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Prohibition of service in Roman legions

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Battle of Argentoratum in 357 CE
Battle of Argentoratum in 357 CE

In the light of social norms or Roman law, from the earliest years of its existence, the Roman state limited access to military service. Only Roman citizens (cives Romani) had the right or duty to serve in the legions, and foreigners (peregrini), slaves (servi) or criminals were not.

For centuries it has been recommended that either farmers or skilled artisans who have experienced physical labor from an early age should be recruited for service. However, with the advent of the so-called In “crisis of the third century”, the rules of recruitment changed and not every Roman citizen could already serve in the army.

The first important change was the new law adopted during the reign of Diocletian, which forbade decurions – members of city councils who were often responsible with private property for their actions for the community – forbidding legions. Often the decurions sought an escape from their duty (manus) to work for the city, in the army.

Clear changes began at the turn of the 3rd-4th century CE when there were economic, social and religious changes. Under the regulation of Emperor Gratian, Valentinian and Theodosius of 380 CE throughout the Empire, people who ran taverns or inns (tabernae) were excluded from service, because they were not very respected in Roman society. Additionally, the prohibition applied to cooks (coci), who were associated with taverns, and bakers (pistores). Especially the second professional group tells us to pay attention to a new aspect. At the end of the Empire, it ceased to be guided by which social groups or professions were disgraceful. People began to see the need to ensure stabilization, for example in terms of the production of bread. The bread was distributed and sold at preferential prices and allowed to influence social policy and reduce the high prices.

In 384 CE, as a result of the constitution of emperors Valentinian II and Theodosius I, the ban also included the service of transporting products from weaving or dying plants (bestagarii) and supporting the imperial post (cursus publicus). The authorities wanted both pistores and bestagarii to take care of their activities, which was a duty and attachment to the profession.

We also know about other professions to which the people performing them have been attached; thus, they were banned from military service. We are talking about miners; workers in weaving mills (gynaeceum); employees involved in the acquisition and processing of purple dye (conchyleguli); workers in mints (monetarii); armoury workers (fabricensis); or members of associations of municipal craftsmen (corporati), which included the aforementioned bakers, coachmen, porters, lumberjacks or, for example, wine merchants.
About 395 CE the ban also extended to colonies and land labourers on the emperor’s large estates (saltuenses) who had been tied to the land. Additionally, at the end of the 4th century, the ban also extended to civil servants (militia officialis) and their sons, as well as heretics (haeretici), pagans (pagani) and Jews (Judaei)

All subsequent bans were aimed at securing the Roman economy and administration, which needed a workforce, and which could try to leave the profession and join, for example, the army.

  • Adam Świętoń, De his qui militare non possunt. O zakazie pełnienia służby wojskowej... [w:] Ryszard Sajkowski (red.), Studia z dziejów starożytnego Rzymu, Olsztyn 2007
  • Vegetius, Epitoma rei militaris

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