BMCR 2017.11.28

The Emperor and the Army in the Later Roman Empire, AD 235–395

, The Emperor and the Army in the Later Roman Empire, AD 235–395. London; New York: Routledge, 2017. 240. ISBN 9781472457592. $149.95.


This is a revised version of Hebblewhite’s 2012 PhD dissertation covering the relationship between the Roman emperor and the Roman army during the third and fourth centuries AD. If you are familiar with Campbell’s 1984 volume, The Emperor and the Roman Army, 31 BC – AD 235 then you know what to expect. Hebblewhite presents six chapters that cover military imagery on coins, laws issued to soldiers, pay and other rewards, imperial victory titles, discipline, and law as it applied to soldiers. Each chapter is divided into two sections, up to Diocletian and then from Diocletian onwards. With no narrative of events that undergraduates tend to need, this is a concise book for specialists.

The selection of 395 as a terminal date is a good choice, because that is when emperors generally ceased both peripatetic ruling and campaigning. Yet scholars interested in late antiquity as a whole might find this slightly frustrating since any changes in the emperor’s relationship with his troops when he was no longer leading them in the field are not pursued. The same point might be made of the relationship of the army to very young emperors, though this is partially compensated for by the recent publication of Meaghan McEvoy’s, Child Emperor Rule in the Late Roman West, AD 367–455 (2013).

Throughout the volume, very good use is made of coin evidence, reproduced at a size and resolution so that the images are clearly legible. The focus of the discussion is on soldiers’ reading of the coins, opening up the question about whether the imagery on coins was intended for military audiences alone. However, the focus on numismatic evidence occasionally means that instances where military activity does not register on coins, e.g. the brief reign of Eugenius (392-394), are overlooked; some discussion of the significance of this would be interesting. The major focus of the discussion of Christianity is on the swearing of oaths to the emperor as an occasion for displays of resistance often leading to martyrdom; in this respect the portrayal of Eugenius’ reign by Christian apologists might provide another way of thinking about relations between the emperor and his troops and in particular the extent of their Christianisation. Hebblewhite’s continued focus on coinage and pay also demonstrates the critical need for the Emperor to manage this aspect of his relationship with the troops. Wearing a uniform or eating the same food as the troops was all very well, but this would only have a positive impact if the men were paid.

Subsequent chapters on laws, victory titles, and discipline are also methodically laid out, providing a solid catalogue of the relevant primary sources. The focus tends to be on the soldiery as a whole and pays little attention to senior officers. This means that the politics within the Empire are only rarely addressed, a difference from Campbell’s work where commanders and the army in politics were tackled. Including discussion of, for example, what happened at the siege of Milan in 268 when Gallienus was murdered or whether the acclamation of Valentinian II in 375 was related to the execution of Theodosius the Elder, would have shed more light on this aspect of the relationship between the Emperor and the army. This focus on the soldiers themselves also made me wonder about how soldiers felt about civil wars, i.e. how difficult was it to persuade Roman soldiers to fight against other Roman soldiers, many of whom would have been known to them.

This is a stimulating work that provides an easy-to-use catalogue of the coinage and legal sources showing the relationship between the Emperor and the Roman army. Its tight structure complements Campbell’s earlier volume well and yet also provokes questions about the relationship that might have been missed in a more discursive treatment. Most importantly, it shows the appropriateness of Septimius Severus’ deathbed advice to his sons—roughly “Stick together, pay the troops, forget the rest”—advice that was treated by many subsequent emperors in the same way that Caracalla and Geta treated it. If they’d read Hebblewhite’s book, many late Roman emperors might have been more successful.