Ancient History & Civilisation

Off Duty

(Above) A stone found near the fortress at Caerleon commemorating a soldier’s wife, Tadia Vallaunius, who died at the age of 65, as well as her son Tadius Exuperatus

(Below) The tombstone of the freedman Victor, who died aged 20, was set up by his former master, Numerianus, a trooper in Ala I Asturum. The high quality of the tombstone suggests Numerianus’ affection for his freedman.

Marriage and families

From Augustus onwards, Roman soldiers were forbidden to marry. If already married when they joined the army, then the union was immediately declared invalid. The state felt that armies would operate more effectively if unencumbered by soldiers’ families, and even more importantly was reluctant to accept any responsibility for these dependants. This ban endured for more than two centuries, until it was finally lifted by Septimius Severus, although the precise nature of this reform is uncertain. Yet soldiers served for 25 years, the bulk of their active adult life, and it was unrealistic to expect them to wait until discharge before forming a long-term liaison with a woman. In fact, in spite of the official position, there is ample evidence to show that soldiers took women as their ‘wives’ and raised families in a union which both parties considered to be a proper marriage. Probably always common, this practice became even more so as the army’s units settled into more permanent garrisons by the late 1st and early 2nd centuries. Many of these women were natives of the provinces, and not a few were former slaves, freed and then married by their soldier owners. By the 2nd century ad a growing number of soldiers declared themselves as having been born ‘in the camp’ (in castris), showing that they were offspring of just such a relationship. A tombstone found outside the fortress of Legio II Augusta at Caerleon commemorates not only a woman, Tadia Vallaunius, but her soldier son, Tadius Exuperatus, who had died on a military campaign in Germany. The monument was erected by her daughter, Tadia Exuperata, and mentions that it lay next to the tomb of her husband, himself perhaps also once a soldier.

The reality of the situation was tacitly acknowledged by the wording of the diplomata presented to auxiliary soldiers at the end of their 25 years service. This granted Roman citizenship not only to the soldier, but to his wife and children or, if he was still single on discharge, to a wife (but only one wife) married subsequently. On some early diplomata the soldier, his wife and children are all specifically named. By the middle of the 2nd century ad the wording changed and the grant of citizenship to children was no longer included.

Legionaries were already citizens and so received no grant of the franchise at the end of their time in the army. Many had begun to raise a family, but the legal position of both wife and children was highly insecure. Most wives were non-citizens, and even if they were the marriage was not recognized and so the children were legally illegitimate and would not gain the franchise. It was often difficult for families to inherit. In many respects a soldier’s legal status was peculiar. Forbidden to marry, he was liable to the penalties imposed upon citizens who had no children until Claudius exempted soldiers from these laws. Appreciating the desire of soldiers to bequeath property to their families, and yet reluctant to remove the ban on marriage, successive emperors granted them concessions, allowing them to make wills - something not normally possible for a man whilst his father was alive, since technically the latter owned all the property of his household. Hadrian confirmed this right, allowed soldiers to make bequests to non-citizens, and even permitted soldiers’ children to make claims on his property if he had died without making a will. Papyri from Egypt attest the deep concern felt over many of these issues. One, dating to ad 131, consists of a declaration by Epimachus, son of Longinus, that the baby girl Longinia born to his wife/concubine, Arsus, was his daughter. Such formal statements of paternity, made before witnesses, could help the child to prove her identity and succeed in any claims on inheriting her father’s property. The difficulty of securing such rights is demonstrated by surviving legal decisions. In ad 117 the ‘widow’ Lucia Macrina tried to recover money from her late husband’s estate by appealing to the prefect of Egypt. The latter, deciding that the money she had given to her soldier husband was understood as a dowry, but knowing that legally a soldier could not marry, refused to allow its return to her. A few years before, a Roman citizen serving in an auxiliary cohort who was cohabiting with a citizen woman and had had two sons by her, tried to get them the franchise. The prefect permitted the boys citizenship but refused to remove their status as illegitimate. In another case, the woman Chrotis sought recognition for her son by the soldier Isodorus, who had made the boy his heir without formally declaring himself the father. The prefect once again stressed that a serving soldier could not have a legitimate child, but was willing to allow the boy to inherit since he had been named in Isodorus’ will. The legal situation of soldiers’ families was confused and precarious at best.

Although we know that a high proportion of soldiers - some scholars have estimated as many as 50 per cent - married and started families, it is not at all clear where these families actually lived. It has been conventional to assume that the women and children dwelt in the canabae around a fort, which would presumably mean that married men were able to spend a good deal of time, and perhaps sleep, outside the ramparts. However, there is some evidence, chiefly consisting of finds of artifacts and clothing associated with women or children inside excavated barrack blocks, which may mean that wives and children lived inside the fort with their husbands. Although to the modern mind this would suggest that the contubemium rooms were terribly crowded and that families had no privacy, such practices were common in many European armies until well into the 19th century. Families may not have been the only civilians to live within military bases. Some soldiers kept slaves as personal servants, whilst the army owned many more, known as galearii (or ‘helmet-wearers’), who wore a simple uniform and performed service functions such as controlling the baggage and pack animals on campaign.

A late 2nd-century ad monument from Germany commemorating a sailor’s daughter. Whatever the official attitude towards military personnel raising families, the troops themselves clearly took such bonds very seriously.

Officers' wives

The ban on marriage did not apply to senior officers from the senatorial and equestrian classes, nor to legionary centurions, and probably not to auxiliary centurions and perhaps also decurions. There is certainly some evidence to suggest that these auxiliary officers were also permitted to marry. During his term as governor of Bithynia and Pontus, the Younger Pliny successfully entreated the Emperor Trajan to grant citizenship to the daughter of an auxiliary centurion and there is no mention of any bar on his having married. Decurions’ wives sometimes appear on inscriptions, for instance Aelia Comindus who died at the age of 32 and was commemorated by her husband Nobilianus at Carrawburgh on Hadrian’s Wall. Another decurion, Tiberius Claudius Valerius, who died at the age of 50 after 30 years service with Ala II Hispanorum et Aravacorum, had his tombstone set up in Teutoburgium in Pannonia by his wife and daughter.

Senators, and many equestrian officers, spent only part of their public career with the army.

Although it appears to have been normal for their wives and children to accompany them during their military service, it is very rare for the presence of the latter to be recorded unless they or their husbands died and were commemorated. Rufinus, prefect successively of Cohors I Augustae Lusitanorum and Cohors I Breucorum died aged 48 at High Rochester. The memorial to her ‘well-deserving husband’ was set up by Julia Lucilla, herself from a senatorial family. An altar found outside the fort demonstrates that the couple were accompanied to the frontier by their household. It was set up by one of their freedmen, Eutychus and his family, fulfilling a vow to the god Silvanus Pantheus, to whom he had prayed for the welfare of his master and mistress. The Vindolanda tablets help to give some idea of the social life of the wives of garrison commanders. One of the most famous is an invitation sent to the wife of Flavius Cerealis, the commander of Vindolanda, by the wife of another auxiliary prefect:

‘To Sulpicia Lepidina, wife of Cerealis, from Severa.

‘Claudia Severa to her Lepidina greetings. On 11 September, sister, for the day of the celebration of my birthday, I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival, if you are present... Give my greetings to your Cerealis. My Aelius and my little son send him... their greetings. I shall expect you, sister. Farewell, sister, my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail.’

Although the main text was doubtless written by a slave or freedman, the last line was added in Severa’s own hand. In another letter, Severa mentions having to ask her husband’s permission to visit Lepidina, reflecting the dangers of travelling on the exposed northern frontier.

Senatorial and equestrian officers were expressly forbidden to marry women from the province in which they served, but the same did not apply to centurions, many of whom married locals. Depending on the size of the garrison, the community formed by the officers’ wives might be substantial or tiny. In an auxiliary fort only the commander’s wife was an equestrian, and the perhaps half-dozen or so centurions’ spouses were her clear social inferiors. In a legionary fortress, both the legate and the senior tribune were senators, and if married their wives would come from a similar background. There were also the equestrian tribunes and their families, the camp prefect and senior centurions who achieved equestrian status during their career, as well as a large number of centurions, many of whom were probably married. At times the provincial governor - or even occasionally the emperor and empress - and his family passed through a military base or came to one of the towns in the area, either on a tour of inspection or to oversee a campaign. Septimius Severus’ wife Julia Domna accompanied her husband to Syria, where she was granted the title ‘Mother of the Camp’ (mater castrorum) in ad 195, and also to Britain. From ad 14 to 16 Agrippina and her children lived in the army camps whilst her husband Germanicus, the Emperor Tiberius’ adopted son, campaigned across the Rhine. The couple dressed their young son Gaius in a miniature version of the soldier’s uniform, earning him the nickname Caligula or ‘little boots’. Agrippina took her role very seriously, visiting the sick and wounded in hospital and even famously taking charge of the Rhine bridges when false rumours spread of a disaster.

(Above) A roundel bearing portraits of the Emperor Septimius Severus, his wife Julia Domna, and two sons Caracalla and Gela. Severus rose to power through civil war and openly acknowledged that his position was based upon military support. As part of the propaganda programme designed to maintain the loyalty of the soldiers, his wife was known as the 'Mother of the Camp’.

Governors’ wives did not always behave in such exemplary fashion. A few years later Plancina, wife of Lucius Calpurnius Piso, a Syrian governor sacked by Germanicus and rumoured to have subsequently engineered the latter’s mysterious death, had presided over military exercises and tried to build up a body of supporters amongst army officers. However, when one senator tried to ban governors’ wives from following their husbands to their provinces, he found little support for the measure.

Alongside the formal military hierarchy, army bases of any size also enclosed the narrow world of wives and families. Sometimes large, sometimes isolated, this community was also at times rocked by scandal. During Caligula’s reign the wife of the legate Calvisius Sabinus began an affair with the tribunus laticlavius and noted rake Titus Vinius. On one occasion she disguised herself in military uniform and accompanied the tribune as he inspected the guards on duty in the fortress that night. The couple were later discovered to have gone on to make love inside the principia. Although Vinius was arrested on Caligula’s orders, the latter’s assassination soon afterwards brought him pardon. The Younger Pliny was involved as a prosecutor in a trial resulting from another such scandal, in this case when Gallitta, a tribune’s wife, had carried on an affair with one of the centurions under his command. The centurion was dismissed from the army and exiled, whilst the husband, who according to Pliny was ‘apparently satisfied once he had got rid of his rival’, was reluctantly forced to divorce his wife.

Canabae and vici

Civilian settlements quickly grew up around almost every Roman base. Caesars description of a surprise attack on one of his legion’s winter camps in 53 BC mentions as an aside the presence of traders camping outside the fortifications. The little stone huts scattered outside the Roman siege camps at Masada in Judaea may show that merchants and camp followers stayed with the army during the siege in AD 74 even in the harsh conditions of the desert. These temporary settlements were known as canabae. We cannot know if this was where soldiers’ families lived, although it seems most probably that this was the case until barracks were built in a substantial and permanent fashion. It is certain that the people who followed the army and lived around its bases provided many service-industries for the troops. Merchants could sell them additional food or drink to supplement their rations, and many of the other luxuries which could make a soldier’s life more pleasant. Paid regularly in coin, military garrisons provided a ready market for a whole range of goods and services. The canabae also provided entertainment ranging from music to bars and brothels. One veteran of Legio II Augusta paid to set up a monument to a certain Polla Matidia, also known as Olympia, a dancer or entertainer at Asciburgium in Germany. Titus Aelius Iustus, a musician from Legio II Aduitrix skilled on the water-organ, was married to Aelia Sabina, herself a singer and musician, and even better player.

At first the settlements around camps appear as shanty towns, and suggest a somewhat rough-and- ready frontier community. One of the houses near the southern gate of Housesteads fort was discovered to have had the skeletons of a man and woman buried beneath its floor, something which only the builder can have done. In time, most canabae grew into something more formal, and villages or via were established. The ordered plan of many via suggests that the army was involved in at least some stages of their initial planning. Usually the settlements are linear or ribbon-like in shape, with rows of houses running along a road near, leading up to or surrounding a base. In a number of sites an existing road was widened to create an open area which probably served as a market place. Space along the roadsides was at a premium and most buildings are strip houses, narrow-fronted but very long, of a type known from many Roman towns. Usually the front of the house was partially open providing a commercial space, probably a shop or bar.

Aerial view of the fori at Vindolanda with the civilian vicus in the foreground. The writing tablets from this site have given some insight into the social life of senior officers’ wives.

The vicus and the fort had a symbiotic relationship benefiting both parties, but it is clear that the vicus was seen as a community in its own right and may have had magistrates overseeing its affairs. The populations of these settlements were often highly cosmopolitan with soldiers, serving and discharged, locals and traders from all over the Roman world rubbing shoulders. Barates, a native of Palmyra, the great oasis city on the silk road in the far east of the Empire, set up a memorial to his wife outside South Shields fort on the northern frontier of Britain. She was a Briton, although from a tribe living in the south of the island, and once his slave, but then freed and married. Barates himself may be the same man whose tombstone was found further along Hadrian’s Wall at Corbridge, where he is described as either a standard-bearer or, less plausibly, a seller of flags. Whether soldier or merchant, this family testifies to the considerable mobility of some parts of the population of the Roman world.


There was usually an amphitheatre outside any legionary fortress, and in a few cases even outside the much smaller auxiliary forts. These structures were built by the army primarily for its own use and in some cases a timber structure predates a later more permanent stone arena, suggesting that these were often constructed in an early phase of the base. Excavations at the amphitheatre outside the base of Legio II Augusta at Caerleon revealed cen- turial stones marking out sections of the building built by a particular century. One, commemorating the ‘Century of Rufinus’, was especially finely carved and clearly intended as a permanent display. This practice of dividing the task up between working groups based on the units was commonly employed in major projects, most notably the construction of Hadrians Wall. The Caerleon amphitheatre measures 81.4 m (267 ft) along its longest axis and 67.7 m (222 ft) in width. A massive and heavily buttressed external wall, 1.7 m (5 ft 6 in) thick, supported the earth bank on which the seating was built. Estimates of the original height of the tiers of seats suggest a seating capacity of at least 6,000, so that it could have accommodated more than the entire legion at full strength. Other legionary amphitheatres, for instance at Chester and especially Carnuntum on the Danube, were even bigger than this.

(Above) The amphitheatre at Caerleon lies actually on the edge of the ditch surrounding the fortress rampart. The stonework here would have been greatly heightened by wooden structures supporting tiers of seats capable of accommodating at least the entire legion of some 5.000 men. An amphitheatre provided an area for parades and displays by troops, but its primary role was the staging of gladiatorial games and other violent entertainments.

Amphitheatres were primarily designed to mount the range of spectacular blood sports which so fascinated the population of the Roman Empire. It is unlikely that provincial garrisons could afford the massive displays staged at Rome, and there were in fact limits on the amount communities elsewhere were permitted to spend on such entertainment, although the military arenas doubtless put on periodic gladiatorial bouts or beast fights. The amphitheatre also provided a stage and viewing arena for other activities, including formal parades and displays of drill and weapons’ handling put on by the legion itself.

Baths and bathing

The bath house provided a range of services far beyond simple hygiene. For the Romans bathing was an important ritual, a process which involved passing through a series of bathing areas maintained at different temperatures. There was the cold room (frigidarium) with its plunge bath, hot room (laconicum), warm steam room (tepidarium) and the hot steam room (caldarium). Temperature was regulated by a combination of underfloor heating and hot flues inside the walls. Excavations at Vindolanda revealed wooden sandals worn to protect a bather’s feet from the often too hot floor in parts of the bath. Bathers rubbed down with oil and then scraped off the dirt using a tool called a strigil. Taking a bath was an experience to be savoured and not hurried, but even after a soldier had bathed he might choose to remain in the bath house. In the larger establishments there were facilities for further exercise, but in all baths there was space and opportunity for relaxed socializing. Men could drink and talk, or play at the various gambling games, most of all dice, with which the Romans were obsessed.

Apart from the bath houses built by the army itself, there were often other baths in the vici. At Caerleon a bath house was discovered near to the amphitheatre. It is impossible to know whether these establishments were ever frequented by troops as well as civilians. Finds from several military baths show that these were used by women as well as soldiers, although it is possible that there were set times for different groups.

The Roman army also appears to have taken a keen interest in the development of baths at spa sites, such as Bath (Aquae Sulis) in Britain. This complex was constructed relatively soon after the conquest of the area and it is likely that the legionary garrisons at Exeter and Gloucester were closely involved in its construction. The healing power of hot springs was highly valued by the Romans, and almost certainly employed for aiding the recovery of the sick and wounded. One altar from Bath recording the reconstruction of a ‘religious place’ (locus religiosus) was set up by Caius Severius Emeritus, a centurion charged with the administration of a region.

(Above) The bath house at Chesters fort on Hadrians Wall is sited near the river. The danger of fire ensured that the baths in cramped auxiliary forts were built outside the walls.

(Below) A reconstruction of the bath house at Vindolanda shows the various rooms with water heated to different temperatures For the Romans bathing was a very sociable experience

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