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A Look Into History: Roman Diplomas

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The author is a student of ancient and modern European history.


Rome Ascendant

As the Roman Republic spread across Italy and into the Mediterranean world the Roman political system grappled with the administrative burden of a growing citizen base. Where once the entire population lived inside a contained geographical region, Latium, Roman citizens came to live in lands near and abroad as Roman conquest spread.

Throughout the early period of Roman history the city grew its population by accepting new citizens, creating new tribes and establishing a variety of colonies and treaties that allowed Roman armies to outnumber their enemies with loyal citizen-soldiers that consistently joined the draft for several reasons including patriotism, materialistic reward, and as requirement to grow their social status. Stringent property requirements kept some ranks of the citizenry out of the army, but Rome consistently had enough soldiers to fight wars in the local region.

When the republic began to expand outside of Italy during the Punic and Macedonian wars soldiers increasingly saw themselves deployed not for a season, but for entire campaigns. Warfare became increasingly professional as drafted freemen spent years away from their farms. As warfare grew more complex the terms of signing up for the army grew longer.

Rome first tried to expand the ranks of the army by including the landless poor in mass, but as the wars went further and further afield Roman soldiers became more and more specialized until Rome was only fielding heavy infantry. All other aspects of military need, be they cavalry, bowmen, light infantry, etc. were filled by auxiliaries and non-citizens. The military diploma was designed to keep these auxiliary soldiers loyal.

Roman Military Diploma AD80

Roman Military Diploma AD80

The Military Diploma

The process of Rome moving away from a republic and into a military dictatorship began as Rome spread outside of Italy, but was drastically advanced during the period of the Marian Reforms that moved the markers of who could serve in the army. The Social War greatly expanded the citizen base and delayed the centralization of wealth, political power, and generalship but did not stop the momentum of the growth of individual power. Ultimately extended commands outside of Rome and Italy allowed consul-generals to create cults of personality that resulted in the Great Civil War and the need for new citizens.

The dispersal of a diploma to soldiers was in effect a grant of citizenship. Citizenship in the Roman Empire was more tightly controlled than it was in the early Republic and as Rome spread away from the Italian peninsula the geographic limitations of citizenship meant that greater numbers of people lived under the rule of Rome but were not entitled to the protections of Roman law. This had the effect of reducing the available manpower and taxable subjects. To fix this problem the Roman Empire offered a means for non-citizens to gain citizenship, by joining the army as auxiliary soldiers.

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At the end of an auxiliary soldiers term he was granted Roman citizenship. At some points in Roman history the grant included his children, but this was gradually phased out as the empire splintered into two administrative states. As auxiliary soldiers became the mainstay of the Roman army the city of Rome lost prominence as a capitol and the army became the only source of legitimacy for an aspiring emperor.

The End of Diplomas and the Fall of the Western Roman Empire

Towards the end of the Late Roman Empire diplomas fell out of use. This coincided with the growth of foederati, mostly Germanic allied tribes. The Foederati fought for Rome, but under their own chiefs and leaders in a more structured manner than the auxiliaries had. They followed their tribal laws and settled in Roman land as Roman power and rule waned.

Unlike the auxiliaries the Foederati were not expected to Romanize. They did expect citizenship, or the benefits of Roman rule. Unlike the auxiliaries they served where they wanted, and sometimes when they wanted. Some joined usurpers and pretenders, others setup their own kingdoms inside Roman borders. The Visigoths and Ostrogoths are perfect examples of this sort of behavior.

The Goths approached the Roman Empire looking to settle in the empires fertile lands. They had lived alongside the Empire on the other side of the Danube for hundreds of years before they sought to flee the Huns and get to safety. Though they had served as auxiliaries in the 2nd century, the Goths invaded the Eastern Roman Empire and then the Western Roman Empire where they split into two tribes. There two tribes formed their own kingdoms in Italy and southern France. They no longer fought under the Roman banner, but as Foederati, subject-allies.

Ultimately the Foederati killed the Western Roman Empire. Not in a bang or a sudden collapse, but by quietly replacing the legitimacy of the central state. Roman cities came under the control of the local Germanic chiefs and kings as rule from Rome weakened until it no longer existed.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Mellor, Ronald. “A New Roman Military Diploma.” The J. Paul Getty Museum Journal 6/7 (1978): 173–84.
  • Pangerl,Andreas,
  • Roxan, Margaret M., and Paul A. Holder. Roman Military Diplomas, 2006.
  • Welch, John W., and Kelsey D. Lambert. “Two Ancient Roman Plates.” Brigham Young University Studies 45, no. 2 (2006): 54–76.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 A Anders

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