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Cohortes Urbanae › Antique Origins

Definition and Origins

by Mark Cartwright
published on 16 December 2016
Attacking the Cohortes Urbanae (The Creative Assembly)
The cohortes urbanae ( urban cohorts ) were a body of troops garrisoned at Rome, which was created by Augustus to provide additional security for the emperor and city in general. Expanding in the reigns of subsequent emperors the force was responsible for maintaining public order in the capital and other cities they were stationed at. Effectively acting as a police force it was also occasionally employed in battles and even involved itself in the succession of emperors.


Near the end of his reign (27 BCE - 14 CE), Augustus created the first three urban cohorts, likely recruiting them from the existing Praetorian Guard ( cohortes praetoriae ) which was also stationed in Rome. The precise date of their foundation is not known, but the first reference in literature is from Suetonius who mentions that each member received 500 sesterces in Augustus' 13 CE will.
As there were nine cohorts of the Praetorian Guard, the urban cohorts were given the numbers X, XI, and XII, which were maintained even when the Guard was later expanded by another three cohorts. Besides providing an additional military force which the emperor could call on in cases of emergency or revolt, they would later be used, on occasion, in both civil and foreign wars by later emperors.



The urban cohorts were commanded by the urban prefect ( praefectus urbi ). As this position held senatorial rank, the holder was above the Praetorian prefect and he was responsible for all criminal cases not just in Rome but all of Italy. Thus the commander of the urban cohorts had significant power, and when emperors were absent on campaign, they were, in effect, the most senior officer in the capital. Each cohort was commanded by a tribune and six centurions. As with the Praetorian Guard, members were largely recruited from Italy to ensure greater loyalty. The term of service was 20 years, and they received 50% more pay than ordinary legionaries but half the pay of the more prestigious Praetorian Guard, with whom they shared a camp, the castra praetoria, in the north-eastern suburbs of Rome. In 270 CE the urban cohorts were given their own camp in the city by Aurelian, the castra Urbana, located on the Campus Martius. It is likely, too, that small detachments were stationed in watchhouses across the city on a rotation basis.
Castra Praetoria

Castra Praetoria


The primary function of the cohortes urbanae, as with most other troops not involved directly in combat, was to maintain public order. There are no surviving records which detail exactly what the urban cohorts did, but one can imagine in a large city like Rome there were plenty of instances of minor crime and disturbances to deal with as well as crowd-control duties at such popular events as gladiator games at the Colosseum and chariot races at the Circus Maximus. There might also have been more serious events to deal with such as food riots and demonstrations. Their role as a body which kept public order is largely assumed from the absence of any other military function or guard duties related to the emperors rather than direct evidence from Roman writers. In addition, the fact that their commander was responsible for criminal cases in the city would suggest that the urban cohorts would have sought out and arrested criminals for trial.
The role of policing the capital was a new one, though, and the difficulties of what exactly that entailed is evident in the resignation of the prefect Valerius Messalla Corvinus, after only six days in office on the grounds that he was not clear how to fulfil his duties. The first permanent commander of the urban cohorts was Lucius Calpurnius Piso, appointed in 13 CE.
Street Riot

Street Riot


As with the Praetorian Guard, the urban cohorts found time to meddle in politics and they supported or defied certain emperors, starting with the turmoil which followed Caligula 's assassination in 41 CE. Claudius gained their support, and perhaps as a consequence, they were expanded with another cohort added to their ranks. During the reign of Nero (54-68 CE) they were expanded again and this time reorganised into seven 500-man cohorts bearing the numbers X to XVI. The tinkering continued with Vitellius reshuffling the force into four 1000-man cohorts in 69 CE and mixing in some veteran legionaries. With Rome now perhaps a little overpacked with troops, Vespasian and his successors Titus and Domitian decided to remove two cohorts and station one each at Carthage and Lugdunum (modern Lyon), both provincial capitals, and the latter a major mint.At certain times, probably to protect grain shipments, urban cohorts were deployed at Ostia and Puteoli too.
Yet another expansion, in fact the last change, came during the reign of Septimius Severus (193-211 CE) with four cohorts being maintained but each now consisting of 1,500 men. The demise of the urban cohorts came in the aftermath of the Battleof Milvian Bridge in 312 CE. They and the Praetorian Guard had supported Maxentius, and so the victor Constantine Idisbanded the Praetorians and greatly reduced the significance of the urban cohorts in Rome. The two cohorts in the provinces had likely already been disbanded a century or so earlier.

Cincinnatus › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Donald L. Wasson
published on 04 April 2017
Cincinnatus (ohkylel @twitter)
Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus was a Roman consul (460 BCE) and dictator (458 and 439 BCE), a legendary figure in the early days of the Republic. He responded to a call from the city fathers, left his plow lying in the fields, donned his senatorial toga, and led the Roman forces to victory over the invading Aequi, only to return to his small farm fifteen days later. For generations, he served as the symbol to Romans young and old of what a loyal citizen ought to aspire.
Although Cincinnatus has long been considered a heroic representation of the virtuous Roman citizen, there are some historians who doubt the story altogether, claiming it to be nothing more than a myth. Yet, while there are many who may not accept the story as genuine, they contend that it does not really matter whether or not it is true. As with any myth or legend, the story of the heroic Cincinnatus served a useful purpose by rallying the citizens of the fledgling Republic together as one, demonstrating that a loyal citizen must place the matters of the state over his own self-interest.



According to the accepted version of the story, Cincinnatus was a patrician and former consul who had fallen on difficult times, finding himself farming a small plot of four acres along the right bank of the Tiber River, later called Quinctian Meadows ( prataQuinctia ) in his honor. It was 458 BCE and the young Roman Republic was being besieged by its neighbors. This time it was the Aequi, a small tribe located in central Italy east of Rome. The Roman army under the leadership of the less-than-capable consul Lucius Minucius Esquilinus Augurinus was trapped on Mt. Algidus in the Alban Hills southeast of Rome. With few alternatives - the consul Gaius Nautius Rutilus was equally incapable - Rome turned to the elderly Cincinnatus and offered him the position of dictator. A dictator or magister populi was appointed in times of extreme emergency, serving for only six months;however, during this period he held complete authority.
According to the 1st-century BCE Roman historian Livy in his History of Rome, Cincinnatus was plowing his field (others believe he was digging a ditch) when approached by a delegation from Rome. The former consul was unanimously chosen because "in him were the courage and resolution equal to the majestic authority of that office" (3.26). Livy added,
After mutual salutations he was requested to put on his toga that he might hear the mandate of the senate, and they expressed the hope that it might turn out well for him and for the State. He asked then, in surprise, if all was well, and bade his wife, Racilia, bring him his toga quickly from the cottage. (3.26)
After an appeal for the blessings of the gods upon the Republic and "to save his old age from bringing loss or dishonor upon his country in her trouble," he listened as the delegation informed him of the danger facing Rome (3.26). With some hesitation, Cincinnatus, still questioning why he had been chosen, accepted the appointment and left with the delegation. Upon entering the city, he advanced to the assembly, proclaiming a suspension of all public and private business and ordering the shops to be closed. Next, he requested all men of military age to arrive at the Campus Martius fully armed with five days of rations.Victory, according to the legend, was swift, and a limited peace with the Aequi was reached. Livy wrote of the battle and the requests of the defeated Aequi, "… not to make their extermination the price of victory, but to allow them to surrender their arms and depart" (3.29). Unfortunately, the Aequi would return in 457 and 455 BCE; another reason why many believe the story to be untrue.


Within 15 days, Cincinnatus had left his farm, led the Roman army to victory, and returned to the plow. Of course, he could not return home without celebration. Following a parade of the defeated enemy commanders, Cincinnatus's own conquering Roman soldiers and a display of the captured booty, the victorious dictator's chariot made its way through the city, beginning at the Campus Martius (Field of Mars ), proceeding past the Circus Maximus, up the Via Sacra to the Temple of Jupiterwhere appropriate sacrifices were made. The city celebrated with a Roman triumph. Livy wrote, "It is said that tables spread with provisions stood before all the houses, and the feasters followed the chariot with songs of triumph and the customary jests and lampoons" (3.29). Relinquishing his position of dictator, Cincinnatus returned to his farm.


According to a second myth, Cincinnatus was again summoned from the plow during the Maelius-controversy in 439 BCE.Supposedly, the plebian Spurius Maelius was rumored to be attempting tyranny against the Republic. For the past year, Rome had been caught in a terrible famine. To oversee the grain supply, the Senate appointed the old former consul Minucius who was found incapable of supplying enough grain for the people. Many believed at that time that wealthy Maelius purposely bought large amounts of wheat outside the city, hoping to either sell it to the people of Rome at low prices (or even giving it away free), thereby winning their favor. The city's patricians felt he was planning to establish himself in a monarchy.
Maelius Before Cincinnatus

Maelius Before Cincinnatus

Again, as appointed dictator, Cincinnatus called for Maelius to appear before him, but Maelius refused. It was at this point Cincinnatus ordered his death. Years later, the 1st-century BCE statesman and orator Cicero referred to Maelius in his essay The Joys of Farming as a usurper. According to Cicero's account of the incident, Cincinnatus was recalled and expected to resolve the problem, and solve it he did. "His were the orders, as dictator, upon which his Master of the Horse, Gaius Servilius Ahala, caught Spurius Maelius attempting to make himself king, and put him to death" (236).


Why is Cincinnatus considered by so many to be a hero? Are any of the stories about him true? The answer to both questions given by many is that it does not really matter. Of course, not everyone believed him to be heroic, even during his lifetime, there were many in Rome who would not call him a hero. Many plebians would definitely not consider him heroic for his opposition to the rights of both the plebians and poor of the city. Livy wrote of their reaction to the dictator's arrival in the city, "…they were by no means so pleased to see Quinctius; they regarded the power with which he was invested as excessive, and the man himself more dangerous than his power" (3.26). To many others, however, he was the model of the ideal Roman.He had gained glory and dignity through his victory over the Aequi, but out of duty and loyalty, he relinquished the power of dictator, caring more for the good of the state than his personal prestige.
This unselfish act represented both the virtues of a true Roman as well as the greatness of the Republic. These virtues included leading a simple life, being patriotic and committed to Roman values, being even-handed, and forgoing riches.However, many patriotic Romans questioned the validity of the stories concerning Cincinnatus. Even Cicero, who wrote of the dictator's recall in 439 BCE, raised some doubt to the supposed legendary exploits when he wrote,
But I want to talk about my own affairs, so let us return to the farmers. In those days, Senators lived on their farms - if we are to believe the story that the men sent to tell Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus of his appointment as dictator found him at the plough (sic). (236)
Again, are the stories true? It does not seem to be important. The Romans were a proud people who looked to their past, often an ideal one, to establish and vindicate themselves and their rise to power. They looked to the rich history of their Greekneighbors with envious eyes. With Greek colonies having been on the Italian peninsula for generations, Romans had been in constant contact with the rich Hellenistic civilization, philosophy, art, literature, and even religion. They adopted much from the Greek culture even hiring Greek tutors for their children. Virgil ’s Aeneid even connected Rome's past with one of the greatest Greek legends, the Trojan War. Cincinnatus gave the Romans a home-grown hero. He left the plow to lead Roman forces to victory and without a second thought returned to his farm, forgoing the power of a dictator. What could be more heroic than that?


Article based on information obtained from these sources:
with permission from the Website Ancient History Encyclopedia
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