Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.06.27

Jan Stäcker, Princeps und miles. Studien zum Bindungs- und Nahverhältnis von Kaiser und Soldat im 1. und 2. Jahrhundert n.Chr. Spudasmata, 91.   Hildesheim:  Georg Olms Verlag, 2003.  Pp. 492; pls. 7.  ISBN 3-487-11941-2.  €78.00.  

Reviewed by Everett L. Wheeler, Duke University (
Word count: 2459 words

When the Praetorian Guard auctioned off rule of the Empire to Didius Iulianus in 193, the thin veil of res publica restituta, barely concealing the reality of a military monarchy and already torn in 68-69, was now irreparably shredded. The army, which Augustus had downsized into an affordable standing professional force, remained the princeps' personal client and a power base that could not be ignored. The army's political role and how emperors retained the soldiers' favor, fundamental themes of Roman history, have not in recent decades attracted much scholarly attention. J.B. Campbell's synthesis of developments 31 B.C.-A.D. 235, an attempt to fill the gap of coverage in Fergus Millar's The Emperor in the Roman World (1977), yielded an introductory survey for undergraduates, which non-Anglophone reviewers panned. Subsequently, E. Flaig (1992) diagnosed the phenomenon of usurpation with a heavy dose of perspectives from social science.1 Now Jan Stäcker (hereafter "S"), in a revised form of his 1999 Münster dissertation, seeks to analyze an emperor's techniques of bonding with soldiers.

S limits his study to the period before 180, on the grounds that Commodus' reign foreshadows the rise of soldier-emperors in the crisis of the third century and the auction of 193 marks a major change in emperor-army relations. This Gibbonian periodization demarcates "normalcy" from the aberrations to follow. Nor need different branches of the army be distinguished, as the same bonding techniques were applied, albeit more intensely for the Praetorian Guard. Further, following the current fad for study of the "people" (as opposed to ruling elites), S focuses on bonds with the gregarii milites , generally centurions and lower ranks. Justification for the study derives from Campbell's general omission of archaeological evidence, his excessive reliance on literary sources and on the outdated views of Alfred von Domaszewski on religion in the army, and (not least) Campbell's portrayal of the army as a mercenary force.

For S, due attention must be paid to Late Republican precedents to appreciate the continuity of practices under the Principate. Emperors had to assure soldiers that their material needs during and after service would be met and to maintain morale through promotion of the emperor's invincibility (Sieghaftigkeit) and reducing the physical and psychological distance between gregarii and the emperor. The cult of the emperor, an important innovation, lacked, however, a form and substance dictated from the center. Indeed, by accepting Paul Veyne's anthropological bent, donatives become symbolic gifts, of which the amount was irrelevant. Donatives, not purchases of loyalty (as Campbell), bound soldiers to the emperor through his display of concern. Throughout, S endeavors to demilitarize the army (here by no means a Staat im Staat) by equating military and civilian practices and to replace notions (often traditional in German scholarship) of Staatsrecht and centralized control with expected behavior and social pressures. S even presents a kinder, gentler Praetorian Guard.

Excluding the brief introduction (Ch. I) and summary of conclusions (Ch. X), the work consists of eight chapters. S initially (Ch. II) treats the army as the clientele of Late Republican generals and argues that soldiers acted in their own interests and readily changed sides in the absence of the traditional mutual moral obligation between cliens and patronus. A review of Augustus' reorganization of the army follows, in which S seems unaware of both the Germani corporis custodes and a recent contention (however dubious) that no distinction in function and pay between legions and auxilia existed even in the first century,2 and telescopes the rate at which auxilia lost their ethnic character.

A thorough review (Ch. III) of Augustan policy on veteran settlements, praemia militaria (seen as the emperor's beneficence, not a soldier's right), and establishment of the aerarium militare carries developments through the mutinies of the Rhine and Pannonian legions in 14. But S's treatment of Augustus' provisions for the soldiers' material needs and improved economic status in retirement scarcely breaks new ground and some bibliography is left fallow: a footnote (p.75 n.79) on estimates of the army's annual budget (now a favorite scholarly parlor game) is incomplete; Link's book on veterans' benefits seems unknown, as are Isaac's objections against veteran colonies as tools for Romanization and defense.3 S accepts a conventional view that veterans often preferred settlement near their former site of service, although a paper (too recent for S to know) now argues that auxiliaries in Britain liked locations less rigorous than the front lines.4

S rightly bemoans the paucity of testimonia from gregarii on their feelings toward the emperor but exaggerates the soldiers' emphasis on the economic benefits of military service in the few examples cited. L. Trebius boasted of service ad latus Augusti (ILS 2905) and Priscus of Paphlagonian Hadrianopolis beamed that Trajan promoted him for bravery to the rank of signifer or imaginifer (SEG 1993.911). Erection of these monuments (presumably at the deceased's expense) bespeaks a certain economic level, but Trebius' bare reference to his original pauperies and Priscus' life according to Hesiodic tenets after the Parthian war seem minimal support at best for S's view. Improved status is implied rather than explicit. Even less convincing is deducing a close personal attachment to the emperor from a soldier's acknowledgement that he received a viaticum from Caesar, a term personifying Roman rule much like the American use of Uncle Sam (cf. Matt. 22:21: 'Render unto Caesar ...').

Chapters IV on the emperor's personal contacts with gregarii and IX on the triumph and imperial titulature form a pair in treating the emperor's military functions. The latter presents a convenient collection of material on Augustus' restrictions on triumphs, creation of the ornamenta triumphalia as a substitute, discontinuation of the ovatio, evolution of imperator as a synonym for emperor, and imperial cognomina from conquered peoples. Yet, apart from the participation of gregarii in the pompa triumphalis and titulature as proof of the emperor's Sieghafigkeit, it is not clear that this chapter advances the general theme of bonding between the emperor and the army. S argues in Ch. IV that personal contact between the emperor and soldiers, especially on the frontiers, was not expected even in wartime and that the role of emperor as commilito, played by some but not others, was not essential. Hadrian of course represents the exception. But S's view that emperors had to remain in Rome to keep their rule secure curiously omits Tiberius' absence from Rome for the last eleven years of his reign -- an absence that both confirms S's view (i.e., Sejanus' intrigues) and refutes it.

In many respects, however, this chapter is the worst in the book. Although aware that portrayals of generals as commilitones (i.e., marching with the troops instead of riding, indifference to heat and cold, eating the same food as the lower ranks, participating in physical labors, etc.) are topoi, and cognizant that Josephus was a panegyrist for the Flavians, Velleius for Tiberius, and Tacitus for Agricola, S uncritically accepts these exempla as historically accurate and likewise tales of personal bravery of emperors and later emperors in battle. Nor does S dig into the deeper levels of the sources. Is it surprising that the picture of Corbulo as the ideal, "old-style" Republican general probably derives from the picture Corbulo painted of himself in his commentarii, which Tacitus used? S's lack of wider reading in military history and studies of generalship is obvious. A general's need to establish kinship with the rank and file was and is an essential component of military leadership. Greek precedents (e.g. Agesilaus) existed. These issues derive from the evolution of the general's function from a warrior in the front ranks to the role of battle manager.5 S's ready acceptance of Fronto's criticism of Hadrian's military policies and Corbulo's correction of lax discipline reveals that topoi, even if already exposed,6 can still deceive the unwary.

In contrast, discussions of the emperor's image (Ch. V) and statues of the emperor in military camps (Ch. VI) present a useful collection of archaeological evidence. S, with attention to the ambiguity of imago for different objects, examines the emperor's image on dona militaria and manipular signa, as well as the creation of the rank of imaginifer for the new signa of the emperor's bust in all branches of the army. Though his attempt to find the emperor's name on the vexillum is unsuccessful, and his review of the symbols of individual legions ignores a major work updating Emil Ritterling's fundamental article "legio" in RE,7 S's treatment of the chest harness of glass phalerae bearing imperial images merits praise for its study of tombstone reliefs. These phalerae, attested from Augustus to Claudius, represent an experiment in bonding directed at centurions and lower ranks.

Religion as a means of emperor-army bonding forms the major theme of Ch. VI on statues of the emperor and Ch. VII on the sacramentum and dedications. S meticulously collects the evidence for the number (minuscule in the first century) and size of statues in military camps (both legionary and auxiliary), their locations within the camps, and the dedicatory texts from their bases. Here and throughout on the epigraphical aspects of army religion S exploits a 1973 Konstanz dissertation.8 His results are provocative: statues were honorary, not religious; they were not located near a camp's aedes, where the signa were housed, and were financed by the dedicating army unit, not the state. A change of emperors did not require swearing an oath of loyalty before a statue of the new emperor. Indeed, S can find no connection between camp statues and religion (defined as inscriptions to the numen or genius of an emperor) before Septimius Severus. As in the civilian sphere, the central government did not prescribe or finance statues, but expected their erection.

S reaches similar conclusions about the sacramentum and religious dedications. An exact text of the sacramentum cannot be recovered, but during the Principate it was sworn to the emperor as an individual rather than to an abstract res publica.9 S follows Peter Herrmann's view that a distinction between an oath of service upon entry to the army and an annually renewed oath of loyalty cannot be proved. Although S rightly believes that a military oath had to include some clauses relevant to army service, he also asserts that the loyalty oath differed little between civilians and the military. But the oath, imposing a religious and legal obligation, formed a real bond between the emperor and the army. Soldiers took the oath seriously. The Imperial cult, however, seems to S not to have been a mechanism of bonding. Indeed in S's perspective emperor worship scarcely existed at all. Dedications to the genius imperatoris, numen Augusti, pro salute imperatoris, and the domus divina are relatively few in number, rare in the first century with a much greater frequency in the third, and lack standardized formulae and content, and the references to the emperor are combined with addresses to other divinities. Similarly, the feriale Duranum, a unique document, does not reflect a unitary, empire-wide military calendar, but a regional product of mid-level bureaucrats in Syria. S's evisceration of Kaiserkult supports his view of the auction of 193 as a major turning point: beginning with the Severi things were different. S's method, however, gives pause: surviving inscriptions tell the whole story; few or no inscriptions indicate non-observance of religious practice. From another perspective, this methodology seems positivism gone mad. But students of Roman religion and army studies will find here much to debate.

S's most direct assault on Campbell comes in his discussion of donatives (Ch. VIII). Quite apart from Campbell's exaggerated army of mercenaries -- donatives, in fact, had no role in the events of 68-69, except for Galba's refusal to give one to the Praetorians -- S must discredit Suetonius' claim (Claud. 10.4) that Claudius was the first to buy the emperorship (primus Caesarum fidem militis etiam praemio pigneratus). A survey of donatives establishes that before Claudius they were testamentary: in the Roman tradition receiving a gift from the deceased offered public proof of close relations. Hence Claudius' and Nero's initial donatives were unusual because of the absence of the predecessor's will. But not all emperors granted donatives upon assuming the purple, and a rising curve of donative sums cannot be proved, although S agrees with others that Praetorians always received the highest amounts, while other branches of the army were rewarded pro rata. Hence the auction of 193 becomes a unique event, not the result of a trend in buying the army's loyalty. A literalist interpretation of Suetonius' and Dio's accounts of Claudius' accession further shows Claudius involuntarily chosen by the Praetorians and a time-lag between accession and payment of the donative. Thus the lack of a quid pro quo permits the application of Veyne's 'symbolic gift' to donatives: the act of giving, not the amount, established the emperor's bond with the army.

A brief review cannot properly address all the issues S raises. The army's role as emperor-makers involves much more than donatives. S scarcely mentions Tacitus' "secret of the empire," Sejanus' significance in establishing the political power of the Praetorian Praefect, and the resentment in provincial armies of the Praetorians' higher pay and shorter as well as easier terms of service. Domitian's raising army pay is not mentioned. S's rejection of Suetonius' account is not convincing and the unmilitary Claudius' concern for the army throughout his reign testifies against S's view. After all, Claudius (as S notes) was the only emperor of the first and second centuries to grant donatives to the Praetorians annually on his dies imperii. Nor does Suetonius seem likely to have identified Claudius as the first to buy the emperorship, if the idea was not already in his sources. Suetonius, long dead before the auction of 193, could not have been influenced by the supposed later unique event. The idea of imperium purchased from the army already existed by Hadrian's time. But of course this book's theme is bonding techniques not the army's political role. If Campbell made the army too mercenary, S has rendered it too docile.

In sum, S's book offers a classic example of the difference between a dissertation as a display of learning and a scholarly monograph. This book needed an editor. Length is not strength. The 457 pages of text are by no means justified by numerous repetitions, rehearsals of the known, and extraneous discussions, including a forty-page digression on the non-existence of a ius imaginum, a scholarly fabrication from two Ciceronian passages and already skeptically regarded. Nor has the publisher served the author well in charging 78 Euros for a paperback printed on glossy paper -- a glaring irritant. S's labors should not be belittled, but the books' bulk, inadequate research on some topics, and unnecessary exposition of others obscure the interesting and occasionally provocative aspects of his discussion.


1.   J.B. Campbell, The Emperor and the Roman Army 31 BC-AD 235 (Oxford 1984); cf. P. Le Roux, REL 63 (1985) 42-49; G. Alföldy, Gnomon 57 (1985) 440-46 (highly critical). For usurpations: E. Flaig, Den Kaiser herausfordern. Die Usurpation in römischen Reich (Frankfurt a.M. 1992). R. Ash's Ordering Anarchy: Leaders and Armies in Tacitus' Histories (Ann Arbor 1999) is more about Tacitus than the army.
2.   C.M. Gulliver, "Mons Graupius and the Role of Auxiliaries in Battle," G & R 43 (1996) 54-67.
3.   S. Link, Konzepte der Privilegierung römisher Veteranen (= HABES 9 [Stuttgart 1988]); B. Isaac, The Limits of Empire (Oxford 1990) 311-22. For budget see e.g. D. Potter, Prophecy and History in the Crisis of the Third Century (Oxford 1990) 6-10, 64-67.
4.   J.C. Mann, "The Settlement of Veterans Discharged from Auxiliary Units Stationed in Britain," Britannia 33 (2002) 183-88.
5.   Cf. E.L. Wheeler, "The General as Hoplite," in V.D. Hanson, ed., Hoplites (London 1991) 121-70.
6.   See R.W. Davies, "Fronto, Hadrian and the Roman Army," Latomus 27 (1968) 75-95 = Service in the Roman Army, edd. D. Breeze and V.A. Maxfield (New York 1989) 71-90; E.L. Wheeler, "The Laxity of Syrian Legions," in D. Kennedy, ed., The Roman Army in the East (= JRA Suppl. 18 [Ann Arbor 1996]) 229-76.
7.   Y. Le Bohec and C. Wolff, edd., Les légions de Rome sous le Haut-Empire (Paris 2000) 2 vols.
8.   H. Ankersdorfer, Studien zur Religion des römischen Heeres von Augustus bis Diokletian (diss. Konstanz 1973).
9.   Thus it is not the Christian elements alone of the sacramentum at Vegetius 2.5 mark it as Late Roman. But the divine nature of the Late Roman emperor, evident at Veg. 2.5, calls into question S's interpretation (esp. 187, 201 n.189) of Veg. 2.6 (imagines imperatorum, hoc est divina et praesentia signa) as proof that images of deified emperors continued as signa after their deaths. Cf. Veg. 2.7: Imaginarii [= imaginiferi] qui imperatoris imagines ferunt, which are surely multiple busts of a single emperor distributed in the different units of a legion.

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