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Tracing the impact – and the experiences – of the Roman army in Britain

A standard-issue legionary helmet, made of copper-alloy. IMAGE: Trustees of the British Museum

A major new exhibition at the British Museum shows what life was like for the men, women, and children associated with the Roman military machine – and those they encountered through campaign and conquest. Carly Hilts visited to learn more.

The Roman army as we know it, has its origins in the reign of the first emperor, Augustus (r. 27 BC-AD 14). While Republican Rome had been a deeply militarised society, with all males of noble birth serving as part-time soldiers, in order to shore up the empire’s ever-expanding territories and conquer more, it needed a dedicated professional force. Rome’s first full-time career soldiers comprised around 300,000 men – half of these were legionaries, a status limited to Roman citizens; non-citizens could only be auxiliaries, who were mostly on worse pay. (At the time of Trajan, r. AD 98-117, auxiliary infantry were paid 250 denarii per year, compared with 300 for citizens.) If they were part of the lucky 50% who survived to the end of their 25-year service, however, there were life-changing prizes to be won. In lieu of the pension given to retired legionaries (worth ten years’ pay), auxiliaries were granted something even more valuable: Roman citizenship. As a citizen, they would pay less tax, enjoy full protection under Roman law – and, most importantly, could pass on this status to their descendants. A mid-2nd-century gravestone from Croy Hill fort in North Lanarkshire reflects the significance of this social transformation and what it meant for families: the memorial depicts three men, possibly a father and two sons, who are all shown proudly grasping the distinctive javelins and long shields of legionaries.

A ‘letter of recommendation’ preserved in one of the Vindolanda tablets. IMAGE: Trustees of the British Museum

Entry to the Roman army had an upper age limit of 35, but boys as young as 13 could sign up so long as they met the minimum height requirements (172cm or 5’7”). To join a legion, however, a citizen also needed letters of recommendation from individuals of suitable social status (and, written sources suggest, money for bribes). A papyrus archive from Karanis, Egypt, preserves letters from Claudius Terentianus, a soldier in Trajan’s army, who faced such a dilemma – he was a citizen but lacked suitably influential contacts to support his application. Accordingly, he initially ended up in the lower-status and less-well-paid marines on the strength of recommendations from two friends (even for marines, letters of recommendation were seemingly needed, just not such prestigious ones). These auxiliary units, which contained both non-citizens and, as Terentianus shows, citizens with insufficient social connections, worked on ships and on shore. Their peacetime roles included building roads, guarding harbours, and acting as a kind of police- and fire service in urban environments – they were also tasked with furling and unfurling the awnings at amphitheatres that shaded spectators from the sun.

Another example of a soldier seeking help from high places is preserved in one of the Vindolanda tablets. Addressed to Flavius Cerialis, prefect of the ninth cohort of Batavians, it was sent by a man called [—]ius Karus (possibly Claudius Karus, as a man of this name writes to Cerialis on another tablet) in support of a soldier hoping for a position at Carlisle. ‘Brigionus has requested me, my lord, to recommend him to you,’ Karus writes. ‘I therefore ask, my lord, if you would be willing to support him in what he has requested of you. I ask that you think fit to commend him to Annius Equester, centurion in charge of the region, at Luguvalium.’

Found in Bedfordshire, this stamp was used to impress sticks of eye ointment. IMAGE: Trustees of the British Museum

Once a soldier had enlisted, his status was formalised in a sacred oath – after which he was bound to serve for at least 25 years, with an early exit only offered by poor health, dishonour, or death. Life in the army was relentless: on the march, soldiers were expected to carry packs weighing 27kg and a shield weighing at least another 5.5kg, and in camp much of their time was spent in combat training. This included wielding wooden weapons against timber posts and other artificial enemies – something possibly reflected by the humanoid wooden target dating to AD 72-83 that was found at Carlisle. It was evidently later reused as flooring, as its surface bears scars from being trampled by hobnail boots, and it is now held by Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery in Carlisle – as is a wooden sword that has been interpreted as a practice weapon or possibly a toy. Recruits also had to learn how to use ranged weapons – suggestions of this kind of target practice come from Vindolanda, in the form of an ox skull pockmarked with distinctive square holes from artillery bolts – and, as well as constant route marches and weapons drill, basic training even involved lessons in swimming and horse-riding. Soldiers also occupied their days with manual labour and mundane chores.

The promise of regular, reliable pay (including a sign-up bonus covering expenses incurred during their journey to enlist) must have been a tempting incentive to embark on such an arduous life – to say nothing of the promise, however distant, of a pension or citizenship. Out of these wages, though, soldiers had to buy their own weapons, armour, and other kit. The miserable marine Terentianus writes home to ask for sandals and socks, as well as a ‘battle sword’, various tools including a grappling iron for marine combat, and a cloak, tunic, and even his own left- behind trousers. Footwear, he bitterly notes, wore out twice-monthly. For a British counterpart, the text of Vindolanda Tablet 346 (not included in the exhibition), acknowledges a similar request from a soldier on the northern frontier: ‘I have sent you… pairs of socks… two pairs of sandals, and two pairs of underpants [and] two pairs of sandals’. Those who were able to write for help were at a distinct advantage to their comrades – not just in terms of being able to cadge extra equipment, but because, in a largely illiterate world, only those who could read and write orders were likely to be promoted.

As for how the army was organised, eight soldiers (milites; singular, miles) shared an A-frame tent, eating and sleeping together. This group of tent-sharers was called a contubernium, and ten contubernia made up a century, which was commanded by a centurion – the highest rank that an ordinary soldier could aspire to, earning 15 times the standard pay and, if very senior, up to 60 times this amount. Six centuries formed a normal cohort, and ten cohorts combined with some 120 cavalry made up a legion, normally overseen by a senatorial-ranked legate (who had to be of aristocratic birth).

The gravestones of Regina, a former slave and the wife of a soldier; and the anonymous daughter of an imaginifer. IMAGE: Trustees of the British Museum

Legionaries and auxiliaries could be easily distinguished by their equipment. Citizen soldiers carried long, heavy javelins called pila (singular: pilum), whose pyramidal heads could punch through enemy shields. They were also armed with short stabbing swords and long shields (scuta; singular scutum) whose curved profile allowed legionaries to lock together in formations like the famous ‘tortoise’ manoeuvre. By contrast, the shields carried by auxiliaries were smaller, flat ovals, and they had simple spears in place of javelins. Given the vast numbers of scuta that must have been manufactured to supply such a large fighting force over the centuries, it seems astonishing that only one has survived intact to the present day: from Dura- Europos in modern Syria, where the dry climate has preserved the shield’s wood and its colourfully painted leather surface. It has no central boss (the shield may have been a spare part that was never fitted with one), but in the exhibition this is remedied by displaying the scutum alongside a shieldless boss that was recovered from the River Tyne. Dating to the early 2nd century, its metalwork is decorated with images including a bull, which was the regimental badge of Legio VIII Augusta.

Thanks to the waterlogged environment of sites like Vindolanda, we have a rich array of objects to help illuminate the other, non-metal, equipment used by Roman soldiers – including the leather outer sheath of a scabbard, and a soldier’s sandal, studded with hobnails to act like rugby boots in the scrum of battle. Adding to this picture is a leather cover for an oval auxiliary shield, which was excavated at Bar Hill Fort in East Dunbartonshire, and a leather quiver once used by an archer based at Birdoswald Fort on Hadrian’s Wall.

Claudia Severa’s birthday invitation. IMAGE: Trustees of the British Museum

The design of ‘standard-issue’ legionary helmets is immediately recognisable, with its domed cap and flat neck- and brow-guards, but Roman soldiers actually had no formal uniform other than the belt denoting their military status, meaning that units probably had a much less standardised appearance than traditional images suggest. In the exhibition, a diverse range of armour is on display, including an impressive brass arm-guard (found in more than 100 fragments but recently reconstructed; see CA 408) whose design mimics protection used by gladiators in the arena. It was worn by a soldier stationed at Trimontium Fort, near Melrose in the Scottish Borders. The arm-guard is displayed alongside the remains of segmented armour from the same site, which contrasts with a chainmail shirt found in the barracks at Arbeia Fort in Tyneside, which was probably worn by a member of the 5th cohort of Gauls. Arbeia was located at what today is South Shields, just beyond the eastern end of the Wall; about 25 miles to the west, another frontier fort at Corbridge produced fragments of another form of body armour: a segmental cuirass. Originally made of 40 articulated plates, it would have offered similar protection to an iron breastplate, but much greater flexibility.

Weapons and protective gear could be purchased from fort armouries or inherited from veteran relatives, but some soldiers chose to source their kit from local craftsmen. Such items often represent intriguing blends of imperial and indigenous styles: for example, a helmet from an unknown British findspot whose familiar Roman shape is decorated with swirling ‘Celtic’ designs, and a Roman sword, found at Hod Hill in Dorset, which was modified by adding distinctive Celtic- style fittings to its handle. Might these hybrid items have been commissioned by soldiers with British origins, or could they have been owned by legionaries from elsewhere, who admired insular artistry?

This turricula, or dice tower, was found near Cologne, and refers to the Picts. IMAGE: Trustees of the British Museum

This is an extract of an article that appeared in CA 409. Read on in the magazine or on our website, The Past (click here to subscribe), which details of all the content of the magazine. At The Past you will be able to read each article in full as well as the content of our other magazines, Current World ArchaeologyAncient Egypt, and Military History Matters.

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