The Roman soldier has often been a victim of elite disinterest on the part of commentators both ancient and modern. One of the most striking areas where he has been ignored is what happened to him after far-flung battles and wars. The Romans associated the idea of loyalty to the military with land, allowing only those in ownership of land to serve in the legions. The idealized soldier’s experience was constructed as a system that was both exemplary and cyclical. Veterans were supposed to bring their stories, awards, and courage home to inspire others to join and to contribute to a culture that valued military service highly (Polyb. 6.39.8-11). When they returned they should perpetuate the state’s armies by having sons who would serve in their turn, like the exemplary soldier Spurius Ligustinus described by Livy (42.34). This paper will suggest ways that we can explore the question, how motivated were soldiers really to return to their lands?
The idea that the default position of a soldier was to return to his family farm has already been weakened by the growing consensus that veterans of the second century were given settlements of new land (Tweedie 2011, Erdkamp 2011) and that against a background of large scale mobility across the Roman world, veterans were especially desirable recruits for Rome’s colonies (Scheidel 2004). Rosenstein (2004) has shown that the middle Republican legions were overwhelmingly composed of young, unmarried men, and the high rate of those who did not return provided more opportunity for those left behind. This suggests that some soldiers would know their futures lay elsewhere. Homo (1970, 115) remarked that many soldiers might simply choose to remain in the provinces to which they had been sent. This paper looks at two ways that soldiers who did not go home are likely hidden from us: when deserters were subsumed into casualty figures, and when soldiers were dismissed in the provinces.
The number of securely attested deserters in the sources are surprisingly few, although ‘temporary deserters’ who left their posts or fled a battle line before returning were more common, as were defections, which were more frequent among allied troops than Roman (Wolff 2009). Those who were never discovered, however, would hardly be notable, and it has long been recognized that Roman casualty numbers can obscure the numbers of deserters and captives (Brunt 1971, 694-7). These rates from Roman sources are notoriously problematic and are frequently wildly high in defeats (e.g. 44, 50%) and low in victories (0.5, 0.7%) especially in comparison to Greek rates at an average of 5% mortality in a win and 14% in a loss (Krentz 2011). A comparison of rates of desertion in armies with similar conditions (e.g. punishments, ease of escape) will suggest a range of percentages that we can consider realistic.
The second clue, which has received almost no scholarly attention, is the fact that return of middle Republican soldiers was diverse, ad hoc and chaotic, and it was rarely the case that an army came home together. The exact compositions of each legion changed by the year, as some men finished their required years of service, new commanders led reinforcements out to their provinces, and some soldiers received early discharge for bravery. The normal practice seems to have been discharging the army in the province or at its border (e.g. Livy 45.38.14) from where the soldiers made their way back in groups (40.41.9). When the whole army was returned to Italy accompanied by commander and officers, it is usually because it was needed for a triumph. Normally the general was not legally nor religiously compelled to return his soldiers to Italy. I suggest that for many, faced with a daunting walk and a better idea – like trade, business, or piracy – the attachment to a Roman farmstead was an elite projection, not a lived reality.
The Roman Army During the Republican Period