BMCR 2018.01.34

Blood of the Provinces: The Roman ‘auxilia’ and the Making of Provincial Society from Augustus to the Severans

, Blood of the Provinces: The Roman 'auxilia' and the Making of Provincial Society from Augustus to the Severans. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. xviii, 430. ISBN 9780198795445. $50.00 (pb).

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Ian Haynes’ monograph is a much-needed update on The Auxilia of the Roman Imperial Army published by G. L. Cheesman in 1914. It is an ambitious work that looks at the structure, recruitment, religions, and equipment of the auxilia as well as its impact on provincial society. The book is organized into seven sections and twenty-two chapters.

The first part looks at the establishment of auxiliary forces and their incorporation into the professional army created by Augustus. While late Republican auxiliary units were sometimes named after their commander, this practice was gradually abandoned and replaced by tribal, provincial, or ethnic titles. Haynes argues that this reflects a more ordered and formal inclusion of the auxilia into the Roman army. By the time of the Year of the Four Emperors (AD 69) the auxilia were a well-established and essential part of the Roman military system. Over the course of the second century there was a gradual erosion of the status difference that originally existed between legions and auxilia in part because of the growing numbers of Roman citizens in cohorts and alae. The Constitutio Antoniniana effectively removed the distinction between legionaries and auxiliaries. Moreover, by the end of the Severan period, the difference in dress and equipment between legions and auxiliary formations had largely disappeared. The main distinction in unit types was now between infantry and cavalry.

Recruitment is the focus of the second part of the book. Haynes shows the Romans’ remarkable ability to use existing military structures to their own advantage. For example, the forces of former ‘client kingdoms’ were incorporated into the auxilia after the absorption of these kingdoms into the empire. There was no empire-wide pattern of auxiliary recruitment but rather a diversity of methods to recruit and reinforce units. In some areas such as Pannonia, recruitment came from the vicinity of military bases whereas in Africa and Britannia, local recruitment can be discerned. There was no general effort to maintain ethnic stock in any given unit. Recruitment more commonly chose the most convenient source. Haynes thus takes a position against the modern idea that certain units, especially those comprising eastern archers, kept recruiting there because of the existence of ‘natural’ archery skills in this area.

The third section deals with the daily life of the soldiers. Haynes emphasizes the point that military service essentially meant urban life. Since most recruits were drawn from rural communities, this meant they were exposed to styles of living and habits often alien to them. Time was measured according to the Roman calendar; bathing became standard practice as forts were equipped with baths. Mediterranean staple foodstuffs uncommon in northern areas such as olive oil and wine were consumed in garrisons throughout the empire. Despite these common habits, some regional preferences remained, for instance Batavian units drank beer rather than wine.

Religion is the object of the book’s fourth part. Haynes argues that there was no ‘military religion’ particular to the army and distinct from that of the civilian inhabitants of the provinces. The imperial cult, although attested throughout the empire, included important variations of worship from unit to unit and it does not seem to have been rigidly imposed by the state. In some units deities originating from several different areas of the empire were worshipped. For example, the cohors I milliaria Hemenesorum sagittariorum built a temple at Intercisa in Pannonia Inferior for the Syrian god Elagabalus, while several other deities such as Diana Tifana, Isis, Liber Pater, and Jupiter were also worshipped in the same unit.1 Haynes criticises the theory that Mithraism was particularly prevalent in the auxilia, stating that most followers of this mystery cult were actually civilians.

Equipment and tactics are treated in part five. Haynes makes use of the convenient concept of bricolage, coined by Lévi-Strauss, to propose that the armament of the auxilia was a mix of Roman and various other traditions. In the absence of centralized arm factories (not attested until the later empire), there was no single authority to standardize military equipment, even though many similarities were present. Auxiliary soldiers thus had a certain leeway to personalize their weapons and armour. There was an increased tendency towards uniformity in the third century as a result of the movement of units from province to province. There is no evidence for empire-wide reforms of equipment and it is unlikely that one took place as most emperors did not show much interest for these matters.

Haynes proposes that the clear differences in tombstones between foot soldiers and cavalrymen served as status symbols in provincial communities. The depiction of horses on tombstones was a symbol of prestige and a reminder that cavalrymen were better paid and enjoyed a higher status then infantrymen. This may have been a way for provincial tribal elites to reassert their status through service in alae.

Regarding auxiliaries on the battlefield, Haynes re-examines the famous passage from Tacitus ( Agric. 35.2) on the battle of Mons Graupius in which the Roman historian credits his father-in-law Agricola for winning the battle using only auxiliary units rather than legionaries and thus sparing Roman blood. Haynes points out that many soldiers of the Batavians and Tungrians cohorts would actually have been Roman citizens. Moreover, auxiliaries regularly played a prominent role in other battles and often fulfilled the same tasks given to legionaries. The adoption of the spear, long sword, and oval shield for both legionary and auxiliary units over the course of the third century is described as a cultural rather than technological change. To be sure, such equipment had been used for a long time by auxiliary units. However, as Haynes recognized in an earlier chapter, armies tend to adopt the best weaponry and tactics irrespective of its cultural associations.1 The change in equipment may in fact reflect that it was simply better suited for the various missions that the Roman army had to perform in the third century.2 The last chapter of part five convincingly argues that most units of particular ethnic origins did not perpetuate distinctive dress and weaponry over time.

Part six examines the role and influence of language and writing in the auxilia. Haynes argues that the army was a powerful factor in the spread of Latin and Greek as auxiliary soldiers needed some knowledge of at least one of these two languages to understand orders and communicate with officers. This does not mean that auxiliaries ceased to speak their native languages. Rather, the auxilia were precisely characterized by the presence of many multilingual individuals. The military was an environment in which one was continually exposed to writing. Of course not all auxiliary soldiers were literate but levels of literacy were more likely to be higher than among the civilian population. For example, a list of receipts for the ala Veterana Gallica shows that twenty-two of the sixty-four soldiers registered could sign their own names. 3 Haynes also shows that military Latin was marked by regional variations and by the occasional mishandling of cases by auxiliary soldiers.

The seventh and last section covers auxiliary veterans. Haynes argues against the idea that veterans were agents of cultural change in their community after discharge. Their small numbers limited their impact and they would thus blend in with what existed rather than create something different. Moreover, there was no central policy of auxiliary veteran settlement.

Overall, Haynes shows an impressive command of the epigraphical, papyrological, and archaeological evidence. His study highlights the problems involved in making the auxilia a systematic agent of ‘Romanization’ (that word itself is controversial in scholarship). Indeed, Haynes’ study shows without a doubt that auxiliary soldiers did not acquire a common ‘Roman’ identity. Rather, their response to contact with the Roman army created various identities, reflecting the diversity of peoples that lived inside the empire. To be sure, service in the auxilia exposed men from all across the empire to a variety of habits and a life style that was markedly different from their own. However it does not follow that they became beacons of ‘Roman civilization’ after the end of their service.

While I certainly understand the basic need to establish boundaries to one’s historical enquiry, I nonetheless think that there could have been more about the evolution of auxiliary units over the course of the third century. Haynes argues that they basically became indistinguishable from legions. How did that play out? How did unit nomenclature evolve in the third century? Maybe this is where the modern divide between early and late empire comes into play, for specialists of the early Roman army are sometimes unwilling to go beyond the mid-third century while those studying the late Roman army would tend to consider anything past that period to be their preserve.

In summary this is a high quality book of tremendous importance for the study of the auxilia in the early empire. The extensive bibliography of some thirty-seven pages is exhaustive and there are a limited number of typographical errors. 4 The work is certain to become the new reference for any study on that topic.


1. p. 241.

2. Military equipment did end up being produced by state-owned fabricae in the late third century, see James, S. “The Fabricae: State Arms Factories of the Late Roman Empire”, in J. C. Coulson (ed.) Military Equipment and the Identity of Roman Soldiers, pp. 257-331, Oxford, 1988.

3. p. 323.

4. For example: p. 86 muncipia for municipia, p. 157 and 307 solders for soldiers. This is not an exhaustive list.