Standard of the IV Cohort XXIV Legion
At Cannae, in Southern Italy, the Army of the Roman Republic faced Hannibal in the 2nd Punic War.
At the time a Roman citizen could not “join” the Army; it was an honor reserved for those of property and standing. It was expected of those with property and standing. It was not expected of the poor. It would be another hundred years before Gaius Marius allowed “ordinary” citizens to enlist.
At the time of Cannae the standard requirements to become a Roman soldier were very strict. To be considered a soldier in the service of the Republic, an individual had to be a member of the 5th Census Class or higher which meant you had to own property worth over 3000 sesterces in value. In comparison, ordinary legionaries some 250 years later in the first century A.D. were paid 900 sesterces per year minus their cost of food and equipment which ate up about half their annual salary. Furthermore, at the time of the Republic soldiers were required to provide their own arms and uniform for combat. The lowest census class of citizen, the proletarii who owned virtually no property at all were not permitted the honor of defending the Republic by joining the army nor was it expected of them. After all. it was reasoned why should the poorest risk their lives when they had nothing to lose?
Still the Roman Republic was not engaged in a war of choice at the time. It was fighting for its very survival as an independent state as Hannibal’s army devastated Roman Italy and crushed several Roman armies sent against him. Under these circumstances the aristocratic classes of Rome took to the field. Ordinary people without status were not expected to render such service to the Republic.
By the end of the day, August 2, 216 B. C. Livy and Polybius variously claim that 50,000–70,000 Romans died with about 3,000–4,500 taken prisoner. Those numbers may have been high but there is no doubt that Cannae was a crushing defeat.
Among the dead were the Consul Lucius Aemilius Paullus himself, holder of the highest office in the Roman Republic , as well as the two Consuls for the preceding year, two Quaestors, twenty-nine out of the forty-eight military Tribunes and an additional eighty Senators (at a time when the Roman Senate was no more than 300 men, this constituted 25–30% of the governing body).
On that day, the aristocracy and the sons of the aristocracy of Rome died in a muddy field in Southern Italy. The Consul, two previous Consuls and eighty Senators. The modern Western analogy would be a President or Prime Minister, two previous Presidents and 30 U.S. Senators or former Senators.
It was a time when the leadership took to the field with the Army and, on that day, died with them.
You don’t see that anymore.
About a hundred years later Gaius Marius relaxed the recruitment policy by removing the necessity to own property and allowed all Roman citizens entry, regardless of social class.
The benefits to the army were numerous, with the disenfranchised, unemployed masses enlisting for military service alongside more fortunate citizens. Poorer citizens were drawn to life-long service, as they were rewarded with the prospect of settlement in conquered land, the modern equivalent of a pension. This also ‘Romanized’ the population in newly subjugated provinces, thus reducing unrest and lowering the chance of revolt against the Roman Republic.
The new Roman army, its numbers vastly bolstered by lower class citizens whose future was tied to their permanent career, became the dominant military force for centuries. The reforms of Marius contributed immensely to the transformation from Roman Republic to Roman Empire – from the defensive army composed of well to do citizens of the Republic to the mercenary army of the Empire – the army of the poor.
Today the same pundits who beat the war drums rarely if ever “volunteer”. Too many of those who advocate war never expect to fight in it themselves; nor do they expect their children to fight in it. It is other people’s children that fight our wars.
When the Senate of the Roman Republic unveiled the war spear it was the sons of the Senate who led the legions. Not so anymore.
The road to empire is familiar.
Today America, following in the footsteps of Marius, has a mercenary army.
It seems from the outside that the volunteer army is comprised mainly of those from military families (Daddy was an Admiral) or kids with poor economic prospects back in Flint, Michigan. Would it surprise anyone to learn that West Virginia suffered the highest rate of casualties per capita in the Vietnam war? What we now have is akin to a mercenary army, the enabler of empire and permanent war. It is a military with its own distinct culture.
Today we are in our thirteenth year of the Afghan war / occupation. Afghanistan is a non-issue. No Democrat has spoken out against our continuing presence though it is obvious that no Afghan government we set up can remain in power without continuing American military support. We went in to get Bin Laden and we should leave now that he is dead.
But its easy to be a war hawk. You don’t have to worry about your kid. He won’t be drafted, given 4 months training and dropped in Kandahar. We don’t even have to pay a war tax. Sure there’s a war going on but it doesn’t affect us. It doesn’t affect me or mine.
And because it doesn’t affect us we no longer care.
Ask yourself this: How much greater the protest if the war of choice in Iraq had to be fought by all of our citizens via conscription? If your son had been drafted, given 3 or 4 months basic training and dropped in Ramadi?
War is for other people. War is for those who volunteered. War is only of concern to those who took the job for the pay and retirement bennies.
Those who will not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.