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The Roman Army as a Political Stepping Stone

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I'm currently writing on essay on how Roman politicians used positions in the army (legate, tribune, etc...) to further their political careers, but I've been unable to find many primary sources. My thesis is that serving in the army allowed patricians to gain the favor of soldiers (which was a necessity for becoming anyone) and allowed them to use their service and possible accomplishments as a way to sway public opinion towards them. My writing encompasses both the Republic and the Empire, as I'm trying to show how the usage of the army changed over time. Any suggestions would be very helpful.




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Most of the classical histories contain hints about this sourt of thing if you take the time to look for them, although in fairness, the senatorial class regarded military service as an essential qualification for political life since Roman culture was underlined by martial virtue.


I can't stress enough that the Romans had no national army - they had independent legions which were mini-armies in their own right, led by legates who were political appointees and amateur generals in most cases since the upper classes didn't follow exclusive military careers, and importantly, because there was no actual career structure in the higher echelons of the legions. You served time as a less senior officer learning your trade, possibly serving again as an army commander when required by the emperor or senate, then went back to your political life with either honours or disgrace.


It was not therefore a concious tactic to use the legions in the manner you're looking for - it was expected in Roman society that a man would gain credibility by military service when asked to defend Rome's interests. The legions after all were ordered very much like Roman society anyway, with upper, middle, and lower classes, and if you take the time to notice, the attitude of the senior officers appears very much that they run their legion rather like a mobile estate with soldiers instead of slaves.


More specifically however we see Caesar gathering his centurions early on in his account of the Gallic Wars. They were starting to gossip and fear was building, so Caesar berates them all and tells them in no uncertain terms that it was his job to determine strategy, not theirs, and reminds them the centurionate was there to lead men in battle.


Nonetheless we should realise that the senior officers were representing Roman authority as a sort of military nobility. There was a feudal idea underlining the legions where soldiers fought for the legate as Rome's authority on the basis that the legate would ensure they were fed, watered, paid, rewarded, and victorious in battle. Patriotism toward the state moticeably a minor motivation for the Romans who had more immediate loyalties - it was the job of the senators in charge to ensure these armed men fought for Rome.


That of course brings us neatly to the idea that ambitious senators might turn their legions against Rome for their own more selfish reasons, and this was a constant thorn in the side of Roman society. Notice that Domitian recalls Agricola before he succeeds in his caledonian campaign, concerned that a popular general would have a loyal army at his back when he returned in triumph. In fact, Agricola is well aware of the risk of execution and refuses a triumph offered by Domitian, who would have used that as part of justifying Agricolas removal.


Notice also the idea that strength is all important. Under Didius Julianus, a somewhat feeble and unwanted owner of the Roman imperial office, three seperate rebellions in the legions break out. One is bought off by another, and Septimius Severus marches into Rome, replaces the praetorian guards who had sold the throne to Didius Julianus, and takes control by what can be described as an almost perfect coup. Notice also that the senate do not attempt to stop him. On the one hand they don't want to take on a determined ruthless legate, on the other they prefer a strong competent ruler with the loyalty of the legions.

Edited by caldrail

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