Commanders and Command in the Roman Republic and Early Empire

Commanders and Command in the Roman Republic and Early Empire

Fred K. Drogula

University of North Caroline Press, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 2015, 432 pages

Book Review published on: July 21, 2017

In Commanders and Command in the Roman Republic and Early Empire, Fred Drogula comprehensively examines the development of Roman concepts of command and, most particularly, the evolution of the term imperium. While it is written by and primarily for specialists in Roman history, the author offers fascinating insights into the nature of military authority in a republic dominated by highly competitive elites. He describes how this republican system of military authority evolved as expansionist wars required ever more military commanders and as the administration of conquered territory gradually turned many commanders into governors. Finally, he explains how Augustus manipulated republican forms designed to regulate aristocratic competition into those that would underpin monarchy.

The bulk of the book is a highly technical debate among Roman scholars over the meaning and usage of such terms as imperium, potesta, provincia, consul, praetor, pro consul, and pro praetor. Drogula believes that these scholarly debates originate when writers in the late republic and early empire such as Cato, Cicero, and Livy applied these terms based on usage of their own time rather than what the Romans of two to three hundred years earlier really meant. To this nonspecialist, Drogula seems to make an excellent case. For the general reader, the lesson is that language evolves and changes, and one must be careful in interpreting sources from a different time and place. The challenge is amplified as historians try to write about an unfamiliar past in ways contemporary readers can understand.

Central to Drogula’s argument is that in the early republic, the term imperium simply meant military authority, the power of life and death over Roman citizens in the army in war. While consuls and praetors were also magistrates with civil powers or potestas, imperium only applied to the military sphere. With civil powers over Roman citizens, these magistrates were often carefully balanced by other office holders. Moreover, imperium did not apply within Rome. The author maintains that there was no levels of imperium or hierarchy of holders of imperium. Instead, the republic granted imperium to each aristocrat for a particular provincia (territory, enemy or mission) and for a limited period of time (normally one year).

Rome was a martial republic. Its citizens were also soldiers, and there were no separate civil and military professions or classes. The Roman constitution “allowed for Rome’s aristocrats to share the exercise of authority and leadership in war.” Imperium recognized the need for investing absolute military authority in a single individual (unlike the Athenian practice of multiple generals), but controlled such authority by time, place, and mission. The difference between the imperium of a consul and a praetor was not in the level of authority, but in the prestige of the office and the importance of the provincia.

As the Republic grew, and wars and rebellions increased in number and duration, Rome needed more military commanders. It created the position of consul and increased the number of praetors. It began extending the men in command and appointing former consuls or praetors (pro consuls pro praetors) to military commands. Yet, this expansion of commands was not hierarchical; each consul or proconsul had imperium in his own provincia. If their assignments overlapped, Rome expected these coequal commanders to cooperate, and sometimes punished both if they did not.

By the late republic, the nature of many military commands changed from campaigning to garrisoning, and in turn, to administration and governance. Drogula notes that the impetus for governance often came from below as locals sought to have the Roman commanders mediate disputes. As commanders with imperium for a provincia gradually morphed into provincial governors, Rome promulgated laws to establish rules and restraints for these civil authorities. Roman provincia gradually separated into two types: zones of conquest (consular provinciae) and zones of governance (praetor proviniae), with the former possessing the greater status and prestige.

In the late republic, the controlled nature of elite competition, the cursus honorum, broke down as ambitious individuals abandoned limits on consular terms, manipulated provincia to include vast regions, and, exercised dictatorial powers for extended periods. Augustus proved to be not just the military victor but the master manipulator of Roman constitutional concepts and forms. Eschewing the dangerous title of dictator, he adopted the term imperator and later princeps to disguise monarchy. He cleverly reversed the prestige of the consular proviniae and the praetor proviniae. The Senate regained titular control of the praetor proviniae and granted “independent” imperium, while the consular or imperial provinciae (which contained 80 percent of the legions) were commanded by legati Augusti whose imperium derived from Augustus’s maius or greater imperium. Thus by the end of the first century BCE, imperium became hierarchical and included civil, as well as military authority.

So what does this mean to a modern officer? Command authority can be allocated based on place, mission, and duration, but the need for coordination and concentration often leads to hierarchy. Separating military and civil authorities is important to republican government, but in the exigencies of war and occupation these distinctions can become blurred. Constitutional forms developed to regulate elite competition and provide some “democratic” accountability, can mutate into concepts that sustain one-man rule. Finally, Drogula’s superb history shows how the meaning of words and laws can change dramatically over time.

Book Review written by: James F. Buckley, Fort Belvoir, Virginia