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Veterans in Late Republic

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Julius Caesar at the head of the Roman army
Julius Caesar at the head of the Roman army

An army has always been an extremely important element in Rome’s politics. His influence was manifested in every field of life in the state. The early Roman army was non-professional and functioned as a citizen militia. When necessary, citizens were called to arms. However, not all of them, because each citizen should arm himself, and for this, he needed the appropriate means.

In peacetime, the army was demobilized and the soldiers returned to their original activities. It should be remembered that at that time warriors were not entitled to any pay. The situation began to change with the expansion of the Roman state, and thus constant wars. As a result, the soldiers, who earlier after the expedition could return to work on the land, were now unable to properly take care of their farms. Thus, the Roman army took on an increasingly regular character over time. At the same time, this service became more onerous. Soldiers increasingly demanded compensation for their losses. The form of payment was to be, first of all, grants of land.

The first such actions were taken after the extremely bloody, but ultimately won by Rome’s Second Punic War. This allowed soldiers who had already completed their military service to function normally and also gave them a chance to rebuild the economy destroyed by Hannibal. Grants of land, however, were not institutionalized and took place sporadically. The situation changed with the reforms of Gaius Marius. In a nutshell, these changes consisted in reorganizing the character of the Roman army into “professional”. First of all, the time of service, which was previously more contractual, was clearly defined and the recruitment of people without property began. Both issues required the determination of payment for military service. This, in turn, was supposed to be just plots of land. As a result of these reforms, a new social group was created in the Roman state, the so-called veterans. The chiefs of the veterans were primarily responsible for the implementation of the “payments” of the veterans. This resulted in the creation of a stronger bond between the soldier and his commander.

Veterans very quickly began to play an important role in Roman politics. In 101 BCE, former soldiers of Marius appeared in the capital to support their leader in the fight for the consulate. In Rome itself, there were very frequent riots in which former soldiers participated. Their mere presence exerted a great influence on politicians and plebs, who were against allotments of land. In street fights, the veterans usually won, of course, because they had much more military experience than the population of the capital. Veterans thus became a very effective political tool. Thanks to their support, it was possible to influence the decision-makers in Rome itself.

Another large-scale campaign of settlements of former soldiers was carried out in 80 BCE by dictator Sulla. His legionaries received plots of land both on public lands (ager publicus) and conquered lands (agri capti). It is believed that up to 100,000 people could be covered by the action. soldiers. They were the political base of the dictator. For they knew that his loss of power could also lead to the withdrawal of their assignments.

Settlement actions were also accompanied by many problems. Veterans got used to different living conditions, they could not find themselves in the new reality and manage the farm well. As a result, they very often lost their plots of land and fell into debt. This situation was taken advantage of by a certain Catilina who tried to carry out a coup in Rome. The politician proclaimed slogans of debt relief for citizens, so he found wide support among former Sullan soldiers.

Another significant problem of plots for veterans appeared during the war of Rome with Mithridates. After winning the war (62 BCE), the commander of the Roman army Pompey expected the senate to approve his ordinances in the east and land grants for veterans. However, he met with very strong opposition in the Senate. This was only possible after Gaius Julius Caesar became consul. He passed two laws which are known as lex Iulia agraria.

Also during the civil war between Pompey and Caesar veterans played a significant role. Very often they re-enlisted in the army of their commanders. After the victory of the latter, the division of land between the soldiers was once again organized. However, this time it looked different than usual. Previously, it had happened that the local population had to be resettled before the veterans were settled. Caesar, however, decided not to resort to confiscations. The lands given away were either part of the ager publicus, or were purchased with his own money.

Politicians in the last years of the Republican system constantly sought the support of veterans. Their political future often depended on this factor. After the assassination of Julius Caesar, a large part of his troops supported Mark Antony, as he promised that all the laws passed by Caesar would be upheld. Veterans, on the other hand, were drawn to the young Octavian heir to the assassinated dictator. He offered each former soldier who joined his side as much as 500 denarii. Both politicians constantly competed for the support of veterans, regardless of whether they were in a political alliance or not.

The veterans themselves caused many problems in Italy. First of all, they abused the local population. There were situations in which soldiers illegally seized more land than they were entitled to. At the same time, they knew perfectly well that they could afford it, because Octavian and Marcus Antony were politically dependent on them and had to meet their demands. Against this background, a short civil war broke out (Perusian War 41-40 BCE) between Octavian and Lucius Antony (Marcus Antony’s brother). The injured population of Italy gathered around Lucius, while the veterans supported Octavian. Especially during this period, soldiers played a huge role in the relations between the triumvirs. Most likely, they had a great influence on the conclusion of peace by Octavian and Antony in 40 BCE.

To sum up, it should be said that in the last years of the republican system, veterans were one of the most important elements of Roman politics. The breakthrough moment was undoubtedly the reforms of Gaius Marius when a strong bond was established between the soldiers and their commander. From that moment, veterans became more and more actively involved in politics. However, they were very rarely an independent party. They were usually an instrument of the policy of a given chief who used them for his own purposes. That is why so much effort was made to win their support, even at the expense of the indigenous population of Italy.

Author: Kacper Derko (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Blois L., The Roman Army and Politics in the First Century Before Christ, Amsterdam 1987
  • Królczyk K., Weterani w polityce rzymskiej schyłku republiki (od Mariusza do Oktawiana), [w:] Materiały konferencji Komisji Historii Starożytnej PTH, Rzeszów 12-14 września 2000, s. 201-215

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