Review of ‘The Army in the Roman Revolution’ by Arthur Keaveney (2007)

Keaveny, Arthur. 2007. The Army in the Roman Revolution. London: Routledge.

In the late 2nd and early 1st centuries BCE, the Roman army underwent major reforms which changed both its organizational structure and ideological orientation.  Foremost among these was the recruitment of men from among the capite censi, a class of landless urban peasants who had previously been exempted from military service.  Although there is evidence to suggest that capite censi — like slaves — had previously been enrolled as soldiers in the army, it has become something nearing scripture to see the year 107 BCE as a watershed moment.  In that year, Marius, having experienced difficulty filling the ranks of the army bound to fight Jugurtha, admitted members of the capite censi.  It is as that moment, the narrative continues, that the aspirations of the peasant-soldiery for land first began to hold the state hostage to their demands in a cycle that would bring about the series of disastrous civil wars which ultimately undid the republic.

On its face, the argument makes a certain amount of sense.  Those who had previously been landless would begin to demand from the state parcels of land in exchange for military service, while commanders would sweeten the deal in their personal favor through the giving of donatives and exercising the traditional ties of patronage which tied the client soldiers to their patron leaders.  In so doing, men like Marius, Sulla, Cinna, Pompey, Caesar, Octavian, and Antony could call upon their soldiers to carry out their personal political agenda.  When such gifts were not forthcoming, soldiers would desert, mutiny, or even kill their commanders.  Although the blame for the political machinations rests with these warlords, this top-down narrative ultimately leave the soldiers at fault for the republic’s final demise, for without them these warlords would never have been able to carry out their dark deeds.  Arthur Keaveny’s book The Army in the Roman Revolution provides a long overdue corrective to this flawed narrative.

In just 99 pages — and 33 pages of very dense endnotes — the author presents a very persuasive argument for a reconsideration of the way we approach our source material, namely Plutarch and Appian.  In Prof. Keaveney’s view, both authors are guilty of projecting into the past the conditions and nature of the army during the Triumviral period (43-33 BCE).  In so doing, the nature of the Roman soldiery in modern scholar’s eyes has been changed to make them seem as little more than mercenaries, when in fact the situation was far more complex.  To this end, he convincingly argues that the so-called “reforms of Marius” whereby landless peasants were admitted to the army were, in fact, a temporary measure aimed at supplementing rather than replacing the soldiers enrolled by the traditional methods of recruitment.  In fact, there appears to be no evidence that this measure was used again until the Social War (91-88 BCE), nearly twenty years later, when the demands on the state exceeded the available manpower.  That these landless recruits played a role in the civil war which followed is only a result of timing since the Sulla’s march on Rome in 88 and his subsequent return from the war with Mithridates in 83 BCE was at the had of these same soldiers.  Had the Social War not happened, the army he used to march on Rome twice would not have contained these landless peasants.  To this end, it is likewise evident that these landless soldiers played no role in the formation of the army’s ideology or demands in the first half of the 1st Century BCE.  The soldiers followed Sulla — and Marius and Cinna — for booty and wealth, not for land, though land would be the wealth many would acquire under the dictatorship of Sulla.

The army involved in the second civil war under Caesar was another matter.  This army likewise included the landless peasantry among its ranks, but these soldiers again do not represent a single voice or a particular lobby among the ranks; they are, by all of our sources’ accounts, indistinguishable from their wealthier comrades, and to this end both are motivated by the same desire for wealth as the armies under Sulla and Cinna.  What sets them apart were the circumstances under which they made demands on Caesar for fulfillment of promises, namely for discharges and more gifts.  When these promises were not shown to be forthcoming, mutiny was the result.  The desperate circumstances of a civil war meant that the loss of troops to mutiny was just as dangerous as their loss on the battlefield — possibly greater — for this civil war had become a game of numbers and time.  For all sides, more soldiers were always needed — thus recruitment flowed down to the capite censi — but armies being so expensive, a short war was also necessary.  Although Caesar controlled his armies in a way not to dissimilar to Sulla, the soldier’s experience in this civil war showed them that they had a voice — and that commanders ignored it at their peril.

This is how we come to the armies of the Triumvirs.  The civil wars which followed the assassination of Caesar in 44 BCE was chaotic in ways neither of the others had been before.  In this war, soldiers deserted their commanders en masse for the enemy, at times siding with legitimate officers of the state, at time with renegades, and at other times between rivals.  The game was once again one of numbers, and although the outcome of no single battle seems to have been determined by sheer force of numbers, it was at all times in a commander’s best interest to acquiesce to the demands of his men.  Again, however, we do not see the oft-cited demand for land; the soldiers were again motivated by booty, but now a second motivation had come into play: revenge for Caesar.  Here at last we see the soldiers setting policy, disallowing conflict among Caesar’s heirs Octavian and Antony so long as the the assassins remained at large.  When they ignored these demands, soldier deserted their commanders for home or mutinied, often requiring increasingly greater promises and cash donatives to assail their frustrations.  Once more the distinction between the landless and the wealthier within the ranks is unseen; soldiers were soldiers, regardless of their economic background, and so their demands remained the same.  When commanders were unable to meet their demands, rather than lose their armies, they simply let the armies loose on the Italian countryside — or more accurately, the soldiers helped themselves to the spoils of the Italian countryside.  And whereas before a shortening of the conflict was favorable, the demands on the military players were such that armies had to be massive in order to be viable; thus the Triumvirs may have found a prolongation of the conflict not just useful, but necessary for success even as the cost soared.

Prof. Keaveney’s text is necessary reading for anyone interested in the Roman army or the late republic generally.  His diction is not oriented towards the lay reader, but he marshals all of his analytical skill to deliver a clear and concise argument.  Such nuanced scholarship can be hard to find among ancient historians, particularly on a subject which had been beaten to death by the works of both professional and amateur scholars, but these sort of “close reading” studies remain a necessity as they remind us that traditional interpretations of our sources by, for example, Syme or Gruen are not always what they seem.  That said, the author shows a certain amount of “admiration bias” for Sulla, which is unsurprisingly since he also wrote a magnificent, but somewhat apologist biography of the dictator, with a second edition published one year before this book.  It is in many ways the same sort of bias that has motivated so many to see Marius as the hero of the late republican army or which motivated Syme to cast Octavian as a kind of proto-Stalin. I am not sure that it actually undermines any of his arguments, but I am sure there are those who disagree.

Ten years after its publication, the text gives us a window into the ways in which scholarship continues to reflect the opinions of individual actors and forces in history.  That the soldiers have traditionally been blamed for the fall of the Roman republic is entirely unfair; to quote Prof. Keaveny, “I find it difficult wholly to condemn needy men if they sought an advantage for themselves in a situation created by the merciless and unscrupulous.” (p. 97)  But it also demonstrates the ways in which demagoguery and the self-righteous belief of power brokers can — and is — used to manipulate the less fortunate to their agenda.  Even Sulla, whose actions in 88 BCE were arguably justified and legal, demonstrate the ease by which such men in power can disregard the rule of law and custom and bring the power of the state to bear upon itself.

There is simply too much to say about this book, and for that reason I also recommend reading the Bryn Mawr Classical Review’s 2008 review by Peter Probst, which can be found here.  The book itself can still be found on Amazon and other distributors, but like Prof. Keaveney’s other books, it appears to be either out of print or sold as print-on-demand.

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