Pax Romana

Soldiers were present in small numbers throughout the Empire. The army was often called upon to perform a great range of duties that had little to do with its military role, largely because the Empire lacked a sizeable ‘civil service’. Soldiers appear supervising building work, assisting state officials in such tasks as tax collecting, guarding city prisons, regulating traffic through cities, or acting as policemen. In the New Testament we find a centurion commanding the detachment which carried out the crucifixion of Christ, and two others: the centurion sent to take the Apostle Paul to Rome, and in Galilee a centurion who had supervised the construction of a synagogue, although the last man may well have been from the army of the Herods, organized on the Roman model and later absorbed into the auxilia. As these passages suggest, centurions in particular were often encountered as representatives of Roman authority at a local level. Records on papyrus include appeals to centurions for protection against domestic violence and robbery, and for them to investigate murders and disappearances. Other small parties of soldiers were scattered to supply the army’s needs, manufacturing or collecting equipment, forage or animals, quarrying for stone, and recruiting. There are very many records of complaints against soldiers, accusations of brutal treatment of civilians and illegal seizure of property, often under the guise of requisitioning. Soldiers, especially detached from their unit and away from authority, certainly seem to have been guilty of abusing their power over civilians, but our sources are more likely to mention the cases of friction than of peaceful interaction, and it is difficult to estimate the nature of the majority of relations between the army and civilian population.

Many legions, or large vexillationes, were positioned in or near the great cities of the eastern empire. The greater part of the two legions forming the garrison of Egypt were based near Alexandria with the clear intention of overawing this great political centre. The army was frequently called in to quell rioting in the city. This deployment has led to the suggestion that the Roman army, at least in some provinces, was primarily an army of occupation whose main role was to control the subject population. The depiction of the Roman army as a brutal oppressor is an attractive one for a generation of scholars who view empires as inherently wrong. When the army was called in to punish communities for failing to pay taxes or flouting the authority of the governor’s representatives, it proved brutally efficient at burning villages and crucifying large numbers to terrify the rest into submission. Such action was relatively rare and it is important to remember that the army did not number more than 250—300,000 at this period, compared to the population of the Empire roughly estimated at 70 million. The Roman army was not large enough to have ruled purely through naked force, and much of the population of the provinces benefited from the existence of the Empire. The wealthiest gained Roman citizenship, became equestrians or senators and might follow the military careers open to these classes, while local aristocrats provided many centurions for the auxilia.

Vespasian was the eventual winner in the Civil War which followed Nero’s enforced suicide in ad 68. Commander of the army in Judaea, he gained the support of most of the eastern provinces of the Empire. Under Vespasian and his sons, Titus and Domitian, many of the old turf forts on the Empire’s frontiers were rebuilt in stone.

This relief from the Arch of Titus shows the spoils carried in his triumph celebrating the capture of Jerusalem. Titus had assumed command of the army in Judaea after Vespasian declared himself a candidate for the throne. His exploits are described with a great degree of sycophancy by the historian Josephus.

Nor were all the outbreaks of violence within the Empire due to hatred of Roman rule. One of the most frequent causes of rioting in Alexandria was tension between the Jewish and Gentile communities there, and fighting between the Samaritans and Jews in Judaea was also common. Rivalry among neighbouring cities, or political factions within a city, occasionally spilt over into rioting and disturbances. Banditry was rife in some areas, especially at times of economic hardship, but, even when this was in part motivated by hatred of Rome, the targets were more often than not an area’s civilian population. It is impossible to tell at this distance in time whether rebels or bandits were able to find refuge within civilian communities because of general sympathy for their cause or fear of their violence. Unrest in many areas was not a creation of Roman rule, but inherited from previous kingdoms and empires or the result of ethnic tension. Its chief motivation was more often social and economic rather than political.

Above: The fortress of Masada was built near the Dead Sea by Herod the Great as a luxurious place of refuge in an apparently impregnable position. In ad 73 when Legio X Fretensis besieged the fortress it was held by Jewish extremists known as the Sicarii. Deep cisterns and vast storerooms held an almost inexhaustible supply of food and water, so the Romans decided on a direct assault, building a huge ramp against the western side of the bill. Faced with defeat, the Sicarii committed suicide after murdering their families.

Above: The Roman ramp still remains at the side of the cliff today. Originally the top was surmounted by a wooden platform which allowed the battering ram, mounted in a siege tower, to be brought against the wall. The Roman army was determined to suppress all traces of rebellion.

Below: The town of Gamala on the Golan Heights was taken by Vespasian in AD 67. Excavations revealed a breach in the wall created by the Roman ram and catapult stones and bolts scattered amongst the debris. Again the defenders relied on the natural strength of their town s position only to find that the Romans were not put off by such obstacles. In the background is the northern tip of the Sea of Galilee. Faintly visible in the haze are the Horns of Hattin, where over a thousand years later Saladin won his great victory over the Crusaders.

Above: Legio X built a wall of circumvallation completely surrounding Masada and preventing any escape. This, and the forts built on or behind it were made from the local stone and are clearly visible today. As an aid to comfort the soldiers built low walled cabins, roofing these with their leather tents, laying these out in rows by century. This is one of the largest camps, built close to the base of the ramp. In the top left corner is a smaller enclosure, occupied by the small detachment left on site after the siege. In this camp the men added a second cubicle to their rooms, copying the double rooms accommodating an eight- man contubernium in a permanent garrison.

Rebellions that were intended to throw off Roman rule did occur, most often within a generation of an area’s conquest, as in Germany, Gaul and Britain. If this outbreak was defeated, then most areas steadily became absorbed into the imperial culture, their aristocracies profiting from association with the new power. Perhaps the most continuous resistance to Roman rule was found in Judaea, where sporadic uprisings and banditry exploded into massed rebellion in 66-74 and 133-5. A wider rebellion of Jewish communities in Egypt, Libya and Cyprus caused great turmoil under Trajan (115—17). The Jews were exceptional among the peoples of the Roman east in having a strong sense of national identity and culture which reached back far beyond the Greek and Roman presence in the area. Religion emphasized their distinctiveness and prevented the aristocracy from adopting careers in imperial service.

When an uprising did occur, the Roman reaction was always the same. All the troops which could be mustered at short notice were formed into a column and sent immediately to confront the perceived centre of the rebellion. It took a great number of vehicles, draught and baggage animals to supply an army for a long campaign. The Roman army did not maintain such a large baggage train on a permanent basis, but requisitioned the transport required once a war threatened, a process requiring time. This often meant that numerically small and poorly supplied Roman columns launched an immediate offensive against the rebels. Ideally, a show of force, even if it was a facade, regained the initiative and prevented a rebellion from developing and growing stronger. The willingness of even greatly outnumbered Roman forces to attack the enemy displayed a contempt for them and an unwavering belief in the Romans’ inevitable victory. It was a gamble since the Roman column was only capable of defeating relatively weak opposition and risked disaster if it encountered a well-prepared and strong enemy. Both Boudicca in ad 60 and the Jewish rebels in 66 received a great boost when they won victories over the first, poorly prepared Roman forces sent against them. If the Romans failed to crush the rebellion in its early stages, then the next army sent against the rising was properly prepared to fight a major war.

One great advantage enjoyed by the Roman army was its skill in siege warfare. Both the rebellion of 66-74 and the Bar Kochba revolt were dominated by sieges as the Romans systematically stormed the Jewish strongholds. Most of the technology of siege warfare had been developed in the Hellenistic world when its secrets had been the preserve of a relatively small group of professional engineers, often serving as mercenaries. Battering-rams breached the enemy defences, artillery firing bolts and stones suppressed the defenders, and siege towers made it easier for the attacking parties to reach the walls. The legions of the Principate had men well trained in constructing and operating all of these engines as part of their standard complement, as well as artillery and other equipment, much of it prefabricated for easier transportation. The Romans did relatively little to develop the technical side of siegecraft, but they brought an aggressive, relentless quality to this type of warfare. Earlier Roman armies had been forced to blockade a fortress and starve the defenders into submission if it had not fallen to an immediate surprise attack. Now they undertook massive labour, constructing ramps to bring their rams and towers against the defences. Once a breach had been created, infantry, supported by artillery fire, were sent into the assault. Such attacks were always difficult and the storming party suffered heavy casualties. A successful assault left the attackers out of control; the resulting sack of a city was an appalling thing, with the men being massacred and the women raped and enslaved. Roman law denied any rights to defenders who failed to surrender before the first ram touched their wall, and the horrific consequences of a Roman assault were intended to encourage an early surrender. Throughout the siege, the Romans took every opportunity to terrorize the defenders, captives taken during sallies being crucified in sight of the walls or their severed heads fired by artillery into the city. It was common for the Romans to build a ditch and wall, or line of circumvallation, around the entire stronghold, preventing anyone from escaping or supplies and reinforcements from reaching the defenders. It also served as a reminder that while the defenders may have fenced themselves in for their own protection, the Romans had now fenced them in for their ultimate destruction.

These coins were minted by the short-lived independent state created in Judaea by the rebellion of Bar Kochba in ad 133, prompted by Hadrian’s decision to built a temple to Jupiter on Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Despite heavy casualties, the Romans suppressed the rising. Much of the fighting was small scale, with the Romans sending out small raiding columns and systematically storming the numerous walled villages of Judaea.

Maiden Castle was one of the largest walled towns of the Durotriges, a tribe living in modern-day Dorset. It was stormed during the Claudian conquest of southern Britain by Legio II Augusta under the command of the future emperor Vespasian. Its three circuit walls and intricate gateways were intended to allow the sling-armed defenders to drive off an assault, but failed utterly against the engineering skill of the Roman army.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!