How to Raise a Tribal Army in Pre-Roman Europe, Part II

This is the second part of our (planned) three part (I) look at how some ‘tribal’ or more correctly, non-state agrarian peoples raised armies to fight the Romans (and others) in the third through first centuries BC. Last time, we looked at the subsistence basis of these societies – they’re agricultural – and the social structures that subsistence base encouraged: a society of aristocrats at the top of networks of patronage ties reaching down into the majority peasant population, with horizontal ties of hospitality, marriage and so on linking members of both groups to other members of their same status.

This week, we’re going to turn our view to the large-scale organization, the communal governing structures by which tribes – civitates – and their towns – oppida – governed themselves. After all, just because there is no state in these communities doesn’t mean there is no organization, law or custom at all. Humans have, in fact, never lived in a truly lawless ‘state of nature,’ for we seem to have always lived in family and clan units (at least as long as we’ve been anatomically modern humans). The civitates of the Celtiberians, Gauls and Germani we’re discussing today are quite a bit larger than clans, of course, and so require more governance structures.

At the same time, we’re also going to look at why these governance structures do not amount to a state. This is, I think, an important distinction and one I’ve found that some folks like to blur, but it ought not be blurred. Absolutely there are societies that are in stages of transition from state to non-state organization or vice versa (e.g. ‘proto-states’ and ‘failing states’), but there is a real difference between a state society and a non-state society, so we’ll explore that too.

But first, if you want to join the warrior retinue of this blog, you can by sharing this post – I rely on word of mouth for all of my new clients readers. And if you want to become a loyal aristocratic retainer of the blog, you can do so by supporting this project on Patreon; amici of the blog engage in ritual gift exchange with me (the princeps of the blog) wherein I give you monthly research updates. If you want updates whenever a new post appears, you can click below for email updates or follow me on twitter (@BretDevereaux) for updates as to new posts as well as my occasional ancient history, foreign policy or military history musings, assuming there is still a Twitter by the time this post goes live. I am also on Bluesky ( and (less frequently) Mastodon (

What is a State?

But I think we have to begin with a very basic question, what is a state and what does it mean for a society to be non-state? This is one of those distinctions that is very important, but one generally doesn’t learn until fairly late in education (typically in specialized undergraduate courses), with the result that a lot of folks never cover it.

Now “the state” is one of those phenomena that wasn’t born as an ideological construction, it is not a product of thought, but of reality. Humans had states before they theorized about them and could recognize that some societies (‘state societies’) were noticeably different than other societies (‘non-state societies’). So we’re attempting to describe a real social phenomenon, not prescribe an ideal or ‘pure’ form of something. Consequently, defining the state is an exercise in observing those qualities states have that non-states do not and then refining that list down to the essentials, to push towards an objective definition more concrete than, “you know it when you see it.” But to be clear, you do know it when you see it.

So we have A cloud of general differences that recur in multiple cases. States tend to have a relatively rigidly defined territory, whereas non-state societies do not. States tend to have more complex social stratification with both a greater degree of labor specialization and a greater degree of social hierarchy than non-states, though complex non-state societies certainly do not lack social hierarchy and often have the full suit of ‘underclasses’ (like enslaved workers) – do not mistake non-state societies’ less complex social organization for a more egalitarian one. States tend to have centralized institutions – that is, permanent social structures which are larger than and outlive their individual human members – which can impose rules on society, backed up by the use of force, while non-state societies tend to lack these institutions (or they are very weak or failing). We tend to understand states as autonomous entities with a degree of permanent, at least an assumption that the state, as an entity, is supposed to persist over generations in more-or-less its current form.

And before we move on, I do want to stress that bit about “multiple cases.” ‘The state’ as an idea wasn’t invented once, but rather independently created several times in several places in history. We generally call these self-developed states (as opposed to cases where the state was adopted in imitation of or pressure from existing states) ‘pristine states’ (or ‘primary states’). I don’t know that there is agreement on the precise count of pristine states, but the core examples are broadly agreed on: states independently developed (in chronological order) in at least 1) Mesopotamia, 2) Egypt, 3) India, 4) China, 5) Mesoamerica and 6) the Andes mountains. Variously appended to that list are the developments of states in what is today Bolivia, Hawai’i, Polynesia and Ghana. So this is a basic pattern of human organization that emerged many times, with very similar structures each time.

A map of some of the generally accepted Pristine or Primary states, though there are often more than just these cited.

At the core of all of these recurrent factors is a central definition, famously stated by Max Weber, which reduces the state down effectively to a single point. The state is, “human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” There are a few quirks there, of course. The monopoly is on legitimate force, not all force: every society has criminals, which is the word we use for individuals who wield illegitimate force; in a sense, the creation of the state is the process of getting a critical mass of people to reclassify all of the wielders of force save one as criminals. But crucially the definition is centered on physical force, which is to say on violence and the threat of violence, direct or remote.

In a state, one community – and really one political institution in that community – has abrogated to itself the sole authority to authorize the use of force. That political institution might be a king or a parliament or a congress or a popular assembly. It might delegate its authority to elected officials or appointed generals or even down to subordinate local departments or provinces. Note that, like all social institutions, the state is a question of perception and customs: it is the perception of legitimacy that matters, precisely because that perception is what enables the state to recruit the purveyors of physical force to deal it out and to ensure that the broader society does not resist its application.

When I present students (and modernists) with this definition, they often balk at the idea that there existed any states prior to 1600 AD or so, but just because medieval Europe was a politically fragmented place with often very weak central governments doesn’t mean that everywhere was. Or everywhen, for that matter. The Roman Republic, for instance, is pretty clearly a state. Only the duly elected officers of the republic – those with imperium from their office – can raise and command armies or use violence to enforce the laws, laws which make it illegal in most circumstances to rely on ‘self-help’ (that is, blood feuds) to seek justice. Indeed, the Romans go so far as to prohibit the carrying of weapons inside the sacred boundary of Rome (the pomerium). One of the very real signs that the republic was collapsing was that the prohibition on private armies begins to break down, although I’d note that the age of private Roman armies was relatively short. It seems long because this is the period of Roman history we talk about most. But the Roman Republic was founded in 509, the last ‘clan’-based army we hear of is in 477 (though purportedly, this was authorized by the Senate) and the first private army is Pompeius’ (that is, Gnaeus Pompey Magnus) muster in 84, in preparation for Sulla’s return in 83, so that’s 393 years of a state monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force. The era of private armies then slams to a close again, arguably as early as Sextus Pompeius’ (son of Gnaeus) defeat at Naulochus in 36 (since that left the armies of Octavian, Lepidus and Antonius, which were all authorized in law), but surely no later than Antonius’ defeat at Actium in 31. In short, the period of ‘state failure’ where Rome had all sorts of private armies (as opposed to civil wars where participants wielded chunks of the state army against each other) was only about fifty years long.

Pictured (via Wikipedia): Egyptian State Formation on the “Narmer Palette” (c. 3000 BC) showing the first king of a united Egypt violently subjugating lower Egypt.On one side, the royal figure wears the crown of Upper Egypt, lifting a mace to strike down a prisoner, while standing over the bodies of defeated foes. On the other side, in the upper register, the king appears to attend a review of his army, wearing the crown of Lower Egypt and inspecting the headless bodies of his foes.

So what is a non-state society? Well, that’s quite simple: it’s any society which does not have a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force. As you might imagine, this can be a rather broader category! In the case of our ‘barbarian’ non-state societies, however, the matter is fairly simple. As we saw last week, these societies have a bunch of fellows who wield legitimate military force: the Big Men, who can mobilize their network of clients. As we’ll see, the military system relies on these fellows to function. But note the distinction: a Roman general only wields military force when the state authorizes him to do so, whereas a Gallic or Celtiberian Big Man wields military force in his own right, as a function of his social position and that force is regarded as legitimated by his social position, rather than some delegated power from a central authority. Indeed, as we’re about to see, these civitates do have ‘central authorities,’ but they’re very weak, in part because the people in those societies understand that certain men are allowed – indeed, ‘supposed’ – to wield military force independent of those communal governing structures.

In a sense, it is the very fractionalization of military powers, its division between aristocrats who can mobilize it personally through their network of clients, that makes our non-state societies non-state. At the same time, I think we should be careful about treating the state as too normative. Humans have been around for a very long time, but the state is only about 5,000 years old; in many areas of the world, the state only arrived in the last few hundred years. Thus, we may equally say that it is the centralization of force in a society, its monopoly that is the strange, outstanding, unusual and aberrant thing: the state which is the monstrous Leviathan of our own construction and non-state societies which are the more typical environment for humans.

In any case, just because Gallic, Celtiberian and Germanic-speaking societies were non-state in this period does not mean they did not have communal governing institutions, it just means those institutions were weak. So let’s look at the institutions and then at their weaknesses!

A Senatus By Any Other Name

Some immediate caveats are necessary: governing institutions are not generally visible archaeologically. Sometimes, very developed state institutions might leave visible remains, like palaces or large assembly places, but equally as often they don’t – or they leave ruins that are impossible to interpret confidently unless you already know the form of government. The case for the weak institutions of non-state peoples is naturally even harder to assess archaeologically, because these governing institutions might well lack specialized spaces that are clearly political in nature. Consequently, we are almost totally reliant on our written sources to chart these institutions. I can see the Gallic aristocracy in their burial customs, but I only know about their governing institutions because Greeks and Romans – mostly Romans – wrote about them.

Via Wikipedia, a map of pre-Roman Gaul in the First Century, showing the location of various peoples on the eve of Caesar’s campaigns. The La Tène cultural sphere was larger than this, stretching into the Danube river valley and even parts of Anatolia, but most of our evidence comes from here and this map will help you locate the civitates I mention.

That source problem imposes two limitations. The first limitation is chronological: our sources generally don’t have any knowledge of political institutions in the deep pasts of other cultures, so what we have is a period of sustained interest from the sources. That period, quite naturally, follows the contours of Roman military involvement, with some distortion from the fragmentary nature of the source tradition. In practice, we only start to get frequent, reliable details in Gaul beginning with Roman advances into Cisalpine Gaul (really starting in the 220s BC), in Spain with the beginning of the Second Punic War, which brings the Romans there (in 218) and in Germany when Caesar’s campaigns bring him into contact with Germanic-language speakers (58). Meanwhile in Gaul and Spain, there is an obvious twilight for these institutions: the Roman conquest of each area. In practice in Spain that means the fall of Numantia in 133, though Roman interest was not yet wholly done. In Gaul, it means the end of Caesar’s campaigns there in 50. So we can talk about these institutions in the third, second and first centuries BCE, but will struggle to do so much earlier.

Likewise, also via Wikipedia, map of the peoples of pre-Roman Spain, shaded by language groups. Our focus here are on the Indo-European speakers (which include the Celtic-language speakers, so both pink and pale yellow). The Iberians on the coast (orange and also the Turdetani in light blue) are their own topic we’ll not deal with here.

The second problem is translation. Our sources are, recall, writing in Latin and Greek and they generally do not speak and do not care to learn Celtic or Germanic languages at all. They are writing for an audience that also reads Latin and Greek and equally does not know any Celtic or Germanic languages. Consequently, they’re going to have to translate local governing institutions into the political terminology of Greece and Rome. Moreover, with just a few exceptions, most of these details we get do not come in what we might term ethnographic contexts: we’re not getting them in the context of long, detailed descriptions of governments. Instead, we’re hearing about this council or that senate or this chief in the context of narratives of wars or campaigns, where our author is just going to choose the closest Greek or Latin equivalent to the institution in question, use that word (without telling us anything more, like how it may differ) and move along.

All of those caveats out of the way, what sort of governing structures do we see? We’ll start with Gaul and the Germani and then discuss how things look only a little different in Celtiberia. Governing institutions in Gaul and among the Germani seem to have existed primarily at the level of the civitas, that is the larger regional grouping. Civitates tend to be small – anywhere from 50,000 to 300,000 individuals – but consist of multiple settlements, often with one serving as the ‘capital’ seat of these governing structures.

Perhaps the most common element that we hear about is an aristocratic council, often understood by our sources as a senatus (that is, a senate) or as a collection of ‘elders’ (variously seniores, senatores, or maiores natu, or in Greek πρεσβύτεροι or πρεσβύτατοι all of which mean effectively mean ‘elders’). These are typically fairly large bodies, seeming to range from around 300 to 600 members (e.g. Caes. BGall. 2.28, Strabo 12.5, Tac. Hist. 5.19; note that this would make these civitas senates about the same size as the Roman senate, but for polities at most something like a tenth the size) and while they’re called elders and clearly age plays an important role in status, it sure seems like, from their size and also how they seem to function, that powerful aristocrats who aren’t necessarily old might be members. It is perhaps most accurate to understand these bodies as a gathering of all of the aristocratic Big Men. These elders or their senates tend to be the primary ‘point of contact’ for diplomacy in most cases, which suggests they have some understood authority over foreign policy. The functions of these bodies also seem to be deliberative, that is, they debate and discuss, so you could really make policy here.

We also hear about a sub-group of these senates, which our Latin sources will call the principes (singular princeps), which literally means “first or foremost ones.” In translations, this often gets rendered as ‘chiefs’ or ‘chieftains,’ but I think that’s a mistake: these are not necessarily office holders or figures of singular political authority the way we might understand a tribal chief to be; that’s not what principes means (indeed, the Romans would instead term those fellows magistratus, ‘magistrates’). Instead principes here means something like the ‘leading men,’ the biggest of the aristocratic Big Men, regardless of if they hold any specific office or duty. These are the fellows with the most clients, the most wealth and lands, and the largest retinues who then sit atop the clientelism pyramid and thus around whom political factions cohere. This is a much smaller group than the elders of the civitas senate – indeed, in a few instances we see Roman generals initially address a civitas senate, but shift to talking to just the principes when a smaller audience is required (e.g. Cethegus recieves assurances from the senate of the Cenomani, but plots in secret with their principes, Livy 32.30.7-11; Caesar delivers a speech to the senate of the Remi, but it is the principes who offer hostages as a pledge of loyalty, Caes. BGall 2.5). According to Tacitus, the Germani too are largely governed by the principes (Tac. Germ. 11.1-2).

The last common element is a public assembly, which in Latin is generally termed a concilium. These are broader voting bodies that seem to consist of all of the armed populace of the civitas. Ownership of weapons seems to have been the key criteria for entry: explicitly for the Germani (Tac. Germ 11.2-6) and implicitly for the Gauls where the clash of weapons was how approval was signified (Caes. BGall. 5.56, 7.21). We’ll get to the Celtiberians in a moment, but I suspect for them too, these bodies were, as it were, ‘warrior’s assemblies’ consisting only of the armed populace.

These assemblies don’t seem to deliberate or debate, but rather vote by ‘acclamation’ – that is, by making noise – a notably inexact voting method! What they probably serve to do is to adjudicate disputes between the principes but also to build consensus around the decisions the principes have already reached. Once the Big Men decide to go to war, they summon the assembly, which doubles as the muster (as everyone comes armed), give speeches explaining their decision (which also serve to signal the very powerful and influential men who favor a result and thus whose clients ought to support it) and the assembled host clash their arms in approval, creating the sense among everyone that the majority present supports the matter. You may recall the Spartans had a similar ‘consensus generator’ assembly.

Finally, some of these polities – but by no means all or even most of them – have some sort of singular leader. Sometimes this is framed as a king and sometimes as a magistrate (a summus magistratus, ‘supreme magistrate’), though the kings tend to be so limited in their power as to differ from a magistrate mostly in having a permanent appointment. Where kingships appear, they don’t seem to be purely hereditary and in some cases are clearly elective. These kings are first among equals among the principes, not a distinct higher type of noble the way, say, a medieval king was. Indeed, one such king, Ambiorix of the Eburones, is said by Caesar to have remarked that, “his rule was of such a nature that the people had no less authority over him than he had over the people” (Caes. BGall. 5.27.3). The Aedui had a summus magistratus called a Vergobret who notionally had supreme power, but in practice when Caesar arrives was weaker politically than the greatest of the Aedui principes, a fellow named Dumnorix (Caes. BGall. 1.16-17). Tacitus also describes what seem to be magistrates among the Germani – they’re elected officials who administer law, adviced by an aristocratic council (Tac. Germ. 12.3) – but we also hear of singular leaders, sometimes termed kings, like Maroboduus or Arminius.

Via Wikipedia, a modern reconstruction of a Gallic oppidum, showing the fortified exterior and internal structures. Celtiberian oppida are quite similar and our sources refer to both as oppida in Latin, a word meaning ‘fortified town.’

We never get sustained ancient ethnographic literature (for all of its many problems) about the Celtiberians the way Caesar does of the Gauls and Tacitus of the Germani, so we have to work with what are mostly campaign histories in Polybius, Livy and Appian and try to make sense of the social systems we see in those sources. In contrast to the civitas level government of Gaul, in Celtiberia governing structures primarily exist at the level of the fortified town, called an oppidum (plural: oppida). Banding together a bunch of oppida was, of course, necessary for military action but this seems to have been understood as an alliance or confederation between them, rather than an act as a single polity. When the Romans engage in diplomacy in Celtiberia, they do so negotiating with single towns or else with groups of ambassadors, each seemingly representing his own town. Now, Celtiberia – the region – probably has at most something like 320,000 people in it, which is then split into about a dozen civitates (chiefly the Arevaci, Belli, Lusones, Tithii, of which the Arevaci were the strongest) so these are small polities, essentially centered, it seems, on a single major oppidum (Numantia, for instance, in the case of the Arevaci), but hardly controlled. Numantia, for instance, appeals in vain at one point for assistance from the other towns of the Arevaci, their own civitas (App. Hisp. 94), whose leaders opt not to become involved in what was evidently seen at Numantia’s war.

Via Wikipedia, orbital photography on an oppidum (or castro) at San Cibrao de Las in Galicia, Spain. It’s a good example, but I should note that the Castro Culture of the Gallaecians is distinct from the material culture of the Celtiberians of the eastern Meseta we’re mostly focused on here.

So what sort of government did a Celtiberian oppidum have? Again, the institutions are hard to see, but we have some indicators. The point of contact for diplomacy with Roman authorities is almost always an ‘elder’ or ‘elders’ (πρεσβύτεροι and πρεσβύτατοι in the Greek sources, Diod. Sic. 31.39, App. Hisp. 51, 94), though Livy also refers repeatedly to Celtiberian principes (e.g. Livy 22.21.7) and it’s not clear if these are the same fellows or how they relate. We aren’t told at this point that they have councils of elders (that is, senates), but after the Roman conquest they certainly do and the relative smoothness of that transition has always suggested to me that they probably have such senates in this period as well, albeit probably small ones. They certainly have aristocrats with lots of personal power and large retinues (e.g. Livy 26.50, 40.49).

They also seem to have a public assembly, which we see convene to elect war leaders (App. Hisp. 45-6, 62, 75). These seem to be consensus generating mechanisms, often apparently voting essentially at the point of muster to elect their leaders before embarking on a war already decided on. Those war leaders, in turn – the most famous of this sort being the Lusitanian Viriathus (the Lusitani are not a Celtiberian people narrowly understood, but are reasonably closely related and he has a lot of Celtiberians in his coalition) who gives the Romans no end of trouble for more than a decade in the amazingly named “War of Fire” (155-139) before the Romans bribe some of his aristocrats to assassinate him and his coalition collapses.

So while we have less information, we can see the outline of at least a similar (though perhaps not identical) system: elders (maybe in a senate?), principes, a public assembly that mostly rubber-stamps the decisions of the elders and principes and relatively limited executive magistrates, in this case in the form of war leaders apparently elected to lead for the duration of a single conflict only.

And you may now be thinking, wait, this sounds an awful lot like the Roman Republic or Greek polis government! We have an assembly, a council or senate, and some executive magistrates! Why do we consider the Greeks and Romans to have states but the Celtiberians, Gauls and Germani to be at this point non-state or at most proto-state?

And the answer is that just because you have governing structures doesn’t mean that they wield real power, much less a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. And so we get into:

Weaknesses in the Governing Structures

Fundamentally the problem here is actually simple to state: military force isn’t wielded by governing institutions, it is wielded by individual aristocrats who are only loosely directed by governing institutions. The council doesn’t raise an army, each of the aristocrats does, at which point they can cooperate or not cooperate. Because military force isn’t centralized into the governing institutions, but is distributed among the aristocracy (and even beyond that, more broadly among the armed populace), we see it wielded regularly against the governing institutions or in contravention of their wishes. In short, power in these societies isn’t institutional, it is personal and thus fragmented.

So while in theory – from a state-oriented perspective – we might imagine the way the system is supposed to work is that first the principes (or at least some of them) decide on a course of action, which they then debate in the civitas senate, which then marshals the armed populace and puts the final decision to them in an up-or-down by-acclamation vote, in practice aristocrats can mobilize military force legitimately on their own. In practice, we see this lack of the monopoly on the legitimate use of force play out in two kinds of independent aristocratic military action: war by warlords and war by ‘youths.’

‘Warlords’ here is a modern term I am using for any aristocrat engaging in what is effectively private warfare, but I should note that ancient sources don’t make this distinction. Still, examples are numerous, both within and outside of the civitas. Orgetorix, a powerful aristocrat of the Helvetii, evades trial by raising an army of 10,000 of his clients and dependents, which only avoided triggering a civil war among the Helvetii by his timely death (Caes. BGall. 1.4; if Caesar is to be believed, Orgetorix’ private army represented fully 1/6th of all of the military aged males in the Helvetii civitas, Caes. BGall. 1.29). That same year, the summus magistratus (‘supreme magistrate’) of the Aedui has to sheepishly inform Caesar that while he doesn’t want to fight the Romans, the most powerful princeps in his civitas, a fellow named Dumnorix, does and that Dumnorix’ network of alliances and powerful retinue would enable him to force a war over the summus magistratus‘ objections (Caes. BGall. 1.16-17). The Bellovaci later claim to Caesar that their communal governing institutions didn’t want war, but an influential aristocrat, Correus, had been able to essentially bully them into war, though I will note that Caesar is said to have expressed skepticism (Caes. BGall. 8.21-22).

The beginning of Vercingetorix’ war against Caesar is a striking example. Vercingetorix decides to move against Caesar and so first summons his clients and dependents into an army, at which point the actual civitas government, lead by his uncle, exiles him. Vercingetorix responds by using his personal charisma to to raise a general army in the countryside (alongside his clients) and then calls in his aristocratic alliances with neighboring tribes and – having achieved military superiority – overthrows any institution or aristocrat who resists (Caes. BGall. 7.4). In short, this fellow, by dint of personal charisma, takes not one but half a dozen civitates to war over the objections of their notional governments!

Sometimes these warlords also work in favor of the Romans. For instance, after taking Carthago Nova in Spain, Scipio-not-yet-Africanus comes into possession of the hostages the Carthaginians had been holding there, including the bride-to-be of a young Celtiberian aristocrat named Allucius; Scipio uses the return of the woman to her family and fiance to forge an alliance with them and Allucius responds by joining Scipio with a force of 1,400 cavalry drawn from his clients, despite the fact that the Celtiberians were, in theory, neutral in this war (Livy 26.50). Thirty years later, when Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (the elder) captured the family of the Celtiberian aristocrat Thurrus, he is able to get Thurrus to switch sides in exchange for their return, leading him to fight against his former allies (Livy 40.49).

The other recurrent problem were ‘youths.’ Here the Latin word is iuvenes (sing. iuvenis), a word generally used of young men who are of military age but not yet of ‘family starting’ age, so we’re talking about an age bracket from 17 to the late 20s (sometimes into the 30s). These are warriors – probably mostly aristocrats – who are adults but who probably aren’t yet the heads of their households and certainly aren’t yet old enough to carry much weight politically. Warrior bands of young men show up in other Celtic-language speaking societies, most notably the Irish fian, and while we can’t say with any certainty that these are the same institution, they sure seem similar and scholars of both Gaul and Spain have tended to analogize from the fian to assume these iuvenes reflect warrior societies of young men, not without some justification from our sources (e.g. Diod. Sic. 5.34.6).

The communal governing institutions of these non-state polities seem fairly frequently to struggle to control these fellows. In 218, we’re told the Allobroges were seemingly on the verge of civil war, as Braneus, who led the senate and the principes was being pushed out of power by his younger brother, leading a large band of iuvenes, before Hannibal intervened in Baneus’ favor (Livy 21.31.6). We get another example in Cisalpine Gaul in 197 where the Insubres and Boii were making war with the Romans and the iuvenes of the Cenomani decided to join in, without the consent of the senate or the principes or the public assembly (Livy 32.30.6; the Roman commander, Cethegus, is able to get the principes to get their troops – those iuvenes – to stand down, so the principes were hardly powerless). When Scipio Aemilianus lays Numantia to siege and the rest of the Celtiberians sensibly try to stay out of it, the youths of Lutia begin arming themselves to intervene, leading the elders of the town to call the Romans to try to avoid a war; Aemilianus responds by cutting the hands off of several hundred of the youths (App. Hisp. 94).

What is important to note here is not merely the ability of these aristocrats to dispose of force, but the legitimacy of that force. Allucius is, as far as we can tell, entirely within his rights – indeed, his obligations – to fight for Scipio to return the favor. The iuvenes are acting within expectations in their bellicosity (it was traditional! Diod. Sic. 5.34.6) and relative independence. When an aristocrat raises their private army to redress a grievance, that isn’t a malfunction of the system, but the system working as intended, working as everyone understands it should work. Caesar notes as much, that of the aristocrats, “no one suffers his own to be oppressed or defrauded, for if he does otherwise, he has no influence at all among his own” (Caes. BGall. 6.11.4). In short, this sort of self-help and independent use of physical force was expected; it was failure to use one’s power and influence that way which damaged legitimacy.

But that doesn’t mean these polities were incapable of unified military action. Instead the purpose of these communal governing institutions, as we’ll get further into next week, was to coordinate and focus all of the military force held by the aristocrats towards shared goals – and then we’ll look at the kinds of armies these societies produce as a result of their social structures and institutions!

Read More

Bret Devereaux