The tombstone of Titus Flavius Bassus, an auxiliary cavalryman in the ala Noricorum, who died at the age of 41 after twenty-six years service. Bassus is depicted in the classic posture of cavalry tombstones in the early Empire, galloping his horse over a cowering and frequently naked barbarian. He wears a long-sleeved tunic, much like the Gallic warrior from Vacheres, mail armour and a decorated helmet. To the left stands his servant or groom, carrying two more spears to re-arm his master.
The dying Augustus supposedly advised his successor, Tiberius, to maintain the Empire’s boundaries in their current position. Rebellions in Pannonia and Germany had shown that a period of consolidation was needed after the decades of conquest, yet subsequent events revealed that the massive expansion of the previous century was never to be repeated. Conquests were made, as when Claudius launched an invasion of Britain in ad 43 or Trajan took Dacia in 101-6. Other annexations, such as Trajan’s in Mesopotamia or those of Marcus Aurelius on the Danube, were abandoned only when the emperor died before the new territory had been fully absorbed. The Empire was larger in the early third century вс than in ad 14, but the pace of its expansion had massively diminished.
Trajan's Column was the centrepiece of the great Forum complex the Emperor built with the spoils of his conquest of Dacia. Around the drum runs a series of reliefs telling the story of Trajan's two Dacian Wars (AD 101-2 and 105-6) in stylized but remarkably detailed images.
The Roman Empire ad 68
Following Nero's suicide in AD 68, the Roman world was plunged into turmoil as four emperors held power in little over a year. In this civil war the Roman divided along provincial lines supporting the various candidates for the throne. The eventual winner was Vespasian, supported at first by the legions in Syria and Judaea, then Egypt and finally most of the Danubian garrisons.
The reason for this was not primarily military. The Roman Empire was not forced to stop only when it reached enemies which the army could not defeat. Completing the conquest of the German tribes or defeating Parthia was perfectly feasible, given considerable resources in manpower and the determination to pursue a long struggle until victory was attained. The resources may have been lacking in ad 14, after the wars of previous decades, but this was not to remain true for most of the first and second centuries ad. The main reason for the end of Roman expansion was political. The commanders who had led armies to great conquests under the late Republic had also been the main leaders in the civil wars which had destroyed the Republican system of government. The emperor could not afford to allow other senators freedom to conquer, letting them gain prestige, wealth and the personal loyalty of their soldiers so that they became dangerous rivals. The major wars in the latter part of Augustus’ Principate had been fought by family members, but few of the later emperors enjoyed such a plentiful supply of relatives whose ability and loyalty could be relied upon. Emperors took care to be present when a great war, especially a war of conquest, was fought. Claudius, lame since birth and denied any military service as a result, was eager to achieve military glory after his unexpected elevation to the throne, and launched the invasion of Britain. He joined the army when it took the main tribal centre at Camulodunum and accepted the surrender of a crowd of British kings, even though he spent little more than a week in Britain before returning to Rome to celebrate his triumph. More usually, presiding over a great conquest required the emperor to spend a long period away from Rome and many were not secure enough in their position to relish the prospect of this. The system of the Principate did not favour widespread expansion.
Trajan was one of the most respected of Rome’s emperors and the last to devote so much of his reign to expansion. However, his eastern campaigns were left incomplete at his death and his successor Hadrian abandoned much of the newly conquered territory.
The Julio-Claudian emperors completed the process of converting the Roman army into a professional force of regular soldiers. It was very much the army of the emperor, all recruits taking an oath (the sacramentum) of allegiance to the princeps rather than the Senate and People of Rome. Regular parades and celebrations were held by all units to commemorate festivals associated with the Imperial family. Images of the emperor, imagines, were kept with the standards which symbolized the corporate identity of a unit. When legionaries were discharged they received a bounty and allotment of land paid for through the Aerarium Militare, the military treasury established by Augustus and controlled by the emperor. Army commanders were now, with very few exceptions, representatives of the emperor (legati) possessed of delegated authority, rather than magistrates holding power in their own name. Decorations for gallantry were awarded in the name of the emperor even if he was far from the theatre of operations.
The legions, about thirty in number by the early second century, remained the principal units of the army. Their paper strength was about 5,240, primarily consisting of ten cohorts of heavy infantry. Each legion included a large number of specialists, such as clerks, engineers, surveyors, artillerymen, weapons’ instructors and drill-masters, tent-makers and leather-workers, and craftsmen and artisans connected with the manufacture and repair of weapons and armour. Legions were now permanent, many lasting for well over three hundred years, and developed a strong sense of identity reflected in their individual numbers and titles. Thus we have Legio XIV Gemina Martia Victrix (‘The Twin’, probably because of its original formation through the amalgamation of two legions; ‘of Mars’ or ‘martial’ and ‘Victorious’ were titles granted by Nero after its prominent role in the defeat of Boudicca), Legio V Alaudae (‘The Larks’), Legio VI Ferrata (‘The Ironsides’) or Legio II Traiana Fortis (‘Trajan’s own, the strong’). Soldiers tended to describe themselves as members of a particular century and then as part of the legion, suggesting the bonds most important to them. Legions were primarily intended for fighting big battles, but their command structure allowed them to function well as garrisons and administrators for a wide area. Detachments, or vexillations, were frequently employed for duties that did not require a full legion, and these varied in size from several cohorts to a few men.
Auxiliary infantrymen present the severed heads of Dacians to the Emperor on this scene from Trajan's Column. The Romans had outlawed the practice of head-hunting, so common in Iron Age Europe, within the Empire, hut it was clearly still practised by some units in the army. The evidence suggests that only auxiliaries took such trophies, and it is possible that it was associated with certain races such as Gauls or Germans. In a sense these men are behaving as if they were warriors in a tribal army, presenting the trophies of their prowess to the Emperor as they would to one of their own chieftains, in anticipation of praise and reward.
The Romans had always relied on foreign troops to supplement the numbers of the citizen legions. These included allied troops as well as the followers of tribal war-leaders whose loyalty was to their chief whether he fought with or against Rome. It was particularly common to raise contingents from the area in which the army was campaigning, both because it was easy to do so and also because such troops were usually suited to the conditions of local warfare. Caesar relied largely on Gallic and German cavalry during the conquest of Gaul, but, although effective in battle, these proved poor scouts since reconnaissance played a minor role in tribal warfare. The early Principate saw the creation of the regular auxilia, foreign troops uniformed and paid by Rome, and trained to the same standards of discipline as the legions. The men were long-service professional soldiers like the legionaries and served in units that were equally permanent. Unit titles were usually taken from the ethnic group or tribe from which it was first raised. Most auxilia served far from their place of origin, and little or no effort was taken to draw new recruits from the original source. Therefore auxiliary units tended to become of mixed nationality, although long service in a province might cause one group to predominate. The language of command and of the unit’s administration was always Latin, which made it relatively easy to absorb a mixture of nationalities in a single regiment.
The auxilia were never grouped into units of similar size to the legions. The infantry were formed in cohorts and the cavalry in similarly sized alae. Each cohort or ala was independent, with its own commander, an equestrian usually holding the rank of prefect. A number of auxiliary units were often attached to a legion, and prolonged service together raised the efficiency of such forces, but there was no standard complement of auxilia permanently supporting every legion. The smaller size of auxiliary units made it much easier to shift them from one area or province to another. The mixed cohorts (cohortes equitatae), which included both foot and horse in a ratio of about four to one, were especially suited to garrison and local policing activities. The auxilia provided a more flexible and cheaper supplement to legionary numbers. They also supplied the army with some troop types in which the legions were especially deficient, in particular supplying large numbers of very good quality cavalry. Auxiliary infantry also included units of archers and contingents of slingers, but the traditional view that auxiliary foot were lighter equipped and fought in looser order than the legions is mistaken. The typical auxiliary infantryman wore scale or mail armour of similar weight to the legionary cuirass and a bronze helmet, carried a flat, oval shield and was armed with a gladius and a javelin or spear. This is not the equipment of a nimble skirmisher. There may have been a few cohorts with lighter equipment who fought as skirmishers, but we have no direct evidence for this. The vast majority of auxiliary cohorts fought in close order in a way not markedly different from legionaries.
Above: In this scene on Trajan's Column the sculptors emphasized the diversity of the soldiers of the Roman army. Here we have legionaries in segmented armour and with tile-shaped shields fighting alongside auxiliaries in mail and with oval shields, bare-chested barbarian irregulars, and archers in flowing robes from the eastern provinces. The different types of soldier are heavily stylized on the Column and some of the uniform details may be inaccurate, but the picture of an army recruited from many different races was essentially true. Most of the figures originally held bronze spears, now lost, which explains why so many appear to be waving their clenched fists.
Above: Trajan rewards auxiliary soldiers for their bravery in a parade at the end of the First Dacian War. One of the most important aspects of a Roman commander's role was to act as a witness to his soldiers’ behaviour, rewarding the brave and punishing the cowardly. The Romans were especially keen to reward acts of individual bravery and bravado, even if these had little practical value, for aggressive soldiers were needed if the army was to prevail in hand-to-hand combat. The brave were given an extra share of the booty and promotion. Auxiliaries received unit battle honours rather than individual decorations in this period.
All soldiers enlisted for twenty-five years, the last five of which were spent as a veteran with lighter duties. Auxiliaries were granted Roman citizenship at the end of this period, although sometimes whole units earned this distinction prematurely as a result of distinguished service. The unit kept the title avium Romanorum permanently, even when all the men who enjoyed the grant had long since departed. The vast majority of soldiers were volunteers, conscription was rarely imposed except when an allied tribe or kingdom was obliged by treaty to supply a set quota of men for the auxilia. The army provided a soldier with a regular if not especially lavish salary paid in hard coin but subject to various deductions. His living conditions in barracks were cramped, but then so were those of the urban poor in the Roman world, and soldiers had the advantage of good medical support. His activities were closely regulated and the soldier was subject to a harsh, frequently brutal, and sometimes arbitrary system of discipline. The centurion’s vine-cane (vitis) was a badge of office, but was frequently used to inflict summary punishment. One centurion, lynched during the mutiny of the Danubian legions in ad 14, was nicknamed ‘Bring me another!’ (cedo alteram) from his habit of beating a soldier’s back until his cane snapped and then demanding another. Desertion was always a problem in the professional army, and a frequent motive was the wish to avoid punishment. It was also common practice for centurions and other officers to accept bribes to spare individuals from unpleasant duties. Another aspect of military discipline was the ban on soldiers’ marrying, any existing marriage being annulled on enlistment. The main reason for this was a reluctance of the state to accept financial responsibility for soldiers and their families. It is quite clear that many soldiers did live in stable relationships with women and raised children, their families living in the civilian settlements (canabae) outside forts or perhaps even inside the barracks. The grant of citizenship to discharged auxiliaries included a clause extending this right to any children, which makes it clear that the ban was not rigidly enforced. The citizen legionaries found it much harder to gain official recognition and citizenship for their children.
Medical orderlies at a field dressing station attend to casualties during a battle in Dacia. The Roman army’s medical service was probably more advanced than that of any army until the modern era and many types of wounds could be treated with a good chance of success. As in all conflicts until the twentieth century, the Roman army is likely to have suffered far greater losses from disease than enemy action. It is, however, exceptionally rare for Roman, as opposed to enemy casualties, to be represented on a monument and this scene may allude to an incident when Trajan had some of his own clothes cut up to provide bandages for his wounded soldiers.
The army did offer the prospect of promotion to increasingly senior, more prestigious and better paid ranks, but the high standard of literacy essential for most of these favoured the better-educated recruits. In theory it was possible for an ordinary soldier to advance through the lesser ranks until he became a centurion, progress through the centurionate and hold the rank of primus pilus, the senior centurion in a legion, and then be elevated to the equestrian order and be made governor of a minor province or command a cohort of the Praetorian Guard. But such a meteoric rise was highly unlikely, though possible for a family over several generations; more modest advancement was common. As important as talent and education in determining the fortunes of a career was influence. Patronage was all pervasive in Roman society and letters of recommendation are the most common form of literature to survive from antiquity. A letter from an influential friend or family member greatly accelerated a career. On active service any soldier might distinguish himself and so come to the attention of a commander who could promote him, but such opportunities were rare in garrison duty.
Many auxiliaries came from cultures which greatly admired warrior virtues and who found service in the Roman army attractive, but the legions tended to be recruited from the poorest elements of Roman society. As the first century ad progressed, fewer and fewer Italians joined the legions, preferring instead the more lucrative, more comfortable and safer prospect of serving in the Praetorian Guard or other paramilitary forces in Rome itself. Recruits increasingly came from the provinces where there had been a heavy settlement of veteran colonies, and there was also a small but significant number of men born ‘in the camp’ (in castris), the illegitimate sons produced by soldiers’ illegal marriages. The rest of society, especially the wealthier classes who feared the army’s capacity to plunge the state into civil war, despised soldiers as brutal and greedy. The professional soldiers of the Principate lived in bases on the fringes of the Empire, each surrounded by a civil settlement which provided most of its needs, and after discharge many legionaries settled in colonies with other soldiers. The degree of isolation varied from province to province and in different periods, but it encouraged identification with the soldiers’ units. In Polybius’ day a soldier decorated for valour returned to Rome and wore his awards during public festivals to the admiration of the rest of society. Now the army formed very much its own community with its own set of distinctly military values. Soldiers were granted status in accordance with their conformity to these standards, and those who were decorated or gained a reputation for martial virtue were respected within the army. Many of the minor distinctions in grade, rank and title which seem to have been important to soldiers may have been as incomprehensible to contemporary civilians as they are to us. Pride in themselves and in their unit was a major factor in making Roman soldiers willing to risk death or appalling injury.
The senior officers of the army were still drawn from the elite of the Roman world and served for comparatively short periods. It has been estimated that a provincial governor, legionary legate, tribune or auxiliary prefect served on average for three years in any post, but there was much variation in this pattern. Greater continuity was provided by the centurions who were career soldiers. Traditionally they have been depicted as the equivalent of NCOs in modern armies, sergeant-majors promoted out of the ranks after long service, who offered the maturity and experience lacking in their ‘amateur’ senior officers. It is true that we know of a number of individuals who were promoted to the centurionate after service as ordinary soldiers. Equally, we know of a similar number of equestrians who chose to follow a career as legionary centurions and were directly commissioned, and other men who achieved the rank after a period in municipal government. Most centurions seem to have achieved the position after service in some of the junior ranks, perhaps on the staff of the tribune or legate or as one of the principals in the century. Patronage is likely to have played a greater part in their selection than ability. Centurions required a very high standard of education and often held positions of considerable responsibility, acting as regional representatives of the civil power in the provinces, or in political or diplomatic roles on the frontiers. They were also men of status, enjoying far higher pay and better conditions than ordinary soldiers. The majority of centurions were probably drawn from the more prosperous and better-educated classes of Roman society whose existence is too often ignored by scholars apt to divide society into ‘the aristocratic elite’ and ‘the poor’.