Ancient History & Civilisation

‘By their military exercises the Romans instil into their soldiers fortitude not only of body but also of soul; fear, too, plays its part in their training For they have laws which punish with death...even a slight neglect of duty.'

Josephus. The Jewish War 3.102-04

The professional Roman soldier spent much of his adult life - 25 years for most of the Principate - in the army. This was the soldier’s world, set apart from the mass of the civilian population, where he formed part of a rigid and clearly defined hierarchy, his life governed by military law and regulation. For much of the time he would be stationed at one of the army’s permanent bases, which varied in size from small way-stations or outposts accommodating a handful of men to auxiliary forts with garrisons of some 500-1,000 soldiers and the massive legionary depots which could house more than 5,000 troops. Barracks life was dominated by routine, the days occupied with parades and ceremonies, training and drill, fatigues and a whole range of other duties.

Roman soldiers came from a wide variety of backgrounds. Apart from the major distinction between the citizen legionaries and the non-citizen auxiliaries, recruits were drawn from virtually every province of the Empire, and even from outside its borders. Some soldiers were conscripts, but probably far more volunteered. Once in the army all were subjected to the same discipline, ate the same rations and were paid according to the same system. From the moment he came before a recruiting officer to his discharge, the life of each soldier was recorded by the army’s bureaucracy. Only a fraction of this paperwork has survived, but it provides us with many insights into the daily routine of the army. Other sources tell us about the more private aspects of soldiers’ lives, such as the gods and goddesses they chose to worship, and the families which they raised in spite of an official bar on marriage.

Some of a soldier’s time was spent preparing for war, yet they were also called on to perform a broad range of more peaceful activities. Soldiers sometimes acted as administrators and policemen, or as craftsmen, engineers and builders. Others were occupied not with full- scale war, but with the low-level patrolling and skirmishing on the frontiers and in some of the more lawless regions inside the Empire.

A scene showing a group of soldiers in a marching camp. The eight men of a contubernium lived in their leather tent and prepared their meals together. A nude was allocated to each contubernium to carry the tent and any other heavy equipment.

The life a Roman Soldier

Joining the Roman Army

Most recruits to the army of the Principate were volunteers. Legally, all Roman citizens were still obliged to undergo military service whenever the state required, but conscription was hugely unpopular, especially in Italy. Augustus held a levy (dilectus) on only two occasions, following disasters in Pannonia in AD 6 and Germany in AD 9. There were many attempts to avoid enlistment and the Emperor sold one equestrian into slavery for cutting the thumbs off his two sons and so making them medically unfit for service. In the main, Augustus’ successors avoided imposing conscription on Italy. Elsewhere, the method was sometimes used to raise auxiliary forces, and there are occasional references to a dilectus being held to bring the legions of a province up to strength, almost always in preparation for a major war. It is difficult to know whether this meant a full or partial conscription of eligible citizens in the area, or simply a more active recruiting drive using more normal methods.

Whilst serving as governor of Bithynia and Pontus, Pliny the Younger was faced with the problem of two slaves who had illegally enlisted in the army, and wrote to the Emperor Trajan seeking advice. Trajan’s reply made it clear that there were three categories of recruits, volunteers (voluntarii), conscripts (lecti), and substitutes (vicarii). The conscripts seem to have been chosen either by Roman officers sent to supervise a levy, or by the local authorities within a province, although it is also possible that at times something as simple as a press-gang may have operated. Substitutes were presumably provided by unwilling conscripts, or their families, as the price of their discharge. Preparations for Trajan’s planned Parthian expedition were almost certainly already taking place in these years, and it may be that the Emperor was aware that levies of conscripts were being raised to bring the units in the eastern provinces up to strength. Yet it is certainly an indication that forms of the dikctus still provided the army with some of its manpower. However, the army of the Principate was tiny in comparison to the population of the Empire, and it does seem that the number of volunteers was adequate to supply its needs most of the time.

The attractions of a soldier's life

In the main, service in the ranks seems to have been most attractive to the poorer sections of society.

(Above) A bronze statuette apparently depicting a war god in the uniform of a Roman legionary. The segmented cuirass is heavily stylized.

(Above) An inscription providing details of the career of Quintus Pompeius Falco, who was legatus Augusti of Britain in the early years of Hadrian's reign. The experience of ordinary soldiers enlisting in the army was very different from that of a senatorial officer whose military service was interspersed with civil posts.

The army assured a man of food, clothing, better medical facilities than he could probably otherwise have afforded, and a steady wage. The soldier’s salary was not especially high, and an unskilled and uneducated labourer may well have been able to earn as much or more, especially in the big cities. Yet such work was by its nature uncertain, whilst the army offered the security of a definite annual income. For those with ability and sufficient education, there was the prospect of promotion with the better pay and conditions which this brought, and perhaps even for social advancement. Financial records preserved on papyrus suggest that at least some soldiers were able to amass considerable sums of money. All soldiers had certain advantages under the law, a theme taken up by the late 1st- century satirist Juvenal, who spoke of the difficulty for a civilian to gain redress for abuses committed by a soldier. Soldiers were uniquely permitted to make wills even if their father was still alive - normally all property of any children was legally assumed to belong to their father. On discharge from the army, legionaries usually received either a bounty or the grant of a plot of land.

Yet although the soldier enjoyed these advantages, they came at the price of 25 years of service.

During that time they were subject to an extremely harsh system of discipline, both corporal and capital punishment being imposed almost at the whim of their commanders. Probably for this reason, desertion seems to have been a constant problem. Promotion was possible, but required a level of education and influence which many recruits may have lacked. Nor was the legal position of soldiers unambiguously favourable. They were forbidden to marry, and any marriage contracted prior to service was declared illegal on enlistment. Even so, many men clearly did develop long-term relationships and begin to raise a family during service. This was one of the main reasons for allowing soldiers to make wills, for this was for a long time the only way they could bequeath property to their children or ‘wife’. Yet in the eyes of the law such children remained illegitimate and therefore were not entitled to citizenship.

The standard of recruits

Vegetius described the ideal recruit in some detail, although some of his views had more to do with the racial prejudices and medical myths of his day. Therefore men raised in a temperate climate, rather than the hotter eastern provinces, were supposed to prove steadier soldiers. The preference for recruiting men from rural areas rather than the towns was in part a legacy of the old hoplite ideal of a farmer soldier, but also had some practical basis. Soldiers raised in the country had generally led a harsher life and become accustomed to hard physical labour, so that it was necessary for recruits drawn from the towns to undergo a much longer period of fitness training before their proper military training could begin. The former profession of a potential soldier was equally important, and Vegetius claimed that more physical occupations such as those of the hunter, butcher, or blacksmith should be preferred to the unmanly tasks of pastry-cooks, weavers or fishermen. Recruiting officers were to examine each man’s size and physical fitness very closely. Height was important.

Traditionally - and probably Vegetius is here referring to the Principate - recruits for the first cohort of a legion or a cavalry ala were to be, in Roman measurements, 6 ft, or occasionally 5 ft 10 in tall (just over 5 ft 10 in (1.77 m) and 5 ft 8 in (1.7 m) by modern measurements). However, he argues that shorter men of good build could also be accepted, since strength was more important to a soldier than mere height. Some educated recruits were also desirable, for the army needed a great number of clerks and administrators at all levels. Vegetius says little about the age of recruits, but other evidence suggests that the vast majority were in their late teens or early to mid-20s.

Some scholars have rather naively assumed that the vast majority of recruits actually met Vegetius’ high standards, but theoretical manuals are dangerous guides to the normal. The Emperor Tiberius once complained that the legions were having trouble finding recruits of sufficient quality, and that in Italy only the poorest vagrants were drawn to military service. Men who had been condemned to be thrown to the wild beasts, deported to an island or exiled for a fixed term not yet expired were barred from joining the army and, if discovered in the ranks, were to be immediately discharged. The same was true of men who had joined up to avoid prosecution. It is noticeable that only men convicted of the most serious crimes were barred from service, and there may have been many petty criminals in the ranks of the legions.

The enlistment process

Recruiting parties appear to have been supervised by the governor of a province. The first stage, or probatio, consisted of an inspection of the potential recruits. Each man’s legal status was supposed to be made clear at this point, for only citizens were permitted to enlist in the legions, and slaves were not allowed to join any part of the army under normal circumstances. When Trajan replied to Pliny’s letter concerning the two slaves found to have enlisted, he stated that the men would be subject to full punishment if they had falsely claimed to be free men. However, if they were substitutes, then the blame rested with the men who had provided them, and if conscripts then the recruiting officer was at fault. Citizenship and status were very important in the Roman Empire, but records of such things were not always readily available. An Egyptian papyrus dating to AD 92 records the case of an optio in Legio III Cyrenaica who was accused of not being a Roman citizen, and thus faced at the very least dismissal. The man cited three witnesses to prove his status, two of them legionaries from other centuries and the last a veteran.

The probatio also involved a medical examination. Another papyrus records the discharge on 24 April AD 52 of a certain Tryphon, son of Dionysius, weaver, due to weak eyesight caused by a cataract. In this case it is not certain that Tryphon was being discharged from the army, rather than some other form of service, but it is unlikely that a military discharge on medical grounds would have been very different. The late 3rd-century ad account of the Martyrdom of Maximilianus probably gives a fair reflection of the normal process of a probatio, although in this case it was clearly a matter of conscription. Maximilianus was brought before the representative of the governor, and it was formally stated that he had the required qualities for a soldier and that his height, 5 ft 10 in (1.77 m), was satisfactory and that therefore he ought to be enrolled. Throughout, Maximilianus claimed that as a Christian his beliefs did not permit him to serve as a soldier or do any evil. It was for this repeated refusal that he was eventually executed.

A scene from Trajan’s Column showing a group of ambassadors from a range of different barbarian peoples Some have hair knots, a style associated with the Germanic Suebi, while those on the left have the long, kaftan-like robes characteristic of the Sarmatians Roman auxiliaries were recruited from a broad range of peoples within, and sometimes outside the provinces

A more enthusiastic recruit to the army could find his path greatly eased by bringing letters of recommendation. The higher the status of the referee and the closeness of the bond between him and the presiding officer added to the power of such documents, so that Juvenal could joke about a recruit armed with a letter from the goddess Venus to her lover, the war god Mars. Letters could make clear a potential recruit’s status and abilities, and might lead to rapid promotion. In AD 107, a certain Julius Apollinarius enlisted in a legion and was able to gain an almost immediate appointment as a clerk (librarius). In a letter to his father he congratulated himself on being able to work at such light duties whilst his fellow recruits were outside breaking rocks, presumably for some building project. On the other hand, unsatisfactory recommendations could lead to disappointment. Around the same period Claudius Terentianus tried and failed to enlist in a legion, before joining the far less prestigious navy. Even there he was discontented with his prospects, and complained that ‘nothing could be done without money, nor will letters of recommendation be of any use, unless a man helps himself’.

After the probatio, those recruits accepted for service would be sent on to their unit. Probably at this time they were given the signaculum, an inscribed lead tablet worn around the neck in a leather pouch which served much the same function as the identity disks of modern soldiers. Already the recruits had probably taken the military oath (sacramentum), swearing loyalty to the emperor. Then they received travelling money (viaticum) which seems always symbolically to have consisted of three gold coins, whose total value was 75 denarii. Although a substantial sum of money, much of this was consumed during their journey, and relieving the recruits of their new wealth may well have been one of the perks of the regular soldiers escorting the party. On average a large party of recruits who arrived to join Cohors I Lusitanorum in AD 117 had less than a third of their viaticum left to deposit with the signifers of their centuries. Another document describes a draft of recruits:

Copy C. Minucius Italus to Celsianus Give instructions that the six recruits approved by me for the cohort under your command be entered on the records with effect from 19 February. I have appended their names and distinguishing-marks to this letter.

C. Veturius Gemellus

aged 21

no distinguishing marks

C. Longinus Priscus

aged 22

scar on left eyebrow

C. Julius Maximus

aged 25

no distinguishing marks

.Julius Secundus

aged 20

no distinguishing marks

C. Julius Saturninus

aged 23

scar on left hand

M. Antonius Valens

aged 22

scar on right side of forehead

Received 24 February ad 103, through Priscus, singularis. I. Avidius Arrianus, cornicularius of Cohors III Ituraeorum, state that the original letter is in the records office of the cohort.

These were recruits to an auxiliary cohort, and therefore unlikely to have been citizens, but nevertheless all are listed with three ‘Roman’ names and would be referred to in this way in all the vast documentation which would accompany them throughout their military career. An Egyptian called Apion who had enlisted in the fleet and been posted to Misenum in Italy wrote to his family to tell them that he was now to be known as Antonius

Maximus of the Athenonican century. The same man assured his father of his good health, and thanked him for giving him an education which should be a great asset in his career.

On arrival with a unit, the recruits would be added to its nominal roll and allocated to a century or turma, but would undergo a period of rigorous training before becoming a fully qualified soldier.

Auxiliary recruitment and the ethnic composition of units

All legionaries were supposed to be Roman citizens, although in a few, exceptional cases at times of civil war or military crisis, foreigners were permitted to enrol and given an immediate grant of citizenship. Auxiliaries were normally non-citizens, and gained citizenship only at the end of their 25 years of service. Most auxiliary units included a regional or ethnic distinction in their title. This name usually referred to the composition of the unit when first raised, but the Romans seem to have made no particular effort to continue finding recruits from the same ethnic group. Wherever possible, the army recruited from the nearest available sources of manpower. This was true to a great extent of the legions, as during the Principate the number of recruits from Italy steadily declined. Instead citizens were found from the communities in provinces nearer to each legion’s home base. The same was true of the auxilia. If they happened to remain stationed near their place of origin, then a cohort or ala might well continue to be predominantly composed of men from that same region. Otherwise they would over time mainly be composed of men from the most local recruiting grounds. Some units, especially ones which were moved from province to province, might contain soldiers from a mixture of different regions and peoples. An inscription from Hadrian’s Wall singles out the Germans within a particular cohort. It is hard to tell whether the different groups would be formed into distinct centuries or simply be mixed up. The word of command, and the language of the administration which ran the army, was in Latin. Recruits would have to acquire at least a rudimentary understanding of the language, although it is much harder to estimate how many auxiliaries - or indeed legionaries - were literate.

Basic training

A recruit’s training at first focused on physical fitness and accustoming the new soldiers to discipline. Close-order drill was an especially important element, and the men were taught to march in step and keep formation. They also underwent route- marches to improve their stamina. Vegetius claims that they were expected to complete a march of 20 Roman miles in five hours at the ordinary pace, and 24 miles in the same time at the quick step. There was also great emphasis on running and jumping. At least some of these exercises were performed in full kit and, in the case of the marches, often carrying packs and extra gear.

(Above) Two re-enactors show how Roman troops were often exercised by fencing with blunt-tipped weapons. In the early phases of training, recruits used wooden swords and carried wicker shields - both heavier than the equipment actually used in battle. Later they would employ proper kit, the tips of weapons being made safe by leather tips.

(Above) An ax skull found at Vindolanda. Visible are a number of square section holes made by bolts from a light ballista. suggesting that the skull had been used for target practice by soldiers.

Weapons’ training employed a system copied from the gladiatorial schools. A 6-ft (1.82-m) post was erected and the recruit taught to fence by aiming blows at it. He was issued with a wooden sword and a wicker shield, both of the normal size but considerably heavier than the real thing. Therefore, as he practised the regulation cuts, thrusts and parries, the heavy equipment also helped to strengthen his arms. Pila would also be thrown, using the post as a target, and it is possible that there was basic instruction in other weapons, such as slings, bows and the various forms of artillery. Vegetius also recommended that all troops be taught to ride and swim.

The level of training gradually increased. Recruits would then begin to fight mock battles, using practice weapons or real weapons with their points covered with leather discs to prevent serious injuries. At first pairs would fight each other, and then larger groups until exercises involved entire units. In all, basic training probably lasted for several months, until the recruit became a fully qualified member of the unit. Training did not end, but was a continuous activity throughout the remainder of his service, and Roman commanders were supposed to keep their units well drilled and prepared for actual war.

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