Roman military community and personal identity: an ambivalent intention?

The identification of soldiers in ancient Rome taking under specific consideration the imperial definition of the Roman army

Essay, 2009
25 Pages


A la Guerre, les trois quarts sont des affaires morales, la balance des forces r é alles n ’ est que pour un autre quart. 1

(...) hostes vero notis omnibus vadis, ubi ex litore aliquos singulars ex navi egredientes conspexerant, incitatis equis impeditos adoriebantur, plures paucos circumsistebant, alii ab latere aperto in universos tela coniciebant. Quod cum animadvertisset Caesar, scaphas longarum navium, item speculatoria navigia militibus compleri iussit et, quos laborantes conspexerat, his subsidia submittebat. Nostri, simul in arido constiterunt, suis omnibus consecutis in hostes impetum fecerunt atque eos in fugam dederunt; neque longius prosequi potuerunt, quod equites cursum tenere atque insulam capere non potuerant. Hoc unum ad pristinam fortunam Caesari defuit. 2

While Napoleon stresses the morality of a soldier during and particularly after a battle, Caesar (emphasizing the landing of the Roman army in Britain 55 B.C.), on the other hand, underlines the necessity of a skilled and tactical well educated commander to reach an army’s main target - being successful in any campaign.

Both the army as a community and the soldier as an individual within the fighting unit have been heavily significant over all periods of battleship regarding a campaign’s success.3 Consequently, it seems to be important to investigate the level of identification of a warrior with the orders of the unit’s commander as well as the role of personal identity reflecting on the state that is fought for, and especially due to the comradeship in any army throughout military history. Highlighting the theory of identification, it might be also momentous to interpret the recognition of the fighting forces after a succeeded campaign and possible results like the existence of respect, honour, and an increased social status. The reflection of any of these influences on a soldier’s identity - thereby it is important to underscore the significant differences between ancient and modern types of identification with reference to morality and discipline in general4 - are elucidated by a large number of historiographic5, philosophical6, and ancient literary7 sources. Additionally, recent studies of historians8, anthropologists9, and sociologists10 underline the substance of soldiers’ identification in ancient Rome, either. Unfortunately, scholarly examinations regarding the obvious correlation between the military community and the personal identity of a single soldier fighting for either the Roman empire, a unit’s commander or being on the battlefield by just looking for rewards11 are rare, although the number of - especially socially linked scrutinies - has been increased since the early 1980s. The field of study being mostly reviewed is based on the parallels between the beginning of the colonization during the early and middle Roman republic and its impact on various ethnic groups underlining archetypal local societies.12 Other publications stress the ideas of legitimating an emperor’s campaign or the utilization of the Roman army being the strongest instrumentaria to integrate political power.

As a result, the importance of the soldier himself is often underestimated, although several ancient authors did recognize the connotation of the warrior to reach a crusade’s aim.13 Apart from historiographic sources, ancient literature also provides some aspects of the identification of a soldier. Especially Virgil’s Eclogue or Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey seem to be substantial primary sources to elucidate the necessity of both an encouraged military unit relying on comradeship and military skills, and the significance of a buoyant soldier. Besides, archaeological materials like plans of towns (oppida) or guidelines of constructing a villa or else a garden also offer socially substantial regards of a Roman soldier in the empire’s society.14 As biological and chemical research - especially with reference to stable isotope analysis of bone collagen15 and dental microwear16 - has been improved since the early 70s of 20th Century, even those possibilities of investigations supports conclusions reflecting on the classical period. By utilizing δ13 C and δ15 N analysis17, it is i.e. likely to rebuild feasting processes or dietary habits that might be useful to receive information regarding the healthcare of fighting units or the existence of celebrations after a succeeded campaign.

This paper attempts to provide a short insight into the importance of a single soldier due to his identification with both the ancient Roman state or rather its military commanders and the warrior’s intention of being part of a battle group. By elucidating the undoubtedly legitimating impact on the ancient - and the current - society in general, classical sources like Caesar’s De bellum Gallicum as well as De bello Civili, Tacitus’ Annals and Histories, Library of History done by Diodorus of Sicily, and the works of Cicero - especially Orationes De Lege Agraria - will be the mainly utilized sources to answer the central question of this issue. However, the mentioned relation between various fields of studies - including historical, sociological as well as anthropological and biological subjects - will play an important aspect to offer an objective conclusion, either. Thus, it is the innermost intention of the paper to point out, why the status of the Roman republic, its army’s generals and - both official and unofficial - rewards18 seemed to be the key factors to encourage a soldier of the ancient Roman army.

Highlighting the Roman troops by pointing out their general type of identity, there have been several controversial opinions between historians.19 Although, it is certainly undoubted that Roman soldiers were part of an imperial army, few scholars have suggested the idea of one personal identity distinctively linked to the empire. Hence, various sources - including letters written by soldiers being in charge all over the battlefields of the ancient Mediterranean area and northern Africa20, textual evidence given by ancient authors21, and archaeological materials like reliefs and inscriptions22 - have created a more complex consensus of identities inside the Roman army as a community. The mentioned materials offer a huge variation of possibilities regarding the identification as well as the integration of soldiers with/in a society of the Roman Empire.23 Therefore, it seems to be necessary to differentiate between numerous types of identity due to the imperial definition of the ancient Roman army: firstly the relationship between the fighting unit and its commander, secondly the identification of a single soldier being part of the Roman troops far away from his geographical and cultural origins followed by the interactions inside the army as a community in general and fourthly the obviously most important aspect stressing a warrior’s connection to the local society. With the interpretation of these key factors of identity and identification, the following will also embrace the so-called barbarization of the Roman army.24

a) a soldier’s identity under the consideration of the unit’s commander. Being the most important figure on the battlefield an army’s general or rather a unit’s commander has been the most significant person to identify with over all periods of warfare.25 However, the highest-ranked soldiers were always directly linked to the tactics during a battle as well as the success of a single campaign. As a result, it was their main target to fulfil the Roman’s empire ideology of such a crusade firstly.26 Additionally, the commanders “(...) played a vital role in determining the success of [their armies]”27 to receive official rewards provided by the emperors of Rome.28 But - being even more significant - both an army’s general and a unit’s commander were substantially under pressure based on the level of motivation of their fighting troops.29 A huge amount of ancient sources highlight these ideas. Caesar i.e. mentions an incident naming the attack on a marching camp led by Cicero anno 53 B.C. to illustrate the value of a commander’s vital activity at any stage of a campaign.30

Tacitus offers such important influences vice versa.

Eodem anno Tacfarinas, quem priore aestate pulsum a Camillo memoraui, bellum in Africa renouat, uagis primum populationibus et ob pernicitatem inultis, dein uicos excindere, trahere graues praedas; postremo haud procul Pagyda flumine cohortem Romanam circumsedit. praeerat castello Decrius impiger manu, excertitus militia et illam obsidionem flagitii ratus. is cohortatus milites, ut copiam pugnae in aperto faceret, aciem pro castris instruit primoque impetus pulsa cohorte promptus inter tela occursat fugientibus, increpat signiferos, quod inconditis aut desertoribus miles Romanus terga daret (...). 31

Tacitus, hence, elucidates the misbehaviour of Decrius’ unit caused by the commander’s disability to lead his own troops.


1 Napoléon: Observation sur les affaires d ’ Espagne. In: Goldsworthy, A. K.: The Roman army at War. 100 BC-AD 200. Oxford/New York 1998(First Published 1996), p. 255.

2 See Caesar : De bellum Gallicum, libri II-VII. In: Caesar. The Gallic War. With an English Translation by H. J. Edwards. Cambridge/London 1952 (First Published 1917), here Caesar: De bellum Gallicum, libri IV.26.

3 See Keegan, J.: The Face of Battle. London 1976. In the following cit. as Keegan 1976. Keegan, J.: A History of Warfare. London 1993. In the following cit. as Keegan 1993. Both publications are recognized to be standard works on the topic stressing a soldier’s experiences during military campaigns.

4 See ref. 1. See also Rich, J.: Fear, greed and glory. The causes of Roman war-making in the middle Republic. In: Rich, J.; Shipley, G. (eds.): War and society in the Roman world. London/New York 1997 (First Published 1993), pp. 38-68, pp. 60-62.

5 See i.e. Caesar: De bello Civili, libri III/VI. In: Caesar. The Civil Wars. With an English Translation by A. G. Peskett. London/New York 1951 (First Published 1914). See also Caesar : De bellum Gallicum, libri II-VII. In: Caesar. The Gallic War. With an English Translation by H. J. Edwards. Cambridge/London 1952 (First Published 1917). See furthermore Diodorus: The Library of History, Book V.29. In: Diodorus of Sicily. The Library of History. With an English Translation by C. H. Oldfather. Vol. III. London 1952 (First Published 1939). See also Josephus: The Jewish War, Books V-VII. In: Josephus. With an English Translation by H. St. J. Thackeray. Vol. III. London/New York 1956-1958 (First Published 1926-1943). See furthermore Plutarch: Sertorius, 3. In: Plutarch’s Lives. The Translation called Dryden’s. Corrected from the Greek and revised by A. H. Clough. Vol. II. Liverpool 1883. See Tacitus: Annals, Book II.46. In: The Annals of Tacitus. Books I-VI. Edited with a Commentary by F. R. D. Goodyear. Vol. II. Cambridge/London a.o. 1981. For several other ancient authors highlighting military campaigns in ancient Roman times see bibliography.

6 See i.e. Aristotle: Aristotle in 23 Volumes. Vol. 22. Translated by J. H. Freese. Cambridge/London 1926. See also Lucretius: The way things are. The De Rerum Natura. Translated by R. Humphries. Indiana 1968.

7 See esp. Virgil: Ecloga. In: The Eclogues, Bucolics, or Pastorals of Virgil. A Revised Translation, with Introduction, Text, and Notes by T. F. Royds. Oxford 1922.

8 See esp. Alston, R.: The ties that bind. Soldiers and societies. In: Goldsworthy, A. K.; Haynes, I. (eds.): The Roman army as a community. Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplementary Series Number 34 (1999). Portsmouth, pp. 175-195. In the following cit. as Alston 1999. See furthermore McCartney, E. S.: Warfare by Land and by Sea. New York 1963. See also Rich, pp. 38-68. See Salmon, E. T.: Roman Colonization under the Republic. London 1969.

9 With a specific view of the aggressions coming through a campaign see Shalit, B.: The Psychology of Conflict and Combat. London/New York/Westport 1988. See also Thorpe, I. J. N.: The ancient origins of warfare and violence. In: Parker Pearson, M.; Thorpe, I. J. N. (eds.): Warfare, Violence and Slavery in Prehistory. British Archaeological Reports International Series 1374 (2005), Oxford, pp.1-18.

10 See esp. Weber, M.: The Interpretation of Social Reality. Edited and with an introductory essay by J. E. T. Eldridge. London 1970. See furthermore Gerth, H. H.; Wright Mills, C. (eds.): From Max Weber. Essays in Sociology. Translated, edited and with an Introduction by H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills. With a new Preface by B. S. Turner. London 1991 (First published in 1948).

11 See Goldsworthy, pp. 259-261 and 276-279.

12 See i.e. Bradley, G.: Colonization and identity in republican Italy. In: Bradley, G.; Wilson, J.-P. (eds.): Greek and Roman colonization. Origins, Ideologies and Interactions. Swansea 2006, pp. 161-188. See also Salmon.

13 See i.e. Caesar: De bellum Gallicum, libri II.21. See also Caesar: De bello Civili, libri III.99. See furthermore Josephus: The Jewish War, Book VII.13-16.

14 See esp. Bradley, pp. 169-171. See also Lee, A. D.: War in late Antiquity. A social History. Malden/Oxford 2007, pp. 135-138. In Virgil’s Eclogues, there are also various types of architectural specifications named to underline the importance of buildings and gardens due to the ancient Roman society as well as the differences of the social status being elucidated by them during the observed period. See therefore esp. Virgil: Eclogue, book II.

15 For brief information of the utilization of stable isotope analysis and their significance highlighting the access of further, more detailed information see Food and Agricultural Organization. Amino-Acid Content on Foods and Biological Data on Proteins. Rome 1970. See also Molleson, T.; Jones, K.: Dental evidence for dietary change at Abu Hureyra. Journal of Archaeological Science 18 (1991), pp. 525-539. In the following cit. as Molleson 1991. See furthermore Molleson, T.; Jones, K; Jones, S.: Dietary change and the effects of food preparation on microwear patterns in the late Neolithic of Abu-Hureyra, Northern Syria. Journal of Human Evolution 24 (1993), pp. 455-468. In the following cit. as Molleson 1993. See en detail Nestle, M.: Animal versus plant foods in human diets and health. Is the historical record unequivocal? Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 58 (1999), pp. 211- 218.

16 See esp. Mahoney, P.: Dental microwear from Natufian hunter-gatherers and early Neolithic farmers. Comparisons within and between samples. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 130 (2006), pp. 308-319. See also Larsen, C. S.; Shavit, R.; Griffin, M. C.: Dental caries evidence for dietary change. An archaeological context. In: Kelly, M. A.; Larsen, C. S. (eds.): Advances in Dental Anthropology. New York 1991, pp. 179-202. In the following cit. as Larsen 1991. See furthermore Larsen, C. S.: Biological changes in human-populations with agriculture. Annal review of Anthropology 24 (1995), pp. 145-159. In the following cit. as Larsen 1995.

17 By the utilization of the ratio of stable carbon [Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten] defining [Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten] as values in bone collagen, scientifics are able to elucidate the ecosystem of early hominids and other animals living in the investigated period. Because of being a sign of values of dietary protein [Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten], it is also possible to differentiate between long-term nutritional habits dated on circa ten years as well as marine and terrestrial protein. Furthermore stable isotopes are evident for the existence of C3 and C4 plants possibly being located in the observed area. If C3 and C4 plants could be suggested, they were an indication of their consumption and the trophic level of dietary protein concerning the photosynthetic process. As a result studies based on the experimental measurement of [Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten] N values make it likely to learn more about dietary patterns. See esp. Diagram 1: “The utilization of stable isotope evidence concerning carnivores, herbivores and C3 and C4 plants”. See also Fig. 1:” Bone collagen δ13 C and radiocarbon ages from Mesolithic and Neolithic humans from Denmark” taken from the case study of Richards. See therefore Richards, M. P.: Explaining the dietary isotope evidence for the rapid adoption of the Neolithic in Britain. In: Parker Pearson, M. (ed.): Food, Culture and Identity in the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age. BAR International Series 1117, Oxford 2003, pp. 31-36.

18 See Goldsworthy, pp. 259-261. See also Watson, G. R.: The Roman soldier. Bath 1981 (First Published 1969), pp. 116-117.

19 See esp. Alston 2001 and Sidebottom, H.: Ancient Warfare. A Very Short Introduction. New York/Oxford 2004.

20 See Alston 1999, pp. 188 and 194-195.

21 See esp. ref. 5. See also ref. 6 and 7.

22 See esp. Fig. 2: “Relief elucidating a pharaoh killing Syrian enemies. Scene dated from the reign of Amenhotep II, c. 1427-1400, Eighteenth Dynasty, excavated at Thebes, el-Asasif.” See also Fig. 3: “A bow excavated from the tomb of Senenmut dated from c. 1460 B.C., Eighteenth Dynasty, Thebes, Sheikh Abd el-Qurna and several arrows dated from c. 1900-1800 B.C., Twelfth Dynasty being typical weapons used by Egyptian warriors.” See furthermore Fig. 4: “Battle scene showing the destruction of a probably barbarian village. Column of Marcus Aurelius XX.”

23 See en detail Goldsworthy, pp. 13-29. See briefly and mainly based on the influence of imperial polities Bradley, pp. 164-167.

24 See Sidebottom, pp. 49-51.

25 Caesar and Tacitus, i.e., give well-elucidated examples stressing the importance of a commander’s skill to lead a single campaign. See Caesar: De bellum Gallicum, libri VII.51. See also Caesar: De bello Civili, libri III.99. See also Tacitus: Annals, Book XII.38.

26 See Goldsworthy, pp. 167-170.

27 See Goldsworthy, pp. 169.

28 See esp. Alston, p. 187.

29 See Rich, pp. 60-61.

30 See Caesar: De bellum Gallicum, libri XI.38-40

31 See Tacitus: Annals, Book III.20.

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Roman military community and personal identity: an ambivalent intention?
The identification of soldiers in ancient Rome taking under specific consideration the imperial definition of the Roman army
The University of Liverpool
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Magister Artium Holger Skorupa (Author), 2009, Roman military community and personal identity: an ambivalent intention?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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