What was the role of the Roman Army in Imperial Politics

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Last updated: April 11, 2019

The Roman Army undertook major changes after the civil wars in the late Republic which saw the rise Augustus as Emperor. Augustus had set a new precedent; his power had been obtained due to the strength and support of his army. It acted as a strong and ‘potent political force’ in unstable times and ‘was the backbone of military order’ which needed to be treated and fed well to maintain their loyalty (Garnsey and Saller, 1987, 16, 89). This led to the Roman Imperial Army having an involvement in imperial politics.The extent of this involvement was both a case of change and continuity.

For example the Praetorian Guard took a very active role whilst legionaries did not get too involved. This is partially due to the legions being stationed on the frontiers, where by protecting the throne by protecting those frontiers (Southern and Dixon, 1996, 37) and not in Italy -until the second century A. D. at least (Campbell, B. 2002, 108) – where they would be spending twenty-fire years away from the life and activities in Rome.Even so the legions did ‘exercise political power in so far as [Augustus] would fall if they deserted him’ (Campbell, B. 2002, 107). The entire nature of the army’s role imperial politics is a complex issue which sees the role being both minor and yet in one way, the most important aspect in Imperial politics.

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The army’s most obvious involvement in politics comes in the form that the Emperor’s relied upon them to maintain power. Especially after the civil wars of AD 68-69 which showed that a general with the support of the army could seize power.Even if the newly proclaimed Emperor did not receive his titles officially until they were given to him by the Senate, he was still effectively Emperor as soon as his troops proclaimed him so. Most Emperors would receive an acclamation after his primary address to the Praetorian’s or legionnaires with him. This was the sign of military support that the Senate and the upper classes needed in order to then back the Emperor themselves.

The man acclaimed was effectively Emperor from the moment that his troops proclaimed him and the Senate’s granting of power and title was just the ‘niceties’ (Campbell, J. D, 1984, 374-6, 381). Even after AD 69, however, the soldiers still remained in the same political standing as before. Despite it being the soldiers who had given him power, Vespasian did not reform the standing of the army in a political sense. They still did not have a direct there was ‘no direct channel of communication’ between the Emperor and the soldiers. (Campbell, B, 2002, 107, 115).

‘The army was not necessarily dominant in the thinking of all Emperors’ (Campbell, J. D, 1984, viii). The soldiers proclaimed the Emperor but then had no say in the running of the Empire.

They were not the dominate force in the political life of Rome, they were merely the dominate force in the accession of a leader becoming the centre of the political life. The army has been to be the most important problem with which every Emperor had to deal with. He had to take on his full military responsibilities. (Campbell, J.

D, 1984, 417) He was the ‘Imperator’, the commander-in-chief of the army and the successes and failures were all attributed to him. With this in mind we can see just why the Emperor’s would go themselves on campaign’s abroad.If they won, they showed that they were a great leader and worthy of being Emperor. If they lost then it would reflect badly, even if power had been delegated.

Men might become demoralised with defeat and possibly begin to want another man in charge. Furthermore the Emperor could not afford to allow generals to conquer large territories. In previous civil wars, the generals became the main leaders and opponents within the civil war (Goldsworthy, 2000, 115). As J. D.

Campbell (1984, 181) wrote the legions ‘had frequently been virtually a mercenary force hired by individual commanders to execute their private political plans’.The Emperor could simply not afford to not be leading the soldiers in campaigns, if another general was to do it and became highly successive then it could lead to yet another rival having a thirst for the purple himself and trying to claim it. The army being the tool to which he could achieve this by. Military service of some kind was a requirement for almost any Senatorial career, (Ando, 2007, 371; Webster, 1969, 279-80) which explains why the Praetorian Prefect, as well as the chief legionary staff, was of the equestrian class.Legates and tribunes were essential parts of the military staff, being the leader of the legion and of two cohorts respectively. They were all of equestrian or even occasionally senatorial class, looking like the Praetorian Prefect to rise through the ranks to become a Senator back at home. They were the acting representatives of the Emperor and carefully selected so that they would be less likely to try and raise a rebellion.

These officers would probably have had their own political agenda’s whilst on campaign and it has been said that ‘the soldiers carried out their political obligations in full knowledge of what they were doing’ (Le Bohec, 1994, 256). Even at the start of the Imperial period, the army’s role ‘though potentially important, was entirely extra-constitutional’ (Campbell, B, 2002, 108). They were loyal directly to the Emperor. They swore their oath of allegiance to him rather than to the Senate and the People of Rome. Ando (2007, 369) says that the army became public property and the soldier’s public servants under Augustus’ reforms.This is true as although they declared there loyalty to the one man, as history has proved legions did change their allegiance to other generals. So whilst the army was in theory the ‘property’ of the Emperor, it was the Empire they were serving.

Defending its borders and controlling the trouble in any province that might be likely to rebel against Roman rule. An example of the soldier’s turning on their Emperor is the case of Macrinus- Emperor A. D. 217-218- whose soldiers turned on him only when he threatened to reduce pay and benefits (Campbell, B, 2002, 110).The significance of this is that the rebellion was when a policy was coming that directly affected them all that they disliked. It was not for his apparent ‘effeminate habits’ that supposedly offended the troops. Whilst this may have angered them, it is interesting that even so it was not for his luxurious living that brought about Macrinus’ end. The soldiers did after all have a special association with the Emperor, not only their paymaster, they also celebrated festivals in honour of the Imperial family to ‘commemorate’ them (Goldsworthy, 2000, 117).

As well as this we have many giving units titles with their own name such as ‘Augusta’ by Augustus (Le Bohec, 1994, 200-1) this would enhance this profound sense of loyalty to the Emperor, which in theory would cement his position on the throne. The Praetorian Guard is the most interesting part of the army in terms of involvement with Imperial Politics. Stationed within Rome and Italian cities, they could be more involved in the standard politics of daily life in Rome. The Praetorians allowed the Emperor to enforce his will on the Roman population.

Goldsworthy, 2003, 58) It also seems that the Praetorian Guard, along with the Urban Cohort were initially set up for political reasons by Augustus. They acted within the city providing a general policing force as well as the providing the bodyguard for the Emperor (Garnsey and Saller, 1987, 158; Le Bohec, 1994, 20). However the praetorians were involved more directly with Imperial Politics in several other ways, firstly the Praetorian prefects got heavily involved, this is however understandable as they would usually be of equestrian class (Campbell, B, 2002, 114).They would as Le Bohec (1994, 37) tells us act ‘simultaneously as both prime minister and minister for war. ‘ This would give them a heavy hand in Imperial Politics and would help the prefect in his quest to rise through the social ranks.

Furthermore they did interfere in politics with instants such as the proclaiming of Claudius following Caligula’s death (Campbell, B, 2002, 114). What is interesting is that it was after Claudius had promised large gifts to the Guard. Once again it can be seen that interference came at the promise of a reward.However to me what is more significant in showing this trait was after Pertinax was overthrown. The praetorians proceeded to auction off the role of Emperor to the highest bidder (Campbell, B, 2002, 115). Politics did not matter to the troops, money however, did.

By the end of the second century, ‘political and military advancement went hand in hand’ (Southern and Dixon, 1996, 5) which saw the army getting more and more of an influence which would eventually lead to the time of Regimus where the Empire was defined as being under a ‘military monarchy’ (Le Bohec, 1994, 256).Southern’s and Dixon’s comments would certainly go some way to explaining the Military Crisis of the third century. This crisis led to a variety of crisis which had vast political consequences, widespread ruin led to an economic downturn, as did the brigandage being carried out around the empire. The political crisis also ensued with authorities being unstable in their position of power. (Le Bohec, 1994, 194-206) This crisis alone shows that even if the army was not particularly directly involved in the Imperial Politics, its actions certainly did have an affect upon it.

The crisis occurred after the Emperor Alexander Severus’ assassination in AD 235- who it should be noted ‘raised the Roman Armies to perhaps their highest point in wealth, importance and efficiency’ making it clear to the Senate that their power was nothing when compared to that of the military. (Mellash, 1964, 194). After Severus there were four successive Emperors violently overthrown, three of which came via armed forces, albeit on instruction from plotters within the hierarchy of the Imperial family and not on their own accord.The ‘army was now more important in politics and potentially uncontrollable’ (Campbell, B, 2002, 119). It could be said Tacitus (in Campbell, J. D, 1984, 369) expressing his belief that there was ‘always a danger of military anarchy in a state where political power depended on an autocrat’s control of the army’ foresaw something similar happening.

This suggests that even in the first to early second centuries that there were signs that pointed to the instability to come due to the army’s role in the overthrowing and proclaiming new Emperors.The Roman Army’s role in Imperial Politics was quite complex. Whilst the army swore an oath of allegiance to the Emperor and had close personal ties to him. However as it was proven later on at the end of the Severan dynasty, the army had gained quite considerable political power in that there were greatly involved in placing the next Emperor onto the throne. However we do have to remember that the legions generally were on the frontiers and away from the limelight of the Roman political centre.

They were the guardians of the frontiers and even expanded the Empire, eventually with the Emperor leading the army. The Emperor was closely tied to his troops and relied on them to stay in power. Without their support it would have been a very different story.

Other men may have overthrown them and more civil war’s occurring. The Praetorian Guard had a seat in the heart of politics by being directly in Rome. They with the army played a fundamental role in Imperial Politics by the fact that it was due to them that it was remained Imperial.

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