An Imperial Roman Army Field Manual: Frontinus and the Haunting Vestiges of Republicanism
by Daniel Blanchard
Sextus Iulius Frontinus in his fourth book of the Stratagemata outlined, in the classic fable-style, the great role and importance of discipline on armies in warfare and the lasting effects of discipline on soldiers in the crisis of combat. Frontinus knew well of what he wrote. He campaigned aggressively with Domitian in Northern Germany in 70 CE against the Batavian rebel Civilis and served as a pivotal governor of Britain from 76-78 CE. Throughout his service Frontinus acquired a wealth of practical experience in commanding Imperial armies in the field, most notably in Wales against the Silures, which he destroyed and the Ordovices whose lands he garrisoned. It was during the interlude between his governorship and his third consulship in 100 CE that he wrote the
Strategemeta which, most appropriately, appeared during the turbulent, if not militarily disastrous, reign of Domitian.
The Strategemeta was a testament to the ruinous and deleterious behavior and the markedly expanding fissures in discipline and consequently erosion in effectiveness of the Imperial Roman Army. Soldiers’ nominal allegiance, their loyalty, to their commanders and legion, to Rome, was won by the ever increasing donatives, rewards, and privileges given out by the Emperors and generals. Soldiers exhibited an increasing propensity for fighting each other often drinking and brawling with auxiliary units as well as sacking and razing cities of the empire, while committing various rapine acts against the very people whom they were to defend. Soldiers demanded leisurely discipline, refusing outright exacting and stern commanders. Simply put, soldiers rejected the rigors of soldiering, demanding rewards which used to be earned in order to remain compliant. The weight of the
Sacramentum was disregarded altogether. Order became increasingly harder to maintain as soldiers became more politically independent creating change through the use of their swords.
There were a myriad of events which explicitly revealed the great depths to which the Army had sunk: most notably, the violent and shameful chaos of the 69 CE Civil War, the disgrace of four legions defecting during the revolt of Civilis, the genocidal Jewish Wars, the shocking revolt of Governor Saturninus of Upper Germany who seized the treasury at Moguntiacum and incited a rebellion of the Upper Rhine. Compounding these examples were the appalling disasters in Moesia and Dacia during which the remnants of two legions were lost, a general killed in the field, a pro-consul ingloriously decapitated, and the better part of 15,000 to 20,000 soldiers killed or wounded. Given such hallmark, singularly disastrous events, it was easy to understand why Frontinus concluded
On Discipline with the tale of the death of Consul Quintus Petilius at the hands of the Ligurians. For his death, the legions held responsible were withheld their entire years pay and had their future wages reduced. Neither the legions of the headless Pro-consul Oppius Sabinus nor skewered Prefect Cornelius Fuscus were accorded such a reckoning by Domitian.
Discipline was the key; resuscitating an even then archaic form of discipline and tradition to redress the Imperial Roman Army. The tenets of Roman warfare; predicated on the deadly centuries and then maniples precisely arranged by cohort mustered and organized into the phalangeal legion, was grim, bloody, and entirely effective in creating death in often vast numbers that defy a modern logistical mind. Only through strict discipline can true effective shock be achieved and despite its host of ranged weapons the Roman Army was still very much rooted in the beliefs of slamming into the enemy’s ranks and engaging in hand-to-hand combat. It was discipline, well drilled, daily, found in even the most mundane of tasks, which dictated that every Roman soldier stay in rank, gripping his shield, wielding his
pilus and gladius in conformity, for in disciplined conformity, freely accepted by the individual soldier, that was long understood to be vital for victory. This aged military maxim was as old as the phalanx. The phalanx and its later manifestation the legion were built upon the singular idea that discipline wins battles. Well ordered discipline breathed life into the citizen armies of the Roman Republic permitting them to visit great slaughter and destruction amongst its more numerous enemies.
Frontinus’ work Strategemata, particularly On Discipline, was written as a warning, a call to return to the old Republican codes of military conduct, training, and discipline; soldiering upon the traditional and intrinsic values of obligation, honor, family and state not the accumulation of money, power, and prestige. Throughout, Frontinus championed the Roman Republican Army, the same which had won Rome an Empire, as the exemplar, the paradigm of military achievement. In his brief preface to
On Discipline Frontinus freely admitted his collection of abbreviated stories had no bearing on tactics, generalship, or strategy, but rather was an amorphous ill-defined group to which he referenced simply as examples of military science. A more appropriate classification perhaps would have been, to borrow a term from Von Clausewitz, “Virtue of an Army” for it was the ethereal, the intangible, which Frontinus attempted to analyze; an attempt to understand the influences which made an army palpably destructive and seemingly invincible. It was with his fourth book that Frontinus groped towards an explanation which enabled some better understanding of the psyche, the motives and the means, which sustained armies through the bloody and harrowing grimness of hand to hand combat; bringing both victory and the endurance to undergo this gruesome and disturbing experience repeatedly with similar success.
From Clausewitz this definition of virtue of an army was drawn.
An Army which …(!) never loses its sense of obedience, its respect for and confidence in its leaders, even under depressing effects of defeat: an Army with all its physical powers, inured to privations and fatigue by exercise, like the muscles of an athlete; an Army which looks upon all its toils as the means to victory, not as a curse which hovers over its standards, and which is always reminded of its duties and virtues by the short catechism of one idea, namely the
honor of its arms
Though not expressed by Frontinus in such terms, such a philosophy infested his treatise. Frontinus well articulated through his fables that such a spirit was born through rigid discipline, deeply imbedded physically and mentally through privation and toughness, coupled with consistent uniformly administered punishment and strict unswerving obedience to the command structure. This then was the key for Roman armies to endure battle successfully, alluding that it was discipline alone which brought strength, mental toughness, to armies. His examples provided were drawn from the battle experience of both the legion and the phalanx, for each was built upon the very ideas of conformity, uniformity, and obedience; discipline, the oneness of a body of well organized men, wielding the same weapons, armored with the same equipment, educated in the same skills of pushing, thrusting and stabbing, speaking a common language, and holding common civic values and ethics.
Frontinus appears to argue that it was discipline which harnessed the citizen, and enabled him to fight far more effectively than a mercenary, for the motives to kill and fight, march, camp, obey orders, and die was rooted in the consciousness of service to family and polis, the state, to win honor and glory, not loot, plunder, or power. The more than forty references to Punic mercenary armies and their commanders, most notably Hannibal, were, for the most part, littered across the chapters
On Ambushes, On Escaping from a Difficult Situation and Distracting the Attention of the enemy. Of the five examples provided for
How to meet the menace of Treason four were related to Punic armies: unquestionably damning evidence against the use of mercenaries in the field. Certainly Frontinus recognized the great role of an individual military genius in command of these mercenary armies; though the lesson of Frontinus was that military genius was not enough, never should be relied upon, and in the test of battle should not matter. The logical conclusion from
On Discipline was that it was Republicanism, not money, fame, or military acumen, which was essential for maintaining well disciplined and therefore victorious armies in the field. A belief shared by his contemporaries.
Frontinus supplied forty-six examples which comprised his analysis of Discipline. It was one of the largest sections of the
Strategemata second only to Book II section 5, On Ambushes, which numbered forty-seven. Throughout his analysis, Frontinus omitted entirely any reference to the military exploits of the Julio-Claudian and Flavian lines or their generals, save for the famed and redoubtable Domitius Corbulo; who in all texts was most often described as a throw-back, an anachronism, a general of Imperial Rome clinging to Roman Republican military virtues.
Frontinus championed men, consuls and commanders, bound by the very idea of civic militarism, the duty of fighting for their government, home, honor and glory. He rested his argument through specific reference to the well disciplined armies of the traditionally hated enemies of the Roman Empire, Pompeius Magnus, Brutus and Cassius. These were framed by references to such distinguished commanders as Aurelius Cotta (252 BCE), Atilius Regulus (294 BCE), Publius Nasica (194 BCE) Quintus Metellus (143 BCE), and Publius Scipio Africanus (134 BCE) all of whom Frontinus made clear were part of a Republican Military tradition dating as early as Marcus Cato who in 471 BCE executed a soldier whose tardiness caused him to miss the departure of the amphibious expedition, and Manlius “The Magnificent” who in 340 BCE executed his own son because his son had disobeyed his father’s orders. Frontinus provided depth to his argument, making the tangible connection to the aged Greek tradition by incorporating into his research anecdotes of Lysander, Cleararchus, Antigonus and even the nightly camp system of Phyrrhus.
In each instanced example Frontinus made a parallel between civic militarism and the enforcement of discipline in order to create endurance, conformity, and uniformity; in brief the building and sustaining of an army whose unmatched symmetry was capable of inflicting great slaughter. Frontinus championed the very idea so anathema to the legions of Imperial Rome that there was equality amongst the men with seniority and rank being the only distinguishing marks. Accountability, purpose, and a clear chain of command were well honored and established principles. Nepotism did not exist. Neither did favoritism. Sons privileged enough to serve under the command of their fathers fought as soldiers of the line, held to the same rigid and harsh standards of victory or death. Commanders, generals, were models for their soldiers. Generals were expected to live as their soldiers; eating the same food and wine living in similar quarters, enduring similar hardships. Those commanders which did not do so were punished.
What was most striking of Frontinus’ collection on Discipline was the severity of punishments meted out for defaulters. Scourging, hard labor, reduced rations, dissolution, decimation, exile and death were standard punishments for offenses which ranged from the mundane to severe. Such punishments were applied equally, according to a standard and specific code of practice which was inflexible. Instances of gross insubordination; retreat, desertion and failure to follow orders were referred to the Senate. The legion which plundered the city of Rhegium without orders in 279 BCE had 4000 of its number executed as punishment. The Senate made it a crime to bury or mourn for these men. Fortunate then was the XIV
Gemina which plundered and burned Turin in 69 CE was returned to Britain without further consequences.
Though punishments under the Republic were harsh, severe, certainly cruel in some instances, the soldiers drew comfort from a well defined and applied code of conduct. Equality sustained the code of conduct because no one existed above it, or immune to consequences of improper behavior. Blame was accorded to those who were guilty, and were punished accordingly without variance in the application of the sentence. Such a code of discipline could not have been equitably enforced in the Roman Imperial Army, with which Frontinus was well acquainted, especially after the Civil Wars following in the wake of Nero’s Death. The strong, organized and disciplined military traditions of the Republic, ruthlessly applied by a few generals such as Corbulo were most often unwanted and frowned upon by the soldiers of the Empire. The soldiers of the Imperial Army for the most part, favored wealthy and lenient commanders and loathed those who were believed as capricious or strict disciplinarians. True discipline went the way of the dodo replaced by often lavish gifts from emperors and generals to retain nominal allegiance.
Creasy, in his opening remarks of the Battle of Teutoburgwald blamed Septimius Severus and the great Civil War of 193 CE for the laxity of discipline of the Imperial Roman Army. However, the deterioration began much earlier with the assassinations of Emperors Caligula, Claudius and Nero. It was a systemic condition which afflicted the Imperial Army given the closeness between the Emperor and the Army; the Army itself taking its oath,
sacramentum to the Emperor, not the Senate; therefore it was a sickly debilitating affliction made manifest through violent rebellion and bloody civil war. Such chaos and civil war divided the army and left permanent scares deep within the psyche, the soul if you will, of the army which could not be healed.
The key to understanding this shift perhaps lies with the military reforms of Marius whom though Frontinus categorized as an exemplar general; employing traditionally harsh discipline to motivate his soldiers to victory. Those which followed ruthlessly exploited Marius’ legacy, most notably Sulla, for whom Frontinus provided an unflattering host of examples and Caesar.
Caesar, altogether excluded from Discipline, and referenced briefly in chapters III On restraint and disinterestedness and V
The will to Victory was a hallmark figure of books I and II; Matters of Strategy Before Battle, and
Matters of Strategy During Battle. Throughout Frontinus drew a clear distinction between the Roman Republican General Gaius Caesar and the Deified Dictator Iulius Caesar. Frontinus used this very precise cognomen
Deified Julius Caesar only twice in his Strategemata. In both instances the
Deified Julius Caesar suffered either embarrassment or defeat; the singularly impressive Battle of Munda, the site of one of Caesar’s greatest victories was reduced by Frontinus to a few lines relating how the deified Iulius was forced to shame his troops in order to rally them after they gave way in the face of Pompey’s assault. The other instance was from
On Retreating in which Commius, the Atrebatian, comically hoodwinked the Deified Iulius Caesar and escaped with his army.
Frontinus made specific reference to Julius Caesar in twenty-five separate instances in the Strategemata. In all other references Frontinus used either
Gaius Caesar or simply Caesar; though there was an odd correlation between the uses of the term
Caesar and malicious intent. In one instance Caesar was in fear for his life because of a mutiny of his troops, in another he was defeated in a sortie by Pompey, another when Caesar slipped while he climbed out of his boat and lastly the recollection of when Afranius duped
Caesar during a retreat in Spain during the course of the Civil War (2.13.6).
Frontinus referenced directly only three Emperors: Tiberius, Vespasian and Domitian. Tiberius achieved a victory over the Pannonian tribes by not fighting, preferring to let the inclement weather wear down the enemy. Vespasian fought on the Jewish Sabbath to achieve a victory and was also cited combating nepotism with the army. Emperor Domitian was listed in five examples, all of which were favorable, which no doubt was a product of Frontinus’ well worn and experienced political savvy. These references, eight in number, were the only ones made to the Imperial Army, save for Corbulo, who garnished five references. Several other references were made to the reign of Augustus which all focused on the disastrous aftermath of the battle of Teutoburgwald in 9 CE; most memorable being the grim spectacle of Arminius impaling the heads of the slain Romans on pikes around the battlefield.
From histories’ perspective, The Strategemata came too late. The fundamental principles on which the old Republican Armies had been built did not outlive the legacy of Augustus and the imposing Julio-Claudians. By 69 CE, the long held tradition of obligatory military service for citizens and had become increasingly unpopular, especially among Italian families. Nero’s
dilectus in 65 CE excluded Italy. Vespasian, with little choice after the failed efforts by Agrippa, shifted the focus of recruitment away from Italy altogether, to the Spanish and Gallic provinces. The attempt by Trajan to reintroduce recruiting into Italy by raising the population of citizens failed miserably. As a result, he expanded recruitment to the frontier provinces of Thrace, Germany and Macedonia. The reliance on federated cohorts of foreign soldiers,
auxilia, grew in proportion to struggling volunteer enrollment. The next great wave of reform came with Diocletian and Constantine during which the Augustan Army was dismantled, the remnants from which fused together with seasonal federated Germanic levies settled along the frontier. All of which was certainly a radical departure from anything espoused in the
Strategemata. And yet, the old Republican Army lived on, a spectral image in the memories of men like Vegetius, who some 270 years after the
Strategemata, resuscitated the spirit of Republican discipline with his haphazard construction
Epitoma rei militaris.
. Clausewitz. 3.5. (255)
. Tac.Annals.XI.18.(240), XIII.34 (300).
. Creasy. Battle. 111.
Copyright © 2009 Daniel Blanchard.
Written by D.R. Blanchard. If you have questions or comments on this article,
please contact D.R. Blanchard at:
About the author:
Dan Blanchard graduated in 2002 with an MA in European History from Providence College during
which he completed his study of Latin and Attic Greek, and wrote his thesis which is titled
"The History of the Roman Legion XIV Gemina Martia Victrix, Severiana, Antoniniana, Maximiniana, Gordiana 31 BCE-410 CE".
He has presented pieces of his research before members of the Classical Association of New England.
He currently teaches Latin and Ancient Greek and Roman History at the Fay School in Massachusetts.
Published online: 04/07/2009.
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