Wednesday, December 3, 2014


Patrice Faure, L'aigle et le cep: les centurions légionnaires dans l'Empire des Sévères (2 vols.). Scripta antiqua, 54/1-2. Bordeaux: Ausonius Éditions, 2013. Pp. 1106. ISBN 9782356130792. €50.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Mark Hebblewhite, Macquarie University (

Version at BMCR home site

SUDOC preview

Patrice Faure's two volume study L'aigle et le cep targets not just one but two crucial junctures in the study of the Roman army. First, the chronological scope of the study covers the Severan period (AD 193-234), which has long been acknowledged as an important one in the ongoing evolution of the Roman army as both a fighting force and an arbiter of imperial political fortune. Second, the thematic focus is on the centurionate, which for want of a better term formed the 'middle management' of the Roman legion, whose members were not only responsible for the maintenance of crucial disciplina in the ranks but who also formed tactical and bureaucratic lynchpins of the legions.

Volume One of Faure's study begins with a brief introduction setting out the range of sources for his subject, the state of scholarship on the centurionate and importantly his belief that the social sciences can be useful in historical efforts to uncover and understand the totality of the Severan centurion.1 Chapter One is a broad-ranging study of the many different roles a Severan centurion could potentially undertake during his career. Faure argues that the Severan centurion played an important role in training and preparing the men for campaigning and battle. He also notes that despite the claims of ancient writers like Cassius Dio disciplina militaris did not noticeably decline during the Severan period, and that centurions continued to play an important role in its maintenance. Faure also examines the role of the Severan centurion on campaign (a difficult task given the limits of the source material) from the basics such as their physical position on the field of battle to their role as councilors to their officers and the part they played in preparing and managing the soldiers before and during combat. Faure also examines the extent to which centurions engaged in actual physical combat. In undertaking this assessment Faure pays particular attention to the position and role of the primus pilus, and the question of this rank's disconnection with an active campaigning role. The remainder of the chapter is dedicated to examining the evidence for the range of 'non military' roles Severan centurions could undertake. These were diverse and stretched from policing activities to assisting in tax collection, guarding dignitaries, serving as frumentarii or in the Governor's officium and even on occasion undertaking special tasks such as capturing "animaux sauvages" (pp. 126-7).

Chapter Two focuses on the career path followed by Severan centurions. Faure looks in detail at the origins of those who achieved the rank and lays out the range of paths that led to the centurionate, including the selection criteria that had to be met and various types of patronage and support a candidate needed on his journey to receiving the vinestaff. Likewise, the chapter also deals with "les rythmes" of advancement within the centurionate that could ultimately lead to the role of primus pilus, a position Faure again pays particular attention to, and that itself formed a jumping off point to further advancement for a lucky few.

Chapter Three examines the link between the centurionate and the emperors of the Severan dynasty. Here Faure looks at how the Severans constructed their military image and the manner in which centurions furthered these efforts. Personal relationships between individual centurions and Severan emperors are examined as are the broader reciprocal links between the two parties, including such things as the emperor's role as a guarantor of superior currency payments attached to the rank and the involvement of centurions in rituals (such as the swearing of the sacramentum) designed to reinforce the fides of the troops to their emperor. Faure also pays special attention to the circumstances of civil war that created, and then plagued the Severan dynasty, and the role of centurions in these political crises. Furthermore he examines the cases of centurions who prospered under the regime by attaining senior ranks beyond the centurionate.

Chapter Four examines the contributions of centurions to what Faure labels "la communauté militaire sévérienne". This broad categorization includes a number of distinct investigations all of which go to the place of the centurion in the legion when considered as a self-contained 'society' or 'community'. Here the roles, rewards, responsibilities and relationships of the centurions are all considered. Faure begins by examining the question of how Severan centurions are defined in the source material. In terms of iconography he examines representations of body language (including visual 'signs' like posture and gesture), clothing and the way it was worn and accessories including dona militaria, weaponry and helmets (the difficult issue of the crista transuersa is tackled in depth). Literary portrayals of the "body" of the centurion are also examined, with Faure using the exaggerated descriptions of the physical attributes of the ex-centurion turned emperor Maximinus Thrax to good effect. Rituals, such as those associated with "prendre le cep" are also examined. Another defining characteristic of the Severan centurion were the various additional benefits they received including larger currency payments of donativa and the stipendium along with superior housing and service terms. Faure also examines the role of Severan centurions in maintaining the cohesion and esprit de corps of the legion as well as the unique social role they occupied as the legion's middle management – both as helpers to the senior office class and symbols of authority to the rank and file. No wonder Faure labels the Severan centurion as "Un Janus militaire" (p. 344).2

The final chapter bears the broad title Des vies de centurions but could also be loosely described as an examination of the 'personal life' (to use a decidedly modern term) of the Severan centurion. In this chapter Faure investigates a range of issues including the social origins and mobility of Severan centurions, their interactions in civil society, particularly their contributions to the municipal life of the cities and towns where they were stationed and the shape of their family lives. Faure also attempts to construct a holistic overview of the mentalités of Severan centurions. Using a range of material culture, in particular religious dedications and funerary monuments, he seeks to gain a glimpse of their everyday thoughts, concerns, beliefs and expectations.3

In Volume Two of his work Faure collates and presents the impressive array of ancient source material he used to construct his study. A mammoth "album prosopographique" contains an extensive range of archaeological, epigraphic, papyrological and literary evidence, with many entries boasting extensive commentary and analysis from the author. Additionally, Faure offers a complementary list of more uncertain ("péri" ou "crypto-sévériens") sources that may still be of use in uncovering the identities of the Severan centurion.

The individual conclusions reached in a study of this size and depth on a range of 'micro issues' are simply too numerous to discuss in any real detail in a review of this size. That said, one is constantly struck by Faure's theme of diversity within the Severan centurionate. Despite forming a distinct community bonded by rank, duty, privilege and prestige Severan centurions were diverse in social origin, career path and at times responsibilities. They were also perceived very differently by the different individuals and groups with whom they had personal and professional relationships. What's more, the Severan centurion could be perceived in different ways by the same group or individual. For a civilian community a centurion could be, depending on circumstance, a protector or a predator. For the ordinary legionary his centurion could be a source of esprit de corp, but also a disciplinary figure that inspired fear and loathing. Even the emperor viewed his centurions in a number of ways. While he saw them as tough and capable servants able to undertake difficult tasks, as well individuals who would work to install fides to his cause within the army, they were also potential threats whose support could assist potential rivals.

Despite the seemingly narrow focus of this work it is one that will be of interest to a range of scholars. Obviously those interested in the centurionate itself will find a wealth of material here. Not only does Faure offer a nuanced examination of diverse and little studied issues such as expressions of humanitas on the part of Severan centurions and the lustrum primipili, he is also prepared to challenge some commonly held assumptions about the rank. Aside from the aforementioned issue of the combat role of the Severan centurion, Faure also challenges the widely accepted view that the primipilat was only held for one year as well as positing a range of new hierarchical distinctions in relation to those centurions serving in the II-X cohorts of the legion (pages 201-203).

Scholars of the wider Roman army will also find much of value here. Faure's analysis of the Severan army is a nuanced one. He notes that the Severan army was not a radically different institution from that of the earlier second century. But at the same time he acknowledges that innovations and structural change within the army had occurred thanks to a new dynasty that brought with it a new political ideology and expansionist aims. More specifically Faure dismisses the idea that the Severan dynasty allowed a crisis of discipline to occur within the army. He also adds his voice to those who reject the idea of a Severan annona militaris.4 Additionally Faure's discussion of other issues will have wider significance. For one, he dates the rank of protector, long thought to be an innovation relating to the reigns of Valerian and Gallienus in the mid-third century, to the Severan period (pages 172-174). Also interesting is his examination of what he calls the "conscience politique" of the Severan centurion (pages 276-278). These issues impact the changing nature of fides militum, and in particular the Severan dynasty's role in creating the politically volatile army of the third century 'crisis' and imperial strategies designed to contain to contain it.

Faure's expansive and detailed study will no doubt be welcomed by all scholars of the imperial Roman army. Despite the fact that not everyone will agree with all of Faure's many conclusions, there is very little to criticize here. My only observation is that Faure's detailed discussion regarding the amount of stipendium paid to Severan centurions was somewhat unnecessary given that his discussion ends with the same uncertainties and caveats that have plagued earlier attempts to reconstruct military pay rates.5 Overall though this is a study that cannot be ignored and one that deserves the widest possible audience.


1.   That said on page 24 Faure reinforces that his study is primarily a historical one noting "Le livre qui débute demeure une étude historique et ne prétend nullement exploiter toutes les resources des différentes sciences humaines que nous fréquentons en visiteur."
2.   On page 347 Faure goes on to illustrate this fact by saying that "Socialement inférieurs mais professionnellement utiles (pour leurs officiers supérieurs), objets d'admiration et d'attachment comme de rancœur (pour leur subordonnés), les centurions sévériens demeuraient marquees d'une certaine ambiguité qui s'accorde bien avec la diversité de leurs profils et de leurs vies."
3.   On page 385 Faure notes of his approach that "Outre l'éclairage privilégié qu'elle (ie: the evidence) peut offrir sur les mentalités des individus, l'analyse des horizons et des soucis quotidiens des centurions permet de mieux cerner leurs attentes et leur angoisses d'etres humains, de militaires et de pères de famille".
4.   Faure notes that Severan centurions were probably responsible for provisioning the legion but completely rejects the idea of a Severan annona militaris, going as far as to label the idea a "mythe historiographique" (page 436).
5.   Here Faure relies heavily on the reconstructions of B. Dobson and M.A. Speidel. On the possibility of recreating exact rates of pay for any type of Roman soldier. I must confess to agreeing with R. Alston who believes such attempts are doomed to failure: "Most of the documents that have been used to support the various proposals as to the rates of pay of the soldiers of the different units of the Roman army do not provide figures which can be simply converted into rates of pay. The methods by which the Roman military accountants arrived at the various figures cannot be reconstructed from these documents. We cannot use the documentary evidence to calculate exact rates of pay" (R. Alston, "Roman Military Pay from Caesar to Diocletian", JRS 84 (1994):113-123 at 120.

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