BMCR 2020.06.03

Killing for the Republic: citizen-soldiers and the Roman way of war

Steele Brand, Killing for the Republic: citizen-soldiers and the Roman way of war. . Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019. xix, 370 p.. ISBN 9781421429861 $34.95.

[Chapter titles are listed below.]

Few military forces in history have captured our imagination and interest as much as the Roman army. The meteoric rise of Rome from a relatively unknown city-state in Central Italy to the absolute ruler of the Mediterranean world has fascinated generations of historians since the time of Polybius, who experienced Rome’s expansion personally.

Killing for the Republic tells the history of Rome’s citizen-soldiers from the beginning of Rome during the monarchic period up until the civil wars of the first century BC, explaining how these citizen-soldiers shaped Rome for better and for worse. The author, overall, emphasizes very well how the citizen-soldiers allowed the Republic to reach its zenith by the mid-second century BC following the great victories over the Hellenistic kingdoms, but also how, soon after, the same citizen-soldiers were at the centre of the progressive decline of the republican values.

Before examining the core of the book, I believe that the prologue, dedicated to the long-lasting impact that Rome and its citizen-soldiers have enjoyed in modern republics, particularly the United States, deserves a special mention. The author (pp. 5-9) compares Rome with other classical city-states, republics and empires that were all influential to the Founding Fathers of the United States. Ultimately, the Roman Republic is the one that had the deepest impact; it was considered a model of virtue, mixed government, and liberty that was ultimately destroyed by a combination of corruption and militarism. Rome’s agrarian republicanism, contrary to its contemporaries, managed to create a unique breed in the figure of its farmer-citizen soldiers, and its mixed constitution all played a key role in making Rome a crucial inspiration for American republicanism. The author highlights (p.9) how the Roman constitution, in contrast to others, was the most influential for the American constitution (e.g. a bicameral legislature, property qualifications, congressional war authorization, age requirements for officeholders, term limits, etc).

Following the prologue, Killing for the Republic is divided into four parts, nine chapters and an epilogue.

Part 1, including chapters 1 and 2, describes the ancient Republican citizens. First, it offers a definition for citizen-soldiers, the difference with soldier-citizens (pp. 24-25) and the incompatibilities between the two. Next, it explores the life and priorities of Rome’s citizen-soldiers, such as agriculture, farming and the important balance and/or tension between farm life and military life for Rome’s citizen-soldiers. The author, very correctly, highlights (p. 40) that Rome was fundamentally in a state of constant war since there was no difference between war time and peace time as it is understood today.[1] This developed into an even more peculiar pattern from the mid-third century BC, when Roman expansion was no longer limited to peninsular Italy. This pattern is particularly evident during the second century BC: while Italy, for the most part, was at peace, the overseas provinces experienced constant violence (Spain being the prime example). The next section examines the concept of ‘republic’ and how Romans experienced their republicanism, offering a framework of the historical context in which Roman citizen-soldiers lived. In particular, it explores how the case of the Roman Republic, managed by the elite nobility and defended by the small-holding farmer-citizen soldiers, was unique compared to its contemporaries and how it evolved over time. The section also summarises (pp. 60-64) the different approaches adopted by modern historians to study Republican chronology. The author highlights, in particular, Harriet Flower’s well-known concept of ‘republics’, that, contrary to more traditional approaches, involves more complex and discontinuous understanding of periods within the Republic.

The rest of the book, Parts 2 to 4, offers a detailed account of the history of Rome’s wars from its origins to the chaotic period of the civil wars of the first century BC. These sections  focus on crucial battles by framing the political climate surrounding them and offering a detailed account of the different phases of the battles and their aftermaths.

More specifically, Part 2 examines the period from the regnal era to the first two centuries of the Republican experience during which Rome had to struggle for its own survival in the competitive environment of Central Italy. The next Part (3) focuses on Rome’s Italian and Mediterranean expansion by offering detailed accounts of three key battles: the battle of Sentinum during the Second Samnite War (295 BC), the siege of New Carthage during the Second Punic War (209 BC), and the battle of Pydna during the Third Macedonian War (168 BC). Regarding the battle of Pydna and its aftermath (pp. 193-194), perhaps the author could have further emphasized the importance of this victory by stressing the political ramifications for the Republic and its foreign policy, i.e. Rome becoming the Mediterranean’ superpower. After all, as reported by the sources, the famous episode of the day of Eleusis would not have been possible without Paullus’ victory at Pydna.[2]

Part 4 explores the role of the citizen-soldiers in the rise of Rome and in the decline of the Republican values, and how they progressively transformed into soldier-citizens, who played a key role in Rome’s violent transformation from Republic to Principate, described particularly well in the section dedicated to the battle of Philippi in Chapter 9. Indeed, of central importance in this process are two of the most crucial battles of the civil war that followed the assassination of Julius Caesar: Mutina (43 BC) and Philippi (42 BC).

In examining the environment of Rome’s citizen-soldiers of the second century BC (pp. 207-213), however, the author could have discussed families’ economic strategies in greater detail. As suggested by Rosenstein, families were not entirely dependent on the work of men of military age: women, minors, extended families and the wide-spread ownership of slaves are all aspects to be considered when examining the citizen-soldiers’ economy and, consequently, their relationship to military service.[3] Also, in the case of citizens from lower classes, whose property qualification were between 1,500 and 4,000 asses, we are looking at rather small plots of land (roughly between 2 and 4 iugera) that did not require a lot of labour or workers, and thus were not entirely dependant on men of military age.[4]

This is also tied to the figure of Spurius Ligustinus, for whom the author offers (pp. 207-208) a very brief and traditional portrait without mention ofimportant scholarship on this topic – e.g. Perotti 1974, Cadiou 2002. In my opinion, the figure of Ligustinus is actually more important than previously believed, and this section of Part 4 would have benefitted from a deeper examination. The description of Ligustinus’ career, after all, represents an important step in the evolution of Rome’s citizen-soldiers. While the author is correct to suggest that the speech may be an embellishment (p. 208), he is incorrect in saying that, by the time of his speech, Ligustinus was still living on that one iugerum of land with his family, as that would have been impossible. Ligustinus’ claim about living in one iugerum of land is, most certainly, the result of Livy’s rhetorical embellishment. Contrary to what the author suggests (p. 211), while Ligustinus was rather poor, he likely owned more than one iugerum, as that would have otherwise prevented him from joining the army in 200 BC. He most likely managed to improve his and his family’s condition through military service. His speech reveals a pattern that was rather common among Roman citizens of that time with regard to their military service: a frequent rotation between military and civilian life.[5] This allowed Roman citizens to decrease the burden of military service and it emphasizes the role of military service as an alternative profession already by the mid-second century BC.[6] This does not mean that the army was already professionalized, but it is definitely possible to see seeds of that condition during this period. Finally, such a pattern most likely played an important part in Roman men’s marriage and paternity strategies.[7]

Overall, it is evident that the author possesses strong knowledge of the relevant source material and of the essential scholarship on the Roman army, while perhaps the book could have benefitted from a deeper interaction with more current scholarship, for Parts 2 to 4 in particular. These sections are very descriptive and, while the discussion of battles is very clear, more critical discussion of key topics such as the Gracchan reforms and more detailed economic analysis could have strengthened these sections.

In conclusion, the book explores very well the process of transformation (or, we might argue, degeneration) of Rome’s citizen-soldiers into the soldier-citizens in the late Republican period, a process that would be completed by the creation of a standing army of professional soldiers by Augustus. Killing for the Republic offers a good, solid introduction on the armies of the Roman Republic and its soldiers supported by an accessible and very engaging style. I would definitely recommend it for general readers and students interested in the armies of the Roman Republic, and more specifically on the role that the citizen-soldiers played in shaping the history of Rome.

Chapter list

 Preface. Why Care about Long-Dead Fighting Farmers?
Prologue. The Roman and American Republics
Part 1. Farmers, Citizens, and Soldiers
Chapter 1. The Soldier’s Farm
Chapter 2. The Citizen’s Republic
Part 2. The Making of Rome’s Citizen-Soldiers
Chapter 3. Origins: Kingly Armies of the Roman Hills
Chapter 4. Proving Ground: Surviving in Central Italy
Part 3. The Triumph of Rome’s Citizen-Soldiers
Chapter 5. Breakout: Competition and Discipline at Sentinum
Chapter 6. The Greatest Trial: Beating Your Betters at New Carthage
Chapter 7. Triumph: Phalanx Killers at Pydna
Part 4. The Death of Rome’s Citizen-Soldiers
Chapter 8. Questionable Legitimacy: The Ideal Statesman’s Battle at Mutina
Chapter 9. Suicidal Finish: Last Stand of the Citizen-Soldier at Philippi
Epilogue. War Stories for the Emperor


[1] See C. Nicolet, The World of the Citizen in the Roman Republic (Berkley, 1980), 97.

[2] Livy, XLV.12; on the role of Pydna, see Polybius, XXIX.27: “Fortune indeed so disposed of the fate of Perseus and the Macedonians, that the restoration of Alexandria and the whole of Egypt was decided by it […] for if that had not taken place, or had not been certain, I do not think that Antiochus would have obeyed these orders.”

[3] N. Rosenstein, Rome and the Mediterranean 290 to 146 BC, the Imperial Republic (Edinburgh, 2012), 115.

[4] See D. Rathbone, ‘Poor Peasants and Silent Sherds’, in L. De Ligt and S. Northwood, eds., People, Land and Politics: Demographic Developments and the Transformation of Roman Italy 300 BC – AD 14 (Leiden/Boston, 2008), 308; and N. Rosenstein, Rome at War: farms, families, and death in the Middle Republic (Chapel Hill, 2004), 57; Pliny, NH, XVII.215 and L. De Ligt, ‘The Economy: agrarian change during the second century’, in  N. Rosenstein and R. Morstein-Marx, eds., A Companion to the Roman Republic (Malden, 2006), 600 suggests that a single worker was able to manage between 7 and 10 iugera of land.

[5] See F. Cadiou, ‘A Propos du Service Militaire dans l’Armée Romaine au IIe siècle av. J.-C.: le cas de Spurius Ligustinus (Tite-Live, 42, 34)’, in  P. Defosse, ed., Hommages à Carl Deroux, II: Prose et Linguistique, Médecine(Bruxelles, 2002), 86-87.

[6] See P. Erdkamp, Hunger and the Sword, Warfare and Food Supply in Roman Republican Wars (264 – 30 BC)(Amsterdam, 1998), 269.

[7] See R. Saller, ‘Men’s Age at Marriage and its Consequences in Roman Family’, Classical Philology 82 (1987), 31-33; N. Rosenstein, ‘Marriage and manpower in the Hannibalic War: assidui, proletarii and Livy 24.18.7-8’, Historia 51 (2002), 179-184; R.S. Bagnall and B.W. Frier, The Demography of Egypt (Cambridge, 1994), 146; L. De Ligt, Peasants, Citizens and Soldiers, Studies in the Demographic History of Roman Italy 225 BC – AD 100 (Cambridge, 2012), 145-146.