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Signaculum – Roman immortals?

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)


Roman army could use the so-called immortals – what contradicts the general opinion that for the first time those were used during the Civil War. Roman immortal was called signaculum and every legionary was supposed to receive it after recruitment.

What is worth mentioning, such metal plates were used to mark goods at fairs, slaves or dogs.

According to some accounts, military immortals were usually made of lead and were worn on necks. It is not known when and for sure if such tags were introduced in the Roman army. In a document from 295 CE we have a message about how Saint Maximilian of Numidia was to be put into the Roman army against his will, and on his neck a signaculum1 was imposed.

However, what speaks against the thesis of the occurrence of “Roman immortals” is the fact that it has not been possible to find any preserved “marker” of the Roman legionary to this day. If such dog tags were present, then surely an appropriate system would be used, guaranteeing that every soldier would have his own immortal. Then millions of such immortals would have been produced for hundreds of years and it is certain that we would find them in various parts of the Empire. Today, for example, we find pits filled with tons of secondary material. Why do not we find signaculum among the finds?

Another argument against the thesis put forward is the fact that in ancient times we could not talk about strong artillery forces. The very idea of ​​immortals appeared at the turn of the 19th and 20th century to identify bodies after mine explosion or intense artillery fire, which massacred and made it impossible to identify bodies. Then, through the immortals, it was possible to find out who was killed on the battlefield. In ancient times only “Greek fire” could cause significant damage, making it impossible to identify. Pragmatic Romans, therefore, would not see a greater sense in purposeless creation of a huge mass of metal. Hence, in the absence of evidence, the existence of “Roman immortals” can be considered a myth.

  1. Southern Dixon, The Late Roman Army, 1996, s. 74-75

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