The Roman army was an efficient and professional force. Was it always like this however? What role did the army play within Roman society? To answer these questions, we need to travel back to the time when Rome was just a small kingdom in the Italian Peninsula. During the monarchic period, the Roman army was composed of private citizens who needed to provide their own military equipment, just like in Ancient Greece. The core of the army was made up of the wealthy and societal elites. With the birth of the Res Publica or Republic, little changed. The only major difference became the relationship between the army and politics. In the new Republic, if one wanted to be a successful politician, he had to lead armies on campaigns. The major and most powerful posts in the Senate, the Consul and the Praetor, both included Imperium, which was essentially a military command. Was it possible for a plebeian or a low ranking aristocrat to get the most powerful posts in Rome? The answer is yes, and a fine example of this is Gaius Marius. Coming from a family of agrarian minor nobility, Marius used the army as a ladder by which to obtain the position of Consul. He was what the Romans called an Homo Novus or “new man”. Julius Caesar used the army to the same end, although he came from an impoverished aristocratic family. Was it easy to climb the social and political ladder in republican Rome? Certainly not. Both Caesar and Marius had to fight against the conservative block which was made up of mainly aristocratic senators. Gaius Marius enacted real change through his military reforms, altering the status quo. He turned the army into a professional entity and by doing so, facilitated the life of ambitious men like him who wanted to climb the social ladder. However, by helping men to gain power through the army, Marius opened the gates to a new era: a time in which the political scene was dominated by military might and personal loyalties. Lucius Cornelius Sulla and Gaius Julius Caesar exploited this situation and eroded the republican institutions of the state, paving the way for Imperial Rome. With military might the key to power, Imperial Rome was a political powder keg, ready to explode at any moment as generals upon generals declared themselves emperors through the loyalties of their legions. The emperor was so insecure that he had to form a crack body of troops, known as the Cohors Praetoriae, in order to protect himself. This situation would remain the main political weakness of Rome from the reign of Augustus to the Fall of The Eastern Empire in 1453. In the fourth century, entire regiments of armies were dedicated to the protection of the central power of the emperor. These were known as the Palatina Legions. In summation, the Imperial army was both a strength and a weakness for Rome, as while it was successful in Rome’s external wars, it was also the source of innumerable military coups and ultimately, the main cause of Rome’s demise.

Advertisements