BMCR 2008.07.52

The Army in the Roman Revolution

, The army in the Roman revolution. London and New York: Routledge, 2007. x, 150 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780415394864. £17.99.

In his latest book Arthur Keaveney, a well-known specialist on the Roman Republic, examines in detail the role of the army in the civil wars of the first century BC.1 He explicitly focuses on the relationship and interaction between the commanders-in-chief and their soldiers. His study spans the time from Marius and his military reforms in 107 (admission of the capite censi to military service) to the end of the civil wars in 31 (battle of Actium). The time of the Gracchi is also taken into account as an important prelude to the later events. Accordingly all dates in this review refer to BC.

The fact that the downfall of the Roman Republic was largely the result of successive civil wars is beyond dispute and there is no doubt that the army played a most important role during that decline. Keaveney gives special attention to the political instrumentalization of the army and the soldiers’ motivation to fight and concludes “that the nature of the Roman army as a revolutionary force and the manner in which it destroyed the Republic have not always been fully understood by modern historians” (IX). Based on a broad survey of the sources he attempts to reassess the role and function of the army in the last decades of the Republic.

The book is subdivided into five chapters (including the introduction), each of which is introduced by a short overview of the most important questions discussed. At the end of each chapter the results are recapitulated and summarised.

In the introductory chapter, Keaveney explains along general lines the main reasons for the crisis of the Roman Republic heralded by events in the late second century and the consequences as they appeared in the decades until 31. He concentrates particularly on two events: on the murder of Tiberius Gracchus in 133 as the first instance of politically motivated violence in Republican times, and on Sulla’s march on Rome in 88. The second event shows that Sulla, heavily supported by his troops, was the first to know how to use the army as a political instrument in the fight for power. In light of these two events the author outlines his thesis that the Roman army should not be seen as a static instrument of war. For this period embraced two generations, so that “there may have been some kind of change and development in that period” (p. 7), which he proceeds to examine in the following chapters.

The second chapter, “The leaders and the led”, takes a closer look at the commanders and the soldiers, their relationship to one another and their particular characteristics. Keaveney argues that this relationship or bond cannot be seen as something similar to the Roman pattern of patron and client. Such a patronage can only be assumed for the private armies recruited during the civil wars around the middle of the first century. Regular armies, he says, had always considered their commander as a Roman magistrate. The author assumes that the soldiers were predominantly recruited among the rural population that had been under increased economic pressure during the second century. To compensate for the decline in the number of active soldiers, it had been necessary to gradually reduce the qualifications of property for military service. The recruiting of troops among the capite censi by Marius was the result of a long development and did not terminate in the abolition of property qualification. It was only applied less strictly. Moreover, Marius’ decision in 107 cannot be seen as a calculated plan for the future, but as a measure plainly necessary due to the current political circumstances. Keaveney correctly points out that in consideration of the meagre sources available one ought not to overestimate the number of soldiers lacking property qualification. Consequently, as modern research for the most part agrees, it can no longer be said that the Marian reforms and the military service of unpropertied men revolutionised the Roman army. This the author clearly points out (pp. 23-28). Further, the soldiers were equally motivated for military service regardless of their social-economic background. In this context Keaveney analyses in detail Nathan Rosenstein’s thesis, that the late Republic experienced an increase in population.2 The author rejects Rosenstein’s speculative calculations and his conjecture, that Tiberius Gracchus completely misjudged the situation in the late second century. He only agrees with the assumption that already in the century before the second Punic war, a long absence from farm and family was common due to military campaigns far from Rome.

The third chapter, “Politics and profit”, concentrates on the question, much debated in current research, whether besides the well-attested economic incentive for military service a political motivation can be assumed for the first century. Keaveney regards Sulla’s march on Rome in 88 as the beginning of a lasting political awareness on part of the soldiers. Though Sulla had lost the support of the political institutions of the res publica at that time, he regained power through the support now provided by the army. Acting like a radical tribunus plebis of the late second century he was able to enforce his political program with the backing of the army. Caesar started his career from a similar position as Sulla did; but his troops were much more interested in getting financial benefits ( donativa) and quite successful in achieving their objectives. Various incidents demonstrate quite clearly that in the time of Caesar military commanders often became highly dependent on their troops. When one looks at the soldiers serving under Mark Antony and Octavian, this development becomes quite obvious. A military conflict between these two opponents was at first prevented by the soldiers’ desire to avenge Caesar’s death. This politically motivated action also had an impact on politics in general the first few years after the Ides of March. In 42, Mark Antony and Octavian were even forced by their armies to come to terms in the peace of Brundisium. Then the defeat of political enemies like Cassius, Brutus and Sextus Pompey led to an increase in political stability and reduced the remaining commanders’ dependency on the army. Already in 36 Octavian’s power in the West was so well established, that he was able to act on his own volition without pandering to his troops.

In the fourth chapter, “Land and land hunger”, Keaveney focuses upon the claims of the veterans for an allotment of land, a claim that had regularly emerged since the late second century. The senatorial elite usually referred to the soldiers as rustici and liked to mock them as senatores caligati when they appeared in public with their claims. Initially the distribution of land or money depended entirely on the political situation and the power of the political leader, whose obligation it was to satisfy the claims. By the time of Caesar at the latest, however, the soldiers themselves became more and more self-confident in enforcing their demands. For them a homestead seemed to be an attractive source of income after leaving military service. Nevertheless, Keaveney points out, it is difficult to verify whether soldiers had a real interest in freehold property or only wanted to make a profit in selling it quickly. To be sure after years of service it would seem difficult to the individual soldier to find his way back into civilian life, for the military offered adventure and far more income than could be gained from working the land. Quite often ancient sources, in confirmation of this, report that many soldiers re-enlisted again as evocati.

The fifth chapter, “Obedience and disobedience”, deals with troops rejecting the authority of their commanders by mutiny, desertion or fraternising with the enemy. In general soldiers are bound to the sacramentum that was sworn to the commander and ensured the loyalty and discipline of the troops. This oath was linked to the commander as a person, not to the institution of his office, so that the sacramentum had to be renewed whenever the military leader changed. But in the late Republic, when for various reasons the frequency of mutinies and desertions increased, the oath lost its binding force. In times of civil war rebellious troops need not fear punishment for their conduct because a commander could not afford to lose his soldiers to an opponent. Severe punishment for disobedience was meted out only on occasion. During the civil wars of the late Republic a tendency in general to avoid fighting among citizens can be observed. It was regarded as the last option to solve a conflict. Mutinies, desertions and fraternisations can, if widely spread, have a severe impact on internal and external politics. As an example for this Keaveney refers to Marcus Aemilius Lepidus ( consul 46) as one commander who twice — due to such circumstances — lost his entire army and with it his political power.3 At the beginning of the so called second triumvirate all members were confronted with the disobedience of their soldiers, but after the defeat of Sextus Pompey and the elimination of Lepidus in 36, the increasing stability led to a decline in unrest among the troops. With Octavian as the winner of the civil wars in 31 the soldiers lost the chance to coerce their commander because there was no opponent left to defect to. Not until the first century AD, when civil strife arose again under changed political conditions, did mutinies and desertions recur.

The last chapter, “The revolutionary army from Sulla to Augustus”, is designed as a conclusion and concisely sums up the main ideas of the book. It shows both the merits and weak points of this study. Keaveney very rightly draws attention to the fact that the army should not be regarded as something static by disregarding the changes and developments that occurred during the period from Marius to Octavian. Also correct is the author’s opinion that Marius’ decision to allow capite censi to serve did not lead to a sudden change in the social structure of the army. Due to the lack of source material the fraction of those without property qualification cannot be precisely calculated. The first act that revolutionized the Roman army was Sulla’s march on Rome in 88: “As it was, the purest chance and accident of his position meant that it fell to him to discover and exploit for the first time the revolutionary potential of the Roman army. To put it bluntly: he, not Marius, created the revolutionary army” (94f.). Keaveney’s statement, that the frequently assumed patron-client-relationship between soldiers and their commander applies only to irregular armies levied by private person, is valid in essence. Nevertheless it is possible to say that quite a few aspects of this relationship are at least reminiscent of a patron and his clientele. Keaveney completely excludes this possibility and thereby restricts the scope of his study. The author notes that civil wars increase the intrinsic value of troops even more than wars against foreign enemies. They allow them a freedom of action against their commanders-in-chief, as can already be seen in the conflict between Caesar and Pompey when soldiers took the initiative to gain above all financial benefits. After Caesar’s death such conduct increased; in addition explicit political demands pertaining to vengeance upon the murderers were voiced. But one should be careful not to overestimate this exertion of political influence. Upon a closer look at Keaveneys argumentation it turns out that examples for such conduct are in fact rare. In many of these instances it is furthermore difficult to distinguish between a political and a financial motivation for rebelling against the commander, so that the actual dimension of political influence and power which came from the soldiers remains questionable. The period after the Ides of March till the victory at Philippi seems to have been a special case. Caesar’s death undoubtedly affected the troops very much and seems to have incited them to political action. In the same context it has to be noted that the essential question, whether or not the term “revolutionary” actually characterizes the late Republican Army, can only be answered unsatisfactorily. It is perhaps better to see the army more as a powerful instrument in the hands of revolutionary leaders than an independent player in these turbulent times.

Subsequent to these six chapters, in a first appendix, there is a short discussion about the Catilinarian Conspiracy. Keaveney explains that Catilina himself in his course of action differed considerably from the other political leaders of the first century who tried to gain power by military force. A second appendix contains a chronology with the dates of the most important events between 107 and 31. The extensive list of annotations helpfully refers the reader to the pages to which the notes pertain. A comprehensive bibliography and a general index of subjects, names and places conclude the book.4

To sum up: Keaveney has written an inspiring and fascinating book, that competently summarises current research about the final stages of the Roman Republic. It sheds new light upon many seemingly well-established concepts of the Roman army. The critical and convincing examination of ancient sources and modern research make it valuable for both experts and students of ancient history. The refreshingly eloquent diction makes this book a pleasure to read. Although the reader sometimes may not agree with the final conclusions of the author, he will profit substantially from reading the book. It can be strongly recommended to everybody interested in the late Roman Republic.


1. Other monographs by the same author: Lucullus: A life, London 1992; Rome and the Unification of Italy, 2nd ed., Bristol 2005; Sulla: The last republican, 2nd ed., London 2005. The author’s most important articles on the Roman Republic are listed in the bibliography.

2. N. Rosenstein, Rome at war. Farms, families and death in the middle republic, Chapel Hill 2004. See also the reviews of this book: Luuk de Ligt, in: CR 57 (2007) 168-170; John Muccigrosso, in: BMCR 2004.07.56; Peter Probst, in: Klio 89 (2007) 230-232. Noteworthy also are the following articles published recently by Luuk de Ligt: “Roman manpower and recruitment during the Middle Republic,” in: Paul Erdkamp (ed.), A Companion to the Roman Army, Oxford 2007, 114-131; “Roman manpower resources and the proletarianization of the Roman army in the second century BC,” in: L. de Blois, E. Lo Cascio (eds.), The Impact of the Roman Army (200 BC-AD 476), Leiden 2007, 3-20 and “Some thoughts on the nature of the demographic ‘crisis’ of the second century BC,” in: O. Hekster, G. de Kleijn, D. Slootjes (eds.), Crises and the Roman Empire, Leiden 2007, 167-181.

3. Although he remained officially commander-in-chief (cf. p. 86), Lepidus’ troops in fact defected to Mark Antony in May 43.

4. The bibliography should have been completed with the addition of Brian Campbell, War and society in Imperial Rome 31 BC – AD 284, London/New York 2002. Although the book mainly refers to Imperial Rome, significant information can be taken into account for the late Republican army and society as well.