Some Incredible Things To Know About The Roman Legionary

Much has been said about the arms, armaments, and tactics of the famed Roman legions. Suffice it to say, they played their crucial role from the Roman Republic days of 3rd century BC to the nadir period of the Roman Empire in 4th century AD. However, beyond the scope of just glorious battles and momentous results, there was a more intrinsic, humane side to the men who formed these legions – that was at once similar (and yet different) with cultures we can identify with. So without further ado, let us take a gander at ten surprising things you should know about the Roman legionary (*note – the article mainly covers the period between early 1st century BC to late 1st century AD when the Roman realm made its transition from the Republic to Empire).

1) Rural folks were preferred in the legion

In a generalized scope, all Roman men aging between 17 and 46 were liable for military service – though, the peak age for enlistment tended to be skewed towards the early 20’s age group. And interestingly, each legionary had to claim his origo (origin) from a city or at least a town. However, in spite of such claims, the vast majority of the legionaries came from a rural background. As a result, their city-based origo credentials were often fabricated during the time of enlistment, usually by the officials themselves. This tendency to ‘make up’ credentials had the Roman style of reasoning – since the rural folks were considered to be more hardy with higher levels of endurance. Moreover, they were also considered to be more dependable with their simplistic character, given their (presumed) unfamiliarity with the sleazy side of urban life. As Vegetius said (in his Epitoma Rei Militaris treatise) –

In some cases, the romanticizing of country life was stretched to such a degree that even mutinies in the army were squarely blamed on ‘soft’ city-bred recruits (as was done by Tacitus). And since we brought up the ‘character’ profile of a legionary, after being selected for the army, the young man (usually in his late teens or early twenties) had to go through a period called probatio. During this time, both his character and medical condition was heavily scrutinized by enlisting officers. Suffice it to say, the perceived ‘immoral’ recruits (like thieves and such) were weeded out and banished from the army.

2) Roman citizenship was not a requirement, but the free birth was

Contrary to our popular notions, a Roman legionary was not always a Roman citizen (though he was supposed to be, at least ‘in papers’). This law-bending scope was a practical outcome of the civil wars that plagued the Roman realm during the end of the Republic era. For example, Julius Caesar raised the legio V Alaudae from the native Gauls and later naturalized their citizenship. Even during the tumultuous period of the latter part of 1st century BC, Marc Antony didn’t have access to the major recruitment grounds of Italy. As a desperate solution, he started filling his army ranks (consisting of around 23 legions) from the native population of the eastern provinces Syria and Egypt. So simply put, oftentimes Roman citizenship was not a requirement, but rather a status that was conferred upon the Roman legionary during his time of enlistment. However free birth was still a requirement, with slaves being barred from the career of soldiery – though they might have been inducted as supporting units inside a legion used for menial works (see entry 9).

Moreover, while the legionaries were supposed to be volunteers who joined the army, many of them were simply conscripted into the legions – due to the requirement of higher manpower during the civil wars and the later Augustan period. There was one particular instance (according to Tacitus) when Emperor Tiberius wanted to tour the entire Roman countryside in a bid to conscript new recruits to fill up the positions of the discharged veterans. The ruler was keen on taking this drastic step due to lack of volunteers who would join the legions.

3) Legionary training equated to an incredibly rigorous scope –

The green recruits who were successfully enlisted as legionaries had to go through a training period of 4 months. During this training ambit, each soldier was given the unenviable task of marching 29 km (18 miles) in five hours with regular steps, and then 35 km (21.7 miles) in five hours with faster steps – all the while carrying a backpack that weighed 45 lbs (20.5 kg). This weight was intentionally allotted for increasing the endurance level of a Roman legionary and thus added to the overall weight of the panoply worn by the soldiers in their full gear (the weight of the lorica segmentata armor alone might have gone beyond 20 lbs). As expected, the ‘slowpokes’ were severely beaten by centurions and officers with their staffs. Interestingly enough, many of the similar ‘regimens’ are preserved through our modern military culture – with elite forces of some countries trained via the rigorous boot camp methods.

In any case, after the strenuous marching scope was perfected by the legionaries, they were then drilled in battlefield maneuvers (including the hollow square, wedge, and the famed testudo formations) and signaling. Finally, they were trained in weapons handling and in some cases also swimming. Interestingly, the faux swords and shields used in practices were made of wood and wicker, but they weighed twice the mass of their actual counterparts – so as to acclimatize the Roman legionary with fatigue and weariness that could happen in the heat of the battle. In consideration of this incredibly rigorous ambit, the words of Vegetius ring true –

4) Pay and length of service often amounted to discord

During the latter part of 1st century BC, Augustus followed the guidelines of the preceding centuries and officially formalized the length of service of a Roman legionary to 16 years (in 13 BC). But it should be noted that even after 16 years of service, he was expected to join the vexillum veteranorum or unit of veterans for four more years – (see entry 9). However, by 6 AD, the initial length of service was increased to 20 years, and it was complemented by the praemia militare (or discharge bonus), a lump sum that was increased to 12,000 sesterces (or 3,000 denarii). And by the middle of 1st century AD, the service was further extended to 25 years. Now beyond official service lengths, the protocols were rarely followed at times marked by wars. This resulted in retaining of the legionaries well beyond their service periods, with some men fighting under their legions for over three to four decades. Suffice it to say, such chaotic measures frequently resulted in mutinies.

As for pay, other than the lump sum of praemia militare, a basic Roman legionary was paid 900 sesterces per year (paid in three installments). This pay scale remained the same till at least 80 AD, in spite of presumed inflation. However, the pay differed for the various units in a legion, with under-officers and specialists being paid one-and-a-half or twice the basic pay grade. And furthermore, this pay figure was only a nominal value from which various deductions were made in accordance with the goods (like food, equipment, attire and even burial fees) consumed by the legionary. Still, there were cases when the Roman legionary was paid less than he deserved, and sometimes the ‘swindling’ measures were initiated by giving the soldiers worthless parcels of land instead of the praemia militare.

5) The lure of booty and plunder –
On the other hand, many potential recruits were still drawn to the prospect of joining a legion because of the booty factor. In essence, many charismatic commanders touted the apparent prevalence of loot (and its ‘fair’ distribution), especially when conducting wars against the richer and powerful neighbors. According to Cicero, this might have been the prime factor that motivated the disparate troops under Marc Antony. The popular practice also alludes to the penchant for plundering – with the soldiers tending to strip the dead as the very first act after achieving victory over their foes.

The Roman legionaries were also not beyond the ‘barbarism’ that is often attributed to their opponents. For example, after stripping the dead, it was a Roman custom to make a trophy from the numerous arms taken from the enemy. During certain times, these erected trophies took the grisly route by comprising enemy corpses and heads that were piked atop raised platforms. Caesar himself attested to such a ghastly practice when his troops defeated the fellow Roman Pompeians outside the settlement of Munda (as mentioned in The Spanish Wars)

And more….

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