War and Society in Imperial Rome, 31 BC-AD 284

By Brian Campbell | Go to book overview

4

WAR AND THE COMMUNITY

Dio of Prusa, a wealthy Greek orator, compared Roman soldiers to shepherds, who, with the emperor, guarded the flock of empire. 1 Aelius Aristides, another rich Greek man of letters, praised the wonderful efficiency of the army spread around the frontiers guarding the grateful peoples. The soldiers ‘lived day by day in good order and never failed to do what they had been commanded’. 2 Now, both men were influential enough not to have to come into contact with soldiers, and the ideal situation they imagined, in which the army did its noble duty largely sealed off from provincial life and society, was probably far from reality. A standing army meant that the empire was virtually in a constant state of military readiness; 3 some areas had a permanent army presence, while others faced the coming and going of soldiers along main roads. Naturally this situation had a sharper edge in wartime, not least because the army was not always successful in its primary duty of protecting Roman territory and maintaining order. However, even in peacetime the army was a feature of provincial life, and local communities paid the taxes that funded it and supplied the recruits that replenished its numbers. The continuous military presence spawned a complex interrelation between army and society, and even after service was over veterans remained as reminders of war, settlement and Rome’s pervasive influence. 4


The effects of war

The Romans usually talked in terms of conquest and defined their power as stretching potentially without limit, so that no peoples were truly independent. Nevertheless they occasionally recognized the idea of the army acting as a shield protecting the subject peoples under their charge, and the territorial integrity of the areas they ruled. 5 Even if this view is wishful thinking, it does express an ideal that apparently could be endorsed and appreciated by contemporaries, and when provincial communities celebrated deliverance from physical danger they usually honoured the emperor, sometimes indeed mentioning a military unit. 6 By contrast, it was a serious criticism sometimes directed against unpopular emperors that they had failed to protect Roman territory. Suetonius denounced Tiberius for his negligent foreign policy, claiming (quite falsely) that the emperor had

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