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“By Any Other Name” – Disgrace, Defeat and the Loss of Legionary History

Graeme Ward

My paper explores how Roman legionary insignia were altered or eliminated by Roman emperors during the Principate as a way of addressing severe military disgraces and defeat. In the first century CE, as Augustus and his successors transformed the army from a conscripted militia to a permanent, professional force under their own authority, the legions were granted their own specific insignia, including numerical designations, emblems, and epithets. Honorific designations such as Macedonica, Valeria Victrix or Claudia Pia Fidelis had helped to foster a sense of history, pride and identity for a legion’s soldiers beyond their civic community. By granting these honors, the emperor also advertised the victories that were crucial to his military and political authority. Costly defeats, perceived cowardice, or support for an emperor’s rivals by a legion, in contrast, were a threat to this authority, and could lead an emperor not only to disband the legion’s soldiers, but to alter or remove permanently its honorific titles and traditional insignia – effectively an attempt to erase them from public memory.

Historians, such as Hölscher (2003), Carrol (2006) and Turner (2010), have recently explored the role of war in public memory during the Principate, including how wars and soldiers were commemorated through text, ritual and monument to communicate imperial power. Less attention, however, has been given to military defeats or disgraces, which were often ignored or repressed in the public sphere; legionary titles were problematic if they came to remind soldiers and subjects of defeat and civil strife instead of success and stability. Legio XVI “Gallica” for example, lost its old title in CE 69 for its poor performance and perceived disloyalty to Vespasian. It was reconstituted later as “Flavia Felix.” More dramatically, the history of entire legions could, effectively, be blotted out from public memory. The most famous case of this occurred after the Varian disaster of CE 9. The Seventeenth, Eighteenth, and Nineteenth legions that were lost in the Teutoburg Forest were never again reconstituted, nor were these numerical designations ever assigned to new armies. Some legionary titles and campaigns are only known today through commemorative inscriptions of individual Roman soldiers and officers, many of whom, interestingly, appear to have resisted repressing their history of service in such legions.

My paper examines changes to legionary insignia following military defeat, particularly in circumstances when an emperor’s political authority was challenged or appeared gravely weakened. I consider the textual and epigraphic evidence of such cases in light of what Flower (2006) described as “memory sanctions,” the deliberate practices that, through erasure or redefinition, attempt to change understanding of the past at Rome. While Flower focused her attention on sanctions imposed on individuals within the aristocratic elite or imperial family, however, I draw attention to the effect of sanctions against entire military communities in the wake of severe military defeat or disgrace. I argue that this practice allowed the Princeps to attempt to reconstruct the public memory of military defeat and disgrace, and thereby reassert his integrity and authority over both soldiers and citizens.

Session/Panel Title

War, Slavery, and Society in the Ancient World

Session/Paper Number

75.5

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