Exploring the Mid-Republican Origins of Roman Military Administration: With Stylus and Spear

Elizabeth H. Pearson, Exploring the Mid-Republican Origins of Roman Military Administration: With Stylus and Spear (London and New York: Routledge, 2021). 9780367820732.

Reviewed by Dominic Machado, College of the Holy Cross, dmachado@holycross.edu

How was Rome able to conquer the majority of the Mediterranean basin in a little over a century? Beginning with Polybius, countless observers of the Roman army have offered their thoughts on the subject. Rome’s cultural values, political systems, tactical superiority, and even diplomatic capabilities have been posited as potential explanations of her extraordinary transformation from city-state to empire. In her 2021 book, a revision of her 2015 doctoral thesis, Elizabeth Pearson offers a fresh perspective on this age-old question. She argues that a key part of Rome’s conquest of the Mediterranean in the third and second centuries BCE was the development of a complex military bureaucracy. According to Pearson, Rome’s remarkable imperial expansion in this period could not have happened “without some type of administrative backing” (2). Its ability both to raise troops and to deploy them successfully required substantial record keeping at home and abroad.

Pearson’s task is not an easy one, as evidence for Middle Republican military administration is sparse. However, Pearson is more than up to the challenge. She makes full use of the literary evidence available and draws on insights from other fields, particularly demography and topography, to elucidate the administrative apparatus that lay behind Rome’s military efforts. Pearson imaginatively puts this evidence together to reveal a complex military bureaucracy that was constantly evolving to meet the state’s changing needs. The result is a significant contribution not only to the study of the Middle Republican army, but to Roman history more broadly, as she offers critical insights into Roman social, cultural, and economic history as well.

Pearson begins her analysis in Chapter 1, “Dilectus,” with a discussion of the administrative apparatus needed for the selection and enrollment of citizen-soldiers in the Middle Republic. Through a close reading of Polybius’s account of the levy, Pearson highlights numerous points in the process where written records were consulted and new ones created. She notes that since soldiers were enrolled by tribe, a list of eligible citizens from each tribe, likely derived from census lists, would have been required. The selection would have, in turn, created a new list containing the names of those enrolled from each tribe for cross-referencing when the legion was assembled for the first time. Such a list, Pearson posits, would likely contain information about previous service, age, and property qualifications since it was on these bases that the legion was divided into lines. Pearson even suggests that the state did preemptive administrative work to ensure that the levy ran efficiently. Those in charge of the levy seem to have used the census list to grant de facto and ad hoc exemptions based on age, marital status, and prior military service. This work left the state with a smaller pool of potential soldiers to process and, thereby, allowed enrollment in a centralized manner. As Pearson shows, the granting of exemptions meant that the levy could be held on the Capitoline in close proximity to the buildings that housed the state’s census records.

Chapter 2, “The census and centralised military bureaucracy,” takes a broader view of military administration in the period by examining how the state estimated its potential manpower. The chapter begins with an overview of the census, with a particular focus on the information that the Roman officials could glean from it. Pearson argues that the census resulted in the creation of documents that enabled the state to track its potential manpower. Most notable of these was the tabulae iuniorum, a list of all men eligible for military service at Rome. Drawing on evidence of punishments levied against men who had avoided military service during the Second Punic War, Pearson asserts that the tabulae iuniorum likely contained information about each citizen’s previous military service. Such information, Pearson posits, was updated annually by cross-referencing the legion lists generated at the levy. Despite the state’s impressive ability to keep track of iuniores, Pearson notes that the census and documents derived from it were not a complete accounting of Rome’s potential manpower, as it likely did not include men on campaign who were sui iuris. Nevertheless, she argues, the state was capable of getting this more fine-grained detail when necessary, as indicated by Polybius’s detailed account of Rome’s manpower in 225 BCE.

The records kept by armies on campaign take center stage in Chapter 3, “Recording men on campaign.” Pearson’s argument is that generals needed to know the number of troops they had with a high degree of accuracy. Operationally, the amount of food needed to feed a legion was so large that inaccurate estimates could lead to starvation or large amounts of waste. A failure to keep track of the strength of the legion had tactical ramifications as well. Awareness of the legionary strength was crucial for making real-time decisions on the battlefield and for seeking appropriate reinforcements from the Senate. Pearson then enumerates the evidence we have for record-keeping while on campaign. She points to the deductions taken from the stipendium for food, clothing, and weaponry as well as the army’s positional pay scale to show that the quaestor and his staff had access to the legion list and actively updated it with relevant information. She also contends that the casualty counts and records of yearly supplementa that appear in our literary sources suggest that commanders not only kept track of deaths and injuries but conveyed this information to Rome as well, speaking to some level of administrative connectivity between center and periphery. Pearson ends the chapter with an attractive hypothesis about the administrative purpose of the lustrum upon the arrival of a new commander. She argues that the ritual would, in addition to its religious purposes, have provided the incoming general with an opportunity to conduct a full review of his new troops.

Chapter 4, “Tributum and stipendium,” deals with the financial administration of Rome’s military undertakings. In contrast with previous chapters, this one reveals that certain aspects of Rome’s military bureaucracy remained underdeveloped during the Middle Republic. As Pearson shows, the collection of tributum and the payment of the stipendium were not centralized at first. Rather, it was unelected tribuni aerarii who carried out these tasks at the tribal level, relying on estimates and informal patronage networks rather than systematic accounting to complete their work. The increasing scale of warfare in the late third century BCE, however, revealed the insufficiency of this system. In some cases, the state turned to centralization to solve these problems. For instance, it appears that quaestors had taken control of the payment of the stipendium and were drawing funds from the state treasury by the time of the Second Punic War. The same type of problem-solving cannot be found in the case of the collection of tributum. The state could not raise enough money to support the armies of the Second Punic War because it enacted a flat rather than a progressive tax. Rather than change its taxation system, it enacted one-off measures like double taxes to foot the bill.

Pearson considers how these records were kept in Chapter 5, “Documents and archives.” Though this chapter remains necessarily speculative due to evidentiary restraints, Pearson proposes several intriguing hypotheses about the nature of Rome’s administrative documentation. After surveying the different media that might have been used to keep records during the period, she argues on the basis of durability and volumetric considerations that wooden leaf-tablets were likely used for temporary record-keeping on campaign, while wax tablets or linen books were used for more permanent archives at Rome. Pearson then considers where these records might have been kept, examining evidence for the storage of records at the aerarium Saturni, the aedes Nympharum, and the atrium Libertatis. While she is unable to say much definitively about the individual archival locations, Pearson makes a compelling argument about their interrelation. She suggests that the proximity of these buildings to one another offers evidence of the development of an administrative complex by the middle of the second century BCE.

The sixth and final chapter of the book, “Record producers and record keepers,” considers the individuals necessary to sustain this military bureaucracy. Pearson, drawing on recent work about ancient literacy, asserts that while most soldiers were semi-literate they were likely not able to participate in the more complex aspects of military administration. Rather, she contends that it was scribae who created most of the administrative paperwork that Roman armies needed to function. Through a deep dive into what we know about scribae during the Republic, she elucidates the central role that individuals outside of the senatorial class played in developing Rome’s military bureaucracy. While Pearson is bullish about the apparitorial class’s role in record-keeping, she is more circumspect about the role that enslaved persons played in these processes. Though we have evidence that slaves worked in locations where census records were kept, Pearson does not believe that the state would have trusted them to take on the important tasks of making and altering records, relegating them instead to a “clerical” role (178). However, there is good reason to question Pearson’s conclusions about the role of slaves in Roman military administration. Not only did the Romans have no qualms about tasking their slaves with tasks of the utmost importance, as can be seen vividly in the personage of the vilicus/vilica in Cato’s De agricultura, but recent work has demonstrated definitively the central role that enslaved people played in the creation of written texts.1

The conclusion, “The Mid-Republican origins of Roman military administration,” reiterates the key points of the book and contextualizes them within a broader history of Roman military administration. Drawing on evidence from Vindolanda and Dura-Europos, Pearson highlights similarities between Middle Republican administration and its Imperial counterparts. She argues that these similarities reframe the administrative reforms of Augustus. The first emperor was not, as other scholars have suggested, creating a new administrative framework for the army, but rather adopting “administrative forms that were already well established with a good track record” (189). Augustus was building on a Roman military administrative system that developed in the Middle Republic and had fallen into abeyance in the tumultuous years of the first century BCE. Thus, the “bureaucratic developments of the Middle Republic remained a crucial…element in Roman military success” even as the scope, scale, and purpose of Roman warfare shifted under the Empire (189).

Thus far, I have focused primarily on Pearson’s larger arguments about the nature of military administration and their significance for Roman military operation in the Middle Republic. Pearson also makes a number of smaller-scale arguments about thorny interpretive issues from Roman history. She discusses, for example, the minimum terms of service during the Middle Republic, the size of the legion in the period, the reliability of casualty figures found in ancient historians, the placement of the aerarium Saturni, and the nature of the libri lintei. Pearson’s willingness to take on these chestnuts is admirable. She often provides valuable insight into the weakness of earlier scholarly interpretations (e.g., at 14–16, she makes several good points about the problems with Rawson’s theory that Polybius’s description of the levy derives from a military tribune’s handbook), and she offers thought-provoking suggestions as to ways that these chestnuts might be resolved (e.g., her emendation at 17–24 of a crux in Polybius’s discussion of minimum military service). However, these discussions do vary in terms of their relevance to her overall point and, at times, detract from the force of her larger argumentation.

More significantly, these discussions reveal some methodological issues in Pearson’s approach to ancient evidence. One problem is that Pearson sometimes interprets the absence of evidence as evidence of absence. Take, for instance, her discussion of the reliability of casualty figures provided by generals to the Senate during the Middle Republic. In discussing a plebiscite from 62 BCE that declared it a crime to lie about the number of enemies slain or citizens lost, Pearson notes that the law “suggest[s] that it had not become a serious problem until the 60s” and thus “helps to demonstrate that accurate casualty figures were a regular feature of Mid-Republican dispatches” (84). Neither of these claims can be substantiated by the passage cited. We certainly do not know that this was the first law passed regarding the matter—it is mentioned very briefly in a passage of Valerius Maximus concerning triumphal regulations (Val. Max. 2.8.1). Nor can we assume the passage of a law suggests that the problem had only emerged recently. Legislation, both ancient and modern, often lags well behind the emergence of societal problems. Scholars have contended that the very nature of the Roman Republican legislative process meant that the government was slow to act when it came to dealing with larger systemic issues.2

My second methodological qualm is Pearson’s positivistic approach towards literary sources. In particular, I find her treatment of Polybius to be problematic. Pearson argues that it does not make sense to take a skeptical view of the Greek historian’s account of the army in Book 6. For Pearson, Polybius was not just an eyewitness to the Roman army of the Middle Republic, but a “scientific” historian whose foremost concern was providing an accurate description of its practices, rituals, and institutions. Moreover, she asserts that the fact that he was consulted on military matters by Manius Manilius in 149 BCE (Polyb. 36.1.1) suggests that the Romans saw him as extremely knowledgeable about the operation of their army. While I believe that we should be cautious about dismissing a contemporary eyewitness source like Polybius, there are several places where we have countervailing evidence to suggest that his account in Book 6 cannot be taken at face value. Take, for instance, Polybius’s statement that the Romans constructed their military camps in the same way regardless of the circumstances at hand (Polyb. 6.26.10). Archaeological excavations of military camps from the Middle Republic show that Roman camps came in different shapes and configurations and that these differences were not necessarily attributable only to the landscape of the campsite. Furthermore, Craige Champion, Lisa Hau, and Arthur Eckstein have shown that Polybius had clear literary aims and, as such, manipulated his narrative to correspond with these purposes.3 In particular, Champion has argued that Polybius sought in Book 6 to depict the Romans as the embodiment of hyper-logismos to impress upon his Greek audience the character of their new hegemon.4 Such an approach, according to Champion, required the exclusion of complications to that picture or the embellishment of certain details.

While I find Pearson’s interpretation of the ancient evidence problematic at times, the way that she presents it throughout the work is nothing short of exemplary for an ancient historian. The reader is never left guessing about the evidence that Pearson is adducing in favor of her point. Pearson tells us exactly what the ancient evidence says, the silences that accompany the evidence, and the history of the interpretation of it. There is a remarkable honesty to Pearson’s approach that allows the reader to evaluate critically the particular argumentation that she employs. Even at points where I find myself disagreeing with her, I found myself able to articulate the aspects of a given argument that I took issue with thanks to her clear presentation of evidence.

These methodological concerns, however, do not dampen the larger contribution that the book makes to the study of Roman history. Pearson shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that the armies of the Middle Republic were backed by a sophisticated administrative system. Moreover, she offers a clear analysis of historical contingencies that catalyzed this process, showing that the changing nature of warfare during the third century BCE put new pressures on the administrative structures and led to institutional change. Pearson’s work is a must-read for graduate students and scholars who are interested in the Roman army and her work stands as a major contribution to our ever-growing understanding of the Middle Republican period more broadly.

Table of Contents

Introduction (1–12)
I. Dilectus (13–42)
II. The census and centralised military bureaucracy (43–71)
III. Recording men on campaign (72–104)
IV. Tributum and stipendium (105–27)
V. Documents and archives (128–57)
VI. Record producers and record keepers (158–80))
Conclusion: The Mid-Republican origins of Roman military administration (181–90)

Notes

[1] E.g., Candida Moss, “Between the Lines: Looking for the Contributions of Enslaved Literate Laborers in a Second-Century Text (P. Berol. 11632),” Studies in Late Antiquity 5, no. 3 (2021): 432–52.

[2] Henrik Mouritsen, Plebs and Politics in the Late Roman Republic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 63–89.

[3] E.g. Arthur Eckstein, Moral Vision in the Histories of Polybius (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995); Craige Champion, Cultural Politics in Polybius’s Histories (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004); Lisa Hau, Moral History from Herodotus to Diodorus Siciulus (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016), 23-72.

[4] Craige Champion, Cultural Politics in Polybius’s Histories (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 67–99.

Discussion

You have done a fantastic job of highlighting how the Second Punic War acted as a catalyst for several administrative developments in the Middle Republic. I am wondering if you could shed some light on how some other moments influenced the development of Rome’s military bureaucracy. Do you, for instance, see Rome’s military commitments in Spain in the second century BCE as shaping particular aspects of Republican military administration? Did the victory at Pydna and the end of the practice of collecting tributum in 167 lead to a more centralized administration?

My focus on the Hannibalic War is very much a consequence of where the evidence led. Almost every element I investigated had changes which could be traced to its influence. I argue that the extreme scale, scope, and length of the war pushed Rome to develop in ways and to extents that it otherwise never would have, which drove change for centuries to come. Other moments within the Middle Republic simply do not have such an extreme wide-ranging influence. These other moments can also be difficult to fully understand due to a lack of evidence. If anything, it is more noteworthy how few events seem to have caused changes (or at least changes visible in our evidence) to Roman military administration. The third century before Hannibal’s arrival was hardly peaceable, but very little altered how Rome operated. Likewise, the longer Spanish campaigns of the second century helped more or less formalise military service as a single long stint. Conceptually this is a huge change from the citizen-soldier interchangeability of previous centuries, but from an administrative perspective it required almost no adaptation

To take your other example, I don’t think that the cessation of tributum after 167 led to a particularly more centralised administration. That it effectively made redundant the localised financial role of the tribuni aerarii appears to be centralising: the senate was more directly in control of overall financing. However, the role of paymaster had already moved to the quaestors. Multi-year campaigns were well established as the norm and men had been paid by the quaestor whilst on campaign for some time. Collection of monies was moved to a different source, but not necessarily a more centralised one.

Another change after Pydna is Rome’s increasing dependence on its allies for soldiers. As you mention in the introduction, much of the organization of allied troops was left to individual states, but do you see places where the Roman administration had to get involved? The number of allied troops certainly was important to a Roman commander for purposes of tactics and provisions. Even though the Roman state did not pay these soldiers, grumbling about the lack of pay could certainly have negative impacts on the way that they functioned in battle. Can we see, for instance, the development of the position of praefecti sociorum in the third century BCE as tied to a need to track allied contingents more closely?

This was a topic that I deliberately chose to avoid in the monograph because it is so large in itself! As you say, it would have been essential that commanders liaised closely with allied commanders for tactical reasons, and pragmatically it makes sense for this to have spread to other areas as well, particularly in the field. Unfortunately, very little evidence of how this worked can be gleaned from the literary sources. Livy regularly records the contingents requested of allies by the senate (e.g. Livy 32.8), but much less is clear about the rest of their organisation. The deaths of allied commanders seem to make it into the dispatches sent by Roman commanders back to the senate (e.g. Livy 21.59.8–9), but other figures for allied casualties are infrequent and inexact. I think it is implausible that commanders in the field did not know what these figures were, but they were apparently of less relevance when writing to the senate. Perhaps more significantly, allied organisation was not a topic that interested Livy, and with his focus on Roman morality even less incidental detail appears than does for Roman administration.

To return to your specific question, there are areas where Rome does get involved in allied administration, but this appears ad hoc and reluctant. I agree that the praefecti sociorum do seem to have been created in an attempt to give Rome a little more control over their allied contingents. However, as with other administrative developments, this seems to be only because Rome felt it was unavoidable. I do not think it is coincidental that the praefecti are prominent in Livy in 214, one of the most difficult years of the Hannibalic War. The praefecti recruit men in Lucania and examine their equipment in Apollonia (Livy 24.20, 24.40). The appearance of praefecti sociorum seems to indicate examples where Rome is less confident in her allies’ abilities to recruit, maintain and lead a force at a time when allied manpower was vital.

How much variance do you think there was in the administrative practices that happened on campaign depending on who was involved? Just as Roman commanders differed in their tactical capabilities, should we imagine that they had different propensities for the administrative detail that they wanted to know and demanded from their staff?

Absolutely. However, the evidence suggests that there was a minimum requirement and that this may have been relatively high. It is also important to differentiate between what was produced (or required) and what the commander himself was interested in. Practically, knowing the numbers of men was very important for supply, pay, and tactical reasons, as I argued in the monograph, but exact details were more important day-to-day for the quaestor than for the commander. Whether through laziness, disinterest, or competent delegation, it is unlikely that each commander wanted to know exactly the same details. This is probably reflected in the nature of the casualty figures in dispatches as reported by Livy. Some provide a lot of detail and names, while others are less specific. The inclusion (or not) of allied casualties is a good example. It cannot be ruled out that Livy or his sources chose to leave out details which were originally relayed, but the variety may well indicate differing levels of administrative interest or competence.

However, I do not believe this conclusion includes financial administration. Double records were required to be submitted to the treasury as a guard against corruption. Whatever their capabilities or interests, commanders needed to provide them. That the records only appear in the evidence when they are disputed (e.g. during the trial of the Scipiones) indicates that they were ordinarily submitted and reconciled without a problem. The exact nature of these may have differed between compilers, as may the level of precise detail. Nevertheless, the basic requirement remained the same.

Thank you so much, Dr. Pearson, for your thoughtful responses to my questions and for writing your truly excellent book on Roman military administration in the Middle Republic!

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