Storming the Heavens: Soldiers, Emperors, and Civilians in the Roman Empire

Storming the Heavens: Soldiers, Emperors, and Civilians in the Roman Empire

by Antonio Santosuosso
The success of the Roman empire was largely due to the prowess of the legions but, likewise, a dissatisfied military was also responsible for some of the greatest threats to the empire's unity. This study provides a readable and straightforward assessment of the Roman army and, in particular, the relationship between soldiers, their imperial commanders and the


The success of the Roman empire was largely due to the prowess of the legions but, likewise, a dissatisfied military was also responsible for some of the greatest threats to the empire's unity. This study provides a readable and straightforward assessment of the Roman army and, in particular, the relationship between soldiers, their imperial commanders and the citizens they were supposed to protect, from the 3rd century BC to the 5th century AD. These centuries were marked by expansion and civil unrest as parts of the empire were treated less favourably than others and soldiers were not repaid. Santosuosso also looks at Augustus' successful attempts to reorganise the army, the mutual dependence of the emperor and his armies that followed, the daily life and equipment of soldiers, landmark battles and particular opponents. Finally, the study examines the defeat of the Roman army at the hands of a succession of invaders.

Editorial Reviews

Rose Mary Sheldon
Santosuosso has a gift for storytelling, and his obvious love for the ancient sources shows through. He has filled a gap in the modern literature by providing a narrative account of Rome's military history from the late Republic through the fall of the empire....Accessible and informative.
Publishers Weekly
In a fascinating sequel to his Soldiers, Citizens, and the Symbols of War from Classical Greece to Republican Rome, Santosuosso traces the rise and fall of the Roman Empire via the rise and fall of the Roman army. By the second century B.C.E., Rome had established dominance in the Mediterranean world through its military conquests and its policy of Romanization of the conquered nations. Yet, internally the relationship between the army and the state was beginning to deteriorate. In the middle of the second century, the army, which until then had come from the ranks of land-owning citizens, was thrown open to all citizens. Numerous social and civil wars occurred in the latter half of the second century and into the first century B.C.E. over questions of Roman citizenship and slavery, the most famous being the slave revolt of the gladiator Spartacus. In addition, since most of the soldiers had no land to return to, they fought battles not for the honor and glory of the state but for the loot they could gain. Thus, commanders bent themselves to the wills of the soldiers in order to ensure loyalty. The Roman army, then, began a slow devolution into a rapacious group of pillagers and still later into an army that served the needs and desires of the emperor rather than the empire. Caesar and Augustus briefly brought the army back to its original purpose. By the time of the late Roman Empire (roughly 450-476 C.E.), however, the army was in such political, social and military disarray that the barbarians poured in over the porous Roman borders and brought the empire to its knees. Santosuosso's crackling prose and lively narrative provide illuminating glimpses into this history. Maps. (Aug.)Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Santosuosso (history, University of Western Ontario) describes the role of the Roman military and facilitating the crises of the third century (BC). He considers the economic factors influencing the crisis, the practice of pillaging, the role of Caesar, the institutions of power within the empire, the twin threats of external invasion and internal unrest, and the eventual decline of the empire. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
Kirkus Reviews
A lucid study of battles, broken treaties, and arms races in Roman antiquity. In ancient Rome, writes Santosuosso (History/Univ. of Western Ontario), the military was made up of members of landed families who had a very real interest in seeing to the health of the republic. In the second and third centuries (a.d.), however, the state (now an empire) entered a long period of decline, nudged downward by the staggering cost of maintaining a far-flung army numbering nearly a quarter of a million elite troops. The burden of supporting this force fell to the Roman taxpayers, who were already hard-pressed, especially in the countryside; to escape that burden, many rural people found it easier to join the army themselves than to till the fields and pay the publican. Especially after the time of the emperor Commodus (the heavy of the recent film "Gladiator"), they also found military service to be about the only shot they had at improving their lot (through land grants to veterans and shares in the spoils of conquest), for, as Santosuosso observes, "The Roman laws of war took for granted that conquered peoples surrendered their freedom and property to Rome." The conversion of the Roman army from an elite force to a volunteer army of the dispossessed-and, increasingly, the non-Roman poor at that-contributed to Rome's political instability, as individual commanders vied for control of their corners of the empire and occasionally marched on Rome to seize control, backed by troops loyal not to the empire but to themselves. Government became so militarized, Santosuosso writes, that "the imperial guard and the rank and file in the field ... held the real power, standing behind often weak rulers." Thoserulers were eminently dispensable; between a.d. 211 and 284 an emperor's reign ended almost always in assassination. Good reading for critics of latter-day military culture, as well as students of ancient history.

Product Details

Westview Press
Publication date:
History and Warfare Series
Product dimensions:
6.22(w) x 9.29(h) x 0.87(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

All—Rich and Poor,
Well-Born, and Commoners—Must
Defend the State

[Marius] enrolled soldiers, not according to the classes in the manner of our forefathers, but allowing anyone to volunteer, for the most part of the proletariat. Some say that he did this through lack of good men, others because of a desire to curry favor, since that class had given him honor and rank. As a matter of fact, to one who aspires to power the poorest man is the most helpful, since he has no regard for his property, having none, and considers anything honorable for which he receives pay.

Sallust, The War with Jugurtha lxxxvi.2-3

Once he learned that the barbarians—Germans mainly but also some Celts—were approaching the mountains, the consul Gaius Marius (ca. 157-86 B.C.) crossed the Alps quickly. Thousands of legionnaires had already fallen in battle to these tall, ferocious, blue-eyed warriors. Now divided into two main groups, the barbarians had decided to invade the Italian northern plains. One group, the Cimbri, were coming from the north through Noricum (the region northeast of the Alps). The other group, the Teutones, facing Marius, were coming from the west, the land of the transalpine Gauls. The year was 102 B.C.

    Marius had gained his military reputation in North Africa against the Numidian king Jugurtha, who, chained and dejected, had been exhibited in Marius's triumph in Rome and would soon lose his mind in a Roman dungeon. In Africa the consul had also won his soldiers' hearts and loyalty. His sense of justice, firmness of character, and willingness to share deprivations with his soldiers and reward them for their bravery had endeared him to the troops. Moreover, he was a leader who brought great financial gains. His triumphal procession had displayed 3,007 Roman pounds (eleven ounces each) of gold, 5,775 pounds of uncoined silver, and 287,000 drachmas. He also commanded vast popular support in Rome, though he lacked the basic ingredients of political power—eloquence, wealth, and family background; the aristocracy viewed him with fear and contempt. For the Roman ruling group, there were many unpalatable details about Marius. His ancestry was modest, he had not been born in Rome, and he was not awed by the senators' social status and family history. He used to taunt the aristocrats that his nobility was carried in the wounds of his body, not on "monuments of the dead nor likeness of other men." The commoners who would come to see him as their champion respected his honesty, as well as his tendency to challenge and rebuke his reputed superiors in society.

    Marius's campaign against the Teutones was a model of the Roman art of war in the later stages of the republic. In preparation for the confrontation, which was causing great fear in Rome, this man, who was ambitious, quarrelsome, and fond of war, proceeded to challenge the invaders in a methodical, logical way. He carefully trained his troops both mentally and physically, putting them through long marches and quick races in short bursts and training them to carry their own baggage. When he arrived close to the enemy, first attentions were devoted to defense. He set up a fortified camp near the River Rhone in Gaul. In a precaution typical of the Roman art of war, he made sure that abundant supplies were stored in the camp and that if more were needed they could arrive in a speedy and easy manner. Engineering would help with the latter: The Rhone's estuary into the Mediterranean was silted with mud, sand, and clay, allowing only a slow, difficult journey upstream. Marius built a canal connecting the river with a bay that provided protection from the bad weather and access for large ships.

    Upon their arrival the Teutones and their allies, the valiant warriors known as the Celtic Ambrones, set up camp nearby and challenged the Romans to come out of their fortified camp. It was an enticement that the legionnaires could hardly resist. Yet in the best spirit of another Roman characteristic, Marius and his officers were able to hold their troops in check. It was difficult and at times seemed almost impossible, for the legionnaires often desired to leave their posts and respond to the Teutones' attacks against the camp. But Marius intended to get his men accustomed to the savage appearance of their enemy, their war cries, their equipment, and their movements in order to transform "what was only apparently formidable, familiar to their minds from observation."

    Finally, after storming the Roman camp unsuccessfully, the Germans decided to bypass Marius and proceed toward the mountain passes. Plutarch puts the Teutones and the Cimbri, who were operating north of the Alps, at 300,000, a number that he insists was less than the one mentioned by other authors. The Teutones' marching column was so long that it took six days to pass the Romans. Thus it became time for Marius to break camp. He followed close, never forgetting, however, to fortify his camp and place it in a strong position at night. The moment for engagement came when they arrived at Aquae Sextiae (Aix-en-Provence) in the proximity of the Alps (see Figure 1.1).

    Marius's preparations were again meticulous. The Aquae Sextiae camp was set in a strong position but, strangely, away from a river running near the enemy camp. At the moment of confrontation, it seems Marius wanted to place his troops in a situation wherein their desire to win would be intensified by the need to secure a water source. Actually, access to the water became the incidental trigger for the battle. Taking advantage of the fact that the barbarians were eating or engaged in leisure, Roman servants moved to the river to fill their containers. Once there, they came upon a group of bathing barbarians, who called other tribesmen to their aid. The Ambrones, although heavy with the barely completed dinner and their minds inebriated by wine, rushed to the spot, a move that triggered the legions' Ligurian soldiers to press forward to succor their servants. The clash was harsh and violent with both sides, Ambrones and Ligurians, uttering similar war cries since both claimed a similar descent, likely Celtic. (The Ligurians lived in the area nearby the modern city of Genoa.) When other legionnaires joined the Ligurians, the Ambrones fled toward their camp, their blood and bodies polluting the river water. As they reached the camp, an unusual spectacle awaited both fugitives and pursuers. The barbarian women dashed forth, swords and axes in hand, calling their men traitors and attacking the Romans, sometimes with their bare hands. The struggle ended at night when the Romans withdrew to their camp. It was a scene repeated a year later when Marius confronted the Cimbri at Vercellae. When the women, dressed in black garments, saw their men fleeing from the battlefield and reach for the wagons where they stood, they slew them with their own hands before killing their children and taking finally their own lives.

    Marius's men spent the night in "fears and commotions," for the daytime fight had prevented them from fortifying their camp with a palisade or a wall, and the enemy facing them was numerous. Wails, howls, and shouts of grief and of revenge reached them from the enemy camp, mourning the Ambrones, casualties. No attack came during the night, and none the day after. Yet battle was inevitable.

    The barbarian camp was also located in a strong position, atop slopes and protected by ravines. In preparation for the confrontation Marius detached 3,000 men to lie in ambush in a wooded area near the enemy camp, ordering them to strike at the enemy's rear if the opportunity arose. Then he made sure that his soldiers were well fed and took a good rest. At daybreak he sent his cavalry on the plain and lined his infantry in front of the Roman camp, which had been set on a hill. It was a clever deployment that used the terrain to the utmost (his soldiers would have the advantage of height over the opponent and secure rear and flanks); the cavalry threatened the enemy flanks, and the men in ambush, when they came out of hiding, would bring the element of surprise to deliver the killing blow.

    The Teutones and the remaining Ambrones obliged by rushing uphill, probably deployed in large squares with a depth equal to their front, as the Cimbri would fight at Vercellae. It was enticing for Marius's soldiers to charge downhill, but Marius relied on their discipline so that their desire to fight would not imperil the situation. He sent his officers along the line with specific orders: Do not charge; launch your javelins (pila) as the enemy rushes forward, then use your sword (gladius) as they come face to face and hit with your heavy shield (scutum) to push them back. Those were instructions that he himself carried out, for "he was in better training than any of them, and in daring surpassed them all."

    Having rushed uphill, the Teutones must have been out of breath when they came to grips with the Romans. Moreover, their blows and the clash of their shields, originating from the lower ground, must have been weak. In the meantime their large numbers must have been a handicap, for disorder reigned in their rear. This was the moment that the 3,000 Roman troops in ambush had been awaiting, and they hit the enemy's rear. The barbarian array broke up and fled, likely being pursued and cut down by the cavalry deployed in the plain. Counting their dead and prisoners, the tribesmen left some 100,000 people on the battlefield. So many human bones covered the terrain afterward, it was said, the people of nearby Massalia fenced their vineyards with the bones of the fallen. A year later the Cimbri, who had finally come across the Alps, met a similar defeat at Vercellae in northern Italy. About 60,000 fell prisoner; double that number perished on the battlefield. Marius again was the winning general.

    Marius's victories became part of Rome's collective memory and were celebrated centuries afterward. And although the clashes at Aquae Sextiae and Vercellae are splendid examples of the way the Romans carried out their brand of war, even more important for the military future of the state was Marius's recruiting reforms, coming about four years before the battle in transalpine Gaul.

Recruiting All Citizens

In 107 B.C. Gaius Marius opened the army to all Roman citizens regardless of their wealth. It was the last, dramatic stage in the troops' proletarization. In the past, at least from the time of Servius Tullius (ca. 580-530 B.C.), the function of soldier had been the prerogative only of those who owned a certain amount of property. Personal assets dictated one's own position in the battle line as well as one's equipment. The division into five classes of different wealth meant that the men of the highest wealth (the first three classes) constituted the heavy infantry, while the remaining two classes (the fourth and fifth) played less crucial roles on the battlefield. The fifth class included citizens who had property valued at least 11,000 asses (Roman copper coins). Moreover, each soldier was responsible for buying his own weapons and armor. The richest men of the state manned the cavalry (equites), the rest the infantry.

    Marius's recruiting reform would bode ill for the future of the Roman republic, yet it was the logical conclusion to a phenomenon that had begun at least a century earlier, something that Rome's imperialist ventures on increasingly far-flung fields had exacerbated. Rome began to experience recruiting problems in the early stages of the Second Punic War (218-201 B.C.). In the aftermath of the crushing defeats at Trebia (218 B.C.), Trasimene (217 B.C.), and Cannae (216 B.C.), the Senate made the first change to the Servian Constitution probably between 214 B.C. and 212 B.C. The property requirement was lowered from 11,000 to 4,000 asses. The war's heavy casualties must have made the new policy necessary, but already a few years earlier, in 217 B.C., the state had recruited slaves as ship rowers. This probably meant that the usual crew, normally made up of proletarii or capite censi (the poor, people whose only asset was their children) and freedmen, must have been employed in the land army.

    What had been a state of emergency around 214 B.C. did not disappear with the end of the conflict against the Carthaginians during the Second Punic War. Rome's expansion, coupled with an intense economic crisis, increased the need for a larger recruitment base, especially after 159 B.C., because many small farmers no longer qualified for even the minimum property requirement. Thus the number of assidui (people qualified for military service) became increasingly smaller. The census reveals a decline of 6 percent between 163 B.C. and 135 B.C., a time when Rome's military obligations were becoming more extensive (see Figure 1.2, which depicts Roman provinces around 120 B.C.). It also seems that some sectors of the assidui became increasingly reluctant to perform military service. In 168 B.C. the government placed a higher military burden upon the allies (socii). Yet already in 151 B.C. it became quite difficult to recruit soldiers for Spain, a battlefield with the reputation of low financial gains and great hardships. In 134 B.C. Scipio Aemilianus was compelled to recruit 4,000 volunteers, many of them his own clientes (free men who entrusted their well-being to a powerful patron), for his Spanish campaign. In the years following 133 B.C., the state tried to solve the problem by reducing the property qualification to 1,500 asses. The change added about 75,000 proletarii to the assidui. Yet the difficulty had not been solved.

    The destruction of Carthage, and the collapse of Macedonian and Greek power on the opposite shore of the Adriatic Sea and in the Aegean Sea, might cause one to infer that prosperity and internal peace were the hallmarks of the Roman state toward the middle of the second century B.C. On the contrary, several problems, some of them dating from the past, came to a crisis stage. The gap between rich and poor increased. The aristocracy and the equestrian class had reaped most of the benefits from the battlefield. Their vast estates (latifundia) became larger and their profits greater; cheap labor was abundant given the influx of slaves as Romans defeated other civilizations on the battlefield. Moreover, the destruction of Carthaginian power, coupled with Roman supremacy in the Aegean, meant that most of the Mediterranean was open to exploitation by the upper levels of Roman society.

    The subjugation of other peoples became the root of social displacement, affecting many small farmers and the lower middle class outside Rome, including craftsmen in smaller towns. The introduction of slave labor meant their labor was less valuable, with less demand and lower prices for their products. In the decades before Marius's emergence, it had become increasingly clear that many men could not qualify even for the lowest army level. Even if they could, the necessity of buying one's personal armaments must have increased their financial distress. In other words, what had been the core of the republican armies became smaller and smaller, with the resultant increase in unemployment or underemployment and pauperization. This was a problem that did not seem to touch the Roman plebeians, for the commoners living in the capital continued to enjoy the traditional economic benefits and handouts of the residents of the city.

    In the past the problem had been attenuated by having the lower rural and provincial groups share in the profits of war. However, after the conflicts of the first half of the second century B.C., available enemy targets were of limited economic benefit while requiring great military effort. This was especially the case in Spain, where local resistance had not been crushed yet, and of Numidia in Africa. Moreover, internal upheaval in key places like Sicily also limited the revenue flow into the city.

    The crisis became serious in the years preceding and following Marius's reform when the Cimbri and the Teutones with their allies wreaked havoc in the territories of the Roman Empire. The two Germanic tribes left Jutland (the mainland of modern-day Denmark) around 115 B.C. For the next few years they seemed unstoppable, defeating a consular army in Noricum in 113 B.C. and another Roman host four years later in the Rhone Valley. But the worst was still to come for in 105 B.C. at Arausio (modern-day Orange) they crushed a large Roman army, inflicting no less than 20,000 casualties. A conservative estimate puts the total Roman dead in all their encounters against these Germanic tribes at some 35,000, the equivalent of seven 5,000-man legions. But even after Arausio, Rome remained safe, for the Germanic tribes chose Spain as their next target. Soon thereafter, however, they retraced their steps, moving toward the Italian peninsula. Marius stopped them in two great battles—the Teutones in 102 B.C. at Aquae Sextiae (Aixen-Provence) and the Cimbri one year later at Vercellae, near Padua, on the plains of northern Italy.

    Total Roman casualties, even before Arausio, had been high, especially if we include the continuous conflicts in the Iberian peninsula and Numidia. The situation was serious as well because the socii, who normally provided half the forces of the Roman legions, were becoming increasingly restless. In exchange for their loyalty they demanded the right of citizenship, something the Romans steadfastly refused.

    Thus toward the end of the second century B.C. the problem the Roman state faced was where to find more manpower. The army was at the core of the republic, but Roman society had never been broken into the three Indo-European categories, often hereditary, of military, religious, and economic groups, as was common in similar civilizations. All citizens were eligible to serve, although in practice for the first few centuries of its existence Rome limited duty only to the assidui. The minimum property level to qualify for service was not necessarily high, because there were still many small farmers who qualified for the property requirement. Actually the archetype of the Roman soldier was, as Cato expressed in De agri cultura, the citizen who was a farmer. The increasing pauperization of the agricultural classes, and hence the inability of the lowest levels to qualify, thwarted this ideal, especially after the failure of the land redistribution schemes supported by Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus. The efforts of both brothers ended in ruin—Tiberius was assassinated in 132 B.C., Gaius ten years later.

    The Gracchi reforms, which envisaged the redistribution of public lands to landless citizens, certainly may have been motivated by personal ambition; yet their plan could have solved the recruitment problem by enlarging and strengthening the base of small landowners—the backbone of the Roman army from the very beginning. It would have made the republican order much stronger. The plan's rejection and the resulting violence, during which the Gracchi and their followers were killed by their opponents, spelled disaster for the political and social health of the Roman republic. Tiberius's murder introduced extreme violence to Roman politics.

    What Marius did in 107 B.C. was to legalize a process that had been present for about a century and that the Roman ruling class had failed to implement: open up the army to all citizens regardless of their property, arm them at state expense, and recruit not through the dilectus (the mandatory levy of the citizens from their tribes) but on a volunteer basis. The new approach did not imply the abolition of the dilectus, which remained part of Roman policy, but rather the abolition of the principle that men of property equaled "soldiers" and that the degree of one's property found its equivalent in the individual's position and function on the battlefield. In the past, the proletarii (propertyless individuals whose only asset was their children) served in the army only in case the state called a tumultus, that is, a general conscription in a situation of dire emergency. Now, instead, they were placed on a par with the rest of the population and could fight side by side with men of property on the battle line.

    Later, when the civil war between Marius and Sulla shredded the social fabric of the state, Marius was accused of implementing the reform of 107 B.C. to gain political support from men of property unwilling to serve. Eventually the capite censi (all citizens regardless of property; rated by head count, not by property) constituted the bulk of the army after the introduction of the new policy. Thus modern scholar Emilio Gabba is correct to argue that the lack of other volunteers before the new policy's introduction in 107 B.C. must have meant that the social groups that had traditionally monopolized war were no longer willing to shed blood for every enterprise, especially when material rewards might have been minuscule, as in Numidia, where Marius was directed.

Excerpted from Storming the Heavens by Antonio Santosuosso. Copyright © 2001 by Westview Press, A Member of the Perseus Books Group. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Antonio Santosuosso is professor of history at the University of Western Ontario .

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