The Roman army of the early empire is still considered to be the unrivalled role model in terms of quality, discipline and efficiency. The aim of the article is to show what the Roman army looked like from the inside: what the legal status of soldiers was; what the recruitment and training process and the service itself looked like; and, above all, what relations prevailed in the units between comrades in arms.
Transformations of the Roman army
According to the Roman tradition, repeated by Titus Livius or Polybius, every adult Roman citizen was to be a potential soldier, and military service was a duty to the motherland. Originally, the restrictions only concerned the age (he had to be of legal age), the status of a man (citizen) and his property – people without property were unable to arm themselves.
This approach was gradually abandoned by the end of the 2nd century BCE – thanks to the so-called Marius’ reforms – allowing people without land (proletaria) to volunteer for the army (the so-called voluntarii). This change resulted from the constant conduct of hostilities and the constant need to select recruits. Moreover, many simply refrained from recruiting, and therefore the poor of the lowest classes were offered the opportunity to join the legions. People without wealth, family and prospects, suffering from hunger and poverty, had a chance to survive in better conditions and accumulate wealth.
The Roman army was gradually transforming from a conscript army (traditional conscription was called dilectus) into a conscript-volunteer army. In the middle of the 1st century BCE, in practically one period, Rome was intensively expanding in the east (including fighting Pont) and in the north (Caesar’s conquests in Gaul) and additionally the state was plagued by Caesar’s civil war with Pompey, which broke out in 49 BCE. Due to large losses, commanders at that time made massive use of conscription and volunteer recruitment. It was then that the phenomenon of favouring and selecting recruits appeared. Veterans (emeritii, evocatior veterani) were valued more than “fresh” novices who, unlike former soldiers, required several months of training.
The reign of Emperor Octavian August (27 BCE – 14 CE) is the time of stabilization of the army and its reduction, after years of constant internal struggle. The Roman army reached for a recruit, either in the form of forced conscription or in the form of volunteers. The selection of new recruits was not as massive as during the Republic. It was limited to regularly replacing departing veterans with new assignments, trying to ensure maximum operational strength of the troops. In addition, foreigners (peregrini)and stateless persons were allowed to join the auxiliary troops of the legions, where after serving 25 years (26 years in the fleet), they received Roman citizenship and all related rights. It was a reward for sacrifice for the sake of his new homeland. Under the emperor Hadrian (117-138 CE), volunteers received citizenship at the time of taking the oath, after completing their training. In this way, a large part of the Roman army was constituted by troops formed from local communities (often newly conquered), and a career in the army was open to many people, regardless of origin.
Legal status of a soldier
The ancient Romans were very practical and wanted to have as many things as possible in order; It was no different from military service. The Roman jurist Julius Paulus, who lived at the turn of the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE, described that when a soldier entered his military service (munera militia) he was automatically released from civil duties (munera civilia) for the benefit of the community he came from. The soldier could not be given any additional duties, apart from those assigned to the army.
The moment when a soldier began to be subject to the norms of military law, he took the military oath (sacramentum militiae) and entered into the register of the combat unit. In this way, his status changed, from a civilian (paganus) to a soldier (miles).
The soldier was not subject to the law of magistracy, and imperium militiae. There was no appeal against the decision, and even the officer was entitled to the “right of life and death”. Seneca the Younger illustrates how big these powers were. He tells us an interesting story about Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso, the Roman governor of Syria and a Roman politician (44 BCE – 20 CE), who was supposed to get angry when he learned that only one of the two soldiers had returned from his dismissal. Piso was furious and sentenced the legionary (who returned to the camp) to death, claiming that he did not give up his companion, and therefore probably killed him. When a soldier accused of murder was already cocking his neck to deliver a blow, a missing comrade suddenly returned. The centurion supervising the execution ordered to stop and decided to send the accused soldier to Piso, hoping that he would be pardoned. To everyone’s surprise, Piso sentenced three Romans to death: a soldier previously sentenced to death because the sentence had already been passed; the centurion overseeing the judgment because he had failed to fulfil his duties; and a missing man who caused the death of two innocent people with his behaviour. It is from this story that the famous phrase comes: Fiat justitia ruat caelum! (“Let justice be done though the heavens fall”) and “Piso’s justice” – which can be understood as passing a judgment lawfully but against morality.
The moment of recruitment was also legally determined. Each candidate to join the legions had to be verified in terms of origin (origo natalium), ability (facultares), and law (lex). There were attempts to cheat the recruitment committee and often slaves, trying to escape from captivity, tried their luck. We know about such a case from the correspondence of Pliny the Younger with Trajan. Interestingly, two slaves underwent training and took the oath, becoming full-fledged legionaries. The detection of this case post factum was discussed by the governor of Bithynia and Pontus and the emperor, which resulted in the decision to condemn both slaves to death and to conduct an investigation. Roman law also penalized the admission of a criminal into the army; Moreover, the death penalty could also threaten the very member of the commission, who recruited such a recruit and violated the good name of the legion. In the case of not entirely clear status of the recruit (status controversium), it was suggested to suspend the recruitment of such a man, and in the case of an already serving soldier, re-verification was carried out.
For a slave to be part of the Roman army, he had to be liberated first. An example of a mass liberation was the time of the bloody uprising in Pannonia in the years 6-9 CE, when August demanded a part of the local aristocracy to liberate the slaves, with appropriate compensation from the state treasury. With new recruits, new squads were created – vexilia; which acted as separate units. It is worth mentioning, however, that the liberators (condicio libertinae) did not have the same status as the free-born (condicio ingenui)1. This was due to the fact that, as liberated persons, they had obligations to their former masters. In the Roman army, the liberation troops were not combined with, for example, an army composed of citizens, so as not to diminish their rank. Thus, freedmen could not join legions, Praetorian cohorts or urban cohorts; however, they could serve in militia vigilum, in the fleet and auxiliary wards, with foreigners. After six years of service in the militia vigilum, freedmen obtained Roman citizenship.
A recruit wishing to be admitted to the legion had to swear a declaration that he was a free Roman citizen, and his words were to be confirmed by witnesses (cautores). Sometimes this situation had to be repeated against a legionary on duty who was accused of lying about his origin or citizenship.
To sum up, the following people could not recruit to the Roman army: slaves, criminals, people sentenced to exile or persons accused in a public-criminal capacity (e.g. adultery). There were also restrictions on the units into which freedmen, free persons (without citizenship) and foreigners could recruit.
Attempts to avoid service
Every Roman citizen meeting the legal requirements had the right to join the Roman army, and in the event of war or conscription, an obligation. Roman law penalized, among others the actions of the father who wanted to avoid his son’s recruitment. By Trajan’s decree, the expulsion of his father was planned for deliberately mutilating his son, and for discouraging service during the war – expulsion and partial confiscation of property. Interestingly, August sold an equine captive, who cut off the thumbs of his sons so that they would not be recruited into the legions.
If a Roman citizen avoided compulsory conscription, he risked being sold into slavery.
In choosing recruits regard should be given to their trade. Fishermen, fowlers, confectioners, weavers, and in general all whose professions more properly belong to women should, in my opinion, by no means be admitted into the service. On the contrary, smiths, carpenters, butchers, and huntsmen are the most proper to be taken into it. On the careful choice of soldiers depends the welfare of the Republic, and the very essence of the Roman Empire and its power is so inseparably connected with this charge, that it is of the highest importance not to be intrusted indiscriminately, but only to persons whose fidelity can be relied on. The ancients considered Sertorius’ care in this point as one of the most eminent of his military qualifications. The soldiery to whom the defense of the Empire is consigned and in whose hands is the fortune of war, should, if possible, be of reputable families and unexceptionable in their manners. Such sentiments as may be expected in these men will make good soldiers. A sense of honor, by preventing them from behaving ill, will make them victorious.
– Vegetius, De Re Militari
If the young man was still under paternal authority (potestas pater familias), he could still enter the military service against his father. A good public, not a home, was driven here. The property of such a soldier, which he accumulated during his service (peculium castrense), was subject only to him and his father had no rights to it.
The latest research shows that in the 1st-3rd century CE, Roman soldiers came to a large extent from outside Italy – out of about 3,000 respondents (based on letters, inscriptions, and tombstones) only approx. 500 came from Italy. This proves how culturally and ethnically diverse the Roman army was. According to scientists, until the middle of the 1st century CE, the domination of soldiers of Italian origin was evident. However, along with numerous conflicts on the outskirts (in Judea, Britain, Germany) and the related human losses, a larger haul was carried out in the vicinity of the fighting. Moreover, in Italy, service in remote regions was avoided, which, moreover, could lead to quick death or disability.
Recruitment was an important event as it opened the door for volunteers or forcibly recruited young men to replenish Rome’s war machine. We will look at what Vegetius tells us:
But to all these advantages the Romans opposed unusual care in the choice of their levies and in their military training. They thoroughly understood the importance of hardening them by continual practice, and of training them to every maneuver that might happen in the line and in action. Nor were they less strict in punishing idleness and sloth. The courage of a soldier is heightened by his knowledge of his profession, and he only wants an opportunity to execute what he is convinced he has been perfectly taught. A handful of men, inured to war, proceed to certain victory, while on the contrary numerous armies of raw and undisciplined troops are but multitudes of men dragged to slaughter.
– Vegetius, De Re Militari
The conscription was ordered by the emperor or the provincial governor himself. The ministri – representatives of the governor – who determined the enlistment on the basis of property inventories were responsible for the recruitment process itself. Of course, regardless of whether there was conscription or not, volunteers could also recruit to the army. On the selection board (probatio) they stated their place of origin, family name (praenomen) and tribus. These three factors could already prove the fact that the citizen had Roman citizenship. A great advantage of the recruit was a strong and healthy body2and letters of recommendation from family friends or acquaintances. A form of psychological analysis of the candidate was also carried out, assessing whether the recruit has, among others, confident eyesight and positive character traits.
Vegetius gives these instructions to the members of the recruitment committee:
Those employed to superintend new levies should be particularly careful in examining the features of their faces, their eyes, and the make of their limbs, to enable them to form a true judgment and choose such as are most likely to prove good soldiers. For experience assures us that there are in men, as well as in horses and dogs, certain signs by which their virtues may be discovered. The young soldier, therefore, ought to have a lively eye, should carry his head erect, his chest should be broad, his shoulders muscular and brawny, his fingers long, his arms strong, his waist small, his shape easy, his legs and feet rather nervous than fleshy. When all these marks are found in a recruit, a little height may be dispensed with, since it is of much more importance that a soldier should be strong than tall.
– Vegetius, De Re Militari
The dream unit for any Roman citizen was the Praetorian Cohort. It resulted from two issues: prestige and higher pay compared to a legionary. Praetorians received 750 denarii annually, while Roman soldiers – exposed to a constant threat – received 225 denarii.
During the recruitment process, a list of positively considered volunteers or conscripts was made, mentioning the name, origin, tribus, age and special characters. Then they were assigned military units and places of their stationing. The commission overseer sent letters to the commanders of the divisions to which new recruits had been added, detailing the newest companions who would require training. During this time, the recruits (tirones) went to the designated detachment with the money they had received to buy weapons (coat, armour, sword, shield, javelin, sandals, etc.) and pay for the trip. After leaving the service, the soldier’s weapons were bought back from the state treasury.
The selection of the squad for the recruit was not final; we know examples of a move, when the recruited Gaius Valerius Saturninus (living at the beginning of the 2nd century CE) asked by letter to be transferred to a cohort, probably a legionary one. In turn, a certain Pausanias from the 3rd century CE, on request, was transferred to the horse through the intercession of his father.
The recruits did not have full soldier status and were not subject to the same legal standards. For example, a form of desertion, when a soldier did not show up in the unit within the specified time, was punished with degradation; the recruit, in turn, was then to be released. A similar punishment awaited the soldier for losing/disposing of his weapons; the recruit was not serving any sentence.
Recruit status was maintained throughout the training period (signatio). At that time, the recruited men belonged to the unit, but inside the camp, they were separated from ordinary soldiers and slept, and stayed separately. The training lasted for at least four months. The meaning of the training is reflected again by Vegetius:
The recruit, however, should not receive the military mark as soon as enlisted. He must first be tried if fit for service; whether he has sufficient activity and strength; if he has capacity to learn his duty; and whether he has the proper degree of military courage. For many, though promising enough in appearance, are found very unfit upon trial. These are to be rejected and replaced by better men; for it is not numbers, but bravery which carries the day.
– Vegetius, De Re Militari
The exercises took place in the morning and afternoon, regardless of the weather. First of all, the Roman recruit had to learn the long march: the soldiers travelled 30 kilometres every day with full equipment. They walked half the distance at a free pace, and they had to run the other half.
They learned how to build a camp; they practised stone-throwing, swimming and horse riding. They had to be able to jump on and off the horse while running in full gear, on both sides of the horse, which was quite a feat, considering that stirrups were not known in those days.
The most important thing, however, was the exercises in the use of weapons. A pile, the height of which corresponded to the height of a man, was driven into the ground. A soldier armed with a wicker shield and a blunt wooden sword (rudis; with the same weight as a real one, sometimes even heavier) attacked the stake and learned to strike. He also had to throw a very heavy pilum. Marked battles were also organized, with covers applied to the blades of swords and spears to avoid possible injuries.
After the successful completion of fitness and combat training and familiarization with the drill, they proceeded to take a solemn oath (sacramentum militiae). It is possible that this event was also associated with the ceremonial parade of new soldiers (dressed in festive clothes) and the awarding of “dog tags” (signaculum) – metal plates with the name and number of the unit. Moreover, there are suggestions for making tattoos or incisions on the body to emphasize belonging to the individual.
Recruit became a full legionary (legitimi milites), was assigned to regular units, received (stipendium) and could receive future rewards (donativa) for good service and distinction.
Soldiers were required to obey the orders of the officers throughout the service. Every day they took part in exercises on specially prepared training grounds. There were routine training marches and drill drills. The aim was to keep the soldier as efficient as possible, capable of using weapons and prepared for quick mobilization and sudden clashes.
The legionary belonged to contubernium, the smallest unit in the legion, which consisted of eight soldiers and two camp servants (calonesor lixae). The task of calones was, among others guarding a pack animal assigned to a ward, gathering food, feed, and water, and preparing the furnace. Moreover, the men took part in building the camp and supplying fuel. They could be both slaves and free persons. The servants usually did not take part in the fighting, guarding the unit’s rolling stock; however, in extreme cases, their help was used.
During the service, the soldier not only had to participate in exercises and drills but also perform additional tasks. Camp streets were cleaned, ditches were dug and made, tents were pitched for themselves and their officers, watchmen were made, pack animals (iumenta) were looked after, wood was delivered, food was gathered and hunted. As punishment, some soldiers were supposed to clear the latrines.
During the fight, each soldier was primarily to move within his century, commanded by a centurion, distinguished by a crosswise putty on the helmet. The landmark was also the banner of the century (singula vexilia), on the pennant of which could be embroidered with the unit numbers and even the name of the commander. In addition, to better understand the confusion of battle, the inner side of the shield, the sword or helmet could be marked with the name of the legionary.
As mentioned, while serving, a soldier had to obey all orders and take even the strictest punishments. Discipline in the army was the most important and it was decisive for an efficient Roman army. However, we know the messages that make it clear about the cruelty of the centurions (saevitia) who abused their subordinates. The resisting legionary could still be discharged from duty and become infamy.
The soldier was not allowed to leave the ranks (agmen exscessit) during both combat and exercise and marching. This behaviour could be considered desertion. For this, in turn, there was a threat of flogging or degradation. The degradation also threatened to steal a companion’s weapons. For leaving the ranks in the first battle line, the soldier was sentenced to death, and the execution was to be watched by his colleagues from the detachment in order to make him aware of the dangers of such behaviour. In the case of more front lines deserters, the command could order decimation. The unit sentenced to decimation (e.g. a cohort) was divided into groups of ten soldiers. Everyone drew lots (the so-called sortition) and the one who failed (he had the shortest straw) was killed by his nine companions by stoning or killing them with clubs (the so-called fustuarium). The survivors received barley instead of wheat and were punished with additional quarters outside the fortified camp until they had cleared their trespasses in the fight.
Importantly, however, this punishment was not only carried out on rank-and-file legionaries – but it also included centurions and ensigns. Due to the serious weakening of the personality, in practice, decimation has not been abused throughout history. Decimation was used both in the times of the republic and empire. It was used by, among others Augustus in 17 BCE or Galba in the process of coming to power. Emperor Macrinus (ruled 217-218 CE) introduced a “lighter” form of decimation – centesimatio, killing every hundredth soldier.
There have also been cases of bribery. We know the example of the Praetorians who complained to Marcus Salvius Otho for help in ending extortion by centurions who demanded payment, or even part of their pay, in exchange for a few days off (vacatio). Such behaviour of the officers was severely punished and could even be dismissed from service.
On the other hand, for their bravery and good performance of all duties, soldiers received numerous awards that were to motivate them to work and fight even more efficiently. Among the awards for an ordinary walker, the following can be distinguished:
- reading in front of the squad the name;
- awarding an honorary armlet, ring or pennant;
- granting the right to wear a small silver shield on the chest;
- reward, for bravery in battle, with various wreaths: gold wreath (corona muralis) for breaking the walls first; a wreath of gold ship bows (corona navalis) for breaking into an enemy ship; laurel leaf wreath (corona civica) for saving the life of a comrade in battle.
Officers were awarded honorary standards, spears or gold wreaths. Medallions made of bronze, silver or gold, sometimes inlaid with gold, were also awarded for bravery shown in combat. They were called “heads” (phalerae) and decorated the armour with them. The armour also featured silver and gold hoops (bags) and armillae.
Relationships between soldiers
In ancient Rome, the comrade-in-arms was commonly referred to as commilito or contubernalis. The latter name was due to the fact that soldiers in the Roman army were kept under a shared leather tent along with the entire contubernium to which they belonged. Many ancient letters, inscriptions and tombstones have survived to our times, revealing the secrets of military life and the accounts of the Roman army. The finds largely date back to the 4th century CE and come from Germany, Africa, Spain and Asia.
As it turns out, their origin was of great importance for the shaping of relations between soldiers. A person coming from a family with military traditions (e.g. father or uncle who served in the army) had a much better chance of a military career and joining the troops. The young recruit could then count on the protection of a relative. Often a man could receive support from other military men who came from the same country, city or area; the bond of origin between them allowed, for example, to facilitate the recruitment process, when the countryman (municeps) confirmed the truthfulness of the recruit’s words about his origin or status.
Most often, recruits of similar origins, having joined the 4-month training period, supported each other and established closer relationships. The mentioned protection (e.g. being the son of a former officer) facilitated establishing relationships and shaped a career. After undergoing a 4-month training period, the young recruit took an oath (sacramentum), which changed his status to equal to other soldiers – he was contubernalis – their companion.
As in the modern military, how others perceived a soldier was influenced by the way in which orders were carried out and how the unit he belonged to was supported. Both dangerous moments on the battlefield and routine tasks (e.g. setting up a camp) had an impact on who the closer relationships were concluded with, the evidence of which can be found, for example, on Roman tombstones preserved to our times. For example, a tombstone has survived to our times, which was apparently intended to honour the fallen (memoriae causa). A certain Partorius Docilis – ensign from the 14th city cohort – took care of the burial of his friend Publius Herennius, who, incidentally, served in another century. We also know that Partorius was the heir to a comrade’s estate.
The Romans also used terms like brotherhood (fraternitas) and friendship (amicitia). Really close relationships could lead to friends designating each other in the will as principal heirs (heres eius) of the estate (peculium castrense) if the deceased had no close family. Sometimes in a will, comrades-in-arms were mentioned by name for the execution of the bequests, in return for compensation from the savings that the soldier had accumulated over the years of service or from items that belonged to him (slaves, jewellery, etc.).
An interesting story is presented to us by Josephus Flavius, when a certain Artorius, trying to save himself from the besieged temple in Jerusalem, makes a promise to his companion:
There was one Artorius that delivered himself from the fire by his subtlety. Being reduced to an extremity, he called out to Lucius, one of his fel|low soldiers, solemnly declaring, “that if he would catch him in his arms, and break his fall, he would make him his heir.” Artorious accordingly took his leap; and the other disposing himself to receive him, the weight of the one dashed the other with such violence on the stone pavement, that he im|mediately expired.
– Josephus Flavius, Jewish War, III.3
For the purpose of securing the burial, soldiers often joined military associations (collegia militaria) in the army whose main function was to provide a dignified burial for a deceased comrade. For the ancients, there was nothing more terrible than the lack of burial in accordance with the requirements of tradition and religion. At the meetings of such associations, the participants made offerings in honour of the deceased and integrated with each other. There were special rooms in the camp (scholae) for meetings; they were located near the headquarters (principia).
Exemplary or at least good service made it possible to receive promotion and higher pay; sometimes the aforementioned patronage of other soldiers or a letter of recommendation was of great help. Mutual help was something inherent in the service. Soldiers borrowed money but also left their property in a deposit for the duration of the expedition. All financial obligations were settled in writing in the presence of witnesses.
Interestingly, close relations also took place during civil wars, between soldiers from enemy camps. Appian in “Civil Wars” mentions that in 49 BCE at Ilerda, Spain, legionaries were supposed to visit and host each other intents. The legate of Pompey the Great – Marcus Petreius – ordered Caesar’s soldiers to be captured and murdered.
Despite the end of service, the soldiers maintained relations outside the military. People who were in the same unit but did not matter much to the soldier were defined as collega.
Relationships with women
In the early days of the empire, soldiers were very often stationed far from their homes. The long twenty-something years of service made it impossible to form a relationship and beget a child. As a result, men were very often associated with local women who became their concubines (focariae) living in the vicinity of the permanent camp. Roman law, however, forbade entering into marriage while serving, and children born of such a union were out of wedlock. This law was introduced in the reign of Augustus and officially applied until Septimius Severus.
Where do such restrictions come from? It was feared that the soldiers would become too attached to the place and would not want to be transferred to other regions of the Empire. However, it seems that these regulations were sometimes ignored. The solution was also to terminate the service and legally approve the union and recognize the born child. It is worth mentioning that often the families of soldiers lived near the camp in civilian settlements (vicior canabae), which in the future laid foundations for future fortresses and cities (e.g. present-day Vienna, is a former Roman Vindobona).
Naturally, the soldiers, apart from looking for a relationship, focused on satisfying their sexual needs. Legionnaire camps were frequently visited by lupanar owners who offered the services of their slaves. It should be remembered that a legion in the remote areas of the Empire guaranteed security and a thriving business.