Ancient History & Civilisation


The Roman Army

Total absentees
including 5 centurions


Remainder, present
including I centurion


From those:






Suffering from inflammation of the eyes


Total of these


Remainder, fit for active service
including I centurion.


Strength report of the First Cohort of Tungrians on 18 May (probably in the early 90s AD) at Vindolanda in north Britain (Tabulae Vindolandenses 1.154)

For nearly sixty years Augustus’ most important relationship was not with theatre crowds: it was with the army. The soldiers had lived through profound changes during the fall of the Republic which were crucial to the real ‘Roman revolution’. Since the days of Sulla, there were so many more of them under arms. After Julius Caesar’s murder there had been more than forty legions (each legion numbered about 5,000); the settlement of veterans remained a massive operation, inside and outside Italy. Under Augustus, the legions reduced at first to twenty-six, but in ad 23, when we are given clear figures, there were still reckoned to be 150,000 citizen-soldiers in the legions (now numbering twenty-five) and another 150,000 auxiliarysoldiers in the important supporting units, almost all of whom were non-Romans and would receive citizenship only on discharge. As the Empire’s frontiers moved forward, these troops were being stationed ever further afield, but the sum total was still enormous.

Service, also, had been greatly increased. The age of ‘triumvirs’ had been characterized by long periods under arms, but after Actium those periods became official. Legionaries now had to serve for sixteen years (increased in AD 5 to twenty years) and in 13 BCa further four years ‘under the standards’ were added for men who had served their span. During this extra time, they were supposed to be called on only for combat with an enemy. In fact, service could drag on for up to thirty years without full discharge; in the Republic, the maximum length had been six years. Under Augustus, therefore, there was a real standing army. It was quite different from the citizen-armies which had been briefly called up in the Greek city-states, and it was far bigger than the core armies of Hellenistic kings, which were enlarged in wartime by hiring mercenaries and calling up military colonists from land-settlements. There were even localized fleets in naval bases, forming a small standing navy.

Like every emperor, Hadrian recognized the importance of this army, especially as he had to preside over its withdrawal from his predecessor’s disastrous ventures in the East. Not a fighting emperor, he became a touring emperor. He gave off a militaryaura byaddressing the troops in each province, and even sharing their diet of bread and cheese. By then (c. 120) their numbers were still bigger, as the auxiliaries and fleets had increased: up to 500,000 people were under arms, perhaps one in every 120 inhabitants of the Empire. Not until the seventeenth century, in France, would such proportions be matched again in a kingdom.

Since Augustus, each emperor was the acknowledged Commander (Imperator). Statues, therefore, often show emperors in militarydress, and defeat of the barbarians was a major part of their image in art and poetry. They wore a wreath of laurel (signifying Victory) and at festivals, the special robe of a ‘triumphing’ commander. We can well see whyAugustus’ poor track record in combat was such a weakness. For as emperor, it was he who dealt with the army in general. It was he who fixed the pay-scales, allowances and lengths of service for each rank.1 Until ad 6 he paid their rewards on discharge and gave the ‘diplomas’ for each retiring auxiliary. It was on his authority only that colonies were settled for veterans: the details of each colony’s ‘map’ and property rights would be deposited, dulysigned, in the emperor’s own record office.2 If the land for the colony was bought (sometimes it was not), it was Augustus who paid for it, a point which he emphasizes in his record of his achievements, because nobodyhad ever paid for so much land before. Most of the legions were in provinces which were the emperor’s, not the ‘public ones’, and in them, his agents saw to the troops’ pay.3 In them, he alone gave out military decorations, but all veterans every where were ‘his’. When he disbanded veterans after Actium, he gave them the full rights of Roman citizenship, the right to vote at Rome in whatever tribe they chose, exemption from all civic obligations in their local towns if they so wished, and a valuable immunity from tribute. However, veterans who settled in a colony in Spain would hardly bother about voting in Rome, while their local townsmen could no doubt make them hold local office with offers which they could not refuse. The privileges had to be asserted by their recipients, but they were not curtailed until the late second century (when they dropped to four years) and were not abolished until the third century.

Looking up to their emperor as Commander, the troops observed a calendar of Roman religious festivals and sacrifices. Probably, its form went back to Augustus’ reign, although we only encounter evidence for it later, when the number of sacrifices to deified emperors and empresses had expanded. In the centre of a legionary camp, a shrine contained the legion’s standards and images of the emperor and the Roman divinities (the soldiers’ savings were also deposited here). Roman rituals of purification and of omen-taking were practised: we have the calendar of an auxiliaryunit, of non-citizens, which included vows on 3 January for the well-being of the emperor, the eternity of the Roman Empire and sacrifices to the three great gods of the Roman Capitol.4

Under the Republic, refusal to serve when called had been punished by the death penalty. In the new age that sanction receded. Hencefor-ward, service in the legions was almost always voluntary and forcible conscription was exceptional. At two moments of ‘crisis’, in AD 5 and 9, Augustus did resort to it; in the 60s, however, the Emperor Nero found that he could not even hold a forcible levy when he wished.5 When levies are attested locally in the Empire, they are either levies of volunteers or levies for the non-citizen auxiliaryunits. Even so, the recruiting officers who conducted them were the emperor’s men. About 6,000 recruits are the army’s estimated yearly need, after the usual deaths and retirements, in order to maintain the legions at full strength each year. Surviving figures for the Roman census suggest that the rising citizen-population could have met that need very comfortably. It would therefore take a sudden very heavy demand for troops to make forcible enlistment a necessity. Otherwise, the emperor and his men simplysaw to it. Already in ad 23 it was quite exceptional that the Emperor Tiberius discussed army recruitment in the Senate.6 Even the appointments to quite minor commands came to be submitted outside the public eye to the emperor’s judgement. Quite by chance, we discover (through a poem in the 80s) that one of the emperor’s secretaries had to receive letters about cavalry commanders, military tribunes and other subordinate officers, either so as to approve their appointments or to assist the emperor if he wished to appoint them himself from on high.7

The soldiers’ tactics had become more varied during the Republic’s fall, but the basic legionary had not changed: he was still armed with a javelin (pilum) to be thrown at close quarters, backed up byeffective use of the sword. He still wore open sandals with heavy nailed soles (‘militaryboots’), a shirt of chain mail (later replaced bya breastplate of jointed iron strips), a solid metal helmet and an oval shield or, by ad 100, one which was rectangular. In full armour, he could not swim, although swimming was one of his skills and a recommended part of his training. In close formation, his line of shields could stand firm against missiles; by opening out, it could let through the scythed chariots which were launched at it without much effect by Britons and Gauls. There were also stone- and arrow-shooting catapults, powered by torsion (one type, from its ‘kick’, was called the wild ass). Romans copied these from the Greek world, and stationed up to sixty machines behind each legion so that they could begin battle with a powered barrage, shot over the legionaries’ heads.

The main tactical development was the increasing use of local non-Roman auxiliaries. By the late first century ad light-armed provincial troops would be put in front of the traditional legionary line and would take most of the initial battering. On the wings, squadrons of non-Roman cavalry would shoot arrows or javelins, while riding rapidly at a diagonal or circling on their enemy’s flank. The angled cavalry charge towards the centre, the hallmark of Alexander’s great victories, was not now in fashion. Opposing cavalry tended to be skirmishers, especially in the Near East where the Parthian horsemen would shoot scores of arrows as they retreated.

There had always been Roman citizen cavalrytoo, but they had last been used effectively in 109 BC: back in Augustan Rome, cavalrymen with ‘public horses’ now included people like the poet Ovid. Rome’s cavalry strength, therefore, had to be provincial and auxiliary. In the 50s and 40s BC Julius Caesar had discovered and recruited the exceptional skill of German and Gallic cavalry. In Spain, too, Augustus was amazed by the fast Spanish horsemen and their skill with throwing javelins on horseback, which he described in his autobiography. After observing such troops in Germany, Pliny the Elder wrote a manual on the art, some of which survives: it is noticeable that technical Latin cavalry-terms are often based on Spanish or Gallic words. We can still read the Emperor Hadrian’s speech in north Africa, remarking on his mounted troops’ fine display of this art. There were still no stirrups to hold the riders steady, but the Romans adopted a saddle, a Celtic speciality: they gave it two ‘horns’, or pommels, which wedged the cavalryman firmly.

One particular body of cavalrymen reached the highest honour: German horsemen, huge strapping characters whose ‘amazing bodies’ were first admired and recruited by Julius Caesar as his personal horseguards. On his death, these guards split between Antony and the new ‘Caesar’. After victory, Augustus kept them on as his tall, magnificent bodyguards and stationed them in Rome, tactfully north of the Tiber. In 118, under Hadrian, a poem describes how one such German horseguard swam ‘the wide waters of the deep Danube in full armour… I shot an arrow from my bow which I hit and broke with another while it hung in the air and fell back… Let anyone see if after me they can match my deeds.’8 They could not, nowadays, and yet these German guards continued on and off for centuries: Augustus’ successors sometimes put them under the command of a proven gladiator. They were a crucial support for the ‘First Citizen’.

Even more prominent were the Commander’s guards, or Praetorians. These infantry troops had first developed during the final stages of the Civil War when they had served each of the two main leaders. Highly paid and carefullyselected, the Praetorians were amalgamated by the victor and numbered up to 9,000; Augustus’ Praetorians came overwhelmingly from Italy. From the ad 20s they were concentrated in barracks in Rome, a most unrepublican presence, and their command, which had begun with low-key equestrians, went to some of the early Empire’s most influential schemers, Sejanus under Tiberius or the odious Tigellinus who did nothing to improve the Emperor Nero’s morals. They became a crucial element in every emperor’s succession and survival.

The main legions were always manned with Roman citizens. However, local volunteers could quickly be given the Roman citizenship before being enrolled. Auxiliaries, by contrast, served always as non-citizens, with the prospect of citizenship only when they retired. Their units bore ethnic names, but they soon included people of mixed nationalities, a real melting pot. Wild and untamed people very seldom served in their own homeland. Britons, therefore, were sent off to serve in central Europe, while strapping Germans paraded near Scotland on Hadrian’s Wall. Legionary pay was not particularly lavish and under Augustus the costs of weapons, tents and clothing were deducted. Inevitably, there were back-hand payments, too, required by centurion-soldiers to ‘assure’ a fellow soldier’s leave. Not until ad 69 were ‘back-handers’ abolished (at least officially), and in due course the deductions did dwindle; the sums which were held back for tents and armour became treated as a deposit, to be released to the soldier on discharge.9The Praetorian guards were much more highly paid, whereas auxiliaries received less but on varying scales which sometimes amounted to as much as a legionary’s wages (the exact rates are still disputed). Soldiering, as always, was the most widespread salaried career in antiquity.

The prize was the reward on discharge. Antony and Octavian had begun by trying to find plots of land of about 30 acres for each veteran soldier in Italy: after Actium, a great wave of settlement took veteran soldiers mostly into the provinces. From ad 6 a cash payment was offered instead, financed by the newly established military treasury: nonetheless, the payment was less than two-thirds as big as the ones first offered in the wars of the late 40s BC. It did not help that this treasury was partly financed by the introduction of the hated inheritance tax on Roman citizens. Bits of land continued to be offered, too (Nero even reverted to trying to offer them in Italy), but in ad 14 soldiers were complaining they were being fobbed off with bits of marshland or rough mountain.

Despite the new treasury, Augustus’s reign ended with low military morale, a repeated need for levies and major mutinies on the northern frontier. The basic culprit was the old man’s personal drive for wars in the north from ad 5 onwards. Hard fighting here advanced Rome to the rivers Elbe and Weser; the principal remaining enemy, Maroboduus, was classed as the ‘worst since Hannibal’,10 but the attack on him required forced levies elsewhere, and these levies provoked revolts in the Balkans, especially in Illyricum. In the end, negotiations had to begin with Maroboduus. In ad 9 a German counter-attack caught the legions dispersed and off guard and inflicted a truly frightful disaster on their commander, Varus: the German hero was Arminius (whence ‘Herman the German’). The reprisals were led by the future Emperor Tiberius, who revived outdated modes of discipline and imposed the harshest orders. They did not bode well for his years as emperor.

To man these campaigns, soldiers had been retained for far too long, sometimes for thirty years: the practice of ‘extra time’ was still widespread and resented. There had also been conscription at Rome which had brought riff-raff into the front line. The affair was all a blot on Augustus’ militarymanagement, which was any way tarnished. The old-fashioned discipline of Tiberius and his contemporaries did not help morale, either, when they came out to pull things round after some very much softer commanders.

With such specific causes, the mutinies of ad 14 were curable. Conspicuously, they did not recur, not even in the year 69 when four emperors marched against one another in succession. In 69 army pay did not even have to be increased to urge on the troops (it stayed constant until the reign of Domitian). In many provinces, meanwhile, army life settled down to peacetime routine. From military manuals and dailyregisters which are preserved on papyrus, we can see that it was certainly not boring.11 There were regular exercises and an important array of civilian duties, including road-building, quarrying, mining and bridge-building. Soldiers became involved in surrounding life, even in seeing off plagues of locusts. Their commanders, inevitably, were called on to arbitrate and settle disputes, and not only disputes between soldiers. So much of what we see as ‘Romanization’ was the work of troops on long alert (including the aqueducts built in north Africa). Legionary camps became pools of experienced architects and engineers who could also advise on civilian projects. There was a huge volume of paperwork, to keep daily lists and details of pay: manuals urged that soldiers should, if possible, be literate, and army service was certainly an agent for promoting literacy.

Commanders of legions were senators (outside Egypt) and in a province with several legions, they were men in their mid-thirties who had already been a praetor in Rome. The linchpins of support for these amateurs were the long-serving centurions who were usually as tough as nails. The experienced ‘prefects of the camp’ were also particularlyimportant here. Each legion had five experienced tribunes of equestrian rank too: the sixth tribune was a young man of senatorial birth, eighteen or nineteen years old. By comparison, he was very raw, though the commanding legate might enjoy his company. It was exceptional, the historian Tacitus noted, for these favoured young men not to lounge around and waste their posting.12

Even the ordinary men’s diet was surprisingly varied, including quite a range of meat (much of it caught by hunting). The army, therefore, spread hunting ever further down the social ladder. The camps, meanwhile, manufactured the troops’ armour and weapons, while their basic supplies were taken from the provincials, sometimes transported across long distances. It is not clear how often they were properly paid for. A legion has been estimated to eat ‘2,000 tonnes’ of grain a year, while the horses of a single cavalry unit needed another ‘635’: it would have taken a very high demand by soldiers for paid local services to compensate provincials for this burden. For soldiers, however, a particular advantage of military life over civilian life was care for the sick. Hospitals are an invention of the Roman army.

In long intervals of peace, troops in these camps would inevitably ‘soften’, and here the Romans’ long-running fear of ‘luxury’ came into play. A new commander or a visiting emperor would sometimes decide to tighten things up: in 121/2, Hadrian set about the troops in Germany. Beds were banned (Hadrian slept in camp on straw) and fancy dining rooms and colonnades were demolished. No doubt they had been the creations of soft officers: there was even a most interesting need to uproot their ornamental gardens. Hadrian himself undertook the hard marches, up to twenty miles in armour, which he reimposed on the legions. His ‘discipline’ was remembered for centuries by the authors of militarymanuals.13 As a general practice, units were anyway moved around quite widely beyond their bases: by Hadrian’s time, watchtowers had become common and out lying forts could be more than a hundred miles distant from the main camp. Military minds, meanwhile, did not forget that Hannibal’s men were said to have been sapped by that winter spent among the ‘luxury’ of Capua, and Sulla’s by the ‘luxury’ of Asia. So in due course, a legionary camp would be moved on and, behind it, a township would develop on its former site. Fear of luxury thus helped indirectly to urbanize Rome’s subjects. The towns which grew up on former camp-sites helped to ‘soften’ the provincials whom the hardy soldiers had been supposed to be guarding. In Britain, towns like Gloucester and Lincoln began in this way.

If soldiers had to be separated from towns, they also had to be kept away from wives. From Augustus until the third century legionaries were not allowed to marry. Existing marriages, even, were ended at the moment of recruitment. Of course men could not be kept away from women. Liaisons flourished (soldiers even wrote of their ‘girl-friends’ and ‘darlings’), and brothels were also kept busy, though one army-unit on the northern coast of the Black Sea can be found to have been collecting the local tax from the prostitutes. Legionaries’ offspring, however, were illegitimate. In inscriptions, we find ‘sons of Spurius’ (soldier-bastards) and in the papyri of Roman Egypt, a conspicuous class of ‘the fatherless’ appear.14 They are not orphans: they are children of legally prohibited unions, whether between Romans and Egyptians, or Roman legionaries and locals. Long before the celibate prize-fighters of the Christian monasteries, the military minds of Rome were already opposed to marriage. One advantage was that, in the case of a military disaster, nothing would need to be paid to dead soldiers’ wives or families.

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