Mark Hebblewhite, The Emperor and the Army in the Later Roman Empire 235-395 (Bileta)

Mark Hebblewhite

The Emperor and the Army in the Later Roman Empire 235-395

(Routledge, 2017) 240 pp. $149.95

In 1984, J. B. Campbell published a seminal study dealing with the interplay between the Roman emperor and his army. [1] His work remained an essential foundation for anyone interested in the Roman imperial military, from the specialists in the field to the Roman army’s enthusiasts, who wanted to delve deeper into the topic. However, for all its significance, there was one main disadvantage, a chronological one. Campbell’s work ended in year 235 AD, with a death of young emperor Septimius Severus at the hands of his own soldiers, and the accession of Maximinus Thrax, the first in the line of the Soldatenkaiser; soldier-emperors. More than two decades later, we are finally getting a spiritual successor to Campbell in a person of Mark Hebblewhite, and the monograph he published last year: The Emperor and the Army in the Later Roman Empire AD 235 – 395

From the very beginning, one can see the thematic and stylistic similarities Hebblewhite shares with Campbell. One should not be surprised, as the author states that the book is conceived as a continuation of the earlier work, which is suggested by the starting date of the analysis. As such, one can see two primary aims of Hebblewhite: to establish (if there is any) continuity between the earlier period covered by Campbell, and the one covered in the book; and to see if there are any breaks with tradition in the third and fourth century. Hebblewhite’s argument, based on his analysis of the source texts and (perhaps most importantly) coinage, is that the Roman army was above all a political force that maintained a constructive, but also a tenuous relationship with the emperor. After the demise of the Severians and the pushing of the Senate into the background, it was the military that took the stage and promoted the men from their circles for the purple, especially during the turbulent third century. In the early empire, the emperor could perform military duties as one of his roles. However, in the third and fourth century, if one had aspired to the purple, military capability was a prerequisite. In those changed circumstances, it was the army who selected the emperor from its own ranks. To maintain the bond of loyalty (fides) both the emperors and the potential usurpers had to keep a close relationship with the troops. The rulers had to be to be great warriors and maintain the “esprit de corps” with their fellow soldiers, through the personal example on the battlefield or through an idealized role presented through the various broadcasting strategies that the emperor had on his disposal. The analysis of those various strategies, as well as their impact on the interplay between the emperor and solider, is the focus of this book.

In six chapters of this relatively short book (240 pages), Hebblewhite covers six distinctive topics: the rise of the soldier emperor; the role of the central coinage in the promotion of the ruler’s military image; the distribution of rewards to the soldiers, both in payment and in kind; the law and the soldiers, as well as military discipline; the imperial ceremonies and rituals that further strengthened the bond between the emperor and the troops; and the employment of the symbols of power, both physical and more abstract ones. Each chapter is divided into two parts, first covering the age of Soldatenkaiser (from Maximinus Thrax up to Diocletian), and the second dealing with the military dynasties of the fourth century, up to the death of Theodosius I in 395 AD.
The first chapter explores the circumstances that led to the appearance of the Soldatenkaiser, which resulted in the renegotiation of the role between the emperor and his military. Hebblewhite analyzes the influence that the shift had on the ideology of the dynastic rule, since the bloodline was no longer the sole guarantee for the throne. Particularly interesting is his discussion on commilito – a role of fellow soldiers that the emperors of the given period used to form a stronger bond with the troops. Traditionally, it was considered that the soldiers expected the emperor to show his bravery at the battlefield, which resulted in several violent deaths, especially of the third-century Soldatenkaiser. According to Hebblewhite, the troops indeed valued the presence of the emperor among them, but in most of the cases, they did not approve, and even actively discouraged the ruler’s presence on the front lines, as the loss of the imperial person could mean the destabilization of the entire empire, and with it the danger for their status.

However, due to the vast size of the empire, and the constraints of time and space, the emperor could never be at all the places at the same time. The diversity of the broadcasting methods, which had an aim to strengthen the bond between the emperor and the army, as well the methods of their employment, are covered in the second chapter. Particular significance is given to the coinage, with most attention focused on the evolution of two legends – virtus (courage, the ability to lead), and Victoria (victory, the military success). As Hebblewhite points out, those two legends came to the forefront as it implied that if the emperor had them, he could maintain his position. Further, the chapter traces the sophistication and evolution of the military epitaphs, as they were used to prove to the soldiers the military success of the emperor.

Even the most grandiose victory over a foreign or internal enemy could not assure the fides of the soldier without a tangible financial or another similar benefit. The third chapter deals with an analysis of a wide range of what author calls praemiae militiae: stipendium (regular pay), donativa (regular and irregular cashouts), or various dona (gifts). By their distribution, the emperor could harness the army’s ongoing desire for economic wealth, as well confirm his care for their specific status in the Roman society. As the emperor had the monopoly on the dispensation of the praemiae, the delivery could be timed for a maximum political impact.

Chapter four focuses on another important vehicle to maintain the close relationship between the commander-in-chief and the armed force of the empire, the laws that applied specifically to the soldiers. In particular, Hebblewhite is addressing the changes of the legal privileges in the third and fourth century, and the extent of the emperor’s involvement into the alleviation of the disciplina militaris, in an attempt to encourage the troops to identify itself more closely to his cause.

Not all the means of the emperor’s association with the troops were material or tangible. The fifth chapter addresses the panoply of visual spectacles that the ruler could use to govern and to remind the troops where their loyalty should lie. The rituals and ceremonies such as acclamatio (acclamation), adlocutio (speeches) or Sacramentum (military oath) proved instrumental in sealing those links, as they gave an opportunity to the soldier, a staged opportunity, but nevertheless a rare one, to engage in the dialogue with their supreme commander, and publicly show their support, their fides.

Finally, in the last chapter, Hebblewhite pays attention to the tools that the emperor could use to create a bond of symbolical identification with his fellow commilitones. Besides their usage at the ceremonies, the physical symbols such as signa (the military standards) or imagines (the imperial portraits) served as a powerful day-to-day reminder where the soldier’s loyalty should lay. The author then returns to the most efficient way of broadcasting the emperor’s message, the centralized coinage, and the messages that they carried to their recipients- messages that could be carefully tailored for a particular political agenda. Similarly, the emperor could reward the selected units with honorific titles, a trend that played a significant importance in the third century, but according to the author, lessened its impact with the appearance of relatively stable and long-lasting dynasties of the fourth century.

After identifying a wide range of methods, tools, and strategies that the third and fourth century emperors could use to sway and maintain the fides of the troops, Hebblewhite concludes that the emperor’s close identification with the army in the given period allowed him to translate this bond into considerable power. But this came at a cost, as his reliance on the military made him more dependent on the interests and whims of his fickle commilitones. The employment of specific strategies could help in keeping that valuable support, but only if the emperor could prove that he is capable to rule. Even then, no formula or a method existed that would assure the permanent and complete loyalty of the troops for the imperial cause. At the end Hebblewhite illustrates this issue by paraphrasing Suetonius’ wolf analogy of the Roman army. If the army of Tiberius was an immature pup still feeling its own strength, under Soldatenkaiser and their successors, the creature grew up into a dangerous beast, more than aware of its force and influence, and prepared to turn to its own master if not satisfied with its treatment. Therefore, to keep the army loyal was a continuous task, even for most successful emperors who were able to maintain the precarious balance- a misstep could prove fatal.

Hebblewhite made a masterful study, being able to bring together a wide range of literary, epigraphic, as well as numismatic evidence, and present us with a convincing and concise analysis of nature of the relationship between the emperor and the army in what was politically and militarily turbulent period for the Later Roman empire. While some elements of the book could be expanded upon (such as the part that Christianity played in this special relationship, which is only briefly addressed in the fifth chapter; or a more detailed look on the role of the higher ranking officers which would allow a discussion on the influence of the commanders and the army in the politics, particularly in the civil wars), one can understand that this would warrant a much larger book, and probably restructuring of the entire work. For a Late antique scholar like myself the most frustrating aspect is the sudden end of the analysis in 395 AD. Such a choice is understandable, as this is the moment when emperors ceased their involvement into military affairs, redefining their relationship with the army, and leaving the command in the hands of increasingly powerful magistri militum. However, such a decision provides us with that tingling sense of unfulfillment, as now we are forced to wait again for a monograph that would cover the remaining period of the imperial office in the West. Minor misgivings aside, Hebblewhite’s book is a valuable contribution to the field that nicely complements Campbell’s earlier work and provides us with a badly needed insight into the emperor’s relationship with the military in the late antiquity. As such, it should be a mandatory addition to every university library, the collection of a scholar dealing with the topic, and to any person interested in the inner workings of the Late Roman military.

Vedran Bileta
Central European University

[1] J. B. Campbell, The Emperor and the Roman Army: 31 BC – AD 235 (New York : Oxford University Press, 1984)

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