How important was the Roman Army for Augustus' reign

The importance the Roman army was for Augustus has had much literature devoted to the subject. Historians such as Graham Webster say the army was vital in stabilising Augustus’ reign, others express that it was different factors such as the senate and the set up of administration that were more important for the first emperor of the Roman Empire. In this essay I will show that the Roman army was extremely important for Augustus’ reign. My evidence for this will be primarily from Webster1 and Grant2.

I will show how essential the army became, and I will demonstrate my opinion by looking at the key points that represent the value the Roman army was. In this essay the approach I will take will be mainly looking at what immediate actions Augustus took involving the army to steady his reign. I will also briefly consider, how personally to Augustus, the importance the army played for him politically. I will justify the amount each point was important, and I will then base my conclusion on the evidence collected to assess the importance the Roman army was for Augustus’ reign.


At the end of the Civil War and the beginning of Augustus’ reign, he found he had the control of numerous armies containing up to sixty or seventy legions, with some legions obviously from the opposing side to Augustus. In order for Augustus to remain in authority, he realised that this depended wholly upon the army. Not just so Augustus could remain in power but in order to defend the empire, the army must persist in being an immense force. One of the first decisions he made was to have a regular army with long-term service.

He reduced the number of legions to 25 or 26 which was then later raised to 283. This left him with a total of around 150,000 men. The reasons why Augustus didn’t make the number of legionaries larger to protect and manage the expanding empire are that it would have been difficult to fund an enormous army, suitable volunteers were few and far between but most importantly of all, to Augustus personally it would be terribly risky. With a larger number of legionaries to control, it would offer Roman military rebels an easier possibility of attack.

There were no legions settled in Italy at all, they were all situated at the frontiers. It was not traditional for legions to be settled in Italy or Rome, and Augustus wisely did not change this custom, as it would have looked threatening to the occupants of Italy, who would have resented any autocracy if Augustus had shown it. Another reason Augustus did not change this tradition was that with a legionary army near at hand this would have created another internal risk from people opposed to Augustus to attempt to overthrow him.

This became a very real threat; an opposing section of the army could side with a popular commander. Augustus took precautions by retaining for himself the Imperium, this enabled him to be the head of the Roman army, with every soldier swearing allegiance to him. Through his Legati (who were mostly made up of the governors of the provinces) he had the power to decide the number of recruits and how to maintain the army. So the importance the Roman army was for Augustus became imperative from the very beginning of his reign.

Augustus realises this importance and by limiting chances of unsettling feelings within the army, acts quickly in stabilising his supremacy. His actions include supplementing legionaries with auxiliary units to a large extent. Which were organised ‘.. not in legions but in infantry cohorts and cavalry regiments’4. Though these auxiliary units were mainly made up of provincial citizens, he ensured that they should still have the status of Roman citizen and Italians; this was another precaution that helped limit uprisings and enable Augustus to have control.

However there was unwillingness of these soldiers to serve far away from their homeland, so Augustus solved the problem when he ordered that the units stopped being recruited from the original areas, so recruitment became general. Augustus also rewarded soldiers often with a bonus and provision for their retirement. This greatly helped in maintaining contentment among the soldiers. Many bonuses were rewarded to the centurion, who was largely the creation of Augustus.

The advantage of being a centurion was that once being in that role could move directly upwards to the militia equestris, in which he would be promoted tribune of a legion or prefect of an auxiliary unit. Therefore if you showed your worth as a centurion you were more than likely to inherit a successful career. 5 This Augustus used to persuade and encourage recruits and to promote his generosity. Augustus mainly used the army for defence and to ensure peaceful living in the provinces, however often there would be skirmishes and uprisings from place to place.

So it was vital that he kept his army prepared and could be ready for war at short notice. With the various borders that needed to be defended, it is no wonder such a large expenditure was needed to maintain the immense army. Augustus knew how vital the army was for defending his empire and could not afford to skimp on expenditure. The historian Webster expresses why Augustus was so eager to provide for the army, for until he could come up with a way; agreeable to the senate for drawing this revenue from state funds, he himself settled the payments to soldiers from his own pocket.

This very action shows that Augustus knew without a first class, well-trained army he could loose lands and decrease the size of the empire which would do nothing for his image as the saviour of Rome. Also it was politically useful, as this reminded the soldiers that he was the source of their benefits. Having retained for himself the Imperium, and expecting allegiance from every soldier, the need for total commitment was high on his priorities. The empire and himself so greatly depended on the army and a high measure of loyalty was needed.

Augustus uses many ways to enforce this, one being violence. Suetonius, Life of Augustus 246, refers to this: Centurions, as well as common sentinels, who deserted their posts when on guard, he punished with death. For other misdemeanours he inflicted upon them various kinds of disgrace; such as obliging them to stand all day before the praetorium… However, what made soldier’s allegiance to him even harder was the fact that he hardly ever led his men in battle. His stepsons, Tiberius and Drusus, mainly undertook the conquests.

According to Suetonius, Life of Augustus 20, he was only present in battle in two foreign wars; the Dalmatian and the Catabrian. Then he was wounded in the former of these wars by the fall of a storming bridge. The reputation that he created about himself as a great warrior and General, plus the control of the coinage which provided Augustus the opportunity to widely advertise his victories inscribed on them, helped keep up appearances. Along with poets such as Propertius, who when he mentions Augustus is almost always in the context of war and military supremacy and Vergil in his Aeneid, vi, 851-37:

Let it be your task, Roman, to control the nations with your power (these shall be your arts) and to impose the way of peace, to spare the vanquished and subdue the proud. This deception must have caused Augustus much stress, as this could have deepened his fears of a more war like leader being popular with the masses. The army under Augustus was very successful in conquering lands. All this was great for cementing his power, as this promoted the mighty Augustus as a victorious figure leading Rome into a glorious age. This military glory resulted in great enlargements of the empire.

Some of the heavy expansionist fighting included the annexation of Raetia and Noricum (parts of Bavaria, Switzerland and Austria) in 16-15 BC. 8 Augustus also greatly needed adequate protection of the frontier areas, in the face of the movements and pressure of barbarian peoples. One of the most serious threats of the East was Parthia. Augustus did have military disasters especially in Germany. He lost three legions in A. D 9, which had a profound effect on Augustus and his frontier policies. The Rhine was now to be the limit of Roman authority, Augustus established on the eastside forts like Hofheim.

The army also held possible volatile countries in sway. The conquests of Illyricum and Pannonia9 are examples of this as a revolt occurred between A. D 6-9. However the army, most importantly for Augustus secured the rewarding land route across the Balkens to the East, where came riches, bringing exotic silks, ivory and spices which provided more luxury for Rome. However possibly the most gratifying province for Augustus was Egypt, owing to its great wealth. The Emperor needed the army here to maintain law and order among the inhabitants. Its governor was always an equestrian and no senator was allowed to set in it without imperial authority.

Augustus had his final campaigns against the Cantabrians and Asturians of Spain in 26 and 15 BC where there had been much unsettlement for almost two hundred years. The army didn’t just benefit Augustus in a military way; their tasks went beyond guarding the frontiers, details of military administration included a good deal of civilian type administration as well. Military servicemen also ran the justice systems of the provinces. Augustus needed troops to clear out the canals and improve the irrigation of the Nile waters when he made Egypt a province; this increased Egypt’s grain yields.

It was not Augustus that posted guards, conducted inspections and checked that work had been done but the centurion. ‘It was they who filled the breach and died in defence of the standards. The continuity of the army, and the perpetuity of its traditions, were in their hands’. 10 As far as how important was the army to Augustus’ health, the Illyrian revolt of AD6 upset Augustus very greatly and more was to come in A. D. 9, when the destruction of Varus and his three legions happened by Arminius in the Teutoburg Forest near Minden.

On hearing this news aged 71 seems to have had a nervous breakdown. Augustus had inherited a highly efficient army and had to retain this great force. He had to rationalise the dividing loyalties from the Civil war. It was these dividing loyalties that Augustus needed to have on his side and quickly, in order to conquer the Roman Empire and keep the peace in its provinces. The importance the Roman army was for Augustus was immense. When Augustus first came to power it was the army that he had to control and manage in order to maintain the position of Emperor.

If Augustus had got this slightly wrong then the outbreak of internal and external forces would have created a chaotic and probable short-lived reign. It was the army that expanded the empire, which led to increased economy and labour force. It was the army that Augustus used to promote a prestigious image and increase his political power. Augustus had seen from his predecessor Caesar that if you continue to have domestic enemies as well as foreign, then not only your time in power, but also your life could be cut short.

This is why in the main, in the reign of Augustus there was peace, the main strength the army gave Augustus was defence and control. This dealt with dismantling any signs of minor raids as soon as they had begun. In the majority, the army did this, and that is why Augustus’ reign is looked on as a successful and stable period but that could have been one of continual restlessness had Augustus not appreciated the importance the army was for his reign and taken onboard the various tasks in gaining loyalty.


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