So I want to talk about the Roman legion as a generator of social capital, and as teacher of skills, and bridge the gap between them to make a coherent picture out of what was happening with the army in the crisis of the third century. And I want to circle in on a subject that has enormous potential for the squicky, which strikes me as existing at the centre of the conversation.
If we talk about the legion as a repository of skills, it is going to be the extraordinary finds in the north of England that focus our attention. You know, because King Arthur was a Sarmatian cavalrymen in an auxiliary cavalry regiment who woke up one day to find the Roman Empire missing. So he fought some genocidal Saxons and built a hall at Birdsowald and made Keira Knightley its lady and blah blah Britain!(Or something like that; I'm hampered by not actually having seen the movie, so this is a bit inferential. The Youtube suggests that this movie is good at making people feel ways about stuff, but I'm not sure whether that's Arthurmania, North Country patriotism, or Keira. Also, white horses galloping across the moor.
So we can talk about things like the vast trove of ironware, including 750,000 nails, found at the abandoned camp at Inchtuthil. This gives us some sense of the level of industrial activity at a full legionary camp, and their possible role in deepening the skill base of the iron age in the north.
But that's not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about things I've talked about long ago. It's the lazy man's way, and the first step on the downwards slope: so, tents.
In his classic Camping and Woodcraft, Horace Kephart talks about a lot of things, including, of course, army surplus tents. Meaning, in the first edition of 1906, Civil War surplus tents. In my thesis, I quoted from the following passage at length, mainly because of the way it conjures the erection of an old-fashioned Zeug tent as highly-orchestrated musical number, only with everyone swinging hammers, and carried out with a sagging canvas cover thrown over the troupe, which I imagine isn't a much used staging on Broadway, I imagine, except maybe in modern dance.
The army conical wall tent is usually pitched by eight men, of whom the director is designated as No. 8. They work as follows: Upon the hood lines of the tent are placed three marks; the first about 8 feet 3 inches, the second about 11 feet 3 inches, the third about 14 feet 2 inches from the hcod ring; the first marks the distance from the center to the wall pins, the second to the guy pins, and the distance between the second and third is the distance between guy pins. These distances vary slightly for different tents and should be verified by actual experiment before per- manently marking the ropes. To locate the position of guy pins after the first, the hood ring being held on the center pin, with the left hand hold the outer mark on the pin last set, with the right hand grasp the rope at the center mark and move the hand to ihe right so as to have both sections of the rope taut; the center mark is then over the position desired; the inner mark is over the position of the corresponding wall pin. To pitch the tent, No. i places the tent pole on the ground, socket end against the door pin, pole perpendicu- lar to the company street. No. 2 drives the center pin at the other extremity of the pole. No. 3 drives a wall pin on each side of and i foot from the door pin. No. 4 places the open tripod fiat on the ground with its center near the center pin. The whole detachment then places the tent, fully opened, on the ground it is to occupy, the center at the center pin, the door at the door pin. No. 8 holds the hood ring on the center pin, and super- intends from that position. No. i stretches the hood rope over the right (facing the tent) wall pin and No. 2 drives the first guy pin at the middle mark. No. i marks the position of the guy pins in succession and No. 2 drives a pin lightly in each position as soon as marked. At the same time No. 5 inserts small pins in succession through the wall loops and places the pins in position against the inner mark on the hood rope, where they are partly driven by No. 6. No. 4 distributes large pins ahead of Nos. i and 2; No. 7, small pins ahead of Nos. 5 and 6; No. 3 follows Nos. i and 2 and drives the guy pins home. No. 7, after distributing his pins, takes an ax and drives home the pins behind Nos. 5 and 6. No. 4, after distributing his pins, follows No. 3 and loops the guy ropes over the pins. Nos. I, 2, and 3, the pins being driven, slip under the tent and place the pin of the pole through the tent and hood rings while No. 8 places the hood in position. Nos. I, 2, and 3 then raise the pole to a vertical position and insert the end in the socket of the tripod; they then raise the tripod to its proper height, keeping the center or the tripod over the center pin; while they hold the pole vertical. Nos. 4, 5, 6, and 7 adjust four guy ropes, one in each quadrant of the tent, to hold the pole in its vertical position, and then the remaining guy ropes. As soon as these are adjusted the men inside drive a pin at each foot of the tripod if necessary to hold it in place.
The moral I was trying to take away from this was just how many of the skills that make an army free on the land are invisible to us, just because it doesn't occur to us that they are skills. The idea is still sitting in my head as making the great mobilisations of 1682--1815 the proximate cause of the Industrial Revolution, inasmuch as the threat of the military overthrow of settled orders at last managed to open the wallets of the propertied class and fucking well pay for a vast infusion of skills training into the labouring classes. That's why I'm so big on the '45 being a real crisis; I have grave doubts about anything other than a felt threat to the pocket actually setting the Treasury free to spend. And that's my story about why wars, and not mere bagatelles like recessions, have hitherto unleashed the inner Keynesian.*
But isn't the tent transhistorical, I asked myself? If it's an uphill battle to argue that teaching young men to raise tents is going to pay off in the civilian economy, what do we do with the fact that the Romans needed tents?
|Here's the website, Aera Leather Tents, where you can buy your own. Design credit there (and here) to Driel van Murray, based on an actual example excavated at Vindolanda|
Now, you can take that basic observation in a great many directions if it pleases you. In the early modern, canvas was the indispensable, ubiquitous industrial substance that plastic wrap is today. Canvas was the stuff that you spent recklessly so that you could move expensive stuff. That the Romans didn't spend it that way tells us much the same story as the conclusion that sawed-plank floors were a sub-Roman novelty. Innovation is happening, at a basal level that is nearly invisible, growing vaster than empires and more slow. (I theorise, anyway.)
I'll take it another way: the prohibition on marriage in the Roman legions. This is, as we know, one of the rules that Augustus imposed on the legions, and which Septimius Severus relaxed. As Sara Phang argues, we cannot understand this law, and others like it, without due attention to ideology. What the Romans meant when they talked about "discipline" and "virtue" are not what we mean when we talk about them, and the one of the reasons that the Roman upper classes imposed this irksome ban is precisely that it was irksome. This helps us understand what used to be random, and is now thanks to the Vindoland tablets a systematic pattern of married legionaries. Once the disabilities actually imposed by this law have done their work, its purpose is fulfilled, and there is no point in actually preventing soldiers from getting married.
And yet there is plenty of evidence for a practical argument that the prohibition mattered, above all the fact that it was actually lifted by Severus. The traditional account is that Severus' relaxation led to soldiers getting married, and that this is actually invoked as an explanation for the fatal mutiny against Alexander Severus in 234. Having taken the legions away from the Rhine frontier to fight in the Middle East, he has exposed the soldiers' families (which now at last existed), to the depredations of the Allemani. So now that we know that the legionaries routinely got married, this makes no sense. Right?
Well, no. And here I am going to unashamedly lift an argument that Pierre Briant uses in another context to account for the ancient Near East's medically implausible surplus of eunuchs. It may not matter if you've had a medical orchiectomy if you've had a legal one. That is, if you're legally a eunuch, you can't legally have children. Therefore, your children aren't yours. If the issue only comes up in respect to inheritance rights, which are a legal construct anyway, the matter can stay in the realm of the law, and no-one has to go inflicting major surgical trauma on valuable slaves.
In the same way, Roman marriage law is already notoriously complicated. Lots of people are under lots of restrictions in respect to their right to get married, or arising from the particular way that they got married. Roman soldiers are quite clearly in this case. Phang notes the evolving way in which the law practically dealt with the legal status of the children of serving legionaries.
So what does this mean? Well, consider a retired Roman legionary. He is, for one thing, rich. He is, for another, a Roman citizen. The status is conferred on entry into the legions, or upon retirement from the auxiliaries. He is, for another, presumably in his early 40s, with a life expectancy, thanks to having survived the highest mortality stages of life, extending another 20 years or so.
In short, he's what you'd call prime husband material. Now, of course, you'll assume that he has a past, with women and children. (Even if there's some slight chance that this is not the case.) Perhaps the woman he is courting doesn't care. Perhaps it is all about the father of the household making cynical, oppressive, patriachal arrangements for his daughters. Whichever, the key point isn't that he comes to the girl spotless, but that he comes to her without an heir. This doesn't even have to mean that he can't make arrangements for the woman (women) and children he left behind him up on the Rhine; just that they have no claim on the property of the marriage bed.
So that is the unforced way that I read the marriage prohibition. It is meant to protect Roman civil society, but also the legionary, specifically clearing the way for him to marry well, to bring the alien soldier back into county society.
And then there's canvas. What I take away from this is as an Early Modernist is the flip side of the marriage ban, which is the absolute, complete absurdity of man without woman. No, I'm not talking about romantic videos on Youtube. I'm talking about fibre: vegetable fibre, animal fibre, whichever. The stuff that goes into clothes, that a man needs anywhere from 4lbs/year of, to more than double that, depending on the climate; all of it woven and made into clothes in the first place, and cleaned and taken care of later. The presumption here isn't that this is women's work, even if it is subject to a gendered reading. It's that the household consists of two people, because this requirement has to be taken into account, and that whereas it is just too much work for one, it becomes quite practical for two, what with the whole division of labour thing and all. Man must have woman, soldier or no.
So the leather tents are, I take it, an indication of need. Specifically, the Roman legion needs more women than it has, even if it doesn't really appreciate how many it needs, because it has no idea how much more free it would be on the land if it ditched leather tents for canvas ones.
And this, in turn, brings me back to Potter's magnum opus, and specifically Rome's powerful potential for being an oppressive power, and the role of the army, and rape, in that. In this context, he cites (132), a Talmudic ruling that the legal status of a woman abducted by brigands is that she might have been raped; while a woman abducted by soldiers is deemed to have certainly been raped.
Boy, like I said, squicky stuff. I was in graduate school when I first heard Mackinnon/Dworkin disturbing dictum that "rape is the means by which all men oppress all women." The sad later years of Dworkin's life has ever since impressed me that she was right by being wrong, or wrong by being right, or something more elegantly paradoxical than that. Dworkin's obsession with rape, we can see now, was fetishistic. Rape is real, but also fetish. (And, historians need to remind themselves, so are cannibalism and amputation and castration and many other things that turn up in colourful anecdotes that we might too credulously accept as real.) That isn't a critique of Dworkin, not even the last parenthesis. She might have been more sensitive to the way that rape is inside our heads (or, at least, of the 55% of the population determined to have that particular fetish -Science!) as well as outside in reality; but it doesn't really change her argument.
Well, it doesn't change it in a formal sense. I suspect that she would object to the move I'm about to make with the "rape is a tool of patriarchy" argument. I'm going to propose that in the case of Potter's Talmudic judgement, we do not have an index of the brutality of the Roman soldiery, who are even worse than brigands. Rather, we have a measure of their erotic capital. Roman soldiers are such desirable mates that every child produced by a woman who goes off with soldiers must be assumed to be the child of rape, or the local patriarchy's control of their women, and their inheritances, and so their property, is lost.
I mean, seriously. This judgement starts by denying woman in a certain case any agency. But surely some women who go off with soldiers do so willingly, and not as abductees. It's a big world, and it takes all kinds. The soldiers who came marching through the Empire from the Rhine to the Tigris and back again were a threat to civil society. Given the way of the world, they became a much larger threat when they got a pay raise. Maybe Severus's relaxation on the marriage prohibition wasn't such a concession after all.
If we accept that the legionaries on the frontier were mostly local recruits, and probably the children of legionaries themselves, as the 178 cohorts of auxiliaries who actually did most of the work certainly were, per Wells, than the pattern is that from the time of Augustus' compromise to Severus, the army was a patronage instrument for officers. At first, it was a patronage instrument for soldiers and centurions, too. This changed as the legions came to be locally recruited, except in emergencies, when there was conscription. (I assume that conscripted new legionaries did not deem themselves the beneficiaries of Imperial patronage at first, but their opinions might have evolved, especially if the donatives were good.)
As time went on, the law aimed not so much to hold legion positions open to promising Italian youth as to make time-served legionaries into good Italian husbands. The Severan reform brought this to an end, albeit perhaps only formally. From now on, the frontier communities that had formed around the legion's needs were the communities of the legions. Their wives were there, and their children, and their heirs. Household corporations that would reproduce themselves from generation to generation, probably more-or-less expecting military positions onto eternity. This is, after all, how the Manchu Banners went.
I invoke the Banner Armies here, rather than, say, the Janissaries, because they historically became sites of ethnogenesis. The Martial Han Banners are, in some sense, the parents of modern Han nationalism. We think, anyway. We already know that the rise of the Alemanni, and perhaps the Marcomanni before them, was an ethnogenesis, and Wells wants us to believe that the ethnogenesis took place on both sides of the frontier. The argument in the past has been one of challenge and response. The Alemanni are the product of Roman pressure, which forces the frontier peoples to form more powerful, and more military, political entities to oppose the Roman state.
Well, maybe: but we have an ethnogenesis here that we know about (the formation of Roman soldier communities on the frontier) but which doesn't have a name, and a name for an ethnogenesis that happened along the frontier and which doesn't have a name. The later ethnogenesis of the Franks is very hard indeed to distinguish from the Roman army. The Alemanni, from their earliest attestation, were providing auxiliaries to make war in Iraq.
Why multiply entities? The Alemanni are Alexander Severus's legions. It's a compromise --a weird one, to be sure, but no weirder than leather tents. But if self-sufficient societies are springing up on the frontier, what is that doing to monetary circulation? And what does the Emperor think of those consequences?
*Just to round up my continuing themes, I may have caught my worst patent troll yet while researching this post. Seriously: getting a patent on the tepee and getting the US Army to pay you $5/tent in royalties? If the poor bugger hadn't bet on the wrong side in the Civil War, there'd be an awesome Sibley Hotel or mansion or such in your neighbourhood to commemorate the man who "invented" the tepee in 1856. Now that's innovation!)