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Suffragium legionis: Popular Politics and the Army in the Middle-Republic

Michael J. Taylor

This paper offers a new approach to the generation-old problem of “democracy” in the Roman Republic by looking at democratic features in the most prominent institution within the Republican state--the citizen army. In the past thirty years, much ink has been spilled on the extent that the Roman state can be classified as a democracy (the debate largely sparked by Miller 1984). Most scholars have focused exclusively on voting in assemblies in Rome to elect magistrates and pass laws, although Nicolet 1980 does explore some of the political implications of military service. This paper argues that the content of Roman political culture should be assessed in light of participatory elements embedded within military service itself.

             Despite the seemingly totalitarian claims of imperium, the Roman army was in fact structured to receive bottom-up input at almost every level command. In additions to the consuls, praetors and military tribunes elected by the assemblies in Rome, the paper argues that a passage of Polybius (6.24.1-2) should be read to imply that the lines of heavy infantry also elected their own centurions during the course of the levy. Two facts point to such an election, firstly the fact that centurions were graded according to order (prior/posterior), which has strong parallels to the ranking of magistrates according to order of election, e.g. consul prior (Crawford 1996:254) and praetor prior (Cicero Leg. Ag. 2.28). Secondly, imperial inscriptions (e.g. AE 1976 540) refer to centurions who earned their post suffragio legionis, reflecting either an occasional survival of Republican practice, or at the very least the ossification of Republican terminology.

            The election of centurions has important implications for the overall political culture of the Roman Republic. It would suggest that the centurion in the middle republic was in effect a sub-magistrate, one of the few elected positions that a relatively common man could aspire to. Furthermore, while it has been noted how few citizens could fit into the voting spaces in Rome (MacMullen 1980, Mouritsen 2001), the centurionship may be one of the few offices for which heavily mobilized citizens had the opportunity to vote for with any frequency.

The paper will also briefly touch upon other aspects of Roman military service, including the emergency election of officers in times of crisis, freedom of speech in the army camp, the soldiers' role in the vote to award a triumph, and the acclamation of imperatores in the field.

            The paper further suggests that participatory politics influenced the nature of Roman military service. Every echelon of command in the Republic was empowered by a separate set of voters. The paper argues that one benefit of such a system was to encourage personal initiative from subordinate officers, who possessed their authority from a source independent of the whim and patronage of the commanding officer. Furthermore, the various elections also generated consensus (Flower 2014 for consensus in Roman politics in general) between the mass of common soldiers and the military hierarchy, a consensus that paradoxically enabled the harsh disciplinary regime for which the Roman army was famous. The paper concludes by suggesting that the Republican army was a far cry from the top-down hierarchies that define modern military chains of command. Rather, the army excelled in part because of the dynamic interplay between suffragium and imperium, participation and authority. 

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Popular Politics and Ancient Warfare

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