Life in a Roman Legion

Christina here. Do you believe in serendipity? I definitely do! I happen to be working on another book set during Roman times (although in Britain, not Italy) and guess what happened? The British Museum put on an exhibition about Roman legions! Although my hero is not a legionary, the villain is, so this was the perfect research opportunity and naturally, I had to go and see it.

The exhibition was called Legion – Life in the Roman Army – and it was amazing! A collection of fabulous artefacts, with plenty of backstory and historical information. Here’s a brief summary of what I learned, including my favourite exhibits:-

Rome’s first emperor, Augustus (63 BC – AD 14), ruled over a vast empire, based on military dominance. To maintain power everywhere, he created the first professional army of full-time career soldiers divided into regiments – legions. Together these consisted of approximately 150,000 male Roman citizens, plus an equal number of non-citizens in so-called auxiliary units. This vast army was incredibly efficient and well-trained, and for the most part invincible. Although not always – in AD 9 on the Danube frontier at Teutoburg Forest three whole legions (around 20,000 men) were completely annihilated by ‘barbarians’ (Germanic tribes)!

Recruitment standards for the Roman army were very specific. First of all, the recruit had to be a Roman citizen. Non-citizens could only join auxiliary units, where the pay was lower. To be a legionary, they also had to be at least 172cm/5ft 7in tall. (Sample measurements taken from skeletons found at Herculaneum estimated the average male height at this time around 160 cm/5ft 3in, which puts this in context.) So if you were a very tall youth/teenager, you could enlist early – age only mattered if you were too old to start a military career, where 35 was the upper limit.

They had to go through an interview and pass a physical examination where they were closely inspected. Eunuchs, for example, were not accepted. Recruits also needed letters of recommendation with references. This could be a problem for some and if they couldn’t produce such letters, even citizens could end up in an auxiliary unit instead where standards were lower. Ethnicity was not a consideration – the Roman empire was multi-cultural and recruits could come from anywhere, as long as they were free men (no slaves allowed). In order to fit in, though, many of them adopted a new ‘proper’ Roman name.

After going through basic training, a recruit would swear an oath, committing himself to 25 years of military service. There was no going back after that, and deserters could be executed. So why would someone voluntarily sign up for such a long term? If they survived the full term (and there was around a 50% chance of doing so), they were given a substantial pension upon retirement. In some cases, veterans were also given land. The men serving in the auxiliary units were promised Roman citizenship, something that gave rights and benefits non-citizens didn’t have. (Although this all changed after AD 212 when Emperor Caracalla decided to grant citizenship to all unenslaved inhabitants in his empire.)

Citizenship could also be extended to a wife and children, but only one wife per man was allowed (monogamy wasn’t guaranteed at this time). Apart from the officers, soldiers weren’t allowed official wives during the first two centuries of the empire, but unofficial ones were common. And if someone was married before they joined up, the marriage could resume once they retired! (Can you imagine some poor woman waiting 25 years to be a ‘proper’ wife again?)

Another benefit of being a legionary was regular pay. Although an agricultural labourer could potentially earn the same daily rate, their work was uncertain, whereas a soldier was guaranteed a wage for every day of the year. They were encouraged to save half of it for retirement, but they had to pay for things like their own clothing, weapons and armour (although they could bring some from home), as well as food and shoes. With all the marching they did, a legionary could expect to wear out two pairs of shoes per month!

Roman soldiers were put in a group of eight – the contubernium – to share lodgings and cook/eat together, unless they were cavalry in which case they needed more space for their horses. Ten of these groups were said to make up a ‘century’ of 80 men, led by a centurion. The centurion carried a ‘swagger stick’ – a whip-like vine rod/branch – used for punishments.

A Roman soldier had to be fit and they began by learning how to march in step. There were monthly route marches – in heavy armour and carrying packs weighing around 27 kg, plus a 5.5 kg shield – and lots of physical exercise and weapons training. Practice weapons were intentionally heavier than regular ones to improve muscle strength. Troops also routinely did hard manual labour building roads, an essential part of maintaining communications and necessary for being able to move armies quickly.

A Roman army could march 29 km in five hours. After that, they were expected to build a temporary camp, which involved constructing fortified earthworks that had to be levelled again next morning before they left. Each man carried two wooden rampart spikes that were used for this. When on campaign, they lived rough in tents made of leather – 8 men in each. (Officers had their own). When not on campaign, they lived in barracks in permanent forts. A normal barrack block would contain 10 pairs of rooms (a sleeping room and an equipment room for each contubernium) and separate quarters for the centurion.

Most of us probably have an image in our minds of what a Roman legionary looked like, but in reality they didn’t have a standard uniform. Most just wore a tunic gathered with a belt, and hobnail boots or sandals. Depending on where they were stationed, some also wore trousers – braccae – and a cloak. For battles, various types of armour were added.

The exhibition showed a variety of armour – helmets, shields and weapons. I was particularly impressed by the only complete Roman shield ever found (in Syria), slightly curved and with the distinctive and very familiar rectangular shape. The paintings on a red background were stunning!

There were different types of body armour – muscle cuirass (a breastplate moulded with fake muscles), segmental armour (articulated plates fixed with straps and hinges covering the torso), scale armour (looked like fish scales fixed on an undergarment), chainmail and even possibly crocodile armour (see photo)!

Helmets were often of bronze, roughly in the shape of a backwards baseball cap where the ‘brim’ protected the back of the neck. They also had hinged cheek pieces, and some had fixings where you could add a crest or feathers for parades/displays. Helmets were worn over a fabric hat.

With regards to weapons, ordinary legionaries usually had a javelin and a shortsword (gladius – a stabbing weapon), while auxiliaries carried a thrusting spear and a gladius (or sometimes a longsword, spatha ­– a slashing weapon). They also had a dagger, which was more of a utensil. Everyone wore a belt, some with leather straps hanging down like an apron protecting the groin. Taking the belt away could be a punishment as a man’s tunic would then be loose like a woman’s – humiliating!

Being literate was essential if a soldier wanted promotion, as orders, lists and letters were written either on wax tablets, wood or papyrus. (Lots of wooden ones have been found at Vindolanda near Hadrian’s Wall). All communication was done in Latin, so no matter where the soldiers came from, they learned to at least speak that language.

Being a Roman legionary was a hard life, but they did have some time for leisure pursuits, such as playing board games and visiting the local baths.

There was an awful lot more to see and absorb, but that was probably more than you wanted to know!

Would you go and see an exhibition like this and do you find the Romans (or other ancient civilisations) fascinating?

16 thoughts on “Life in a Roman Legion”

  1. Fascinating, Christina! I’ve been reading bits out to the Mayhem Consultant. Lots of great information there. I would definitely visit such a museum exhibit even though I’m not planning on writing and Roman set novels.

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    • Thank you, Mary Jo, so glad you found it interesting! If you’re anywhere near London the exhibition is still on.

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  2. I would definitely visit this exhibition. I have always been interested in the Romans. While reading this I kept thinking of Russell Crowe in Gladiator & Clive Owen and Ioan Gruffudd in King Arthur.

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    • Oh yes, both great movies! I particularly enjoyed King Arthur – must watch that again sometime soon. Glad you enjoyed the post and that you like the Romans!

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  3. Many years ago, I took Latin. (Not quite when the Romans were marching around, but close) Because of the history we learned in Latin, I became interested in their lives. I would like the exhibit. I thank you for this post, the pictures and the history.

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    • Thank you, Annette! I’m very jealous of you learning Latin – I wanted to but unfortunately my school didn’t offer it as a course. I’ll have to try to learn a bit on my own!

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  4. It sounds like a great exhibition, and I wish I could see it. I’ve long been interested in the Romans, but what sounds especially intriguing about this display is the details it gives about the way that ordinary people lived.

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    • Thank you Lil! It was really detailed with lots of information to take in – definitely worth seeing and very well done. The Romans were fascinating!

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    • Thank you, Quantum – that’s great for additional details (and of course I bought the companion book to the exhibition). I hope you get to see it!

      My book will be set in AD 80/81, so unfortunately doesn’t feature Boudica, although the hero is of her tribe (Iceni) and, as a child, was one of the people captured after her army’s defeat so he remembers the rebellion. The focus is firmly on the southern part of Britain but I might write about the north in a future book. There was so much going on, it’s difficult to choose! All exciting stuff.

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  5. Thank you, Christina, for your educational post; the exhibit sounds fascinating. (Too bad that I’m on a different continent.)

    Annette N, my daughter studied Latin beginning in eighth grade and majored in it in college. There not being much demand for those speaking Latin, she went on to teach English in South Korea!

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    • That’s a shame, Kareni – perhaps the exhibition will travel to somewhere closer to you. I’m glad you enjoyed the post! Again, I’m envious of your daughter studying Latin. She must be extremely good at it if it was her major!

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  6. I love exhibits like this. I was recently in Istanbul, and there was a museum with Ottoman era weaponry and armor in the Topkapi Palace complex. A later era than the Romans, but it was so interesting to see the types of armor, swords, and other weapons they used.

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    • Oh wow, that sounds amazing, Karin! I’ve never been to Istanbul but would love to go sometime – it looks like a fascinating city. Glad you enjoy this type of exhibition as well!

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  7. Thank you for this glimpse of the exhibition, the hardship of soldiering, the artwork of some gear, and lifestyle. I look forward to reading more about it and will definitely attend when/if in my area!

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