What Compelled the Roman Way of Warfare? Killing for the Republic

March 25, 2020
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Killing for the Republic: Citizen Soldiers and the Roman Way of War. Steele Brand. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019.

Ever since Abel went for shepherding and Cain for farming—and then founding cities after murdering Abel—the human race has divided over the superior virtuousness of the agrarian versus the urban lifestyle. But the Bible’s first word about cities is hardly its last; eventually, there’s even divine favor for the city of Jerusalem.[1] By the Acts of the Apostles, Paul is deliberately seeking out cities in a way that would horrify the Hesiod-imitating Virgil of the Georgics, intent on praising the pious farmer who harkens back to the Saturnine Golden Age, before “anyone had heard…the clanging of a sword on the hard anvil.”

In dramatic curtsey to the pastoral ideal, Marie Antoinette of Versailles liked to play shepherdess. Meanwhile, the sometime American diplomat to the French Court, Thomas Jefferson, thundered denouncements against that “modern Carthage,” commercial Great Britain, but waxed eloquent about Virginia farmers: “Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God…whose breasts He has made His peculiar deposit for genuine and substantial virtue.”  When Ram Trucks debuted its 2013 Super Bowl commercial set to Paul Harvey’s “So God Made a Farmer,” the now American commercial powerhouse paused, thrilled by the romantic feels of Jeffersonian pietas.

Of course, between the city and the farm runs the sharp iron edge, and not just of the plow. “Soldiers walk the weird wall at the edge of civilization,” Reed Robert Bonadonna wrote a few years ago in Soldiers and Civilization. The presence of soldiers is an admission of weakness. It is also a projection of strength. When former farmer Cain built up the walls of his city, it was a defense mechanism against those who might now come seeking to kill him. Sporting a cow on his shield, the mythical tied-to-the-land Italian Turnus was no match for the Vulcan-armed Trojan Aeneas, and yet the historical Spartan victors of the Peloponnesian War were fatally weakened by their systemic agricultural reliance on enslaved Helots. Soldiers are not self-sustaining. Eventually, Spartan and Athenian warrior descendants alike fell before the pila of the Roman legion, and the scutum and gladius of the Roman citizen-soldier in his triumphant spread of (perhaps still) the world’s greatest empire.

That would more properly be the Roman farmer citizen-soldier, as Steele Brand argues in his new monograph, Killing for the Republic: Citizen Soldiers and the Roman Way of War: “What drove Rome to greatness was a devotion to the creative act of hard labor...[T]oil on the family farm fostered the civic virtue that made Roman men good soldiers and better citizens.”[2] While still a republic, Rome built its empire through the virtues of its agrarian-based citizens and thanks to a political system characterized by the pursuit of liberty through divided sovereignty and participatory citizenship. The foundational element was a valorized civic mindedness, nourished by religious rituals, civic monuments, a commitment to family honor and communal glory, and that agrarian lifestyle. The latter habituated Roman citizens to the essential need of fulfilling their duty. Rome successfully cultivated martial virtues among the populace so that ordinary citizens could pursue their duty toward family and patria while also earning individual glory, but without threatening the delicate balance required to preserve the republican state.

Any polity can field an army through compulsion or other violent means. What matters more is what makes your average person choose to stay on the battlefield. Brand argues the Roman Republic motivated its soldiers by publicly honoring at all times the initiative, strength, discipline, perseverance, courage, and loyalty of individual citizens. Moreover, it was this combination of public and private values, flexible political institutions, and a tailored upbringing that gradually culminated in the superiority of the Roman legion against the arguably technically superior Macedonian phalanx at Pydna. Brand calls the entirety of this system “civic militarism,” defined as “self defense writ large for the state.”[3]

…if the success of the republican citizen soldier led to idolizing the model even while the actual soldiers were becoming professional warriors at odds with civilian political institutions, then that model, still revered in American rhetoric, needs some archeological examination.

To understand how civic militarism formed the link between Rome’s republican spirit and the Roman citizen-soldier, Brand traces how the “constitutional and cultural evolution of Rome affected the battlefield tactics” in five pivotal battles spanning over 250 years, in similar style to Victor Davis Hanson and John Keegan.[4] But he seems to chooses these battles based on whom Rome was fighting against: from facing the Gauls and Samnites at Sentinum in 295 BC; the proxy of three Carthaginian armies at New Carthage in modern Spain in 209 BC; the Macedonians at Pydna, 168 BC; to eventually fellow Romans at Mutina and Philippi, in 43 and 42 BC, respectively, thereby guaranteeing the collapse of the Republic in the wake of Julius Caesar’s assassination. If Rome built its greatness through its civic militarism and agrarian citizen soldiers, it may very well have excavated its demise through the same. But if the success of the republican citizen soldier led to idolizing the model even while the actual soldiers were becoming professional warriors at odds with civilian political institutions, then that model, still revered in American rhetoric, needs some archeological examination.

What ought America to take from the Roman citizen-soldier model, and what is best left behind? From Homer and Heraclitus stretches the argument that the encounter with war denotes both the root of ethics and the birth of literature, and so defines a nation, not the least through the stories it tells about itself. Himself an increasingly rare example of a historian who has gone to war, in this case Afghanistan in 2012, the better to understand this relationship, Brand echoes the sentiment: “At the center of this life cycle [of governments] are civil-military relations because the soul of any state is most clearly defined when it decides what it is willing to kill and die for.”[5] Somehow, despite the expectation of civic virtue being cemented into every Roman institution, Roman soldiers chose to kill each other at Philippi. And so the Roman Empire, with its Neros, Caligulas, and Diocletians, came.

Was the death of the Roman Republic inevitable, initiating the death of the virtuous farmer citizen soldier? Or did the non-idealized, increasingly professionalized soldiers attached to individual commanders defending the Republic’s expanding periphery accelerate the need for formal imperial governance structures? Was this due to their increasing demands on state resources and partially fueled by the decreasing viability of those vaunted farms? Engaging in one of history’s most contested arguments, Brand insists the Republic could have been salvaged. He buttresses this claim with arguments marshalled from his ancient inspirations Livy, Polybius, Plutarch, and above all, Cicero. It’s a testament to Cicero’s rhetorical prowess that in citing his strategic oratory before and after Caesar’s assassination in March 44 and before Cicero’s own murder in 43 BC, the thoughtful historian Brand seems to ignore the philosophical weak point in Cicero’s argument.

Marcus Tullius Cicero (Wikimedia)

For the Republic to survive there needed to be Cicero’s “ideal statesman” who combined sapientia—wisdom through philosophic study, prudentia—cultural and political foresight through learned experience, and auctoritas—just and constitutional behavior, not to mention followers in the form of a capable army. Persuasion sometimes needs physical arms in order to win the day (hence Machiavelli’s later formulation about princely, armed prophets). Despite his pen’s mightiness, Cicero knew he was not that general. Brutus did not have the prudentia—his plan to save the Republic seemed to begin and end with his sword in Caesar’s side. Besides, as Plutarch intimates, Brutus’ turn to stoicism signaled an intellectual rejection of the physical limitations of specific political forms, such as a republic, in favor of universalizing philosophic ideas. The rise of the Academy was its own sword thrust in the intellectual heart of a viable ancient city-based polity. The venal Antony had no interest in philosophical ideas or constitutional restraint. And Octavian, well Octavian was Caesar Augustus, in waiting.

In other words, the failure of Cicero’s ideal statesman to come forward at the crucial moment exposes the tension that republics labor to conceal and that political science obstinately obscures. Despite the genuine insistence on liberty if not equality of citizens, at least the pre-modern republic relied on individuals with outsized talents in military and political matters to lead it and ensure its safety, not the least by consenting to abide humbly by its rules. Confusingly, the brilliance of these men and women seems to reside in atypical traits running counter to the tenor of their community. Thucydides’ Spartan Brasidas was more successful the more Athenian he acted, while in Brand’s Plutarch-based account, Quintus Fabius’ distinctly un-Roman strategy of attrition to conquer Hannibal enabled Scipio Africanus eventually to defeat the Carthaginians at Zama. (At one point, Plutarch’s Hannibal even observes that Fabius has beaten him at his own game, becoming “another Hannibal”.) Even today, Americans remain deeply divided over Tecumseh Sherman’s methods.

Meanwhile, shot through the accounts of these same ancient writers is the maddeningly unscientific role chance or fortune seems to play in bringing together or separating capable commanders and skilled soldiers on battlefields, not to mention bringing together a skilled general and prudent statesman in one body. Why did Cassius fail to see from his battlefield vantage point Brutus’ success as the first Battle of Philippi wound down, and kill himself? Why did Brutus “dither” so much, in Brand’s words, and then abandon his characteristic caution, “stirred to action” by anger and fear, repeating Pompey’s fatal mistake before Caesar at Pharsalus?[6] And why did Sulla spare the young Caesar’s life, despite killing as many of Marius’ relatives and supporters as he could find?

“The death of Brutus and Cassius at the Battle of Philippi” painted in the Flemish School (ArtNet)

Perhaps, after all, the question of Rome and its farmer citizen-soldier is less if not at all about the supposed virtues of farming or the glories of cities, and more the fortunate interplay of strong political and private institutions, talented individuals civically educated towards preserving those institutions, the opportunity to test this endurance on the battlefield, and finally the sustained narrative “of the dream that is Rome,” to throw in Gladiator’s cinematic depiction of the puzzle. But Brand’s less vocalized insight is this: the average Roman soldier still must matter to Rome, because he predicates his soldiering on his citizenship, and his citizenship is energized by his having a stake in the republic. That is what his farm is—a stake in the political order. And that is what he fights for.

In a vicious cycle, the Roman soldier’s farm fails to sustain his family, and this requires him to take up soldiering for booty to supplement his income, enabling the state to deploy him ever further away in search of more booty, and preventing him from cultivating a farm to sustain his family. What comes to the fore in this relationship is the Roman Senate’s increasing reliance on its military commanders to provide meaning and materiel to its soldiers, and the soldier’s growing insistence that he means something politically in the regime. The Gracchi brothers’ agrarian reforms, in 131 and 121 BC, respectively, brought about partly to relieve real physical necessity on the part of military veterans, were also the Gracchi’s political strategy to garner populist support for their tenure as tribunes. Fanning the populist flames, in the name of “but for all the right reasons,” both brothers violated constitutional norms, leading, Plutarch writes, to the first political bloodshed in the Forum, which heralded the eventual social breakdown of the Sulla-Pompey-Caesar robber baron era. As uncomfortable as it might be today for many of us in the West, first in line demanding bread and circuses were the soldiers.

No doubt that influenced a more sober Jefferson, weighed down by the practical realities of governance, to acknowledge the necessity of encouraging non-agrarian activities like commerce and manufacturing in a young American nation, even while he established the military academy at West Point. And no doubt that influenced a young American republic, led by a former general, to embrace so enthusiastically the cause of civic education for political and military elites as absolutely necessary for the health and preservation of their republican experiment.

Rebecca Burgess is a research fellow in veterans studies and American institutions at the American Enterprise Institute.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.


[1] The biblical turn towards favoring cities and the arts and civilization they entail seems highlighted by the events in the two books of Samuel, whereby the shepherd David becomes king of the Israelites, conquers the Jebusite (Canaanite) stronghold of Jerusalem, and establishes it not only as his political center and capital city but also makes it the religious center for the Israelites. With 66 chapters dedicated to him, David is one of the most referenced individuals in the Bible and is frequently spoken of as beloved by God. After Babylonian forces destroy Jerusalem and Cyrus the Great retains the Jews in exile, the consistent refrain (most notably, the entirety of the Lamentations of Jeremiah) is grief and regret for the destruction of the city. After the Babylonian exile, the Israelites notably rebuild the city of Jerusalem. See, in general, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Psalms, Jeremiah, and Lamentations.

[2] Steele Brand, Killing for the Republic: Citizen Soldiers and the Roman Way of War (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019) 39.

[3] Brand, Killing for the Republic, XIII.

[4] Brand, Killing for the Republic, XII.

[5] Brand, Killing for the Republic, XVI.

[6] Brand, Killing for the Republic, 302.

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