By Pat Lowinger
The Roman Republic owed much of its fortune and success to its military. What started as the small backwater of Rome in 509 BCE would grow to dominate not only the Mediterranean, but most of what are now Western Europe, Turkey, The Near East and Southern England. Wherever the boots of the Roman Legions marched those peoples and nations soon found themselves under the dominion of Res Publica Romana. The Legions did not lead themselves into battle but instead were almost exclusively led by the nobili genere-the aristocratic families/class of Roman Society. Yet at its very core of the Roman Legion were the lowly Legionnaires, the citizen-soldiers of Rome. The nexus between citizenship, civic duty and compulsory military service formed the unbreakable union between the Roman military and its government- and allowed for ever increasing in rows by plebeians into the ranks of the patricians.
The Early and Mid Republic
The very foundation of the Roman Republic was forged in the crucible of military conflict. The Roman Republic was itself the product of rebellion against the kings who had dominated Rome for nearly two and half centuries. From its inception, the Republic tied the privileges of citizenship to the obligations (and honor) of military service. This civic-virtue and warrior ethos extended into both the patrician and plebeian classes and was attested to in the Latin mottos, fidelitas et officium, disciplina and virtus. Yet the fledgling Republic was aware of the need for strong and skillful military leadership to defend itself from numerous and determined enemies. To meet this threat the Republic elected two men to act as consuls, each of whom had the power of imperium– becoming the commander(s) of the Roman military and holding many dictatorial governmental powers. Yet at its very core the Republic (particularly the Senate) feared the return of a king, despot or other tyrant.
In a very short time Rome was defending itself from conquest and capitalizing upon its early victories to expand its own holdings at the cost of its surrounding neighbors. “A Roman [of the mid Early-Mid Republic] was half a soldier from the start, and he would endure a discipline which soon produced the other half. To him war was not romantic nor an intellectual adventure: it was a job of work, to which he brought a steady, stubborn, adaptable, schooled application.” While not always successful, the Roman army continued to gain martial credibility. With its successful wars against the Sabines, Aequi and Volsci by the end of the mid Fourth Century BCE Rome had established dominance over its immediate neighbors. But even at this time, the total territorial possessions of were quite limited. See Diagram 1 Above.
Roman military power and dominance of Latium would steadily continue until the almost fatal destruction of Rome in 391 BCE when the Gallic Chieftain Brennus broke the back of the Roman military. The Roman people were forced to endure the humiliation of capitulation to avoid starvation. The city of Rome was drained of its resources, its gold and a portion of the populace was enslaved. This defeat was antithetical to the Roman ideal of virtus and called for the widespread strengthening of the devastated Roman army. What followed was large scale conscription with field operations lasting for extended periods in order to (re)secure Roman territories. A natural by-product of long term military service is the development of an esprit de corps which bonded the military together. There is no stronger bond, except perhaps for familial relationships. As Livy wrote, “Those things in a State which attain the highest development are those which are encouraged by rewards; it is thus that men become good citizens in times of peace, good soldiers in times of war.” As increasing numbers of plebeians remained in the military for longer terms service some advanced to relatively high ranks. It was these ‘new’ commanders of the Roman military (as well as their like-minded followers) whose desire to end many of the privileges of the patricians which led to the Second Conflict of the Orders. At its end, the plebeians had secured access to the office of Military Tribune and it was now possible (albeit uncommon) to fill one of Rome’s two chairs as Consul.
This transition did not occur by accident. Roman political and military strategy appeared to be one of preparation, followed by expansion and then consolidation, “This lull [in war] strongly suggests that the wars between the Romans and Latins were largely the result of Roman aggression: if the Romans were too busy for wars, none took place.” The increasing need for troops placed considerable pressure upon Rome’s citizen-soldiers to fulfill these needs. It was in the military and nowhere else where a plebeian could aspire to rise to prominent office or position within Roman society. In the mid 4th Century BC we see the rise in prominence of the Patricio-Plebeian families- defined a marked separation of ‘traditional’ or right-wing Patricians with those who were much more inclined to work in unison with plebeians. More importantly those former plebeian families which had attained consulships had gained noble status. Thus what we observe is a continuous and often steady entry of militarily accomplished plebeians into the middle and upper ranks of Roman society.
The God-Generals of Rome
Victory in battle makes one a hero. Victory in war makes one a god. It is often these great Romans who were defined not by their politics, but rather their acumen upon the field of battle. Whether is was the valor of Marcus Valerius Corvus who killed a gigantic Gallic chieftain in one on one combat or the young Titus Manlius Torquatus defending the honor of Rome, one thing was certain the Romans deeply loved their heroes. Thus when at the young age of eighteen a young Publius Cornelius Scipio saved his father-in-law from death at the Battle of Ticinus in the open days of the Second Punic War word of his heroism proceeded him. As Scipio’s victories grew, so did his legend. At the age of twenty-five Scipio was given command to Roman forces in Iberia (211 BCE) and five years later (206 BCE) had secured Hispania. In 205 BCE Scipio was unanimously elected Consul, and re-elected two additional times until his destruction of Carthaginian forces at Zama (202 BCE). If Livy’s account is to be believed, when he returned from Africa, Scipio was offered ‘Consulship’ for life- effectively making him a king. As the consummate Roman (and Republican), Scipio refused, but his legend among the people of Rome was to endure:
“As for the surname Africanus, I have not been able to find out how it became current- through the army’s devotion to their general, or from popular favor; or it may have started with the flattery of close friends, in the way, in our fathers time, Sulla was called ‘Fortunate’ and Pompey ‘the Great’. What is certain is Scipio was the first great general to be celebrated by the name of the people he conquered…”
We see similar political and military developments under other great generals- such as Gaius Marius accompanied reforms and political movements within the army. What is less well know is that Gaius Marius was born to relatively modest means. While Plutarch’s account of Marius’ father being a ‘common laborer’ is likely fictitious it does demonstrate that unlike the aristocracy of Rome, Marius’ rural Patrician family in Arpinium were regarded no better than poor country folk. Marius is credited with reforming the Roman military c.100 BCE, the process had likely proceeded that date. Whatever the catalyst, the Roman army continued to become a more professional and socially integrated fighting force (with allies and auxiliaries) than it had in the previous two centuries. The removal of a property mandate for service in the Roman military was the last vestige of the earlier Republic and effectively converted the Roman military into a populist army- that being an army which was often defined by its own self-interest, be it pay, loot or retirement benefits. The recruitment and pay of troops was increasingly placed in the hands of generals who often remained with soldiers for most, if not their entire careers. The loyalties of these ‘bands of brothers’ were often stronger to each other than the state.
To simply state that the Roman Republic was a militaristic society is rather naïve. Yet, the very identity of Roman society was closely associated with the Roman ideals and customs, not the least of which was salus populi suprema lex. Both politically and militarily the Roman Republic was aggressive as demonstrated by the numerous conflicts and wars in which it was involved. By 100 BCE, Rome grew to encompass a huge sphere of influence within the Mediterranean. See Diagram 2. This constant or nearly constant state of war or at least military preparedness created a political system which mirrored and promoted that of the military.
Military service whether among the ranks of the patricians or the plebs was seen not as a burden, but a possible avenue for improved status. It was this pride and dedication as citizen-soldiers that bound Roman society together and gave it common purpose- for the glory of Rome. As a militarily orientated society it was inevitable that Rome’s politics and is military should become so closely intertwined as well as shape it’s long and colorful history.
Bibliography & citations:
Adcock, F. E. The Roman Art of War under the Republic. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1960.
Cary, M., and H. H. Scullard. A History of Rome down to the Reign of Constantine. 3rd ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1975.
Goldsworthy, Adrian Keith., and John Keegan. Roman Warfare. London: Cassell, 2000.
Lendon, J. E. Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.
Livy, and William Masfen Roberts. The History of Rome. London: J.M. Dent, 1912.
Livy. Livy: The War with Hannibal. Translated by Aubrey De Sélincourt. England: Penguin Books.
Mackay, Christopher S. Ancient Rome: A Military and Political History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Lendon, J. E. Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 173 & 177.
 Goldsworthy, Adrian Keith., and John Keegan. (Roman Warfare. London: Cassell, 2000), 38-39.
 Adcock, F. E. The Roman Art of War under the Republic. (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1960), 5-6.
 Cary, M., and H. H. Scullard. A History of Rome down to the Reign of Constantine. (3rd ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1975), 70-72.
 Ibid., 72-73.
 Mackay, Christopher S. Ancient Rome: A Military and Political History. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 45.
Cary, M., and H. H. Scullard. A History of Rome down to the Reign of Constantine. (3rd ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1975), 75-76.
 Livy, and William Masfen Roberts. The History of Rome. (London: J.M. Dent, 1912), 4.2.
Cary, M., and H. H. Scullard. A History of Rome down to the Reign of Constantine. (3rd ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1975), 75-76 & 77-78.
 Ibid., 77-78.
 Mackay, Christopher S. Ancient Rome: A Military and Political History. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 46.
 Cary, M., and H. H. Scullard. A History of Rome down to the Reign of Constantine. (3rd ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1975), 75-76 & 77-78.
 Lendon, J. E. Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 172-174.
Livy, Titus. Livy: The War with Hannibal. Translated by Aubrey De Sélincourt. (England: Penguin Books. 1975), 676.