The Great Conquests

During the second century the profits of empire had not been evenly distributed, and the gap between the richest and poorest senators steadily widened. Frequent military setbacks encouraged the appointment of the ablest commanders to take charge for the duration of a conflict. Marius was given the command in Africa by popular demand, and then elected to five successive consulships to combat the Cimbri. Such continuity of command was militarily sound and had been employed at times of crisis in the past, notably the Second Punic War, but it struck at the very heart of the Roman political system which required all power to be temporary. Such prolonged commands brought massive profits to the commander, raising him far above his peers in the Senate. Competition in the Senate became focused on a small group of the foremost politicians, who now expected to be given such wide-ranging commands as a right, regardless of whether a military crisis threatened the Empire. When Sulla earned the dubious distinction of being the first man to march his legions against Rome in 88 вс, it was because he had been replaced by his rival Marius in the command of the major war against the kingdom of Pontus. Civil wars encouraged even more exceptional careers among those who supported the winning side. While the annual replacement of provincial governors may have encouraged frequent campaigns, this lack of continuity had not encouraged wide-scale, planned expansion. The powerful generals in the first century вс secured the control of large provinces and armies for periods of several years, giving themselves far more scope for conquest.

Caesar’s own accounts of his campaigns give us an invaluable picture of the Roman army on campaign in this period. Caesar did little to reform the army, but raised the troops under his command to the peak of efficiency. The booty from the Gallic campaigns was lavishly distributed among the soldiers, and conspicuous service was rewarded by decorations and rapid promotion. Newly raised legions were provided with a valuable cadre of experienced centurions promoted from junior grades in veteran units. Caesar trained his men hard, but also flattered them, fostering their pride in themselves and their unit. He created an especially close bond with the veteran Tenth Legion, habitually placing them on the right of his line, the position of most honour, and leading them in person. When this legion, worn out by long service in foreign and civil wars, threatened to mutiny, Caesar restored order with a single word, addressing them as ‘Quirites’, civilians not soldiers. A highly active commander, Caesar took care to prepare his campaigns scrupulously, involving himself in many of the details, but once operations began he pursued his objectives with unremitting boldness, trusting to his troops and his own improvisational genius and good luck to cope with any crisis. Modern commentators have criticized Caesar for his recklessness, failing to make adequate preparations for his landings in Britain or invading Macedonia against much stronger opposition during the civil war, but this is to misunderstand the doctrine of the Roman army. Roman commanders were habitually bold in their actions, and if a Roman army did not seek to seize the initiative and act aggressively, then it was usually a sign that things were going very badly. The boldness of Caesar’s campaigns was not markedly greater than those of many Roman commanders, and certainly no different from the campaigns of Lucullus or Pompey.

Sextus Pompey (c. 66-36 вс) fought a civil war against Octavian, as his father, Pompey the Great, and elder brother had fought against Julius Caesar. He controlled a strong fleet based in Sicily and Sardinia, but was finally defeated by Agrippa at Naupactus in 36 вс.

Caesar’s behaviour as a commander was typically Roman, although in his own accounts of his campaigns he is careful to show that he was better than anyone else at everything. Before his battles we find the same cautious manoeuvring to gain every slight advantage that we have seen from the third century onwards. This was particularly so in the battles of the civil war when he was careful to show his reluctance to shed the blood of fellow citizens.

During a battle Caesar rode around, close behind the front line of his army. From this position he encouraged his men, witnessed their behaviour and rewarded or punished them accordingly. He also had a close view of the combat and could gauge how the fighting was going, judging from the appearance of confidence of each side and the noise they made. Using this information he could send a message to his troops in reserve, or go in person to lead them up to exploit a success or relieve a part of the line that was under pressure. This was the normal way of commanding a Roman army, practised from at least the end of the third century вс into late antiquity. A good general needed to judge where and when the crisis of a battle would occur and move to that part of the line. By Caesar’s day each legion was controlled by a senior officer, usually a legate; larger armies were divided into a centre and two wings, each led by a senior subordinate, who commanded that sector in the same style as the commander-in-chief. These men were trusted to use their initiative if a crisis occurred when the general was involved elsewhere on the field. Commanding so close to the fighting was a dangerous practice, exposing the general to missiles and being singled out for the attacks of especially bold enemies. However, it did allow a commander to have far more influence on the course of the battle than a general who fought in person in the front rank, or one who surveyed the action from a safe location far in the rear. That the Romans developed a military system which placed such demands on the commander disproves the traditional view that most Roman generals were ‘amateurs’ of limited ability. The knowledge that their commander shared many of the risks of combat helped to inspire legionaries. Caesar’s own account of the critical situation at Sambre in 57 вс well reflects his style of command:

Mithridates VI of Pontus (120-60 вс) waged a series of wars with the Romans in an effort to drive them from Asia and Greece. Sulla, Lucullus and Pompey all campaigned against him, winning spectacular victories over the numerous but poorly motivated Pontic armies. He eventually committed suicide.

After addressing Legio X, Caesar hurried to the right wing, where he saw his men hard pressed, and the standards of Legio XII clustered in one place and the soldiers so crowded together that it impeded their fighting. All the centurions in the fourth cohort had fallen, the signifer was dead and his standard captured; in the remaining cohorts every centurion was either dead or wounded, including the primus pilus Sextus Julius Bacillus, an exceptionally brave man, who was exhausted by his many serious wounds and could no longer stand; the other soldiers were tired and some in the rear, giving up the fight, were withdrawing out of missile range; the enemy were edging closer up the slope in front and pressing hard on both flanks. He saw that the situation was critical and that there was no other reserve available, took a shield from a man in the rear ranks - he had come without his own — advanced into the front line and called on the centurions by name, encouraged the soldiers, and ordered the line to advance and the units to extend, so that they could employ their swords more easily. His arrival brought hope to the soldiers and refreshed their spirits, every man wanting to do his best in the sight of his general even in such a desperate situation. The enemy’s advance was delayed for a while. (Bellum Gallicum, 2. 25.)

It is worth noting that Caesar, although he had moved into the front line, does not bother to tell us whether or not he actually fought hand-to-hand. What he does stress is that he exposed himself to danger in order more effectively to do his job of encouraging his centurions and soldiers and reorganizing their battle line. The general’s job was to lead and control his army, not inspire them with his personal prowess, like the warrior aristocrats of early Rome or Alexander the Great, who consciously emulated the behaviour of Homeric heroes. Virtus was the word used to describe the military virtues which a Roman senator was expected to display because of his birth and upbringing. Virtus included the practical ability to lead and control an army, the physical courage needed to perform this role moving around close behind the battle line and the moral courage never to admit the possibility of defeat. Caesar portrays himself as never doubting his ultimate success, doing his best to extricate his army from any crisis so that it was best fitted to renew any struggle. Even in his rare defeats he never despaired, but did his best to disengage his army from disaster and prepare to fight again at a later time. This was the ideal behaviour for a Roman commander.

This coin was struck by Caesar during bis dictatorship, when victory in the Civil War had left him master of the Empire. Perhaps the greatest, and certainly the most successful Roman general of any period, Caesar was also a gifted writer, whose War Commentaries on the campaigns in Gaul and the Civil War provide by far the most detailed accounts of the Roman army on campaign. More skilled at coping with a crisis than day-to-day politics, Caesar was assassinated by a conspiracy consisting primarily of men he had pardoned.

The famous Prima Porta statue of Augustus depicts him as a commander. In fact, he was not an especially able soldier, was often in poor health and relied on more gifted subordinates, such as Agrippa and, later, younger members of his own family. The central motif on the breastplate shows a Parthian returning one of the eagles lost by Crassus or Antony, a diplomatic rather than military success.

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