Collections: The Marian Reforms Weren’t a Thing

This week we’re going to take a bit of a detour because the previous post on the Roman conscription system, the dilectus, sparked some discussion both here and on social media which made me realize that the popular understanding of the way that the Roman army changed during the Late Republic (c. 133-31 BC, though we will go a bit further today down to the end of the reign of Augustus in 14AD) has diverged quite substantially from the best evidence of the scholarship.

Some of this divergence has to do with the persistence of L. Keppie’s The Making of the Roman Army (1984)1 as a standard text for understanding structural changes in the Roman military in any greater depth than one might get in a textbook treatment and in part I think the divergence has to do with the fact that apart from historians who work directly on the Roman army, a regrettable aversion to military history in a lot of classical training keeps other classicists (and thus the surveys they teach) mired in that older thinking. At the same time, the other factor is that most of the challenges to the Marian reform narrative come in the form of journal articles in paywalled journals, which put them out of reach for regular folks in any case.

To be honest though, I was more than a bit surprised when, after fielding questions a few times about the ‘Marian reforms’ (and being confused as to why I kept being asked about something that scholarship has largely concluded did not exist), I glanced over at the Wikipedia article and see this:

Screenshot taken on 6/24/2023, dated because I sincerely hope that at some point soon this particular page gets an overhaul.

And those paragraphs, which assume that the Marian reforms were a clear political program instituted in a specific year (107) by a specific person (Gaius Marius) with specific, wide-ranging impacts that then set the form of the Roman army into and through the imperial period simply do not reflect what we actually know and understand about how the Roman army changed from 133BC to 14AD.

So we’re going to address the question here: what were the ‘Marian reforms’ supposedly and then what do we actually know about those changes and to what degree was Gaius Marius (cos. 107, 104-100, 86) involved. Spoilers on the last one: a lot less than you’d think, which is why scholars who work on this topic won’t use the phrase ‘Marian reforms’ without the words, ‘so-called’ in front of them and increasingly won’t refer to any sort of ‘Marian reforms,’ so-called or otherwise, at all.

But first, as always, if you want to enroll yourself into the ACOUP legions, you can support this project on Patreon, for a mild contribution of tributum under the watchful supervision of the procurator.2 There is, however, fittingly for this week, no property requirement. If you want updates whenever a new post appears, you can click below for email updates or follow me on twitter (@BretDevereaux) for updates as to new posts as well as my occasional ancient history, foreign policy or military history musings, assuming there is still a Twitter by the time this post goes live.

Via Wikimedia Commons, Joseph Kremer’s, “Exiled Gaius Marius sitting among the ruins of Carthage.” It’s a neat painting though I should note not exactly historically accurate.

(Bibliography Note: A fair amount of ink on this topic has been spilled, but there are some key works I rely on here. For an overview of the whole issue, the best thing to look at is M. Dobson, The Army of the Roman Republic: The Second Century BC, Polybius and the Camps at Numantia, Spain (2008). On the army of the first century, F. Cadiou, L’armée imaginaire: les soldats prolétaires dans les légions romaines au dernier siècle de la République (2018) is the new required reading, alas only available in French. Key articles on the topic are M.J.V. Bell, “Tactical Reform in the Roman Republican Army” Historia 14 (1965); J.W. Rich, “The Supposed Roman Manpower Shortage of the Later Second Century B.C.” Historia 32 (1983); M.J. Taylor, “Tactical Reform in the Late Roman Republic: The View from Italy” Historia 68 (2019); F. Gauthier, “Did velites Really Disappear in the Late Roman Republic?” Historia 70 (2021). On the disappearance of the citizen equites in military service, see J. McCall, The Cavalry of the Roman Republic (2002), 100-113. On Augustus’ reforms, L. Keppie, “The Army and the Navy” CAH2, vol. X (1996) remains fairly solid. I am going to critique L. Keppie, The Making of the Roman Army (1984) a fair bit here, but it’s not a bad book; the problem is that it is an old book at this point and badly in need of an accessible, popularly readable replacement (that focuses on its question of change, rather than merely being a textbook). Finally, I should note that every single M. author in this paragraph is named Michael, so there’s a decent chance that if you just ask a guy named Michael, they might have thoughts on this topic. I have no idea what it is with Michaels and Roman military reform, but there you go.)

The So-Called Marian Reforms

First off we need to establish what changes are generally understood to fall under the heading of the ‘Marian Reforms,’ before we then try to actually locate those changes in our evidence (and then marvel at our general inability to do so). Understood broadly the Marian reforms are supposed to be a combination tactical, organizational and equipment reforms associated with Gaius Marius in the last decade of the 100s. As it turns out, Marius initiated almost none of these reforms, some of these supposed reforms didn’t happen at all at any point and some of them happened outside the time period in question.

For reference, this is a very basic timeline I use with survey courses to explain this process and how it takes place over a fairly long stretch of time.

In short, the things that are supposed to have happened here are:

  • (Tactical-Organizational) A shift in battle tactics from the two-century maniple (c. 120 men) to the six-century cohort (c. 480 men) as the primary tactical unit on the battlefield,3 as well as the primary organizational unit of the Roman army. Elements of the older Polybian legion persist in names and titles.
  • (Organizational) A shift from poorly paid conscript soldiers drawn from Rome’s propertied class (the assidui) drawn up through the dilectus to the use of volunteers drawn from Rome’s property-less poor (the proletarii or capite censi) who served as effectively professional soldiers, lacking any other means of subsistence.
  • (Organizational) The practice of granting land and/or citizenship to Roman soldiers on discharge as a regular feature of Roman service.
  • (Organizational) The end of the light infantry velites of Roman citizen cavalry (the equites) as part of the legion, as a product of the next point making such wealth distinctions unimportant.
  • (Logistical) The introduction of state-supplied equipment (in place of self-supplied equipment) which enabled the mass-recruitment of the proletarii, as they no longer needed to be able to afford their own equipment, as part of a reform ascribed by some scholars to Gaius Gracchus (trib. 123-2).
  • (Equipment) The introduction of a new design of pilum with a wooden rivet designed to break on impact with enemy shields (Plut. Mar. 25).
  • (Equipment) The prioritization of the aquila, the eagle standard, over other standards in the legion (Plin. NH 10.16), often framed as the aquila fully replacing these other standards.
  • (Equipment) The introduction of the furca, a Y-shaped pole for carrying the soldier’s pack (the sarcina), leading to better legionary logistics.

As we’re going to discuss, some of these things happened – but not because of Marius – and some of them didn’t happen at all. So how on earth did this idea of a big ‘Marian Reform’ end up so pervasive in how we (used to) understand the Roman army of this period? The answer really has a lot to do with gaps (lacunae) in our sources. For the early second century, we have two really quite good sources on Roman military activity, Livy and Polybius. But both give out by mid-century,4 leaving us relatively blind until Julius Caesar’s comentarii (de Bello Gallico and de Bello Civili) suddenly give us a massive infusion of information as we can see Caesar’s army functioning often in quite minute detail.

And we see what seem to be quite different armies! Caesar is using cohorts as tactical and operational units, rather than maniples. His armies don’t seem to have any citizen cavalry in them and they seem to be very loyal to him; he’s using a lot of non-citizens in auxiliary roles in a way that we know will become very standard in the imperial period (eventually making up half the army by Tiberius’ reign). And indeed, moving forward, the legions of the early empire end up a lot more visible to us, both because of the literary evidence (Tacitus!) and also because, as they become more stationary on fixed frontiers, they leave forts and inscriptions and other evidence we can see far more clearly than the ever-moving armies of the Roman Republic.

And then into that there is Gaius Marius. Remember that our sources in this period are a bit patchier, without a strong continuous narrative (but with a lot of sources so we generally have someone for most of it). But Marius gets a lot of focus because of his roles in the civil wars and his spectacular seven consulships, and the one thing we are told quite clearly about him is that in 107 when he raised his first consular army he broke tradition by accepting volunteers from the proletarii (Sall. Iug. 86.1; Plut. Mar. 9.1). The temptation then to see that substantial change (which, to be clear, our sources are exaggerating for reasons I’ll discuss in a moment) as connected to all the other changes from the ‘Polybian’ legion to the ‘Caesarian’ legion and thus to assume that Marius is doing all of them, reading far too deeply into a few lines of Sallust and Plutarch (the latter not generally a particularly good guide on military affairs).

Via Wikimedia Commons, a bust thought to show the likeness of Gaius Marius, now in the Glyptothek, Munich.

And I should note finally at the outset that this all also plays into a tendency in our sources generally: ancient authors really like narratives where one particular aristocrat can be credited with making major reforms or innovations as an expression of their particular virtue. We’ve talked about this with Lycurgus, but it shows up consistently with rulers supposedly introducing new weapons and new practices as big, top-down reforms that, on closer inspection, turn out to be gradual changes we can see signs of happening over quite some time. It’s an understandable if irritating bias of habit for authors whose purpose in writing is the education of aristocrats on how to be leaders – every big change has to be a product of the character and leadership of aristocrats (even when it wasn’t). Plutarch, especially, of all ancient authors, loves these sorts of just-so stories and guess who we are heavily reliant on for the life of Gaius Marius? But until relatively recently, historians were often far more willing to accept these sorts of just-so stories than they should have been (in part because late 19th and early 20th century historians shared some of those same assumptions about elite leadership and in part because singular reforms make for compelling stories).

In any case we’re going to go through what our evidence is for each of these changes. We can start by getting some of the simple stuff out of the way.

Equipment Reforms

There only two parts of this narrative unambiguously suggested by our sources are equipment changes: that Marius introduced a new type of pilum (Plut. Mar. 25) and that he standardized legionary standards around the aquila, the eagle standard (Plin. NH 10.16).

For the pilum, Plutarch says that Marius designed it to incorporate a wooden rivet where the long metal shank met the heavy wooden shaft, replacing one of the two iron nails with a wooden rivet that would break on impact, in order to better disable the shield. The problem is that the pilum is actually archaeologically one of the best attested Roman weapons with the result that we can follow its development fairly closely. And the late, great Peter Connolly did exactly that in a series of articles in the Journal of Roman Military Equipment Studies5 and while the design of the pilum does develop over time, there’s simply no evidence for what Plutarch describes. The ‘broad tanged’ pilum type could have been modified this way, but we’ve never found one actually so modified; instead the pila of this type we find all have rivets (two of them) in place (where rivets are preserved at all). Moreoever, most pila of that ‘broad tanged’ type, both before and after Marius, have the edges of that broad tang bent over at the sides, which would prevent the sort of sliding action Plutarch describes even if one of the rivets broke. Meanwhile, by the first century there are three types of pila around (socketed, broad-tanged and spike-tanged) only one of which could be modified in this way (the broad-tanged type), and that type doesn’t dominate during the first century when one might expect Marius’ new-style pila to be in use. In practice then the conclusion seems to be that Plutarch made up or misunderstood this ‘innovation’ in the pilum or, at best, the design was adopted briefly and then abandoned.

A very basic diagram of the types of pila and their method of connection to the wooden haft (not shown). I must stress, very strongly, that this is only a schematic diagram and is not to scale.

On to the aquila. Now, it is absolutely true that the aquila, the legionary eagle, became a key standard for the Roman legions. Pliny the Elder notes that before Marius it was merely the foremost of five standards, the others being the wolf, minotaur, horse and boar (Plin. HN 10.16). But even a brief glance as legionary standards into the early empire (see Keppie (1984), 205-213 for an incomplete and somewhat dated list) shows that bulls, boars and wolves remained pretty common legionary emblems (alongside the eagle) into the empire. The eagle seems to have been something of a personal totem for Marius (e.g. Plut. Mar. 36.5-6) so it is hardly surprising he’d have emphasized it, the same way that legions founded by Caesar – or which wanted to be seen as founded by Caesar – adopted the bull emblem, quite a lot. But this is a weak accomplishment, since Pliny already notes that the eagle was, even before Marius, already prima cum quattuor aliis (‘first among four others’), and so it remained: first among a range of other emblems and standards. Though of all of the things we may credit Marius with instituting, this perhaps gets the closest, if we believe Pliny that Marius further elevated the eagle into its particular position.

Then there is the institution of the Roman marching pack and the furca to carry it, such that Marius’ soldiers became known as ‘Marius’ mules’ because he made them carry all of their own kit rather than, as previous legions had supposedly done, carrying it all on mules. Surely this extremely famous element of the narrative cannot be flawed? And Plutarch sort of says this, he notes that, “Setting out on the expedition, he laboured to perfect his army as it went along, practicing the men in all kinds of running and in long marches, and compelling them to carry their own baggage and to prepare their own food. Hence, in after times, men who were fond of toil and did whatever was enjoined upon them contentedly and without a murmur, were called Marian mules” (Plut. 13.1; trans. B. Perrin). Except that doesn’t say anything about instituting the classic Roman pack that we see, for instance, depicted on Trajan’s column, does it? It just says Marius made his men carry their baggage and prepare their own food, leading to the nickname for men who did toil without complaint.

Via Wikipedia, a sketch of Roman sarcina or marching packs as they appear on Trajan’s Column. You can see the equipment is held by attached to a pole, which was then carried over the shoulder during the march.

The problem is that those two things – making soldiers carry their baggage and cook their own food (along with kicking out camp followers) – are ubiquitous commonplaces of good generalship with instances that pre-date Marius. P. Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus does exactly this – getting rid of camp servants, wagons and pack animals, making soldiers cook their own food and kicking out the camp followers – according to Appian in 134 when he besieged Numantia (which fell in 133, App. Hisp. 85). And then Q. Caecilius Metellus, Marius’ own former commander, does the exact same thing in 109 when he takes command against Jugurtha in North Africa, kicking the sutlers out of the camp, getting rid of pack animals and private servants, making soldiers cook their own food, carry their own rations and their own weapons (Sall. Iug. 42.2; note that Sallust dies in in the 30s BC, 80-odd years before Plutarch is born, so Plutarch may well be getting this trope from Sallust and then attributing it to the wrong Roman). Critiques of generals who issued rations rather than making their soldiers cook or praise for generals who didn’t remained standard into the empire (e.g. Tac. Hist. 2.88; Hdn. 4.7.4-6; Dio Cass. 62.5.5). In short this trope was not new to Marius nor was it new to Plutarch’s version of Marius; it was a standard trope of generals restoring good discipline to their soldiers. Plutarch even hedges noting another story that the term ‘Marius’ mules’ might actually have come how well Marius as a junior officer got along with animals (Plut. Mar. 13.2)!

Well, fine enough, but what about the idea that state-issued equipment is emerging in this period? Well, it might be but our evidence is not great. As noted when we discussed the dilectus, Polybius implies – and his schematic for conscription makes little sense otherwise – that the Romans are in that period buying their own equipment. He also notes that the quaestors deduct from a soldier’s pay the price of their rations (if they are Romans; socii eat for free), their clothing and any additional equipment they need (Polyb. 6.39.14). It makes sense; if a fellow forgot a sword or his breaks, you need to get that replaced, so you fine him the value of it and then issue him one from the common store.

Now Keppie (1984) assumes this system changes during the tribunate(s) of Gaius Gracchus (123-2) and you can see the temptation in this idea. If Gaius Gracchus shifts equipment to being issued at state expense, then suddenly there’s no reason not to recruit the landless proletarii (discussed below) opening the door for Marius to do so (discussed below) and fundamentally transforming the Roman army into the longer-service, professional form we see in the empire. The problem is that, well, it didn’t happen. First, we have no evidence at all that Gaius Gracchus did anything related to soldier’s arms and armor; what we have is a single line from Plutarch that soldiers should be issued clothing at state expense with nothing deducted from their pay to meet this cost (Plut. C. Gracch. 5.1). The assumption here is that this also covered arms and armor, but Plutarch doesn’t say that at all. The more fatal flaw is that we can be very, extremely sure this reform didn’t stick, because we have a bunch of Roman ‘pay stubs’ from the imperial period (from Egypt, naturally) and regular deductions vestimentis, “for clothing” show up as standard.6 Indeed, they show up alongside deductions for food and replacement socks, boots and so on, exactly as Polybius would have us expect. Apart from the fact that this is presumably being done by a procurator instead of a quaestor (a change in the structure of administration in the provinces run directly by the emperor), this is the same system.

Now there are reasons to think that at least some equipment was state supplied or contracted (even if it may have been billed to the accounts of the soldiers who got it). Scipio creates a public armaments production center in Carthago Nova in 210, but this may be a one off. Seemingly more centralized production of arms under contract are more common in the late Republic and by the imperial period we start to see evidence of fabricae which seem to be central production sites for military equipment.7 But we have no hint in the sources of any sudden reform to this system. It may well be a graduate change as the ‘mix’ of personal and state-ordered equipment slowly tilts in favor of the latter; the system Polybius describes could accommodate both situations, so there’s no need for a sudden big shift. Alternately, the preponderance of state-produced equipment might well be connected to the formalization of a long-service professional army under Augustus. Even then, we still find pieces of equipment in Roman imperial sites which were clearly personal; soldiers could still go and get a fancy version of standard kit, stamp their name in it and call it theirs. All I think we can say with any degree of confidence is that self-purchased equipment seems to be the norm in Polybius’ day whereas state-issued equipment seems to be the norm by the end of the first century. But Marius has nothing to do with it, as far as we can tell and no ancient source claims that he did.

Oh and by the by, if you are picking up from all of this (and our discussion of Lycurgus) that Plutarch is a difficult source that needs to be treated with a lot of caution because he never lets the facts get in the way of a good story…well, that’s true.

Recruit and Organization

This is the most important one, but perhaps a bit less complicated than cohorts: the notion that Marius began the process of taking volunteers and proletarii at that and thus ‘professionalized’ the Roman army. As with the equipment, this is at least something our sources do say…more or less.

Sallust reports that Marius, “after he saw that the spirits of the plebs were aroused, he swiftly loaded ships with supplies, pay, weapons and other requirements; with them he ordered Aulus Manlius, his legate, to set out. Meanwhile himself he enrolled soldiers, not according to the mos maiorum [‘the customs of the ancestors’] from the census classes, but making use of whoever wished to go, mostly the capite censi [‘those counted by heads’ = the propertyless poor or proletarii]” (Sall. Iug. 86.1-2, trans mine). Plutarch repeats this report, that Marius violated custom by enrolling men who didn’t meet the property qualification for military service (Plut. Mar. 9.1).

There are a few oddities here to start, though. First, Sallust quickly notes that this resulted in Marius having an army rather larger than what the Senate had actually authorized (Sall. Iug. 86.4) and that’s actually quite a neat detail that may explain part of what’s going on here because this has, in a way, happened before. In 134, Scipio Aemilianus was elected consul for the second time (illegally, again) with a mandate to end the frustrating Roman war against the Celtiberian stronghold of Numantia in Spain. The Senate, however, denied Scipio authorization to raise fresh troops, to which Scipio responded by enlisting some 4,000 volunteers to replenish his legion; Appian says this was done with the consent of the Senate, but Plutarch’s brief note on it sure implies Scipio Aemilianus is end-running around Senatorial efforts to stifle him (App. Hisp. 84; Plut. Mor. 201A-B). And this too was hardly the first time for this sort of end-run; Scipio Africanus (what is it with Scipiones!?) back in 205 agitated for his invasion of Africa to end the Second Punic War and was given the province of Sicily with authorization to go to Africa if he thought it necessary, but the Senate registered its displeasure by refusing to let him levy troops, at which point – wait for it – Scipio took volunteers, equipping and financing his force through the socii and even building a fleet that way (Liv. 28.45.9-12).

In short, the Senate sometimes tried to trim the sails of generals it was displeased with – and Marius reportedly had gotten elected on a campaign platform of ‘to hell with the Senate’ (Sall. Iug. 84.1) – by limiting the size of their armies or refusing to allow them to conduct a levy. And since 205 (a century before Marius), popular generals had occasionally juked this effort by the Senate by instead calling for volunteers, which the Senate could not stop. Marius is not doing something new in taking volunteers to supplement an army forms through the levy.

He also doesn’t keep doing it. After Marius wins in Africa with his volunteer-supplemented army (the bulk of which of course were still recruited through the dilectus under Metellus), he returns to Italy to take over the war against the Cimbri and Teutones but he doesn’t keep up the volunteer force, instead taking command of his predecessor Rutilius Rufus’ normally levied army (Front. Strat. 4.2.2). In practice, Marius probably took volunteers in part for that first army because the Senate was diverting available levy manpower towards the early phases of the Cimbric War (or at least that was a convenient excuse to kneecap him) – a series of costly military disasters for Rome which likely soaked up much of the manpower the Senate was willing to raise. Once Marius has access to that ‘primary’ stream of manpower generated through the dilectus, he uses it and seems to stop using volunteers.

But what of recruiting the capite censi? Well, that isn’t quite new either, although it surely wasn’t typical. For one, it wasn’t that the poor absolutely never served; Polybius notes that the capite censi served in the fleet (Polyb. 6.19.2). But we also see non-assidui (assidui being the term for those wealthy enough to be liable for normal conscription) in a range of other emergencies. Livy reports in 329 a “crowd of sellularii [men who work sedentary trades, literally, ‘stoolsmen’], a type least suited for military service, were called into the army” (Livy 8.20.4), though the historicity of this report is questionable given the early date. In 296, Etruscan entrance into the Third Samnite War causes a draft of “not only the freeborn or the iuniores took the oath, but cohorts were made of seniores and centuries of freedmen” (Livy 10.21.4). Gellius (16.10.1) quotes Ennius reporting the proletarii were pulled into the armies in 280, presumably in response to Pyrrhus’ victory at Heraclea. And during the Second Punic War the Romans pulled out all of the stops, recruiting debters and men convicted of capital crimes (Livy 23.14.3), enrolling slaves into the army (called the volones; you free them first and then draft them, Livy 27.38 and 28.10, Val. Max. 7.6.1) and as noted above, taking volunteers more generally.

As an aside, if you are wondering why the Romans seem in some of these to skip recruiting freeborn capite censi and go straight to freedmen and enslaved people, I think there are two answers here for this period. First, many of the available freeborn poor are probably already in service in the fleet. Second, there probably aren’t that many of them. Recall our chart of Roman social classes – the capite censi in the third century is quite small, almost certainly outnumbered by enslaved persons in Italy. But the population of Italy was rising over the third and especially second century and without adding new farmland, those new freeborn Romans may have swelled the ranks of the capite censi, leading to a much larger propertyless class by the late second century or the first century.8 Consequently, there may have been a lot more capite censi worth recruiting by Marius’ day, when Rome no longer needed to keep a large navy at sea (not facing any naval powers in its wars) and the number of capite censi having risen.

That same diagram of Roman social classes. Note how small the capite censi are in 225. They’d be a larger class by Marius’ day and larger still in the first century, which may explain their greater prominence in recruiting during emergencies and civil wars.

Finally, Marius does not mark the end of the Roman dilectus! Evidently Roman conscription persisted at least to the end of the Roman civil wars, as Suetonius reports Augustus (perhaps when he was still Octavian) inflicting the traditional penalty of being sold into slavery for draft-dodging on a Roman eques who cut the fingers off of his two sons to make them ineligible for military service (Suet. Aug. 24.1). Indeed we have attestations of the dilectus in 55, 52, 50, 49, AD 6 and AD 9.9 Even once the army is fairly clearly primarily a volunteer force, at least notionally the ability to hold a levy when necessary to fill the ranks remained ‘on the books’ and Trajan (r. 98-117 AD) holds at least one levy because he punishes a father for the same reason Augustus had done (Dig. So the traditional dilectus remained a thing Roman leaders could do well into the empire. In practice it seems safe to assume the system by the mid-first century is substantially ad hoc, as the census straight up doesn’t happen from 69 BC to 28 BC, which would make it hard to actually enforce the property requirements. But the process doesn’t stop in 107 and there’s no reason to suppose from 107 to 69, with the census being regularly conducted, that most annual levies were not conducted along traditional property lines.10

So the most we might say is that a one-time crisis expedient in earlier periods slowly becomes a standard way to supplement legions and then the standard way to recruit them, with the old normal method of the dilectus instead becoming the unusual way to supplement in a crisis. It’s unclear exactly when that shift-over point happens, but it sure isn’t in the career of Gaius Marius, who sits clearly in the ‘volunteers as a crisis response’ side of the issue.

And what of the notion that Gaius Marius introduced both citizenship as a reward for service as a regular bonus and also that he instituted the paying of soldiers at the completion of a campaign to render them loyal? Well on the latter point, the Romans had been distributing spoils to the soldiers at the end of a campaign as a lump-sum payment since the beginning. This is exceedingly well reflected in Livy’s accounting of the years from 201 to 167 (where we have a nice continuous burst of Livy), see for instance Livy ::deep breath:: 30.45, 31.20, 33.23, 33.37, 34.46, 34.52, 36.40, 37.59, 39.5, 39.7, 40.34, 40.43, 40.59, 41.7, 41.13, 45.40, 45.43.11 And the idea that Roman victories might seize land which would then be settled as Roman coloniae, creating new land for Roman settlers was also not new (Wikipedia has a convenient list of Roman coloniae). So Marius is simply promising to do a thing Roman commanders regularly did, essentially saying, “serve with me, because I’m going to win and victory will make us rich.” Which is exactly the reason volunteers rushed to serve with Scipio Africanus and Scipio Aemilianus: they anticipated a lucrative victory for such well-regarded commanders.

And by now you may well be asking, “but wait, then when does the system change?” Because after all, I said that by the early empire, we can pretty clearly see an army primarily composed of professional, long-service volunteers who receive substantial retirement bonuses and are permanently stationed on the frontiers. Who is responsible for that? And in response, I give you, this guy:

Via Wikipedia, the Augustus of Prima Porta.

It’s Augustus. It was always Augustus. Or at least I should say that is my view, given the evidence. Older scholarship – I think here of Keppie (1984) in particular – tended to assume that because most of the big changes happened with Marius (but we’ve seen they don’t) that Octavian/Augustus probably made only minimal changes to the military system he inherited from Julius Caesar. I don’t think that’s correct. I think if we look at the evidence in more detail it becomes clear that Augustus is the ‘break’ (though not a clean break by any means) and that in fact we need to start regarding Augustus as a military reformer of some significant scale rather than merely the codifier of a Caesarian military system (though he probably does that too).

Augustus, after all, institutes regular bonuses for discharge, establishing a treasury funded by a regular tax to meet the expense rather than simply promising that he would win a lot and so soldiers would get rich off of their share of the booty (Res Gestae 17). And it’s not hard to see the problem he’s responding to – the massive military buildup of the Roman civil wars had left Octavian, as the victor, with the red-hot potato of hundreds of thousands of soldiers who were promised the spoils of victory, including large numbers of men who didn’t win but who, if not settled down somehow would disrupt the state (RG 3). Earlier in the civil wars, Octavian had used proscriptions and land confiscations to solve this problem but as emperor, he needed a permanent solution, thus the establishment of the aerarium militare and its discharge bonuses (praemia). Before that, you simply had generals promising to feast their soldiers off of the property of the vanquished; the civil wars had only changed that in that the vanquished were now Romans. It also establishes a standard length of service, creating that professional, long-service army.

There’s a related issue which is the fate of the citizen equites and the velites. Caesar’s armies in Gaul seem to have neither, so the assumption was that the shift to recruiting proletarii meant that these wealth-based distinctions (the richest Romans serve as equites, the poorest as velites) dropped away, leaving a uniform heavy infantry legion. And in a schematic it makes sense: both roles are absorbed by the auxilia and indeed Caesar makes use of a lot of Gallic cavalry auxiliaries. Butas François Gauthier recently pointed out,12 it’s not all clear that the velites really did vanish in the late-second/early-first century. Cicero still refers to to them writing in the 40s (Cic. Fam. 9.20; Brut, 271) and their apparent absence in Caesar’s writing may well just be an accident of Caesar’s avoidance of technical language. Caesar doesn’t generally talk about hastati or triarii much either; he prefers milites (‘soldiers’). Likewise, it’s clear the citizen cavalry – the equites – survived Marius; as Jeremiah McCall notes, we have good evidence for citizen equites at least as late as the 90s BC and suggests the citizen cavalry probably vanished in the 80s as a result of the Social War and Sulla’s Civil War.13 It surely did not happen in 107 or 104.

Meanwhile the auxilia as a mature part of the Roman army really only emerge under Augustus, and not even right at the beginning of his reign either. Roman armies needed cavalry and light infantry to function, so once again we may not be looking at a clean break but rather a period of transition as a result of some generals preference for (non-Italian) allied or auxiliary cavalry and light infantry and the formalization of that system not in 107 with Marius but again in 27 with Augustus.

Marius is also sometimes credited with the idea of extending citizenship to non-citizens who served, which is a catastrophic misreading of one episode in his career. For one, this gets read as meaning that Marius extended citizenship to all of the Italians in his army or that he made it standard to do so. Note for instance this line pulled from Wikipedia:

Screenshot taken 6/25/2023, specified in the hope this page changes to be less wrong.

And that’s very much not right either. We have evidence for only a handful of citizenship extensions by Marius. In particular, of his army he extended citizenship to just two cohorts (c. 1,000 men) from Camerinum (Plut. Mor. 202D, Cic. Pro Balbo 46.). I can only assume this gets misunderstood because some writers don’t know their unit sizes, but Marius had 32,000 men in his army at Vercellae (101 BC), probably something like half of which were socii. These two cohorts were a comparatively tiny fraction. Marius also seems to have selected very small number of his other socii veterans for citizenship (Cic. Pro Balbo 48), but there was no blanket grant of citizenship. Of course there wasn’t, this issue remained substantially unsolved until the Social War (91-87BC); if Roman levies had been calmly minting new citizens out of thousands Italians through the 90s, there would hardly have been a cause for the Social War.

Instead, citizenship as a reward for service is an artifact of the imperial period and the auxilia. The Roman use of non-Roman, non-socii troops to supplement their armies was not new, but it emerged as a formalized, permanent part of the Roman army not during the civil wars – where such units where both ad hoc but also not nearly so numerous – but under the reign of Augustus, coming to form about half of the army by the end of his reign (Tac. Ann. 4.5; on the emergence of the auxilia, see I. Haynes, Blood of the Provinces (2013)). Indeed, as Haynes notes (op. cit. 49), it is actually only under Tiberius (r. 14-37) that we get direct evidence of citizenship grants to auxilia and the practice even then seems at least somewhat irregular (though it comes to be regularized).

In short that, the notion that Gaius Marius instituted the pattern of granting citizenship to serving non-citizens on discharge is simply wrong; that’s not in our sources. That doesn’t become consistent until Tiberius well over a century later. Gaius Marius did recruit volunteer capite censi into his army once but didn’t make a habit of it and as such isn’t a major reformer so much as a key step in a slow process of change which reaches its decisive point probably under Augustus, more than half a century after Gaius Marius died. He wasn’t the first to do either thing, whatever our sources say.

Cohorts and Tactics

That leaves the organizational shift from maniples to cohorts. Which Gaius Marius also did not do. Once again, the issue is making sense of evident change in our evidence where we have a gap in the middle. Sallust describes the Roman army in 109 BC as organized and fighting in maniples (though this evidence is going to get more complex in a second), just like the legions we see in Polybius and Livy, but then when we jump forward to Caesar, his key unit of maneuver and formation is the cohort. Moving into the imperial period, we see lots of cohorts and no maniples. So there’s a degree of logic in sticking the change as happening somewhere in the middle and of course if you’ve already decided that Marius has made all of these other changes, why not include this too?

Except as we’ve seen, Marius hasn’t done all of that and so the issue of cohorts needs to be revisited. First off, no source claims that Marius invented the cohort, instituted cohorts, spurred a reform to cohorts or anything like it. Marius’ own armies seem to use cohorts and not maniples, though as we’ll see, they aren’t the first to do that.

The term ‘cohort’ (κοόρτις, many thanks to Polybius for transliterating this word) first shows up in Polybius, describing a maneuver of Scipios at Ilipa in 206 (Polyb. 11.23.1). But cohorts seem to have been around among the socii for longer than this, as an administrative division – socii were recruited and commanded in cohorts, even if they fought in maniples. When the Romans recruited the socii, they evidently wanted them in bigger batches with their own officer commanding each batch, so the socii organizationally were attached to the legions organized into cohorts with a socius commander, the praefectus cohortis and a paymaster.

How this proceeds towards the citizen-legion of cohorts in Caesar is a tricky question, but the old theory that it was Marius has been essentially wholly abandoned by historians. At present the orthodox view is that advanced by M.J.V. Bell in 1965,14 that the cohort as a tactical unit incubated in Rome’s many wars in Spain over the second century. Our sources do mention cohorts in describing those wars, in passages that were previously dismissed by scholars before Bell as anachronisms by ancient authors writing in the ‘cohort era’ (like Livy, writing in the late first century) and back-projecting that organization. And to be fair, that kind of anachronism is something our sources do a lot. Still, our sources are our sources and Livy is stalwart in talking cohorts in Spain and it would be surprising if he made a mistake on that point. Appian and Frontinus, both less reliable, seem to offer a fair bit of support to Livy’s use of cohorts in that context.

But what really helped Bell out here was Michael Dobson’s re-examination of the layout of the Roman camps at Numantia, Spain15 Dobson, looking at what is probably Scipio Aemilianus’ camp for 135/416 argues that it appears to be based on cohorts rather than maniples as the key unit. Now please keep in mind that cohorts (480 men) and maniples (120 men) are clean multiples of each other so these are not necessarily mutually exclusive systems.17 Though at least one potentially later camp (Lager V) still has a manipular plan, suggesting that this is a period where some armies are more cohortal in structure, others more manipular. Which, again, these are not mutually exclusive systems.

Michael Taylor has suggested that the vector of introduction may, in fact, have been those cohorts of socii.18 He supposes that the socii extraordinarii, a picked group of the socii mentioned by Polybius, serving as the vanguard for the army on the march (and thus its extreme right-wing when it deployed for battle) were organized into four cohorts. Their size makes that make a lot of sense. Those four cohorts may have proved really handy, tactically, as discrete units moving in advance of the army with their own subordinate commanders (the praefecti cohortis). And when the legion does adopt cohorts as its primary maneuver unit, it tends to deploy in a battle line four cohorts wide (a 4/3/3 deployment in three lines), exactly as the extraordinarii would have. Taylor associates this with the decline of the velites, the four cohorts of extraordinarii forming a screen for the deploying army behind it, which it may well have done but of course we’ve already mentioned that it’s not clear how quickly the velites decline as a force in these armies.

Nevertheless, the presence of socii cohorts, especially the extraordinarii would provide a ready example of the potential of this larger tactical or maneuver unit, which Roman commanders may have experimented with in the back half of the second century in Spain – with some adopting them and other sticking with maniples. Marius, for his part, does clearly strong favor the cohort – he’s just probably not the first to do so. The most plausible moment for the cohort to at last replace the maniple completely is almost certainly the Social War, which ended with the extension of citizenship to the Italians and thus the merging of the former-socii into the citizen legions. The socii, you will recall, modestly outnumbered the legions, so it was natural when organizing a now mixed citizen-legionary force where a bit less than half (the old-citizen part) might have dabbled in both cohorts and maniples and a bit more than half (the former-socii part) had used cohorts exclusively as organizational units, for armies to at last transition fully into the use of cohorts, leading to the all-cohorts, all-the-time organization we see with Caesar and later sources.

The Reforms That Weren’t

We can then return to our list at the beginning:

  • Cohorts: Experimented with before Marius, especially in Spain. Marius uses cohorts, but there’s no evidence he systematized or standardized this or was particularly new or unusual in doing so. Probably the actual breakpoint here is the Social War.
  • Poor Volunteers Instead of Conscripted Assidui: Marius does not represent a break in the normal function of the Roman dilectus but a continuation of the Roman tradition of taking volunteers or dipping into the capite censi in a crisis. The traditional Roman conscription system functions for decades after Marius and a full professional army doesn’t emerge until Augustus.
  • Discharge bonuses or land as a regular feature of Roman service: Once again, this isn’t Marius but Imperator Caesar Augustus who does this. Rewarding soldiers with loot and using conquered lands to form colonies wasn’t new and Marius doesn’t standardize it, Augustus does.
  • No More equites and velites: No reason in the source to suppose Marius does this and plenty of reasons to suppose he doesn’t. Both velites and equites seem to continue at least a little bit into the first century. Fully replacing these roles with auxilia is once again a job for our man, Imperator Caesar Augustus, divi filius, pater patriae, reformer of armies, gestae of res, and all the rest.
  • State-Supplied Equipment: No evidence in the sources. This shift is happening but is not associated with Marius. In any event, the conformity of imperial pay records with Polybius’ system of deductions for the second century BC suggests no major, clean break in the system.
  • A New Sort of Pilum: No evidence, probably didn’t exist, made up by Plutarch or his sources. Roman pilum design is shifting, but not in the ways Plutarch suggests. If a Marian pilum did exist, the idea didn’t stick.
  • Aquila Standards: Eagle standards pre-date Marius and non-eagle standards post-date him, but this may be one thing he actually does do, amplifying the importance of the eagle as the primary standard of the legion.
  • The sarcina and furca and making Roman soldiers carry things: By no means new to Marius. This is a topos of Roman commanders before and after Marius. There is no reason to suppose he was unusual in this regard.

So the Marian reforms…were not a thing. Functionally none of what is described as happening in them was new or unique to Marius. Indeed, the most substantial reforms are either things that were already changing (and which Marius seems to have had little role in) or things which had not yet changed but which would, under Augustus. Indeed, one of the problems with the assumption of a Marian reform is that it takes a whole lot of changes which were more likely a package of reforms under Augustus and pulls them forward in time to Marius, doing some damage to our understanding of both figures.

But Augustus makes much more sense as the figure doing many of those organizational changes. For one we have sources actually telling us he did them, from the standardization of military service (Dio 54.25.6), the creation of retirement bonuses and the aerarium militare to fund them (Dio 54.25.6 again, but also Res Gestae 17), and the radical expansion and formalization of the auxilia as part of the Roman army (Tac. Ann. 4.5). The one thing missing is citizenship-for-service, which we can see emerging under Tiberius, the next emperor immediately after Augustus. And it makes sense because Augustus is, by necessity, doing a bunch of other things with the legions too. He’s instituting a whole new command structure, with dedicated legionary commanders (the legatus legionis) serving under his own provincial commanders (legati Augusti) with imperial procuratores handling the former role of the quaestors. Also, the legions get their citizen cavalry (though a quite small detachment of it) back too.

So instead of thinking, “Marian reforms’ – which were, I must stress, not a thing – you ought to be thinking about a period of tactical, organizational and institutional change beginning in the second century, accelerating in the first century and then finally being instituted as a comprehensive set of reforms and formalization by Augustus, not by Marius, which codified a lot of change that had already happened over that long period. A long process with a punctuation mark at the end rather than a singular moment of reform associated with a singular Roman general.

Alright. Now one of you go and fix the Wikipedia entry.

  1. Though even Keppie expresses substantial skepticism concerning the presence of a single significant moment of reform under Gaius Marius.
  2. It’s Percy.
  3. Note that the size of the century has changed, from 60 to 80 as well
  4. Polybius’ history, already incomplete as we have it, ends, while Livy’s continuous narrative which originally went through the first century cuts out almost completely in 167, leaving us with just summaries of his work.
  5. “Pilum, Gladius and Pugio in the Late Republic,” JRMES 5 (1997), then “The Reconstruction and Use of Roman Weaponry in the Second Century BC,” JRMES 11 (2000) and then “The pilum from Marius to Nero – a reconsideration of its development and function,” JRMES 12/13 (2001/2).
  6. On this, see R.O. Fink, Roman Military Records on Papyrus (1971)
  7. On all this, see Bishop and Coulston, Roman Military Equipment (2006), 233-240.
  8. For more on the dynamics of this, see N. Rosenstein, Rome at War (2004), as this is part of his central argument
  9. For textual references, see Brunt, Italian Manpower (1971), 636-7.
  10. We do not know how that process would have accounted for the massive expansion of the Roman citizen class due to the Social War. But evidently it did!
  11. These were happily already compiled by Brunt, op. cit., 394.
  12. “Did velites Really Disappear in the Late Roman Republic?” Historia 70 (2021)
  13. J.B. McCall, The Cavalry of the Roman Republic (2002), 100-113.
  14. “Tactical Reform in the Roman Republican Army,” Historia 14.4 (1965). If you are starting to get the sense that there is a standard journal for these sorts of topics…that is because there is. That’s not all Historia does, but Historia does tend to be the top-flight place for this sort of thing.
  15. M. Dobson, The Army of the Roman Republic: The Second Century BC, Polybius and the Camps at Numantia, Spain (2008)
  16. There is new excavation work going on at Numantia now re-excavating these camps. My sense is that there is – or at least was – some appetite among the folks working there now to present a new dating schema for the camps, but I haven’t seem that advanced in a systematic way and frankly the traditional dating schema seems pretty well nailed-down.
  17. But some tactical change would be necessary because the old triplex acies frontage of ten maniples is not a clean multiple of cohorts; a cohort-based legion probably had a frontage of 4 cohorts (1,920 men) instead of 10 maniples (1,200 men). Making this more complicated, later cohorts are made up of six 80-man centuries rather than eight 60-man centuries. Exactly when that switchover happens isn’t clear to us, but Polybius notes that legions were sometimes raised over-strength anyway, so it may well be at some point chunkier centuries became common. Note that we have no evidence that at any point were centuries, as military units, 100 men as their name would suggest.
  18. In “Tactical Reform in the Late Roman Republic: The View from Italy.” Historia 68 (2019).

152 thoughts on “Collections: The Marian Reforms Weren’t a Thing

  1. A bit off-topic, but I wonder if you’ve seen the latest Astral Codex Ten article from earlier today? It mainly discusses whether recent concerns about declining moral standards can be quantified, but in passing takes pot shots at the idea that we can learn anything from pointing out that such concerns stem back to the Roman era. The comments are also depressingly full of people going ‘lol obviously we should take Livy at face value, Rome is a classic example of moral decadence leading to collapse’. Given that there’s a fair overlap in readerships between the two blogs, and that the author has in the past written posts inspired by yours on academia, perhaps you might be in a good position to supply a light corrective? Not that I want to thrust you into an online argument, but it is frustrating that many people don’t grasp how elite complaints about imminent moral collapse have been a constant throughout more or less every single period of recorded history.

    1. Link to the article in question:

      You will notice that it is about a paper discussing moral decline (or absence of same) in the United States since 1949, not in Italy since Livy. But I cannot resist this quote:

      “This paper discusses some of the ancient Roman customs Livy might have been comparing favorably to the dissolute mores of his own era. They include a law that a husband could kill his wife if he caught her drinking – after all, drunkenness could lead to adultery. When Livy talked about moral decline, part of what he meant that the Romans of his day no longer had the stomach to do this. Was he wrong? Are we still equally likely to do that kind of thing today?

      The correct interpretation of the Livy quote isn’t “people think morals are declining today, but Livy thought morals were declining in Rome, so clearly everyone’s equally wrong and morals are the same everywhere forever.” If Livy were to see modern America, he would consider us morally insane. No number of polls showing that respect for Hispanics stayed stable between 2002 and 2013 would change his mind. Our only recourse would be to retort back that no, he was morally insane.”

      And this quote about the actual subject under discussion (moral changes in modern America, not in ancient Italy):

      “So an alternative explanation for widespread perception of moral decline is that each generation observes moral decline relative to its own standards. If you were born in 1940, you absorbed 1940 morality. The year 2020 does worse at 1940 morality than the year 1940 did, because the year 2020 isn’t trying to achieve 1940 morality, it’s trying to achieve 2020 morality, which is only partly correlated.

      This neatly explains MG’s finding that everyone believes morality peaked around the year of their birth and has been declining ever since. In fact, it explains the data better than MG’s own hypothesis: they find a marginal trend for people to rate morality worse 40 years before their birth than 20, which doesn’t fit a rose-colored glasses effect but does fit an imprint-on-your-own-birth-year one.”

      1. “This neatly explains MG’s finding that everyone believes morality peaked around the year of their birth and has been declining ever since.”

        I think it would be instructive to rephase “everyone” as “everyone who has not studied this topic or history in general.” I certainly don’t believe this. 😉

    2. I dunno, I don’t think the statement ” lol obviously we should take Livy at face value, Rome is a classic example of moral decadence leading to collapse” needs a full refutation. Just point them at a timeline

    3. > The comments are also depressingly full of people going ‘lol obviously we should take Livy at face value, Rome is a classic example of moral decadence leading to collapse’.

      This is a lie, and you know it.

    4. Oh god. “Changes in reported data as often says more about changes in reporting as about changes in what is being reported” is such a *basic* thing. We literally talked about that *in high school*.

    5. The comments are also depressingly full of people going ‘lol obviously we should take Livy at face value, Rome is a classic example of moral decadence leading to collapse’.

      Why don’t you quote a few?

      1. I think the one that cheesed me off was “Trying to present quotes from Roman Empire-perdiod historians as evidence that moral decline is all alarmism and illusions is particularly ironic, when Rome is a canonical example that a civilization can spoil, decay, and collapse. One can almost conclude that we’re dealing with New Dark Age cheerleaders.”
        “But of course: all of the societies from classical antiquity *really did collapse* centuries ago! And from what little I know about the fall of Rome, it really did have something to do with Rome’s inability to produce younger generations with the tenacity and vigor of the earlier ones.”
        Nonetheless, I’m quite happy to concede that I commented in haste, that the balance of the other article’s comments section is much more nuanced than this, and that it now already includes most of the criticisms I would want raised. So I gladly retract my wording, which I think was an unfair overstatement (and for what it’s worth, I have never disagreed with Scott’s main analysis, which seems to me perfectly sound). Nonetheless, I do maintain that it’s worth robustly challenging versions of the Fremen Mirage wherever they appear, and I don’t think that citing Roman examples to do so automatically makes you some kind of Neo-Barbarian who wants the West destroyed.

    6. Not that I want to thrust you into an online argument, but it is frustrating that many people don’t grasp how elite complaints about imminent moral collapse have been a constant throughout more or less every single period of recorded history.

      I’m not sure that’s true. Or at least, the examples people give to try and prove it all seem to come from a few time periods (mostly late Republican/early Imperial Rome).

      1. Oh no, they’re more or less constant. The roman ones are just the most famous because classical antiquity takes up a disproportionate space in the western headspace.

        1. Do you have any evidence that they’re “more or less constant”? Because there have certainly been time periods when society as a whole gave the impression of thinking they were more moral than their forebears (e.g., the Roman Empire after it was Christianised, the Age of Enlightenment [the name kinda gives it away on that one], the Victorian era).

          1. You just moved the goalposts quite a bit: *Complaints about the moral decay of the times* are pretty much constant. Especially (but not always) among elites. The victorian era is absolutely full of reactionary thinkers and romantics, as is the 18th century. (and it’s not even neccessarily just them either, british parliamentarian ideology was largely built on the idea of a superior time when parliament was respected according to tradition and the king ruled as he should *waves hands*)

          2. Saying “complaints have been constant” implies that they’ve always been made with about the same frequency, but I’ve never seen any reason to accept this.

            The victorian era is absolutely full of reactionary thinkers and romantics, as is the 18th century.

            Given the number of thinkers who thought things were getting better, that seems like an exaggeration.

          3. “*Complaints about the moral decay of the times* are pretty much constant. Especially (but not always) among elites.”

            Arilou, I would like to see that they have been more common than the reverse, at least since Livy’s time. You do not demonstrate that by declaring that the people who wanted to reform or empower
            Parliament were all reactionaries. You would have to show, for example, that most of the “elites” during the Renaissance thought that they were morally inferior to the people of the Dark Ages.

          4. ” I would like to see that they have been more common than the reverse”

            That’s not what I claimed. I said that complaints have been more or less constant (IE: There’s very few points in time where we have records where someone *isn’t* complaining about moral decay)

            “that most of the “elites” during the Renaissance thought that they were morally inferior to the people of the Dark Ages.”

            The renaissance? The people whose programme can more or less be summed up as “return to the classics and the moral superiority of ancient times”? THOSE guys? Heck, it even goes for Luther and the reformers, who were all about restoring the early church from the moral decay that was all around them, etc.

          5. That’s not what I claimed. I said that complaints have been more or less constant (IE: There’s very few points in time where we have records where someone *isn’t* complaining about moral decay)

            By that definition, pretty much everything is “more or less constant”, and the claim becomes trivial.

            The renaissance? The people whose programme can more or less be summed up as “return to the classics and the moral superiority of ancient times”? THOSE guys? Heck, it even goes for Luther and the reformers, who were all about restoring the early church from the moral decay that was all around them, etc.

            The people in the Renaissance thought they were better than the people in the middle ages, as did Luther and the other reformers. They might not have thought they were the most moral people in the whole of human history, but they did think that their own eras were on an upward trajectory.

        2. Arilou, you would appear to be trying to substantiate the point that at any point in time, some people are willing to say it is not the finest point in human history so far. I’d bet good money this claim is true.

          Granted this point, what do you believe it proves? Are you claiming this is evidence in favour of the point that MG were claiming, that morality in the US has not declined in recent decades? If so, how does the evidence support the claim?

    1. A legion reformed in this way could break through and exploit against an enemy army by causing morale collapse and running away of the enemy. It was not an armored, tracked combat vehicle, but I think did have some carts in it.

      So, it is a doctrinally pure, structurally radical tank. So, yes.

  2. Another story I heard was that the fall of the Republic began with Marius – by recruiting people from the capite censi and giving them land grants, the soldiers became personally loyal to him, not to the Republic. As opposed to the old system, which recruited men who were more representative of Roman citizens in general and had respect for the old system.

    This led to armies who got their reward for service from their general, and who were loyal to the general, which in turn led to armies who were willing to march on Rome. If someone like Scipio Africanus had tried to recruit his veterans for a march on Rome they would have been unwilling. Not so with the proletarii. Or so the story goes.

    Now this pretty story collapses completely. What replaces it? Why did the Roman Republic start to tear itself apart a century before the Common Era begins? I assume there are answers.

    1. Irrespective of demographic changes in Rome, any changes in military organization those might have caused, and any political changes that might have in turn resulted, a case can be made that by that time Rome/Italia was simply outgrowing the scale at which a republic with citizen armies was militarily and politically viable; even given the travel and communication times that Roman roads and control of the Mediterranean could provide. Quite simply wars were more and more being fought “over there”, and not just as campaigns like the Punic Wars that ended with “mission accomplished, time to go home”. The move to professionals in long-term service was ultimately the only model that could police or hope to expand the far flung boundaries of Rome’s control.

      This is to some imperfect degree mirrored by the experience of the United States in the 20th century. Citizens would tolerate a draft was long as it was seen as supporting existentially necessary wars like the World Wars (the USA’s Punic Wars?); but afterwards US citizens became increasingly unwilling to be drafted into wars like Vietnam for bolstering the United States’ geostrategic position (hence the rise of draft dodging). The latter require long-term professionals (even National Guard units became disenchanted with service in Iraq, coining the phrase “one weekend a month my ass”).

      1. This isn’t really found in the evidence for the late republic. Harris shows pretty clearly that when the getting was good (get rich quick lads plundering X) Rome never had any manpower problems but when the getting was bad, it did.

      2. Okay, but in modern countries, military coups tend to come from conscripted armies, like Thailand or Turkey or 1950s France – and anti-coup movements like the Move Forward Party in Thailand tend to oppose conscription. In modern-day Europe, the abolition of conscription happened around the end of the Cold War, when the existential threat of Soviet invasion ended; Israel still conscripts, but it’s a lot easier to get out now than it was in 1970. So it makes sense that the move to a professional army in Rome happened, likewise, after the existential threat of the Punic Wars and the symmetric wars with the Hellenistic kingdoms ended. But that does not explain the timing of the civil wars or the beginning of the principate.

        1. I’d like to see some statistics on that. I can’t help but notice that 1950s France didn’t actually have a coup. (Note that a good proof would involve regression analysis; not the plural of anecdote. But any evidence would be a start.)

          1. Apparently some consider the turmoil at the end of the fourth Republic (in 1958), which was replaced by the fifth Republic, led by general De Gaulle, to be a coup.

            But in that case (and with the generals’ putsch in 1961), the coup was led by higher officers, so I don’t see how the fact that it was a conscription army changed anything

          2. What would you call “troops putting De Gaulle in charge at the barrel of a gun, leading to the collapse of the Fourth Republic”?
            That De Gaulle didn’t do what the officers who used their troops to put him in charge wanted him to do doesn’t make how he got there different.

          3. SomeStranger, a successful coup, in the ordinary sense of the term, is one that leaves the coup leaders in power.

            If you tell me there was an attempted coup in 1950s France which led to the coup leaders NOT getting what they wanted, you are telling me it was not a successful coup.

          4. The May 1958 crisis put who the leaders wanted in power into power; their mistake was neglecting to ensure their goals aligned (or imagining De Gaulle would feel he owed them. Somehow. It’s _De Gaulle_).
            That’s not “not a coup”, that’s just a *bad* coup. 🙂

          5. You can’t have seized the state, if it ends up led by someone you don’t control.

            More to the point though – if someone wishes to demonstrate that conscript armies are especially likely to launch a coup, the case should not really depend on one single incident. You need statistics to demonstrate that.

          6. The Bolshevists didn’t seize the state? It ended up controlled by Stalin, whom they didn’t want.

          7. Mary, the Bolsheviks wanted to put themselves in power, and succeeded. While they may not all have wanted Stalin to replace Lenin as head of the party after the latter’s death, it doesn’t follow that any other candidate would have had more support, much less that they would have preferred the previous non-Bolshevik government to Stalin.

          8. The condition objected to was “You can’t have seized the state, if it ends up led by someone you don’t control.”

            They certainly did not control Stalin, given the way he wiped them out.

        2. In case of Algiers Putsch of 1960, the fall of the coup was largely dependent on the conscripts not following the orders of the generals.

      3. The problem with that theory is that the most existential war the US ever fought (once established) was the US Civil War, which was also notoriously accompanied by draft riots on the Union side as the war wore on. And I’d be hard pressed to characterize WWI as an existential threat to the US. The Zimmerman telegram got people riled up with a sense of betrayal, but it was at worst a ham-handed contingency plan for what Germany might try if the US entered the war on the Allied side, which the US could have avoided by remaining neutral. So I don’t see a direct correlation between how existential the war was and how strong the opposition to a draft was.

    2. Some reasons I heard:
      -Before the punic wars the roman elite would try to keep political strife inside the senate, and not use the public as a political weapon. This would keep the power in the hands of the established elite. With the massive losses of the punic wars this informal system broke down and some senators would use the plebs to support their political goals.
      -Mores broke down, previously unthinkable acts (like sulla kicking the door of the senate down with an army) happened and therefore became fair game
      -massive influx of wealth from the punic and eastern campaigns
      -growth of propertyless poor that flooded into rome
      -the republican system was built for a citystate, not a massive empire
      At least that is what I got from the history of rome podcast and various books and articles. It would be nice if there was a more historically responsible answer.

      1. Early Roman history (at least as narrated by Livy) is one of repeated political contests between the plebs and the patricians, of patrician houses seeking popular support. Marius, Sulla and the Pompey, Caesar etc took it to extremes, but it was not exactly novel.

        1. But Livy is notorious for interjecting issues from his day far into the past. And if you cannot see a difference between internal dissent or turmoil and leading the army against the state to establish yourself as tyrant…

          1. Did they see themselves as leading an army against the state? Or leading a body of citizens against another group of citizens who had illegitimately gained control of the state? Also, I doubt the leaders saw themselves as tyrants.

        2. Yes, but note that that contest was more or less finished by the third century. The instability of the Late Republic wasn’t completely unprecedented, but nor was it a continuation of a pre-existing trend.

    3. To the extent that the willingness of soldiers to go along with their generals was necessary for the collapse of the Republic, there might be a question begged here; would Scipio Africanus’ men have been intrinsically less willing to cross the Rubicon (literally and metaphorically) if it seemed like circumstance demanded it? Even if we grant that maybe Caesar was an unusual figure commanding unusual loyalty, were Scipio Africanus’ men less personally loyal than Pompey’s? OK, I don’t have an answer for that question, and it seems a useful question.

      As to how the conditions were created wherein the personal loyalty of the legions was relevant, I think it’s the coincidence of two trends which ultimately fed each other. 1) The expansion of the (Republican) empire supercharged the wealth/prestige-accumulating potential for political winners, which is a problem for a political system premised on the competing influences of men with a lot of wealth/prestige using that wealth/prestige to command the loyalty of political allies. A guy who plundered a province was inherently a destabilizing element in the political system. 2) Rome had a tradition of breaking norms in a crisis, but in a formalized, rule-abiding way (see Dr. Devereaux’s post from April about the dictatorship). In the 1st century BC these norms about norm-breaking falter, starting with Marius and Sulla, and the damage is done. Men with sufficient wealth/prestige don’t have to abide by the old norms (Pompey gets to be consul well before he “should” have been eligible) and now you’re on the road to the end.

      1. To the extent that the willingness of soldiers to go along with their generals was necessary for the collapse of the Republic, there might be a question begged here; would Scipio Africanus’ men have been intrinsically less willing to cross the Rubicon (literally and metaphorically) if it seemed like circumstance demanded it? Even if we grant that maybe Caesar was an unusual figure commanding unusual loyalty, were Scipio Africanus’ men less personally loyal than Pompey’s? OK, I don’t have an answer for that question, and it seems a useful question.

        Well, obviously we can’t know for sure, but the Middle Republic was notably politically stable by contemporary standards (Polybius comments on this somewhere or other, IIRC).

    4. To my understanding:

      The empire simply provided to much scope for the accumulation of personal wealth and power and too much promise of more allowing the biggest of the big to become truly massive in politics. Particularly since the Roman system of government was essentially fit to govern a city not the entire Med, so a man in the provinces was not on a tight leash. Worsened by needing far more imperium running around so you end up with people in place for years.

      TL;DR the Rome got too big for its britches, Augustus went and got new britches after bringing the problem to a totalizing fever pitch.

  3. There only two parts of this narrative unambiguously suggested by our sources are equipment changes:

    Grammar doesn’t parse; word missing?

  4. Fascinating. I had always assumed the Marian reforms existed, although to be honest I’m not quite sure where I was first exposed to the idea. The notion that such a clean break from a levied force to a professional one could be an exaggeration had occurred to me, but I hadn’t realized the evidence was so weak.

    I’m still very curious as to how the actual loot distribution as mentioned in Livy was carried out. How did they calculate how much each soldier should get, and how did they make sure the money got into the hands of the soldiers?

    1. Well, personally, I was first introduced to the concept of the Marian reforms by that famously historically accurate work, Rome: Total War. Although this seems like a more excusable mistake.

    2. I don’t know how the romans did it, in many cases you’d pool it together, then divide it into lots (with officers getting bigger chunks)

      1. The thing is, and maybe I’m being too literal here, Livy describes the amount of plunder each soldier got (and yes, centurions and cavalry got more) at the end of some of these campaigns. But I would have thought a lot of the plunder doesn’t divide up into nice, easily demarcated amounts. How many sestercii is a nice tapestry worth?

        He does make some references to some of the stuff being sold and if it was eventually converted into a more monetary form that would ease things up, but that in turn creates new questions, especially about timing. I imagine it would take a while to find buyers for all the stuff you plundered on your expedition somewhere, and most of those milites would want to go home and not stick around in Rome for all the auctions to finish. How long did this all take? How did it work?

        Although I suspect the answer is “We don’t know and the sources that might have existed either never bothered to talk about it or are gone now, so we’ll never know.”

        1. Again, don’t know about Rome, but a lot of places had merchants (or even high placed military personnel) following the army and buying up loot. Basically converting that loot into hard earned cash (and usually earning a killing in the process from soldiers who wanted money to spend on booze & hookers)

          Presumably difficult-to-value stuff like high art was harder to deal with (but then again, in theperiod I’m familiar with those were *mostly* earmarked for the higher-ups anyway)

        2. The most valuable ‘loot’ was slaves – and we know slave dealers followed Roman armies, ready to buy captives on the spot. Medieval hoards sometimes contain ‘hack-silver’ – precious metal objects that have been cut up to share out (as metal). Merchants went along with East India Company armies to buy loot – and there are accounts of the fortunes made when soldiers sold some precious object for much less than its worth.

        3. I’d speculate that this is one of the things the camp followers are for. We know that Roman legions were often followed by slave traders because one of the big forms of ‘loot’ was enslaved captives to be sold off for money. I imagine that the legion as a whole would similarly be able to find merchants willing to follow it around and pay in cash for the tapestries and whatnot, or at least give you an appraisal for a small percentage of the gross.

    3. A lot of readers were exposed to the ‘Marian reforms’ through Colleen McCullough’s THE FIRST MAN IN ROME series which has a lot of actually good historical detail along with the growing godhood of Julius Caesar (a theme that begins with his birth in the first book etc.).

      Given that Arausio was clearly a cluster of the first order according to just about everyone, various changes that Marius supposedly made tend to seem rather sensible.

  5. Great post, extremely useful.
    Were I to read Keppie, lacking a modern alternative, are there any other important pieces of analysis of narratives that have shifted significantly with time?
    I was planning to read it but don’t want to end up in a similar situation as the Marian reforms with some other topic.

  6. Possible typo:
    On Augustus’ reforms, L. Keppie, “The Army and the Navy” CAH2, vol. X (1996) remains fairly solid.

    In CAH2 the 2 is a superscript in the posted text, which I expected to be a footnote but it isn’t. Was it supposed to be one?

    1. It’s a superscript is not a footnote. In classical scholarship it is very common to indicate that something is an Nth edition by putting N in superscript: CAH^2 = Cambridge Ancient History (2nd ed).

  7. I’d gotten the idea somewhere that the pilum design included deliberately softer iron on the shaft. Is there any reality there, of just another bit of pop-history nonsense I’ve acquired?

    And was making pila hard to reuse ever an actual thing?

    1. The reconstruction testing I’ve seen of pilums would seem to indicate that the long length was primarily about penetration, and that it happened to bend because they were disposable and making them not bend would have been more expensive than useful.

      They make it difficult enough to use your shield even if they don’t bend. They also bend *back* fairly easily.

    2. Making the non-sharp bits of a bladed implement out of a softer material, either by using a lower carbon content in the metal or heat treating it differently, is a fairly common technique.

    1. I basically learned everything I know about this topic from Brett’s post but your rewrite looks like a hell of an improvement over the current article. What’s holding you back from directly editing the article itself?

      1. Hi! I proposed this change to Ifly some three weeks ago; then, they said to me that
        “when I work on a drop-in rewrite, I usually try to work on the drafts until they could plausibly meet the GA criteria before pushing to the main namespace.” There’s a bit of WP jargon there, but suffice it to say that their preference is to incubate this draft until it is ready for direct and complete substitution.

  8. Okay but now we need to mod all the Rome games because I’m pretty sure they all reference the “Marian reforms.”

    1. Rome: Total War came out in 2004, while a lot of the strongest scholarship against the Marian Reforms seems to have been quite recent – the past 10-20 years. For a game that played it fast-and-loose with history in a lot of places like the three color coded Roman factions and the time traveler Egyptians, the part about the Marian Reforms being a big deal was pretty reasonable given the knowledge of the era! (Can’t speak to the later games, though – wasn’t Rome TW2 supposed to be bad? No idea if it kept the Marian reforms.)

      1. They kept it… But I’m more curious about what it would do to the mods aiming at higher versimilitude with history in both games.

        Thinking of my favorites, Divide Et Impera, in Rome TW2 in particular. Real good one, for most factions available on the map too, and goes from Camillan Legions to the Imperial ones (one could say they have this one covered already?), with Polyban and ‘Marian’ (yeah, gonna be hard to find a new name here) ones along the way.

        And they have this kind of evolution process for armies ongoing for most factions in the game too, although not often on the scales of the Rome faction.

        Really like playing with Armenia and Carthage there too.

        1. So, this is one which I am well-qualified to answer. As one of the developers of Divide et Impera, I can tell you that we don’t believe that the Marian Reforms happened as a series of deliberate changes instituted by Marius. And we know that the Romans (or at least Roman historians) themselves did not always see a difference between their army as they looked back on it (although, as pointed out, they knew that some things had changed and Plutarch liked to attribute those changes to great men). However, we do think that you can generally put the Roman army of 270 BC to 180 AD into four general categories during the course of its evolution. The Camillan (in our minds before the First Punic War), the Polybian (generally from 250 to 133 BC), the Marian (generally from 133 to 0), and the Imperial (generally 0 to 180 AD). To us, the term Marian Reforms is a convenient shorthand to describe the Roman army from roughly the campaign against Numantia to the point where Augustus reformed the army (although I am a bit embarrassed to admit that we haven’t purged all Creative Assembly’s descriptions of said reforms to make this more historically accurate. Perhaps in the next patch). If anyone wants to suggest a better short name that fits into a video game description block, feel free to suggest it.

          1. As a short name, “Cohort legion” as opposed to “Manipular legion” for Polibius would represent the main tactical difference, as well as the predominance of pila and functional no differences among the different classes of heavy infantry. The gradual replacement of Roman light infantry and cavalry with auxiliaries could be glossed over by making them more generic.

  9. Is there a reason or reasons the census was not conducted from 69 BCE to 28 BCE after regularly being conducted in the years prior?

      1. Only 49-30 BC was civil wars. 69-49 were not – and yet no census completed.
        There is a difference between “censors designated” and “censors managed to complete their job”. And seems that there was a long interruption before 69 BC and also some irregularity before that.
        Starting 70 BC and completing 69 BC there was the only successful census in maybe 70 years, by Lentulus and Gellus. Enlisted the new citizens, expelled 64 senators out of 600, most promptly returned.
        The attempts in late republic:
        65 – Crassus and Catulus, quarrelled and resigned
        64 – Cotta and an unknown colleague, resigned due to machinations of tribunes
        61 – Lucius Caesar and Scribonius, results missing in Wikipedia
        55 – Messalla and Vatia, tried flood control on Tiber, other results?
        50 – Appius Claudius and Piso, removed senator Sallustius the historian
        So, in the period 65-50, there was no open civil war. Any comments as to why none of the teams of 61, 55 and 50 BC did not complete a job?

  10. I suppose “The Evolution of the Roman Army in the Late Republic” is more of a mouthful than “The Marian Reforms”.

    The easy name to use is often preferred.

    Why would history be immune to Stigler’s Law?

    1. Was a bit disappointed to learn the traditional narrative of the reforms when taking a course in Classics this term, maybe I should send this to my professors!

      I am pretty curious about the standards; did each legion have all five, and if so did they carry them together in battle?

  11. I most certainly was among the mistaken on this subject before now, very interesting to see this compact, cohesive narrative fray and break up under scrutiny into a much more gradual, obscure set of processes. Not that it will stop me from enjoying the books of Colleen McCullough; The first installment of her Masters of Rome series may as well be the official novelization of this myth.

    Since your argument re-frames so many of these changes as occurring under Augustus, I’m curious what the historical assessment is of him as a general, rather than a statesman. The ancient sources I’ve read, even the favorable ones, paint him as a somewhat indifferent military man, but he must have been doing something right to come out on top of such a tumultuous period

    1. The traditional story tends to paint him as a fantastic organizer and politician and a somewhat indifferent commander, but one who happened to have access to a great one in his friend and son-in-law Agrippa. (whether or not that depiction pans out I’m not sure of, it’s not my speciality)

      1. Even granting that Augustus wasn’t a particularly gifted general, he might have been a gifted military reformer and organizer. George McClellan* is a relatively modern example. The man was famous for being very** bad at tactics and operations. But he did a great deal of good work in the camp, even if not on the march. The prewar US Army wasn’t remotely prepared, institutionally, to handle the scale of armies being thrown around here. McClellan did a lot of the work of building the Army of the Potomac into a force that would be structurally and logistically ready to move and fight, even if he didn’t have a good idea of what to do with that army when it got where it was going.

        *(who I can’t believe I’m even mentioning in the same breath as Augustus Caesar)
        **(I was going to say ‘extremely’ bad, then I remembered that Ambrose Burnside ever lived, for comparison)

    2. “he must have been doing something right to come out on top of such a tumultuous period”
      Yes, and that “something” was named Marcus Vispanius Agrippa

      1. Knowing what you’re not good at and picking people who *are* good at that thing to do it for you is arguably what differentiates the great from the merely competent.

    3. My understanding is that he left the actual generaling to Aggrippa most of the time and only took personal command rarely.

  12. Severely off topic, but, since you talk about the Roman census and the impact of Augustus, I’ve been meaning to ask you:

    What are your thoughts on the Christmas census mentioned in the Gospel of Luke? Is there evidence that a Roman census would ever be taken this way, with people returning to their towns of origin rather than being counted where they already are?

    When you talk in this article about the census starting and stopping over certain periods, you make it sound like we’d know when/if any Roman census took place.

    I know you’ve mentioned being a Christian and you’re also my favorite Roman historian (favorite historian overall?) so it seems like you’ve at least had a shower thought or two about it.

  13. Following Twitter’s decision to block all non-users from reading Tweets, will you be moving any of the micro-blogging you do on there to here so that it’s still accessible to people without Twitter accounts?

  14. What is a legate? They did not fit into your description of the structure of command in the “How to Raise a Roman Legion” post (the “military tribunes” filled the role I pictured the legati as having). I figured that they were a feature of later Roman armies, but the quote from Sallust implies that Marius had one.

  15. Where did the soldiers come from for the civil wars that were being fought in the 1st century BC then? Would a general get an army levied through the Dilectus and then just not stand down while steering it wherever they wanted? Or were all Roman-Citizen armies that were willing to march on Rome comprised of volunteers recruited from Roman settlements or Socii?

  16. How do you explain the fact that Roman soldiers are clearly loyal to and dependent upon their general in the First Century BC? Marius, Sulla, Pompey, and Caesar are all able to call upon their armies/veterans against the state. Something that previous generations of Roman generals could not (or at least did not) do.

    1. There was a long Roman tradition of plebs demanding reform by withdrawing from the state, sometimes threatening to go off en masse and found another city (whatever the actual history, this is something Romans believed). There were also rough and ready parties (Optimates and Populares), and of course the central Roman institution of clientelism. Finally, as a soldier-republic, the army was in some sense not just an army but political body – something we see in the imperial period when it is the final arbiter of emperors.

      So as Rome evolved towards imperial oligarchy, the lower classes looked to the army for redress. They saw Marius et al not leading a revolt against the state, but continuing in a tradition of political contest.

      1. So as Rome evolved towards imperial oligarchy, the lower classes looked to the army for redress.

        But that’s kind of the point — the Roman army of the early and middle Republic wasn’t made up of the lower classes.

        1. Yes. But the middle peasant farmer class shrank – or just lost out relative to the big landlords. Hence the fight over distribution of the ager publicus. So there was a backlash and, being Rome, it went through the army, as the representive institution of the non-rich.

          1. But the army was not the representative institution of the non-rich. It was an unconstitutional and extra-legal tool for rich elites to use against each other in their competition to control the state. The “people” did not spontaneously join the army to “gain a vote”, unscrupulous elites who didn’t care about norms and the rule of law enrolled private armies.

      2. There were no “populares” and “optimates” as political parties in Rome. This is really clear from the modern scholarship (modern meaning anything since about 1930). Rich 1983 and Cadiou 2018 have largely shown that this narrative of soldierly proletarianisation is unsupported by the evidence.

        Rosenstein 2004, Lo Cascio (1994, 2018, etc), and others show that the narrative of population decline in Plutarch and Appian is unsupported by archaeology and modern understanding of grain accounting. Roselaar 2010, building on Rosenstein, suggests that the Gracchan project emerged from traditions of colonisation and overpopulation.

        And, for myself on this republican collapse question, I like Mouritsen 1998: the Gracchan project had enormous unintended consequences and probably was one of the strongest drivers for Italian separatism before the Social War. Scipio Aemilianus circa 129 BC was right.

    2. Yes, I was wondering about this — what changed here that this became the case, given that no “Marian reform” occurred?

  17. Slightly to the side of this conversation, in the novel series “Marching with Caesar” RW Peak describes a system where under Augustus, instead of exclusively being promoted from the ranks, Centurions could be “paid men,” i.e., Equestrians who paid a fee and were automatically enrolled as Centurions.

    Was that a thing? It seems off to me – like someone walking in off the street and assuming the rank of Sergeant Major or something.

    Actually there’s a ton of details in those books about how the late Republic/early Imperial army worked, and I have no idea how much of it is verified, and how much he may have made up for narrative purposes. But the paid Centurion thing was one thing that seemed incongrous.

    1. Adrian Goldsworthy says in one of his books that equestrians were sometimes commissioned as centurions, although I can’t remember what sources he gives.

      1. To quote from that very article:

        “Formally, the purchase price of a commission was a cash bond for good behaviour, liable to be forfeited if found guilty of cowardice, desertion, or gross misconduct.”

        That is not purchasing a rank, in the ordinary sense of “purchase”. You couldn’t sell it on, or give it away, it could be taken away if you behaved badly, and you could not acquire it without years of experience in lower ranks, and recommendations from the people you would serve under. You did not in any useful sense freely buy something, or own it afterwards. Commissions in the 18th century army were sold only in the sense that they are given away for free in the modern one.

        Returning to the Roman example: I would be cautious about assuming that because money has changed hands, something must have been bought.

        1. While that was certainly the legal theory, and I’ll concede that commissions weren’t freely fungible, I presume that only someone in fair amount of disgrace would be turned down for a commission if they were of “proper breeding” and could pony up the money.

          1. My understanding (which mostly comes from a couple of Mark Urban books, TBH) is that there were always far more potential applicants than places for them to apply to, so the difficult bit was always getting a recommendation.

            IIRC from NAM Roger, in the Navy recommending someone tied his career to yours, so it was as well to recommend people likely to perform well. I don’t know about the Army. But you would be depending on the recommendation of people who knew that their success (and life, in extreme cases) might depend on yours.

          2. The Navy did not have bought commissions (although pursers were required to post a bond), and promotion was on merit and ‘interest’ (recommendation, patronage).

            Army commissions absolutely were regarded as property – there were commission agents, set rates (sometimes ignored), and resigning officers spoke of ‘selling out’. The holders were bought out when the system was abolished.

          3. You required recommendations and patronage for an army commission as well (or if you prefer “merit” and “interest”). The only difference is that you generally also had to give the army money, which they would give you back if you left without doing anything disgraceful.

            Now, how does that differ from the purser having to pay over a bond? On the face of it, only the word they used to describe handing over the money. And the nature of the disgrace that would lead them to keep the money.

        2. That was a technicality. In practice, the transaction was indistinguishable from a purchase, and people openly treated it as such. It also wasn’t unique to the British- the Prussian army was considered notable in this era for being the only one among the major European powers not to sell commissions.

          1. In the ordinary use of language, if you have purchased something you own it, and can do pretty much what you like with it. Sell it on, give it away, perhaps abandon it altogether. If you can’t do that, there is a meaningful distinction between whatever degree of control you have, and ownership.

            That is why the wikipedia article you linked to explicitly likened the system to a bond.

          2. In the ordinary use of language, if you have purchased something you own it, and can do pretty much what you like with it. Sell it on, give it away, perhaps abandon it altogether. If you can’t do that, there is a meaningful distinction between whatever degree of control you have, and ownership.

            Tell that to the modern purveyors of software and devices to run it on such as smartphones. I’m paying them money for access to a product but I sure as heck don’t unreservedly “own” it. Heck, people are fighting in court just for a “right to repair”.

          3. Michael, that’s because you purchased a software licence, not a copy of the software itself, and certainly not a copy of its source code.

  18. One thing I wonder is when the equipment distinction between hastati, principes, and triarii broke down. Traditionally it’s Marius who gets the credit for standardising Roman heavy infantry equipment, but absent the whole “Marian Reforms” idea I can’t really see any reason to suppose that he was the one responsible.

    1. Reading this post makes me believe it was in the early imperial era. The professionalsation of the army just made a split of the troops along social economic lines unnecessary.

      All the soldiers get the same pay, and have no other income, so why not let them all buy the same equipment. Recruites who can’t afford the gear yet, can easily get a credit, as the creditor knows that they are good for the money anyway.

      1. There are no signs in the accounts of Caesar’s wars of any hastati/principes/triarii distinction. Nor are there any signs in the accounts of Sulla’s wars, albeit we don’t have as much detailed information about those.

        1. This is what our host, has to say on the matter of Cesars writing:

          > Cicero still refers to to them writing in the 40s (Cic. Fam. 9.20; Brut, 271) and their apparent absence in Caesar’s writing may well just be an accident of Caesar’s avoidance of technical language. Caesar doesn’t generally talk about hastati or triarii much either; he prefers milites (‘soldiers’).

          Cesar avoids technical terms. Just like a lot of modern writers were I grew up, would rather loose their jobs, then show the ability to distinguish between a MG and a AR. Showing that you know the difference give you no sympathy with the intended audiance.

          1. It’s not just Caesar, it’s every other author who wrote about his wars, too. Nor is there anything in the accounts of the battles Caesar and his contemporaries or successors fought to suggest that there was any sort of distinction in equipment or tactical role between the different lines of infantry.

            As for Cicero, both of those examples are metaphors describing rhetorical style, not accounts of the Roman army, so there’s no particular reason to suppose that his terminology reflects contemporary military practice.

  19. I suggest another source for the persistence of the Marian Reform idea: tabletop miniature gaming, in particular the books by Wargames Research Group.

    Most first generation computer wargames were created by people who were also tabletop miniatures wargamers. In the 1980s the gold standard (at least in the Anglosphere) for ancient warfare was the Wargames Research Group tabletop rules. WRG also printed and sold army lists, which told gamers what kind of troops were available in what army at what period, and for those people who wanted to dig a bit deeper books such as “Armies and Enemies of Imperial Rome”, 150 BC to 600 AD, by Phil Barker.

    Please note, I’m not saying that WRG are bad. They are/were genuinely interested in history, did the research, and over the years were always willing to update as new evidence became available. They did the best they could, remembering that this work was done in the pre-Internet era when research was a lot harder.

    Commercial reality is that these are effectively popular history books, not scholarly tomes, so the army list for “Marian Roman 105 BC – 25 BC” has to fit on one (1) page. My guess is that Phil Barker in person would be happy to talk for hours about the organisational and equipment changes in the Roman army, but within that space limitation, he had to go for the generally accepted version. So all legionaries in this particular army/period have pilum, no velites.

    I’m confident saying that WRG have been influential because modern day game designers are still just copying whatever they wrote! I have the “Basic Impetus 2.0” tabletop rules from a couple of years ago, developed by an Italian company and published in English as well. They have army lists too, and they’re using almost identical area/time divisions to the old WRG. So twenty plus years later there’s still a “Marian Roman 105 BC – 25 BC” army with the same troop types.

  20. As someone from a non-western background, the persistence of the “Marian Reform” idea in my experience is due to outdated scholarship that failed to get updated. I grew up in China, in which both high school textbooks (around early 2010s) and university history textbooks (around mid 2010s) referred a “Marian Military Reform” that drastically changed Roman political structure and society. When I went to study in the U.S. and took class with Prof. Thomas Figueira in the Classics, I was finally told this “Marian Reform” was not a thing.

  21. Some typos:

    I glanced over at the Wikipedia article and see this — saw this

    a combination tactical — combination of

    You can see the equipment is held by attached to a pole — ??

  22. Oy! I had no idea until today that debate about the maniple legion being superseded by the cohort legion was a raging controversy. Makes me think about the unresolved academic controversies about the organization of the Spartan army in the late classical period — mora or lochos? Herodotus, Thucydides, or Xenophon? Will we ever have the answers?

  23. I believe wikipedia maintains a record of revisions for each page – as both a record of responsibility and means of repairing vandalism – and it should be possible to link to a particular revision as a stable reference.

  24. Was a bit disappointed to learn the traditional narrative of the reforms when taking a course in Classics this term, maybe I should send this to my professors!

    I am pretty curious about the standards; did each legion have all five, and if so did they carry them together in battle?

  25. So I think the Internet is spying on me lol. The day after I read this blog post, I get an email from about how the Marian Reforms weren’t a thing. Co-incidence? (Probably, but still)

  26. I am curious about when the use of enslaved men as rowers became the norm in the Mediterranean. The poorest Athenians were the Thetes, their job was to row in the fleet. Likewise, the Rhodian fleets were manned by free Rhodian citizens. I gather this was the norm from Masillia to Sinope. Were the first Roman naval fleets, First Punic War, I think, also manned by citizens? What about the Carthaginian fleets. Were their rowers free men or slaves?

    1. The claim I”ve encountered is that the change to slave rowers is after the introduction of cannon. Galley tactics prior to cannon required high enough skill that paid volunteers made sense, but as cannon become a primary weapon all you need is rowers skilled enough to bring cannons to bear. The ships get much heavier, to stand the shock of their own guns and of impact of enemy guns, which makes rams less effective and increases the importance of boarding battles, again reducing the need for rapid and skilled manuever. As far as I know, all clasical military galleys were free rowers.

      1. I read somewhere that the expansion of the Galley fleets during the during that time, also did not help. It’s a lot cheaper to round up any prisoners and force them to the galleys, then to pay the urban poor of half the country.

        The extremly shallow recruting pool, of states like Venice and Genua probably did not help either.

        1. At this point, one thinks of the stories from antiquity, of slaves being freed in times of crisis, on condition they served in the galleys. Presumably, those were times of manpower crisis too.

          IIRC, the Christian commander at Lepanto ordered the fetters struck from the Christian galley slaves, and promised them freedom if they fought well. On the face of it, crisis led to free rowers, not enslaved ones.

          It occurs to me that rowing is not an unskilled job, and it might make more sense to train a slave who cannot then leave your service, rather than a free landsman who can.

          (And in many respects, slaves could be recruited from a wider area, precisely because they didn’t have to be persuaded to come voluntarily. That issue should have been the same in antiquity, though, and it didn’t produce galley slaves then.)

          1. IIRC, the Christian commander at Lepanto ordered the fetters struck from the Christian galley slaves, and promised them freedom if they fought well. On the face of it, crisis led to free rowers, not enslaved ones.

            As I recall the Christians ended the battle with more men than they’d started with, due to all the freed slaves who joined their ranks.

        2. It is my understanding that it was the other way around: since Venice had a shallower manpower pool, it preferred complex naval manoeuvres that required skilled professional free rowers, while Spain and the Ottomans could afford to ram and board accepting losses among naval infantry and slave rowers.

    2. It happened over a period from around 1250 to 1400. It was driven by the depopulation of the Mediterranean coast by the constant raiding warfare between the Christian and Muslim states (if you look at the villages on the Amalfi coast they are half-way up the steep hillside, despite being fishing villages – as a precaution against raiders). Free rowers were preferred, but the maritime population was simply not large enough. The Venetians were the last to switch. Ancient galleys were all rowed by free men.

      1. I take it then that the classic depiction in “Ben Hur” of galleys being rowed by condemned prisoners is anachronistic? Or was that an occasional thing in the Roman era?

        1. So it would seem. Security may have been a concern. Fetters would have been expensive and heavy. Greek galleys put in to land at night. Plenty of opportunities to escape and or exact revenge.

        2. Ben Hur shows why you wouldn’t use slaves in pre-powder galley combat.

          The Roman fleet commander’s galley is under threat of being rammed. Our sources for ancient naval combat are not great but this isn’t particularly complicated: one ship trying to collide with another. There are a few responses the target ship can make: full speed ahead so the rammer passes behind them, turn toward the ramming ship to reduce the angle of impact and thus damage done, or even make it a bow to bow collision both ships ramming each other.

          The one thing that absolutely positively guarantees your ship getting rammed with maximum damage is for all the rowers to panic and stop doing their job. Which is what happens in Ben Hur.

          Not shown in the movie, but if it comes to a boarding action, your rowers aren’t armoured or well armed but numbers still count. Sure, you aren’t going to send them across onto the enemy ship, but free rowers can help defend your own if necessary as they’re much better motivated to put up some kind of fight than slaves. (Especially if the slaves were captured from the enemy.)

          1. Interestingly, Venetians gave the outboard most rower a sword. He was chained, but could at least defend himself in a boarding action (and probably two things came into play – fear of being cut down in the general melee, and comradeship with his fellows).

        3. In times of emergency, slaves could be recruited – but were freed in return.

          Classical multi-level galleys (biremes and triremes) demanded highly-skilled rowing. Medieval galleys shifted first to single-level and then to sweeps with several men on each oar – only one had to be skilled.

    3. There was also the issue that free rowers could fight in a melee, and chained slave rowers could not. The oarsmen might not have been good as the professional soldiers, but mass always helps, I suppose.

  27. “But as François Gauthier recently pointed out,12 it’s not all clear that the velites really did vanish in the late-second/early-first century. Cicero still refers to to them writing in the 40s (Cic. Fam. 9.20; Brut, 271)”

    There is unmitigated pedantry and then there is clear abuse of the text and its context. This statement about velites is the latter.

    Let’s look at Cicero 9.20, shall we? It’s not like Cicero is referring to actual military organization. He is using the term metaphorically. “Nor did I in the least object to being overwhelmed with your shafts of ridicule, as though I were a light skirmisher [velitem] in the war of wits.” Original Latin and English translation here:

    The fact that someone is still using the word metaphorically in the 40’s BC does not mean that velites were still being used. Latin, and modern languages, are full of metaphors relying on obsolescent terms. Latin authors, particularly in the realm of rhetoric, continued to use the phrase “it has come to the triarii” to describe a last-ditch argument, long after triarii ceased to be mentioned in any military context. Not to mention that ancient authors (like modern authors) often consciously employed hoary old words – a trend that became increasingly prevalent in competitive oratory. In the late 3rd Century A.D., Latin inscriptions begin to appear using the term triarii, after a gap in the record for several centuries.

    1. We speak of people being “pilloried” even though we don’t mean literally put in stocks.

        1. It’s plain as a pikestaff that her knight in shining armour walked with a ramrod-straight posture.

    2. The one in Brutus is the same:

      “[271] L I cannot, therefore, neglect to take some notice of those worthy knights, and my intimate friends, very lately deceased, P. Comminius Spoletinus, against whom I pleaded in defence of C. Cornelius, and who was a methodical, a spirited, and a ready speaker; and T. Accius, of Pisaurum, to whom I replied in behalf of A. Cluentius, and who was an accurate, and a tolerably copious advocate: he was also well instructed in the precepts of Hermagoras, which, though of little service to embellish and enrich our eloquence, furnish a variety of arguments, which, like the weapons of the light infantry [ut hastae velitibus amentatae], may be readily managed, and are adapted to every subject of debate.”

        1. Then you are also using the quote in your argument out of context. Whether his argument is adequate or not is a big part of whether your argument is worth anything in terms of intellectual honesty or at all historically supportable.

        2. Well, since the article is only behind a paywall or institutional wall, perhaps you would care to share it?

          1. Unfortunately, Historia is an oldschool paper-first journal. They wait years before releasing an official digital copy which appears in libraries and other unofficial places online Most French journals on the ancient world are free to read online these days, but if you have a scan of a recent Historia you scanned it yourself. I have not seen that issue yet so I don’t have one.

  28. Bret, in spite of my late entry here, hopefully you can fix some of these concerns:

    There only two parts of this narrative > The only
    brief glance as legionary standards > at
    have come how well Marius > come from
    may well be a graduate change > gradual
    Butas François Gauthier > But as
    it’s not all clear that > not at all clear
    selected very small number > selected a very small
    citizens out of thousands Italians > thousands of
    after Marius and a full > [insert comma following Marius]
    I haven’t seem that > seen

  29. Others may have already pointed this out, but the narrative found in wikipedia also got baked into computer games like Total War. The first time I heard that it might be, at a minimum, a massive oversimplification/condensation of the timeline was, I think, Mike Duncan’s History of Rome podcast.

  30. “The end of the light infantry velites of Roman citizen cavalry” – or Roman citizen cav? The sentence is a bit unclear.

  31. Roman men falling out of their tunics wasn’t a thing either. That painting is very unhistorical

  32. Reading this is like not only having a rug pulled out from under me, but the entire floor. Core basis of understanding the legions I’ve had for around twenty years just evaporated. Probably mostly helped along by Total War, but also reinforced by reading multiple Wikipedia articles etc since I started following your blog.

    “Alright. Now one of you go and fix the Wikipedia entry.”
    Well hot damn, someone did! That’s … amazing! Good job.

    Now all the other dozens or more Wikipedia articles that link to it need to be updated. And basically the rest of the internet’s writing on the legions. 🙂

  33. I have to say that as much as I respect the pedantry blog, and as well researched as this is, I do have to disagree with part of this one. Particularly on the notion that Marius did nothing relating to the recruitment of the Capite Censi but continue an evolving trend. Because the fact is that there is no evidence that Marius did go back to recruiting troops in the traditional fashion once he had the option. The blog states that “Once Marius has access to that ‘primary’ stream of manpower generated through the dilectus, he uses it and seems to stop using volunteers,” but I have to object and say that there is no actual evidence of that.

    Rutilius Rufus’ army first of all, was both not normally levied, and was also basically non-existent when Marius took it over after getting utterly slaughtered at the Battle of Arausio. Marius made a huge deal about raising the Capite Censi as his army for both the African campaign and for his motions relating to the early stages of the Cimbric War, and the disaster at Arausio was blamed squarely on Quintus Servilius Caepio’s abject refusal to work with either his counterpart Gnaeus Mallius Maximus or with his Capite Censi-raised army. Caepio was exiled following the battle and his faction of the senate was sent into decline, which is one of the reasons that Marius was able to become Consul so many times running. And while it’s true that the chroniclers do not explicitly state that Marius raised his forces in the following years via volunteers, I would argue that’s because it went without saying that he did. That had been his habit for every campaign he had fought as consul previous to this, Rome had just experienced the greatest manpower disaster since Cannae (or possibly even before), and Marius was famous in Rome for using volunteers. It does not follow that he didn’t use them just because the historians don’t call it out

    Yes, it’s true that the Dilectus doesn’t completely go away under Marius. But then it’s also true that it doesn’t completely go away under Augustus either, the man that the blog does credit for all of these reforms. Even by Trajan’s time, a hundred years after Augustus, it was still in effect, even though by then it is obviously clear that the primary basis of the legions has been volunteers for a very long time. So when the blog says “It’s unclear exactly when that shift-over point happens, but it sure isn’t in the career of Gaius Marius, who sits clearly in the ‘volunteers as a crisis response’ side of the issue,” I must once more raise an objection and say that it seems entirely likely to me that the shift-over point was squarely in the middle of the career of Gaius Marius, who had his career overlap with arguably the greatest manpower loss the Roman Republic ever faced. Arausio may well have involved more casualties to the Romans than Cannae did, and came directly on the heels of the battles of Burdigala and Noreia, both Roman disasters in which the entire armies involved were destroyed. On top of that, Arausio came only a decade before the Social War of 91-87 BC, in which many of the major Italian allies of the Romans turned on them, destroyed more Roman armies, and if nothing else, refused to continue to serve under Rome. I argue that the massive shakeup to the Roman recruitment system provided by the combination events of the Jugurthan, Cimbric, and Social Wars are a perfect moment to explain the overall shift away from Dilectus and towards volunteers, and that is directly in the middle of Marius’ career.

    I don’t dispute that Marius wasn’t the first person to raise volunteers, and it is indeed abundantly clear that the Dilectus did survive in some form. But the Social War is followed on directly by Sulla’s Civil War, and once that’s over, every Roman army I know of is primarily being raised via volunteers. Accordingly, I would argue that only Marius or Sulla are even capable of being the tipping points. Sulla was an arch-conservative who tried to roll back everything Marius did almost pathologically, and Marius was directly associated with raising volunteer armies by that point. To me, this means it had to be Marius, and Sulla wasn’t able to roll it back because it wasn’t practicable at all to do so (either because of the manpower sump of all the above wars, the civil war, or both).

    The Dilectus definitely was still around, because Caesar is referenced as serving in the Siege of Mytilene directly due to his requirements under it, but I would argue it probably persisted for the Equestrian and Senatorial classes, who did not have a Capite-Censi-style counterpart that could be drawn from, much longer than it did the Pedarii.

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