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Were Roman legionaries really short?

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Roman legionnaire
Author: Peter Dennis

There is a widespread belief that Roman legionaries were short and compensated their poor physical conditions, e.g. in clashes with Gauls or Germans, with great discipline, organization and equipment. How was it really?

At the beginning it should be noted that when we talk about Roman legionaries, they were recruited from various parts of the Empire. So, we are not talking only about the Apennine Peninsula, but also about the inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula, Gaul, Syria or North Africa, who also had Roman citizenship. The Roman army during the reign of Augustus (27 BCE – 14 CE) numbered nearly 250,000 soldiers and consisted of different cultures or nationalities. Being a Roman was not about coming from Rome and its surroundings, but rather being a citizen of the Empire and thus having a number of rights and obligations.

Let’s move to historical sources. Vegetius – a Roman writer from the 5th century CE – in his work Epitoma rei militaris he claims that in order to become a Roman rider or infantry soldier one had to be at least 1.72 m tall. In turn, based on historical sources from the 4th century CE we know that the legionary must have been at least 1.68 m tall. It should be emphasized here that the above limits specify the minimum. Thus, senior citizens could also join the army, and the standard for riders or the first legionary cohorts was about 1.80 m. Below is information about Vegetius about the approach to recruit growth:

We find the ancients very fond of procuring the tallest men they could for the service.

Vegetius, Epitoma rei militaris

Interestingly, in 66 CE emperor Nero decided to recruit a new legion, which could be joined by Italian citizens with a minimum height of 1.82 m. It was called I Italica. As it turned out, the legio of about 5000 people managed to form quickly, which contradicts the belief that there were only short people in Italy.

It is obvious that on average the population of ancient Rome was relatively shorter than modern societies. Certainly, however, there were also people who we would consider to be tall these days. It should also be emphasized that, given the diversity of origin, food, genetics and climatic conditions, we cannot say that all Roman soldiers were short. There were specific requirements in the army that prevented really short citizens from joining the ranks of the army. The exception to this rule were certainly crises, when Rome needed every recruit – we speak here, among others about the war against Hannibal or the 3rd century crisis. Vegetius recalls:

These requirements might easily be kept up in those times when such numbers followed the profession of arms and before it was the fashion for the flower of Roman youth to devote themselves to the civil offices of state. But when necessity requires it, the height of a man is not to be regarded so much as his strength; and for this we have the authority of Homer, who tells us that the deficiency of stature in Tydeus was amply compensated by his vigor and courage.

Vegetius, Epitoma rei militaris


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