Ancient History & Civilisation

Peacetime Duties

(Above) The ruins of the city of Apamea in Syria give some idea of the grandeur of so many towns and cities within the Roman Empire at the height of its power. Ultimately all of this prosperity was only made possible by the effectiveness of the army in controlling and protecting the provinces.


It is very rare for our literary sources to go into much detail about the location of the units of the army at any fixed period. Even when they do so, these authors tended to be mainly concerned with the locations of the legions and are particularly vague about the garrisons provided by the auxilia. Any study of the army’s deployment under the Principate therefore rests heavily on the evidence provided by archaeology. A large number of military sites have been located and a reasonable number partially excavated, although it should be noted that some regions, notably Britain and Germany, have received far more attention, and are therefore much better known, than others. The size of a military base provides some indication of the type of unit for which it was originally intended. If we are fortunate, then the actual name of the unit may be recorded on inscriptions associated with the site, perhaps even in sub-literary material on writing tablets or papyrus. Where such evidence can be dated, it sometimes seems possible to trace the different units which came in turn to garrison the base. The movements of legions, given their sheer size, status and frequent appearance in the epigraphic record, are comparatively straightforward to trace, although even so there is often doubt about the circumstances in which a few of these units disappeared. Auxiliary units are harder to track, but much useful information can be gleaned from the diplomata issued to discharged soldiers, since these readily datable documents usually list not only the man’s own unit, but all the other cohorts and alae within the province demobilizing men in the same year. This information helps to build up a list of units garrisoning a province at a set period.

(Above) The ruins of the fortified city of Dura Europus on the Euphrates. Excavations at this city have produced large quantities of military equipment as well as a great deal of other interesting material, including wall- paintings and many military texts on papyrus.

In general - and especially in Europe - the Roman army was spread around the frontier provinces. Deepest within the province were often the great fortresses of the legions usually lying on the most important route of communication, whilst auxiliary forts and smaller outposts were mainly dotted around the periphery.

In the eastern provinces a significant number of military garrisons were based in or near cities. The two-legion garrison of Egypt was concentrated for most of the Principate at Nikopolis just outside Alexandria, and significant detachments from the Syrian legions were often stationed at or near Antioch. After Rome, Alexandria and Antioch were by far the largest cities in the Empire. They were important political centres with turbulent populations, and it was not uncommon for the soldiers to be employed against rioters in these cities. Yet in general garrison life around such a great city was pleasant, for it gave the soldiers access to the many luxuries of urban life, hence the common literary theme that such comfortable conditions weakened military efficiency. It was not just legions which were stationed in cities. The garrison of Dura Europus in the 3rd century ad was housed mainly in a military compound within the city, although some troops may have been billeted in civilian housing. Until the rebellion of AD 66 the garrison of the small province of Judaea was predominantly stationed in the cities and towns. The cohort permanently stationed in Jerusalem appears to have been quartered in the three great towers built by Herod the Great near his palace (an area now known as the Citadel). When the equestrian governor visited the city, usually during festivals such as the Passover when the mood could become tense, he brought with him another cohort which took up residence in the fortress of Antonia adjacent to the Great Temple. When Pontius Pilate first visited Jerusalem in this way, an uproar was created because his escort had brought its standards, including the imagines, with them, thus bringing graven images into the Temple and offending Jewish law. After a period of rioting, Pilate backed down and had the standards publicly removed from the fortress and the city. Even in the western provinces there is growing evidence for garrisons being maintained in important towns, for instance the sizeable fort in Roman London. It is probably a mistake to see the internal areas of the provinces as wholly demilitarized.

Garrison routine

Although we can locate the physical remains of many Roman military bases, it is much harder to deduce why the sites were chosen in the first place, how large the garrison was at any given time and what it was doing. Both forts and fortresses provided large amounts of accommodation, but it is only the rigid thinking of modern commentators which assumes that this must always have been occupied by soldiers of a particular unit type and size. A cooking pot of Ala I Thracum was found at the base of Legio II Augusta at Caerleon, which may suggest the presence of auxiliary cavalry at the base. There are hints in the Vindolanda material of legionary personnel passing through the fort. Similarly, even though a unit may be attested on an inscription and then appear on another from the same site some decades later, this does not automatically mean that it remained in garrison there throughout the intervening period. Even if it had done so, this in turn does not rule out the possibility that the bulk of its manpower was actually serving elsewhere.

The strength report of Cohors I Tungrorum found amongst the Vindolanda tablets gave its total number of effectives as 752, including six centurions. No fewer than 456 soldiers, and five of the centurions, were absent from Vindolanda on detached duty. A large group of 337 men, probably commanded by two centurions, were no great distance away at Corbridge (Coria), but others were as far afield as London. Another, rather fuller strength roster was found in Egypt, although it refers to an auxiliary unit serving in Moesia on the Danube, probably in the year 105. Some fragments, especially numbers, are missing or unclear, but it provides an indication of some of the many duties performed by the army. The cohort was part-mounted (equitata) although it does not say so, and was also known as veterana, probably to differentiate it from another, more recently raised Cohors I Hispanorum in the same province. Much of the cohort’s manpower was dispersed in penny packets inside and outside the province. Only one out of six centurions was serving away from the main body, compared to the five out of six at Vindolanda, but three out of the four decurions were elsewhere. There is a good deal of evidence to suggest that such patterns were common for army units under the Principate. In the early 2nd century, Pliny the Younger was sent as special Imperial legate to govern the province of Bithynia and Pontus (northern Asia Minor), and his correspondence with the Emperor Trajan during this period was subsequently published. The province was normally controlled by a senatorial proconsul and had a minimal military garrison. In spite of this, Pliny continually mentions small parties of soldiers performing a wide range of roles, from regulating traffic, to escorting officials and guarding prisons. Throughout Pliny mentions the Emperor’s desire to have as few men as possible serving away from their units. Trajan’s replies constantly re-state this ambition, whilst in nearly every case instructing Pliny to leave that particular detachment where it was. Roman emperors governed with the aid of only a very small civilian bureaucracy, and frequently called upon the army to perform many non-military tasks, simply because there was no one else available.

A badly eroded tombstone from Roman London depicting a soldier carrying writing tablets as an indication of his clerical job. The army provided most of the personnel who performed administrative functions on the staffs of provincial legates

Strength Report

Strength Report (pridianum) of Cohors I Hispanorum Veterana quingenaria, commanded by Arruntianus, prefect. This is probably from ad 105, although we can’t be certain.

Total of soldiers on 31 December 546

Including 6 centurions, 4 decurions; 119 cavalry; also including duplicarii, 3 sesquiplicarii, 1 infantry duplicarius, infantry sesquiplicarii.

Accessions after 1 January

 Faustinus the Legate 2 30 the stragglers

Total accessions 50

Grand total 596

Including 6 centurions, 4 decurions; cavalry; also including 2 duplicarii, 3 sesquiplicarii, infantry duplicarius, .

From these are lost:

Posted to the fleet by order of Faustinus the Legate by order of Iustus the Legate, including 1 cavalryman

Sent back to Herennius Saturninus 1+

Transferred to army of Pannonia 1+

Drowned 1+

Killed by robbers, 1 cavalryman 1

Killed _

Total lost, among them

returned with the stragglers 1

NET , among them 6 centurions, 4 decurions; 110+ cavalry;

including 2 duplicarii, 3 sesquiplicarii, infantry duplicarii, 6 infantry sesquiplicarii

From these, absent

In Gaul to get clothing

Likewise to get grain

Across the River Erar (?) to get horses, among them


At Castra in garrison, among them 2 cavalrymen

In Dardania at the mines

Total absent outside the province, including cavalrymen

Inside the Province

Orderlies of Fabius Iustus the Legate, among them

Carus, decurion

In the office of Latinianus, procurator of the Emperor

At Piroboridava in garrison

At Buridava in garrison

Across the Danube on an expedition, including

 sesquiplicarii, 23 cavalry, 2 infantry sesquiplicarii

Likewise across to defend the grain supply

Likewise scouting with the centurion A—uinus,

including cavalrymen

At the grain ships, including 1 decurion

At headquarters with the clerks

To the Haemus Mountains to bring cattle

On guard over draft animals, including


Likewise on guard over  

Total absent of both categories

including 1 centurion, 3 decurions; cavalry; ;

2 infantry sesquiplicarii

Soldiers as administrators

Republican governors appear to have had staffs numbering no more than a few dozen, but by the Principate the situation had improved, and the legate of an imperial province had far more assistance. His essentially military headquarters, known as the praetorium and usually commanded by a seconded centurion, and his horse and foot bodyguards, the singulars chosen from the pick of the auxiliary units, were backed by the administrative officium. This was directly supervised by clerks (cornicularii) - the post which Julius Apollinaris had unsuccessfully sought soon after enlistment (p. 79) - and probably numbered several hundred men. All of its personnel was provided by the army and detached from parent units. Amongst the officium were commentarienses, who appear to have maintained the records of the province, secretaries (exceptores and notarii), book-keepers and archivists (librarii and exacti) and assistants (adiutores), as well as more senior men who ranked as principales, such as the beneficiarii, frumentarii, and speculators. One of the principal tasks of the officium was the overseeing of the administration of the army within the province, but it could also be turned to any of the range of tasks likely to be encountered by the governor. All appointments to it were at the disposal of the legate, but it seems unlikely that every new governor dismissed all prior appointments to replace them with his own men. This probably meant that there was considerable administrative continuity in the military provinces.

Soldiers were very visible representatives of Roman power, and indeed in many rural areas probably the only agents of imperial government likely to be encountered. Officers in particular, whether the regional centurions or the equestrian commanders of auxiliary garrisons, seem commonly to have undertaken administrative work delegated from the provincial governor. Amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls - papyrus documents found in caves near Khirbet Qumran in Israel - was an archive of documents dating to the early 2nd century belonging to a local woman named Babatha. The archive includes a copy of a formal declaration made in December 127 detailing her property around the town of Maoza in Arabia. The original document was presented to Priscus, a cavalry commander - most probably a prefect of an ala - whose Latin receipt was translated into Greek to conform with the rest of the copy. The declaration was part of a census being carried out by the governor of the province, with Priscus acting as his representative in the area of Maoza. Another fragmentary papyrus contains the text of a similar declaration made to Priscus at Maoza by another person altogether, suggesting that this was not an isolated instance and that he was regularly involved in such administration.

Soldiers as builders

The Roman army, especially the legions, contained large numbers of craftsmen and specialists such as architects and engineers. Military bases, from the temporary camps constructed at the end of each march on campaign to the great stone forts and fortresses, were built by the soldiers themselves. Many inscriptions survive recording the original construction or restoration of defences or buildings in and around permanent bases. Usually such work appears to have been undertaken by the unit in garrison, although the situation is less clear with auxiliary forts. The non-citizen units were much smaller than the legions and thus contained fewer technicians. However, there is evidence for auxiliaries undertaking some building work, although perhaps it was common for these projects to be supervised by legionary engineers.

When very large projects were undertaken, manpower was drawn from a number of units. The construction of Hadrian’s Wall required the participation of all three legions stationed in Britain, II Augusta, VI Victrix, and XX Valeria Victrix. Each legion was allocated a stretch of the wall to construct and in turn allocated sections to individual centuries. Centurial stones, marking the completion of a length of wall by one of these units, are common finds. The division of building works between the normal sub-units of the army appears to have been a standard practice. Titus’ army undertook the construction of lines of siege-works at the siege of Jerusalem in AD 70 in this way, and it was believed to foster healthy competition between units to complete their task faster and more efficiently than everyone else. On Hadrian’s Wall there are signs that each unit also interpreted the basic design slightly differently, for instance building milecastles and turrets to different patterns.

The Roman legionaries on Trajan’s Column are frequently shown undertaking major construction projects, as in this scene where a group build a camp On campaign soldiers were supposed to work while still wearing their body armour in case of sudden attack. In peacetime such precautions were unnecessary but the army found itself called upon to construct a very wide range of different structures, from amphitheatres to aqueducts and roads.

Road building was also commonly undertaken by the army. Such projects benefited the civilian community of the province, whilst providing the military with improved communications for moving men and material as required. As we have seen, most legions, and some auxiliary units, built amphitheatres outside their bases. However, there is also ample evidence for the army undertaking projects for the civilian community. The aqueduct still visible outside the colony of Caesarea Maritima on the coast of Judaea was restored by a vexillation of Legio X Fretensis, who left an inscription still in situ commemorating this. Other inscriptions record similar work on this aqueduct by other legions. In ad 75 vexillations from four legions and 20 auxiliary cohorts dug a 3-mile canal near Antioch along with bridges to cross it. As governor of Bithynia, Pliny wrote to Trajan proposing various engineering works, and mentioning others started by the local communities, but which had invariably failed or been abandoned. He asked Trajan repeatedly to instruct the governor of Lower Moesia, the nearest province with a legionary garrison, to send him an army engineer to supervise the project. In nearly every case Trajan refused, saying that there must be competent engineers and architects in Bithynia, but Pliny’s requests testify to the widespread belief that the best engineers came from the army. An inscription from Lambaesis in North Africa seems to support the view. It reports the involvement of a veteran serving with Legio III Augusta, a certain Nonius Datus, with a project to bore a tunnel through a mountain to allow the flow of water to a town in the neighbouring province of Mauretania. Datus was requested to return to the site on several occasions by the local authorities, who each time sought permission from the legate of the legion, but does not seem to have stayed for any lengthy period, presumably because he had duties elsewhere. On one of his visits he took measurements of the two tunnels the workmen were excavating from opposite sides of the mountain, only to find that their sum was greater than its total width. Such mistakes caused serious problems. For at least some of the time the labour force was provided by sailors and auxiliaries, Datus exploiting the rivalry between the two groups to speed the work.

The aqueduct at Caesarea in modem Israel runs along the sea shore and was intended to provide the colony with ample water. It was constructed and maintained by the army.

(Below) An inscription, still in place on the Caesarea aqueduct, records budding work undertaken by a vexillation of Legio X Fretensis during the reign of Trajan.

Soldiers in industry

Claudius awarded triumphal honours - the highest reward a general from outside the imperial family was permitted to receive - to Curtius Rufus, who as governor of Upper Germany had set his troops to mining for silver in the territory of the Mattiaci tribe. Tacitus cynically commented that the labour had been massive and rewards insignificant, and says that the soldiers wrote to the Emperor requesting that he automatically grant each new governor this honour, so that they would stop trying to win it with such arduous but pointless exercises. This case was exceptional, and it was common in most

provinces for the soldiers to be involved in a range of industrial and manufacturing activities. In western Britain, Legio II Augusta supervised the lead mines in the Mendip hills, as well probably as others nearer its base at Caerleon. The army ran quarries to provide the stone needed for its building projects. There were also military potteries, where not only cooking vessels needed by the troops were produced, but also the vast quantities of red clay tiles needed to roof fort buildings. Tiles in particular were often stamped with a unit’s name, but their use does not appear to have been exclusive to military buildings, for they turn up on some civil sites. A few bear graffiti, and similar idle carvings on quarry walls, made by bored and weary soldiers.

Larger military sites often contained substantial workshops (fabricae). These were active in the production and maintenance of weapons and military equipment, but seem also to have made many of the other items required by the army. One of the Vindolanda tablets concerns the allocation of 343 men to the fort’s workshops. Amongst the tasks mentioned in this fragmentary document are shoemaking, building a bath house, and uncertain tasks individually involving lead, wagons, the hospital, the kilns, probably digging clay, plastering, something to do with tents, and gathering rubble.

Soldiers as policemen

The provinces of the Roman Empire possessed no equivalent to a police force, although in some areas there were small numbers of local village constables with limited authority. Soldiers were agents of the imperial government, permitted to carry arms and employ violent force on command, and frequently found themselves on policing duties. The duty roster from Egypt mentioned earlier assigned men to patrols in Alexandria and to the enigmatic ‘plain-clothes’ duties. Along some of the roads in Egypt and other provinces at fairly regular intervals were small guard towers, which can have contained no more than a handful of soldiers. Clearly these were not intended to meet any large- scale military threat, but were to supervise traffic along the roads. Many legionary beneficiarii were assigned to way-stations (stationes) where they acted as local representatives of the governor and could be involved in a whole range of tasks, including making arrests and carrying out the punishments meted out by the courts. Even more important were the regional centurions, and other officers who found themselves dotted around the provinces, for they were by far the most powerful officials encountered by most provincial civilians.

Papyri from Egypt record many cases where provincials appealed to army officers, most often centurions, seeking redress for crimes committed against them. In 207 the woman Aurelia Tisais wrote to the centurion Aurelius Julius Marcellinus saying that her father and brother had disappeared on a hunting expedition and that she feared they were dead. If this were so, Aurelia wanted the officer to find those responsible and hold them to account. Thefts of various sort were common causes of such appeals, and we hear of clothing, grain and animals amongst other property being taken. Quite often the alleged thieves were named, and one letter lists six men, plus numerous accomplices and a soldier Titius whom the writer claimed had taken a large quantity of fish from one of his ponds. In this case, as in many others, the victim had been threatened or actually assaulted. In 193 the centurion Ammonius Paternus received an appeal from a certain Syros, aged 47, who identified himself as having a scar on his right knee. Since he was illiterate, the letter was written by another man. Syros accused several collectors of a tax levied on corn with having demanded more than their due, and having attacked and robbed his mother, who was left ill in bed as a result.

We do not know the outcome of most of these appeals, and whether or not any action was taken. The formulaic nature of so many of these documents suggests that seeking redress in this way was a common, and presumably effective, practice. One surviving letter was written by a centurion summoning a person accused in a dispute over the ownership of crops. If necessary, a centurion could despatch armed soldiers to bring an individual for judgment. Other documents record people effectively standing bail for the accused, guaranteeing to pay their fine if they failed to appear in court.

Soldiers as an occupying force

The Roman Empire brought peace and prosperity. Populations rose and economies boomed in many areas under Rome’s rule. The benefits of the new regime were not shared evenly, and did not extend to some groups, but on the whole the majority of the Empire’s population enjoyed a higher standard of living than before the arrival of Rome. Yet, in spite of such trends, Rome was a conquering power and ultimately her rule was based upon military supremacy. At times that rule had to be enforced, and the agent of this was the army. Major rebellions occurred in many provinces within a generation of their initial conquest. After this some regions appear to have accepted Roman rule, however grudgingly, but elsewhere sporadic and sometimes widespread outbreaks continued to occur. Strong military garrisons remained in Wales and northern Britain long after these had been occupied and the frontier moved some distance away. Mountainous or desert regions rarely became entirely settled and usually required a strong military presence. The violent elements inside the Empire were normally referred to as bandits and their attacks were more often directed against the settled population than the army as such. It is now very hard to say what motivated such activity and to what extent these were political actions directed against Roman rule. Communities which had traditionally supplemented their incomes through banditry may have seen no reason to stop doing so with the arrival of Rome, but it is possible that in some areas resistance was provoked by the Roman presence.

In AD 66 the province of Judaea erupted into open rebellion. Initial attempts to crush this resistance only produced Roman defeats and it took several years of methodical campaigning to recover the area. The culmination of the war was the siege and capture of Jerusalem by the Emperor Vespasian’s son Titus, who later commemorated his achievement on the Arch in Rome which bears his name In this relief from the Arch we see men carrying spoils taken from the Great Temple

Infinitely more is known about this sort of activity in and around the province of Judaea than any other part of the Empire. This material, derived from historians such as Josephus as well as the New Testament and the Talmudic literature, gives us an unrivalled view of Roman rule as seen from the perspective of the conquered population. However, we should be very cautious about assuming that similar activity went on in other provinces about which far less is known. The dictates of Jewish religion made it exceptionally difficult, perhaps impossible, for the Romans to absorb the Jews into the social system of the Empire. The situation was not helped by the general difficulty for the polytheistic Romans to understand the Jews, whose beliefs were considered so perverse as to be akin to atheism, and the repeated appointment as governors of Judaea of the most unsuitable individuals. Major rebellions erupted in the province under Nero and Hadrian, with another late in Trajan’s reign amongst the large Jewish population in Egypt, but these were merely the highlights of fairly constant low-level banditry and rebellion.

The Roman response to resistance of any kind was usually brutal. In 4 вс, when disturbances followed the death of Herod the Great, the Syrian governor Varus arrested and crucified several thousand suspected rebels around Jerusalem. In spite of such brutal measures, banditry remained a constant problem and travel a dangerous prospect, a reality hinted at in the parable of the Good Samaritan and Josephus’ casual comment that the rigorous religious sect called the Essenes only carried weapons when on a journey. Christ was executed on the orders of the prefect of the province, Pontius Pilate, the task being carried out by a party of soldiers led by a centurion. Barabbas, the man whom Pilate released instead of Jesus, is described in Mark’s Gospel as a bandit (leistis) who had been imprisoned for leading a rebellion in Jerusalem. Josephus describes many other leaders who appeared and were suppressed by the Roman authorities. His attitude towards most is hostile, for they challenged the authority of the high priestly families to which the historian himself belonged. The Talmudic literature, which consists primarily of stories and teachings about various rabbis, makes relatively frequent reference to groups of men living outside the law. The attitude of these texts towards such rebels is much more ambivalent and sometimes positive. Archaeologists have discovered on a number of sites cave and tunnel complexes from which such bands of terrorists (or freedom fighters or bandits, depending on an observer’s point of view) operated. In some cases military equipment, including helmets, have been found in these hides, perhaps representing the spoils of a raid.

Not all violence within the provinces was directed against Rome. In Judaea the Samaritans and Jews were not infrequently openly hostile both to each other and the Gentile communities within the region. Rioting between Jewish and Gentile communities periodically broke out in cities such as Alexandria and Caesarea. The rebellion in Egypt under Trajan became virtually a war between Jew and pagan, and many Egyptian communities raised volunteer units to fight with the Roman army.

Soldiers and civilian

When ordered to do so, Roman army units appear to have displayed no qualms about arresting and executing members of the civilian population, or burning down villages. Our sources also provide many instances of the brutal behaviour of individual soldiers. John the Baptist is said to have instructed soldiers to be ‘content with their pay’, rather than seizing what they wanted from civilians. He may well have been addressing troops from Herod’s army but, since these units were modelled on the Roman pattern and subsequently taken into the regular auxilia, the distinction is minor. The brutal soldier was a familiar figure in Roman literature. The hero of Petronius’ Satyricon is threatened and robbed one night by a legionary, whilst in Apuleius’ Golden Ass, a soldier attempts to steal the ass and later, when he has been beaten up, his comrades seek revenge. Papyri from Egypt make it clear that such abuse of power occurred in reality. Soldiers were permitted under some circumstances to requisition animals and property, but were supposed to give receipts so that the owner could seek compensation. Clearly this did not always happen, and it could be difficult for a civilian to seek redress against a soldier. Private accounts survive from Egypt in which bribes paid to soldiers and other officials are listed along with other everyday expenses, which may suggest how commonplace such things were.

Much larger-scale contributions were often required officially by the state. Other Egyptian records survive recording the receipt of grain by soldiers on behalf of their units from individual landowners or communities. For instance in 185 the duplicarius Antonius Justinus of Ala Heracliana garrisoned at Coptos in Egypt was sent to collect grain by his commander, the prefect Valerius Frontinus. The provincial governor had declared that 20,000 artabas of barley were to be allocated to the unit from the year’s harvest. Justinus took receipt of 100 artabas of this, which was the share of this grain tax required from the village of Terton Epa.

Roman troops could be the brutal enforcers of Roman power in the provinces. As bearers of weapons, individual soldiers sometimes abused their position to threaten civilians and extort money from them. The ancient world was often a cruel and violent place. However, this should not disguise the fact that many of the interactions between soldier and civilian were peaceful and beneficial to both sides. Soldiers could also be husbands and parents, customers of civilian traders, men who upheld the law, and provided the skills needed for the construction of valuable amenities.

A relief from the Adamklissi monument showing a soldier leading two chained barbarians. Roman soldiers were often called upon to enforce the decisions of the civil powers

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