In the early years of the Roman Republic, there were no professional soldiers.
Each spring, in readiness for the summer campaign season, the senate would assign various military tasks to elected magistrates (usually consuls and praetors), who would then, as generals, conduct whatever warfare was required of them.
However, they had first to raise an army.
While many Romans volunteered for military duty (mostly for the booty), Rome's armies were largely raised by levy, where men deemed eligible were press-ganged into service.
Ironically, the poorest of Roman society, the landless proletariat, were excused selection as they were thought to have ‘nothing to fight for’, although they were often conscripted as oarsmen for Roman galleys. Meanwhile, those citizens that were recorded in the five-yearly census as having more than 400 drachmae of material wealth were selected for service.
And so Rome’s vast empire was built on the back of a conscripted militia of amateur soldiers, raised up by a small group of part-time generals.
Eventually, during the 2nd century B.C., Rome’s continued success in Asia and the lands around the Mediterranean resulted in a massive injection of money and slaves into the economy; so much so, that the ruling classes of senators, knights and noblemen were able to acquire enormous tracts of farming land (termed latifundia, or ‘wide fields’), replacing many of the small-holders and peasant farmers with slaves.
All this changed in 107 B.C. when the statesman and general, Gaius Marius, was given the junior consulship for that year.
Statesman, General and Politician, Gaius Marius. 157 B.C. - 86 B.C.
Marius was tasked with bringing to an end a long running war in Numidia (now, modern-day Algeria and Tunisia), and defeating the Numidian king, Jugurtha. However, Rome had recently suffered several defeats at the hands of the Cimbri (pronounced Kimbri); a ferocious Germanic tribe who had migrated from present-day Denmark directly into the Roman territory of Noricum (Austria).
The ongoing Cimbrian War severely reduced the number of available volunteers for Marius’ army, and the ever-growing, slave-powered estates of the rich meant that there were now far fewer small-holders and freemen who once made up the bulk of the conscripts. To make things worse, the senate gave the only available legions to the senior consul of that year, Lucius Cassius Longinus, to try and bring the troublesome Cimbri to heel.
In short, Marius was left without an army.
The Celtic lands of Noricum.
So, in his position as junior consul, and desperate for soldiers, Marius introduced some radical reforms. He did away with the law which decreed that a soldier must have property, thereby giving Rome’s landless peasantry the option of volunteering for military service. He also scrapped the maniple – the internal unit of the Roman legion, consisting of 120 men organised by wealth and status – and established the cohort: a much larger unit of 480 fighting men, organised into six centuria. Lastly, he gave the soldiers a wage rather than a stipend to cover their costs, and so began the process of producing Rome’s first professional standing army.
The Marian reforms revolutionised the way Rome conducted her wars and would eventually lead to the colonisation and romanisation of Western Europe. Rome would soon see her professional standing armies begin to favour charismatic warrior-politicians (like Caesar and Pompey) who would eventually steal the allegiance of soldiers away from the senate and plunge Rome into civil war.
Rome’s professional army dominated European history for the next four hundred years and formed the military model for many kingdoms and empires well after her demise. However, things were destined to change again – this time, with the Frankish Carolingians.
The Franks were long known to the Romans. Composed of several Germanic barbarian tribes, they occupied territory along the lower and middle Rhine (now, the Netherlands and Germany). Following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century A.D., the Franks, more specifically, the Frankish Merovingians, quickly filled the power vacuum and formed a second empire in the west.
But the real power behind the imperial Merovingian throne, the noble family who controlled the empire’s military forces (termed the dux et princeps Francorum – or the ‘Dukes and Princes of the Franks’), were the Carolingians.
By the 8th century A.D, the power of the Carolingians was recognised by the Vatican, and Pope Stephen II travelled to Paris to ask for their protection. This was granted by the head of the Carolingian dynasty, Pepin the Short, and in return, Pope Stephen consented to the overthrow of the Merovingian empire, crowning Pepin ‘king of all the Franks’.
Forty years later, Pepin’s son, Charlemagne, would be crowned Holy Roman Emperor, and the Carolingian empire viewed as a continuation of ancient Rome.
Charlemagne, Holy Roman Emperor and King of all the Franks. A.D.742 - 814
However, Charlemagne’s vast empire simply did not have the administrative and bureaucratic maturity of ancient Rome. It lacked almost all the systems and checks required to maintain an empire, and very soon after Charlemagne’s death, began to crumble... and from that ensuing chaos came feudalism.
Without a robust seat of power or the means to fund a standing army, the kings and rulers of Charlemagne’s broken empire turned to feudalism as a means to manage their kingdoms. Here, the king would grant large tracts of land to his high lords (typically dukes) for their military and political support, who, in turn, granted lands to lesser lords, and finally, to the serfs and peasants who owned nothing, but were allowed to farm their lord's land.
In the feudal system (which was already known in Europe, but flourished following Charlemagne’s death), armies would be raised by the nobility in times of need. On completion of their military service, the nobility would return to their estates and the peasants to their tenanted farms.
Forming the backbone of the feudal military were the knights, who soon began to secure a system of hereditary rule over their allocated land. Their power came to encompass every aspect of the lives of their serfs, including the social, political, judicial, and economic spheres. In fact, the knights were so important to the success of feudalism that some historians have argued that feudalism came about because of medieval knights...
Termed ‘The Great Stirrup Controversy’, the argument goes that the invention of the stirrup in the eighth century resulted in the emergence of heavy cavalry (i.e., the knights). Their success in warfare was such that their kings granted them large tracts of land, so catalysing vassalage and kick-starting feudalism.
A 10th Century Viking Wolf's Head Stirrup Mount. The Vikings were responsible for the introduction of the stirrup to mainland Britain - technology which they almost certainly copied from the Franks. Discovered in Norfolk, U.K. by Timeless Galleries' owner.
However it began, feudalism was a success. So much so, that within a few hundred years, the growing wealth of medieval kingdoms allowed for the reintroduction of professional standing armies, power returned to the kings, and, ironically, feudalism died out.
So, as often is the case, we see history repeating itself: Just as the forced military service of the citizens of the Roman republic matured into a professional standing army of volunteers (who gladly chose a soldier’s life), so did the serfs and peasants of medieval Europe, forced to fight for their liege lords, become the career soldiers of the late middle ages.