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Soldiers and Silver

A review of a book by Michael J. Taylor

Aaron Beek reviews Michael Taylor’s Soldiers and Silver (2020), a revision of his 2015 PhD dissertation, Finance, Manpower, and the Rise of Rome. Despite some quibbles, Taylor has succeeded at clarifying an often-unclear topic with some fine scholarship.

Written by Aaron L. Beek on

Michael Taylor’s 2020 Soldiers and Silver is a revision of his 2015 dissertation Finance, Manpower, and the Rise of Rome, and though there are some useful additions, it is not substantively different, with many paragraphs still identical to the original, and only a dozen or so post 2015 sources cited.

The whole thing comes packaged in a handsome and – by academic press standards – quite affordable volume from University of Texas Press. Nevertheless, for the cash-strapped among you, I would recommend going straight to the dissertation.

Michael Taylor’s book aims to explain the military of the Roman state alongside its four great peers (Carthage, Macedon, Seleucid Syria, and Ptolemaic Egypt) through the lens of the two great necessities of war, namely money and manpower. Quantification of these things is necessary, but as Taylor points out (p. 2), knowing the relative quantities is more informative than absolute quantities. Such a comparative study has been long-needed and is very welcome.

His assertion that the Romans defeated and conquered all their peers fits finely into this framework, though we should note the exclusion of Parthia, largely on the grounds of the timeframe, and Pontus, on grounds less clear (whether we define Pontus as the strongest of second-tier states or weakest of first-tier states, it deserves more space). Taylor’s book opens with a clear and lengthy historical introduction (which is largely new to this version).

Finding soldiers

In the first analytical chapter, Taylor provides a clear and cogent study of just how much manpower was available to the Romans. The influence of Brunt (1971) and Rosenstein (2002, 2004, inter alia) is obvious. Taylor posits large Roman deployments, exceeding 185,000 men in the field. Nevertheless, the Romans’ superiority over their peers was less the sheer quantity of manpower to which they had access than it was their far superior ability to mobilize this manpower.

His examination of assidui and proletarii, often underexamined, is particularly welcome. How much property was necessary to qualify for service in the army? As Taylor points out, we should be skeptical of large bodies of urban poor for the middle republic, but the proletarii were not necessarily destitute.

Yet, these must have always been fluid categories, with some smallholders falling above the property qualification, and some below, and with each division and combination of inheritances, families would split along these lines, to say nothing of the politics of assessment. Thus, the Roman lowering of the property qualification would capture many of these men as army-eligible assidui rather than the navy-eligible proletarii, and we see repeated gradual drops of this dividing line from ~500 denarii to the 375 denarii of the late republic.

However, if we were to accept Taylor’s (and Rosenstein’s) dynamic that only 10% of Roman men were proletarii in the first place, it is baffling to argue that Rome’s property qualification-shifting would free up a substantial number of men for the army, as it appears to have done. (Brunt’s 50% is almost certainly too far in the other direction.)

Taylor also discusses different levels of citizenship and obligation, such as the cives sine suffragio, the Latin citizenship, and the allied cities, and their impact on mobilization. Auxiliaries receive only a short discussion, though they were often crucial to Rome’s armies outside the peninsula.

In the second chapter, Taylor runs through the recruitment by the rival states. Of these, Carthage was closest to Roman norms: able to finance large armies in multiple theaters and withstand ruinous defeats without capitulation. While Rome made ample use of auxiliary and allied forces (which often outnumbered the Roman contingent), the Carthaginian citizen contingent was still smaller, at least in the army. Instead, the Carthaginians recruited heavily from Iberia, Africa, and even Italy.

By contrast, the Macedonians relied heavily on a relatively small, well-trained citizen body, with a limited number of mercenaries, often employed as skirmishers. Taylor’s dismissal of light infantry here has deep roots in ancient history, but requires more evidence.

The Ptolemies had an advantage in the relative concentration of its population, making the transport of men and material relatively simpler. The cleruch system (which granted land to men in exchange for military service) provided a decent mobilization system, though it would take time to mobilize troops from their farms.

The maximum mobilizations Taylor records are 75,000 men for Raphia (though we must assume some garrison troops stationed elsewhere), and Taylor posits roughly 65,000 cleruchs. Lastly, the Seleucids repeatedly mustered armies of 50,000-60,000 men, with regular garrisons of perhaps half that number. Like Egypt and Rome, the Seleucids also made use of settlements of soldiers, though we know less about how these settlements functioned.

While all the states, could, when pressed, mobilize nearly or over 100,000 men (including garrisons), all had difficulty projecting anything like this force abroad. Due to relative lack of sources, we have less of an idea as to what proportion of the population produced these soldiers.

Nevertheless, it seems as though the Seleucids made greater use of local populations but also required larger garrison forces. Rome had the greatest ability to mobilize men, but difficulty sending men abroad meant Rome would fight many battles outnumbered.

Finding silver

The finances of the Roman republic and its military were complicated, no less complicated because rules changed enough over the centuries to make generalization difficult. Nevertheless, Taylor does a fine job of breaking it down, and is explicit when he needs to hedge or employ a rule of thumb (and perhaps more apologetic than he needs to be).

For the period in question, Roman citizen troops received a small stipend, while allied troops received no pay (from Rome) but did receive rations. Taylor rounds the cost for a legion in the field to one million denarii a year – a figure that strikes me as high on average but reasonable for the deployments further away.

On average, Taylor posits an average expenses and revenues of 13 million a year, though 75% of these expenses were military and 60% of this income was from the proceeds of war, bearing out Rosenstein’s arguments that Rome’s wars were not profitable for the state (though whether it was profitable for generals is another matter).

Nor were these wars particularly profitable for the rank-and-file, whose payments were low compared to Rome’s rivals, but hoped to make up the shortfall from loot. The irregularity of Roman taxes, tribute, expenditures, and monetary reparations combined to create a more chaotic fiscal state in Rome, apparently broke one year and flush the next.

Taylor then outlines the known finances for the four rival states. For many of these, we rely on speculation and extrapolation, so these are necessarily tentative. Nevertheless, we may fairly assume that all four were better at extracting fiscal resources from their population than the Romans were (and even the Romans would likely agree).

Carthage stands out as poorly understood. While we know Carthage was wealthy and well able to extract its revenues (though widespread corruption was a perennial problem, according to the Romans), we do not have the specifics, and must deduce much from large sums and sizes of military contingents.

Taylor posits revenues equivalent to eight million denarii a year after the second Punic War, and more than twice that in the third century. As Taylor noted earlier in the volume, however, the Carthaginians had made significant gains in Libya in the third century and the third century revenues are likely rather higher. On the other hand, Taylor suggests that Carthage’s pay rates (unknown from direct evidence) were more similar to Rome’s than the East: an assertion that seems out of line with the literary evidence.

While the Macedonian numbers are more explicit, the reader should recall that these numbers stem largely from the second century, when Macedon was weaker. Here he proposes an eight million denarii-equivalent annual income, mostly derived from mining. Prior to the Second Macedonian War, Taylor proposes a maximum of fifteen million.

While it is wonderful to see all this information arrayed together in chapter four, Taylor’s hunt for average expenses neglects that the Hellenistic states intentionally saved up cash reserves in years of peace to be able to punch above their weight in times of war, and this likely applies to Carthage as well. We see some hints of this in his discussion of the years 171-168 BCE, which consumed as much coin as the previous 25 years.

The Ptolemaic finances were different. Coming in at a whopping 90 million drachmae per year, this wealth was largely reliant on exporting grain for cash, and the numerous Ptolemaic gifts of grain to both the citizenry and to neighboring states may well reflect some difficulties in converting this wealth of grain to a wealth of metal. Ptolemaic pay was nearly double that of Macedon, which itself outstripped Rome’s pay. Small wonder that the Ptolemies had their pick of Aegean mercenaries.

In wartime, Ptolemaic military expenses were massive, in peacetime, less than half as much. And I personally believe Taylor even understates the matter here. Aperghis, in his 2004 The Seleukid Royal Economy: The Finances and Financial Administration of the Seleukid Economy, estimated the incomes of the Seleucids at their peak to have outstripped even the Ptolemies, an estimate Taylor has many issues with.

Taylor instead argues for incomes around 50 million. Seleucid soldiers appear to have received higher wages than Macedonians, and lower than Egyptians. Taylor concludes the chapter on finance by arguing that indemnity size reflects the Romans’ view of what the defeated state could afford, roughly 5-15% of revenues.

Closing remarks

Taylor’s conclusion attempts to draw everything together to explain Roman success. Rome was frequently outnumbered in battle despite having greater available manpower. Taylor explains this phenomenon with reference to shipping costs, supply lines, and frontage, while also arguing that this dynamic made Roman field armies somewhat more expendable than their counterparts’.

Additionally, this made Rome (and through similar behavior, though to a lesser extent, Carthage) more capable of operating in multiple theaters simultaneously. The Romans were clearly poorer than their rivals, except perhaps the Macedonians. However, this is partially explained by the Roman demands for service in lieu of coin, and by having the lowest rate of pay by far. The state with the lowest taxation/tribute rate (perhaps a bare tenth of the rates demanded in the east) held the highest conscription rate and the lowest pay.

Overall, I was puzzled by the prospective audience for the book. The introduction implies an unfamiliarity with the history of the Roman Republic while the chapters delve into the nitty-gritty of ancient demography and economics. The result is something more general-reader friendly in the introduction and conclusion than in the core chapters. Some of the arguments in the conclusion might also have served better earlier in the book. The attempt to give significant weight to Rome’s competitors instead of only Rome is quite welcome, yet Rome still gets nearly half the attention.

Taylor’s arguments are as well-sourced as possible, even meticulously sourced, especially for the Roman evidence. What is somewhat less clear is the method by which he determined that a given number from the sources represents a maximum, average, or a minimum. Nevertheless, the overall magnitude still stands, a point he makes repeatedly.

Some of Taylor’s strongest arguments are hidden by his own rhetoric. For example, he makes a keen argument repeatedly that Rome’s ability to mobilize its manpower for military service surpassed its rivals, and this was perhaps more important than the raw quantity of available manpower. He follows this with lengthy discussions describing how we can determine estimates of that available manpower, incidentally obscuring his point that getting the soldiers to the battlefield effectively and promptly was a role the Romans excelled at.

In discussing Egyptian manpower, he describes 75,000 men as a theoretical maximum (p. 88ff), and then implies that a substantial proportion (p. 93) must have been employed as garrison troops. Taylor points out that the Romans’ use of recruiting their subjects rather than exacting tribute from them was both key to Roman resilience in war and caused difficulties in terms of cash flow and transportation. Yet the former point is made over and over, while the latter is not brought up again.

Some speculation and hand-waving is certainly necessary, given the state of the evidence, yet I was uncomfortable with the assumption that budget changes between the second and first century “balanced each other out” (p.117), or that the legionaries’ term of service averaged a year (p.113), given the tendency of commanders to “stretch” their terms. Nevertheless, Taylor reminds us that we are looking for relative precision, not absolute precision.

Furthermore, there is very little discussion of corruption and bribery and whether the states’ paper assets matched what they collected. For example, Taylor notes Roman corruption (p.122) and Carthaginian corruption in passing (p. 151), with little discussion of how much of an impact these factors may have had. (Did corruption displace 1% of revenue? 10%? 25%?)

I am both sympathetic to and disgruntled by the production of this book. Typos appear to be rare (the most egregious being “Romany” instead of Roman, p.145). Overall, I found it an interesting read but a minimal upgrade on his (really quite good) dissertation, with the upgrades more to be found in the “silver” half than the “soldiers” half. Yet, for all my quibbles and hesitation over some of the claims, Taylor has succeeded at clarifying an often-unclear topic with some fine scholarship.