Warriors of Rome

9 mins read

From soldiers to citizens in service of the Empire

Individuals drawn from many different places served in the ranks of Rome’s army. This tombstone commemorates one of them. It dates to AD 1-100 and is dedicated to Firmus Ecconis, an auxiliary infantryman. He is shown holding a spear and wearing his sword and dagger belts. Ecconis is flanked by his son and a slave. [Image: © LVR-Landesmuseum Bonn]

Rome’s military is renowned as one of the finest fighting forces of the ancient world. But what was life really like for the individuals who became career soldiers, and how much do we know about the tools of their trade? Richard Abdy told Matthew Symonds about the people who fought for Rome.

He was probably nearing retirement. The soldier was more than 40 years old when he found himself on a beach, caught up in an evacuation attempt. Assuming that he had enlisted around the age of 18, as was common, he would only have a year or two left before he was discharged after 25 or 26 years’ service. If the soldier was not yet a Roman citizen, his retirement would be marked with the receipt of a bronze diploma awarding him this status, which bestowed a wealth of desirable rights. It would also make him one of the lucky ones – estimates suggest that perhaps only half of Rome’s soldiers survived to reach this milestone, with the rest succumbing to war, disease, or the simple misfortunes that dog lives of hard labour. Having got so close, the soldier on the beach could have been forgiven for starting to daydream about a peaceful future spent working a patch of good ground: one of the plots reserved for citizens. But it was not to be. For the year was AD 79, and the sand he was standing on stretched out in front of the seaside town of Herculaneum.

More than 300 people perished on that beach when Vesuvius erupted. Most of the victims were sheltering in boat sheds on the edge of town, but a few were waiting further out on the beach, presumably hoping for salvation from the sea. So far as we can see, the 40-something man was the only soldier among them. His status is marked out by a pair of military belts – the closest thing to a uniform in the era – with one supporting his dagger, and the other his short sword or gladius. There was no call for hot, heavy armour on the beach, but the soldier had attached to his dagger belt a metal-and-leather-strip groin protector that hung over his russet-red tunic. It was not just this military kit that marked out the man as a powerful presence: his bones show traces of heavily developed thigh and forearm muscles.

The ancient shoreline at Herculaneum was buried during the eruption of Vesuvius. Here we see a set of arched boat sheds that once lay on the seafront, with a bath building beyond. [Image: © Daniel M Cisilino | Dreamstime.com]

As the only boat found on the beach was seemingly a naval launch, it has been wondered if the soldier was a marine freshly arrived from the port at Misenum, a little further up the coast. A Roman fleet was based there, and its commander – the ancient author and curious soul Pliny the Elder – famously perished in a failed rescue attempt. Pliny’s initial rescue party is recorded turning back from landing at Herculaneum, but maybe another group was not driven away by the ash. One theory is that the skeletons on the beach are all that remain of a much larger group of victims, who were blasted into the sea by the final pyroclastic flow from Vesuvius (we know some people did end up in the sea, as bodies were washed back to shore and found atop the volcanic mass of new land that formed over the beach). The Herculaneum soldier could have had colleagues with him in the final moments.

Alternatively, the soldier may have been posted to the town prior to the disaster. His possessions certainly suggest another possible reason for his presence. He had a set of carpentry tools – showing that he was an immunis, a skilled soldier who was immune from some fatigues in order to ply his trade – and he was also carrying various valuables. These included 87 denarii in cash, making up a good chunk of the basic annual pay for a standard auxiliary soldier at the time. Unsurprisingly, a number of other individuals whose journeys ended on the beach had gathered a few treasured items before seeking shelter or escape, and the objects found with the soldier fit that pattern perfectly. Perhaps, then, his carpentry skills had seen him seconded to Herculaneum as a shipwright. If so, the soldier may have been a rare figure of authority on the seafront as disaster overtook the town, prompting him to put himself at risk by overseeing preparations for an anticipated evacuation. But a darker take on the soldier’s presence has also been proposed (by the Smithsonian Channel documentary Hero of Herculaneum) – that he accumulated those 87 denarii by extorting bribes from anyone wishing to jump to the front of the queue and await rescue on the beach. Although there is no reason why the coins could not be the soldier’s own savings, this question of the roles played by Roman soldiers – as heroes, villains, and everything in between – as well as the realities of their lives lies at the heart of the British Museum’s latest blockbuster exhibition Legion: life in the Roman army (see ‘Further information’ box).

The military mind

The Emperor Augustus used the riches he secured in Egypt to establish permanent military units. This bronze head of the emperor is 46.2cm high, and was found at Meroë in the Sudan. [Image: © Trustees of the British Museum]

‘In total, you’re looking at a millennium of Roman military history’, says Richard Abdy, curator of Iron Age and Roman coins, and also lead exhibition curator of the British Museum’s show. ‘It runs, if legend is to be believed, from the Battle of Rome in 509 BC, when the last Etruscan king was turfed out, right the way through to the fall of Rome in the 5th century AD. That is far too much to cover in one exhibition, so we’ve focused in on a shorter timespan. We start with the first emperor Augustus, who conquered Egypt and used Cleopatra’s fabulous wealth to establish permanent Roman military regiments, setting up the idea of a career soldier. Augustus was very much a social conservative, and when he established this army, his idea was that half of it would consist of Roman citizens in the legions, while the other half would be non-citizen provincials from conquered territories, who served in supporting auxiliary regiments. But at some point, possibly during the reign of the emperor Claudius – as he is someone renowned for giving provincials a leg up – retiring auxiliary soldiers started to receive Roman citizenship.’

The earliest surviving diploma conferring this status dates to AD 52, and belonged to another marine who served at Misenum. His name was Sparticus. He was originally from Thrace and, in one of those quirks of history, by gaining citizenship Sparticus received the rights that his near-namesake – the famous rebel leader Spartacus – had fought for in vain a little over a century earlier. It is thought that only 20% of the inhabitants of the Empire were citizens, meaning that Sparticus’ elevation placed him among an elite who enjoyed a wealth of legal protections and tax advantages. The strong incentive this created to serve Rome in an auxiliary unit had an impact on the role of the army. As well as being an effective instrument of conquest, it now became a machine for mass-producing citizens. This important social dynamic only came to a close in AD 212, when the emperor Caracalla set the army on a new course by issuing an edict that granted citizenship to all freeborn individuals within the Empire.

Diplomas were issued to auxiliary soldiers when they received citizenship after completing their military service. This example was awarded to Gemellus on 17 July AD 122. [Image: © Trustees of the British Museum]

‘Focusing on the army from Augustus through to the period when Caracalla’s edict took effect also allows us to use surviving ancient texts to get inside the heads of Roman soldiers’, says Richard. ‘One inspiration is the remarkable set of wooden writing tablets from the fort at Vindolanda, near Hadrian’s Wall in Britain. But the surviving papyri from Egypt offer an extremely rich textural source, too. In particular, we can read the letters that Roman soldiers sent home. There are three cases that I know of with complete letters, all dating to the 2nd century AD. One of them is a single letter, written by a soldier called Apollinarius to his mum. He’s another marine bound for the Bay of Naples, but travelling via Rome. Apollinarius writes very poignantly, “I beg you mother to look after yourself and don’t worry about me, for I have come to a fine place.” It really gives an impression of what it must be like to come from a distant corner of the Empire to this gigantic world city.’

This tombstone shows a soldier holding a writing tablet or scroll. Letters that serving soldiers sent home to loved ones provide a powerful sense of the realities of military service. [Image: © Landesmuseum Mainz]

‘Another chap is Apion, who writes two letters home: one to his father and one to his sister. He’s also an auxiliary marine heading for Misenum, and he tells us about all sorts of things, such as his first pay packet, his terrible voyage to join his regiment, his fitting in with the other Egyptians in the marines, and changing his name to Antonius Maximus. He marries a local girl; well, I say “marries”, but in this period marriage for ordinary soldiers wasn’t legally recognised, so it was unofficial. But with his new name and his new family, Apion was taking steps towards the day when he would become a citizen. We know that Apion was ambitious – he praises his father for teaching him to read and write, because he hopes it will lead to his advancement. Of course, his dad must have taught Apion’s sister as well, as they were able to correspond, so it tells you something about how people got educated in that world. Most people weren’t literate, but if you wanted to be promoted as a Roman soldier this was usually necessary – not least for reading and writing orders. There’s a lovely illustration of that from Vindolanda, where there’s communication between the fort and detachments of its soldiers posted elsewhere, with one of them telling the commander to “send beer”, which seems terribly cheeky.’

‘Our third soldier is Claudius Terentianus, who is the most extensive correspondent. A whole archive of his letters was found in a house at Karanis in the Fayum region of Egypt. There is an associated letter of introduction as well – it’s not by Terentianus, but it is for him – which is dated to AD 136 in the emperor Hadrian’s reign. In this letter he is described as a “retired soldier and man of means” when looking to do a property deal. If you count back 25 years of service, that has him joining up around AD 110-111, under the emperor Trajan, making him a near contemporary to the authors of the Vindolanda Tablets at the other end of the empire. These days, we think of the scenes on Trajan’s Column in Rome as the most wonderful expression of Roman military might and doings, and here we are privy to the thoughts of a soldier of Trajan’s army. It’s an amazing thing. From the letters, we learn that Terentianus was ambitious in a slightly different way to Apion, because Terentianus was already a Roman citizen, so he initially tried to join the legions. He is let down by his references, though. Instead, he also ends up in the marines. As it’s an auxiliary regiment, he’s only paid about four-fifths of the wage of a legionary. And he absolutely hates it. He gets bullied, he’s robbed, he has quarrels, and at one point exclaims “he paid no more attention to me than a sponge on a stick”, which was – of course – the Roman equivalent of toilet paper. Terentianus, in desperation, wants to transfer to an auxiliary land unit, but laments that nothing can be done without letters of recommendation or money (to grease the palms). So he’s having a terrible time. But a few letters in, Terentianus suddenly signs himself “soldier of the legion”. So strings were pulled, palms were greased, and he’s finally made it.’

This lamp fragment is 7.7cm high and shows a ship packed with soldiers. It dates to the 1st century AD. [Image: © Trustees of the British Museum]

The British Museum exhibition Legion: life in the Roman army brings together an extraordinary wealth of Roman military material and is unmissable for anyone interested in the subject. It will run until 23 June 2024. For more details and ticket prices, see www.britishmuseum.org/exhibitions/legion-life-roman-army.
An engaging and gloriously illustrated volume has been published to accompany the exhibition: R Abdy (2024) Legion: life in the Roman army (London: British Museum Press, ISBN 978-0714122946, £30 paperback/£40 hardback).

This is an extract of an article that appeared in CWA 124. Read on in the magazine (Click here to subscribe) or on our website, The Past, which offers all of the magazine’s content digitally. At The Past you will be able to read each article in full as well as the content of our other magazines, Current ArchaeologyAncient Egypt, and Military History Matters.

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