Ancient History & Civilisation



LEGIONS MASSED TO CRUSH THE SLAVE REVOLT of Spartacus; a fiery charge against shrieking barbarians: images of the Roman soldier are inextricably linked to the visuals of novels, film, and television. But aside from the brief moments of battle discipline, carnage, bravery, and death, what was it like to live the life of a Roman legionary? The sources, however broadly tapped, do not allow the story of the common soldier to be told at any single time during the first three centuries AD. However, it is possible to construct a composite picture based on material from this entire period. Massed legions, screaming barbarian hordes, bravery in battle all existed, but I will lay out the rest of the legionary’s existence in all its limitations, promise, banality, and excitement.

The legionary soldier, like other invisibles, is virtually never noted individually by the main classical sources. He appears in a mass – ‘the army’ or ‘a legion’, or some other grouping; only in exceptional and frequently semi-fictionalized situations does a soldier appear as an individual in elite writers. For these authors, the army below the command level is except in very rare situations an undifferentiated mass playing a role in the elite drama that they called history. When the elite deigned to think about common soldiers, they liked to spotlight heroic efforts, but in the end saw mostly a dangerous body, ignorant, low born, and motivated by base instincts. Looked at from the social, economic, and cultural level of the common soldier, however, his life, although it could be hard and even at times deadly, was in many ways privileged with a stability and benefits that few other ordinary men could hope to find. This becomes clear as I look at the soldier on his own terms.


16. The army at war. Here two soldiers advance, one with the short sword (gladius) at ready, the other with his spear (pilum).


The actual number of new recruits each year was fairly small. Thinking about the legions scattered over the empire, it is easy to forget that the term of service was long, and loss by war minimal; around 7500–10,000 or so new soldiers each year would have sufficed to keep the legions up to strength. All had to be freeborn Roman citizens; freedmen were recruited to only a few specific units, and slaves were completely ineligible during the empire – indeed, as Artemidorus states, for a slave to dream that he is a soldier means that he will be freed, because only free men could be in the legions (Dreams 1.5). But the number of necessary recruits is not large assuming a citizen general population of around 9 million. Legions were not kept at their full ‘paper’ strength of 6000 men, but this was for financial reasons, not because there is any evidence that it was difficult finding the necessary number of recruits. The evidence for forcible recruitment, conscription, during the empire is scattered and slight. As the Digest 16.4.10 notes, ‘Mostly the number of soldiers is supplied by volunteers.’

Almost all were between seventeen and twenty-four years of age; twenty was probably the usual age at enlistment. Elite sources liked to imagine that they all were down-and-outers. As Queen Elizabeth referred to her impressed soldiers as ‘thieves who ought to hang,’ so Tacitus talks about the needy and homeless that represent the dregs of society entering the army (Annals 4.4). To the elite, the rough world of the ordinary and the poor could only be painted in disdainful strokes. In fact, most if not all these were young men who had grown up with their families, had learned a trade, even if this was only farming, and had now determined to set out on a new life. As the normal cultural habit was for women to marry young, in their teens, and men to marry old, in their late twenties, few recruits had started a family of their own. Simplicitas (simple-mindedness) and imperitia (ignorance) were desired qualities. Clearly, idiots were not sought out – but a person with few ideas of his own could better be molded in the appropriate ways. There were exceptions, of course. Even at the level of the common soldier, some literacy might be desired in a subgroup of recruits since these men would more easily rise to the positions of clerks in the legion (Vegetius 2.19).

Both ancients and moderns have chosen to emphasize the arduous-ness of service. But a picture of hard life is misleading if taken at face value by moderns. Once any thought of comparison between the living conditions of the Romano-Grecian world and the Western world since 1800 is put out of mind, it is clear that a soldier had a good life by ancient standards. Even if the peasant recruit went from his hard farm life to a hard soldier’s life, he labored in much better, more promising conditions than he ever could have experienced had he stayed on the farm, because in major ways the soldier’s life ameliorated the harshest aspects of that life.

In light of this, it is not surprising that recruits were not wanting. As one document from Egypt puts it, ‘If Aion wants to be a soldier, he only need come, since everyone is becoming a soldier’ (BGU 7.1680). Although some parents might object, most would agree with these Jewish parents who in a Talmudic story seem eager to have their son enlist:

A man came to conscript someone’s son. His father said: look at my son, what a fellow, what a hero, how tall he is. His mother too said: look at our son, how tall he is. The other answered: in your eyes he is a hero and he is tall. I do not know. Let us see whether he is tall. They measured and he proved to be small and was rejected. (Aggadat Genesis40.4/Isaac)

The general assumption is that parents wanting a son in the army were unusual. But there is no reason to suppose that these parents’ attitude is weird or rare – indeed, the source misses the opportunity to inform us of this, if true. On the contrary. This random mention clearly shows that service was something that could be and was sought after by parents for their children. Both parent and child realized that prospects in civilian life were overall extremely bleak, and that the army was a bright possibility in the midst of that bleakness.

So many a young man was easily attracted by the possibility of military service. Of course, such a choice would not be for everyone. Leaving the family farm or business could have its disadvantages as the known was traded for the unknown, the stability and support of a family for a new life in a different environment. The family might object. In a letter from Egypt a wife scolds her husband for encouraging a son to become a soldier:

Concerning Sarapas my son, he has not stayed with me at all, but went off to the camp to join the army. You did not do well counseling him to join the army. For when I said to him not to join, he said to me, ‘My father said to me to join the army.’ (BGU 4.1097/Bagnall & Cribiore)

Not only was there the factor of emotional loss of a son; there was also the practical difficulty of the loss of manpower in the home in the short term, and the loss in the long term of support in old age by a grown son. There could be (although not necessarily would be, especially later in the empire) travel distant from home. There certainly would be separation from the physical support of family, and even from news of any immediacy, given the slowness of correspondence. Letters from Egypt show that soldiers posted to distant locales continued to maintain those family ties. Presumably separation from home and kin was often not easy at the beginning, or even throughout the years of service. Apion, an Egyptian enlisting and posted to the fleet at Misenum, in Italy, although not a legionary, expressed this situation well:

Apion to Epimachus his father and lord, very many greetings. First of all I pray for your good health and that you may always be strong and fortunate, along with my sister, her daughter, and my brother … Everything is going well for me. So, I ask you, my lord and father, to write me a letter, first about your welfare, secondly about that of my brother and sister, and thirdly so that I can do reverence to your handwriting, since you educated me well … Give all my best wishes to Capiton and my brother and sister and Serenilla and my friends. I have sent you through Euctemon a portrait of myself … (BGU 2.423 = Campbell, no. 10)

The psychological links of family probably kept many a young man from enlisting. But the rewards awaiting were potentially great, and many others left family for a new life. In a world of chronic underemployment, a dearth of food during late winter months, and the hazards of physical disaster which could seriously disrupt the rhythm of life, the army offered the only full-time, fully employed, regularly salaried opportunity. Artemidorus took this reality and used it in his dream interpretation:

Taking up a career as a soldier portends business and employment for the unemployed and needy, for a soldier is neither unemployed, nor in want (Dreams 2.31)

This sailor’s implicit experience that service raised him from poverty was certainly shared by soldiers:

Lucius Trebius, son of Titus, father [dedicated this monument]. I, Lucius Trebius Ruso, son of Lucius, was born into abject poverty. I then served as a marine at the side of the emperor for seventeen years. I was discharged honorably. (CIL 5.938 = ILS 2905, Augusta Bagiennorum, Italy)

Being a soldier was considered a profession both by the soldier himself and by the civilian world. When Paul wishes to give examples of people who work at a job and deserve to be paid for it, he includes soldiers.

Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat of its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink of the milk? (1 Corinthians 9:7)

A soldier appears in Horace, Satires 2.23–40, alongside a farmer, innkeeper, and sailor as an example of someone who works hard, looking forward to a retirement. And the possibilities for material gain were manifold. First of all there was the paid salary. A soldier made about a good daily wage for a laborer in the civilian world – but he made this every day of the year whereas the civilian laborer was often unemployed, underemployment being the norm for the ancient world as a whole at all times. Despite stoppages of various sorts and spending by soldiers, documents from Egypt indicate that as much as 25 percent of annual pay was saved. As a soldier continued in service he might well advance in grade, and with such advancement came higher salary – usually 1.5 times and sometimes twice the common soldier’s pay; if one was promoted to be a centurion – admittedly a rare event – pay was perhaps fifteen times the raw recruit’s. In addition, under the emperor Septimius Severus, all soldiers’ pay doubled. If soldiers were transferred, they received a travel allowance (viaticum); if they were led on a long march, they got ‘boot nail money’ (clavarium), the residue of which would also be put into the savings bank. Then there were the periodic liberalities from the reigning emperor. These donatives were paid directly to the soldiers on a pro rata basis determined by the grade in the army. In addition, upon the death of an emperor, soldiers could expect a bequest to reach them. Finally, at discharge the soldier was paid a bonus. At first this bonus was paid in land, but the combination of a lack of suitable land and complaints from soldiers about being, in essence, cheated through distribution of poor and distant land led to the substitution of a monetary bonus. This deposited money and bonus were not under the control of the soldier’s father according to a rule going all the way back to Augustus. In fact, the jurists were very clear that being a soldier meant that the most important aspect of a father’s power over his son was severely attenuated: whatever money a soldier acquired through being a soldier was not subject to control by his father. Not only could a father not have access to it, it could also be bequeathed independently of a father’s wishes. This provided a soldier with an economic freedom unheard of in the civilian population.

Besides monetary gain, the soldier looked forward to special privileges at law. In his private life, the soldier could, as I noted, make a will independent of his father’s wishes. In interpersonal relations, the essence of those privileges was that the soldier was always favored both by the circumstances of trial and legal procedures. Military courts had sole jurisdiction over soldiers; this included soldier-on-soldier crime and any acts a soldier might commit as a soldier. If a civilian made an accusation against a soldier, it was tried in the camp by a military tribunal made up of centurions. In addition, any civilian wishing to charge a soldier had to follow him; a soldier could not be charged in absentia. Neither could he be called to a distant venue to act as a witness. And if a soldier were away on army business, he could not be sued. If a soldier made an accusation against a civilian, it was tried in a civil court. But a soldier’s suit had precedence and had to be heard on a date set by the soldier. If a soldier were unfortunate enough to be convicted of a serious crime, he was exempt from torture, or condemnation to the mines, or hard labor; if of a capital crime, he could not be executed as a common criminal – no hanging, crucifixion, or being thrown to the wild beasts.

Considering all of this, it is not surprising that some thought of the army as a way to evade legal problems in their civilian life; after all, it would be easier to pursue a suit or fight one if enjoying military privileges. A third-century jurist addresses this sort of scam:

Not everyone who joins the army because he has a lawsuit pending should then be cashiered, but rather only those who join up having the court case specifically in mind, doing so to make himself more formidable to his adversary through military privileges. A person who enlists while engaged in litigation should be carefully scrutinized: If he gives up the litigation, leniency is in order, however. (Arrius Menander, On Military Matters 1 = Digest

Such shenanigans were only to be expected; faking the privileged position of soldiers was a tempting route to success at law.

There were also disabilities at law that a soldier suffered, for example he could not accept gifts of items that were in litigation; he could not act as an agent for third parties; and he could not purchase land in the province where he was serving (a prohibition evidently evaded with regularity). But these were minor indeed compared to the advantages. It is easy to see why recruits were not hard to find.

Enrollment and training

Upon presentation to the recruitment officers, a recruit’s vital record was taken. This was simply his first name, family name, father’s first name, surname (cognomen) if he had one, voting district, place of birth or origin, and the date of enlistment. It is notable that age was not taken down. The date of enlistment was crucial, however, for from that date was figured the years of service required before discharge. That date must have been a part of the permanent record that followed the soldier, for dead servicemen much more regularly give the number of their stipendia – years of service – on their tombstones than they do their age.

Finding a mind uncontaminated by fancy ideas (simplicitas) as well as steeped in ignorance (imperitia) was relatively easy. Finding recruits with a useful skill was another matter. Smiths, carpenters, butchers, and huntsmen were, according to Vegetius 1.7, examples of the sort of expertise the army could use; men coming into service already trained were highly valued.

After a trial period during which the recruitment officers determined if the recruit had the proper physical and mental attitude to become a good soldier, the man was officially inducted. He was given the ‘military mark’ – an indelible brand or tattoo on the hand – and then posted to a legion, where basic training took place for the first four or five months. Initiated into the legion, the soldier began a new way of life.

If he came illiterate, and most would, he found that the life of the army was to an astonishing degree paper driven. All sorts of records were kept on a daily and annual basis and required literacy of a number of soldiers. Especially if one wanted to advance, the ability to read, write, and do sums was essential. Vegetius 2.19 notes that literate recruits were sought:

The army seeks in all its recruits tall, robust, quick-spirited men. But since there are many administrative units in the legions that need literate soldiers, those who can write, count, and calculate are preferred. For the entire record-keeping of the legion, whether of obligations or military fatigues or finances, is noted down in the daily records with even greater care than the taxes-in-kind accounts or the records of various sorts kept in the civilian world.

In Vindolanda, near Hadrian’s Wall, writing tablets were found that because of their unusual preservation environment could still be read. These tablets showed literacy among not only unit leaders such as centurions and decurions, but also rankers. One scholar even claims these show greater general literacy than in the civilian population. Even if a soldier came illiterate, he might learn on the job. For those, a rough ‘military’ literacy was probably all they ever possessed; the literate, literary, cultured world of the officer class remained inaccessible to them.

On a daily basis there was enough food to eat. There were no nonmilitary persons except, perhaps, for families of officers and of a few soldiers (see below). The prevalence of small-time thieves and hooligans that cursed civilian towns was totally absent; what little crime there was would be soldier-on-soldier. But it is perhaps in sanitary conditions, medical care, exercise, and general concern for good health that the soldier’s life benefited the most. In the army, every large encampment had a bath complex that provided a place for less-structured exercise as well as some cleanliness. Engineered latrines with flushing water flowing through got rid of the human waste, care being taken to discharge this into a river or lake away from where water was taken for the legion. Vegetius writes:

Now I will give advice about something which must at all cost be looked to: how the health of the army can be protected … The army should not use bad or swampy water, for drinking bad water is like taking poison and makes those drinking it ill. And indeed when a common soldier falls ill, all officers, from the lowest to the commander of the legion, should do his utmost to see that he is made well with proper diet and medical attention. For it will go badly for soldiers who must deal with both the demands of war and of disease. But it should be noted that military experts agree: daily exercise at arms leads more to the health of the soldiers than anything the doctors can do. (On Military Affairs 3.2)

While the goals of Vegetius might not always have been met, the soldier was better fed, and lived in a decidedly cleaner, better-aired environment that was better equipped with sanitary facilities, than the population at large.

Life in the camp

Most of army life is a routine of sleeping, eating, fatigues (i.e. daily, menial chores around the camp), and drilling. It was crucial that the legion operate efficiently as a unit and obey commands unquestioningly. This was achieved by constant exercises. For recruits, twice-daily drills were the order; for experienced soldiers, once daily. Here the soldiers learned to move as a body through practicing marching and maneuvers; they learned how to use their weapons, the shield, the sword, and the spear; they built up endurance so they could march long distances daily with heavy packs. They also apparently took care of their own sanitation and other needs, having latrine details and such like.

Barracks provided living space for each soldier. Soldiers lived together in their units: each barrack had a larger room with its own antechamber for the centurion, and eight to ten rooms for a contubernium of eight men. Each contubernium room was divided into an anteroom and sleeping chamber. It is certain that a centurion could have his mate (and, presumably, children) living in the camp with him; although there is evidence that some soldiers did as well in a few camps, the norm was to have only the men in the camp itself; ‘wives’ lived outside with the family, visited regularly by the soldier who had to live in the camp itself. This living situation might seem cramped, but it was probably no less private that most civilian living conditions for ordinary folk. The sense of comradeship inherent in this dormitory life was enhanced by the fact that the unit prepared its own food and ate together – there was no mess hall and central kitchen, except, perhaps, for the ovens to bake bread.


17. A Roman fort. This plan of the Housesteads fort on Hadrian’s Wall in northern England is arranged in a typical fashion. The soldiers’ barracks are on the left and right sides, the commander’s place in the lower center.

Medical treatment for the Roman population as a whole was a rather hit-and-miss affair. The first recourse for any ailment was home cures, whether at the hands of family members or local ‘experts’ in the community. Doctors were professionals who had to be paid; although the elite used them extensively, access to them was limited for large portions of the population. In the army, though, loss of manpower through disease or injury was taken very seriously. As in armies down to modern times, more losses were incurred through physical disabilities than through warfare itself. Doctors needed to be at hand to treat wounds but also, more regularly, diseases and injuries incurred in the line of duty outside of warfare itself. Although medical practice was a curious mixture of invasive actions (surgery, etc.), harmful procedures, home cures (diet, exercise, adequate sleep, etc.), drugs, and prayers, it constituted the best the Roman world had to offer. A well-trained doctor had at least a better chance of diagnosing properly an affliction and so increasing the chances of offering effective cure. I would suppose, although no proof is possible, that more men survived through being treated by doctors than would have if left to their own devices.


18. Life in a fort. This is what a common soldier’s barracks looked like.

As the passage from Vegetius above shows, the first defense against disease was good diet, exercise, hygiene and sanitation. Army fare was simple, but as healthy as was available. The diet of soldiers was more varied and nutritious than the usual: there were plenty of calories from the 880 grams a day of unground wheat; 620 grams of vegetables and pulses, fruits, cheese, and fish supplemented this. Cereals were healthy and could be stored easily for long periods of time. The favored cereal was wheat, although barley could be used in a pinch – and as a punishment. It was ground and cooked in gruel or baked into loaves in camp, or into small biscuits on campaign. Although meat was never a central part of the Roman diet, the archaeology of camps shows that there was also quite a bit of it, probably above the average fare; especially at times when there were sacrifices made during festivals and feast days, meat was part of the diet. There is also evidence that domestic animals were killed and eaten, fish and seafood caught, and hunted meat eaten. Vegetables and legumes were also added as available. Of course, wine was a staple and salt was added to food.


19. Hospital at the Housesteads fort. Good medical treatment for soldiers was an important part of their care, as disease and accident were much more deadly than the occasional skirmish or battle.

Like other ordinary Romans, legionary soldiers enjoyed getting together to socialize. The basic organizational unit, the century, formed a natural, cohesive group both at the most basic level, the eight-man barracks unit, and in the larger group represented by the century itself. In armies that moved about with some regularity, or lived in temporary quarters, the fluidity of the situation itself meant that larger social networks were slower to form. But the army became more and more sedentary from the later first century AD, the time of the Flavian emperors. The legions were increasingly posted to permanent camps. In this setting, associations of various sorts among the soldiers and officers sprang up. This is unsurprising since, as I have noted in describing the life of ordinary civilian Romans, people enjoyed joining together in associations with others who shared some common focus, whether that was religious, geographical, or business. The military authorities were ambivalent about these associations, just as civilian authorities were about organized groups in their towns. There was always the suspicion that antisocial, if not downright nefarious things, were going on in and through the meetings. Marcian, a legal expert of the early third century AD, noted that the common soldiers could not join in associations:

At the order of the emperor it is decreed that the governors of the provinces not permit fraternal associations in general and, specifically, not permit common soldiers to form associations in the camp. (Digest 47.22.1 pr.)

Based on the authorities’ customary suspicion of organized groups, I judge that this notice reflects a long-standing prohibition, not something recently initiated. Presumably this reiteration of the prohibition indicates that they were already widespread among common soldiers, despite the fact that this was formally banned. The easiest conclusion is that soldier associations gradually developed in the army as the army became more and more sedentary after the Flavians, that the commanding officers did not like this, but that they continued anyway, in spite of repeated attempts to curb them, as reflected in the notice found here in the Digest.

In a sense the army itself was the common soldier’s ‘association.’ For these soldiers, the baths were their place of leisure and relaxation beyond the barracks. Every camp had baths, sometimes in the camp itself, more commonly just outside. Besides the hygienic benefits of bathing (probably compromised by unhealthy water), the social atmosphere replicated the importance of baths in the social life of the civilian world. Common soldiers could go here, chat with friends, and generally goof off; it was an important venue for relaxation and relief from the routine of the camp, and soldiers relished their time there.

The soldier had social insurance of two sorts. First of all, forced savings in cash were collected from their pay and from special donatives; this was then made available to them upon discharge or, in the case of death on duty, to a father or heir. In addition, soldiers were compelled to contribute an unknown amount to a personal burial fund administered by the legion (Vegetius 2.20).

Beyond the resources of the camp and the associations, soldiers also had access to the settlements that grew up near every legionary fortress and camp. These canabae served many important functions, but in a soldier’s somewhat routine life one of the primary attractions was the watering holes and whorehouses (often conjoined). Here, too, a soldier technically prohibited from marriage would keep a woman as a ‘wife’ or just as a ‘live-in’ (focaria), as well as a family and perhaps even a slave or two, a topic treated in detail below. It is not clear how regular contact might have been maintained. Presumably at the fairly frequent festivals soldiers could leave the camp; but there was no day off on a regular basis and certainly no regular permission to live off base. However it was managed, it is clear from the extent of these canabae that frequented they were. They allowed an important dimension of the soldier’s life, whether or not he had a ‘family,’ which mitigated what on paper looks like a very isolated life in a camp.

The routine could also be broken by being sent off with a detachment to do police duty in a town or rural area, or to purchase or otherwise acquire supplies for the camp, or for some special task such as escorting a dignitary through dangerous lands. Service on such duty would have been desirable as it provided variety and offered opportunities to interact with and exploit the civilian population.

Further aspects of a soldier’s life

Once in the army the soldier had an opportunity to learn a skill, for the bane of all armies is leisure time and the Roman army was no different in trying to keep soldiers busy. Lucius Marius Vitalis joined the praetorians at age seventeen and although already literate, his intent was to learn a skill:

I, Lucius Marius Vitalis, son of Lucius, lived seventeen years, fifty-five days. I did well in my studies and persuaded my parents that I should learn a profession. I had left Rome in the praetorian guard of Emperor Hadrian when, while I was working hard, the fates envied me, seized me, and removed me from my new calling to this place. Maria Marchis, my mother, set up this monument to her wonderful, luckless son. (CIL 6.8991 = ILS 7741, Rome)

Part of the appeal of the army was that by learning new skills the young soldier could hope for advancement to higher rank, responsibility, pay, and exemption from daily fatigues. There are many inscriptions that record careers, sometimes simple, sometimes extensive with many promotions and transfers from place to place around the empire. Some men were recruited who could step directly into higher grades and the centuriate; in other cases common soldiers advanced to these posts in the course of their careers. Sometimes, though, death forestalled that coveted promotion:

… an adjutant of the century of Lucilius Ingenuus, expecting promotion to centurion, who died by shipwreck lies buried here. (ILS 2441, Chester, England)

Advancement was not on merit alone. The soldier had to arrange for two things: letters of recommendation and bribes. In fact, bribes were the order of the day, as a letter of Claudius Terentianus shows:

I beg you, father, to write to me at once about your health, that you are well. I am anxious about things at home unless you write to me. God willing, I hope that I shall live frugally and be transferred to a cohort. However, nothing gets done here without money, and letters of recommendation are no use unless a man helps himself. (P. Mich. 8.468 = Campbell, no. 43)

Despite the hazards of life, bribes, and influence, promotions were an exceptionally important part of the appeal of the military life.

A soldier also advanced in status in the eyes of the civilian world in a way impossible for men who did not enlist. Artemidorus is witness for this, as he says a dream of being a soldier portends for the dreamer ‘being thought well of’ (Dreams 2.31). This was recognized in law as soldiers were freed from the increasingly onerous local duties loaded on civilians as the years of the empire progressed. But even more, the soldier gained great standing because he was the local representative of imperial power, and because he alone was professionally equipped with quality weapons and skilled in their use. The mark of his position was the soldier’s sword belt; his uniform and equipment advertised his special status and function.


20–23. Common soldiers. These men who served along the northern frontier of the empire adorn themselves on their gravestones with typical weaponry (the pilum, or thrusting spear, the gladius, or short sword, the scutum, or shield, and sagum, or cloak. The sword and its belt were the most powerful symbol of his status and authority.

The same privileged and powerful position that brought esteem or even envy could also bring hostility. Civilians might loathe him, so long as they feared him; the end result was the same. The literature of the elite and of ordinary folk repeatedly notes the overbearing attitude of soldiers and the resentment-cum-fear this inspired in the civilian population; many soldiers in all likelihood relished this power to intimidate, extort, and generally terrorize at will. The sentiment of the Historia Augusta was perhaps overly optimistic:

A soldier is not to be feared as long as he is properly clothed, well armed, has stout boots, and there is something in his purse. (Life of Severus Alexander, 52)

The jurist Ulpian, for example, assumes that soldiers will try to steal from the civilian population. Inappropriate requisitions were rampant. The pathetic attempts to stop it were ineffectual, if well intended. Here is an example from Egypt:

Marcus Petronius Mamertinus, prefect of Egypt, declares: I have been informed that many of the soldiers, while traveling through the country, without a certificate requisition boats, animals, and persons beyond what is proper, on some occasions appropriating them by force, on others getting them from the commander by exercise of favor or deference. Because of this private persons are subjected to arrogance and abuse and the army has come to be censored for greed and injustice. I therefore order the commander and royal secretaries to furnish to absolutely no one any travel facilities at all without a certificate, whether he is traveling by river or by land, on the understanding that I shall punish severely anyone who, after this edict, is caught giving or taking any of the things mentioned above … (PSI 446 = Campbell, no. 293)

Forced billeting (as noted, for example, in Pliny’s letter to Trajan, Letters 10.77–8) was a common abuse, as were blackmail, extortion, and other methods to extract money from the civilian population for personal use. When soldiers ask John the Baptizer what they should do to be good, he tells them, ‘Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely – be content with your pay’ (Luke 3:14). In Egypt a man entered significant bribes in his account books as a ‘business expense’!

A most graphic and extensive example of a soldier abusing his authority comes from the novel of Apuleius, The Golden Ass (9.39–42). Here a gardener is riding along a road in Thessaly on Lucius, the man-turned-into-an-ass protagonist of the novel. A centurion traveling alone meets them coming from the other direction. In the initial encounter, the legionary soldier is recognized both by his uniform (habitus) and by his demeanor (habitudo). He behaves haughtily and arrogantly (superbo atque adrogant sermone),addressing the gardener in the army’s official language, Latin, although they are in a Greek-speaking area, and blocking his path. He invokes his right to requisition transport and commandeers the ass to carry his unit’s baggage and equipment. The centurion takes umbrage both at the gardener trying to force his way past him, and at the failure to respond to his Latin query; he displays his inbred arrogance (familiarem insolentiam), and resorts immediately to violence, striking the gardener with his centurion’s staff, knocking him to the ground. The gardener clearly recognizes the unequal power relationship and tries to placate the soldier by being obeisant (subplicue) and offering the excuse that he didn’t understand the Latin. The soldier repeats that he is commandeering the ass for state use and begins to lead him off to his fortlet. The gardener again tries begging – he addresses the soldier in an obsequious tone and beseeches him to be more kindly. All to no avail. In fact, the gardener’s pleas only increase the violence of the soldier, who prepares to kill him with further blows from his staff. But the gardener tackles the soldier and beats him to near death, then heads for the nearest town. The soldier recovers and enlists the help of fellow soldiers who in turn summon the civil magistrates of the town to find and execute the gardener for attacking the soldier; these officials are motivated by fear of the soldier’s commander if they don’t act. The gardener is arrested by the magistrates and held in jail pending, presumably, execution without trial, at the behest of the soldier. The soldier gets away scot-free, despite his excessive violence against the gardener. He loads up Lucius with his military gear prominently displayed to terrorize anyone he might meet on the road (propter terrendos miseros viatores), and progresses to the next town, where he thrusts himself on a local magistrate for billeting, rather than staying at an inn. So in this encounter are seen the negatives civilians experienced from the soldiery: arrogance from which there was no recourse, unauthorized requisitioning, billeting on the civilian population, violence from which there was no effective protection, and manipulation of the civil judicial system in favor of the soldiers.

An episode in Petronius illustrates similar haughty behavior. Encolpius, deserted by his lover Giton, buckles on his sword and goes looking for revenge.

As I rushed about, a soldier noticed me, some sort of con man or thug, and he said to me, ‘Hey, fellow soldier, what’s your legion? Who’s your centurion?’ When I bravely lied about my century and legion, that fellow said, ‘Come on now, do soldiers in your army go around in fancy footwear?’ My lie betrayed me at that point by the look on my face and my trembling. ‘Hand over your sword, or it’ll be the worse for you!’ Despoiled, I had neither sword nor revenge. (Satyricon 82)

From the soldier’s perspective, therefore, being in the army encouraged a sense of superiority over the civilian population, an experience of power that could at once allow and exculpate almost any excess. There was no check on this other than self-policing (surely extremely ineffective) and the fruitless bleatings of Roman officials, for example:

The Governor of a province must see that persons of limited resources are not treated unjustly by having their only lamp or small supply of furniture taken from them for the use of others, under the pretext of the arrival of officers or soldiers.

The governor of a province shall see to it that no action be authorized favoring persons claiming unfair advantage for themselves by the assertion of their military status. (Digest–6)

The arrogance that Apuleius describes was a normal part of being a soldier. A member of a group set apart, answerable only to its superior officers, who were likely to be complicit, the soldier relished his position of power in a world where relative power was the only way to get things done – or to prevent them from being done to you. For the soldier, this was definitely a positive aspect of the job.

The one major soldierly act not mentioned in the tales of Apuleius and Petronius is bribery. Presumably the poor gardener was in no position to offer a bribe to the soldier; many others in civil society were in such a position, however. In the Easter story, soldiers are bribed:

While the women were on their way [from the empty tomb], some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, ‘You are to say, “His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.” If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.’ So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day. (Matthew 28:11–17)

A soldier assumed that bribe-taking was part of his privileges and supplemented his pay accordingly, generally ignoring advice such as that quoted above from John the Baptizer to not take any more than his due, and be satisfied with his pay.

Soldiers, women, and marriage

The most controversial aspect of military life both for common soldiers in antiquity and for scholars in modern discussions was the so-called ‘marriage ban.’ Augustus had passed two laws of seemingly conflicting content. On the one hand, the Lex Papia Poppeaencouraged the formation of families and the bearing of children. On the other, a law or decree of unknown name prohibited soldiers from marrying, thus preventing them from forming a legitimate family. This juxtaposition of measures reveals two conflicting goals of the Augustan arrangements for the Roman community.

During the early and middle republic, the army was recruited from families and only for temporary service. The ideal of the peasant-soldier was ingrained in practice and in myth: the farmer who leaves his home, family, and fields to serve his community, sometimes in far-flung places for extended periods of time, and then returns to take up the plow again. As this became more myth than practice during the second century BC, soldiers became less and less peasant recruits serving and returning home, and more and more tied to their generals as the source of rewards both in battle and after extensive campaigns. Culminating in the civil wars of Pompey, Caesar, Octavian, and Antonius, soldiers came to represent the rending of the community rather than its bedrock foundation.


24. A soldier and his wife adorn their gravestone; their son is before them. As he grasps a sword in his left hand just as his father does, he was probably a soldier, too.


25. A soldier’s extended family. This gravestone was set up after the ban on marriage was lifted in the early third century AD. It reads: To the Underworld Powers. Aurelia Ingenua, the daughter, set this up at her own expense to most dear parents, Aurelius Maximus, veteran of the Second Auxiliary Legion, her father and to Aelia Prima, her mother; as well as to Aelia Resilla, her grandmother. Aurelius Valens, a soldier of the Second Legion, also dedicated this to the kindliest of in-laws.

In this situation, Octavian-become-Augustus saw that he needed to control the army in every way possible to keep it from continuing to be the juggernaut for disruption that had, indeed, brought him to power. He managed this at the managerial level by controlling personally or through trusted lieutenants the recruitment, deployment, and command of virtually all the legions in the provinces; this essentially eliminated the ability of others to raise and lead an army against him.

Besides cutting off the possibility of new military warlords rising against him through military commands, Augustus also had to deal with the soldiers’ expectations of rewards from their generals, which had risen hugely following the promises of bonuses as an enticement to service during the civil wars of the first fifteen years of his ascendancy. After deactivating large numbers of those soldiers and paying them off with cash and land, he realized that his newly envisioned community could not afford politically or financially to continue with the soldiery essentially blackmailing him with expectations of extensive, expensive, and unpredictable rewards for service. His solution was to break cleanly with the myth of the peasant-soldier family and to establish the military family separate from the civic family as the basis for the future army’s recruitment, organization, and loyalty. Artemidorus catches exactly what was happening in his interpretation of the dream ‘Taking up a career as a soldier’:

To be enrolled as a soldier or to serve in the army indicates death for those suffering from any sort of illness. For an enlisted man changes his very life. He ceases to be an individual making his own decisions and takes up another way of life, leaving behind the other. (Dreams 2.31)

In a real sense, the solution of the Lex Papia Poppea and of Augustus’ military reform was the same: recreate or create a basic unit of life and responsibility in both the civilian and military spheres.

This new army (never openly conceived as such, of course) had everything Augustus saw was lacking in the army of his youth. Creating the units ceased to be a process of disrupting the civic family with large conscriptions carried on with regularity; the twenty to twenty-five years of service for a soldier meant that only around 7500 new soldiers had to be recruited from all Roman citizens each year. Loyalty of the recruited soldiers was to him, or to him through his lieutenants, alone. An explicit reward system of expectable lines of advancement, regular pay, and discharge bonus was in place, eliminating the propensity for and expectation of ad hoc rewards. Overall commitment to military duty was assured by walling off the soldiers from civilian expectations and focusing on fellow soldiers, not on civil families, for social support and interactions. They were often removed far from their natal homes and families, and remained away for many years – not infrequently for the rest of their lives. The clearest evidence for the success of this process is the large number of funerary dedications by soldiers to other soldiers. Here are two examples:

Gaius Julius Reburrus, soldier of the Seventh Legion, Twinned and Lucky, born in Segisama Brasaca, lies here having lived 52 years and served for 24 of those. Licinius Rufus, soldier of the same legion dedicated the gravestone. (CIL 2.4157, Tarragona, Spain)

This is a memorial to Aurelius Vitalis, a soldier of the Third Flavian Legion, who served 7 years of his 25-year life. Flavius Proculus, a participant in the German incursion, a soldier of the legion just noted, and Vitalis’ heir in the second degree, set this up to his fine fellow soldier. (CIL 13.6104 = ILS 2310, Speyer, Germany)

This is very different from the family dedications that dominate in the civilian world; the soldiers are family to the other soldiers, and this is exactly what the marriage ban was intended to produce.

Central to the creation of that military family was cutting off the basis of the civic family, the procreation of children – and thereby the projection of that civic family as a unit into the future. Just as children and the passing on of inheritances both real and social was the key raison d’etre for the civil family, procreational celibacy was the key to the continuance of the military family; only by eliminating the possibility of creating legitimate children could a soldier’s connection with the civic family’s civil orientation be broken, and a steadfast focus on the military family assured. Tertullian correctly saw that such celibacy sets a man apart from society and creates a society within a society, in his case Christian, in the Roman case, military.

It is clear that procreational celibacy along with its radical goal of the creation of a military society had nothing to do with sex, women, or children in the broader sense. Soldiers were always free to find sex where they could and to create liaisons with women; there were no prohibitions. The prohibition was against forming legitimate families; it was intended to and perhaps succeeded in keeping these relationships outside the core life of the soldier. An unforeseen consequence of the significant decrease in extensive wars of aggression after Augustus was that the legions became increasingly garrison forces; the boon of the absence of permanent women and children (wives and children) in a peripatetic soldier’s life became a curse once the legions became more and more sedentary. The progressive loosening of the rules regarding procreational celibacy – permission for soldiers to have the rights of married men (Claudius), testamentary and inheritance rules that increasingly allowed soldiers’ illegitimate children to inherit like legitimate children (Flavians, Trajan, Hadrian) – culminating in the removal of the marriage ban by Septimius Severus parallels the increasingly immobile posting of the legions and the rise of permanent, stone-built legionary camps and outposts. The system of a separate military society breaks down. By the third century AD all traces were gone of Augustus’ attempt to thwart would-be warlords through the creation of a military family loyal only to the pater familias militum – the ‘father of the soldiers’ family.’ It is perhaps not surprising that the acknowledgment of this through the elimination of the marriage ban by Septimius Severus took place at the beginning of a century of renewed discord, warlordism, and the dominance of soldiers’ demands in the political life of the Roman community. Augustus’ experiment broke up on the rocks of human nature.

Whatever the variety of relations with women was during service, it is clear that upon discharge the soldier’s woman could, if the soldier so wished, be accepted as uxor, a legal wife, with full privileges of a married woman, thus making any de facto situation during a soldier’s enlistment official upon discharge; no punitive action was taken for the soldier having ‘violated’ the anti-marriage rule. The legal disability was significant, however, for a liaison during active duty. Most particularly, without legal Roman marriage, passing on one’s name and possessions through family inheritance was impossible. The child could not be enrolled on the birth album (proving Roman citizenship). Regardless of the legal status of father and/or mother, any child was illegitimate and could not inherit as a legitimate son until the loosening of the inheritance rules. Of course, the child could be named an heir, but that did not have the same social force as a son inheriting as a son. If a soldier had a wife and child at the time of enlistment, the marriage was dissolved and the child (probably) declared illegitimate; certainly any subsequent children suffered this diminution in status. Another disability arising from lack of legitimate marriage was the elimination of a dowry from the wife. Also, there could be no prosecution for adultery, since there was no marriage at law.

Despite all this, marriage and family were clearly important in the personal lives of many soldiers. The percentage of men who established unions and, indeed, whom they chose as companions must remain unknowable. Perhaps if the names of wives given in inscriptions are good evidence, most soldiers preferred Romanized women. Here are two examples:

Lucius Plotidius Vitalis, the son of Lucius, of the Lemonia voting district, a soldier in the Fifteenth Legion Apollinaris, lies here. He lived 50 years and served 23. Annia Maxima set this monument up to a most dear husband. (AE 1954.119, Petronell, Austria)

To the Underworld Gods. Aurelius Victor, soldier of the First Italic Legion, lived 36 years and was a soldier for 18. Valeria Marcia his wife and Valeria Bessa his daughter, his heirs, set this up to one who was well-deserving. (CIL 3.13751a, Kherson, Ukraine)

Other evidence indicates that many of the wives were freedwomen, so a slave girl was the origin of the relationship.

Gaius Petronius, son of Gaius, from Mopsistum, lived 73 years and served 26 in the cavalry wing Gemelliana. He lies here. Urbana, his freedwoman and wife, set this up. (ILS 9138, Walbersdorf, Austria)

There are also numerous inscriptions noting a soldier on active duty with a wife and family. Here is one:

To the Nether Gods. This is dedicated to Marcus Aurelius Rufinianus, who lived 10 years, our son. Likewise to our daughter, Aurelia Rufina, still living. Marcus Aurelius Rufinus, a soldier in the First Legion Adiutrix, and Ulpia Firmina his wife, their parents, set this up for them and also for themselves. (Die römischen Inschriften Ungarns5.1200, Dunaújváros, Hungary)

What is clear from all this is that soldiers openly formed marriages and had offspring, whatever the official rules said about it. This openness would not have been possible if the anti-marriage regulations had been strictly enforced. So Augustus’ attempt to force an exchange of a civil family for a military one ran up against the deepest cultural drive in the civil population, the propagation of the family; not surprisingly, both flaunting of marriage ban and agitation for its amelioration began immediately and lasted until soldiers were at last officially allowed to marry in the early third century.

What did common soldiers do for heterosexual sex? Certainly, there was no attempt to enforce or encourage celibacy among the legionaries. Sex with women was part of being virile, and being virile was fundamental to being a soldier. Violent rape, a practice fully condoned by the officers when conducted under battle circumstances, was assault akin to slaying male enemies, not a ‘sexual’ act; it should not be confused with soldiers seeking sexual outlets. However, there were two easily accessible nonviolent outlets that had no long-term repercussions: prostitutes and slaves – who were often one and the same person. The canabae near the camps probably had prostitutes along with other merchandise. In addition, one’s own female slave was available willy-nilly at any time, and many soldiers had slave girls while on active duty.

A different kind of relationship could easily develop with local girls from near the military postings. A soldier might take up a liaison with a girl who would set up house for him and provide him with sexual gratification as well as other household duties; these were called focariae (‘hearth girls’). One even left a grave inscription documenting her relationship with a marine:

Marcus Aurelius Vitalis was a soldier from Pannonia who served 27 years in the praetorian fleet at Ravenna. Valeria Faustina, his focariae and heir, set this monument up to a fine person. (CIL 11.39 = ILS 2904, Ravenna, Italy)

As these inscriptions attest, women often had relationships that led to the informal marriage so many soldiers enjoyed, along with the resulting children. So one way or another, the common soldier did not need to lack for sexual gratification with women.

The first serious treatments of homosexuality in the imperial Roman army appeared only a few years ago. Other treatments belabor the apparently severe punishment of homosexual behavior in the republican army, using the examples that elite sources provide about officer culture, which are heavily colored by vanities of ‘honor’ and ‘virility.’ At the least, such violent punishments (even if probably seldom meted out) reveal that homosexual behavior existed in those early armies. However, for the army of the high empire there are not even elite sources for attitudes or action regarding homosexual behavior among common soldiers in the legions. A few bits and pieces of evidence can help to form at least a general picture, however.

Male relations with male slaves and with male prostitutes, while perhaps frowned upon by the elite in a hypocritical sort of way, were widely accepted as a fact of life. As common soldiers, and especially centurions along with other officers, held slaves, this sort of relationship existed in the army as well. In Plautus’ Pseudolus (1180–81) a soldier’s slave is accused of as much: ‘At night, when the Captain was going on guard, and when you were going with him, did the sword of the officer fit your scabbard?’ InEpigram1.31 and elsewhere, Martial speaks of the sexual relationship of a centurion, Aulus Pudens, with his boy slave Encolpus. Likewise relations with male prostitutes were presumably acceptable. It seems highly unlikely, then, that soldiers having become used to sexual satisfaction with male slaves and paid partners always drew the line if a fellow soldier might make an advance or indicate availability.

The one thing that might have inhibited homosexual behavior between social equals (i.e. both common soldiers) would be a cultural position that is well attested for both the elite and the nonelite: the passive or ‘receptive’ partner in a relationship was stigmatized as effeminate, and being effeminate was the opposite of what a male should be, masculine. It was part of soldierly culture to be manly, not effeminate. Therefore, a soldier might resist a sexual relationship because of its negative cultural overtones – in a word, guilt at transgressing an important cultural norm of manhood. It does seem that this taboo held for the citizen army of the middle republic and perhaps even for the late republic, which is the period from which all the elite testimony about the horrors of male homosexuality in the army appears. Then the anecdotes disappear. During the imperial period there is no tale of officers debauching subordinate soldiers; no indication of rules and regulations governing homosexual relations among the soldiers; nothing. Why this is the case has been variously explained. One historical incident provides a clue: When two soldiers were accused of being part of Saturninus’ plot to kill the emperor Domitian, they said they could not possibly have been because their known condition of being ‘penetrated ones,’ i.e. passive partners in homosexual activities, marginalized them so much that no one would have included them in a plot (Suetonius, Life of Domitian 10). This presents a picture of soldiers who know that some of their confrères engage in the passive role in male-to-male relationships, mark this down as a stigma, but do nothing further; there is no ‘outing,’ no punishment beyond a certain marginalization within the soldiers’ community. While such social pressure would have had some effect at the very least to make soldiers careful to hide their activities with each other from their fellow soldiers as much as possible, clearly these activities persisted. But for the most part, as long as a soldier maintained either the outward trappings of masculinity or, if for whatever reason he appeared ‘feminized’ to his fellows, he continually demonstrated his ability to act like a man in exercises, fatigues, and war, nothing would happen beyond a bit of sniping from those around him.

Religious life

One of the ways a soldier was acculturated into the military life was by shifting religious focus. Deities worshiped before becoming a soldier were, of course, not banned once military service began. But instead of a panoply of local/ethnic gods, the soldier was encouraged to focus on two overriding manifestations of the divine – the emperor; and the ‘official’ Roman divinity Jupiter Optimus Maximus along with the rest of the pantheon – as well as Eternal Rome and Augustan Victory as embodiments of the Roman State.

The emperor was warlord-identified-with-the-State. The official religion emphasized the unity of the armed forces as well as the centrality of the emperor in its life. This was the private army of the emperor as the embodiment of Rome. Augustus advanced from the status of his warring predecessors and contemporaries to claim not preeminence in the State, but quasi-divine leadership and, ultimately and increasingly in his successors, synonymy with it. So loyalty to Rome and loyalty to the personified Rome, the emperor, became conflated completely in the soldier’s mind. Loyalty to the emperor was central to the soldier’s life: ‘For the soldiers swear continually throughout their service that they will place the safety of the emperor above all else’ (Epictetus, Discourses1.14.15). From Vegetius 2.5 and other snippets a reasonable outline is possible: Soldiers swear by the majesty of the emperor to strenuously do all that the emperor might command, protect his and his family’s well-being (salus), never desert the service, nor refuse to die for Rome. Certainly the oath was repeated annually; probably it was repeated each day at reveille; at any rate, its creed was omnipresent. Soldiers took this oath seriously:

This dedication is for the safety of the emperor. As a new recruit I, Lucius Maximius, son of Lucius Gaetulicus, of the Voltinian voting district, from Vienne, made a vow in front of the Twentieth Legion Valeria Victrix in the name of Augustan Panthean Victories most holy. Now after 57 years of service and advancement to the rank of chief centurion in the First Italic Legion I have fulfilled my vow. Dated in the year of the consuls Marullus and Aelianus (AD 184). (AE 1985.735, Swischtow, Bulgaria)

The emperor was present in many quasi-religious elements of the soldier’s life. Imperial names were given to subunits of the army; the emperor’s image was in every camp on a standard, carried by a special ‘image bearer’ (imaginifer); his face graced armor and other equipment; all coins bore his visage; all rewards and medals came from him (via the local commanders). The emperor was the source of largess, not just the regular salary but occasional donatives and gifts at death. The emperor in turn played the dual role ofcommiles – fellow soldier – and divine leader, a sort of god-with-us.

In the ordered life of the camp, cultic ritual was ordered as well. This order was something foreign to civilian life, where cultic activity was available but entirely voluntary. From Dura-Europos there is a calendar of sacrifices – a trans-empire calendar meant to inculcate in the soldiers the old gods and the imperial house as fonts of being. Here are listed, day by day, religious actions to worship specific gods, to offer supplications to the emperor, to celebrate birthdays of the imperial family with sacrifice, to give thankful remembrance for past victories, and to celebrate the sacred standards of the legion. Besides the obvious use of such occasions to emphasize the focus of the army on the emperor and Rome, the ceremonies themselves regardless of their declared purpose provided occasions for unity, for example parades and festivals, and for diversion. Celebrations were also an opportunity to let go of the tight discipline of the camp. They were drunken, excessive affairs when rules were forgotten at least for a moment. So the ceremonies provided unit identity for the common soldier, and gave his life both relief from the normal routines, and meaning.

As with the marriage rules governing soldiers, the religious aspect of his life helped to create a new allegiance separate from those of civil life. His original enrollment has all the marks of an initiation into a new religious world – the declaration of personage, the tattoo with which he was marked, setting him apart from the unmarked, and the sacred oath to the emperor all refocused the recruit, while the regular religious events of the year reinforced both otherness vis-à-vis the civilian population and unity of the initiated.

All of this is not to say that soldiers did not have private religious lives as well. If it can be said that cultic activity as a group focused on the official religion of the legion and individual cultic activity indicated personal religious beliefs outside this official activity, then the evidence of individual dedications points to the lively existence of private religious life. But this should not be exaggerated. There were no ‘private’ soldierly cults; the two most often associated with soldiers, Mithra and Jupiter Dolichenus, in fact are attested to by far more nonsoldiers’ dedications than soldiers’; in the case of Mithra less than 20 percent of dedications are by soldiers; for Dolichenus it is less than 40 percent. But although not specifically ‘military,’ these and other cults were a complement to the religious focus of the legion itself.


26. Soldier religion. A soldier makes a small sacrifice at an altar.

Soldiers and social mobility

While it is certain that not all recruits were poor, a substantial portion must have been. The benefits of service detailed above, combined with the continuing status accrued as a veteran, meant that the army was the only institution in the Roman world that could more or less guarantee social as well as financial advancement if one worked hard and lived long enough. Not only did it provide the financial resources (whether well or ill gotten did not matter); much more importantly (for others could make money), it provided a mechanism to move between social classes, something that was virtually impossible in the civilian world. A common soldier could advance to high rank and then, as a veteran, become a town councilor.

This monument is for Gaius Julius Valerio, son of Gaius, of the Papirian district, a veteran of the Thirteenth Severan Twinned Legion, formerly a special assignment soldier, who became a town councilor and presiding magistrate of the colony of Sarmizegetusa. Gaius Julius Valerianus, also a special assignment officer, Carus, a military provisioner and councilor of aforesaid colony, Fronto, a soldier of the First Praetorian Cohort and secretary to the Prefect of the Guard, also a councilor of the same colony, Valeria, and Carissima, their children, set this up to the memorial of their father. The town council allotted the place for the monument. (AE 1933.248, Sarmizegetusa)

Such mobility among nonsoldiers was almost unheard of and was yet another reason why the army had a great appeal to ambitious, poor, or even not-so-poor, twenty-year-olds.

Negatives of service

Despite all the advantages a man would have seen in military service, there were negatives as well. Most profoundly, a soldier accepted willingly a serious diminution of his personal freedom and rights. His oath put him under the control of his masters, i.e. of his military officers, even to the point of being subject to summary capital punishment. As Artemidorus says, ‘Many freed slaves nonetheless continue to act as slaves and to be subject to another, just as a soldier is a “free man,” but nevertheless is under the command of his superiors’ (Dreams 2.31). Like others who voluntarily subverted their freedom to another’s will, people such as indentured servants and gladiators, soldiers made a calculation and decided loss of freedom was a price worth paying. But, still, they did give up something that civilian men valued highly.

Of course, the primary day-to-day dangers were from disease – always by far the most lethal element in premodern armies – and actual military action whether in war or in ‘peacekeeping’ operations. Artemidorus says that if an old man dreams of enlisting as a soldier, it often portends his death (Dreams 2.31). A soldier might live his entire life without fighting in a line battle, for example if he was posted to the III Augusta in North Africa or the VII Gemina in northern Spain. Legionaries along the Rhine and Danube and in the East might expect more action during a lifetime of service. And some died:

Marcus Domitius Super, soldier of the Second Legion Adiutrix, who lived 32 years and 6 months and died in the German War. Also Aurelius Julius who lived 26 years and 5 months and Revocata their mother who lived 50 years. Concordius their freedman set this up. (Die römischen Inschriften Ungarns 5.1228, Dunaújváros, Hungary)

Aurelius Victor, soldier of the Second Italic Legion, was lost in battle against the Gothic host. He lived 30 years. Aurelia Lupula made this for a most dear husband. (CIL 3.11700, Dobrna, Slovenia)

Canius Otiorix, soldier of the Second Legion Adiutrix, died in Parthia. Canius Speratus, his son, set this up also for himself while living and for his wife, also still alive. (CIL 3.3628, 3630, 10572, Szanto, Hungary)

Any units could be called upon to do bandit-duty at any time. A force list from a garrison at Stobi (Macedonia) names men who died accidentally by drowning and at the hands of bandits; the latter fate befell a soldier of the Twenty-Second Legion:

Januarius Vosenus, soldier of the Twenty-Second Legion … was killed by bandits … (CIL 13.2667, Lyon, France)

But for most soldiers, the hours of training and drudgery were not followed with any frequency by actual use of their weapons in dangerous situations.

Another disadvantage of being a soldier was the constant possibility of transfer. When men dream of being a soldier, it means that they will suffer ‘vexations, unpleasantnesses, instability, and being away from home,’ so Artemidorus tells his reader (Dreams2.31). But the biggest challenge and the most constant stress of life under the standard was to make the culture of the service work for the soldier. Although in theory duties were assigned and regulations enforced with an equal hand, the regular experience of the soldier was likely to be far different. Vegetius 2.19 alludes to the possibility of ‘unjust, excessively heavy assignments or exemption from duties.’ The centurion was the focus of authority for the common soldier; it was he who could make life good or a hell for the soldiers under him. Fear and instilling it in soldiers was a fundamental element of Roman discipline – one terrible centurion was nicknamed cedo alteram – ‘bring me another’ – referring to his staff, which he broke over the backs of his soldiers as he beat them for discipline (Tacitus, Annals 1.23). Besides flogging, the Digest lists other military punishments: reprimands, fines, fatigues, transfer to another branch of the army, reduction in rank, and dishonorable discharge. For lesser infractions a soldier might be fed on barley instead of wheat, or made to suffer some psychological punishment such as standing in front of the commander’s headquarters all day, in plain sight of his fellows, wearing only a tunic and without the signifying sword belt. For desertion of a post in battle, or betrayal or desertion from the army, the penalty was severe: execution. Bribery was rampant as a way to avoid excessively harsh treatment, or to gain some privilege. Tacitus notes the need to bribe centurions (Annals 1.17), and I have already noted the letter from Claudius Terentianus in which he claims that ‘nothing gets done without money.’ Bribery could secure a leave, or a longer one (Tacitus, Histories 1.46). It could also gain relief from daily fatigues, and increase chances for advancement. Clearly, a soldier had to be ready to bribe if he hoped to keep on the good side of his centurion.

Did harsh conditions of service lead soldiers to mutiny? The historian Tacitus (Annals 1.16–67) has a famous passage in which mutineers in Pannonia complain about the awfulness of their soldiering. Their issues include abusive centurions and officers, low pay (although Tacitus cites here a denarius a day, surely a good wage at the time), frequent and vicious corporal punishment, many and dangerous military expeditions, compulsory extension of their legal tours of duty, and officials reneging on promises of land as a reward after service was ended. Assuredly, the dangers of service are well taken: war, difficult conditions, and the harshness of discipline. Although in certain circumstances, and if the right leader appeared, mutinies occurred, these are reported only very rarely in the sources. And it is to the point to note that as soldiers became increasingly sedentary and nonwarring, the harshnesses were mitigated but the benefits were not decreased. Vegetius 3.4 notes the ‘idleness and luxury’ (surely a relative thing!) that soldiers at their home base experienced – as welcome for many soldiers as annoying to the commanding officers once they needed soldiers for a real campaign.

After service was over

A common soldier who joined the legions at age twenty could reasonably expect to complete his service and live on after discharge. Of course, he could extend his service, and inscriptions show that many did. But after the normal twenty years’ service, at about forty years of age, he could live at least a few years, given ancient life tables. In other words, one of the appeals of service would be the expectation of honorable discharge and continued life with the status of a veteran; about half of all recruits lived to be veterans, receiving special treatment from the imperial government.

Soldiers were discharged in three categories: honorable, medical (= honorable, with prorating for time served), and dishonorable. Only the first two gained the soldier the rewards, rights, and privileges of being a veteran. Perhaps 6000–7000 veterans were produced each year, with a total of perhaps 50,000–60,000 veterans alive at any given time. Exclusively veteran settlements existed, but were uncommon; there were about fifty founded in the first century of the empire and they become increasingly less common thereafter; fully 300 would have been needed to house all the available veterans during that time period.

Some veterans, especially in the eastern part of the empire, returned to their hometowns; some others settled near the place where they had last served – this is true especially in the western part of the empire. Still others ended up in widely disparate locations. There is an interesting set of inscriptions that illustrates this scattering. Diplomata, bronze discharge documents, have been found for five soldiers from a single unit that was to have been settled at Paestum in southern Italy. Although the soldiers involved were noncitizen troops of the fleet, not citizen legionaries, what happened to them is striking. The five documents were found widely dispersed in Kavala (Philippi, Macedonia), Daldodeltzi (Thrace), Pompeii (Italy, north of Paestum), Agaiola (Corsica), and Slamac Slavonski (Pannonia, modern Croatia), thus indicating how these veterans settled throughout the empire. On the other hand some veterans did settle in the canabae right next to the camps where they served. Valerius Pudens did this:

To Jupiter Optimus Maximus for the health and safety of Emperor Hadrian. The veterans and Roman citizens settled in the canabae of the Fifth Macedonian Legion dedicated this when Gaius Valerius Pudens, veteran of the Fifth Macedonian Legion, and Marcus Ulpius Leontius were chief magistrates of the inhabitants of the canabae, and Tuccius Aelianus was aedile. (CIL 3.6166 = ILS 2474, Iglita, Romania)

As a whole, veterans were well treated. At the point of discharge they collected not only their savings from years of service, but also the monetary bonus awarded to all veterans; more money came in if their petty officers’ association paid out. A high-ranking common soldier such as a centurion would walk away with enough capital to enter the elite of a town and qualify for membership in the local town council and for holding the highest local magistracies. Two examples suffice. A centurion returned to his hometown in Macedonia and held the highest office there:

In honor of Publius Mucius, son of Quintus, of the Voltinian voting unit. He was centurion of the Sixth Armored Legion, then a chief magistrate of Philippi. Gaius Mucius Scaeva, son of Gaius, set up this monument. He did this in accordance with the will of Gaius Mucius Saeva, son of Quintus, of the Fabian voting unit. (AE 2004.1335, Krenides, Greece)

Another returned to his hometown in Spain after service:

Laeta, his daughter, set this up to honor Gaius Julius Scaena, son of Lucius, of the Sergian voting district. He was a commander of cavalry and legionary head centurion in the Fourth Legion, then subsequently a chief magistrate [of Tucci]. (CIL 2.16815, Martos, Spain)

A ranker would have less money, of course, but still by the standards of the subelite culture, he would be well off. A veteran soldier (not, apparently, a centurion or petty officer) from Faventia in the Po Valley held a chief magistracy in the North African town where he settled:

Quintus Annaeus, son of Quintus, of the Pollian voting district, a native of Faventium [Italy], lies here, dead at age 53 having lived honorably. He was a soldier in the Fifth Legion, decorated twice, then a chief magistrate of Thuburnica [North Africa]. Quintus Annaeus Scapula supervised this. Hail to you, too [passerby]! (CIL 8.10605 = ILS 2249, Sidi Ali Ben Kassem, Algeria)

And just above I have given an example of a ranker who rose to be a magistrate of the canabae next to his former legionary camp.

Other veterans had enough money to set themselves up in business. Here, a man became a pottery merchant:

To the Underworld Spirits and Eternal Memory of Vitalinius Felix, veteran of the First Minervan Legion, a most wise and honest businessman from Lyon who dealt in ceramic goods. He lived 59 years, 5 months, and 10 days. He was born on a Tuesday, was sworn as a soldier a Tuesday, became a veteran on a Tuesday, and died a Tuesday too. Vitalinius Felicissimus, his son, and Iulia Nice, his wife, set this up and dedicated it. (CIL 13.1906 = ILS 7531, Lyon, France)

And Gentilius Victor dealt in swords, appropriately enough:

Dedicated to the Health and Safety of Emperor Commodus and the Successful Return of the Twenty-second Legion Primigenia Loyal and Faithful. Gaius Gentilius Victor, veteran discharged honorably from the Twenty-second Legion Primigenia Loyal and Faithful, sword dealer, ordered in his will that this monument be set up at a cost of 2000 denarii. (CIL 13.6677 = ILS 2472, Mainz)

Naturally some soldiers threw away their resources on bad investments or on wild women and drink. Perhaps Titus Cissonius was one:

I am Titus Cissonius, son of Quintus, of the Sergian voting district, a veteran of the Fifth Gallic Legion. While I lived I drank freely. You all drink who still live! Publius Cissonius, son of Quintus, Sergian district, his brother, set this up. (CIL 3.293/6825 = ILS 2238, Yalvaç)

But many others clearly prospered as veterans.

A variety of special privileges and exemptions was added to their financial advantage. A document from the time of Octavian (c. 32/31 BC) states that ‘… [veterans] are to be exempt [from taxation].’ Another from the emperor Domitian states that they are ‘… free and exempt from all public taxes and toll dues.’ They were also exempt from charges associated with shipbuilding and from being required to collect taxes due the government. They were not, however, exempt from all taxes. They had to pay the inheritance tax and the property tax, and special assessments, for example, for road repair.

Not only did veterans not pay important taxes, they were also exempt from various obligations to perform service. The same documents cited above affirm this: veterans are ‘… excused from the performance of compulsory public services’ and are ‘… not to be appointed against their will to other magistracies or as ambassador or superintendent or tax farmer’ (Octavian) and ‘. [veterans] should be free and immune with total exemptions’ (Domitian). Should a veteran become entangled with the law, his status also stood him in good stead. In the most extreme cases, he, like town magistrates and other important local persons, was exempt from the degrading forms of capital punishment, and from being condemned to the mines (a virtual death sentence).

As veterans have preferential treatment in other things, so too with regard to their crimes:

They should not suffer punishments as others do … Therefore they are not to be condemned to the mines nor other state labor camps, nor to be thrown to the beasts, nor to be beaten to death with clubs. (Arrius Menander, On Military Matters 3 = Digest 49.18.1)

When these immunities conflicted with obligations they might legally be bound to perform, or protections they might have in view of their position in a civil post, Ulpian says that the veteran’s immunities remain, even if he becomes a councilor:

Anyone given an honorable discharge is granted immunity from required duties and taxes even in a city in which he is resident, nor does he lose this immunity if he voluntarily takes on a duty or tax burden (Ulpian, Opinions 3 = Digest 49.18.2)

With all these privileges and exemptions, it is small wonder that the benefits of veteran status would have been before the eyes of the common soldier as he went through his years of service. Far from being unceremoniously discarded or fobbed off with a small bonus, the discharged Roman soldier could enter into a new phase with reasonable assurance that he would have a decent life in whatever town he wished to settle in.


There is no diary of a common soldier, nor even a fictionalized account of his mind world. But by piecing together material from a wide range of sources, and in particular by using the soldiers’ voices left in stone on grave markers and monuments, it is possible to catch a glimpse of their fears, hopes, and dreams. In a social world that was both quite inflexible and often economically insecure, being a soldier was a good option for a healthy young man, especially if the possibilities at home were not promising. He had to sign away some important elements of civilian freedom and serve his military superiors unquestioningly; there was the disruption of living far from where he had spent his youth; but the pay was regular and the basic needs of life – housing, decent food, comradeship – were all assured in a way very difficult to find in civilian life. A skill could be learned or honed; literacy was a possibility. Should he get into trouble outside the camp, he had an advantage in the civilian legal system, such a peril to ordinary civilians. He was treated sometimes with fear, sometimes with respect, but always he had the feeling he was a special person in society. The army had to become a soldier’s family, but even here there were leniencies that allowed a wife and children even if officially prohibited, and he was free of his father’s power, and free to write his own will. Service was long, and there was no assurance that war, disease, or accident would not end life before he could collect on the benefits of veteran status. But the bet was in general a good one, and many men took it.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!