that they might rush back to the Castra Praetoria and arm themselves, Severus had sent a squad ahead to secure the camp. The praetorians had to disperse into Rome, the mounted troops having also to abandon their horses, though one killed both his horse and then himself in despair at the ignominy.

The Praetorian Guard (180–235) II

Only then did Severus enter Rome himself. Rome was filled with troops, just as it had been in 68–9. This agitated the crowd, which had acclaimed him as he arrived. Severus made promises that he did not keep, such as insisting he would not murder senators. Having disposed of the Praetorian Guard in its existing form, Severus obviously had to rebuild it. He appears to have done so with Juvenalis and Macrinus still at the helm as prefects in reward for their loyalty over the transition. Severus’ new Praetorian Guard represented the first major change in the institution since its formation under Augustus and amounted to a new creation. Valerius Martinus, a Pannonian, lived only until he was twenty-five but by then he had already served for three years in the X praetorian cohort, following service in the XIIII legion Gemina. XIIII Gemina had declared very early on for Severus so Martinus probably benefited from being transferred to the new Guard in 193 or soon afterwards. Lucius Domitius Valerianus from Jerusalem joined the new praetorians soon after 193. He had served originally in the VI legion Ferrata before being transferred to the X praetorian cohort where he stayed until his honourable discharge on 7 January 208. Valerianus cannot have been in the Guard before Severus reformed it in 193, so this means his eighteen years of military service, specified on the altar he dedicated, must have begun in the legions in 190 under Commodus. Therefore it is probable most of his time, between 193 and 208, was in the Guard under Severus. One of the most significant appointments to the Guard at this time was a Thracian soldier of epic height who began his Roman military career in the auxiliary cavalry. In 235 this man would seize power as Maximinus, following the murder of Severus Alexander, the last of the Severan dynasty.

Dio’s reference to there being ten thousand men in ten cohorts in AD 5 is sometimes assumed to be a reference really to the organization of the Guard in his own time, the early third century. It is possible that ten praetorian cohorts had been in existence from Flavian times on. It is beyond doubt, however, unusually for this topic, that from Severus onwards, the Praetorian Guard consisted nominally of ten thousand men in ten milliary cohorts as Dio had described. Diplomas of the third century certainly confirm that thereafter there were ten cohorts. A crucial change made by Severus was to abolish the rule that the praetorians were only recruited from Italy, Spain, Macedonia and Noricum. Instead any legionary was eligible for consideration if he had proved himself in war. This had the effect of making appointment to the Guard a realistic aspiration for any legionary. The idea was that by recruiting from experienced legionaries, the Severan praetorian would now have a far better idea of how to behave as a soldier. This was not always the case. By the time Selvinius Justinus died at the age of thirty-two in the early third century, he had already served seventeen years in the VII praetorian cohort. Unfortunately, there was an unintended consequence, or so Dio claimed. Italians who might have found a job with the Guard now found themselves without anywhere to go and resorted to street fighting, hooliganism and generally abusive behaviour as a result. Rome also now found itself home to provincial soldiers whose customs were regarded as lowering the tone. The reports seem likely to be exaggerated. A Guard of around ten thousand men would hardly have absorbed all of Italy’s disaffected young men. Nor would ten thousand provincial praetorians have changed the character of Rome, especially as many of the new praetorians clearly spent much of their time on campaign. An interesting peripheral aspect to this story is that the paenula cloak, apparently part of the Praetorian Guard’s everyday dress, seems to have dropped out of use by the military by this date; it had, perhaps, become discredited by association with the cashiered praetorians.

Severus had more pressing concerns for the immediate future. He had to dispose first of Niger and then turn on Albinus. Niger was defeated at Issus in Cilicia in 194. He fled to Parthia but was caught by Severus’ agents and killed. Severus was distracted by various rebellions in the east before he was able in 196 to turn his attention to Clodius Albinus in the west, still nursing ambitions of becoming emperor after Severus even though Severus had withdrawn the title of Caesar from him. The climax came at the Battle of Lugdunum (Lyon) in Gaul in a vast engagement in which the Praetorian Guard played an important part. The figure claimed by Dio for the battle of 150,000 men in each army is simply enormous and equivalent to around thirty legions each, an implausibly vast number. It is better interpreted as the figure for both armies together, but there cannot be any doubt that the engagement was of major significance.

The battle began badly for Severus because Albinus had placed his right wing behind concealed trenches. Albinus ordered the wing to withdraw, luring the Severan forces after them. Severus fell into the trap. His forces raced forwards, with the front lines crashing into the trenches. The rest stopped in their tracks, leading to a retreat with a knock-on effect on the soldiers at the back, some of whom collapsed into a ravine. Meanwhile the Albinians fired missiles and arrows at those still standing. Severus, horrified by the impending catastrophe, ordered his praetorians forward to help. The praetorians came within danger of being wiped out too; when Severus lost his horse it began to look as though the game was up. Severus only won because he personally rallied those close to him, and because cavalry under the command of Julius Laetus, one of the legionary legates from the east who had supported Severus in 193, arrived in time to save the day. Laetus had been watching to see how the battle shifted before showing his hand, deciding that the Severan rally was enough to make him fight for Severus. It is a shame we do not know more about how many praetorians were present, and exactly how they were deployed but, given the claimed numbers involved in the battle, it seems very likely that all, or at least most, of the praetorians were amongst them. If so, the reformed Praetorian Guard must have been very nearly destroyed within a very few years of being organized because it is certain the body count on the battlefield was enormous.

The Battle of Lugdunum marks a point in the history of the Praetorian Guard when it seems to have become normal for all or most of the Guard to be deployed away from Rome as part of the main army. Conversely, it also represented a return to the way praetorians had been deployed during the period 44–31 BC. The only praetorians likely to be left in Rome during a time when the Guard was needed for war were men approaching retirement. The II legion Parthica, formed by Severus, was based at Albanum, just 12 miles (19 km) from Rome from around 197 onwards. The legion would clearly have helped compensate for the absence of the Guard so long as some of the legion was at home. It also bolstered the number of soldiers immediately available to the emperor as a field army, without having to rely entirely on the Guard or troops pulled from frontier garrisons. Alternatively it could fulfil some of the Guard’s duties if the emperor took praetorians on campaign with him. A praetorian in Severus’ Guard could expect to see a great deal of action. Publius Aelius Maximinus was a soldier in the V praetorian cohort under Severus. On his tombstone he was said to have participated ‘in all the campaigns’, which suggests that going to war had become routine for praetorians, though it simply could have been a stock, rather than a literal, claim. Since the tombstone was found in Rome, Aelius Maximinus had presumably lived to tell the tale, expiring at some point after his return, though he was only thirty-one years and eight months old when he died.

The soldiers who took part in Severus’ wars and who earned the right to transfer to the new Praetorian Guard found that a further Severan change in terms and conditions was an increase in length of service to eighteen years. This could include the time spent as a legionary. Lucius Domitius Valerianus was discharged in 208 after serving eighteen years. He had been recruited into the VI legion Ferrata in around 190 under Commodus, from which he transferred to the X praetorian cohort at an unspecified later date, serving in the century of Flavius Caralitanus. The date of discharge is provided by the reference to the joint consulship of Severus’ sons, Caracalla and Geta, which they held that year. The VI legion Ferrata had been based in Syria since at least AD 150 and had formed part of the eastern army supporting Severus, being awarded with the title Fidelis Constans (‘always faithful’) for not siding with Niger. The funerary memorial of another praetorian of this era, Lucius Septimius Valerinus of the VIIII praetorian cohort and formerly of the I legion Adiutrix, shows him bareheaded in the traditional praetorian tunic with sword at his side and holding a spear.

The Praetorian Guard as an institution survived to fight another day for Severus. It remained an important symbol of imperial power and Rome’s military strength. A praetorian standard was featured on the so-called Arch of the Moneylenders, dedicated in Rome in 204. With Albinus destroyed and his supporters executed, Severus returned to Rome before turning his attention to Parthia in 198. A cash handout to the Roman people was accompanied by a large payment to ‘the soldiers’, as well as a pay rise and other privileges, such as being able to cohabit with wives. These must have included praetorians, but quite to what extent is unknown as the reference is to the army in general. Herodian was acutely critical of how the new arrangements could undermine military discipline.

Parthia took advantage of the Roman civil wars of 193–7 and invaded Mesopotamia. By 199 Severus was crossing Mesopotamia to fight back but an assault on Hatra went badly, leaving him with numerous casualties and a lot of siege equipment destroyed. This provoked Julius Crispus, a praetorian tribune, to quote from Virgil’s Aeneid, where Aeneas bemoans the fact that so many lives were being lost just because his enemy Turnus wanted to secure the hand of Lavinia. The meaning was obvious: Severus was sending numerous Roman soldiers to their deaths for a futile cause. Another praetorian reported Crispus’ comment and was rewarded by Severus with Crispus’ job. Severus also killed Julius Laetus, whose success in the field here, as in Gaul at Lugdunum, was beginning to make him the focus of the soldiers’ loyalty.

It is not known whether Laetus really did have ideas above his station but one of the praetorian prefects, Caius Fulvius Plautianus, a fellow Libyan of Severus, very definitely did. In or around 200, while Severus was in Egypt, Plautianus killed his co-prefect Quintus Aemilius Saturninus. He next removed privileges from the tribunes in case any of them imagined they were likely to be promoted. The implication from Dio’s account is that both were with Severus in Egypt, or at least in the region. Plautianus’ ambition was to make himself sole permanent prefect; it appears that Severus was complicit in Plautianus’ designs and facilitated his prefect’s advance. Dio accused Plautianus of engaging in a campaign of grand larceny and plundering. By far the most eccentric allegation was that Plautianus had castrated a hundred Roman citizens of ‘noble’ (senatorial) birth so that his daughter Plautilla could be waited on by eunuchs. Plautianus was honoured with innumerable statues, and was the subject of oaths both by soldiers (praetorians?) and senators. Plautianus steadily moved upwards, being appointed a consul, and in 200 having Plautilla selected for marriage to Severus’ eldest son, Caracalla. The nuptials did not take place until late 202 or 203, which coincided with the tenth anniversary of Severus becoming emperor, even though it had taken five years to annihilate his rivals. Plautianus handed over as Plautilla’s dowry a huge sum of money, said by Dio to be fifty times the appropriate sum even for a woman of royal status. Plautianus bankrolled animal fights at games to celebrate Severus’ decennalia (tenth anniversary), while the Guards themselves received from the emperor ten gold coins each, equivalent to 1,000 sestertii, the same amount awarded in Augustus’ will almost two centuries earlier.

The description of Plautianus’ behaviour has echoes of both Sejanus and Tigellinus. It is difficult to believe that this was not deliberate on Dio’s part, for example, the depiction of Plautianus gorging himself at a banquet and engaging in promiscuous sexual activity. Eventually, Plautianus went too far, even by the standards of the day. The account of the fall of Plautianus is confused and difficult to follow but, essentially, what seems to have happened is that his ambitions had earned him the hatred of both of Severus’ sons, Caracalla and Geta. Caracalla disliked his wife Plautilla, and this fuelled his determination to get rid of Plautianus. In Herodian’s version, Caracalla’s loathing for Plautilla led Plautianus to fear for his own life and to sidestep the threat by trying to seize power for himself. In 205 Caracalla used his tutor Euodus to talk a praetorian centurion called Saturninus and two other centurions into claiming that they were three of ten centurions ordered by Plautianus to kill Severus and Caracalla. Herodian’s version has Saturninus as a praetorian tribune who was completely loyal to Plautianus; Plautianus in this account offered Saturninus the praetorian prefecture if he killed Severus and Caracalla. Saturninus persuaded Plautianus to put all this down in writing. Saturninus headed off to the palace but realized there was no chance of murdering Severus and Caracalla, and decided to tell Severus about Plautianus’ scheming.

Severus initially disbelieved Saturninus. Deciding that Caracalla was really the culprit, Severus tackled his son. Eventually, Saturninus concluded that the only way to prove his innocence was to send a message to Plautianus that the deed was done to trick him into coming to the palace. Plautianus fell for the ruse and turned up, only to be confronted by Severus and Caracalla. Plautianus tried to talk his way out and nearly succeeded, but when it emerged that he was wearing a breastplate under his ordinary clothes it became obvious that Saturninus had been telling the truth. The ancestor festival being held that day made it completely implausible that Plautianus would have needed to go around wearing a breastplate unless he was up to no good. Caracalla pointed this out, and ordered Saturninus and others to kill the prefect. Plautianus’ body was thrown out into the street. There is some debate about how much of either version is believable. The details do not matter as much here as the fact that it appears, once more, that a praetorian prefect had been given the opportunity to take advantage of his position and had succeeded in doing so. The parallels with Sejanus are obvious, including this time the more successful manipulation of an imperial marriage, the excessive trust, the greed, the duplicity and the tricking of the guilty prefect.

In the aftermath, Severus, who had learned a valuable lesson, returned to the traditional two-prefect system. The new men were carefully chosen. Quintus Marcius Laetus came up the traditional route from the prefecture of Egypt. Aemilius Papinianus was a brilliant and famous jurist. They were to remain in post throughout the rest of Severus’ reign. During their time Severus embarked on his war of conquest in Britain, which was designed to give Caracalla and Geta a chance to prove themselves. Dio’s account of the period also includes a reference to the policing duties to which the praetorians were liable to be allocated. Bulla was an Italian bandit leader who ranged over Italy with impunity for two years. Despite being pursued by soldiers, Bulla led a marauding gang that even included disaffected imperial freedmen. Severus, by then on campaign in Britain, was irritated to hear that while he was fighting a war his forces in Italy were incapable of stopping a robber. Severus ordered that a praetorian tribune at the head of a cavalry force be sent, under threat of severe punishment if he failed, to capture Bulla. Instead of using brute force, the tribune persuaded Bulla’s mistress to give him up on a promise of immunity. He was taken to Papinianus, who must therefore have still been in Italy. Papinianus asked Bulla why he was a robber. Bulla tartly responded, ‘Why are you a prefect?’ However gratifying Bulla must have felt his witty riposte to be, the answer turned out to be that as praetorian prefect Papinianus had a good deal more power than Bulla. The robber chief was promptly killed by being thrown to wild beasts.

By 210 Papinianus was in Britain with Severus. Some of the Guard was on campaign with Severus. Gaius Cesennius Senecio was a centurion of the II praetorian cohort, which held the Severan Pia Vindex (‘faithful avenger’) decoration. He was killed, or died, in Britain and his remains returned to Rome for burial, where his tombstone survives. It is not known whether he was actually involved in fighting or was merely serving as part of an escort, but he had reached the heights of being an exercitator ‘of praetorian cavalry’. Caracalla, desperate for sole power (he had been made joint emperor in 198, and since 209 with Geta as well), seems to have spontaneously toyed with the idea of killing his father, raising his sword as they rode out to fight the Caledonians of northern Britain. Caracalla hesitated (he was in plain sight) and gave up. Severus taunted Caracalla, telling him he should go ahead with the attack, and even made a sword available. Papinianus was present as one of the witnesses. Severus egged on Caracalla and told his son that he could order Papinianus to kill him. In the meantime Laetus must have remained in charge of the praetorians left in Rome. Caracalla resisted the opportunity to kill his father. Severus died soon afterwards in York on 4 February 211 but not before he had advised his sons to work together, make the soldiers rich, and treat everyone else with scorn. Caracalla ignored the advice to live in harmony with Geta but followed the rest. He moved quickly. According to Dio he immediately removed Papinianus from his post and killed a number of others, including his tutor Euodus and his wife Plautilla, though it is possible that Papinianus remained in post until he was murdered in 212 after Geta was killed.

After abandoning Severus’ campaign in Britain by negotiating peace, Caracalla and Geta returned to Rome in May 211. The two brothers’ mutual loathing was exhibited by continual plots against each other and the way they surrounded themselves with armed guards. They even went to the extent of dividing up the palace into separate fortified establishments, an arrangement that would be comic had the consequences not been so drastic. They even concocted a plan to divide the Empire between them. Only when their mother, Julia Domna, pointed out that they could not divide her between them was the plan abandoned. This solved nothing. Since Geta had an armed escort of soldiers, Caracalla resorted to asking Julia to summon the pair of them early in 212. In Dio’s version Caracalla had centurions on hand who had been briefed to murder Geta, which they did while Geta clung to his mother. This was followed by the murder of all those who had attended Geta, including soldiers, amounting to ‘twenty thousand’. In Herodian’s account Caracalla was blamed for the killing. The likelihood is that praetorian centurions were responsible, but only because they had been bribed by Caracalla.

According to Herodian, Caracalla fled from the palace to the Castra Praetoria, claiming he had only just escaped an attempt on his own life, and made his way to seek sanctuary in the sacellum. Here Caracalla told his story in which Geta had supposedly been plotting to murder him, but that he, Caracalla, had managed to kill his enemy and escape. The praetorians were encouraged to believe Caracalla with an instant payout of 2,500 denarii and a 50 per cent pay rise, the latter being extended to the whole army at a cost of 280 million sestertii in total (70 million denarii). To provide the instant payout the praetorians were told to collect the cash from temples and treasuries in Rome. By this time the truth had reached the praetorians, but since they had already been bought they acceded to Caracalla’s sole rule. The Historia Augusta’s version is slightly different: when the news reached the Castra Praetoria it was a shock to praetorians who had not been bribed or been in on the plot, and who also believed they had sworn allegiance to both brothers. The praetorians therefore locked the Castra Praetoria and refused to see Caracalla. Any sense that this outrage was founded on solid moral rectitude was soon exposed as humbug when Caracalla paid out the money to purchase the Guard’s support. The versions are not necessarily contradictory. It is plausible that some of the praetorians were disturbed by the news, but it was also historically clear that the praetorians, like other soldiers, had their price and if it had been paid then there was nothing more to be said (at least for the moment).

The substantial pay rise offered by Caracalla inevitably incurred a significant charge on the state, which added to the problems experienced by Severus when he found the imperial treasuries drained in 193. Severus had resorted to debasing the denarius, reducing its silver content to 50 per cent. The solution, introduced in 215, was even more cynical. The denarius was joined by a new coin, known today as the antoninianus after Caracalla’s official name of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. Apparently tariffed as a double-denarius, the new coin in fact only contained half as much silver again as one denarius. Therefore, the melting of three denarii provided enough silver to be alloyed with copper to produce two new antoninianii, apparently tariffed as the equivalent of four denarii. Clearly designed to make state expenses easier to pay, such as the praetorians’ pay rise, inflationary consequences were inevitable but these took generations to impact on the economy. The new coin was issued until around 222, after which it was discontinued until 238 when it started to replace the denarius permanently.

The killing of Geta was the manifestation of a new and vicious era. Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus had been joint emperors but Verus’ death in 169 was not suspicious and nor had the two been rivals. Therefore the question of divided loyalties had not arisen with the Praetorian Guard. The Severan family presented a completely new problem. It seems not to have been in doubt to anyone at the time that Caracalla was responsible, and that he had arranged for the murder, apparently with sidekicks chosen from the Guard’s centurionate. In the aftermath of Geta’s death, the praetorian prefect Maecius Laetus was forced to commit suicide, even though it appears he might have helped Caracalla plan the murder. Other killings followed, including the former praetorian prefect Papinianus who was murdered with an axe after the praetorians made allegations about him. Worse, Caracalla even told the praetorians that since he ruled for them and not for himself, they could be both accusers and judges. He confined himself to being annoyed that Papinianus was executed with an axe instead of a sword.

To compound the increasing tension, a mutiny broke out amongst the urban cohorts. The murder of Papinianus seems to have been ordered simply because he had backed Geta. As Papinianus was dragged off to be killed, he commented that whoever took his place would be a fool if he did not avenge this attack on the office of the praetorian prefecture. This may well be a literary device, since the observation turned out to be exactly what happened. Another praetorian prefect, the little-known Valerius Patruinus, was killed too. There is a tenuous possibility that some of the praetorians were now based in premises on imperial property on the Pincian Hill in Rome, if they had not been previously. An inscription from here names Julia Domna as ‘mother of Augustus [Caracalla] and of the camps’.

Caracalla’s reign degenerated even further into a series of increasingly arbitrary killings. In 213 he set out on a tour of the provinces, ordering executions as he went, including that of the proconsul of Gallia Narbonensis. By the time he reached Thrace, he was accompanied by an unnamed praetorian prefect. One possibility is that the post was already held by Macrinus, known to have been in post when he murdered Caracalla in 217. Alternatively, Gnaeus Marcius Rustius Rufinus is a possibility. Marcus Opellius Macrinus was prefect by the end of the reign, apparently alongside Marcus Oclatinius Adventus, a man whose remarkable career had seen him move up from being a speculator, serving in a variety of jobs including frumentarius (imperial spy), and procurator of Britain under Severus between c. 205 and 208, eventually rising to city prefect under Macrinus as emperor.

2nd U.S. Regiment of Artillery, 1812-1813

At the outbreak of the War of 1812, the artillery of the Regular Army consisted of the Regiment of Artillerists and the Regiment of Light Artillery. The former unit was organized into five battalions of four companies each, all serving as foot artillery or infantry. The Light Artillery Regiment included ten companies, all serving as infantry. To meet the needs of the expanding wartime army, Congress on January 11, 1812, authorized the establishment of the 2nd and 3rd artillery regiments, each with two ten-company battalions. The Regiment of Artillerists was redesignated the 1st Regiment. Captain George Izard of the Regiment of Artillerists was ap¬ pointed colonel of the 2nd Artillery; Captain Winfield Scott of the Light Artillery was named its lieutenant colonel. Scott later commanded the 2nd Regiment of Artillery from March 1813 until his promotion to brigadier general on March 8, 1814.

The dress of the three foot artillery regiments was specified early in 1812. This uniform, with its chapeau bras and long-tailed coat, was worn by the 1st Regiment, which continued to call itself the Regiment of Artillerists until well into 1813. The two new regiments, however, were required to accept the light artillery felt cap, with the infantry-type band and tassel in yellow cord, in place of the chapeau bras.

The artillerymen in this plate are shown with their coattails shortened, as authorized late in 1812. They still wear yellow welts, or cording, on their overalls, although this feature and the gaitered effect at the ankles were both abolished that same year. Undoubtedly, the uniforms worn by companies in the new regiments varied greatly because of clothing shortages and supply problems. The cap plate illustrated is one of several excavated in the northeast bastion of Fort Erie, which was blown up during the British attack on August 14, 1814.

The gun crew shown here is loading the piece. The matross at the far left holds a lighted portfire; he will use it when ordered to fire the gun. Next is the 1st cannoneer: once the gun is loaded, he will thrust a steel pick through its vent to pierce the powder bag and then insert a priming tube. That completed, he will lay the gun on a target designated by the officer standing behind him. The 2nd cannoneer is “thumbing the vent”-keeping it closed with his thumb while the gun is sponged and loaded, to prevent a premature discharge. As soon as the matross on the far right has finished inserting the cartridge into the mouth of the gun, he will assist the matross holding the rammer staff in ramming the cartridge home. The other members of the crew are not shown; they would be engaged in bringing ammunition to the gun or in shifting the gun’s trail, as directed by the 1st cannoneer, to help him lay the gun on target.

The matrosses wear bricoles, shoulder straps of heavy leather, with attached drag ropes, which have been looped up out of the way. The combination made a man harness, used in manhandling guns into position or in helping the gun teams drag them across difficult ground. Each man carries a musket, the first type of the Model 1812, slung over his left shoulder. In a more stabilized position, the muskets would have been stacked to the rear of the gun. There is no indication that these artillerymen carried swords, as did their successors of a later period.

The gun shown is a bronze 12-pounder field piece. Its carriage has been painted in the color used by the French artillery of this time, since the 1812 correspondence of Colonel Decius Wadsworth, the newly appointed Chief of Ordnance, indicated that French carriages were being used as models for those he was having manufactured.

The lot of the foot artilleryman of this period was not an easy one. Field repairs were made by the artillerymen themselves. Manuals of the period provided detailed specifications for replacing damaged parts of the carriage and even for the manufacture of its parts. A good many companies were employed largely as infantry throughout the war. However, despite a lack of experience, the American artillery performed well. Elements of the 2nd Regiment saw action at the capture of Fort George, the battles at Fort Erie and Stony Creek and in many other minor engagements.

The U. S. Army in 1812

 Whether the United States could fulfill its high expectations depended less on lofty aspirations than on the actual strength of its military forces, and here there were reasons for concern. In 1811, the U. S. Army consisted of a small corps of engineers; seven infantry regiments; and one regiment each of rifles, dragoons, artillery, and light artillery. The light artillery regiment was to be a mobile formation, but as a cost-saving measure, the government had sold its horses in 1808. The rest of the Army also suffered from a chronic manpower shortage, having just fifty-five hundred men under arms with another forty-five hundred positions vacant.

As the prospect for war grew imminent, Congress enacted several expansions. By June 1812, the authorized strength of the Army had grown to 35,603 men organized into twenty-five regiments of infantry, four of artillery (including the now remounted regiment of light artillery), two of dragoons, the rifle regiment, six companies of rangers, and various engineer and ordnance troops. In actuality, only 6,744 soldiers were on active service, scattered mostly in small detachments along the extensive frontier at such places as Fort Mackinac, on a small island at the straits of Lakes Michigan and Huron; Fort Dearborn, near present-day Chicago; and at trading centers such as Fort Osage, Missouri Territory, and Fort Hawkins, Georgia. In order to fill the ranks, the government offered a signing bonus of $16 for a five-year term of service, but few were willing to enlist for such a long time. Desperate to attract recruits, Congress reduced the length of service, added more financial incentives, and banned the practice of flogging. Despite all of these measures, the government failed to bring the desired number of men into the Regular Army.

One of the reasons that the Regular Army failed to draw recruits was that many men preferred the shorter enlistments and the attractive financial incentives offered by their home state militias. The War Department estimated that 719,449 militiamen were available for active service. In the spring of 1812, Congress authorized the president to ask the states to provide 30,000 federal volunteers for one-year’s service drawn from their militias. It also permitted the president to call on the states to mobilize as many as 100,000 militiamen for up to six months of federal service. The numbers were impressive but deceiving, for most of the militia was poorly trained and equipped. Militia leadership was equally haphazard, with many state officers owing their rank to social status, political patronage, or popularity, as some units elected their officers. In short, the militia was a weak foundation upon which to base a national mobilization.

Issues of regionalism and politics also affected mobilization. The strongest support for the war came from those areas with the fewest resources to sustain it, namely, the South and the West. States in the Northeast were better situated for the conflict, but their support was less than wholehearted. When Republican President Madison issued his call for militia, several of the New England states, where the Federalist Party was strong, refused to supply troops on the grounds that Madison’s intended purpose did not meet the missions authorized in Article 1, Section 8, of the United States Constitution “to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress insurrections, and repel invasions.” Some state courts ruled that the federal government did not have the authority to require militia to cross international borders to fight outside the United States, reserving that decision exclusively to the commander of a state’s militia. As a result of these legal challenges, the federal government would experience difficulty in raising militia forces from the Northeast throughout much of the war.

Getting men into the ranks was only the start of the government’s problems. Feeding, equipping, training, and moving the Army like- wise posed daunting obstacles, particularly given the rudimentary transportation network that existed along the frontier with Canada. Nor did the Army have the bureaucratic infrastructure to wrestle with the burgeoning issues of mobilizing and sustaining a wartime force. In 1812, the entire War Department consisted of Secretary of War William Eustis and eight clerks. Eustis had been a surgeon during the Revolutionary War and was later elected to the House of Representatives. President Thomas Jefferson had ap- pointed him secretary of war in 1809 because he was a staunch member of the Republican Party. His military and bureaucratic skills were limited.

In March 1812, Congress attempted to rectify some of the Army’s administrative deficiencies by establishing the positions of quartermaster general and commissary general of purchases. Then in May, the legislature created an Ordnance Department to develop weapons and equipment and to address the deplorable condition of military stores. As many as one in five of the Army’s weapons were inoperable, and much of its ammunition had been procured in 1795. Shortages of everything from tents and shoes to medicine and other items likewise existed. Unfortunately, without central direction, the quartermaster general, commissary general, chief of ordnance, and various contractors would often compete for the same resources, adding further chaos to the Army’s primitive logistical system.

The Army’s senior officer in 1812, Maj. Gen. Henry Dearborn, had a stellar record of service during the Revolutionary War, serving in all major battles in the northern theater, including Bunker Hill, Saratoga, Monmouth, and Yorktown. He had aligned himself with the Republican Party, and when Jefferson had become president in 1801, he had appointed Dearborn as secretary of war. Dearborn, who had served in that office until Eustis replaced him in March 1809, had been thoroughly involved during his tenure with reducing Army force structure under Jefferson’s Military Peace Establishment Act of 1802. Although considered the nominal commander of the U. S. Army, Dearborn lacked the statutory authority and the staff to fully oversee Army operations, and, like Eustis, he was overwhelmed by the crush of responsibilities incumbent with mobilizing and guiding the national war effort.

As for the officer corps, it was as unprepared for what lay ahead as the rest of American military establishment. If most militia and volunteer officers were rank amateurs who owed their posts to their political and social connections, then the officers of the Regular Army were not much better. The nation’s small Regular Army was a back-water in American society that did not necessarily attract the finest talent, while the Jefferson and Madison administrations had often applied a political litmus test in selecting officers. A glimmer of professionalism existed among a few individuals, but these were the exceptions to the rule. Perhaps the Army’s best hope for the future, the U. S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, was by 1812 barely ten years old and had produced just 120 graduates, of whom 99 would serve in the war, mostly in junior positions. As for the rest, one of the nation’s more gifted military leaders, Lt. Col. Winfield Scott, claimed that the older officers had “very generally sunk into either sloth, ignorance, or habits of intemperate drinking,” while the new officers were for the most part “course and ignorant men . . . swaggerers . . . decayed gentlemen, and others-`fit for nothing else,’ which always turned out utterly unfit for any military purpose whatever.”

Between the Punic Wars

In 241 BC the first epic struggle between Rome and Carthage came to an end. Carthage had evacuated Sicily, after some 500 years on parts of it, and was now forced to pay Rome a considerable war indemnity. Before long, its government would be plunged into a bloody and shameful debacle when Carthage’s war-weary and penniless mercenary troops mutinied, believing, like many a frontline fighting man returning home to Germany after the 1918 Armistice, that they had received a ‘stab in the back’. Having been handed over to a general named Gesco and evacuated back to Africa in small staggered batches, Hamilcar Barca’s veterans were left to rot on the streets of Carthage. Wisely, Gesco had reasoned that the authorities back home could pay the mercenaries their arrears as they landed and then pack them off to their own places of origin before the next batch arrived. Unwisely, the authorities chose to ignore these very sensible arrangements and refused to pay anyone until the whole army had collected in Carthage in the mistaken conviction that the mercenaries would let them off part of their arrears of pay. Anyway, after numerous disturbances in the city the 20,000 ill-disciplined but well-equipped mercenaries were shifted to Sicca (El Kef), the authorities even allowing them to take their baggage and their families.

At Sicca, with nothing to do and with discipline sliding from bad to worse, the mercenaries, money-hungry and violent by nature, began to murmur and tot up what was due to them. When told by Hanno the Great, the man responsible for military affairs in Africa, that Carthage could not pay, those who talked of taking matters into their own hands gained the upper hand. Polybios makes the shrewd observation that the Carthaginian practice of hiring troops of various ethnic origins (in this case the military mosaic was made up of Iberians, Celtiberians, Gauls, Ligurians, Balearic islanders, Campanians, a good many Greeks and, of course, a great number of Libyans) though it made it difficult for them to combine, also had its disadvantages. Since no Carthaginian could know all their languages and it was too laborious to address each group through a different interpreter, the only way to explain matters was through their own officers, and these frequently told them, either through misunderstanding or malice, something quite different. It also did not help that this great mixed army with its Babel of alien tongues had not served under Hanno, but under his political rival Hamilcar. Eventually, all 20,000 of them marched on Carthage, pitching camp at Tunis. Their purpose, however, was not revolution but retribution.

‘Such then was the origin and beginning of the war against the mercenaries’, says Polybios, ‘generally known as the Libyan War’, clearly because, as he goes on to explain, ‘nearly all the Libyans had agreed to join in the revolt against Carthage and willingly contributed troops and supplies’. The Greek soldier-historian strongly emphasized the implications of a conflict between an organized state on the one hand and an anarchic barbarian mass of mixed race, owing respect to neither gods nor men, on the other. Polybios cites this as the perfect example of a ‘truceless war’ and stresses that the savagery and monstrous cruelty on both sides clearly appalled even contemporaries. Ironically Carthage, which had always relied upon hired soldiery to one degree or another and was now reaping the consequences of such a dangerous policy, still had to enrol mercenaries so as to quash the mutiny. Though it won in the end (237 BC), due mainly to the military skills and inflexible determination of Hamilcar, it was not before it had been brought to the brink of destruction, and Polybios unequivocally asserts that its citizens, who were compelled to take up arms in order to snuff out the mutiny, came near to losing their liberty and land.

The intimate details of the obscure campaigns of the mutiny do not concern us here, suffice to say the mutiny was the result of Carthaginian arrogance, insensitivity, careless mismanagement and gross stupidity, and Hamilcar preferred a war of mobility and small-scale action rather than full-blown battles. However, the wider repercussions do, and chiefly the effects on Carthaginian relations with Rome. It was during these internal troubles for Carthage that Rome intervened in the valuable Carthaginian dependency of Sardinia, despatching its armies to the island, and later also to Corsica.

Sardinia had not been included in the recent peace treaty as due to be ceded to Rome, but the pretext was that if the island had continued to be in Carthaginian possession, it would have been a perpetual menace to the western seaboard of Italy. The means was handed to Rome on a plate, for in 238 BC, the mercenaries stationed in Sardinia, no less disaffected towards Carthage than their brethren in Africa, invited the Romans to take over the island. At first Rome refused, and we would not be too cynical in thinking that the Senate hesitated because poaching was a game that two could play. However, the situation in Sardinia turned from bad to worse. Having killed their officers, the mutineers there had been joined by another force shipped over to deal with them, and had proceeded to systematically cleanse the island of all Carthaginians. The mutineers, now in forcible possession of Sardinia, fell out with the locals only to be driven out by them to Italy. A second appeal was delivered, and Rome began to prepare an expeditionary force to sail to the island.

It was now that Rome acted as a swaggering bully set to run a blade through the vitals of any who opposed him. Indeed, Polybios pulls no punches when he says that the seizure of Sardinia was ‘contrary to all justice’. Earlier he had related to his Greek readership how Rome lifted Sardinia from Carthage and acquired what would effectively become its second overseas possession:

The mercenaries waged war on the Carthaginians for three years and four months, a war that far exceeded any I have heard of in savagery and lawlessness. At this moment the Romans received an appeal from the mutinous mercenaries on Sardinia, and decided to sail against the island. When the Carthaginians objected that dominion over the Sardinians belonged to them rather than to the Romans and that they were making preparations to hunt down those who had been responsible for the rebellion of the island, the Romans took this as an excuse and voted for war against the Carthaginians, claiming that their preparations were against themselves and not the Sardinians. The Carthaginians, who had just survived the war [against the mercenaries] I have described against all expectation, were in no state at the time to take up hostilities again against the Romans, and, yielding to events, not only abandoned Sardinia, but agreed to pay an additional 1,200 talents to the Romans to avoid undertaking a war at this time. And this is how all these things happened.

The Roman occupation of Sardinia would cast a long shadow. While Roman arms were confined to Italy, the conquered became incorporated in some capacity into the Roman led confederation and acquired a share in the confederacy, subject to Rome but retaining a certain degree of autonomy, paying no tribute, but supplying men for the army. With Sardinia this all changed. The prolonged resistance of the warlike islanders required an almost continuous military presence, and this meant also the presence of a Roman magistrate with imperium: one or both consuls in 238 BC and from 235 BC to 231 BC. As a result, in 227 BC the number of praetors was raised from two to four, one, in future, being assigned to Sicily, the western part of the island being the spoils of the First Punic War, and one to Sardinia. Power may preserve that possession, which justice cannot ratify, and from now on, the provincia of these two praetors became not merely a ‘sphere of duty’, but a ‘province’ in the modern sense. Rome had its first extensions outside of Italy; its imperialism had truly begun.


The ringleaders of the mercenary army were Spendios, a Campanian, a runaway slave and a deserter from the Romans whom he had perhaps served, because of his ‘great physical strength and remarkable courage in war’, by pulling an oar in their navy; a Libyan named Mathos; and a Gaulish gentleman, Autaritos the war chief of the 2,000 Gauls, a man who owed his influence to his excellent command of the Punic tongue, which many in the ranks of this polyglot, but long-serving army, seemed to understand. At this point Carthage came temporarily to its senses and arranged for one of the generals who had served in Sicily to act as a mediator. It seems Hamilcar Barca was not acceptable to the mercenaries as they felt he had handed over his command too precipitously and thus, in a way, was responsible for their present fate. Gesco, on the other hand, having handled their departure from Sicily with due care and consideration, was acceptable. Gesco sailed to Africa and, after explaining the straitened circumstances of their employer, he then appealed to their loyalty and started to hand out the money he had brought with him. The majority of the mercenaries would probably have called it a day there and then.

But it was Mathos who bred sedition amongst his fellow Libyans, and once the sedition broke out, it was the Libyans who persisted in carrying the affair to a decision of arms, for the obvious reason that, should a compromise be effected, the other mercenaries might depart in safety to their homes, but their own homes and persons would be at the mercy of the wrath of the Carthaginians. When they succeeded in preventing a reconciliation by way of a reign of terror, they had no difficulty in effecting a revolt of all the Libyan subject communities, who managed to put as many as 70,000 men into the field, though we have no real idea of their fighting value. As well as their menfolk, these Libyan communities, in the cause of their freedom, willingly donated their money, which more than made up the sum owed to the mercenaries by Carthage. In the meantime, poor honest Gesco and his cortege had been seized and clapped in irons. All hope of a compromise was at an end.

Now firmly in control, Mathos and Spendios divided the renegade army between them: while maintaining their entrenched camp at Tunis, Mathos mounted assaults on Utica and Hippo Acra, and Spendios blockaded Carthage. As for the tragedy of the bloody events that came after, these may be best summarized by way of a quick précis. Hanno’s defeat at Utica; Hamilcar’s recall and his victory over Spendios on the banks of the Macar (using his observation of a quirk of tide and wind to choose the time and place of fording an otherwise impassable obstacle); the false message sent to persuade the wavering mercenaries to fight on; their brutal butchering of Gesco and the other prisoners; tit-for-tat policy of no mercy; siege of Carthage; Hamilcar’s ruse of luring the mercenaries into the defile of the Saw; their reduction to cannibalism and then starvation; dispatch of ten emissaries, among them Spendios and Autaritos, later to be crucified before Tunis, where Mathos and the remainder of the mercenaries were still holding out; the retaliatory crucifixion of the general Hannibal with thirty companions; and the final triumphal procession through the streets of Carthage, with Mathos suffering all kinds of horrendous torture at the hands of the jubilant people.



The armed forces of Rhodesia won virtually every battle and skirmish they ever fought against the guerrilla armies, yet they lost the war. In July 1977, Foreign Minister P K van der Byl said of white Rhodesians’ resolve never to live under a guerrilla regime: ‘We will contest every hill and every river, every village and every town, every crossroad and every bridge.’ Van der Byl’s penchant for Churchillian rhetoric was renowned, but his declaration epitomized the objectives of the Rhodesians’ war against the nationalists: never to surrender their political, social and economic power to black majority rule. Yet the war was lost, and in April 1980 the guerrillas grasped the reins of power for which they had fought so long.

The story of the Rhodesian armed forces during the civil war is one of tactical brilliance and strategic ineptitude. Rarely in military history have such thinly stretched troops, hampered by chronic manpower, training, equipment and financial constraints achieved such consistent successes against enemy forces which enjoyed the tactical and strategic initiative for most of the war, and often reached numerical parity in the field. But the Rhodesian obsession with successful tactics created a fatal blindness to the strategic imperatives of a protracted revolutionary war such as the guerrillas were waging.

The early stages of the war were fought with the armed forces much the same as they had been at the break-up of Federation. The rashness of the guerrillas’ early strategy and tactics required no expansion of the armed forces or mobilization of reserves much beyond peace-time levels. Until 1972 the brunt of the counterinsurgency operations was borne by the British South Africa Police, the RAR, the Rhodesian Light Infantry and the Royal Rhodesian Air Force (the ‘Royal’ was dropped in 1970 when Rhodesia became a republic). Reserve forces assisted from time to time, but did not assume the importance of later years.

The counter-insurgency operations were originally conceived of as a ‘police action’, with the army aiding the civil power against what were characterized as politically motivated criminals. Guerrillas were tried and convicted through the civil courts and were imprisoned or executed through the same machinery as common criminals. This preserved the fiction that the government was waging a campaign against violent criminal elements rather than an incipient civil war, but despite its political usefulness this attitude ignored the realities of the conflict. The police were responsible for the painstaking collection of evidence and the preparation of criminal dockets. It was only in 1978-9 that disaffected areas were placed under martial law and tribunals empowered to deal with captured guerrillas.




In a sense it was natural that the BSAP should be involved in counter-insurgency operations from the start. The unit (formed partly from the earlier British South Africa Company police) was raised in 1896 to combat the Shona and Ndebele insurgents, and in 1897 was almost solely responsible for mopping up the final stubborn pockets of resistance. The Rhodesian authorities liked to boast that, after 1897, the police did not shoot and kill a single African until 26 July 1960, during serious rioting in Bulawayo. The force was structured as a cavalry regiment and its military ethos remained with it until the 1980s. Although its functions became increasingly civil in succeeding decades after its foundation, it never entirely lost its paramilitary role nor its military spirit, signified by the force’s nickname, ‘The Regiment’, and its status as the ‘senior service’.

The regular police, numbering about 2,000 whites and 6,000 blacks at the height of the war, received long periods of counter-insurgency training during their recruit courses. Although most active policemen served in a civil capacity, most white junior ranks were required to serve periodic tours in the Police Anti-Terrorist Unit (PATU), otherwise essentially a reserve element.

As the war intensified, so the combat role of the regular police expanded. The Support Unit, nicknamed the ‘Black Boots’, was formed as a regular counterinsurgency unit and eventually expanded into a light infantry battalion of black constables officered by whites. The unit was highly successful and at times scored a higher kill rate than regular army formations. A widening war encouraged the proliferation of other specialist police units. The Special Branch, initially responsible for the investigation of political crime and undercover surveillance, diversified into the collection of field intelligence when it absorbed the police ‘Ground Coverage’ network of operatives and informers. A Special Branch section, the SB-Scouts, was a small unit of Special Branch agents, Selous Scouts and captured guerrillas which carried out more dangerous and esoteric intelligence-gathering, as well as conducting clandestine operations against the enemy’s political and military infrastructure. A Police Mounted Unit, formed in 1976, was an attempt to increase the mobility of police COIN forces, but it was a gimmicky formation which remained limited in size. The explosion of stock theft, which was part of the guerrilla strategy of undermining the white economy and its logistics system, brought the creation of specialized anti-stock theft teams. Their high mobility and ruthlessness in dealing with stock thieves, as well as a mandatory nine-year gaol sentence for cattle theft, were only partly successful in controlling this chronic problem for the white farming community. The spread of the war to the urban areas in the latter stages of the conflict was countered by the Urban Emergency unit, a ‘special weapons and tactics’ (SWAT) group, which was highly successful in rooting out and deterring urban terrorism.

Like all the armed forces, the police suffered from a shortage of quality manpower. This was partly alleviated by the allocation of part of the national service intakes for each year from 1973, and the greater responsibility of reserve units to assist in preventing and detecting crime in urban areas and the safer rural districts. Increasing reliance was also placed on black recruits, who made up the rank and file, and the stretching of white officers’ responsibilities.


Rhodesian Army badges around chopper


The cutting edge of the Rhodesian security forces was provided by the regular units of the army, and they assumed the status of a strategic reserve-cum-shock force in the late 1970s. All the regular units expanded considerably during the war and came to absorb portions of the periodic national service intakes of white youths. In time these national servicemen formed the reserve elements of the regular units and were called up for tours of duty with them.

The Rhodesian African Rifles (which received white national service officers, but no other ranks) expanded from a pre-UDI strength of one battalion to four. The second was formed in 1974, the third in 1977 and the fourth began recruiting in 1978. Only the second enjoyed anything like the training and respect that white officers accorded the first, veteran battalion. The fourth battalion never really functioned properly, and by the end of the war the RAR training establishment was simply churning out vast numbers of black soldiers to meet the insatiable demands of the armed forces for some sort of trained manpower to plug the gaps in the security forces’ disintegrating control of the countryside. Raw black troops were integrated with white reserve units, which were dwindling through emigration, to bolster their strength and assimilate combat experience as quickly as possible. At that time some officers envisaged a future Rhodesian army in which virtually every white soldier was an officer or an NCO commanding vast numbers of black rank-and-file, but this did not come about before the war’s end.

The Rhodesian Light Infantry finally reached full battalion strength in the early Seventies after years of inadequate recruitment. It was boosted by foreign enlistment and national service conscripts in its commando (company-sized units) structure. The RLI achieved notoriety as a sort of southern African Foreign Legion to which mercenaries flocked from all over the world. Estimates of the total numbers of foreigners who had served in the Rhodesian forces ranged up to 2,000, but a figure of 1,400 is more likely. A large proportion of them was concentrated in No. 3 Commando of the RLI. Although the guerrillas were able to make a great deal of propaganda out of foreign recruitment as a measure of the moral, political and military depravity of the Rhodesian government, these men were more ideological soldiers of fortune than true mercenaries. Most enlisted out of political and racial conviction or purely for high adventure, since their pay and conditions of service were the same as those of white recruits of Rhodesian origin.


The Special Air Service also attracted foreigners, though its tough selection course kept the unit relatively small, with a high proportion of white Rhodesians in its ranks. Although Peter McAleese records that at one stage in the late 1970s, in ‘A’ Squadron, most of the 33 regulars were foreigners, this tally excluded the Rhodesians in the Territorial SAS. On external operations, the SAS often wore enemy uniforms, so that if an operator was killed, especially if he were a foreigner, he could officially be disowned by the authorities. The formation had languished after the dissolution of the Federation, its strength dropping to as low as 20, but by 1978 volunteers (including national servicemen) took it up to three-squadron strength. Rhodesia’s ‘C’ Squadron SAS had been formed to serve in Malaya alongside the British ‘A’and ‘B’Squadrons. (To this day, in the British SAS orbat, the ‘C’ Squadron remains vacant in honour of the lost Rhodesian element.) The Rhodesian SAS squadron later became 1 (Rhodesia) Special Air Service Regiment. A secret component was ‘D’ Squadron, made up of South African Special Forces Reconnaissance Commandos. Generally, the 40 South African operators preferred to work as a distinct unit, sometimes commanded by an SADF colonel, though they also fought alongside the Selous Scouts and Rhodesian SAS in external raids. They would sometimes fly to Salisbury on scheduled flights in civilian clothes, be met at the airport and then change into Rhodesian uniform. They were there to learn, as much as to help.


Two new units to emerge during the war were the Selous Scouts, which adopted the name relinquished by the Armoured Car Regiment, and the Grey’s Scouts. The Selous Scouts took its name from the well-known nineteenth-century hunter, Frederick Courteney Selous; Henry Rider Haggard is said to have based the character of Allan Quatermain on the same adventurer. The Selous Scouts were originally formed as a small specialist tracking unit (called the Tracker Combat Unit) to provide support for other units on COIN operations. Initially there were two groups, under 2 Brigade, based at Kariba and Bindura. But the unit’s functions multiplied, as did its size, to three troops, then a full battalion of 1,000 officers and men, most of whom were black. Selous Scouts conducted clandestine operations both inside and outside Rhodesia’s borders. Individuals were attached to the Rhodesian intelligence service to gather information from as far afield as Tanzania and Angola. One Selous Scout became the most distinguished, and decorated, Rhodesian soldier. Captain Chris Schulenburg, a South African known as Schulie, usually with just one black Scout, performed feats of long-range ground reconnaissance unparalleled in modern counter-insurgency. (The full story of this modest officer was told in The Selous Scouts: Top Secret War.) The Scouts’ Support Troop acted as assault infantry in raids into neighbouring countries, though it was never as effective as the SAS. (Most of the blunders of the Rhodesians on raids into Zambia were attributable to this formation acting on its own initiative or with too much licence granted by General Walls himself.) The unit’s notoriety for treachery and brutality was only partly deserved, for the bulk of its members were engaged on routine military tasks. But the Selous Scouts did field ‘pseudo-gangs’ to deceive the guerrillas and their supporters, and to carry out punitive atrocities against villages which collaborated with the guerrillas. Selous Scout pseudo operators were paid a Rh$100 bounty for every guerrilla killed or captured along with their weapons. This rose to Rh$150 a head if there were more than ten guerrillas. The formation’s penchant for secrecy (despite the wide publicity given to its existence and to its stringent selection tests), and the bogus cloak-and-dagger attitude of some of its ranks, helped the guerrillas to paint a picture of the battalion as a latter-day Waffen-SS. The undoubted efficiency and bravery of the soldiers in the unit, many of whom were national servicemen or reservists, and the extreme conditions under which they often operated, contributed to the images of ruthless shock troops promoted by the mass media around the world.

The Grey’s Scouts were a mounted infantry unit formed to exploit the mobility of horses for COIN operations. The formation had mixed success, but they attracted high quality volunteers, again including many foreigners, and established a reputation for aggressiveness. At times they operated purely as foot-soldiers, depending on operational conditions.

Apart from the Grey’s Scouts and the third and fourth battalions of the RAR, the regular units were increasingly deployed as military fire brigades within the country, and on external operations after 1976. The trend was to hand over routine, ground-covering patrols to reserve forces. Fire Force duties were allocated to the RLI, the RAR, the Support Company of the Selous Scouts and, less frequently, the SAS. Formations served two- to three-week tours as Fire Forces before being allocated to other operations. In consequence, most of their ranks received parachute training.

External operations were carried out almost exclusively by these regular formations. The SAS spent most of its time across the border. The Squadrons were deployed for months at a time in Mozambique, Zambia or Botswana on regular operations to harass guerrilla camps and lines of communication and to gather intelligence. Full-scale assaults on guerrilla bases, some involving combat paradrops from as low as 300 feet, were also a part of the unit’s responsibilities. The RAR, RLI and Selous Scouts deployed detachments of up to company strength into neighbouring states, though most operations were on a smaller scale.

Other combat formations were the Independent Companies made up of national servicemen, the Artillery and the Armoured Car Regiment. The Independent Companies had specific areas of responsibility (for example, 2 Indep. Coy was based at Kariba, 3 Indep. Coy at Inyanga) in which they constantly operated. Occasionally they were deployed on Fire Force duties and on external raids. Their quality was never very high as they were the residue of national service intakes after officer training, the regular units, the specialized arms and police had taken their pick of conscripts. One such unit, 7 Indep. Coy, was a cover for a unit of French recruits into the Rhodesian forces. Some were veterans of the Foreign Legion, but they were not successful in Rhodesian conditions and were disbanded.

The service corps were largely staffed by regular troops, though their deficiencies were also made up by drafts of national servicemen and reservists. The corps divisions of responsibility were roughly similar to those of the British army: the Corps of Engineers, the Corps of Signals, Army Services Corps, Army Medical Corps, Military Police, Army Pay Corps, Army Educational Corps and the Corps of Chaplains. There were also miscellaneous departments such as the Psychological Action Group (Psyac) and Military Intelligence to co-ordinate field and external intelligence data. The Military Intelligence department performed poorly partly because of the small size of its staff, of whom nearly all were reservists. A big exception, however, was the signallers in Military Intelligence who operated the Radio Intercept Services. A great deal of vital information was gleaned from radio interception of guerrillas and regular troops based in Mozambique and Zambia. A Special Investigations Branch was created to ensure the internal security of the army and to root out subversion and dissidence among troops.

The army’s ‘tail’ was remarkably lean, and the usual imbalance between combat and support units in modern armies was not a severe problem for the Rhodesian forces. Many functions of the ‘tail’ were carried out by cheap black auxiliary labour, so that little white manpower was allocated to trivial, but necessary, support functions. The emigration of skilled artisans from the country had serious repercussions for the armed forces. Motor vehicle mechanics were in chronically short supply, especially when the number of landmine and traffic incidents escalated alarmingly from 1976. The gaps in the security forces’ maintenance capabilities were filled to a great extent by private contractors and by calling up skilled personnel to serve in security forces’ workshops.



Rhodesian Hunter from 1982.


Rhodesian Air Force 4 Squadron Cessna 337 (nicknamed the Lynx)


Air Force

The Rhodesian Air Force was a vital component of the war machine. Air force officers continued the traditions of the ‘Brylcreem Boys’ by claiming that they were responsible for the largest number of kills among the security forces, and that their operations made the bulk of other formations’ successes possible. There was more than a grain of truth in this, for the air force allowed the most efficient deployment of the strategic reserve, and carried out photo-reconnaissance and air strikes on guerrilla concentrations in and outside Rhodesia.

The RAF’s strike capability was based on a squadron of Hawker Hunter FGA9 fighter-bombers, one of Canberra B2 and T4 light bombers, one of Vampire RB9s, and Cessna 0-2 (Lynx) and Siai-Marchetti SF 260 (Genet) propeller-driven strike aircraft. Provost T52s and Vampire T55s were used in a strike capacity in the early years of the war, but were later relegated to training roles. The jet aircraft were used mainly for external operations, though the Hunter was a maid-of-all-work, since it carried out cross-border strikes, supported Fire Force operations and protected Rhodesian airspace. The Cessnas, which were brought through the sanctions barrier in red and white civilian livery, were converted to a military role and armed with machine guns, antipersonnel rocket pods and bomb racks in Rhodesia. They formed the backbone of Fire Force support throughout the country, since their slower speed and excellent maneuverability made them more suitable for the pinpoint accuracy often required in counter-guerrilla operations in close or broken terrain.

But it was in the transport of troops that the RAF played its most important role. Helicopters gave the Rhodesian forces the tactical flexibility they needed to control vast swathes of rugged countryside. The basic Rhodesian tactical element, the ‘stick’ of four or five men, was designed around the seating capacity of the mainstay of the helicopter capability of the Air Force, the Aerospatiale Alouette III. This machine was used not only for the rapid development of tracker and fighting teams, but was later the basis of Fire Force operations in the transport, command chopper and gunship roles, as well as being important for the evacuation (casevac) of the wounded. The force of 50-plus Alouettes, many on loan with their pilots and technicians from South Africa, was supplemented by a handful of Alouette II utility craft. Earlier in the war, the RAF had tried to acquire Pumas. Unlike the Alouettes which had been designed for civilian use, the Puma was specifically a military aircraft. As one senior Rhodesian air force officer lamented, ‘The UN mandatory sanctions made the sale of such equipment to Rhodesia impossible–even for the French.’ French technicians from Sud Aviation were nevertheless regular visitors to Rhodesia to advise on helicopter technology. A considerable boost to the airlift capability of the Rhodesian forces was the acquisition in 1978 of seven Bell 205s, the ‘Huey’ of Vietnam War fame, from Israel via the Comoro Islands. With a capacity of 12 to 16 men, each Bell could carry the equivalent of a former Fire Force of three to four Alouette IIIs. Cheetah was the name given to the Bells, which arrived in an appalling state. Without any manuals, they were completely overhauled, after ‘removing tons of sand’, according to a technician who worked on them.

As the scale of encounters between guerrilla detachments and units of the security forces increased, and before the acquisition of the Bells, paradrops from Dakotas were made an integral part of Fire Forces after September 1976. This necessitated large-scale parachute training of regular units which were routinely deployed as Fire Forces.

The transport squadrons of the RAF, which included Aermacchi AL60s, dubbed ‘Trojans’ by the Rhodesians, and Britten-Norman Islanders, also supplied remote base camps of the security forces and the network of airfields from which combat aircraft operated.

The squadron bases were at New Sarum, near Salisbury (home of the Canberra bomber, DC-3 and helicopter squadrons), and Thornhill, at Gwelo (home base of the Hunters, Trojans, Genets and Vampires). The operational areas were served by a network of Forward Airfields (FAFs), which ranged from large facilities like those at Grand Reef (Umtali) and Wankie, to airstrips attached to JOCs like that at Mtoko. A FAF was any airfield out of which aircraft operated in support of security forces’ operations, and from time to time would accommodate Fire Forces as well.

Late in the war a new base was built near Hartley. The project was kept out of the public eye, but the facility was capable of supporting the most sophisticated jet fighter aircraft, and may have been planned as a base for operations by the South African Air Force. As it was remote from large population centres, operations could be mounted from it with considerably more secrecy than from Thornhill and New Sarum, which used the civil runways serving Salisbury international airport. The SAAF did provide much support and training, especially for external raids. Dakotas, Canberras and Alouettes on loan, or in support, were relatively easy to disguise but the Puma and Super Frelon choppers were not. Pretoria also provided ammunition, bombs, avionics and electronic surveillance for the Rhodesian air war. In a secret exchange (Operation Sand), Rhodesian instructors, technicians and student pilots were sent to South African bases. Flying training on Impala jets was conducted at Langebaan air base and also in Durban. The Rhodesians also manned one entire SAAF Mirage III squadron for a short period.

The RAF was supported by a large fleet of civilian aircraft operated by the Police Reserve Air Wing. These aircraft, most of them propeller-driven, carried out routine supply and administrative functions, although some were armed with Browning machine guns for a ground support role. Some PRAW pilots developed considerable expertise in tracking guerrillas from the air.

Airfield and installation defence was provided by an armoured car unit comprising national servicemen and members of the air force reserve, around a regular core, and by an all-black General Service Unit.


If the regular army, police and the RAF were the mainstays of the Rhodesian security forces, the bulk of military manpower was engaged in less spectacular roles. It is a rule of thumb that the larger the formation the blunter the instrument. The major source of manpower for the Rhodesian armed forces was mobilization of reserves. The call-up net eventually encompassed all able-bodied white men between 18 and 60. All white youths between 18 and 25 were liable to conscription. The commitment eventually rose to 18 months, though those who would go on to universities had to serve 24 months since they would enjoy exemption from reserve duties while they were students. Men in the 25 to 38 age bracket were liable to reserve duty in the army, but were increasingly posted to other formations and services. Those who had missed national service conscription were first called up for training. Men over 38 were liable to serve in the Rhodesia Defence Regiment or the Police Reserve structure. The commitments of various groups differed. The most heavily pressed group were men in the 25 to 38 age bracket, who at the height of the war were liable to serve six months a year with their units. The pattern of tours became ‘six weeks in, six weeks out’, but even that was changed to ‘four weeks in, four weeks out’ in periods of acute manpower shortage, such as the traditional guerrilla rainy season offensives.

In the pre-UDI period there were two reserve formations, the Territorial Force based on white battalions of the Royal Rhodesia Regiment (the Royal was dropped when Rhodesia declared itself a republic), and the Police Reserve. The Rhodesia Regiment trained national servicemen who were conscripted for six weeks’ basic training under the 1957 Defence Act. In the early 1960s the number of battalions was increased and the length of basic training rose to 41½ months. Conscripts had a reserve commitment in the battalions of the Rhodesia Regiment on release from basic training. Police Reservists were volunteers who supported the normal operations of the BSAP, and played an important role in suppressing urban disorders in the early 1960s.

Both forces changed considerably in the war years. The Territorial Battalions lost their training role and became exclusively reserve units once national servicemen were allocated to Independent Companies, the regular units, the specialist arms, the police and other supporting parts of the armed forces’ structure. Servicemen who had completed their initial period of active service were transferred to the TF battalions until they were 38. The TF battalions, which were city- and district-based, eventually numbered eight (designated 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9 and 10 RR) and with a total nominal strength of 15,000.

As national servicemen began to pass through a diversity of units from 1973, so each formation built up a TF, reserve element which was called up for periodic tours of duty. Even the SAS, Grey’s Scouts and Selous Scouts had reserve components of part-time soldiers. The Rhodesian Intelligence Corps was commanded by a territorial officer and was staffed almost completely by reservists. It collected and collated field intelligence and provided up-to-date maps for all arms of the security forces.

The Police Reserve became a repository for less able and older conscripts. Men in the 38 to 60 age bracket were automatically conscripted into its ranks, although PATU contained considerable numbers of active, younger men, exempted from army service for occupational reasons, police regulars and national servicemen who had passed on to a reserve commitment, and large numbers of farmers. Sections of PATU conducted highly successful operations, but their main function was to cover ground aggressively and act in a reconnaissance role. Other elements of the Police Reserve were the ‘A’Reserve, which assisted the duty branches of the BSAP in crime prevention, and the Field Reserve. The latter was used mainly for protection duties on farms, bridges, convoys, radio relay stations and other installations. The International Institute for Strategic Studies estimated a peak strength for the Police Reserve of 35,000 in 1978, but this is probably too high a figure. In 1979, Police Reserve strength in Salisbury, the country’s biggest reservoir of white manpower, stood at only 4,500, and it is unlikely that there were more than 30,000 reservists in the rest of the country. The standard of training, equipment, leadership and organization of the Field Reserve was not impressive and it was only the low calibre of the guerrillas which saved periodic slaughtering of these poorly trained reservists.

Africans were not liable to conscription until 1978, when a very limited and cautious programme was introduced to conscript black youths aged 18 to 25. The potential problems of conscripting the vast numbers available, many of whom were reluctant or disaffected, were so great that the programme never really got off the ground before the ceasefire in December 1979.

Asian and Coloured youths were liable to conscription, and in due course these communities were also brought into the reserve structure. Low morale and inefficiency were caused by discrimination in terms of service, pay and conditions, but these were equalized with white conditions of service towards the end of the war. Most Asians and Coloureds were drafted into the Protection Companies for defensive duties and as drivers in the early days of the war, but later formed the bulk of the Rhodesia Defence Regiment (nicknamed the Rhodesian Dagga [marijuana] Regiment because of its poor discipline). Many also served in the Police Reserve.

Training was a headache for the military authorities throughout the war. The elite units received elite training. The Selous Scouts and SAS were trained for periods of up to eight months before taking the field, and their pre- and post-deployment retraining programmes were excellent. The training of Territorial Force battalions was gradually improved, but a chronic shortage of instructors persisted, whose skills were also badly needed in the field. This deficiency was exacerbated by the armed forces’ poor use of the skills and qualifications of reserve manpower. General Walls spoke of fitting round pegs into round holes, but a great deal of valuable manpower was wasted on the performance of military tasks which could have been carried out by far less-qualified soldiers. The Police Reserve in particular suffered from low-calibre instructors.

Once the armed forces began to mushroom, low-quality troops became a chronic weakness of the Rhodesian forces. The Guard Force was created in 1975 as a ‘Fourth Arm’with the responsibility for manning protected villages, the Rhodesian version of the strategic hamlets of Malaya and Vietnam. The Rhodesia Defence Regiment was created in 1978. One battalion was attached to each brigade headquarters to protect military installations and lines of communication. Because large numbers were required for these units at short notice, training was superficial. The tedious nature of their static tasks made the units poorly disciplined and Guard Force details often committed crimes against the populations they were charged with protecting. Had they stood against a determined, well-trained enemy they would have had little chance. Both these units received drafts of white national servicemen and (often elderly) reservists, but these were usually of low calibre and suffered from poor morale because of their attachment to notoriously inefficient units. Towards the end of the war, when the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Security Force Auxiliaries took greater responsibility for defending PVs, Guard Force received better training and sometimes fought in an infantry role. But their primary task remained defensive, including the protection of white farms, ranches and communications links.

One unsuccessful expedient adopted was that of integrating inexperienced troops with battle-hardened units. The RAR’s battalions were used to try to give a quick patina of combat experience to large numbers of recruits who were given shorter than usual periods of basic training from 1978. This experiment had limited success, but the attempt to integrate the previously all-white Rhodesia Regiment battalions was a disastrous failure. The racial prejudices of the territorial soldiers and the inexperience and unreliability of the African recruits caused morale among the whites to plummet. The white territorials alleged that the Africans displayed cowardice under fire, and resentment against this invasion of a former white preserve was reflected in lower combat effectiveness.

Two other formations should be mentioned. The Ministry of Internal Affairs, responsible for the administration of the country’s African population and the TTLs, where most guerrilla activity occurred, increased its military role as Rhodesia became a garrison state. By 1978-9 administration of large areas of the country was possible only in the presence of armed force. Internal Affairs personnel in the districts were invariably armed. The rank and file, made up mainly of District Security Assistants (DSAs), was generally low-calibre manpower, poorly trained, led and equipped (initially with .303 bolt-operated rifles, though they later received LMGs). The DSAs were in close contact with the African population of the TTLs, which meant that they were in close contact with guerrilla operations, with consequently high, morale-sapping casualty rates. The quality of the District Assistants (DAs) and paramilitary DSAs depended largely upon the quality of the District Commissioners who led them. As one police officer who worked closely with Internal Affairs, noted of the DAs and DSAs, ‘They died well and died en masse.’To try to counter insurgency in districts where leadership was poor, Internal Affairs set up the Administrative Reinforcement Unit (ARU). Despite its apparently innocuous name, this white-led force was ‘full of hard men’, according to one Rhodesian military historian. ‘Despite sounding like they checked paperclips, the ARU was very gung-ho and well-equipped.’

A late appearance was the auxiliary army, grandly titled Pfumo reVanhu (‘the Spear of the People’; Umkonto wa Bantu in Matabeleland) which emerged from the internal political settlement of 3 March 1978. Under code name Operation Favour, the auxiliaries were boosted in number to try to match the size of ZANLA. About US$10 million was raised with money coming from Saudi Arabia, and especially from the Sultan of Oman, a good friend of Rhodesia and a fervent anti-communist. Ostensibly comprising guerrillas who surrendered under an amnesty similar to the Chieu Hoi programme in Vietnam, a large number (about 90 per cent, according to one Rhodesian officer who worked with them) were in fact raw recruits, some merely boys, lured or press-ganged into its ranks from urban townships. Some units fought well, especially in the Urungwe TTL, but others were merely an armed rabble. Originally liaison between the Rhodesian military authorities and the SFAs was carried out by Special Branch agents, but towards the end of the war many auxiliaries protecting PVs came under Internal Affairs control and the rest under a new unit, the Special Forces. Their political alignment to Sithole’s ZANU and Muzorewa’s UANC was more a hindrance than a help, for this made ideal propaganda for the guerrillas. Any military value they may have had was offset by the political costs of periodic rampages and reigns of terror inflicted on African populations in their areas of responsibility, called ‘frozen zones’(distinct from zones reserved for Selous Scout operations) because other Rhodesian units were not permitted to operate there. The Rhodesian government’s verdict on this generally unsuccessful experiment was revealed when, in 1979, it felt forced to wipe out two ill-disciplined and disaffected groups of auxiliaries loyal to Sithole.