Marius and the Volunteer Army – From the Archives – 2015

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 against its rival in north Africa, Carthage.

At the time a Roman citizen could not “join” the Army; it was an honor to be called upon to serve, 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, horses  and uniforms for combat.  There was little in the way of a “standing” army; when Rome was in danger, the “better” men of the Republic were called upon to defend her.

The lowest census class of citizen, the proletarians, 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.   There was no opportunity for a military career as a professional soldier.  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.

On 2 August 216 BC in Apulia, in southeast Italy (home of my grandparents)  he army of Carthage, under Hannibal, surrounded and decisively defeated the larger army of the Roman Republic under the consuls Lucius Aemilius Paullus and Gaius Terentius Varro. It is regarded both as one of the greatest tactical feats in military history and as one of the worst defeats in Roman history.

By the end of the day,  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, 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, though Kings of England were expected to lead their armies themselves for another 1,800 years.

About a hundred years after Cannae,  Gaius Marius relaxed the recruitment policy by removing the necessity to own property  and allowed all Roman citizens entry, regardless of social class.  Rome was under attack by the Cimbri, a Germanic tribe moving south into Roman lands and Rome had a manpower problem.  Wealth was being concentrated into fewer and fewer hands and more of the wealthy wanted others to do the fighting.  It was easier to pay someone than do it yourself.

The benefits to the army were immediate and numerous, with the disenfranchised, unemployed masses enlisting for military service alongside more fortunate citizens.   Poorer citizens were drawn to life-long 20 year service, as they were rewarded with the prospect of settlement in conquered land, the modern equivalent of a pension.    At the end of service the ordinary soldier was given a small farm in a veterans settlement in Germania or Gaul where he had probably spent most of his adult life in service.  This also ‘Romanized’ the population in newly subjugated provinces, thus reducing unrest and lowering the chance of revolt against the Roman Republic.

On the other hand, it was his General who obtained these benefits for the men, resulting in many having greater loyalty to their commander than the 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.

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 retraining and dropped in Ramadi.  We don’t even have to pay a war tax.  Sure there a wars going on b and likely to come, ut 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 Iraq?

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.


About toritto

I was born during year four of the reign of Emperor Tiberius Claudius on the outskirts of the empire in Brooklyn. I married my high school sweetheart, the girl I took to the prom and we were together for forty years until her passing in 2004. We had four kids together and buried two together. I had a successful career in Corporate America (never got rich but made a living) and traveled the world. I am currently retired in the Tampa Bay metro area and live alone. One of my daughters is close by and one within a morning’s drive. They call their pops everyday. I try to write poetry (not very well), and about family. Occasionally I will try a historical piece relating to politics. :-)
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6 Responses to Marius and the Volunteer Army – From the Archives – 2015

  1. beetleypete says:

    At the time when the rich and ennobled were expected to lead from the front, and as you say, to die with their troops, most wars were defensive wars, fought against invaders, raiders, or rebels. Paying poor people to do the dirty work provided huge armies, and gave those same rich and ennobled a reason to use them in invasions and the acquisition of land and goods.
    Once they no longer had to lead at the front line, conquest became more attractive.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

    • toritto says:

      Indeed Pete. Cincinnatus left his plow to lead Rome to victory 300 years before Cannae – and then returned to his plow. His was a defensive war. Wars of conquest came when the volunteer army of the poor came into being. Besties from Florida.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Sha'Tara says:

    Great post, and well said!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thom Hickey says:

    Powerfully argued.

    Regards Thom

    Liked by 1 person

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