Sometime in the second century A.D. a young fellow named Apion left his little village in Egypt to join the navy. He was promptly shipped to the great base at Misenum near Naples, and from there he wrote his first letter home:
First of all, I hope you are well and will always be well, and my sister and her daughter and my brother. I thank the God Serapis that when I was in danger on the sea he quickly came to the rescue. When I arrived at Misenum I received from the government three gold pieces for my traveling expenses. I’m fine. Please write me, Father, first to tell me that you are well, second that my sister and brother are well, and third so that I can kiss your hand because you gave me a good education and because of it I hope to get quick promotion if the gods are willing. Love to Capiton and my brother and sister and Serenilla and my friends. I’ve given Euctemon a picture of myself to bring to you. My name is now Antonius Maximus, my ship the Athenonice. Goodbye.
P.S. Serenus, Agathodaemon’s son, sends regards, and so does Turbo, Gallonius’ son.
The address indicates that he sent it with a serviceman or courier who was headed for an army camp in Egypt (the invention of a public post lay a millennium and a half in the future), whence it was duly delivered by someone passing by where his father lived. It was read, discarded in the course of time, and lay in Egypt’s perennially dry sands undisturbed until the ninteenth century, when diggers unearthed it.
Apion was lucky: He had met some other boys from his hometown, had been assigned duty with the main naval arm, and, thanks to his education, saw bright chances of getting ahead. Like any recruit in any age, he hungers for news from home and sends the family a picture of himself, a miniature (the camera lay even further ahead than the postal service), very likely in his new uniform. And now that he is in the Roman navy, he drops his Egyptian name for a good Roman one.
In every province of the empire, there were young fellows just as eager as Apion to join the armed forces, even though it meant not a stint of merely a few years, as today, but a lifetime: A hitch in the army was twenty to twenty-five years, in the navy twenty-six. No matter - they offered a respected profession, modest but decent pay, good opportunities for promotion, and at the end, citizenship for the non-citizen. For men on the lower rungs of the social ladder, this was plenty.
The soldiers in the armies of the republic, even the vast aggregations that Caesar or Antony or Brutus and Cassius had led, had all been irregulars: They signed on for a campaign or series of campaigns and at the end were paid off. It was Augustus who founded a standing army and navy.
The imperial army was surprisingly small, some 300,000 men to guard a domain that stretched from Scotland to Syria. Half the force consisted of the legions, those famed units that carried eagles as their standards, bore distinctive names and numbers, and were recruited only from among the citizen body. There were twenty-eight to thirty of these divisions, as we would call them, with an average strength of 5,500 men. Backing up the legions were the auxiliaries or colonial troops, recruited from the various peoples in the empire. At the outset, they fought in their native fashion with their native weapons, but as time went on, they were more and more assimilated to the legions’ way of fighting. On discharge, they were granted citizenship. For a lucky few, there was service in the Praetorian Guard, the legion stationed in Rome at the emperor’s side. The navy, which young Apion joined, was very much the junior service in the armed forces. As in the auxiliaries, its men were provincials and were rewarded with citizenship on discharge.
The Praetorian Guard not only made the most money but enjoyed living amid the pleasures that the capital afforded. Even the sailors were not so badly off in this respect: The main naval base was on the Bay of Naples, and the next in importance at Ravenna. But the men of the legions and auxiliary troops were stationed far from the fleshpots of Rome or other urban centers, in a wide arc on or near the frontiers of the empire: In the second century A.D., there were three legions in Britain, one in Spain, four along the Rhine and eleven along the Danube, nine in the Near East, one in North Africa. Since large-scale wars were few, the men tended to be left where they were: Not a few joined, served, and lived out their days in and around the local army base.
When a boy, usually in his early twenties, decided to join the armed forces, he reported to the nearest recruiting station with his documents - this was to prove whether he was a citizen and eligible for the legions or a provincial and eligible only for the auxiliaries or the navy. He had his height checked (the minimum for the army was five feet eight inches) and took a physical examination. If accepted, he was given seventy-five denarii ($1,200, which, though called travel money, was actually a bounty for joining), was administered the oath, and was then packed off to boot camp for basic training. He ran and jumped to harden his physique, learned to swim, practiced marching with the standard military pace, which enabled troops to cover fifteen miles in five hours, and took lessons in handling the legionary’s standard weapon, the short sword; at the outset, he hacked with a wooden sword at a wooden stake, a technique introduced into the army from the gladiator schools. When once in condition, he was made to march with full pack, sixty pounds of weapons, tools, and rations. He was then ready for training in the various movements, to form at command a single line, double line, wedge, circle, square, and the testudo, “tortoise,” the special square for storming city walls, in which the men covered themselves with a carapace of shields. He was taught, too, how to do his part in pitching camp, a protective procedure that Roman armies on the march took every night; it involved digging a ditch all about the camping area and raising behind it a mound surmounted by a palisade of stakes.
Though the emphasis was naturally on combat, most of the men, as it turned out, needed their weapons only for maneuvers, inasmuch as the first two centuries of the Roman Empire were, apart from a few bloody but short wars, years of peace. But if Roman soldiers were spared risk, they paid for it in hard labor on public works. It was they who erected and maintained many of the empire’s bridges and aqueducts, dug its canals and cisterns, and were responsible for most of its great network of roads: Intended first and foremost for military use, these were laid out by army surveyors and engineers and built by army muscle. “I thank Serapis and Lady Luck,” writes a young soldier in A.D. 107 from Bostra in the desert tract south of Damascus to his mother in Egypt, “while everybody is slaving all day long cutting stones, since I’m a noncom, I go around doing nothing.” The writer obviously knew the ropes: In another letter, to his father, he makes the same boast and explains that he managed to get himself appointed librarius legionis, one of the divisional clerks, which ensured his wielding a stylus instead of a sledge.
The first step on the ladder of promotion was into such specialties as clerk, armorer, orderly, trumpeter, and so on; they brought a man no extra pay, but they spared him much fatigue duty. From here, he could move up into the noncommissioned ranks: signifer, “standard bearer”; optio, or sergeant; tesserarius, or master sergeant; cornicularius, or sergeant major. The step after that was the big one, to centurion, or lieutenant. There were no officer-training schools in the Roman army; promotion to centurion, the lowest commissioned rank, was generally from below. The man who made it then worked to rise higher, since each legion had various grades of centurion corresponding roughly to our ranks from lieutenant to major. Officers above the rank of centurion were necessarily commissioned from outside, for they were drawn exclusively from the two highest levels of Roman society; the legatus legionis, commanding officer of a legion, corresponding to a general in charge of a division, had to come from the upper senatorial class, his next in command from the lower, the others from the gentry just under the senatorial class.
Augustus set the legionary’s pay at 225 denarii a year ($3,600), and even this very modest amount was lessened by deductions for the cost of weapons, clothing, and rations. By the second century A.D., the figure had been raised to 300 denarii. Noncoms got pay and a half, senior noncoms double pay. In addition, there were windfalls: An emperor often included in his will special bonuses to be paid on his death (Augustus and Tiberius each willed every legionary a third of a year’s pay) or issued them on accession. There was also generous separation pay for the legions; during Augustus’s time it was 3,000 denarii or just about thirteen years’ pay. The auxiliaries and the navy received less than half of what the legions got and no separation pay; perhaps the citizenship they were granted was considered an adequate equivalent.
The one branch of the service whose wages were far out of line was the Praetorian Guard. The emperors had to have the support of these men, strategically located right in Rome, and from as early as the reign of Tiberius, their method was to buy it. The regular wage, to begin with, was three times that of the legionaries. On top of this, each emperor on accession literally poured money into their laps to ensure their allegiance: Claudius gave them 3,750 denarii ($60,000), Nero the same, Marcus Aurelius 5,000. The nadir came in A.D. 193, when the Praetorians murdered the ruling emperor, announced they would hand over the throne to whoever offered the biggest bonus, and held a veritable auction with two aspirants bidding against each other. The guards had become kingmakers instead of soldiers, and the formidable Septimius Severus, after toppling the successful bidder later in the year, took the inevitable step of abolishing them. He replaced them with a new guard recruited from the legions he most trusted.
A Roman soldier’s return to civilian life upon discharge normally involved no such jolts as it does today. As mentioned before, the men tended to join units stationed in their vicinity and to spend their time in service there. They were not allowed to marry, since the state wanted them to be free of family responsibilities; yet, since it also wanted a continuing supply of manpower for the armed forces, it encouraged them to form liaisons with local women and twisted the law to give quasi-legitimacy to their offspring. Thus, many a veteran simply continued to live on where he had been based, where he had founded a family. Often he had the pleasure of seeing a son replace him in the ranks and, profiting from having a father who was an ex-serviceman who could pull strings, move up faster and higher than he had. Veterans often retired with the money and respect to make them pillars of society in the modest communities where they settled down - like Lucius Caecilius Optatus, centurion of the legion VII Gemina Felix in Spain, who, an inscription found at Barcino (Barcelona today) tells us, had “been honorably discharged by the Emperors Marcus Aurelius Antoninus and Lucius Aurelius Verus, been selected by the town of Barcino to be among those exempted from public charges, and achieved the office of aedile and three times the office of duumvir. . . . He left a legacy to the municipality of Barcino as follows: I . . . bequeath . . . 7,500 denarii [about $120,000], with the six per cent interest on which I desire a boxing contest to be held each year on June 10 at a cost of up to 250 denarii and on the same day 200 denarii of oil to be supplied to the public in the public baths.”