Imperial Rome- Policies of Expansionism and Military Society

The sophistication and success of Imperial Rome was significantly due to military integration and discipline, embodying the Roman diplomatic policy of expansion along defensive and offensive lines. The case study of Roman frontier policy in the East vis-à-vis their somewhat threatening Persian (Parthian) neighbors shall provide this essay with an explanation of expansionist strategy, presenting a specific example regarding this subject. In this case, defensive and aggressive strategies were incorporated, which were both arguably used as a strategy of defending Roman basic security in opposition to the threat of “barbaric” (or rather less sophisticated) civilizations on the frontiers of the empire. Furthermore, it may be argued that the military strategy that emerged in Imperial Rome is only possible because of and reflect upon the social military culture that was invoked as early as the beginnings of the Republic, although many reforms have been implemented. The military culture of the Roman Army can be seen through the lens of disciplina (military discipline), which cultivated loyalty amongst soldiers. This traditional military culture was based upon legitimation of hierarchical trajectories between the landed elite/Emperor and the soldiers, who were motivated to be adherents of the charismatic authority of generals and leaders. The army was entirely significant to the consuls (who wished for triumphs and glory on the short-term military expeditions) and especially to the Emperor, who, for legitimating his monarchy, required the loyalty of the army. The legitimation of the Empire’s leaders and hence the cultivation of military structure and discipline was rudimental in having a successful, integrated army. Sociological theory is applied to Roman Army by Weber, Althusser and Bourdieu, providing this essay with an explanation as to how the society of an army was established in such a disciplined form. This analysis is based on economic assumptions of class division, as well as class theory and formation of ideology, each in turn providing a successful integration of the army.

The main effort of Roman frontier policy was aimed to secure these frontiers from neighbors that pose a threat to the internal security of the Empire. The strategy can be seen as similar to that of Britain in Africa, who “once embarked on the fatal policy of establishing a frontier in South Africa and defending that frontier by force, there seems to be neither rest nor peace for us till we follow our flying enemies and plant the British standard on the walls of Timbuctoo. To subdue one tribe is only to come in contact with another equally fierce, impractical and barbarous…” (Isaac, p. 20) Hence, the effort to Westernize ‘barbarous’ African tribes can be seen as similar to Roman Imperialist effort to Romanize the civilizations with which they were confronted, and those already conquered. The approach has an implicit element of protecting the Empire’s own basic security against neighbors, whose “turbulence and nomadic instincts render them difficult to live with”, which characterize Roman expansionist policy with a certain rationalization on part of the policy-makers. Many Romans saw Parthia, which was right on the border of Rome in the East, as a powerful “systematic threat” (Isaac, p.28), but still to be part of the broader reach of the Empire. At some points in history, Parthia was seen as a more urgent threat, such as when Persian King Artabanus (around 35 AD) threatened Rome with their intention of regaining old territories which the Persians saw as their inherited right. However, such words, which Artabanus used as a threat to the Romans, were never entirely realized and never turned into actual deeds. In 51 BC, a Parthian raiding campaign was relatively successful, but it was aimed rather at booty and destruction of Roman property and not conquest. In 113, Trajan was successful in conflicts against the Parthians, conquering much of Parthian territory, which were later abandoned by Hadrian, who followed the example of Cato, where he “pronounced the Macedonians free because he could not protect them.” (Isaac, p.25) This shows us that Roman policy of expansion was defensive when necessary, and that Hadrian wished to strengthen lands already annexed by the Empire, rather than pursue aggressive intentions of expansion. According to Roman Imperialists and many scholars of the time, no difference was made between vassal kingdoms on the periphery and directly administered regions, and hence Roman expansionist policies were not based upon total, aggressive domination. The trend followed that of selective expansionism or expansionist triumphs, the first symbolizing that of Hadrian, and the latter that of Trajan. “Ancient sources speak of utility, cost and benefit, in addition to the desire for glory on the part of the emperor. Nowhere is not argued that one should refrain from conquest due to moral reasons or consideration of justice to humanity.” (Isaac, p.27-28) Modern scholars may condemn Roman imperialism, presenting arguments of human rights and morality; however the given quote shows us a different point of analysis: Roman expansionist tactics was based upon the Romanization of ‘barbaric’ lands, but also on protection of Roman civilization; frontier campaigns were for practical reasons of utility. “These are not matters of right or wrong, but of logic, cost, and benefit.” (Isaac, p.28) Hence, in order to provide a cohesive analysis in the historical context, moral considerations are not of importance as much as practical considerations. In the conflict between Rome and Parthia, the coexistence of two equal major powers was incompatible with the Roman character, or perhaps with ancient politics in general; this may be true of Roman frontier diplomacy in a broader scope. The relationship between the two civilizations was based on a continuous struggle for control on the bank of the Euphrates. In 100BC-20BC, Roman campaigns in the East subjected Syria under their control and Rome no longer saw Euphrates as symbolizing the division of spheres of influence vis-à-vis Parthia. In 51BC, Parthian incursions into Syria were repelled. In 63 AD, Roman emperor Corbula was successful in turning Armenia into a client state, later retreating to Syria. In 114 AD Trajan successfully annexed Armenia, but this subsequently ended in withdrawal. However, a few years later Armenia was finally considered a Roman territory. Hence, Parthians were often engaged in raids in Syria, which prompted the Roman legions to partially withdraw from Armenia and head for Syria for defensive purposes. In 198 AD, Mesopotamia was annexed. Parthians no longer had the desire to conquer Roman lands, but their raids continued. Organization and disposition of the Roman army in the East was geared for aggressive diplomacy or even offensive warfare. Many roads, canals and bridges were constructed, allowing troops from Africa to come in case of need. Rome had ambitions to acquire new territories and often made attempts to realize them, and frequently lands were conquered for profit. Hence, to conclude Roman frontier military strategy, we may say that, depending on the period discussed, the policy was either of aggressive or defensive nature. The expansion of Rome was rationalized by the stereotypes appropriated to neighbors of less sophisticated character, and there was sincere effort to Romanize them. This approach was essential to the culture of Roman soldiers, who were proud to be part of the great Roman Empire. The military policy regarding neighboring territories is considered with either a practical approach, involving the implementation of defensive strategies, or with aggressive conquest, induced by desire for glory or for profit.

In theorizing how such strong military discipline was achieved (although mutiny was not infrequent), many aspects must be considered. Soldiers’ loyalty was secured by their annual oaths of allegiance to the emperor, who was a personal benefactor of his soldiers. The Roman hierarchy was based upon the traditional conditioning of aristocrats, allowing them to command. Officers were civilians, who had previously attained a status of equestrian (knights), and common soldiers could also ascend through promotion. Often aristocrats were appointed as officers and these did not have any special military education. Soldiers were used to obey these officers, with whom they were always in personal social contact. The tradition of this authority gave a “moralistic and often archaic tone to disciplina” (Phang, p.15), because soldiers adhered to the traditional values, which the aristocrat generals propounded through the exemplary Roman virtue.) Soldiers’ wages resembled that of a laborer’s, however they received additional benefits such as health care, donatives and pensions, and were always sufficiently fed. Hence, solders may be viewed as privileged. The general’s control of soldiers’ access to wealth allowed the elite to directly influence the army in politics. “Disciplina ideology was aimed at controlling military’s conditions of production, redistribution and consumption,” and in turn ideology worked to socialize soldiers to identify with the established order. (Isaac, p.15-20)

Weber analyses social conditions in the Army through various concepts. He identified that in order for the elite or emperor to influence the army, their order must be legitimated. Weber identified charismatic authority (these are personal qualities of a ruler that make him popular), as an unstable, but rather effective way of legitimating the order. This then underwent Routinization, which is the conversion of charismatic authority into legitimate authority that often takes a traditional form, such as the traditional disciplina of soldiers. While the charismatic authority may be true of a republican aristocrat, August transformed this into legitimate authority through rationalization of service and regularization of pensions. Hence, he built a systematic legality and bureaucracy to the many sectors of the Empire. This Legal-Rational Bureaucracy can be seen in Roman military culture as efforts of rational control of soldiers’ work, leisure, pay and consumption, which was used in preventing mutiny. Military discipline consisted of tradition and custom, not of law. Hence, it was a “social rather than legal code” (Isaac, p.26). Patrimonialism is where power flows directly from the leader. This was often the case of Roman politics, where rulers promoted relations, friends or dependents to offices and influential positions. Often Emperors had a personal relationship with his soldiers, attaining a position of material patron and granter of privileges, effectively making them his clients. Senatorial patronage of the troops was illegal, as a patron might use his troops to start a civil war. Direct control of soldiers’ wealth and of labor and other economic factors were “value-rational as well as instrumentally rational;” (Isaac, p.29) in other words, this control was a rational procedure working to ensure legitimation of the Roman order. (Isaac, p.21-29)

Althusser considered the aspect of social and cultural reproduction and ideology as major motives in the process of legitimation. People are educated and habituated to reproduce conditions that they view as part of their everyday life. This involves reproduction of ideology by both the subordinate and dominant classes, which served also to legitimate the order. The socialization of people forms ideological habits in people, and through institutions, which are ideological state apparatuses, members of society are hailed as subjects. An example of this is the case of Catholics in the Roman Catholic Church, who form ideologies based on their social status of Catholic that in turn legitimates the Church. Althusser conceptualizes the idea of roman disciplina as founded on traditional values and rejection of certain behaviors and identities that would abject them. Such stereotypes of the German barbarian vis-à-vis the traditional, virtuous Roman soldier, work to create their identity, hence helping promote social control. (Isaac, p.29-30) Bourdieu builds on this theory, and uses the term habitus, which is the physical embodiment of cultural capital, such as habits, skills and disposition, to specify how Roman soldiers may have embraced ideologies that helped form their soldierly identity. Bourdieu says that an individual grows up in a class and is educated in a field that creates social disposition. He terms “Pedagogic work”, which is the process of producing durable training in the habitus and internalization of the principles of their culture. In the army, the pedagogic work took the form of physical and combat training, routine fatigues and other duties such as building projects. These, in essence of the term “pedagogic work”, allow for routinized training in the field of soldering, which are embodied as a physical identity, legitimating the actions the soldiers are performing, and hence legitimating, in effect, the whole order. The Emperor was essential in emphasizing the soldiers’ habitus, and often exchanged gifts and benefaction, which worked to legitimate his rule. The mutual experience of hardships by the commander and his soldiers induced the latter to accept him as one of them; this was highly effective in consolidating social cohesion in the legion. Another ideology that had the same effect was the idea of masculinity, which was part of Roman military habitus, and in turn, military discipline was propagated because the alternative to military service was associated with effeminacy, which was viewed as shameful and disgusting. All these factors must be considered if we are to come to a clear analysis of social integration of the Roman army and how legitimating the Roman order was possible. Ideology, as sociology shows us, is persuasive in showing us the specific formation of social and economic statuses (particularly to the class of soldiers), and we can certainly see that legitimation of the imperial army was achieved through “discipline fashioned habitus” of soldiers and officers, and through direct control of the material wealth of soldiers. (Isaac, p.30-34)

This essay is an attempt to give a limited overview of military culture in the Imperial Roman Empire. The case study of Roman and Parthian relations gives understanding to the basic Roman conceptualization of their expansionist policy; Roman integrity and safety was vitally important, and the political strategies employed in the frontiers of the empire, whether aggressive or defensive, were generally aimed at encouraging this. Although, often emperors or consuls desired glory, it is still part of the greater Roman tradition and virtue, and whatever motives may be behind the military strategies employed, the context is always that of Roman integrity and glory. In facing neighbors who were viewed as less sophisticated than them, the Roman leaders often acted in effort to protect the Empire through defensive and selective expansionism. Although internal imbalance was perhaps the biggest threat to Rome, the greater part of Roman military action was focused on the frontier, and hence strategy regarding frontier diplomacy allows for important analysis of overall Roman military action. However, it is perhaps most important to analyze the social aspects that allow for cohesion amongst the imperial army to understand what military culture the Romans had. Here Weber, Althusser and Bourdieu provide important sociological theories. They allow not only for understanding military culture, but also for comprehending how such a huge army, largely due to discipline, legitimated the order and hence allowed for politicians to play the greater part of deliberating on military diplomacy. The two parts to this essay provide a sufficient preliminary understanding to how a military culture is conceived, and how social aspects are fundamental in creating an army.


Phang, Sara Elise. Roman Military Service: Ideologies of Discipline in the Late Republic and Early Principate. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008. Print.

Isaac, Benjamin H. “Rome and Persia.” The Limits of Empire: The Roman Army in the East. Oxford: Clarendon, 1992. N. pag. Print.