(c) Jerry Fielden 2000

Augustus and the Roman army – Mutual Loyalty and Rewards

Even before Marius, a successful Roman leader had to have the support and personal loyalty of his army, and had to provide them with personal and material advantages. The “bonuses” were many: land, money, booty in the material form and praise from the leader, promotions, loopholes in the soldier’s favor as pertains to Roman Law, and even “comradeship” with the leader in a personal sense. In turn, the soldiers provided the leader with their strength and arms. I will try explain the ways in which Augustus dealt with this “personal” aspect of leadership, balancing between comradeship and authority, leniency and discipline, and finally, between the army and the Senate. I will try to show that the oft-talked about Octavian/Augustus dichotomy also extended to this aspect of his rule.

When Marius abolished the property prerequisites for joining the Roman army, he was confirming by law a fait accompli;[1] this act permitted even the lowest ranks of Roman society to enlist (or be conscripted) into the legions.[2] Most of these men were not property owners, but farm workers looking for material profits and perhaps more security.[3] These soldiers were probably much more loyal to their general than to the State.[4] So then, what rapport did these men have with Marius and what did they think of him? He was quite popular and trusted by his soldiers because he joined them in their work, dangers and meals[5], to the point that some of the men wrote home suggesting that he be elected consul, so that he could be the leader to end the African war[6].

Marius’ opponent Sulla, deemed ferocious by the proscriptions used to crush the opposition at Rome and to gain money and land for his veterans, made himself popular with his men by demonstrating leniency with the troops: he even turned a blind eye on the murder of one of his lieutenants by some soldiers during the Social Wars, commenting that the soldiers would have to surpass themselves in bravery to atone for their crime; he probably did this because he needed the men’s support against Marius.[7] He also had them swear an oath of loyalty to him, the sacramentum[8] (this oath was oft taken by soldiers of the various Roman armies as a show of allegiance to the State, later on to their commander, and eventually, to the Emperor).[9] His men loved him so much that they had wanted to kill two praetors that spoke too sternly to him when he returned to Rome to fight Marius and Sulpicius.[10] In return, Sulla saluted the soldiers[11] and provided them with the usual material advantages.

Following in the tradition of Marius, Pompey shared the hardships and triumphs with the men, and he also ensured that his soldiers knew that he was fighting right alongside them; this he demonstrated by his deeds and speeches,[12] and by his salutes and warm farewells to the troops.[13] Generals like Pompey also used their family influence: Pompey enlisted not only men from rural contexts in his armies, but also raised armies from his father’s veterans, clients and tenants.[14] Pompey must have surely presumed that these men might be loyal. This was not a new idea in Roman military history: in 134 BC, Scipio Aemilianus did the same with his own clients and friends.[15] When Sulla ordered Pompey’s army to disband, the men refused and swore to remain with Pompey, whom they tried to convince to stay on as their leader, which forced Sulla to be agreeable to Pompey’s demands.[16]

Unfortunately, Pompey’s troops were not always loyal or obedient; once, an old Carthaginian treasure was rumored to have been found and the men stopped all operations and tried to discover more of the hoard.[17] Pompey just left the men alone and laughed it off. The soldiers eventually realized what they were doing, and finally asked Pompey to lead them wherever he wanted to.[18] Quite assured of his troops’ loyalty, Pompey did not always heed warnings of the dangers of the upcoming civil war against Caesar because he was so confident in his abilities and convinced of his own soldiers’ great love for him;[19] this was not enough to prevent droves of soldiers from deserting to Caesar during the Civil War, however![20]

There has been much written on the mutual affection, loyalty and respect between Caesar and his soldiers. He was a towering military figure and an able politician, who knew how to obtain what he wanted from his men. In return, they named him Imperator,[21] which, at the time, was a direct mark of respect and praise instead of the indirect title it became under Augustus (who took complete credit for others’ victories and diplomatic successes under his auspices after his eighth acclamation as imperator).[22] Caesar was known for “the gifts he gave to his soldiers and his acts of kindness to them”,[23] which was surely helped by Crassus’s wealth and the booty these soldiers got from Gaul and elsewhere.[24] Caesar treated his men as “fellow-soldiers”[25] and was quite lenient with them. He was right alongside them on the front lines, and by acting very bravely in battle, he gained their deep affection, respect and loyalty.[26] Despite a weak physique, he never shirked in sharing any of the soldier’s hardships and labors.[27] He would never hesitate to personally enter the fray to help out if one of his men was in danger.[28] He stated his respect and his care for his soldiers in many of his speeches to them;[29] and judged his men by their valor, not by their rank in society.[30] On the legal side, Caesar bent a few laws to help out his men make their wills, by stretching deadlines and changing some rules.[31]

Caesar was also a good disciplinarian, especially when the enemy was nearby; when one legion clamored to obtain its leave and a donative and started making threats, he called them “civilians” instead of “soldiers”, which made them protest and forget their first objective; they decided to stay on with him no matter what. He did punish some of the ringleaders, but only took one third of their booty and land.[32]

All in all, Caesar definitely gave the impression that he was close to his men.[33] Even at that, there were still some men that would defect to the enemy.[34] But in essence, he was revered by the troops. This fact had a major impact upon events in the years following his death, for instance in the use of Caesarian veterans by Octavian and Mark Antony.

Caesar’s heir, the young Octavian, has been described as brutal, violent, ambitious and greedy; when he became Augustus he changed his “act” to a cooler, more calculating, “wiser” personality.[35] This dichotomy was evident in his rapport with his soldiers, especially in his public life.

When Octavius found out he was the heir of Julius Caesar, he took it literally to mean that he was heir to Caesar’s power. Snubbed by Antony, he built up a following based on Caesar’s veterans. His avowed goal: to avenge his adoptive father’s murder with their help. But his real goal was power, which he was to achieve with the help of the veterans. Octavian played filial pietas to the hilt,[36] gaining the sympathy of the plebs and the veterans, which were good power bases to start from.

As for his leadership, Octavian had a spotty record as a leader; he fled one battle but fought well in others; he did hold up the standard when the bearer fell in one skirmish[37] and although wounded, fought bravely in one battle in Illyria.[38] He wasn’t as successful a general as Caesar, needing lots of help from commanders such as Mark Antony at Philippi[39] and his friend and lieutenant Agrippa in Sicily.[40]

Augustus owed a lot to his veterans and he knew it. He realized that his power was based on their might, and acted accordingly. As Octavian, he didn’t hesitate to call his men “fellow-soldiers”; as Augustus, he seems to have stopped, for reason of public dignitas (although he still called them that in private).[41] He showed his support for his men in many circumstances: he invited a soldier to dine with him, he went to court for another and wrote letters of praise to his legions.[42] With these gestures and his treatment of the veterans, such as the colonies he founded for them, he had built himself a loyal source of support, and a good power base in Italy itself.

Augustus did his utmost to allocate land to his veterans when he was triumvir, even though he had to ruffle a lot of feathers and proscribe many landowners to achieve his ends; this was even commented on by Virgil in his Eclogues, because the poet had suffered a similar fate and won redress. Land and donatives to the soldiers were the major material means of gratitude that Augustus could dispose of in the treatment of his men; donatives in particular were to become a fixture of the Imperial regime:[43] Augustus himself boasted of the amounts he gave to his troops[44]. He also wrote about the land he gave to his veterans and about the treasury he set up for the soldiers.[45] It’s interesting to note that some veterans just couldn’t wait and grabbed some land for themselves even before he had authorized it.[46]

The army was vital to his rule, but he also needed the support of the senators, which is why he refrained from openly associating with the troops when he obtained sole leadership of the Empire – he wanted to hide the naked edge of steel on Rome’s throat to avoid the fate of his adoptive father. Some of these men were running the military in the capacities of legionary legates, military tribunes and sometimes provincial governors, and rebellions could come from these positions, as Nero was to find out. Augustus would need the support of these military leaders, just as much as that of the centurions and the ordinary troops. Augustus had to juggle between those two elements, and had to prove the legitimacy of his rule; in this he was much more of a wily player than Caesar, who was a little too open in his relationship with the troops, and perhaps too disrespectful of the Senate.

To ensure that the Senate would notice his control of the army, Augustus firmly imposed his discipline on his men, and he did it well: he once dismissed an entire legion in disgrace, and didn’t hesitate to decimate troops who would give in to the enemy; he would also have centurions as well as common soldiers executed for deserting their posts.[47] So he never did let the “wolf”[48] get out of hand.

Augustus was quite liberal when it came to decorations and praise for his soldiers, from the lowest ranks to the generals: he apparently decided himself which decoration to award, and may have handed out some personally.[49] He was more parsimonious when it came to mural crowns, but he did give them out even to ordinary troops who had earned them.[50]

Augustus enacted many laws to protect his soldiers, laws that might have been otherwise in defiance of normal Roman laws on inheritance and property. For instance, he ruled that a father could not disinherit his son while the son was serving in the army.[51] As well, he would personally respond to soldiers’ petitions on matters of wills with interventions upon the concerned magistrates.[52]

In the end, the army and the Praetorian Guard (the Rome-based elite forces that Augustus had founded that was so loyal to him) loved him so much that they joined together in special devotional rites at his funeral pyre.[53]

Augustus seems to have succeeded in balancing the army and the Senate, as attested by the length of his reign.

Other emperors such as Tiberius, Vespasian, Titus, Trajan and Septimius Severus were also renowned for their military deeds and their attachment to their men. Ultimately, Augustus’ legacy to these was to show them how to keep a close rein on the army but also to treat it well. Others, such as Nero and Elagabalus, were not loved at all by the troops (but then again, you still had to watch your back within your entourage itself, for it is there that plots and assassinations usually came from).

Trajan, known for his amiability, tact, and respect of the Senators, was also known as an excellent general and a good “fellow-soldier”:[54] for instance, he didn’t hesitate to join his men in exercises and hard labor and shared their thirst and heat. It was said that he once tore up his clothing to make bandages for wounded soldiers and that he knew many of the men by their name or nickname.[55] He didn’t forget about the soldiers’ material advantages and gave them several donatives.[56] He also took the soldiers’ side in disputes over wills[57] and responded positively to his men’s requests in citizenship cases.[58] In his monuments, such as his famous column, he also glorified his military role. The optimus princeps seems to have found an even better way of getting his troops’ love and admiration than Augustus did.

As for emperors that did not gain the respect and affection of their troops, in Nero’s case, it was a fatal mistake: his men were indifferent or hostile to him, especially since he had apparently not paid their salary or discharge bonuses.[59] He had also condemned popular generals such as Corbulo to death.[60] Hence, there were many occurrences of conspiracies and rebellions against his reign. This started with Piso’s conspiracy,[61] followed by Vindex’s revolt and the Spanish armies’ rebellion under Galba, and cost Nero his position and life, even though he had in earlier times bestowed all sorts of favors upon the army, to the Praetorian Guard in particular.[62] When the end came, even they had abandoned him.[63]

Augustus had elaborated a plan and set up guidelines that would usually serve his successors well, if they kept the army contented and the Senate (as well as the people) on their side; for it was these elements that would support their reign. Failure to get along with either of these bases of power would result in overthrow and along with that, death of the transgressor. To wit, Campbell resumes this in a quite à propos sentence: “An emperor who consciously based his position largely on military might could find the soldiers fickle and dangerous supporters, especially if he could find no backing anywhere in society.”[64] Principes like Augustus and Trajan knew this “secret of ruling” well and made the most of it.


Augustus, Res Gestae Divi Augusti, Edited by Brunt, Oxford University Press, 1967

Caesar, Julius, De Bello Civili, Translators: W.A. McDevitte and W.S. Bohn, Harper & Brothers, New York, 1869, Internet Edition

Caesar, Julius, De Bello Gallico, Translators: W.A. McDevitte and W.S. Bohn, Harper & Brothers, New York, 1869, Internet Edition

Plutarch, Fall of the Roman Republic, Translated by Rex Warner, revised Edition, Penguin Books, 1972

Suétone (Suetonius), Vie des douze Césars, Librairie Générale Française, 1961

Tacitus, Annals, Translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb, MIT Online Classics, 1998 – Internet Edition, no chapter numbers

Barnes, T.D., ‘The Victories of Augustus’, Journal of Roman Studies LXIV, 1974

Birley, Anthony, Trajan, in Lives of the Later Caesars, Penguin Books, 1976

Brunt, P.A., ‘The Army and Land in the Roman Revolution’, Journal of Roman Studies LII, 1962

¾¾¾, Italian Manpower 225 BC - AD 14, Oxford, 1971

Campbell, J. Brian, The emperor and the Roman army, 31 BC – AD 235, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1984

¾¾¾, The Roman Army, 31 BC – AD 337, A Sourcebook, Routledge 1994

Cizek, Eugen, Néron, l’empereur maudit, Fayard, 1982

Desmond, Christopher, ‘Domitius Corbulo: Survival Under the Emperor Nero’, http://weber.u.washington.edu/~anlushan/Domitius.WPS.htm

Gruen, Erich S., The Last Generation of the Roman Republic, University of California Press, 1974

Syme, Ronald, The Roman Revolution, Oxford University Press, 1939


[1] Gruen, pp. 366-367

[2] Gruen, p. 367 and Brunt, ALRR p. 75

[3] Gruen, p. 368

[4] Gruen, p. 369

[5] Plut., Marius 7

[6] Plut., Marius 7

[7] Plut., Sulla 6

[8] Plut., Sulla 27

[9] Cambpell, RA, p. 69 and Campbell, ERA, pp. 19-23

[10] Plut., Sulla 9

[11] Plut., Sulla 17

[12] Campbell, ERA, p. 60

[13] Plut., Pompey 43

[14] Syme, p. 28

[15] Gruen, p. 376

[16] Plut., Pompey 13

[17] Gruen, p. 371

[18] Plut., Pompey 11

[19] Plut., Pompey 57

[20] Caes., B.C., 1.13

[21] Plut., Caesar 12

[22] Barnes, p. 21

[23] Plut., Caesar 15

[24] Brunt, ALRR p. 78

[25] Campbell, ERA, p. 33

[26] Suet., Caes. 68

[27] Plut., Caesar 17

[28] Plut., Caesar 49

[29] Caes., B.G., 5.2 and 5.52

[30] Suet., Caes. 65

[31] Campbell, ERA, p. 210

[32] Suet., Caes. 70

[33] Campbell, ERA, p. 60

[34] Caes., B.C., 3.60

[35] Suet., Aug. 99

[36] Suet, Aug. 10

[37] Suet., Aug. 10

[38] Campbell, ERA, p. 61

[39] Suet., Aug. 13

[40] Suet., Aug. 16

[41] Campbell, ERA, p. 33

[42] Campbell, ERA, pp. 34-35

[43] Campbell, ERA, pp. 165-171

[44] Aug., Res Gestae, 15

[45] Aug., Res Gestae, 16 and 17

[46] Brunt, IM p. 327

[47] Suet., Aug. 24

[48] Suet., Tib. 25

[49] Campbell, ERA, p. 199

[50] Suet., Aug. 25

[51] Campbell, ERA, pp. 211-213, 231

[52] Campbell, ERA, p. 212

[53] Campbell, ERA, pp. 39 and 111

[54] Campbell, ERA, pp. 45-47

[55] Campbell, ERA, p. 46

[56] Birley, Trajan, p.40

[57] Birley, Trajan, p 46

[58] Campbell, ERA, p. 272

[59] Campbell, ERA, p 175

[60] Desmond, p. 9

[61] Tac., A. 15

[62] Cizek, pp. 282-283

[63] Suet., Nero 67

[64] Campbell, ERA, p. 56


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