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Blood of the ProvincesThe Roman Auxilia and the Making of Provincial Society from Augustus to the Severans$

Ian Haynes

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780199655342

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2014

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199655342.001.0001

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Ethnic Exceptionalism?

Ethnic Exceptionalism?

Examining ‘Special’ Recruitment Practices

(p.135) Chapter 9 Ethnic Exceptionalism?
Blood of the Provinces

Ian Haynes

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Both ancient writers and epigraphic sources indicate that Batavian units continued to recruit Batavians well into the second century AD, but the degree to which other units might have retained special, ethnically-based recruiting practices is much debated today. Syrian units have been regarded as a special case since the early twentieth century, while evidence for both British and Thracian units has been used to claim that they too followed special recruitment patterns for at least some of their history. This chapter assesses these claims with particular attention to Syrian units. It argues that, contrary to what has been suggested by other scholars, with the exception of the Batavians, the evidence does not support the existence of special recruiting practices sustaining ethnically distinctive enclaves of soldiers. This finding has important implications for the understanding of the Empire’s relations with different ethnic groups.

Keywords:   Syrians, Intercisa, Hemesenii, Ituraeans, Hamii, Militärgesellschaft

Had emperors wished to preserve the ethnic qualities of their fighting units, there is every reason to believe that they could have done so. The imperial system was entirely capable of moving men and materials across the Empire when it so desired. Given that a special recruiting arrangement existed for the Batavi, one might wonder why similar agreements should not exist with other groups.

The claim that there was something special about the recruiting practices of British units has already been discussed and dismissed. But other claims have been made for special recruiting practices. This section will assess these claims and will argue that, contrary to what has been suggested by other scholars, the evidence does not support the existence of special recruiting practices sustaining ethnically distinctive enclaves of soldiers. The ranks of regiments were open to men of widely differing origins. It is often the mixture of men alongside, of course, the official function of these units that leads them to develop as distinctive communities—discrete not only from the provincials around them but often also from other elements of the army.

Of the various claims made for special recruiting practices designed to ensure a notional ethnic homogeneity, the most enduring is that certain eastern units, in particular regiments of archers, continued to receive recruits from their place of origin. This was the opinion of Domaszewski over a century ago and continues to be believed even today.1 Cheesman was a firm believer in the notion, Kraft spoke of the practice applying to ‘oriental’ units in general, while Mann was rather more specific, citing ‘exceptions in the case of specialized troops like mounted archers’.2 Speaking of the auxilia before Trajan, Holder makes a more general claim that ‘the regiments from the East…generally retained their ethnic composition whatever the distance’ from their area of origin.3 So widespread is this belief in exceptional recruiting practice that it has been used to explain an extraordinary range of phenomena in provincial society. Hitherto only one scholar, David Kennedy, has challenged this claim.4 This section examines the arguments that there were (p.136) special eastern exceptions to the general policy, and considers what they tell us of both ancient and modern views of Rome’s subject peoples. It argues that the current consensus reflects a misapplication of colonial conceptions of martial races to Roman practice. What emerges from closer analysis is the altogether more interesting evidence for the evolution of distinctive hybrid communities as a by-product of imperial policy.

The notion that Rome had a special policy towards some eastern peoples largely originates from a cemetery in Hungary. To date, more than 2,500 graves have been excavated around the Roman fort of Intercisa in Dunaújváros, Fejér County (See Fig. 9.1). Over 800 of these were uncovered before Cheesman published his classic work on the auxilia.5 Some of these, at least, dated from after AD 180, when the fort was remodelled to receive its new garrison, cohors I Hemesenorum milliaria Antonina Aurelia sagittariorum equitata civum Romanorum, a regiment of archers raised from the territory of Emesa in Syria. Information from the epitaphs and religious dedications recovered played a crucial role in convincing scholars that this unit, and others like it, preserved a distinctive ethnic character through special recruiting methods. The sheer volume of data recovered added credibility to this attractive theory. Cohors I Hemesenorum was for a long time the best-known auxiliary regiments in the Roman army. It was also, as we shall see, one of the least well understood.

Ethnic Exceptionalism?Examining ‘Special’ Recruitment Practices

Fig. 9.1. The Roman settlement of Intercisa, Hungary, superimposed on modern Dunaújváros. The parallelogram-shaped stone fort, which lies to the northeast, measures 176 × c.200m. It nevertheless represents only a fraction of the overall site, and is surrounded to the north, west, and south by extramural settlement. The cemetery areas that lie beyond are almost as extensive as the settlement itself.

At the heart of the theory were two mistaken beliefs. The first was that the regiment was raised in the early 2nd century, shortly after the annexation of Emesa. Many scholars were happy to attribute a Trajanic date to the foundation.6 Rossi somewhat imaginatively even claimed to have identified the cohort on Trajan’s Column in the form of bowmen with long flowing gowns.7 Such an early foundation date would indeed have raised questions as to how the unit could still have had so many easterners in it by the time it reached the Danube in the late 2nd century. The only explanation would then have seemed to be special recruitment practices. The second mistaken claim was that the majority of soldiers serving in the regiment at Intercisa came from the lands of the former Syrian kingdom.

In fact there is actually no evidence at all for an early 2nd-century foundation date. Rather, all of the available evidence favours the creation of the regiment in the AD 160s.8 If we accept that the unit was founded in the AD 160s and stayed in the east for a few years after it was raised, it comes as no surprise at all to find Syrians serving in its ranks on its arrival in Pannonia less than twenty years later. The rebuilding of the fort at Intercisa c. AD 180 may have coincided with this move, although it has been suggested that the unit arrived in AD 176.9 The first datable reference to the regiment being at Intercisa comes from a building (p.137) (p.138) inscription c. AD 180–183.10 The earliest precisely datable reference to a soldier from the regiment records one Aurelius Bazas.11 The text records his honourable discharge under Valerius Pudens, governor of Pannonia Inferior c. AD 192–4. If we work on the generally accepted principle that honourable discharge followed twenty-five years’ service, Bazas would have been enlisted c. AD 167–9.12 The non-Emesene origo of Bazas is itself interesting, indicating that non-Emesenes were already being recruited before the unit reached Intercisa.

A further problem with the claim that the unit continued to receive drafts from Emesa is the fact that only six of the fifty-six known soldiers of the regiment actually cite Emesa as their origo.13 Four of these are named M. Aurelii, one does not give a full name, and that of the sixth has been lost. The name M. Aurelius could suggest that the soldiers concerned acquired citizenship either on retirement or in the block citizenship grant recorded in the regimental title, under Aurelius. There is therefore nothing to prevent them from having been recruited at the time the regiment was created. Similarly, praenomen and nomen indicate that most of the soldiers with Semitic names and/or from Syria received citizenship under Aurelius.14 The presence of at least five Semites who give a city other than Emesa as their origo only reinforces, rather than undermines, the argument that cohors I Hemesenorum would have recruited in much the same way as other auxiliary units.15 What has been missed by some scholars is simply that some of this local recruiting was conducted in Syria before it moved to Pannonia c. AD 180. Only one of the dateable inscriptions which refer to unit personnel serving in the regiment over twenty-five years after this move—by which time the last men enlisted in Syria had been discharged—mentions an easterner.16 The soldier Barsemis was, however, an Osrhöenian who came from Carrhae, a city over 160 miles from Emesa. Such a distance may seem local to a contemporary scholar, but 2,000 years ago it could have meant a quite different cultural milieu. Furthermore, Barsemis had not enlisted into the unit, but rather joined it after holding two postings, one in an ala and the other in a numerus. His isolated case may hardly be argued as an example of special recruitment practices.

There is nothing to suggest that the remaining men in the regiment were even from the east. While Cheesman and others were confused as to the foundation date of the regiment, other scholars exacerbated the problem by offering wholly misleading readings of soldiers’ name origins. Repeatedly, soldiers with names unknown or rare within Syria yet widely found elsewhere were attributed to the east. In fact the names of all the other men in the cohort would fit perfectly well in western contexts. As a result of the work of Mann and Kennedy, we can now see that accepted readings of the men’s names are at best unsubstantiated, at worst (p.139) wishful thinking. The sum of this evidence suggests that cohors I Hemesenorum employed an entirely conventional recruiting pattern. When in Syria, it drew its recruits from there; when it moved to Pannonia it received recruits from the region around Intercisa.

What applies to the Hemeseni clearly applies to other eastern archer units. Cheesman supported his influential claims for special recruitment practices with reference to the history of two other regiments, the ala I Augusta Ituraeorum sagittariorum and the cohors I Augusta Ituraeorum sagittariorum. Again Cheesman based his hypothesis on foundation and overseas posting dates that are now contested. Contrary to his belief, there is no secure evidence for the existence of the ala I Augusta Ituraeorum before AD 98, when it appears on a Pannonian diploma. Rebuilding in the late AD 80s at the unit’s station of Arrabona in the same province may be associated with the regiment’s arrival. Whether or not the regiment was an early foundation (and there are reasons to argue that it was not), it was quite probably in the east until at least the late AD 80s. The often-cited Ituraean recipient of a diploma of AD 110, who would have enrolled in the regiment c. AD 85, is not therefore evidence for special recruiting. He may just have joined the ala on its foundation or at least immediately prior to its departure from Syria. Non-easterners, including a Batavian, a probable Spaniard, and a scattering of other provincials, are also found in the regiment’s ranks. This further argues against a practice of recruitment geared towards sustaining ethnic unity. The argument from Cheesman’s third alleged example, the cohors I Augusta Ituraeorum, is even less convincing. The one Syrian known from within its ranks was in fact from Cyrrhus, not Ituraea. Though little archaeological fieldwork has been undertaken in the area, we know enough about Cyrrhus from literary sources to say that it supported a very different society to that of the Ituraeans. In addition to being over 160 miles from the northern borders of the Ituraean principality, it was a well-established Greek city dominating a rich and fertile landscape far removed from the rugged terrain of the Lebanese mountains and Bekaa Valley. Rather than indicating special recruiting practices, therefore, the presence of this Syrian demonstrates that the regiment did not retain an Ituraean character. Further evidence that eastern archer units did not rely upon replacement recruits from their place of origin may come in the form of a recently discovered diploma which was probably discovered in Bulgaria.17 The diploma was issued to a soldier in cohors I Hamiorum, a regiment of archers later stationed in Britain, who would have enlisted c. AD 107. His origo is given as MOMS, which Birley has convincingly argued is an engraver’s error for MONT(ana), Mihailovgrad in northwest Bulgaria.18

Preservation of strong ethnic links was very much a feature of the British army of Cheesman’s time. Emergency recruiting could dilute these links, but especially in the British Indian Army, real attempts were made to preserve the alleged or real ethnic character of regiments. In part this was because of a strong belief in ‘clan spirit’, a term widely used by Cheesman himself,19 but it also allowed the army to capitalize on special fighting skills within particular units. Cheesman was too good a scholar simply to assume that the same practice was followed across the Roman (p.140) army, and indeed demonstrated that for the most part it was not, but confronted by a partial understanding of the eastern units he argued for an exception. Perhaps the contemporary background convinced him that certain types of fighting men could only be born in certain places, not made elsewhere. This is all despite the fact that no such requirement really pertains to archers.20 Constant training can ensure exceptional proficiency in archery, and service in the Roman army offered plenty of scope for that.

It was not just the origins of the recruits in cohors I Hemesenorum at Intercisa, however, that wrongly convinced Cheesman and others that the regiment was receiving fresh drafts of men from the east. It was also the evidence for the culture of the regiment. Two religious dedications, discussed in detail below, show an ongoing association between the regiment and its place of origin. In around AD 201, over thirty years after the cohort was founded in Emesa, the regiment constructed a temple to Elagabalus, the patron god of that city.21 Most, probably all, of the initial recruits would have gone by this time. Thirteen years later, soldiers of the same regiment dedicated an altar to the same deity. How could such a link be maintained without a steady flow of recruits from Emesa?

As noted, even when the cohort arrived at Intercisa it was far from a purely Emesene entity. There is little value, therefore, in imagining the regiment as a simple ethnic enclave. Not only were there recruits in its ranks from other Syrian communities, but the regiment would have contained officers and experienced hands seconded from elsewhere on its formation. Such secondments were essential if a mass levy of recruits was to be converted into a credible military unit.22 Yet language and culture must have helped distinguish the new arrivals from the provincials who surrounded them. Transformed through military service, the Hemeseni thus formed a distinct nucleus around which a regimental community grew up. We know that this was distinctive enough and attractive enough for veterans to stay close and for former legionaries of Emesene extraction to settle nearby. Alföldy has described this sort of community as a classic Militärgesellschaft.23 This is a useful formulation, but it does not adequately encompass the dynamics that have less to do with those cultural aspects which, preserved and/or transformed through association with the army, were not in fact military in origin. When the initial recruits were discharged, therefore, the cultural link to the east did not evaporate; it remained very much a part of the local area. Those veterans’ children who enlisted in the ranks may have perpetuated the association. Even new recruits drawn from elsewhere would have absorbed and sustained the distinctive culture generated by the mixture of Emesene expats and military circumstances. Such a process explains how an eastern temple could be constructed, dedicated in Roman fashion, and could flourish four decades after the regiment arrived in Pannonia. Once the building was consecrated it became as much a part of the regimental community’s religious landscape as other shrines, and soldiers from the cohort were naturally quite happy to worship there. At the same time the worship of Elagabalus at Intercisa illustrates one way in which the (p.141) regimental community operated as a parallel society. The men of the cohort and, one suspects, their families related to a deity largely unknown elsewhere in Pannonia, and indeed most of provincial society at this time. It was not until the accession of the emperor Varius, commonly known as Elagabalus, in AD 218 that the cult became more familiar.

If soldiers from the unit, whether native-born Emesenes or successive generations steeped in regimental culture, continued to worship Elegabalus, it might be asked whether or not there were other indicators of eastern culture at the site. Did other eastern practices survive amongst them? Excavations at the site actually reveal few indications of such survivals despite claims to the contrary. What is known of the fort, with its fine principia, indicates a fort type well within the range of military bases from the western Roman Empire. The civilian settlement which concentrated at the southern end of the fort prior to the Marcommanic Wars (AD 167–AD 180) spread during the time of the Hemeseni to surround much of the installation. To the south of the extramural settlement lay the cemeteries, and evidence for ethnic survivals has been sought in this area. Might it be possible to identify distinctive funerary rituals? Did traces of eastern dress continue to be worn? In fact it is not possible to offer a distinctive case for either proposition.

The excavators noted that deceased soldiers from the unit were cremated in accordance with widespread military practice, not inhumed as one might expect in eastern communities of this time.24 That soldiers from the cohort were cremated is clear from the predominance of cremation burials from the late 2nd and early 3rd century and from some of the finds recovered from these cremations. A fine military-style belt was, for example, found within a cremation grave dated to this period.25 Although a face pot deposited in another such burial was identified as eastern, the type fits entirely into the repertoire of face pots found in the western provinces.26 Identifying soldiers with any certainty is notoriously difficult in Roman military contexts and identifying their families is no less so, but the finds from two contexts have been linked to the military. A child, believed by excavators to be the offspring of a soldier of the Hemeseni on account of an eastern coin found within the grave, contains little else to suggest an exotic eastern style of life or death.27 It must be acknowledged, however, that this is a weak premiss. More strikingly, a family tombstone shows a soldier’s wife who clearly followed Empire-wide fashions. The hairstyle of Aurelia Baracha, wife of Germanius Valens, a soldier of cohors I Hemesenorum, recalls that depicted in 3rd-century portraits of the imperial family.28 It is interesting to note in passing that Aurelia may have been identifiable as a soldier’s wife here by her adherence to Roman fashion, while in neighbouring provinces, such as Dacia, many soldiers’ (p.142) wives were conversely distinguished from their neighbours by their retention of Pannonian tribal dress.

Much of this discussion simply underscores the well-attested difficulty inherent in discussing ethnic identity on the basis of funerary rites. Yet it also suggests that, for all its eastern associations, the regimental community at Intercisa was also marked by its adherence to wider cultural patterns. This is both a reflection of its mixed composition and an expression of its military character. The social dynamics that characterized regimental communities could vary significantly, and their material manifestation can accordingly be very difficult to read. What they share, however, is their capacity to generate wholly separate social networks.


(1) von Domaszewski (1895: 52).

(2) Cheesman (1914: 82–4). Kraft (1951: 63) explains how he reads the evidence from the Rhine and the Danube. See Mann (1963: 147) for mounted archers.

(3) Holder (1980: 121).

(4) I owe a particular debt to Kennedy’s (1980) rigorous analysis of the evidence for auxiliary units raised in Syria.

(5) Between 1906 and 1913, 846 cremation and inhumation graves were excavated.

(6) Baur and Rostovtzeff (1929: 56 n. 1); Wagner (1938: 142).

(7) Rossi (1971: 189).

(8) See Mann (1974: 259) for formation of the unit between AD 161 and AD 169. Kennedy (1980: 121–2) argued that the regiment was founded c. AD 162. I owe the following assessment of the origins of recruits to the regiment to him.

(9) For 180, see Fitz (1972: 47). Visy (2003: 118) argues that the unit replaced the ala I civium Romanorum when it left in AD 176.

(10) AE 1964, 104.

(11) Barkóczi et al. (1954: no. 311).

(12) Fitz (1972: 47).

(13) Barkóczi et al. (1954: nos 129, 130, 132, 133) and Albia Regia 11 (1970), no. 452. The sixth text (CIL 16.131) may be restored to read Hemes]a ex Syr(ia.

(14) For M. Aurelii with Semitic names, See Barkóczi et al. (1954, nos. 16, 39, 340) and Alba Regia 11 (1970), no. 464. Although the name could have been given under Caracalla, the important point to note here is that it need not have been.

(15) M. Aurelii who offer Syrian origins but who do not come from Emesa record their origins as Apamaea (Barkóczi et al. 1954, no. 134), Arethusa (ibid. no. 23), and Edessa (Alba Regia 11 (1970), no. 446).

(16) ILS 2540. Barsemis’ career most probably dates to the mid-3rd century AD, when many Osrhöenians appear in Roman service (Fitz 1972: 149; Speidel 1975: 229; Kennedy 1980: 133).

(17) Eck, Holder, and Pangerl (2010).

(18) A. R. Birley, pers. comm.

(19) e.g. Cheesman (1914: 57 and 58).

(21) ILS 9155. Fitz (1972) argues for a date of AD 201.

(22) For stiffening newly raised units with seconded personnel (Tacitus Agric. 28).

(23) Alföldy (2000: 49).

(24) Sági’s (1954: 116) sees the Hemeseni conforming to what he imagines to be an alien rite to them. He argues: ‘Es muß daher die Rolle der Armee bei der Romanisierung des Landes beachtet warden, das sie auch bei anderen Einzelheiten der Bestattungsitten nachweisbar ist.’

(26) Visy (1977, cover and caption).

(27) Sági (1954: 71, Grave 17). The coin is ‘eastern’ in that it was minted at Byzantion, a long way, of course, from Emesa, but it was on this basis that the excavators advanced an association of the inhumed child with the unit. Clearly this argument is weak, but the very fact it is made at all indicates how few discernibly ‘eastern’ artefacts were found within the cemetery.

(28) Sági (1954: 190–91, pl. 38.4).