Military diploma granting citizenship to the fleet at Ravenna (AE 1997, 1771)

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Typology (Honorific / Funerary / etc.): 
Military diploma.
Original Location/Place: 
Exact location unknown. Most likely Moesia Inferior.
Actual Location (Collection/Museum): 
Private collection (The Schøyen Collection MS 2032).
70 CE Feb 26th
Physical Characteristics: 
Complete bronze military diploma, consisting of two tablets still tied together. The inscription is repeated on the interior and exterior of the two tablets. The lettering of the interior inscriptions is better than that of the exterior.

Height: 14.8 cm
Width: 13.4 cm
Depth: 0.15-0.2 cm
AE 1997, 1771
JRA 1996.247
These bronze tablets form the earliest known military diploma to have been issued by Vespasian, shortly after his successful accession to the emperorship. It is most significant because it awards the members of the imperial fleet at Ravenna (the classis Ravennas) citizenship, even though they had not yet completed the customary period of service of twenty-five years, nor had they been honourably discharged. This grant of citizenship was an exceptional reward for the fleet’s defection in support of Vespasian and his troops during the civil war of 68-69 CE, the timely nature of which helped to secure his victory. Unlike the majority of military diplomas to have survived, which record the granting of citizenship in return for completed service, this document belongs to a small group of diplomata that were issued to serving soldiers or sailors in direct response to their involvement in specific military action. As Margaret Roxan has argued, this may be the most important military diploma in existence for its illustration of the “political will of an emperor in action” (Roxan, “An emperor rewards his supporters,” p. 248).
The Roman navy was not conceived of as a separate entity from the Roman army; indeed, the army itself was not a single unit, but rather individual groups of legions under the independent command of their individual generals. The naval fleets were organised on an even more “ad hoc basis…commissioned for particular needs” and fell under the command of the praefectus of the relevant provincial legion (Saddington, “Classes,” p. 201). The fleet at Ravenna was established in conjunction with the construction of the harbour at Ravenna in the early 20s BCE, although Octavian may have established a temporary naval base there as early as 39 BCE, as part of his plan of expansion to the Danube (Starr, Roman Imperial Navy,p. 22;the first reference to the Ravennate fleet is in a fragment of Valgius Rufus, known from Vitruvius, On Architecture, 2.9.16, and the establishment of a temporary fleet by Octavian is suggested by Appian, Civil Wars, 5.78-80). It appears that its main role was to serve as an assistant to the much larger fleet established by Augustus at Misenum, although its base location in Ravenna was deliberately strategic. As Chester Starr noted, the harbour of Ravenna was situated just behind the reserve line of defence for Italy, so a naval fleet that could operate up the fossa Augusta – the canal dug by Augustus to connect the harbour with the southern branch of the river Po – and along the Po to Placentia could protect the north of Italy from invasion along that shoreline (Starr, Roman imperial navy, p. 22). In this light, the defection of the fleet at Ravenna to Vespasian’s side in the civil wars of 68-69 CE becomes especially relevant, and demonstrates the importance of securing military support in key strategic areas.
The decision to switch sides in the civil war was taken by the commander of the fleet, Sextus Lucilius Bassus, who is named in the diploma. Initially he had served under the emperor Galba, as the equestrian prefect of an ala (‘wing’ unit of the Roman army), but had transferred his support to Vitellius, following his acclamation as emperor by the army of the Rhineland in January 69 CE. In reward for this support, Vitellius promoted him to the joint command of the Misene and Ravenna fleets, although Tacitus reports that this was not enough of a reward to satisfy the ambitious general, who had been aiming for promotion to the praefectus of the Praetorian Guard (Tacitus, Histories, II.100.6). This resentment may have been the motivation for his alliance with Aulus Caecina Alienus, who had been persuaded by Vespasian’s brother, Flavius Sabinus, to betray Vitellius, which they did following a meeting in Ravenna, after which Sextus Lucilius Bassus led his fleet into the Flavian camp in October 69 CE (Tacitus, Histories, III.36;Roxan, “An emperor rewards his supporters”, p. 252; Mellor, “New aristocracy”, p. 76-8). This defection, along with that of the fleet at Misenum under their commander Apinius Tiro, was the decisive move in Vespasian’s bid for power. Although Bassus was successful in persuading the fleet to change sides, they rejected his leadership in favour of Cornelius Fuscus, and was even imprisoned for a short time until Vespasian personally intervened to release him (Tacitus, Histories, III.12.2-8). Sextus Bassus was handsomely rewarded by Vespasian for his loyalty: he was adlected to the Senate and later appointed governor of Judea in a shrewd move that saw him removed from the centre of power where his ambitions may well have proved dangerous for the new Flavian dynast (Roxan, “An Emperor Rewards his Supporters”, p. 252).
The diploma records that the new emperor, Vespasian, grants citizenship to the beneficarii (soldiers exempt from common duties), to their children and to their descendants (beneficarii…ipsis liberis / posterisque eorum civitatem dedi/t). Beneficarii, however, poses an odd textual problem here, as it is not clear who they are the beneficarii of. As Margaret Roxan has stated, the formula beneficari(i) qui militant in classe Ravennate sub Sex(tus) Lucilio Basso (the beneficarii who are serving in the Ravenna fleet beneath Sextus Lucilius Bassus) could be understood as referring to men that Sextus Bassus had personally awarded the title and rank of beneficarius to, and referred to the emperor for the granting of citizenship. However, beneficari(i) could also stand independently from Bassus, following the example of two inscriptions from Misenum (CIL X, 3111 and 3412) in which the superior officer of the beneficari(i) is not named, meaning that these beneficarii are the subordinates of the captains of the different ships (the trierarchs or stolarchs of the fleet), or of the commanders of different detachments, all of whom served “beneath Sectus Lucilius Bassus” (sub Sex(tus) Lucilio Basso) (see Roxan, “An emperor rewards his supporters,” p. 253; AE 1996, 1771). Whoever the specific superior of the beneficarii was, the most important factor revealed by the diploma was that they were still serving in the fleet at the time that citizenship was granted, implied by the present tense of militant (“they are serving”), and were being rewarded by Vespasian for their specific action in helping him to secure power. Vespasian was clearly grateful for their involvement, for as well as awarding citizenship to the sailors, he also awarded it to their children and descendants, and granted the right of legal marriage (conubium) with those wives the members of the fleet had already wed, or to those whom they married afterwards, although limited to one wife only. The fleet itself also received further recognition from the emperor; although not described in the diploma, the sailors of the classis Ravennas were promoted to the status of full legionaries in the legio II Adiutrix. Ronald Mellor has suggested that this was a part of the deal promised by Vespasian’s commander in northern Italy, Antonius Primus, in return for switching sides, and that the new emperor understood the necessity of honouring such commitments in the securing of loyalty amongst the military (Mellor, “New Aristocracy,” p. 77).
The interior face of the tablets records the name of the recipient of the diploma as Dernaius, a name attested from Varna (Odessos) on the Black Sea coast of Moesia Inferior (see Detschew, Die thrakischen Sprachreste, p. 128 no. 5). Although there is no other attestation of the name of his father, Derdipilus, András Mócsy has noted two further instances of names with the stem ‘Der’ also from Moesia Inferior, indicating the likely origin of this particular sailor (Mócsy, Nomenclator, p. 101; Roxan, “An emperor rewards his supporters,” p. 253). If many of the men who made up the Ravennate fleet had been recruited from Dalmatian and Pannonia, this would fit with the suggestion made by Margaret Roxan that Sextus Bassus had been able to persuade his men to defect to Vespasian precisely because the Balkan provinces had already been secured by Antonius Primus (“An emperor rewards his supporters,” p. 252). Although Dacia was not, in 70 CE, yet part of the Roman empire, Cassius Dio describes a group called the ‘Daci’ living south of the Danube in Moesia, from whom this Dernaius may well have descended (Cassius Dio, Roman History, 51.22). 
The final point worthy of note is the diploma’s statement that it had been copied and validated from the ‘official’ record of this citizenship grant, which could be found in the city of Rome. Inscribed on a bronze plaque, the grant was ‘fixed at Rome on the Capitol on the base of the wall in front of the Temple of the Genius of the Roman People’ (quae fixa est Rom/ae in Capitolio in podio mur/i ante aedem geni populi Romani). The practice of copying individual versions of the diplomas from the ‘official’ version that remained in Rome remained common practice until c. 90 CE, but this is the first, and only, occasion that the shrine or temple of the Genius of the Roman people is mentioned as the location in front of which the official tablets were fixed (AE 1996, 1771, p. 610). Although the shrine is mentioned by Cassius Dio in connection with prodigia (unnatural occurences) that emerged in 43 and 32 BCE, this appears to have been in reference to a shrine located near the temple of Concordia in the Roman Forum (Cassius Dio, Roman History, 47.2.3; 50.8.2; see also CIL VI, 248). The Fasti of Rome describe sacrifices made to the Genius populi Romani, Fausta Felicitas and Venus Victrix that were made in Capitolio (on the Capitoline) every year on the 9th October, but it was not clear whether or not this was a triple shrine or if each deity had its own altar or temple (Roxan, “An emperor rewards his supporters,” p. 254). This diploma appears to prove then that the Genius populi Romani had its own temple on the Capitoline Hill, which was entirely separate from the shrine mentioned by Cassius Dio in the Forum (ibid). The proximity of the ‘official records’ in Rome, which contained the names of the new members of the populus Romanus, to the shrine of the Genius of the Roman People was a clear ideological statement; Roman citizenship provided legitimacy in a legal and social sense, but it also brought these new Romans under the protection of a more lofty ideal that united them with their fellow citizens across the empire.
This diploma from Ravenna is, therefore, a unique source that records direct rewards available to the Roman military in exchange for specific actions at a time of civil war; the classis Ravennas were able to obtain citizenship, a promotion of rank and the right to legal marriage because of their timely defection to Vespasian’s side in 69 CE. With little support for the Flavians in the rest of Italy, the loyalty of the fleets at Misenum and Ravenna were crucial for securing the coastline of both northern and southern Italy and preventing invasion through the Po river valley in particular. Vespasian recognised the importance of their support and continued to emphasise sea power as the most significant factor in his success for a number of years afterwards, issuing commemorative coinage that referred to the civil war through the legend Victoria Navalis, or ‘Victory of the Fleet’ (Starr, Roman imperial navy, p. 185; for the coins see Mattingly, Coins of the Roman Empire, II, p. xlvii). The honours awarded to the sailors, as recorded by this diploma, were greater and more extensive than those awarded to the military on any previous occasion in Rome’s history (Starr, Roman imperial navy, p. 185).
Bibliographical references: 

The Flavians

Griffin, Miriamarticle-in-a-bookCambridge Ancient History. Vol. 11, The High Empire, A.D. 70-192A.K. Bowman, P. Garnsey, D. Rathbone1-83The FlaviansCambridgeCambridge University Press2000


Levick, BarbarabookVespasianRoman Imperial Biographies LondonRoutledge2005

The New Aristocracy of Power

Mellor, Ronaldarticle-in-a-bookFlavian Rome: Culture, Image, TextA.J. Boyle, W.J. Dominik69-101The New Aristocracy of PowerLeiden; BostonBrill2003
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Military diploma granting citizenship to the fleet at Ravenna (AE 1997, 1771)
Author(s) of this publication: Caroline Barron
Publishing date: Wed, 08/15/2018 - 19:29
Visited: Wed, 04/24/2024 - 13:59

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