What did Roman soldiers look like?
This sort of question involves a discussion of the Roman recruitment method. The first thing to consider is that this would change over time; Rome existed for over 800 years, leading to a changes over time. The most basic characteristic of Roman soldiers is that they were men.
In Ancient Rome, prior to the Marian Reforms of 107 BCE, which transformed the Roman army from a full-time to part-time affair, these men also had to either own land or have a certain amount of material wealth for buying their own equipment.
After the reform, men no longer needed land or material wealth to enlist and the new promise of citizenship for any Italian ally who enlisted in the legions led to a very diverse range of cultures melting into the Roman identity.
After the Marian Reforms, the face of the Roman soldier may have been quite varied due to a combination of the empire’s willingness to grant anyone citizenship and the empire’s continuing growth into other countries. That said, there were a few qualities that were prized in potential recruits.
- A height of 1.75 meters or more (roughly 5’7″).
- Someone in his late teens to early 20s.
- Someone who came from a background of manual labour, like a blacksmith or butcher.
One other quirk of the Roman army is that legions might be transferred to a different region and this became more common during the later years of the Roman Empire. Upon completion of their objective in the visited region, the legion would return to its original region.
Roman Soldiers – Ranks, Salary and Diet
There were two main classes of Roman soldier.
- Legionaries. Roman citizens.
- Auxiliares. Auxiliary soldiers were conscripts and recruits from the vestiges of the empire who only earned one-third of the rate of a Roman legionary but were often given the most dangerous roles.
In addition to these two main classes, during the mid-republic era, with what was known as the ‘manipilar army‘ (300–88 BC) there were also a class of soldiers called ‘alae’ which were Roman non-citizen auxiliaries. The army at this time, was made up of ‘maniples‘ which were small units of 120 men in each.
Here is a full breakdown of the Roman soldiers unit terms and how many men they entailed.
- Contubernium. A squad of eight men, led by a decanus.
- Centuria. A group of 10 contubernium, led by a centurion.
- Cohorts. A group of six centuria, totalling out to 480 men.
- Legio. A legion of 10 cohorts, roughly 5,000 men.
- Eques Legionis. The cavalry unit of a legio consisting of 120 men.
Roman Soldiers – Ranks
- Legatus Augusti pro Praetore. An Imperial Legate commanded multiple legions and also worked as the provincial governor for the region his legions were stationed. This was a Senatorial rank, appointed by the emperor and who commanded for 3-4 years.
- Legatus Legionis. A Legion Legate commanded an entire Roman legion and was a Senatorial rank appointed by the emperor. While 3-4 years was the normal term length, a legatus legionis could serve for even longer periods of time. In provinces with only a single legion, this rank also served as provincial governor. Legion legates also commanded auxiliary units despite the latter’s informal position within command.
- Tribunus Laticlavius. The “Broad Band Tribune” gets its name from the sash worn by these men of senatorial rank and this tribune was appointed by either the emperor or Senate. This rank served directly under the legate but would only command the legion in battle if his legate died.
- Praefectus Castrorum. The Camp Prefect was third in command. While their primary purpose as a senior officer was training the men, the prefect might also command auxiliares.
- Tribuni Angusticlavii. The “Narrow Band Tribune” comprised the five lower rank tribunes, men with some experience in equestrian combat and with prior military experience. These individuals tended by be administrators and this tribunate was often the initial steps that a would-be politician would take to get into government.
- Primus Pilus. This name means “first file” and was the leading centurion of the first century, the first cohort and head centurion of a legion. Men in this position might have a chance to become Praefectus Castrorum. Retirement at this level would allow access to the equestrian class.
- Pilus Prior. These “front file” units commanded the 10 first centuries within the legion, granting them seniority. When in battle, this was the commander for an entire cohort.
- Primi Ordines. The “ranks of the first cohort;” five centurions of the first cohort, including the primus pilus. This was the third most senior rank among centurions.
- Cohort. The centurions were the backbone of the army and consisted of career soldiers. While most centurions got to their ranking through hard work, sometimes a high-ranking official could place someone higher up than the lowest of ranks.
Cohorts were in rank from first to tenth and also by their century from first to sixth, with just five centuries in the first cohort, totaling to 59 plus the primus pilus. Commanded centuries were a direct reflection of a centurion’s rank; command of the 1st century by the first cohort was highest while the 6th century of the 10th cohort was the lowest.
Roman Soldiers – Positions
- Optio. This position was appointed as the centurion’s second-in-command and merited double basic wage.
- Tesserarius. This was a guard commander who reported to the optios and earned 1.5x normal wage. These men were third-in-command of a century, administrated to HQ and kept watch.
- Decurion. This was the commander of a cavalry unit of 10-30 mounted legionaires.
- Aquilifer. This man’s job was to bear a staff topped with the Roman Eagle and every legion had one. These men carried a staff bearing the Roman Eagle and loss of this staff was the greatest blow to a legion’s honor and respectability. Aquillifers were always veterans who understood legion tactics and this position netted double pay.
- Signifer. Every century had one of these with the signifer of the 1st century being the senior. This role entailed bearing a signum, a spear shaft laden with medallions and an open hand, and this item served as a rallying point for soldiers. Signifers also served as bank and treasurer of the legion and were given double basic wage.
- Cornicen. These were horn blowers that worked with the signifer in order to direct the men toward the commanding officer’s orders. This special position garnered double basic wage.
- Imaginifer. This position was created after Augustus came to power. The imaginifer carried a standard with the emperor’s likeness and this honor merited double basic wage.
- Immunes. This was an umbrella term for soldiers with specialized skills. Immunes earned better wages and were excused from regular duties so that they could focus on their specializations. Engineers, musicians, clerks, weapons instructors, hunters, physicians and even carpenters are all examples of immunes. Notably, these men still served in battles when they arose.
- Evocatus. A re-enlisted veteran who was excused from regular duties. These men also earned double the basic wage.
In addition to these typical ‘fighting ranks’ or Roman troops, there were also a unit of the Roman army dedicated to the gathering of intelligence and the protection of the Roman Emperor. These were the Praetorian Guards.
This unit was made up of nine skilled cohorts, under the command of Prefects with equestrian rank. Prior to the Empire, during the era of the Roman Republic, the Praetorian Guard served as bodyguard and escort for politicians and soldiers of considerable rank or influence.
Roman Soldiers Salary and Other Rewards
As you may have gathered, a Roman soldier’s pay was based on rank, class and position. By the 2nd Century CE, a new recruit would earn a “viaticum,” equivalent to 3 pieces of gold or 75 denarii.
Infantrymen would earn 300 denarii each year while their auxiliary counterparts would only earn one-third of this amount.
Pay went up as you advanced up the hierarchy; centurions earned a minimum of 1,000 denarii a year-the primus pilus made over 15k a year.
As a breakdown of the positions above indicates, the legion had three pay grades within each rank: standard, 1.5x and double.
It should be noted that position did not correlate directly to rank. Broadly speaking, the Roman army was composed of legionaries and centurions but the centurions, the “officers,” earned more to reflect the greater responsibilities they had to the army and to Rome.
Beyond the benefits of citizenship for auxiliaries and regular pay, legions that were sent to campaigns of war were due a portion of any spoils of war, divvied up in a manner similar to the breakdown of pay for position and rank.
The Roman Soldiers Diet
One other benefit of being a Roman soldier is that you were kept fed. While hunters immunes were tasked with finding game for their compatriots, the Roman soldier’s diet amounted to 3,000 calories a day and while heavy in wheat and barley, also consisted of a robust array of foods.
Roman soldiers would go through two to 10 litres of water each day, depending on the climate they were campaigning in; the hotter and drier, the more they would imbibe. Legions would carry livestock that also needed to be cared after. Wine and beer were also common libations to the soldier’s palate.
Roman Soldiers – Training and Oaths
The training regimen for ancient Roman soldiers was four months. The regimen began with marching and evolved into knowing how to fight, how to handle and care for weaponry and memorizing drills to get into different formations. Some of these recruits would even take Roman names to signify their new dedication.
Once a soldier was recruited into the army, they would be forced to deliver a “sacramentum militare,” an oath. By making this declaration, the soldier was admitted that he was no longer a civilian and accepted any punishment that his commander came up with should he fail to honor this oath. The basic tenets of this oath boiled down to the following five points.
- Remain at your post until an officer gives permission to leave it.
- Never steal from the army.
- Never abandon your weapons.
- Never flee from a battle.
- Be willing to give your life for Rome.
A Day in the life of a Roman Soldier
A Roman soldier’s daily routine was arduous. Every day you were setting out to leave the area entailed eating breakfast, cleaning up the area, training and then breaking down camp before marching to the next leg of a campaign and would conclude with building the night camp, having another meal and sleeping.
If you were on the move, you would be marching long distances in full gear but this kept you physically fit. Every month entailed special training exercises like the following.
- Physical Training. Soldiers would engage in marching, riding and swimming to build up strength and stamina.
- Gear Training. This entailed practicing with weapons against wooden dummies to develop muscle and refine form. This training also involved using a shield as a weapon in addition to defense. All Roman training weapons were made of wood and weighed more than the proper gear would.
- Strategy and Formations. Roman soldiers were repeatedly drilled into working together as a unit and quickly recognizing and responding to the chain of command.
- Discipline. Men would be continually conditioned into being upstanding examples of the Roman military.
- Horse Training. Horses were not used as military units at this point in time but were used in a support role to quickly pass messages and supplies to where they were needed. Horses were broken in and taught to ford rivers, handle fully armored cavalrymen and leap over hazards and minor defenses.
The Life Expectancy of Roman Soldiers
It goes without saying that battle could claim a soldier’s life and soldiers enlisted anywhere from 10 to 25 years, depending on their rank. If a battle ensued, a triumphant army would lose 5% of its men but a defeated army would usually lose around 15% of its force.
Despite access to physicians, the greatest causes of death for a Roman soldier were infection, disease, illness, starvation from destroyed supply lines and sometimes even exposure to extreme climates.
- Loria. This was an iron plate armor that protected the chest and shoulders.
- Helmet. This was designed to protect not only the head but also the neck and cheeks.
- Greaves. This was leg protection. Early legionnaires would wear a single greave on their left leg to complement the protection granted by their shields, carried on the right side of the body.
- Scutum. This was a rectangular wooden shield.
- Pilum. This was a javelin carried by frontline infantry. A volley of thrown pila was the opening assault in a Roman engagement. While everyone carried one of these, some higher rank soldiers carried a pair.
- Pugio. All infantry carried this 20cm-long dagger on their persons. This was the ideal tool for dispatching enemies when the gladius would be too awkward to draw, swing or thrust.
- Gladius. This was a double-sided short sword, roughly 18 inches in overall length, that was good for cutting and thrusting.
- Funda. This was a simple leather sling that a slinger used to hurl lead bullets or even rocks found on the battlefield.
- Arcum et sagittas. Some units were dedicated archers who would use a bow (arcum) and arrows (sagittas).
- Auxiliary Kit. These soldiers used ovoid shields and wore tunics with chainmail instead of iron plate.
- Clothing. While armor was dictated by a soldier’s role and function, clothing was determined by the current environment. Wood was a staple material of Roman clothing and a soldier’s clothing options entailed a cloak, padding, sandals, scarf, tunic, and accessories.
- Artillery. While we have covered all of the personal gear, Romans also made use of artillery, specifically the ballista, crossbow-like scorpio and the catapult-like onager.
It is worth noting that the early Roman army required every soldier to purchase his own gear; state-supplied arms and armor would not be a thing until the Marian Reforms.
In these early days, soldiers were divided into five social classes, based on personal wealth. The poorest of these classes owned around 11,000 asses worth of coin (an “as” was a coin worth 1/10th of a denarius and the plural is pronounced with a hard E sound, i.e. “assees.”).
These wealth-derived classes had at least 11,000, 25,000, 50,000, 75,000 or 100,000 asses to their names. Having more wealth meant you could buy more and this helped to determine your role in the army.
The lowest tier of soldier, designated as Class V, only needed a sling, sling stones and a javelin.
Conversely, a man worth 100,000 asses or more was required to have a helmet, breastplate, greaves, round shield, spear and a gladius and would serve in either the heavy infantry or cavalry. It should also be noted that the minimum wealth requirements in the ancient world, were twice lowered before the Reforms-down to 4,000 asses beginning with the Punic Wars and further lowered to 1,500 asses in 140 BCE.
Tactics and Famous Generals of the Roman Military
There are three major types of strategy that the Romans used in combat and a senator named Frontius put them to record.
- Gain as many advantages as possible before the battle.
- Never let your enemy know your true goal.
- Misinform the enemy.
- Standard protocol was for the infantry to advance within 30 meters of the enemy, unleash pilums and rush into the fray. The rear lines would support the front with ranged weaponry like spears, arrows and rocks.
- When dealing with a larged ranged defense, the famous “testudo” formation would be taken. The men would raise their shields to protect the front, sides and heads of their unit, safeguarding them from almost all ranged attacks.
- Onagers were used break through stone walls, while the ballista and scorpio were used to protect against flanking, give cover fire to important parts of the battlefield and break up enemy formations. Even the navy’s fleets were armed with artillery to soften up other ships prior to boarding for melee.
- Upon succeeding in battle, cavalry would rush down fleeing troops, prisoners might be claimed and the dead would be stripped of weaponry and valuables.
Famous Roman Generals
- Scipio Africanus (236-183 BCE) During the Roman Republic era, managed to capture Hannibal, Hannibal’s brother and end the First Punic War.
- Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138-78 BCE) was the first general to march against Rome in order to reclaim it and also served as dictator.
- Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 BCE) was the first general to extend Rome beyond the English Channel into Britain and also beyond the Rhine, as well as the first one to cross those bodies of water.
- Nero Claudius Drusus (38-9 BCE) was the first general to succeed in campaigns east of the Rhine. he also subjugated four tribes in 11 BCE and defeated three more a year later.
Fun Facts About Roman Soldiers
- Marriage was illegal. Prior to the tail-end of the 2nd Century CE, it was illegal for soldiers to marry. Despite this statute, there are several references indicating that some people, including centurions and members higher up the chain of command, felt they were exempt.
- Roman Soldiers were encouraged to make use of Roman Baths, particularly in the provinces, as enlisting granted Roman citizenship, and bathing in public allowed a soldier to feel a greater sense of acceptance in society.
- Soldiers marched long distances daily. Roman soldiers would frequently engage in an iustum iter or magnum iter, “reasonable march” or “heavier march,” respectively; these marches equate to 20 or 30 miles with their full complement of gear. By comparison, a United States Marine is expected to travel 12 miles within 3 hours while carrying a full load (up to 70 pounds).
- Roman soldiers also handled civil matters. The army enforced Romes’ civil needs. Examples of these civil projects include tax collection, building structures like roads and viaducts and serving as police.
- Mutinies were not unheard of. Centurions enforced rule by violence and kept a short rod to beat unruly men. One centurion, named Lucilus, was infamous for beating men to the point that he would break his rod and demand a replacement. One of the more notable mutinies happened along the Rhine in 14 CE and accounts mention subordinates beating their centurion with his own rod.
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