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Roman Military and Imperialism

The Roman army was a key element in the politics and culture of imperial Rome. Under the Republic, the army was a militia. This meant that it was raised for specific military campaigns. Once that campaign was finished, the army was normally disbanded and the soldiers returned to civilian life.

Military service seems to have been an expected part of life for most men. The aristocrats officered the army and thus gained military experience and experience of leadership. They might also build political relations with the men and win friends, or make enemies. The experience in the military was though crucial since if the aristocrat was elected to high political office, he would also be expected to lead a Roman army, possibly as a governor of a province. There was thus no divide between political and military leadership.

For the men, military service provided them with a wage for as long as the campaign went on. This wage was low and was intended to meet their basic needs. Soldiers could acquire wealth if they campaigned in a wealthy area. A conquering Roman army would take any movable wealth they could lay their hands on. This included people, whi might be sold to slave-dealers who followed round the army.

Although the material and people looted came under the supervision of the general, a general would distribute a considerable proportion of the army’s gains to the troops themselves. Consequently, the troops might gain a considerable boost to their wealth. The remainder of the money would enrich the general and his officers. The general might also make a contribution to the city of Rome, either depositing money in the treasury or paying for a monument. In cases in which enormous amounts of wealth flowed into the city, they might even pave a road.

The Roman people benefited from conquest through the flow of wealth into the city as well as from military service. The provinces which were conquered also paid various types of tax into the Roman treasury. By the second century BC, direct taxation of Roman citizens has been abolished since the income from the provinces met all governmental needs. Furthermore, the wars of conquest brought land. That land was periodically distributed to the Roman people. Some of those distributions were in the form of new settlements (colonies), often remote from Rome.

The army played a crucial part in the sequence of civil wars that brought an end to the Republic. Augustus reformed the army. he took direct control of military affairs and most of the campaigns of the Augustan period were led by Augustus himself of by close family members.

The professionalisation of the army led to an extension of the length of service. Under the Republic, men could be, it seems, conscripted for 16 campaigns, though they might volunteer for longer periods of service. From the time of Augustus, service was extended to 20 years, seemingly without any breaks. This was further extended to a period of 25 years. After that extended service, soldiers received a discharge reward which would be paid in either cash or land.

Under the subsequent emperors, military activity remained an important part of the imperial role. Military success brought wealth to Rome. It also showed that the emperor


A Victory Monument: Trajan’s Forum: the Basilica and Trajan’s Column

was doing a ‘good job’. After Augustus, the pace of expansion slowed considerably. Tiberius was reluctant to expand the empire. Gaius was belligerent in his military policies, but never brought any project to fruition. Claudius launched major campaigns in Africa and Britain. Even Nero, though he did not campaign himself, ‘supervised’ extensive military activities in Germany, Britain and the East.


After the civil wars of 68-70, the same patterns of imperial activity were followed. Vespasian sponsored campaigns on the Western frontiers. The East gradually settled after the disturbances of the Jewish War. Domitian launched campaigns on the German and Danubian frontiers with limited success. It was Trajan who returned to a very aggressive programme of military expansion.

Throughout the period, Roman emperors celebrated their victories with monuments across the city of Rome (and elsewhere). Imperial victory was a measure of success. It justified the imperial regime.




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