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7-10-2015, 10:25

Severan reforms and the third century

While the army of the Severan period remained broadly similar to that of previous centuries in terms of its organization and equipment, the perception conveyed by many of our sources for that period and for the third century in general is that the army became much more important than before in a number of different areas of Roman life, political, social, and economic.

The famous dying words of Septimius Severus to his sons, as reported by Dio - ‘‘Be harmonious, enrich the soldiers and scorn all other men’’ (Dio 76.15.2-3, tr. Cary) - may be too epigrammatic to be true, and the negative portrayal of the army at this period by Dio and others may be the result of upper-class and metropolitan prejudices. Nevertheless, these views reflect some important consequences of the Severan coup. As Campbell (2002: 119) states, ‘‘the inevitable consequence of the first capture of Rome with an army for 124 years was a closer relationship between emperor and army, which made it difficult to conceal the reality of an autocracy backed by military force.’’ Likewise the overwhelming importance of the army and of the emperor as military commander in facing the frontier crises of the third century made it inevitable that it would become more prominent in all aspects of Roman life.

As already mentioned, under Septimius there was a substantial increase in the number of legions, and a corresponding increase in auxiliaries. There were also pay rises under Septimius and Caracalla, leading to at least a perception that the empire was being bled dry to pay for the army (Dio77.9.1;77.10.1on Caracalla), although much of it was paid for by debasement of the coinage (Crawford 1975: 562-3). Soldiers were also givennew privileges, such as the right to contract legal marriages (previously forbidden) and the right to wear gold rings (Herod. 3.8.4). Dio claimed (74.2.3, although the general applicability of the statement is debatable) that the army was becoming more politically important to the emperor than it should, and even (74.2.6, a reflection on Septimius’ Balkan support) that it was becoming increasingly strange and foreign.

The rise and early successes of the Sasanian dynasty on the eastern frontier, combined with existing frontier pressures in the Balkans, meant that the military functions of the emperor and the political influence of the armies had become paramount by the end of the reign of the last Severan, Alexander. His successor, Maximinus, was the first of a series of emperors (including Decius, Gallienus, Aur-elian, and, ultimately, Diocletian) from military backgrounds, mostly from the Balkans and mostly brought to power by the armies of the Danube frontier. Maximinus was the first Roman leader who might be characterized as a soldier-emperor (Campbell 1984: 55-6; Potter, this volume). The focus of his reign was warfare, and he never even visited Rome, instead sending dispatches from the front emphasizing his own personal military leadership and ordering paintings of his heroic deeds to be set up in front of the Senate House (Herod. 7.2).



 

 

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