Colonel de Gaulle, in his revealing book – like Hitler and Franco13 he stuck to his principles – Le Fil de l’épée (The Way of the Sword), published in 1932, praises the army as the embodiment of a nation’s will. He wrote. ‘France was created by the sword. Our fathers entered history via the sword of Brennus [he of the Brenner Pass, ed.]. Roman armies brought them civilization. The fleur-de-lys, symbol of the nation’s unity, is but a javelin framed by lances.’ De Gaulle and his admirer (but not his friend) Churchill were the last statesmen to believe in blood. Both had experienced the First World War at its most disagreeable, Churchill with his battalion – he had asked for a brigade – and de Gaulle who had been present at Verdun where the mutiny had been put down by another future head of state, Pétain; but if the experience had dismayed them it had not discouraged them. The Roman Army – and still less the Japanese – would not have tolerated trench warfare. The Roman soldier respected his life and would not have obeyed a commander who did not share that view. Both would have regarded the grumpy deference of the British tommy and the sentimental sacrifice of the French poilu – in their hundreds of thousands – as unprofessional.

In equating a nation with its army, de Gaulle is thinking like a Roman; indeed to contemporaries the Roman army was the religion of Rome, and Rome the religion of the army. With good reason, since the vulnerable city of Rome had achieved hegemony in Italy through force of arms (and some cunning) wielded by its volunteer citizen foot soldiers assisted by knights, riding, without stirrups, small horses paid for out of the public purse. The Republic conquered most of the world with a professional army essentially of heavy infantrymen, and the Empire maintained, consolidated, monitored and only slightly aggrandized those possessions which stretched from Mauretania (Morocco) to Armenia, and Thebes in Lower Egypt to Luguvallium (Carlisle). The addition of Britain by the Emperor Claudius was expensive and would not have been approved by Augustus. In his day the Roman world contained a population of about 45 million controlled by an army totalling, with auxiliaries, 400,000 men, who (with weapons less sophisticated than the 500,000 Americans recently in the Gulf) kept the world at peace. When the Roman soldier was not fighting – most of the time – he was building. Nowhere is this military activity of peaceful construction better illustrated than in North Africa where Legio III Augusta (originally 100 men) was stationed for more than a century, and where, as Sir Mortimer Wheeler once observed, the remarkable thing was that nothing remarkable happened.

When de Gaulle wrote of the civilizing mission of the Roman army in France he cannot have meant its original and at times genocidal subjugation of Gaul under the command of Julius Caesar, who gained a lot of his money and much of his reputation (pace his unchivalrous treatment of the brilliant young Vercingetorix) there. De Gaulle must have been thinking of the Roman roads, the aqueducts (like the Pont du Gard), the temples (like the Maison Carrée in Nîmes, perhaps the most perfect building in the Western world,erected at the beginning of the millennium in honour of Augustus’ two young grandchildren and heirs) and the almost intact amphitheatre in the same city, where I saw the Davis Cup in 1991. All these were constructed by engineers, architects and surveyors attached to the Roman army, using Roman cement and blocks of building stone cut and joined by Roman soldiers. De Gaulle was thinking too of that system of law and order, inspired by and imposed on their world by the Romans, so fair that it justified, in the fullest sense, their regime, whose rarely invoked sanction was the Roman army. For though the Empire was gained by force, consensus secured it. In our period – from the accession to power of Octavian to the death of Nero – and so on for centuries, the Roman army never had to face an equal enemy.

‘Delenda est Carthago’, ‘Carthage has to be destroyed’, grim old Cato had declared, and it was. Then followed the three civil wars when Roman soldiers fought each other. Caesar and his son-in-law Pompey joined battle and hostilities culminated in the victory of Octavian, Caesar’s great-nephew, at the naval battle of Actium against Antony and Cleopatra. With Octavian’s change of name to Augustus, the Pax Romana, secured by the Roman soldier who swore an oath to him as ‘Imperator’ (Commander-in-Chief) on joining up and renewed his oath annually on New Year’s Day, had begun. From this moment on, none but the Emperor could be called Imperator and none but the Emperor could be voted Triumphs. Before, popular generals were hailed Imperator and could be voted Triumphs by the Senate. Augustus made sure that no bold general could ever again cross the Rubicon and threaten Rome. The Roman army became an army of defence, regionally based and too static to form the basis of a military coup.

This potential role passed to the Praetorian Guard in Rome, created by Augustus to protect the princeps, but increasingly, if not ‘Emperor-makers’, a force whose approval (usually simply secured by ‘donatives’) was a sine qua non of accession, legal or slightly dodgy, by successive and successful candidates for the principate (each of whom upped the ante). The Praetorian Guard, stationed at the centre of power like the Brigade of Guards in London, was not supposed to wear uniform off-duty and unlike – but who knows? – the Brigade, constituted the dirty-tricks department of the Empire. Nero, when other tricks failed, used one of its number to despatch his mama. Equally he himself was killed by a centurion from the Praetorian Guard and the two tribunes, Chaeraea and Sabinus, who struck the first and second blows slaying his predecessor Caligula had also been from the Praetorian Guard. Finally, of course, the Praetorian Guard, in a scene beloved of Hollywood, auctioned off the Empire. Oddly it didn’t go for very much – sold to Didius Julianus for 6,250 denarii, about five years’ full pay, the rate for the job of Emperor paid a century-and-a-half before to Claudius. The Praetorians probably never got their money, for the excellent Severus, one of the best later Emperors, marched on Rome and remodelled the Guard.

The Praetorian Guard was the first of the tripartite Roman military system, which included the fleets of Milsenum and Ravenna and the volunteer fire-brigade – the vigiles – serving in which was a six-year route to citizenship. The Romans were not very keen on boats, which were unsophisticated compared to their curtained, marbled, centrally heated houses. Their sea, the Mediterranean, was thick with pirates until cleaned up by Pompey, and command of ships was vested in the senior army officer on board, leading to the unthinkable situation (to the British mind) when St Paul in his action-packed (and free) sea voyage could and did take over. Rome produced no Nelson.

The second part of the Roman military system consisted of the legions, each 5,500 men strong, which varied only between twenty-five and thirty in number for 300 years. The Order of Battle given by Tacitus for the year AD 23 looked like this: Rhineland 8; Spain 3; Africa 2 (including the Legio III Augusta); Egypt 2 (one of which, the XXII Deiotariana, was chewed up by the Jewish guerrillas under Simon Bar-Kochba in AD 132 which provoked Hadrian, then obsessed with promoting his drowned lover Antinous as a god, to settle the problem of the Jews, who had their own particularly jealous and exclusive God, once and for all); Syria 4; Pannonia 2 (inferior and superior, a large area south of the Danube and north of Dalmatia); Moesia 2 (Bulgaria and the eastern part of what was Yugoslavia); Dalmatia 2. Missing from this list are legions XVII, XVIII and XIX lost by Varus in AD 9 in the forests of Germany. The numbers were never used again. To the total must be added three or sometimes four legions needed to keep Britain quiet, since that island, together with Germany, Parthia and Judaea (rewritten by Hadrian as Palestina), was a trouble-spot for the Romans.

In a sense the Roman army was only defeated by its own success, for the Pax Romana lasted so long and engendered such prosperity that a military career ceased to be attractive, and when the sturdy volunteer infantrymen were replaced by listless conscripts, it was overwhelmed by hordes of barbarian horsemen. (Given a choice men have always preferred to spend their lives as tinkers, tailors, rich men, even poor men and beggarmen – the role of most Jews in the Empire – than as soldiers or sailors.)

In the early days of Rome the soldier was a young man between eighteen and twenty, over five foot, five inches in height, neither a slave nor an ex-slave, with no criminal record, who signed on for twenty-five years’ service, whereafter he could expect to retire with a wife, farm and Roman citizenship. From the moment he took his viaticum, equivalent of the Queen’s shilling but worth much more, and swore the oath, the army because his life. Unless he was pretty dim and not armed with a letter of introduction, or never bothered to ingratiate himself with his centurion (to this day Greeks bring their officers apples), he would be allowed off stone-cutting fatigue and encouraged to practise what in my time in the British army was called a ‘trade’ or, if he were able to manage the three ‘r’s, to go into the ‘office’ and become a librarius or clerk. In the Roman army a trade could be that of ditcher, farrier, glassfitter, limeburner, woodcutter or plumber, and a clerk might be responsible for soldiers’ money left on deposit (in AD 89 in Mainz, this mounted up to a point where a legion nearly financed its own rebellion) or work in the surveyors’ or architects’ departments. Here is a letter from one Julius Apollinaris, writing in his native Greek (Latin was the official language of the army) to his father from Egypt in AD 107:

I’m getting on all right. Thanks to Sarapis I got here safely and so far haven’t been caught by any fatigues like cutting building stones. In fact, I went up to Claudius Severus, the governor, and asked him to make me a librarius on his own staff. He said, ‘There’s no vacancy at present, but I’ll make you a librarius legionis for the time being, with hopes of promotion.’ So I went straight from the general to the cornicularius.14

Not all recruits to the Roman army had such a cushy time as this artful Greek dodger. Basic training was deliberately arduous, featuring twenty-mile route marches with a heavy pack, PT with long and high jump, weapon training with dummy wooden shields and staves twice the service weight (with gladiators as instructors) and wooden-horse vaulting, eventually in full armour. The Roman soldier carried an awful lot of kit, including, to quote Josephus: ‘. . . a lance, a round shield, as well as a saw and a basket, an axe together with a leather strap, a sickle and a chain and rations for three days’.

His enemies – the Celts, the Germans, the Parthians – exhibited more dash in battle, and none more spectacular than Boudicca (Boadicea), outraged daughter of the King of the Iceni (Suffolk), in her amazing chariot, but ‘for steady onward pressure and determined stands his training had made the Roman soldier usually invincible’. He was famous for his obedience and stamina but he also had a mind of his own and would not perform unless he could respect his general; witness the consistent success of Julius Caesar, even when outnumbered, and the catastrophe of the elderly banker Crassus. Julius Caesar wooed, cajoled, bullied and bribed his soldiers and in return they responded to his magic by following him wherever he led them, for it was never boring and often profitable. They sang rude songs about him and if they resented his punishments they never mutinied. Crassus was more than just a very rich man – how else could he have become a triumvir with Caesar and Pompey? He had suppressed the rebellion of the romantic Spartacus, when all around were losing their nerve; he had made a fortune out of dealing in slaves; and the means whereby he acquired real estate – buying up the estates of those proscribed by Sulla, and waiting for property to catch on fire – have not endeared him to history. His plan to conquer Parthia was a classic in doomed unmilitary behaviour. He was too old, Parthia was too far away, he was impatient and resorted to the press-gang for troops. He set sail in the stormy season from Brindisi, losing ships and men in the crossing. Finally he ignored public opinion (in the ranks of his dispirited army) and quarrelled publicly with his commanders. This tragic expedition ended in farce when in a mock triumph the victorious Seleucids paraded some pornography found in the luggage of one of Crassus’ officers. His own head was delivered to the Parthian king Orodes when he was in the middle of a play.

The episode points up the Roman passion for the pursuit of glory through arms – as if Charles Clore, dissatisfied with his millions, had decided to mount an expedition against Ho Chi Minh. But Crassus with all his money and power could not have raised the wind for such an outing if the will and the discipline of the Roman army had not been there to harness. The will was part of the Roman belief that the world was theirs to conquer and that other nations, even the Greeks, were inferior. The discipline was the work of the centurions. Military tribunes, often young men taking the compulsory first step in a political career, and generals, appointed by the Senate for a term and for a specific task, might, as they were designed to, come and go, but the centurion was the hard, permanent core of the Roman army.

Reorganized by Marius, the man from the sticks, the Republic’s most successful and popular general, the army turned the citizen into a volunteer, professional soldier, more literate and numerate than any before or since. Marius invented the cohort of 600 men, which, times ten, constituted a legion. He organized a system of pay and allowances which became standard throughout the Empire and endured for centuries. He gave the legions their eagles, gave the soldiers their laundry allowance and burial funds with something over for the regimental dinner.

He also weighed them down with equipment so that they were known as ‘Marius’ mules’. The ‘whole armour of God’, to use the expression used by St Paul, consisted, apart from ‘the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation and the sword of the spirit’, of a pike and a dagger which together with the rest of his kit weighed about forty-five pounds, today’s standard baggage-allowance for air travel. The Roman soldier ‘messed’ in groups of six or ten (the sources differ) and lived on wheat (which was turned into porridge or bread), salt and some not very nice wine. He might add some vegetables but rarely meat, except for the occasional bacon. The original of St George, it will be remembered, was a wholesale pork butcher in Cappadocia, whose Christianity was irrelevant until he was lynched by the Roman soldiers for supplying rotten meat. ‘The profession was mean,’ says Gibbon in one of his best footnotes, ‘he rendered it infamous.’ A soldier’s first step on the ladder of promotion would be to become the head man of his mess, or an orderly; then he would become the centurion’s second-in-command, then a centurion. His only route to officer status was to move up the centuriate to the first cohort. Then he would be made a knight and would retire, as it were, with directorships. Centurions literally directed the traffic of the Empire; an indication of the busyness of Antinous’ home town Bithynion (now Boli in north-west Turkey and buried under the main road to Ankara) was that it needed two centurions to control the traffic. Retired centurions were in demand for decorative positions (today members of the Royal Corps of Commissionaires tend to be retired company sergeant-majors) or to be in charge of security in a large household. The Roman army trained some soldiers asquestionarii – torturers – someone had to do it.

A centurion in full rig, with a crest on his helmet, greaves on his shins, his scale armour clanking with medallions from campaigns all over the known world, and carrying in his right hand the vine rod of authority with a nasty little switch at the end, was, for most people, the visible symbol of Roman power and, as we know from the New Testament, the nearest to them. An officer and gentleman would never pass through the rank of centurion, and indeed the distinction between him and the other ranks has been emulated in all modern armies except the Israeli, which functions more like that of one of the early states of Greece. Under the Republic, twenty-four young men were elected annually by the Comitia (the Assembly of the Plebs) to serve in the legions of the consuls, also elected, so the link between the army and politics was strong. Too strong thought Augustus, so he added to each legion 120 horses for the young gentlemen to ride – not very effectively because they had no saddles or stirrups – and allocated six tribunes to each legion to serve as aides-de-camp rather than as commanders. A well-connected young officer – and only exceptional men like Marius got anywhere if they were not – would be taken up by the general, perhaps an old boyfriend of his aunt, and mess with him and then be appointed colonel of a regiment of auxiliaries. These were the third prong in the Roman military system – the Praetorian Guard and the legions being the first two – and were equal in number, but not prestige, to the legions.

Auxiliaries were what we might call ‘colonial’ troops, recruited in the provinces, sent elsewhere, less well paid, longer serving, but ending up with citizenship and a vote for themselves and their family, a more generous dispensation than that afforded to, say, the Gurkhas, who fought for the British in two world wars. (In 1991 when so many English and Scottish regiments were reduced or abolished it was suggested that the Foreign Office compensate these fierce little fellows, who had had to be restrained from presenting their British commanding officers with the genitalia of their enemies in the trenches of the Somme.) As we know, the Roman soldier was essentially a heavy infantryman and the functions of cavalrymen, archers and slingers were often performed by auxilaries. It was all part of the ‘artful system’ of the ‘artful founder’, phrases used by Gibbon three times in describing the remodelling of the army by Augustus. He realized that local affiliations could be dangerous, so Gauls served in Spain and Macedonia and Spaniards served in Britain and Judaea. So Romanized was Gaul that no legions were needed there.

Mobility within the Empire was one of its greatest achievements. The Roman roads were so good that Harold was able to march (down Ermine Street) from Yorkshire to Hastings in three days. British roads, on the other hand, were so bad that George III, having once been overturned, never in his long reign ventured further north than York.

Long distances therefore were no bother to the Roman army, so cohorts – they were never called legions – of auxiliaries, often using their own tribal weapons and sometimes with special skills, like the slingers from the Balearics, the horsemen from Numidia (Algeria) and the archers from Crete, could be moved readily around the Roman world. They were always commanded by Roman tribunes or prefects, were supposed to understand orders in Latin and could eventually benefit from the perks of the Roman legionary. The eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Englishmen, steeped at Eton and Winchester in Roman history – did not one cable the Foreign Office from India, peccavi (‘I have Sind’)? – copied the ‘artful’ system of Augustus. William Pitt, in inventing the Highland regiments, was following a Roman precedent.

The discipline of the Roman army was legendary, retailed with relish and approval by nineteenth-century historians echoing their Roman predecessors Livy and Polybius. Most famous, or infamous, was the punishment of decimation, whereby one in every ten soldiers in an offending cohort was chosen by lot to be clubbed or stoned to death by soldiers from another cohort. In fact it didn’t happen very often and hardly at all in the Empire, though Octavian had employed it in the Dalmatian War of 34 BC. (He was not, as we shall see, a very nice man.) Caligula, of course, tried to inflict decimation but his orders were ignored. Flogging was a more usual punishment and, for larger bodies of men, the substitution of barley for wheat in the diet; this latter, with a reduction of share of booty, was the favoured punishment of Julius Caesar. A modern German historian propounds the view ‘that mutiny and insubordination were surprisingly prevalent in the Roman army . . . that the Roman legionary arrogated to himself an independence of thought and action which was far beyond that with which the Roman soldier is generally credited’.15

Here is an account16 of a mutiny worth retailing. The Emperor Claudius, who was not stupid as Gibbon would have us believe, nor amiable as portrayed by Charles Laughton, had decided to invade Britain. Julius Caesar had pointed the way in 55 and 54 BC, but he had not known about the lead mines which, together with wheat and slaves, could make the operation ‘wipe its face’, as they say in the City. Besides, his predecessor, Caligula, made a fool of himself by pretending to invade the island – the fleet never sailed – and to restore imperial pride, teach the barbarians a lesson, employ some under-extended legions and get himself a Triumph, Claudius assembled a force of 40,000 men consisting of the legions from the Rhine and one from Pannonia (roughly where Austria is now). But as the historian Dio recounts, the army flatly refused to face an ocean voyage ‘outside the world’. When he heard of the mutiny, Claudius sent his top freedman, Narcissus, who was in charge of the new secretariat he had instituted (a sort of Army Council), to sort it out. The soldiers were not impressed. They were used to a pep talk from their imperator at the outset of a campaign; to be addressed by an ex-slave, one can hear the centurions grumbling, was too much – or too little. They shouted him down with the sort of jeering reserved for the Saturnalia, when slaves dressed up as masters and vice versa, like the Roman soldiers at the Antonia in Jerusalem, crowning Jesus King of the Jews with twigs from kindling. Nevertheless, Narcissus must have turned them round because the mutiny evaporated and the legions went on board.

The crucial battle was a two-day affair, unusual in ancient warfare, at the Medway (whose existence the Roman General did not expect), and the first day went badly for him. But the second went well, especially when the Emperor turned up with a contingent of his Praetorian Guard and a detachment of elephants. The inscription cut on the triumphal arch celebrating his victory states Claudius suffered no losses; at Colchester eleven kings had submitted to him. Not finding any existing town grand enough to constitute the capital of this new and peaceful province, the Emperor founded Verulamium (St Albans). After three weeks, having left complicated instructions for the administration of Britain, he returned to Rome, where he added to his names that of ‘Britannicus’. He also had his Triumph.

A Roman Triumph was a terrible thing. It was the ultimate beano for the legionaries, who paraded through the city with sticks instead of swords and gorged themselves afterwards on oysters from Baiae (Naples), freshwater eels, capons, ducks, piglets and kids and had their fill too of gilded prostitutes. They also received a donativum, a present of money. The procession followed a prescribed route: assembling in the west of the city on the Campus Martius (cf. Champ de Mars in Paris), it went through a special gate called the Porta Triumphalis, through the Circus Maximus, where it was cheered by a crowd of 150,000 people and ended at the temple of Jupiter Optimus, which the triumphant imperator entered to offer the god the laurels of victory.

Floats were drawn through the streets depicting highlights from the campaign and the vanquished were paraded in their finery and with their captured treasures displayed. Jugurtha, King of Numidia, cut a splendid figure at the Triumph of Marius, in his purple robes, his golden jewelled necklaces and bracelets flashing in the sun, his head encircled with a white diadem. He was led in his chains to the Tullianum, Rome’s only execution cell, divested of all his finery (which was handed piece by piece to a clerk of the treasury) and, clad only in a loincloth, jumped into the pit beneath. Rather than face such a humiliating end, the defeated Mithridates, hero of Mozart’s first opera, had himself killed.

There is a legend that Mark, the youngest of the Gospel writers, witnessed Titus’ Triumph to celebrate the capture of Jerusalem and was so affected by the sight of the high priest in chains on a Roman cart, surrounded by the treasures of the Temple, that he resolved never to incur the wrath of Rome. The triumphant generals laid trophies taken from the enemy in temples, where Roman soldiers could honour them, in ceremonies of which the regimental services, victory parades and state – or as they used to say ‘public’ funerals of great warriors like Wellington and Churchill, which take place at St Pauls in the City of London, are reminiscent. In Rome the temple of Jupiter was not far from the temple of Juno Moneta, where the mint was housed. It is interesting that while poets lie with kings in the Royal Peculiar of Westminster Abbey, the monuments to the victories which made the British Empire are in the church built in the City of London, where the money is, to celebrate England’s status as a great power.

Rome peaked at a Triumph. While voices were raised, occasionally, at the excesses of the Games or the institution of slavery, no one criticized the expense, the grandeur, the arrogance, the triumphalism of a Triumph, not even Cicero. Rome, which kept a copy, on a bronze tablet, of each individual soldier’s record of service, never forgot that Triumphs were achieved on his back. Nero forgot and it cost him his life.

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