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A Farewell to Arms? Cicero’s Pro Fonteio and the Shortage of Commanders in the Republic’s Last Generation.

Noah A.S. Segal

University of California, Santa Barbara

Cicero, in his defense of M. Fonteius, rests significant argumentative weight on the idea that Fonteius should be acquitted because men with military experience were in short supply. The speaker contends that although in the past the Republic had enjoyed an abundance of capable military leaders, in 70 BCE it was allegedly difficult to find such a man inside or outside of the Curia. Some scholars (e.g. Balsdon 1939; Steel 2012, 2013) acknowledge the seeming shortage of commanders in the first century BCE, but it is most often mentioned in passing and with no discussion of its extent or impetus. My paper offers a way to test Cicero’s claim and measure the decline in military experience among the republican aristocracy. Moreover, this study finds that the reasons provided by Cicero for this trend (civil war and political violence) are ones we should take seriously. Finally, once we have a better sense of the nature of this trend, I discuss the significant implications these findings have for some of most popular historical narratives (e.g. the rise of Pompey and Caesar as “military dynasts”) regarding the Late Republic.

            My examination of the shortage of commanders is divided into two halves. The first examines pre-consular command experience among the consuls of 81-49 BCE. This sample is ideal for two main reasons. By examining consuls in this period, we are dealing with a relatively well-attested sample of subjects. Further, our traditional understanding of republican political culture is that most men who reached the consulship would have already shown some command ability as a military leader. Yet, in the period in question just over half of all consuls – so far as we can tell – had held any imperium prior to their term in office, a lower-than-expected number. Even more important in Cicero’s rhetoric and more crucial to our understanding of the period is the claim that the amount of such men was in decline. Therefore, I compare the evidence from 81-49 BCE with similar examinations of pre-consular command experience from earlier periods of republican history and find that the evidence supports the narrative in the Pro Fonteio. The second half of my paper examines the causes for this decline cited by Cicero: civil war and political turmoil. The generation prior to Cicero dealt with a large number of crises which, upon closer examination, does seem to have resulted in an unusually high rate of attrition amongst the aristocracy – particularly among military men. When we engage this trend with the aristocracy’s decreasing interest with military service, the challenge facing the Republic’s last generation seems formidable indeed.

            These findings have significant implications for how we understand not only the Pro Fonteio, but more broadly the political culture of the Late Republic and the narratives surrounding its final crisis. I examine two major points of interest. First, the resiliency of the republican aristocracy and its ability to replenish its military ranks has featured prominently in discussions of Rome’s success since Polybius. But given that the evidence presented here points to a failure by the aristocracy of the Republic’s last generation to replace those lost previously, we should consider what role “elite manpower” played in the turmoil of the Ciceronian age. Even more salient to the evidence in this paper, we must also reconsider how we view the long and repeated commands of figures like Pompey and Caesar. Often these extra ordinem commands have been seen as self-serving power grabs by politico-military dynasts who upset the Republic’s fragile political equilibrium in pursuit of the immense prestige which accompanied leading Rome’s legions (eg. Mommsen StR 1.94-5, 2.647-62; Syme 1939 passim; Hopkins 1978: 92ff). If, however, the aristocracy of the Late Republic was struggling to fill the positions necessary to lead the legions in its expanding empire, then we could see these extended positions as addressing a pressing societal need.

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