Portrait of a soldier

Caesar’s centurions

No personal account written by an ordinary soldier or junior officer survives for the Civil War. In the surviving narratives only a handful of men from the ranks are even mentioned by name, usually because they performed some conspicuous act of heroism. We know that soldiers were primarily recruited from the poorer classes. In normal circumstances most, if not all, were volunteers, but during civil wars many were probably unwilling conscripts. Soldiering had become a career, but the wages were low, lower than a man could earn as a labourer on the land or as a casual worker in the city. When Caesar doubled the pay of his soldiers, an ordinary legionary still received only 225 denarii (1,000 sesterces) a year. We do not know whether or not there were fixed terms of service, and the traditional maximum of 16 years may still have been in force, although during the civil wars some men served for more than two decades. Active campaigning, especially in a prosperous area, might bring greater rewards in the form of plunder, either taken individually or as the soldier’s share in the booty acquired by the entire army. The most successful generals rewarded their soldiers lavishly. Conditions in the army were basic and the discipline brutal. At the whim of his centurion a man could be flogged, and many other crimes were punishable by death. At the end of their service, soldiers hoped to be provided with some source of livelihood. Usually this meant the grant of a plot of land, which suggests that many recruits were still coming from rural areas.

Legionaries were men who had received little from the Republic or the Senate and had small interest in maintaining it. They identified far more strongly with their legion, the community in which they lived for many years. The legions of this period had a far greater sense of corporate identity than the temporary militia legions of the Middle Republic. They kept a number, and sometimes a name, for many years, marching under their eagle standard. Even at Munda, and in spite of earlier mutiny and indiscipline, it was the depleted veterans of Legio X who made the critical breakthrough. In fact these men would go on to play a prominent role in the civil war after Caesar’s death. A good commander could inspire incredible devotion in his men. Caesar had been lavish with his plunder in Gaul, although during the Civil War he was less willing to permit his men to profit from defeating fellow citizens. Yet it was not simply financial self-interest that bonded his soldiers so closely to him. Caesar’s army developed almost a cult of heroism, especially bravery performed in the sight of all. Their commander shared the rigours of campaign with his men, leading them on marches and in battle. In his speeches he called them comrades and spoke of their shared efforts. Even if our sources exaggerate a little when they claim that no Caesarean soldier ever deserted to the enemy, it is certainly true that defections were far more common from Pompey’s legions. In his Commentaries, Caesar repeatedly claims that he explained to his soldiers the wrongs done to him and the ill-treatment of the tribunes of the plebs. It is hard to know how far such concerns swayed his soldiers, and whether their prominence in his accounts has more to do with the intended audience for these works.

By no means all the soldiers fighting in the Civil War were Romans. Many non-citizens were swept into the legions, although each side tended to accuse the other of doing this. There were also large numbers of foreign auxiliaries, often serving under their own tribal leaders. The chieftains of Gallic, German and other tribal peoples displayed their status by the number of warriors in their personal following. They supported these men, some of whom might come from outside the tribe, feeding them and rewarding their courage, and in turn the warriors were obliged to fight for them. Their loyalty was to the person of the chieftain, rather than a tribe, nation or cause. Therefore the warriors fought for one of the sides in the Civil War simply because their chief had chosen to do so, and if the leader chose to stop fighting or change sides, then his warriors followed. When the Allobrogian brothers Roucillus and Egus defected, the warriors of their household automatically went with them. The bond between chieftain and warriors was exceptionally close and similar relations could develop even if the commander was not a native chieftain. Caesar had a bodyguard of 900 German and Gallic cavalry, and Labienus was followed by another unit of tribesmen who proved just as loyal to him. Later Cleopatra received a bodyguard of Gauls.

While the ordinary legionaries receive little individual mention in our sources, a far more prominent role is reserved for the centurions. Time and again Caesar explains the success of his legions as being due to the courage and leadership of these officers. Even in disasters, the heroism of his centurions often provided the one bright note. It has often been assumed that the vast majority of centurions were promoted from amongst the ranks of the ordinary soldiers after long and distinguished service. Sometimes they are compared to the sergeant-majors who provide the backbone of many modern armies. There is virtually no evidence for this view, and certainly Caesar never once mentions a centurion promoted from the ranks, although he frequently refers to centurions being promoted to higher grades. It is far more likely that many centurions entered the army in that capacity, or as one of the junior officers within the century, and that they were recruited from the better-educated and reasonably well-off classes, rather than from the very poor who provided the mass of the ordinary legionaries. Both in Cicero and Caesar centurions appear as far more politically significant than the ordinary soldiers. Centurions were professional officers, rather than professional soldiers.

This figure from the altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus shows a figure—sometimes indentified as the war god Mars—dressed in the uniform of a senior officer Many of the senatorial and equestrian officers during the Civil War may have looked very similar (AKG Berlin)

The deeds of several centurions are recorded in some detail in our sources. One such man was Scaeva, who made a name for himself at Dyrrachium. He was a centurion in one of the three cohorts holding an isolated fort that was attacked by an entire enemy legion supported by many archers and slingers. Fighting ferociously, Scaeva's shield is supposed to have been hit by 120 missiles. In the end, like many of his colleagues, he was struck by an arrow in the eye. Wounded, he called out to the enemy as if to surrender. When two men sprang forward to take such a distinguished prisoner, Scaeva killed one and sliced the arm of the other. His stubbornness inspired his men to continue the struggle. Caesar promoted him to the post of primus pilus, along with a bounty of 50,000 denarii, and publicly praised him. Although he is not mentioned again, there is some evidence to suggest that Scaeva continued to have a distinguished military career. The tombstone of a former cavalry trooper from Gallia Narbonensis, which probably dates to the 30s BC, records his unit as the Ala Scaevae (cavalry regiment of Scaeva). Thus it seems that Scaeva went on to command a unit of Gallic auxiliary cavalry. The bold centurion described by Caesar would certainly seem an ideal candidate to act as chieftain for a group of such warriors.

A former primus pilus of Legio X figures prominently in Caesar’s account of Pharsalus. This man, one Crastinus, had rejoined the army and now commanded a unit of 120 other veterans who had returned to service. He is supposed to have addressed the men, telling them that this battle would win back Caesar’s position and allow them to retire again, their duty to him fulfilled. Turning to Caesar as he rode past, marshalling the army, he called out: Today, general, I shall earn your thanks whether I live or die.’ Crastinus and his men led the charge, hacking their way into the enemy ranks. He was finally killed when a sword was thrust into his mouth and came out at the back of his neck. Caesar ordered men to search for him after the battle and after laying military decorations on his corpse—a rare thing, for the Romans did not usually give posthumous awards—buried him in a special tomb away from the massed grave of the other casualties.

In the army of the imperial period, it became very common for soldiers to erect engraved monuments recording the details of their military career, but this practice was only just beginning in the Late Republic. One of Pompey’s centurions, a man called Granonius, from Luceria in Italy, died at Athens and was commemorated on a tombstone, probably sometime in 49-48. One man who may have served at the very beginning of the Civil War and had certainly fought under Caesar in Gaul, was Caius Canuleius of Legio VII. He was commemorated by his father on a monument, along with his brother who had been killed in Gaul at the age of 18 while serving with Legio VII. Some other men who are commemorated on tombstones and memorials from the late first century BC may well have fought in the Civil War, but little or no detail is given as to their length of service, so such information must remain conjecture.

This tombstone from Capua commemorates the brothers Canuleius, both of whom served in Caesar’s Legion VII. Quintus was only 18 when he was killed during the campaigns in Gaul, but it is possible that Caius, who died at the age of 35, served in the Civil War Military tombstones from this period are very rare.

The tombstone of Publius Gessius was found at Viterbo in Italy and is thought to date to the middle of the first century BC. The inscription makes no mention of any military service, but Gessius is shown wearing a cuirass and with the hilt of a gladius just visible. (Boston Museum of Fine Arts)

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