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Who could serve in Roman legions?

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Roman legionaries
Roman legionaries

Many fans of Roman films are astonished by the ideas of the producers that in the Roman army they placed soldiers from different continents. The rule was that only a Roman citizen could serve in the army, i.e. in the Roman legions. However, obtaining citizenship was not an impossible task.

Prior to the Octavian Augustus, there were no restrictions on freeing slaves. The children of every liberated slave were born free. In the times of wars with allies (90s and 80s of 1st century BCE), on the basis of many successive laws, citizenship was obtained by successive inhabitants of the Apennine peninsula, all free city dwellers allied.

Already the dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla liberated slaves en masse, each of them naturally named (praenomen and nomen) “Lucius Cornelius”. Octavian Augustus liberated thousands of slaves by freeing them and enlisting them in the army as rowers before the war with Sextus Pompey. Previously, Julius Caesar granted Roman citizenship to particularly distinguished inhabitants of allied lands, the most famous of which is probably Antipater, the father of Herod the Great, and thus Herod himself. Moreover, Caesar recruited legionaries among gladiators, and then appointed the most distinguished soldiers to the Senate. This naturally met with resistance from the patricians.

Cicero, although he himself was one of the last equites to become senatorial, he joked about one of the senators who was supposed to come from Africa: “No wonder, that he can’t hear, because he has holes in his ears. ” It should be added that a separate category were mercenaries serving in the auxiliary cohorts, that is Auxiliares entirely composed of mercenaries of foreign origin.

As people traveled, Rome attracted by its greatness, the slave trade flourished throughout the world at that time, and citizenship was possible for many, so in practice in Roman legions people from every part of the world could serve side by side. The only limitation was probably usefulness in combat, assessed during training and recruitment.

Author: Izabela Henning (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)

Based on: Plutarch, “Cicero”; Appian, “Civil Wars”; Caesar “The Gallic Wars” and “Civil Wars”; Vegetius “Concerning Military Matters”.

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