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Thread: Solidarity: The weapon of the Roman Legions

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    Default Solidarity: The weapon of the Roman Legions

    What motivates a person on the battlefield?

    This is a question which disturbs and fascinates me.

    Battle, in any period of history, has always been dangerous, loud, painful, and terrifying. It is unpleasant on every level. It leaves thousands of people wounded or dead. There's a very good chance you lose life or limb in a battle. Why do people do it? In the heat of life or death combat with thousands of people struggling against one another, what motivates a person in that moment?

    The question becomes more pressing when one looks at the context of a military campaign, outside of just one pitched battle. Men are obliged to march for miles and miles away from home, to endure hunger and fatigue and cold and rain and mud, and countless uncertainties and terrors and discomforts, and then at the end of that they are confronted with the sheer horror of battle. What can motivate anyone to endure such?

    Ardant du Picq wrote upon this theme in his Battle Studies: " When, in complete security, after dinner, in full physical and moral contentment, men consider war and battle they are animated by a noble ardor that has nothing in common with reality. How many of them, however, even at that moment, would be ready to risk their lives? But oblige them to march for days and weeks to arrive at the battle ground, and on the day of battle oblige them to wait minutes, hours, to deliver it. If they were honest they would testify how much the physical fatigue and the mental anguish that precede action have lowered their morale, how much less eager to fight they are than a month before, when they arose from the table in a generous mood. " (Battle Studies, Part II, Chapter I)

    So what is this elusive factor that gives humans the motivation and mental fortitude to endure all these awful things? One of the most critical factors, military history has found again and again, is group cohesion and social solidarity. Humans fight to assist and protect their comrades and friends in the ranks to either side. As Ardant du Picq also wrote:

    "Unity, that first and supreme force of armies, is sought by enacting severe laws of discipline supported by powerful passions. But to order discipline is not enough. A vigilance from which no one may escape in combat should assure the maintenance of discipline. Discipline itself depends on moral pressure which actuates men to advance from sentiments of fear or pride. But it depends also on surveillance, the mutual supervision of groups of men who know each other well.

    A wise organization insures that the personnel of combat groups changes as little as possible, so that comrades in peace time maneuvers shall be comrades in war. From living together, and obeying the same chiefs, from commanding the same men, from sharing fatigue and rest, from cooperation among men who quickly understand each other in the execution of warlike movements, may be bred brotherhood, professional knowledge, sentiment, above all unity. The duty of obedience, the right of imposing discipline and the impossibility of escaping from it, would naturally follow.

    And now confidence appears." (Battle Studies, Part I, Chapter VI)

    Many years later, Dave Grossman found similar results in his seminal work On Killing: "A tremendous volume of research has found that the primary factor that motivates a soldier to do the things that no sane man wants to do in combat (That is, killing and dying) is not the force of self-preservation but a powerful sense of accountability to his comrades on the battlefield" (On Killing, pg 149)

    Now the title of this thread speaks about the Roman legions. I am getting to that.

    I have before presented on this forum presented views on the nature of Roman armies and their tactics in battle drawn from contemporary scholarship which are rather contrary to the popular understanding advanced by books, movies, games, et cetera. I have argued extensively that they were more javelineers than swordsmen, that they were more interested in aggression than obedience, that their formations were somewhat loose to facilitate movement rather than tight for formation drill, and that the Roman legionary saw his comrades to either side as his competitors for glory. I have pointed out that Roman military discipline, to the extent that it existed, was more a matter of their campaigning discipline rather than battlefield tactics. I also argued that the Marian legions of the Late Republic, after Marius's reforms, were militarily speaking very similar to their predecessors in the Punic Wars and that I didn't see much indication in the sources that Marius really improved the training or behaviours of the Legions in a substantive sense.

    I would like to today engage further with some of the often repeated axioms about the Marian Legion that emerged in the Late Republic. It is said, often, that Marius made the Legions professional, better disciplined, better trained. I don't think these things are necessarily true, or at least not in the usually assumed way. Nothing in the primary texts that I can identify points towards substantively different training, tactics, or campaigning behaviours. Marian legions fought with the same weapons as pre-Marian legions did, they still flung their pila prior to gladius charges, still fought in relatively loose groups clustered around their centurions and standards, they were still aggressive to the point of disobedience at times, they still sought to prove their prowess by glorious individual actions and were praised and rewarded for doing so. In most objective respects, the Marian legion was more similar than different from its predecessors.

    But I think the Marian legions were more militarily formidable armies even so, for a different but still very significant reason.

    The traditional recruitment method for the Roman legion in the Republic as described by Polybius would divide up each of the tribes of Rome among the four legions recruited for each campaigning year. This had the effect of ensuring that any peacetime pre-existing social cohesion among the recruits was broken up, which was very, very weird for cultures of the Mediterranean at this time. Essentially every army leveraged peacetime social organization and social bonds to create unit cohesion at war. The armies of Antiquity had the kind of social cohesion which du Picq and Grossman speak about because they were drawn from social groups to which the man had been a member his entire life. Gallic armies marched to war in their tribes, Germanic lords had a warband of warriors which lived and slept and ate alongside their lord at all times, the battalions of the Macedonian army were drawn from the regions and villages of the Kingdom, this was the normal state of affairs in premodern war. This was necessary. The social trust necessary to hold men together as a military unit were ensured by the maintenance of a man's peacetime social units during wartime. So for the Romans it was very odd that they did otherwise, and I believe part of the reason for that was to foster a spirit of competition for glory among the men of the army, to make them braver and more aggressive in order to prove themselves better than their comrades.

    Now it is inevitable that over the course of a long campaign, a legion in that pre-Marian period would develop its own internal social bonds. Men of the same tent group, century, and maniple would inevitably build friendships and trust, would help each other in their daily tasks, and despite the fierce competition for glory would also rely on each other in battle. Roman soldiers were rewarded for aggressive individual actions, but they were rewarded for saving the lives of fellow citizens with great honour also. At the end of a given campaign however, the legion would be stood down and men would be sent back to their peacetime social groups (Families, clans, et cetera). The legion pre-Marius was a temporary social unit. There are many cultural and economic reasons for why that might be, but it is sufficient for purposes of this thread to state that pre-Marius, the Legions were temporary social units. The long campaigns of the Punic and Macedonian Wars would have led to these temporary social units becoming firmly bonded to each other, but even so with the end of war came the end of the Legion and a return to civilian life. This divide between military and civilian social lives was more stark in Rome than in many other contemporary cultures, as far as I can tell by my current research anyways.

    Among Marius's many military reforms, one of the most underestimated but most significant was that his Legions were permanent social units, or at least long term ones. Where pre-Marius, a legion only existed for the duration of a given conflict (Which could be long, but even so the legion would be stood down at the end of said conflict). The sheer time spent under the colours after the Marian reforms was very long indeed, service lengths of sixteen years were expected and later increased to twenty under Augustus.

    Now, consider this from the socialization perspective. You're a Roman lad of 17 or 18 (Maybe younger even), you join the Legions to serve with Marius (or Pompey, or Caesar). You spend 16 years under the colours. Your entire adult life is spent with the Legions. Your friends are in the Legions, the closest social relationships you have are to your tentmates, your century, your cohort. You're not legally allowed to have a wife or a family (Though of course those rules must have been bent often). Your whole social existence, your whole way of life, is within the Legion. You don't have a trade, you don't have a farm, you left your village or your neighbourhood behind, your family is the Legion. With such long periods of service, often far afield in remote provinces for years far from your homelands, the Legion is your primary social unit. With the experience of long continuous campaigns and many battles large and small, these post-Marian legions would not only gain longer military experience than their pre-Marian counterparts, but would become more and more solid, cohesive, tightly bonded social units held together by countless horizontal links of comradeship between soldiers and by vertical links of trust between leaders and led.

    Veterans of modern wars like Vietnam and Afghanistan have at times reported closer emotional bonds and relationships to their military comrades than to their wives or children. If that was the case after a year in country in Vietnam, how much more would it be the case for a Legion after 10 years or more in the provinces?

    What Marius did was, in effect, create a military caste in Roman society. Where previously war was an activity which the whole of male Roman society participated in, after Marius it was increasingly the province of the Legions, and the Legions were organized such that they became their own social units independent from the Roman state or society.

    These effects have been discussed in the scholarly literature before, but usually from the perspective that the legionaries were more loyal to their generals than to Rome. There is truth to this analsysi. But the other side of that is that the legionaries were more loyal to the Legions than to Rome as a society.

    And on the battlefield, solidarity is a powerful weapon. Solidarity, the desire to help one's comrades and do one's duty so to avoid the shame of one's comrades, motivates men to do things in battle or on campaign they might not otherwise be willing to do. They will stand and fight when a rationally self-interested person might instead run away.

    The blogger T. Greer has a good short article on this subject: Solidarity, Weapon of Modernity.

    I would disagree with him on some of his statements about the Romans however. I think that the social nature of the post-Marian legions indicates that, perhaps by accident or perhaps by design, Marius had created a long term social solidarity within the Roman legions that gave them a critical morale advantage on the battlefield.

    As du Picq writes, and many modern military members will tell you, true unit discipline is not entirely about the obedience to orders from above. It is often just as much or more about each individual's accountability to the group, and the group's willingness and ability to police its individuals in service of the interests or needs of the group. People who know each other, who trust each other, who care about each other and care about what the group thinks of them, will work harder to maintain the group's respect and will be more responsive to the group's demands. A strongly bonded social group will hold together under the pressures and terrors of campaigns and battle. Individuals will do more than just seek to preserve their own lives when the needs and interests of their primary social group, and more importantly that group's respect for the individual, are on the line. Individuals will work harder and fight harder when they fight protect their comrades or to avoid losing the respect of their comrades. Multiplied across the 5,000 men of a Legion, this social solidarity becomes a force multiplier.

    By creating these long term social units, Marius created much stronger social bonds for his soldiers within the Legion. Group membership in the Legion was very likely more important for these men than any other social relationship they might have possessed. That, I think, was one of the critical military advantages of the Roman legions on the battlefield and was key to their legendary tenacity in battle and on campaign.

    To provide a primary source illustration of this tenacity, I ask you to consider Caesar's account of the Ninth Legion at the Battle of Ilerda:

    "Finding nearly the whole of his line panic-stricken an event as unusual as it was unexpected Caesar exhorts his men and leads the Ninth Legion to their support. He checks the foe who are pursuing our men with insolent daring, and compels them again to turn and retreat to the town of Ilerda and halt beneath the walls. But the men of the Ninth Legion, carried away by zeal in their desire to repair the loss received, rashly pursuing the flying foe too far, get into unfavourable ground and approach close under the hill on which the town of Ilerda was situated. When our men wished to retreat from this position, the enemy in turn kept pressing them hard from the higher ground. The place was precipitous with a steep descent on either side, and extended only so far in width as just to give room for three cohorts drawn up in battle array, so that supports could not be sent up on the flanks nor could cavalry be of any use if the men were in difficulties. But on the side of the town sloping ground with a slight descent stretched to the length of about four hundred paces. In this direction our men stood at bay, since, carried forward by their zeal, they had recklessly advanced thus far. The fighting took place in this spot, which was unfavourable both from its confined limits and because they had halted just under the very spurs of the mountain, so that no missile failed to reach them. Nevertheless they strove with valour and endurance and sustained every description of wound. The forces of the foe were increasing and cohorts were continually being sent up to them from the camp through the town so that the unexhausted were always taking the place of the exhausted. Caesar was obliged to adopt the same course of withdrawing the exhausted and sending up supporting cohorts to the same place.

    When they had fought in this way continuously for five hours, and our men were being grievously harassed by superior numbers, having spent all their missiles, they draw their swords and, breasting the hill, charge the cohorts, and after laying a few low, they force the rest to retreat. When the cohorts were thus pushed close up to the wall, and to some extent driven by terror to enter the town, an easy withdrawal was allowed our men" (Caesar, De Bello Civili, Book 1, Chapter 45-46)

    The Ninth Legion faced five hours of combat on unfavourable ground against an enemy that was steadily increasing its pressure, outnumbering them and striking them with missiles from higher ground. In such a disadvantageous position, many forces would have broken and ran rather than endure. From the rational perspective of self-preservation alone, any individual within the Ninth might have preferred to run from that fight. But the Ninth had been with Caesar's armies since Gaul, they had served together for many years, they had the benefit of long experience and many battles but they also would have been a tightly cohesive social group after such long experience. That cohesion, that desire to aid one's comrades as well as advance the glory and prestige of the Legion's name, maintained combat morale even in a decidedly unequal struggle and in the end it was the enemy's will that broke and not the Ninth's. That, I think, gives some indication of the power of solidarity on the battlefield.

    A key question that Ilerda also raises though is why the Pompeian legions, similarly organized and with a similar length of time together as a unit, had their own morale break at Ilerda when they were fighting in the advantageous position. The question gets into how the pressures of war can break down social bonds and trust over time as much as build them up. That's a discussion for another time however.

    I think the takeaway here is that understanding military discipline does not mean some system of instant obedience to commands. I think more accurately it means understanding the nature of the social groups which soldiers of all time periods form during their time at war, understanding how those groups are created, function, and how the pressures of war either strengthen them or break them down. The Roman legions, even after Marius, were often prone to aggressive disobedience as Caesar often recounts. Their battlefield maneuvers were in essence the same as anything done pre-Marius. But I theorize that they were still a more militarily formidable body of troops than their predecessors, as their nature as permanent standing forces created both greater accumulation of military experience and a more tightly bonded, cohesive social unit which would hold together against the rigours of war with greater resilience.

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    Default Re: Solidarity: The weapon of the Roman Legions

    A few quick thoughts I will add more thorough later

    I would disagree with him on some of his statements about the Romans however. I think that the social nature of the post-Marian legions indicates that, perhaps by accident or perhaps by design, Marius had created a long term social solidarity within the Roman legions that gave them a critical morale advantage on the battlefield.
    Rather I disagree. The social cohesion was already there in the Militia army of Rome (its allies ) or in Classical Greece just rather product of the underlying social system. I would argue rather sure Marius did make a system that allowed it to spread to a more random draft vs what came before, and I would not undervalue the simple value of professionalism via long service and disciple which preceding systems did not have.

    To provide a primary source illustration of this tenacity, I ask you to consider Caesar's account of the Ninth Legion at the Battle of Ilerda
    Counter example Athens Phormio 429 BC. Faced with what amounts to 4:1 odds his 20 Athenian ships accepted battle and while initially overwhelmed the last 11 reformed and routed the Spartan fleet. Certainly the democratic nature of Athens would have applaud Marius and its fleet had none of the separation of citizen from society of his legions (or Caesar's for that mater or the later Imperial ones).

    Veterans of modern wars like Vietnam and Afghanistan have at times reported closer emotional bonds and relationships to their military comrades than to their wives or children. If that was the case after a year in country in Vietnam, how much more would it be the case for a Legion after 10 years or more in the provinces?
    I am suspect a bit that crossing that gulf in time. War in the modern era is not perceived quite the same way. To a Roman (or Greek) or a Medieval person of the right station it was normal and frankly 'good thing to participate in. More importantly at least until the end of the Republic realistically its something every one of your living male relatives, friends, neighbors etc probably had done as well in one way or the other. Unlike the very recent modern world where it is deemed i dunno an 'other thing'. Something vaguely wrong even if justified and something locked away and something if you are fortunate enough to live in a wealth and stable state most people have zero experience with. So it is easy to be isolated in a way I really doubt a Greek or Roman or Macedonian or Mongol etc ever would feel.
    Last edited by conon394; February 17, 2021 at 12:58 PM.
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    Default Re: Solidarity: The weapon of the Roman Legions

    Quote Originally Posted by conon394 View Post
    A few quick thoughts I will add more thorough later



    Rather I disagree. The social cohesion was already there in the Militia army of Rome (its allies ) or in Classical Greece just rather product of the underlying social system. I would argue rather sure Marius did make a system that allowed it to spread to a more random draft vs what came before, and I would not undervalue the simple value of professionalism via long service and disciple which preceding systems did not have.
    Depends on how one defines "professionalism" or "discipline".

    Certainly, as my post said, pre-existing social cohesion was a key part of military organization in Antiquity. Successful armies were often ones where people of the given polity had a particularly strong sense of group identity as well as a culture that strongly incentivized military success. Both the pre-Marian Roman army and the armies of the Greeks had these factors, although they used them in different ways.

    The transformation of the Legions from a yearly militia into a standing mercenary force certainly allowed for legions to gain and keep corporate experience over many years of campaigning, but they were different in that they were also a permanent force, or at least each unit was stood up and kept in service for very long periods of time. A post-Marian Roman legion was in some social ways more similar to the foot battalions of Alexander's Macedonian army, which by the time he reached India had been fighting together for decades since the reign of Philip, than they were similar to the pre-Marian legions which disbanded after each campaign. Of course, Alexander's men mutinied against him for how long they had been kept on campaign, far from home whereas under Augustus twenty years of service became the expectation for a legionary, and although legions could be disobedient it appears it was rare for them to grumble over too long a campaign or about being away from home for too long.

    A comparison of mutinies is illuminating: Alexander's mutinied because they were on the far side of the world, homesick and were tired of the fighting. Caesar's 10th Legion mutinied while Caesar was in Italy in between campaigns of the Civil War, because their pay was late and they were expecting discharge. Alexander's men mutinied from being taken too far from homes and families, Caesar's men mutinied because they were expecting discharge and their allotment of lands (In other words, the chance to build a home and a family outside the Legion).

    I am suspect a bit that crossing that gulf in time. War in the modern era is not perceived quite the same way. To a Roman (or Greek) or a Medieval person of the right station it was normal and frankly 'good thing to participate in. More importantly at least until the end of the Republic realistically its something every one of your living male relatives, friends, neighbors etc probably had done as well in one way or the other. Unlike the very recent modern world where it is deemed i dunno an 'other thing'. Something vaguely wrong even if justified and something locked away and something if you are fortunate enough to live in a wealth and stable state most people have zero experience with. So it is easy to be isolated in a way I really doubt a Greek or Roman or Macedonian or Mongol etc ever would feel.
    This is true, but the purpose of comparison was to illustrate how strong social bonds within a group of military comrades can be. Compared to modern soldiers, the Roman legionary post-Marius spent very long periods of time with the same people around them, serving in the same unit, and were often deployed in far flung regions for many years and thus isolated from their pre-existing social groups (Family, clan, et cetera) in their home region of Italy. For all these reasons, I suspect the Legion formed a very strong sense of social solidarity and group identity which was a key factor to their military prowess.
    Last edited by EricD; February 17, 2021 at 06:45 PM.

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    Default Re: Solidarity: The weapon of the Roman Legions

    I'd say solidarity was a product of the Marian system (in a society that was losing solidarity), not the cause of its success.

    I am persuaded by Polybios' thesis that 3rd century Roman society cooperated at several (not all) levels to bring success to the community, sharing risks and rewards.

    With the decay of significant competition in the 2nd century Rome no longer faced proximate existential threats, and ambitious nobles on the cursus honorum were competing with their own class, not other civilisations, and they were competing further and further from the Urbs. There was less incentive to share rewards but risk sharing was still imposed, and the strain on society told eg the riots around the land reforms proposed by the Gracchi.

    Just a note on Alexander, he constantly refreshed his forces with reinforcements and Persian/other additions. Phillip's system was a mix of personal, social and mercenary service, and Alexander continued this: after Darius' murder he released much of his forces, offering to re-enlist them as mercenaries. The motivations to serve for the various units recruited in various ways were extremely varied and had to be juggled: hence the Macedonian state tended to fall apart on the death of a capable king unless he had a strong capable heir. Examples demonstrating this might be the clash of the cavalry and Infantry factions in the succession crisis at Babylon, the wilful behaviour of the Silver Shields, and the late Argead "Companion status creep".

    Marius' reforms seem to have made the bulk of Roman forces essentially mercenary with both pay and retirement settlements, as well as addressing the social (ie citizen rights) question by making it a pathway to Roman citizenship for allies.

    I think in Marius' era the basis for solidarity was no longer 'it works for us, so fight for it", it became "it will work for you if you fight for it".
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  5. #5

    Default Re: Solidarity: The weapon of the Roman Legions

    Quote Originally Posted by Cyclops View Post
    I'd say solidarity was a product of the Marian system (in a society that was losing solidarity), not the cause of its success.
    I'm not entirely sure how to understand this statement.

    Certainly, the mid-Republican period in Roman history was one in which Roman society's competitive nature was held within the constrains of a strong level of cooperativeness which was able to help deliver Rome victories in wars, and in the Late Republic those social bonds began to break down and elite competition among the aristocracy started spiraling out of control. That was a big factor leading to the civil wars after all.

    But I don't know how you can say social solidarity within the Legions was a product of the Marian system and not a cause of its success? It may not be THE cause, things are rarely monocausal in history, but certainly I think a strong sense of social solidarity and bonding among the men of a Legion was a key factor in their military success. How could the Marian system produce social solidarity among its troops without that contributing to military success? Of course there are other factors, but I think the strong morale and esprit de corps based on the shared identity and solidarity that the Marian legions built was a critical factor.

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    Default Re: Solidarity: The weapon of the Roman Legions

    Some interesting lines developing, I enjoy the discussions about what it takes to get the warfighter to the battlefield. Money, threats, shame, honour, lies, honesty, inclusion and prestige all play a part in getting a warrior to endure service and face death.

    Quote Originally Posted by EricD View Post
    I'm not entirely sure how to understand this statement.

    Certainly, the mid-Republican period in Roman history was one in which Roman society's competitive nature was held within the constrains of a strong level of cooperativeness which was able to help deliver Rome victories in wars, and in the Late Republic those social bonds began to break down and elite competition among the aristocracy started spiraling out of control. That was a big factor leading to the civil wars after all.

    But I don't know how you can say social solidarity within the Legions was a product of the Marian system and not a cause of its success? It may not be THE cause, things are rarely monocausal in history, but certainly I think a strong sense of social solidarity and bonding among the men of a Legion was a key factor in their military success. How could the Marian system produce social solidarity among its troops without that contributing to military success? Of course there are other factors, but I think the strong morale and esprit de corps based on the shared identity and solidarity that the Marian legions built was a critical factor.
    I think social solidarity was a factor in Polybian Roman military endurance: in the wars with Hannibal endurance was key to success. I don't think social solidarity was the main factor in Roman military competence. Actual military competence was the product of training, and longer term service.

    As you note the Polybian system had developed something like this as Roman campaigns became multi-year and overseas commitments. Social solidarity was a key here as terms of service stretched beyond what the system had evolved to deal with IE ideally single season campaigns were a yearly magistrate led a yearly levy into the field, and home again. It was cheaper than mercenary service because service was the price of citizenship, and bounties were a bonus.

    Once Hannibal (the last existential threat to Rome for many centuries) was gone, service for rank and file became more onerous at the same time as social inequality lowered the incentive to serve longer terms "for the good of the country". i think this situation took many decades to fully develop, and it was the Cimbri/Teutones crisis that revealed its extent.

    The Marian legion created a pathway to wealth and inclusion, I guess like a lower tier version of the cursus honorum: get on the merit pathway and reap the rewards of long term service.

    I think Marius' system tried to make social solidarity the end product of service, in the form of financial reward (both immediate and on retirement) as well as citizenship for socii.

    However it did not work exactly like that: armies and bodies of veterans tended to become loyal to the leaders who paid and settled them, rather than to the SPQR. It was more expensive as the state took over all the cost of equipment and living expenses, but more competent armies tended to win enough to keep the system ticking over. Of course severe losses had a compounding effect (eg Varus' disaster in Germany) and when Romans fought Romans the losses were terrible for the state no matter who won.

    Still it got men to the battlefield, if anything better trained and equipped than the Polybian system. It motivated soldiers to fight hard, if anything harder than under the Polybian system as they were there to get paid in part with booty and land won from the foe.

    The leadership had the same motivation as before: booty and "experience points" for stepping up the path to the Consulship. They also had to find the money to pay the boys, and the boys remembered.

    The army rapidly became an institution separate from the state. Marius remined loyal to the Senate and people, even suppressing extreme Populares and revolting Socii (although he was a Populare and an Italian). He served an illicit number of terms as Consul, but always in the service of the state. he might well have made himself Dictator...

    In less than a generation Marius' lieutenant Sulla marched his personally loyal legions into Rome to remove Populares from power. The Populares never forgot and Marius' nephew Julius, and his adoptive heir Octavius did not inherit Marius scruples about using their personal armies for rule the state. For all the trappings of the principate, Augustus paid the soldiers from his private military treasury and granted non-Romans citizenship for service, essentially the Marian system writ large.
    Last edited by Cyclops; February 23, 2021 at 04:59 PM.
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