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Officers of the Roman Army

Officers of the Roman Army

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With the appearance of the legionary, the Roman army was able to maintain a vast empire that totally embraced the Mediterranean Sea. Although the success of the army rested on the backs of the foot-soldiers and cavalry, there were others on the field and in camp who enabled them to prevail. Besides the famed centurion who stood at the front of his cohort and led his legionaries into battle, there was a command hierarchy of military tribunes, a camp prefect, and a legate. Alongside the centurion in the thick of battle were the principales: optio, signifier, aquilifer, and tesserarius. There were others, some with specialized skills, who were as essential but remained in camp. These were the immunes and beneficiari: laborers, clerks, surveyors, architects, engineers, and orderlies. The legionaries could not have conquered and maintained an empire without this capable support; together they made the Roman army a feared adversary for over eight centuries.

An Evermore Professional Army

Originally, the Roman army consisted of a citizen-based militia recruited from the propertied citizenry who only served for the duration of the war. There was a direct link between citizenship, property and the military. During the consulship of Gaius Marius (l. c. 157-86 BCE), the militia reinvented itself and became a professional army. The distinctions between age and experience that had existed before were abolished. Constant war had severely depleted the military. Realizing a need existed, Marius saw an untapped resource and changed the requirements for enlistment, recruiting from the poorer and unpropertied citizens of Rome. No longer did a soldier have to provide his equipment. The government provided all essentials: weapons, armor, and even clothing. With these changes, service in the army became extremely popular among the poor. It provided food, clothing, medical care, and a secure wage. The re-born legionary became better trained, better disciplined and therefore more flexible and effective.

Training in the Roman Army was supervised by a specialized officer, usually the optio.

Changes would continue throughout the imperial period. Prior to the time of Emperor Augustus (27 BCE - 14 CE), the Roman army was constantly on the march. As the borders of the empire expanded across Europe and into the Middle East, permanent fortresses began to appear to help stabilize the frontier. Augustus reduced the number of legions from 60 to 28. Most of these were stationed in the troubled provinces and along the borders. In the end, Rome had a standing army of 150,000 legionaries and 180,000 auxiliary infantry and cavalry. Although the number of legions was reduced, there still remained a need for loyal legionaries; however, the long examination and training process did not change. First, all recruits had to have their legal status checked to prevent slaves from joining the army. Besides his legal status, the individual’s age, fitness, education, and previous occupation were considered. If all standards were met during this probationary period, the recruit would enter the next step, receiving his signaculum: a piece of metal worn around the neck containing personal information about the soldier - similar to today’s army 'dog tags'. Upon his arrival at his assigned camp, he would undergo rigorous training before officially becoming a legionary.

The Centurion

Training was supervised by a specialized officer, usually the optio. Training included close-order drills, mock battles and one-on-one combat. Weapons-training was accomplished by using wicker shields and wooden swords. However, one of the first things the future legionary quickly learned was that discipline was harsh. A legionary had to obey orders without hesitation and, if not, he had to answer to the centurion or centurio. Aside from his other duties, the centurion was in charge of discipline, carrying with him the vitis or vine cane. With this, he could thrash a legionary for even a minor infraction. Supposedly, rigorous training, obedience, and harsh discipline made for an intimidating soldier.

Julius Caesar considered the centurion to be the backbone of the army, but the road to becoming a centurion came from many different directions. Normally, a centurion rose through the ranks. Some were former members of the imperial Praetorian Guard while others were members of the equestrian class, receiving commissions from the emperor. In battle, the centurion could be recognized by his silver armor, metal greaves, and transverse crested helmet. Also, unlike the legionnaires under his command, he wore his sword (gladius) on the left and dagger (pugio) on the right. In battle formation, he stood on the left of the first rank. In the camp barracks, he had his own special quarters with a separate latrine.

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The official hierarchy of a legion rested on three individuals: the legate, tribune & camp prefect.

To become a centurion, an individual first of all, and most importantly, had to be literate, enabling him to understand orders (always given in Latin) and relaying them to the legionaries. Although a middle-ranking officer, he was often given other positions of great responsibility. He might be used as a training officer or on detached duty, serving as an administrator in one of the provinces. Often, he would serve in as many as 12 different legions during his 46-year career. Although frowned upon by more than one emperor, he might supplement his income by charging a small fee for granting a legionary a furlough during the quiet winter months. Upon his retirement, besides receiving his retirement pay, a centurion might become a lector for a Roman magistrate or command the Praetorian Guard.

With the assistance of the principales, the centurion commanded a century of 80 men - six centuries equaled a cohort of 480 men. Each century was broken down into ten squads of eight men known as a contubernium. These eight legionnaires developed a close bond, sharing a barracks room in the camp. They would fight together, eat together, and in some cases, die together. There were, in total, 59 centurions in a legion composed of ten cohorts. With the exception of the first cohort which had double the number of legionnaires and five centurions, the remaining nine cohorts had 54 centurions or six per cohort. Each of these six centurions had a specific title: in descending order they were the pilus prior, princeps prior, hastatus prior, pilus posterior, princeps posterior and hastatus posterior.

The centurions in the first cohort were the most important in the entire legion, known collectively as the primi ordines or men of first rank. It was led by the highest-ranking and most senior centurion of the entire legion: the primus pilus or first spear. He would often go on to become a camp prefect. Traditionally, he had to be at least 50 years old and usually served only a term of one year. Aside from becoming camp prefect, he might be elevated to the equestrian class or become a provincial governor. Below him in the first cohort were the remaining four centurions: in descending order they were the princeps prior, princeps posterior, hastatus prior, and hastatus posterior. The terms princeps and hastatus are titles reminiscent of the old maniples.

The Principales

Working alongside the centurion in camp and on the battlefield was a number of higher-ranking legionaries known as the principales. These legionaries often received one-and-half times to twice normal pay. Two of the principales served as staff adjuncts, one of them being the cornicularius while the other was the optio. Aside from his responsibilities as a training officer, it was the duty of the optio to stand with his staff of office, the hastile, to the extreme right in the rear of the century to keep order and prevent desertions. If the centurion were absent, the optio would take his place, and if a vacancy occurred for a new centurion, the optio would be promoted to fill it. However, if one chose a different route, he could become a tesserarius. He was then responsible for obtaining the passwords (written on a wax tablet or tessera), keeping them secure, and relaying them to the sentries. In battle, he stood to the left in the rear of the century.

Since each legion had its own standard, there were positions of great honor connected to the various flags and banners. Among them were the vexillarius or bearer of the cavalry standard (the vexillum), the signifier or bearer of the infantry standard (signum), the imaginifer or bearer of the emperor’s image, and, most importantly, the aquilifer, bearer of the golden eagle standard (aquilia). Associated with these men were the antesignani, foot soldiers situated before the standard, and the postsignani who came afterwards. One unique standard often used in parades was the signum draconis or draco carried by the draconarius. It was a bronze dragon’s head attached to a multi-colored tube of dyed cloth that would act like a wind-sock and howl when the cavalryman was moving quickly. It became commonly used by all Roman mounted units.

The need for individuals to assist the centurion on and off the battlefield provided opportunities if one had the essential motivation, education, and skills. One could choose to join the artillery, become a ballistari, and operate the siege machines. Another position, subordinate to the centurion, was the decurion, a junior officer who often commanded an auxiliary unit. The camps and fortresses also had their share of essential personnel who were often exempt from field duties. There were the beneficiari, often veterans who served as orderlies and clerks (libarius). Those individuals with specialized skills - engineers, carpenters, instructors, and medical staff - were called immunes and received additional pay for their labors. A camp or fortress also needed doctors, architects, ministers, and vets. There were even trumpeters and buglers who served as signalers in battle: the tubicines, cornicines, and buccinators. However, a truly ambitious legionary could strive to become a centurion even though it might take 12 to 15 years or more. Luckily, the prohibition against marriage did apply to centurions and other senior officers.

The Legate

The official hierarchy of a legion rested on three individuals. First was the legate (legatus legionus) followed by the broad-striped tribune (tribunus laticlavius), and lastly, the camp prefect (praefectus castrorum). Appointed by the emperor, the legate was not a professional soldier. He was usually in his early thirties and a member of the senatorial order, coming from Rome’s social and political elite. The legate was the legion commander and during the early imperial period he only served two years in the position; it would later be extended to four. In camp, his residence, the praetorium, reflected his status as a Roman senator with a garden, servant’s quarters, and accommodations for his family. On the battlefield, he would wear a richly, decorated helmet, body armor, a scarlet cloak or paludamentum, and a scarlet waistband or cincticulus. Like other imperial senior officers he was entitled to have fasces and lectors: in his case five fasces and five lectors. When he was absent from the fortress, his duties fell to the camp prefect.

The Tribune

The remaining two senior officers in the legion were the broad-striped tribune and camp prefect. The broad-striped tribune or the tribunus laticlavius was second in the hierarchy and on the road to the Senate. It is important not to confuse the military tribune with the tribune of the plebs. Each imperial legion had six tribunes but only one wore a broad purple stripe on his toga and tunic while the other five or augusticlavii wore a thin purple stripe. A young Roman member of the equestrian class often saw the position of tribune as a career stepping stone, but it was an undertaking that might take as long as nine years to achieve. Although it was not always a guarantee, this senatorial pursuit was often achieved by a broad-stripe tribune only after serving with the legion for three to six years. The thin-striped tribune had no authority or command powers and was limited to staff duties, sitting on court-martials and watch-command duties. To become a broad-stripe tribune am individual had to serve as the prefect or commander of both an auxiliary infantry and an auxiliary cavalry. In battle and serving as a commander of a unit, the broad-striped tribune could be recognized by his richly decorated helmet, molded armor, and white cloak, wearing his sword on his left hip. He, too, would have a house or domus that reflected his elite Roman status; however, he received no fasces or lectors.

The Camp Prefect

After the tribune, the third in command was the camp prefect or praefectus castrorum. A former primus pilus he would serve as commander of a legion detachment and, in the absence of the legate, be quartermaster in charge of a camp’s infrastructure: its construction, the barracks, camp facilities, maintenance of weapons, medical care, meals, water supply, and the manufacturing and storage of construction materials. The position was abolished in the 4th century CE.

The Roman legion and the legionnaires have become things of legend, copied by armies throughout the centuries. The legionary has repeatedly been acclaimed for his valor and stamina in battle. Standing next to him in battle was the centurion - leader on and off the field. However, while these men were celebrated and emulated, there was a host of individuals in camp and alongside the legionaries in battle that are somewhat forgotten but who were still vital to the success of the Roman military. These were the immunes, the beneficiari, and principales. All of these men aided the Romans in conquering an empire that embraced the Mediterranean.

Structural history of the Roman military

The structural history of the Roman military concerns the major transformations in the organization and constitution of ancient Rome's armed forces, "the most effective and long-lived military institution known to history." [1] From its origins around 800 BC to its final dissolution in AD 476 with the demise of the Western Roman Empire, Rome's military organization underwent substantial structural change. At the highest level of structure, the forces were split into the Roman army and the Roman navy, although these two branches were less distinct than in many modern national defense forces. Within the top levels of both army and navy, structural changes occurred as a result of both positive military reform and organic structural evolution. These changes can be divided into four distinct phases.

Phase I The army was derived from obligatory annual military service levied on the citizenry, as part of their duty to the state. During this period, the Roman army would wage seasonal campaigns against largely local adversaries. Phase II As the extent of the territories falling under Roman control expanded and the size of the forces increased, the soldiery gradually became salaried professionals. As a consequence, military service at the lower (non-salaried) levels became progressively longer-term. Roman military units of the period were largely homogeneous and highly regulated. The army consisted of units of citizen infantry known as legions (Latin: legiones) as well as non-legionary allied troops known as auxilia. The latter were most commonly called upon to provide light infantry, logistical, or cavalry support. Phase III At the height of the Roman Empire's power, forces were tasked with manning and securing the borders of the vast provinces which had been brought under Roman control. Serious strategic threats were less common in this period and emphasis was placed on preserving gained territory. The army underwent changes in response to these new needs and became more dependent on fixed garrisons than on march-camps and continuous field operations. Phase IV As Rome began to struggle to keep control over its sprawling territories, military service continued to be salaried and professional for Rome's regular troops. However, the trend of employing allied or mercenary elements was expanded to such an extent that these troops came to represent a substantial proportion of the armed forces. At the same time, the uniformity of structure found in Rome's earlier military disappeared. Soldiery of the era ranged from lightly armed mounted archers to heavy infantry, in regiments of varying size and quality. This was accompanied by a trend in the late empire of an increasing predominance of cavalry rather than infantry troops, as well as a requirement for more mobile operations. In this period there was more focus (on all frontiers but the east) on smaller units of independently-operating troops, engaging less in set-piece battles and more in low-intensity, guerilla actions.

The Roman Army: Tactics, Organization, and Command Structure

Artist Jason Juta / Copyright : Karwansary Publishers

Posted By: Dattatreya Mandal December 19, 2019

History is witness to the triumph of the ancient Roman army, as evidenced from the Roman empire in its apical scope – which held sway over a major chunk of the known world, ranging from Spain to Syria (and Iraq), and from North African coasts and Egypt to most of Britain. Suffice it to say, this ancient military was known for its sheer discipline, incredible organizational depth, and the ability to adapt. Some of these qualities were demonstrated through logistics during the Second Punic War, where the Romans ultimately emerged victorious, in spite of (possibly) losing one-tenth to one-twentieth of their male population in a single battle (at Cannae). And complementing their unflinching capacity to bounce back from disastrous situations, was the evolution of the Roman military over the centuries. To that end, a plethora of Roman military developments was actually ‘instigated’ by their foes, and as such many of the successes of the ancient Roman military system can be attributed to their inherent capacity to simply ‘react’.

Evolution of Tactics of the Roman Army –

This fascinating graphical video concocted by YouTuber Historia Civilis aptly showcases the ‘reactionary’ evolution of Roman battle tactics. And while the content treads a simplistic (though nifty) overview, we can get the core idea behind the Roman military system and how its adaptability set it apart from some of the other militaries of the ancient world.

The Early Roman Levy –

Early Roman soldiers, circa 7th century BC. Illustration by Richard Hook.

While the video doesn’t really cover the scope of the Romans during their initial days, the earliest Roman army equipment’s archaeological evidence ranges far back to 9th century BC, mostly from the warrior tombs on the Capitoline Hill. As for the literary evidence, they mention how the earliest Roman armies were recruited from the three main ‘tribes’ of Rome. This shouldn’t come as too much of a shock (for those who are used to reading about the ‘civilized’ nature of Rome) since the settlement of Rome itself started out as a backwater which was inhabited by cattle rustlers who made their camps and rudimentary dwellings among the hills and the swamplands.

As for the evolutionary part, the transition of the Roman army from ‘tribal’ warriors to citizen militia was achieved in part due to the Roman society and its intrinsic representation (with voting rights) in the Roman assembly. To that end, the early Romans were almost entirely depended on their citizen militia for the protection and extension of the burgeoning faction’s borders. These militiamen were simply raised as levy or legio – which in turn gives way to the term ‘legion’. In essence, the so-called legions of early Rome were ‘poor’ predecessors to the uniformly-equipped and disciplined soldiers of the ensuing centuries (which we have discussed later).

The Roman Phalanx –

Roman hoplite (on right) fighting against the Etruscan warriors. Source: WeaponsandWarfare

The video starts off with what can be termed as the first solid formation of the Roman army (when Rome was still a city-state kingdom). And quite unsurprisingly, the Roman military system of this time was inspired by its more-advanced neighbor (and enemy) – the Etruscans. In fact, the mass formation of hoplites fighting with their shield and spear – known as a phalanx, was already adopted by the Greeks by 675 BC and reached the Italy-based Etruscans by early 7th century BC. The Romans, in turn, were influenced by their Etruscan foes, and thus managed to enact many of the rigid Greek-inspired formations along with arms in real-time battle scenarios.

Many ancient authors conform to this Roman army adoption of ‘foreign’ tactics. For example, Diodorus Siculus (In his The Library of History) mentions how the Romans ditched their light rectangular shields and endorsed the heavier bronze shields of the Etruscans. This military replication, in turn, allowed the Romans to triumph over the Etruscans. Anon (in his Ineditum Vaticanum) also supports this view by saying how the Etruscans were given a taste of their own medicine when the Roman army embraced the very same tight hoplite formations to counter its enemies.

As per historical tradition, the adoption of the hoplite tactics was fueled by the sweeping military reforms undertaken by the penultimate Roman ruler Servius Tullius, who probably ruled in 6th century BC. He made a departure from the ‘tribal’ institutions of curia and gentes, and instead divided the military based on the individual soldier’s possession of the property. In that regard, the Roman army and its mirroring peace-time society were segregated into classes (classis).

According to Livy, there were six such classes – all based on their possession of wealth (that was defined by asses or small copper coins). The first three classes fought as the traditional hoplites, armed with spears and shields – although the armaments decreased based on their economic statuses. The fourth class was only armed with spears and javelins, while the fifth class was scantily armed with slings. Finally, the six (and poorest) class was totally exempt from military service. This system once again alludes to how the early Roman army was formed on truly nationalistic values. Simply put, these men left their homes and went to war to protect (or increase) their own lands and wealth, as opposed to opting for just a military ‘career’.

The Roman Maniple –

But the greatest strength of the Roman army had always been its adaptability and capability to evolve. Like we mentioned before how the early Romans from their kingdom era adopted the hoplite tactics of their foes and defeated them in turn. However, by the time of the First Samnite War (in around 343 BC), the Roman army seemed to have endorsed newer formations that were more flexible in nature. This change in battle-oriented stratagem was probably in response to the hardy Samnite armies – and as a result, the maniple formations came into existence (instead of the earlier rigid phalanx).

The very term manipulus means ‘a handful’, and thus its early standard incorporated a pole with a handful of hay placed around it. According to most literary pieces of evidence, the Roman army was now divided up into three separate battle-lines, with first-line comprising the young hastati in ten maniples (each of 120 men) the second line comprising the hardened principes in ten maniples and the third and last line consisting of the veteran triarii in ten maniples – who probably fought as heavy hoplites (but their maniples had only 60 men). Additionally, these battle-lines were also possibly screened by the light-armed velites, who mostly belonged to the poorer class of Roman civilians.

Suffice it to say, a maniple was a far more flexible formation than the ‘solid’ yet (occasionally) unwieldy phalanx. More importantly, these formations, collectively called the triplex acies, allowed for a battlefield system of reserves being deployed for better tactical advantage. For example, when the front-lining hastati was drained of his strength during the heat of the battle, he could fall back upon the reserve lines of the elite triarii. The well-armored veterans were then deployed forward in a cyclic manner – thus resulting in a fresh batch of troops countering the exhausted (and usually less-organized) enemy. This simple yet effective tactic changed the outcome of many a smaller battle in 4th century BC – as represented by the above video (reconstructed by Invictus, in the Rome 2 game engine).

The Roman Cohort –

Illustration by Peter Dennis. Credit: Warlord Games Ltd.

As the Roman realm continued to expand at a rapid rate, especially during and after the conclusion of the Second Punic War, the Romans encountered larger armies of the more organized military powers of the contemporary times. By the 2nd century BC, the maniples were simply not ‘big’ enough to be deployed in mass scale in battles. So again, as a reactionary measure, the Romans (gradually) moved away from a pseudo-class based system, to induct a collective solution for their armies. The result was the cohort – a flexible group of around 480 men who were armed and armored in a similar fashion. Ten such cohorts made a legion, and thus the later Roman soldiers are simply known as the legionaries, as opposed to individualistic categorization like hastati and triarii.

For all-intents-and-purposes, the Roman legionary was a professional soldier of the ancient times – recruited (and sometimes conscripted) from different parts of the Roman Republic (and later Empire). And befitting a professional soldier, the green recruits who were successfully enlisted as legionaries had to go through a stringent training period of 4 months. During this training ambit, each soldier was given the unenviable task of marching 29 km (18 miles) in five hours with regular steps, and then 35 km (21.7 miles) in five hours with faster steps – all the while carrying a backpack that weighed 45 lbs (20.5 kg).

This weight was intentionally allotted for increasing the endurance level of a legionary and thus added to the overall weight of the panoply worn by the soldiers in their full gear (the weight of the lorica segmentata armor alone might have gone beyond 20 lbs). As expected, the ‘slowpokes’ were severely beaten by centurions and officers with their staffs. Interestingly enough, many of the similar ‘regimens’ are preserved through our modern military culture – with elite forces of some countries trained via such rigorous boot camp methods.

The Organization of the Roman Army –

The ancient Roman army was known for its sheer discipline and incredible organizational depth. Pertaining to the latter ‘quality’, an animated short video by Blair Harrower aptly demonstrates how the Romans organized their army down to the last details when it came to troop-types, corresponding officers and their formations, thus alluding to an impressive tactical scope that was matched by very few ancient armies. Now it should be noted that the animation showcases the scope of post-Marian reforms – a military system overhaul that only took place after 107 BC (thus corresponding to the late Roman Republic and the subsequent Roman Empire).

Length of Service –

Now while the video does provide some solid, unwavering numbers when it came to Roman legionaries, in actual scenarios the situations faced by the Roman army were often more chaotic. During the latter part of 1st century BC, Augustus followed the guidelines of the preceding centuries and officially formalized the length of service of a legionary to 16 years (in 13 BC). But it should be noted that even after 16 years of service, he was expected to join the vexillum veteranorum or unit of veterans for four more years.

However, by 6 AD, the initial length of service was increased to 20 years, and it was complemented by the praemia militare (or discharge bonus), a lump sum that was increased to 12,000 sesterces (or 3,000 denarii). And by the middle of 1st century AD, the service was further extended to 25 years. Now beyond official service lengths, the protocols were rarely followed in times marked by wars. This resulted in retaining the legionaries well beyond their service periods, with some men fighting under their legions for over three to four decades. Suffice it to say, such chaotic measures frequently resulted in mutinies.

As for pay, other than the lump sum of praemia militare, a basic legionary was paid 900 sesterces per year (paid in three installments). This pay scale remained the same until at least 80 AD, in spite of presumed inflation. However, the pay differed for the various units in a legion, with under-officers and specialists being paid one-and-a-half or twice the basic pay grade. And furthermore, this pay figure was only a nominal value from which various deductions were made in accordance with the goods (like food, equipment, attires, and even burial fees) consumed by the legionary. Still, there were cases when the legionary was paid less than he deserved, and sometimes the ‘swindling’ measures were initiated by giving the soldiers worthless parcels of land instead of the praemia militare.

Bonding Beyond Numbers –

The video clearly mentions how a contubernium was the smallest division in a Roman army. Now beyond discipline and training, one of the crucial reasons for the effectiveness of a legionary was directly related to his sense of fraternity within a century (made of 80 men). So on a deeper level, a century (centuria) was further divided into ten contubernium (a ‘tent group’, each consisting of eight members). Such classifications basically led to a behavioral aspect of comradeship among the tent group who fought, dined and rested together in their military careers spanning over decades. This sense of identification often translated to high morale and protectiveness on the part of the legionaries when fighting in an actual battleground.

Interestingly, the contubernium was not just limited to the bonding exercises. The Roman army also pushed forth the tent group as a mess ‘team’. These grouped soldiers were expected to cook their own meals and eat them together (while the cost of food was deducted from their salaries). Simply put, the absence of mess halls and catering services rather solidified the bond between the legionaries who had to depend on each other even for peaceful meals.

Other Specialized Units –

As we mentioned before, a legionary was only considered as a veteran after he had served for 16 years in the army. In the 1st century AD, even after such a long period of service, the soldier was not expected to ‘retire’ from his legion. Instead, the veteran was reinstated to a special unit of vexillum veteranorum for four more years of service. Typically consisting of 500 to 600 men, the Roman army unit had its own administrative branch with different officers. It was however attached to the original legion, but at times were deployed independently. The latter case is evident from their separate garrison at the town of Thala, with this particular vexillum veteranorum being derived from Legio III Augusta in 20 AD. Unsurprisingly, the veterans with their years of experience were highly successful against the onslaught of Tacfarinas and his Numidian forces.

Other than vexillum veteranorum, there were also slaves (or calones) that could be attached to a legion. Though unlike the veterans, they were governed as a part of the legion, with 120 men attached to each cohort of 480 soldiers. So basically, a single legion (generally comprising ten cohorts) could be accompanied by around 1,200 slaves and these men were trained for specific tasks. During times of emergency, they were even armed with weapons to defend their camps.

And finally, the soldiers who truly made a Roman military unit self-sufficient were the immunes, a group of highly trained specialists attached to each legion. Ranging from doctors, engineers to architects, these men were exempt from the hard labor duties of the rank-and-file soldiers, while also earning more than them.

The Command Structure of the Roman Army –

We already talked about the fascinating organization of the Roman army. However, the strength of the Roman legion was also complemented by its incredibly deep yet sufficiently straightforward command structure. In other words, the hierarchical system of command was tailored to suit both ways, with overlapping representations that mirrored the interests of the senate, the aristocracy and most importantly – the rank-and-file soldiers (legionaries). In essence, it was a collective scope of leadership that fueled the tactical maneuvers (and even strategic deployment) of a legion – and this complex ambit is presented in a comprehensible manner by Historia Civilis’ amazing short animation on the command structure of the Roman legion.

Note* – The animation showcases the scope of post-Marian reforms – a military system overhaul that only took place after 107 BC (thus corresponding to the late Roman Republic and the subsequent Roman Empire).

The Vexillationes –

Artist: Jason Juta / Credit: Karwansary Publishers

While Roman legions fighting with their full capacity was a regular occurrence during early 2nd century AD, by the middle of the 3rd century the conflicts faced by the Roman empire (and the changing emperors) were pretty volatile from both the geographical and logistical scope. And so it was uncommon and rather impractical for the entire legion to leave its provincial base to fight a ‘distant’ war on the shifting frontiers of 3rd century AD. As a solution, the Roman military commanders sanctioned the use of vexillationes – detachments from individual legions that could be easily transferred without compromising the core strength of a legion (which was needed for fortifying and policing its ‘native’ province).

These mobile combat ‘divisions’, comprising one or two cohorts, were usually tasked with handling the smaller enemy forces while being also used for garrisoning duties along with strategic points like roads, bridges, and forts. And on rare occasions when the Romans were faced by a large number of opposing troops, many of these different vexillationes were combined to form a bigger field army.

The Comitatus –

Comitatus from the late 3rd Century. Art by Johnny Shumate.

The later Roman empire and its volatile political scope also brought forth newer Roman units separate from the Roman legion. For example, Emperor Gallienus (who ruled alone from 260 to 268 AD) created his own mobile field army consisting of special detachments from the praetorians, Legio II Parthica, and other guard units. Hailed as the comitatus (retinue), this central reserve force functioned under the emperor’s direct command, thus hinting at the ambit of insecurities faced by the Roman rulers and elites during the ‘Crisis of the Third Century’. Interestingly enough, many of ‘extra’ equites (cavalry) that were assigned to each conventional legion, were also inducted as the elite promoti cavalry in the already opulent (and the militarily capable) scope of the comitatus.

Being a Soldier in the Roman Army

The length of a Roman soldier’s military service would on average be about six years. Military service defined men as a Roman citizen. (Image: Serhii Bobyk/Shutterstock)

As Jean-Michel Carrié has noted, it was the Romans who invented many of the features of modern military life. They include “barracks life, promotion rolls, bugle calls, the camp infirmary, the personnel office, tours of duty, morning reports, permissions and leaves, ‘the army offers you a career’ advertisements, the discharge review board, and even theatrical performances for the troops.” So, how did one become a member of the most formidable army the world had ever seen?

This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, Wondrium.

Conscription in the Roman Army

Imagine you are a Roman citizen in the earlier period of Roman history. If you met the minimum property qualification, that is to say you own a farm of a certain size, you’d be conscripted on an annual basis for the duration of a whole campaign—just like Greek hoplites. The word “conscript” comes from the Latin conscribo, meaning “to write your name along with lots of other names.”

As Rome expanded and its wars lengthened, a soldier stood a good chance of facing economic hardship as a result of military service, once they returned home. That’s because they would have been a peasant farmer, so when they would have returned at the end of a campaign, perhaps one that lasted several years, they would have found their farm completely ruined.

Things got worse and worse as Rome’s wars became lengthier and further afield, so in 107 B.C. a Roman general called Gaius Marius abolished the property qualification altogether and permitted those who had previously been excluded to enlist—in other words, those without any property, those who were very poor.

Now, for a moment suppose that you’re one of them. Previously soldiers had to provide their own armor. You had no money, however, so Marius provided you with armor at the state’s expense. He also provided you with pay. All this temporarily relieved a manpower crisis. The problem was that when you were discharged you were as poor as you had been when you’d enlisted. This meant that you were dependent for your retirement package, so to speak, on the general whom you’d served under.

Roman General and his Roman Soldier

In time, the Roman generals became very powerful—Pompey the Great, Cn. Pompeius Magnus, and Julius Caesar—who commanded large armies for several years. Slowly, a Roman soldier would have identified more with his general than he did with Rome itself.

Julius Caesar’s army in Gaul, for instance, served with him for eight years. Not only would the soldier have developed a deep attachment to Caesar over that length of time, but he would also have looked to Caesar to provide him with his retirement package.

Caesar fraternized with his men when they were off duty, not like his enemy Pompey, who was very standoffish. It was hardly surprising, therefore, that after serving with him for eight years, a soldier didn’t ask any questions when he crossed the little river in the north of Italy called the Rubicon and marched on Rome. So, as a result of this trend, Roman soldiers came in effect to resemble mercenaries.

Julius Caesar fraternized with his men when they were off duty. His army in Gaul served him for eight years. (Image: Jule_Berlin/Shutterstock)

Octavian’s Reforms in the Roman Army

This trend created a huge problem for the Roman state. It was a primary cause of the civil wars in the final decades of the Republic—and one that involved literally hundreds of thousands of citizens. It’s estimated that in the last two centuries of the Republic the proportion of soldiers who were conscripted into the army sometimes reached as high as 20 percent of the entire citizen body. Another way to put this is that the length of a soldier’s military service would on average be about six years. Military service, in other words, very much defined a man as a Roman citizen.

When Octavian, the future Emperor Augustus, defeated Mark Antony at Actium in 31 B.C., he pensioned off perhaps as many as half a million veterans and settled them as colonists in Italy and elsewhere. Octavian, who was very forward thinking in so many ways, understood that this was not the most efficient way to run an army or a country. So he introduced the concept of the voluntary professional soldier. He didn’t abolish conscription, but by the end of the 1 st century A.D. volunteers had become more numerous than conscripts.

The Other Facets of the Roman Army

The non-citizens were allowed to enlist in the Roman army as auxiliaries. (Image: Sammy33/Shutterstock)

Later, non-citizens were permitted to enlist as auxiliaries, including the peregrini, i.e., free subjects who were allied to Rome. Rome’s army, in other words, was what we would call today truly multicultural. As the historian Tacitus states, “It was an army of many languages and many customs, in which citizens, allies and foreigners, mingled together.”

Men of different races defended the Roman ideal, even though they weren’t Roman themselves and perhaps didn’t have much idea of what being Roman actually meant. It was a great way to integrate peoples into the empire and to give them a sense of unity.

When a Roman soldier wasn’t fighting, he and his fellow legionaries would have taken on the role of engineers, road-makers, surveyors, bridge-builders, carpenters, masons, and so on. The Roman road system, which extended the length and breadth of the Empire, was largely the creation of the legionary force, although native workers would also be conscripted. It’s been rightly said that Roman soldiers spent more time digging than they did fighting.

So, the Roman soldiers played an important role in the making of the glorious Roman Empire.

Common Questions about the Life of a Roman Soldier

Gaius Marius introduced some reforms in the Roman army . He permitted those who had previously been excluded to enlist—those without any property, those who were very poor. Marius also provided the soldiers with armor at the state’s expense.

The auxiliaries were the non-citizens in the Roman army .

Octavian, the future Emperor Augustus, introduced the concept of the voluntary professional soldier in the Roman army .

Legionary Punishments

Severe Punishments

Execution. The death penalty was a rarely used punishment for desertion, mutiny or insubordination. In cases where execution might be considered, factors such as the soldier's length of service, his rank, previous conduct, age, etc. were taken into account. Special consideration was given to young soldiers.

Decimation. An extremely rare style of the execution penalty was called decimation and would only be used in extreme cases of cowardice or mutiny. Every tenth man of a centuria, cohort or even the entire Legion, randomly chosen by a draw of lots, was killed by being clubbed or stoned to death by the other members of his unit. The effect on future performance of the legion could be overwhelmingly positive or an absolute disaster.

Disbandment. An entire legion could be disbanded without the customary land settlements and pension disbursements. This, like the other forms of extreme punishment, was rarely done, and was more likely to exist as a deterrent to any legions who may be loyal to a political opponent or group.

For example, Legio I Macriana Liberatrix ("Macer's Liberators"), was formed by Lucious Clodius Macer, rebellious Governor of Africa, in 68 AD, to be used against Nero. In the midst of this year, that came to be known as the Year of the 4 Emperors, Galba was one of the men who took claim to the throne. Galba, distrusting of Macer's intentions, ordered the death of Legio I's commanding officers and the disbandment of the questionably formed legion. It was removed from service to the empire without ever seeing action.

Less Severe Punishments

Despite the strict environment of Roman military life, the less extreme punishments below were more common than any of the above, and are also more recognizable to us today. They included:

  • Monetary fine, (pecunaria multa)
  • Additional duties (munerum indictio)
  • Relegation to an inferior service or unit (militiae mutatio)
  • A reduction in rank (gradus deiectio)
  • Dishonourable discharge from service (missio ignominiosa)

Legions of Rome: The Definitive History of Every Imperial Roman Legion

By Stephen Dando-Collins

In this landmark publication, Stephen Dando-Collins does what no other author has ever attempted to do: provide a complete history of every Imperial Roman legion. Based on thirty years of meticulous research, he covers every legion of Rome in rich detail.

Featuring more than 150 maps, photographs, diagrams and battle plans, Legions of Rome is an essential read for ancient history enthusiasts, military history experts and general readers alike.

The Sex Lives of Roman Soldiers

A Roman soldier might be envisioned as one of the brave young men, standing and waiting for the onslaught of Hannibal's elephants at Cannae or Zama. A legionary might also be thought of as one of Pontius Pilate's lackeys, cheerfully setting a Crown of Thorns on Christ's head before nailing Him to the Cross. Or, he might be envisioned as one of the last defenders of the Pax Romana, crossing swords with Goths and Vandals, Huns and Franks.

But the Roman soldier was, above all, a man.

And, like most men, he felt a need for companionship of a sort best satisfied by a woman.

Service in the Roman Army was a man's job. Recent archaeological evidence suggests that a small number of women may have joined the ranks of the Late Roman Army, serving as limitani milita-soldiers, but in the glory days of Imperium, all soldiers were men.

Though a Roman soldier spent his whole career surrounded by huge masses of his fellow human beings, where romantic love was concerned his profession was likely to be a lonely one. That is because, from right around the beginning of the Christian Era, up until 193 AD, he was not allowed to marry.

It could be said that the first Roman Emperor, Augustus (r. 31 BC - AD 14) finished the drawn-out process of transforming Rome's army into a fully professional force with ranks populated by career soldiers, men who gave the prime of their lives to fighting and toiling for the Peace of the Empire.

No one knows exactly when Augustus passed his law which forbade soldiers from marrying until their mandatory 25 year's service was over. But during his reign, in September of 9 AD, three Roman legions and a collection of auxiliary units were destroyed in Germania by the Cherusci. Cassius Dio tells us that a huge number of women, a mixture of wives, girlfriends, slaves, and prostitutes, were interspersed in the ranks of the legions, and when the Germans began their attack, the legionaries went berserk in attempts to rescue their womenfolk. Though their concern for their women was definitely noble, it was bad for cohesion and did nothing to improve an already very bad situation.

It is a possibility that Augustus made his ban on marriage precisely because of the role that the presence of women in the Germanian legions had played in this great defeat. Either way, from his reign up until that of Septimius Severus, soldiers were not allowed to marry. Not that this even remotely stopped them from having female relationships.

The ideal recruit into the Roman army was about 17 or 18 in age. Most civilians in the Empire usually married between the ages of 15 and 20, so naturally all young recruits into the legions would have not have had any serious relationship commitments at home. Except for times of extreme crisis, the Romans did not usually conscript recruits, and even when they did they focused on men in their teens or early twenties. So most or all men who joined the army at a later age were willing volunteers. They may well have been enlisting because their wife had died or kicked them out - or because they had never married in the first place.

It was considered ideal for a Roman soldier to not have any romantic or sexual relationships going on in times of war - sexually frustrated soldiers were more aggressive and energetic in combat. As far as can be told, though, their celibacy was not rigidly enforced by any means, and almost all soldiers had a woman of one sort or another in their lives.

Epigraphic evidence suggests that, despite Augustus' ban, some soldiers got married, anyways, and risked consequences that presumably never came. Many, if not most soldiers had common-law wives. These women were variously free-born Roman women, slave girls, or civilians who had been taken on campaign. Soldiers made wide use of female slaves and prisoners, who were used as sexual partners and companions.

There were also official military prostitutes. Little is known about these women, except that their quality of life must have been horrific. Most were probably captives taken from conquered and depopulated provinces - a life of military prostitute may well have been the tragic fate that awaited Jewesses taken at the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, or of the thousands of Dacian ladies captured during Trajan's great Dacian Wars thirty years later. Being added to a military brothel was, much like service in the mines for male captives - effectively a death-sentence. A combination of STD's and the general filth of their surroundings must have reduced their likelihood of ever living to see freedom greatly.

When a Roman legion was on the march its womenfolk - both free and slave - presumably followed behind in the baggage train. When a legion set up camp, at least in friendly territory, all the non-combatants set up their own "camp" on the outskirts of the legionary castrum. These civilian settlements were called canabae. Women set up shops that saw to the basic needs of the soldiers, such as repairing clothing, etc. and the military prostitutes would have plyed their trade here as well.

Even though the woman in his life was usually a slave, a prostitute, or a barbarian captive that had a lot to learn about Latin and good Roman manners - many a Roman soldier did indeed fall in love, and was apparently quite loyal to said woman. Epigraphic evidence from the 2nd Century mentions a number of cases of men capturing or buying their future wives during a war before marrying them after their service was over. Some tombstones were indeed erected and inscribed by slave girls who had lived as common-law wives of the deceased, and appeared to have legitimately mourned his passing - not the least because he had been her only supporter, and the rest the Legion might not have been so good to her.

The discharge-certificate of a British Celt who enlisted in an auxiliary cohort reveals much about the illegitimate families that Roman soldiers could form. Lucco, son of Trenus, was a young tribesman of the Dobunni who enlisted c. 85 AD around the age of 15. His unit - the Cohors I Britannicae - was transferred to Pannonia for Domitian's Dacian War shortly thereafter. Here, he took up with a local girl - Tutula the Azalian - and she bore him three children, Similis, Lucca, and Pacata. All of them were granted Roman citizenship during the reign of Trajan - and the men of the family summarily bore the praenomen and nomen Marcus Ulpius, to honor the Emperor.

Roman troops were finally officially allowed to marry in 193 AD, by order of Septimius Severus, who made a number of reforms that made the army less disciplined in subtle ways. Hereafter, increasingly more inscriptions mention wives of soldiers, and increasingly few mention mistresses and slaves. A number of the soldiers buried at Apamea, in Syria (c. 190 - 240 AD) were buried by their wives - and at least one buried his wife. The centurion Probius Sanctus buried his "incomparable and well-deserving" wife Antonia Cara in Apamea. She had died at the age of twenty-eight, perhaps a victim of plague.

A little known fact about the Roman Army is the number of times, especially in the 3rd Century, that soldiers mutinied not out of ambition or hatred of the emperor, but in an attempt to rescue or avenge their families. During Severus Alexander's Persian War (232-234 AD), a number of legionary vexillations he had taken from Germania revolted and threatened to kill him. When he asked these previously loyal soldiers why this sudden animosity, they replied that relatives had just come and told them that their wives had been carried off by a party of Germanic raiders that had crossed the Rhine, and the soldiers held Alexander responsible for calling them away during a time of tension along the Rhine frontier. This also reveals that, though they had women, soldiers were not always allowed to bring their women on campaign, if nothing else for obvious logistical reasons.

Just four years later, Emperor Maximinus Thrax was actually murdered by soldiers acting on behalf of their families. The wives, children, and slaves of the Second Parthica Legion had been stationed at the Legion's old barracks in Albanum, just north of Rome. But the Senate had revolted against Maximinus, who was now besieging Aquilea, an Italian metropolis that was supporting the rebellion. Messengers from the Senate arrived and informed his men that the Praetorians had surrounded Albanum, and upon the Senate's order they would butcher every person therein belonging to the Second Parthica Legion. Horrified, a band of Parthican centurions descended upon Maximinus and cut him to pieces. Presumably, the Senate's threats were therefore not carried out.

As the 3rd and 4th Centuries wore on, women continued to travel with the Roman Army. By the 5th Century, the Army in the West was made up largely of Germanic foederati. Many of these were - or had been - migrating bands of warriors who no choice but to bring their loved ones with them. By the time of Belisarius' re-conquest of Rome in the 6th Century, women were still attached to the Army in large numbers. Belisarius' Army, billeted across the Mother City, caused great turmoil because the soldiers demanded that their hosts feed both themselves and their families, and most common Romans could not afford such a burden.

So, in conclusion, the presence of women in the Imperial Roman Army has been largely overlooked, and is greatly understudied. But nonetheless, most or all legionaries had a woman (or perhaps several) in their lives. Undoubtedly, the victors of Idistaviso, Cremona, Mons Graupius, and Milvian Bridge marched back to camp content in the knowledge that they would soon be enjoying the attentions of an appreciative lady, be she wife, mistress, slave or whore.

The Roman Legion

Imperial Roman legionaries in tight formation, a relief from Glanum, a Roman town in what is now southern France that was inhabited from 27 BC to 260 AD

The Roman Empire was gigantic by the time of Emperor Trajan’s death in A.D. 117. From Britain to Syria, from the River Rhine to northern Africa, Roman governors ruled huge areas of the ancient world. The key to Roman military success were the Roman legions. A legion was the military organization, originally the largest permanent organization in the armies of ancient Rome. The term legion also denotes the military system by which imperial Rome conquered and ruled the ancient world. Each Roman legion had many soldiers accompanied by skilled cavalrymen. Roman soldiers were tough, loyal, dedicated, highly disciplined, and skillful fighters. With their large shields, deadly spears, lethal javelins, and vicious stabbing swords, they conquered many diverse people groups by employing conventional and innovative battle tactics during combat.

Rome’s Rise and Fall

Rome was founded in 753 B.C. before it became a republic in 509 B.C. Rome grew gradually through the centuries and eventually conquered all its Italian neighbors. While the Romans’ power and confidence enlarged, so did their ambitions to govern beyond Italy. In the third century B.C, the Romans were warring against the Carthaginians, a North African people equipped with a superior navy and a great army. After three titanic wars, the Romans finally emerged victorious over Carthage in 146 B.C. Romans brought Sicily, Corsica, Sardinia, and Spain under their control before they turned eastward to conquer Greece and Asia Minor. Julius Caesar, the greatest of all Roman commanders, conquered Gaul, located in modern France, between 58 and 50 B.C. Later, Emperor Claudius annexed Britain in A.D. 43. During the subsequent decades, the Roman legions added more territories to Rome before it began to decline partly because of barbarian integration into the Roman army and the gigantic geographical size of the Roman Empire.

Rome was first a republic, ruled by officials called consuls. Eventually, after several bitter civil wars, the Roman Republic became an empire. The first emperor was Augustus (27 B.C to A.D 14). His Roman successors lasted until the fifth century A.D. when the western part of the Roman Empire fell to the barbarian invasions, while the eastern part of the Roman Empire continued for almost 1,000 years.

Roman Weapons and Armor

Roman legionnaire soldiers were equipped with many weapons. The most useful of their weapons were the short stabbing swords called the gladius. The best gladius swords were made in Spain. Although the Roman gladius was shorter than the Celtic slashing swords and other barbarian swords, this Roman sword was a pointed, dubled-edged weapon that was easy to handle for thrusting, cutting, and stabbing the enemy. The gladius was perfectly designed for close-quarter combat with enemy.

Roman soldiers used two kinds of spears. The first was a light spear with a leaf metal head, which was designed for trusting deep into the enemy. The second was pilum or javelin throwing spear, which was shorter, but much heavier. The pilum was designed to bend when it hit the enemy to prevent the enemy from throwing the weapon back.

To protect themselves, legionnaire soldiers wore metal helmets, dressed in strong body armor, and carried large shields. Helmets were made of iron, bronze, and brass. They varied in shape and size, but were primarily designed to protect the soldiers’ necks, cheeks, brows, and heads.

Body armor was worn under a soldier’s purple and scarlet colored cloak or a tunic. The armor was usually made up of chain mail or metal plates wired together and attached to leather or fabric. Roman armor covered the torso. Roman plate armor was flexible, but heavy because the armor was made of metal.

Roman shields were large, curved, and were either rectangular or oval shaped, depending on the era. Their shields were made of wood and edged with metal, with a central metal boss.

The Roman Legion

The Roman army was based around the legion, which consisted of approximately 5,000 to 6,000 men. The legions were divided into 10 cohorts of about 500 to 600 men. Each cohort was made up of a century, which equaled 100 men. The Roman centuries were led by Roman centurions, an elite class of experienced fighting officers that formed the backbone of the Roman army.

When the Romans went to battle, they placed the newer recruits in the front lines, with more experience troops place in the second and third lines behind the young recruits. Roman patterns of attack usually involved legionnaires charging up toward the enemy lines, throwing their javelins, before closing in to fight with their shields and short swords.

Roman cavalry units were employed to attack the enemy’s flanks and to pursue fleeing warriors after a defeat by the Romans. Although Roman cavalry units were a small part of the Roman legion, about 300 cavalry men per legion, it was necessary for success on the battlefield.

In 202 B.C, at the battle of Zama in northern Africa, Roman commander Publius Cornelius Scipio defeated Hannibal Barca of Carthage with cavalry. The battle hung in the balance until the Roman cavalry overcame and chased away the Carthaginian cavalry. Later, the Roman cavalry turned around and attacked Hannibal’s infantry from the rear causing the Carthaginians defeat.

The Roman Legion’s Legacy

A few historians argued that the real question is not why Rome fell but why Rome endured so long. The Roman legions made Rome the greatest military power of antiquity. It was an empire built on warfare, violence, brutality, and conquest, but its celebrated legions could not maintain its domination of the Mediterranean world forever. The Roman legions laid the foundation for building western military strategy, tactics, doctrines, and combat operations. The Roman armies exerted a tremendous influence on subsequent European generations. The Roman legions supplied the blueprint for transmitting the Greco-Roman military culture to the celebrated European powers of western civilization.

The Army of Augustus – the ‘classic’ legion

The army as operated from the time of Augustus can generally be referred to as the ‘classic’ legion, the armed body of men which most imagine in their minds upon hearing the word ‘legion’. And it is this state of the legion which is largely recreated in illustrations or Hollywood movies.

Under Julius Caesar, the army had become a highly efficient and thoroughly professional body, brilliantly led and staffed.

To Augustus fell the difficult task of retaining much that Caesar had created, but on a permanent peace-time footing. He did so by creating a standing army, made up of 28 legions, each one consisting of roughly 6000 men.

Additional to these forces there was a similar number of auxiliary troops. Augustus also reformed the length of time a soldier served, increasing it from six to twenty years (16 years full service, 4 years on lighter duties).

The standard of a legion, the so-called aquila (eagle) was the very symbol of the unit’s honour. The aquilifer who was the man who carried the standard was in rank almost as high as a centurion. It was this elevated and honourable position which also made him the soldiers’ treasurer in charge of the pay chest.

A legion on the march relied completely on its own resources for weeks. To make camp each night every man carried tools for digging as well as two stakes for a palisade.

Apart from this and his weapons and armour, the legionary would also carry a cooking pot, some rations, clothes and any personal possessions.
Weighed down by such burdens it is little wonder that the soldiers were nicknamed ‘Marius’ Mules’.

There has over time been much debate regarding how much weight a legionary actually had to carry. Now, 30 kg (ca. 66 lbs) is generally considered the upper limit for an infantryman in modern day armies.

Calculations have been made which, including the entire equipment and the 16 day’s worth of rations, brings the weight to over 41 kg (ca. 93 lbs). And this estimate is made using the lightest possible weights for each item, it suggest the actual weight would have been even higher.

This suggests that the sixteen days rations were not carried by the legionaries. the rations referred to in the old records might well have been a sixteen days ration of hard tack (buccellatum), usually used to supplement the daily corn ration (frumentum). By using it as an iron ration, it might have sustained a soldier for about three days.

The weight of the buccellatum is estimated to have been about 3 kg, which, given that the corn rations would add more than 11 kg, means that without the corn, the soldier would have carried around 30 kg (66 lbs), pretty much the same weight as today’s soldiers.

The necessity for a legion to undertake quite specialised tasks such as bridge building or engineering siege machines, required there to be specialists among their numbers. These men were known as the immunes, ‘excused from regular duties’. Among them would be medical staff, surveyors, carpenters, veterinaries, hunters, armourers – even soothsayers and priests.

When the legion was on the march, the chief duty of the suveyors would be to go ahead of the army, perhaps with a cavalry detachment, and to seek out the best place for the night’s camp.

In the forts along the empire’s frontiers other non-combatant men could be found. For an entire bureaucracy was necessary to keep the army running. So scribes and supervisors, in charge of army pay, supplies and customs. Also there would be military police present.

As a unit, a legion was made up of ten cohorts, each of which was further divided into sex centuries of eighty men, commanded by a centurion.
The commander of the legion, the legatus, usually held his command four three or four years, usually as a preparation for a later term as provincial governor.

The legatus, also referred to as general in much of modern literature, was surrounded by a staff of six officers. These were the military tribunes, who – if deemed capable by the legatus – might indeed command an entire section of a legion in battle.

The tribunes, too, were political positions rather than purely military, the tribunus laticlavius being destined for the senate. Another man, who could be deemed part of the general’s staff, was the centurio primus pilus. This was the most senior of all the centurions, commanding the first century of the first cohort, and therefore the man of the legion when it was in the field with the vastest experience. And it was also he who oversaw the everyday running of the forces.

1 Contubernium – 8 Men.
10 Contubernia 1 Century 80 Men.
2 Centuries 1 Maniple 160 Men.
6 Centuries 1 Cohort 480 Men.
10 Cohorts + 120 Horsemen 1 Legion 5240 Men *
*1 Legion = 9 normal cohorts (9 x 480 Men) + 1 “First Cohort” of 5 centuries (but each century at the strength of a maniple, so 5 x 160 Men) + 120 Horsemen = 5240 Men.

Together with non-combatants attached to the army, a legion would count around 6000 men.

The 120 horsemen attached to each legion were used as scouts and dispatch riders. They were ranked with staff and other non-combatants and allocated to specific centuries, rather than belonging to a squadron of their own.

The senior professional soldiers in the legion was likely to be the camp prefect, praefectus castrorum. He was usually a man of some thirty years service, and was responsible for organization, training, and equipment.

Centurions, when it came to marching, had one considerable privelege over their men. Whereas the soldiers moved on foot, they rode on horseback. Another significant power they possessed was that of beating their soldiers. For this they would carry a staff, perhaps two or three foot long.

Apart from his distinctive armour, this staff was one of the means by which one could recognise a centurion. One of the remarkable features of centurions is the way in which they were posted from legion to legion and province to province. It appears they were not only highly sought after men, but the army was willing to transport them over considerable distances to reach a new assignment.

The most remarkable aspect of the centurionate though must be that they were not normally discharged but died in service. Thus, to a centurion the army was truly his life.

Each centurion had an optio, so called because originally he was nominated by the centurion. The optiones ranked with the standard bearers as principales receiving double the pay of an ordinary soldier.

The title optio ad spem ordinis was given to an optio who had been accepted for promotion to the centurionate, but who was waiting for a vacancy. Another officer in the century was the tesserarius, who was mainly responsible for small sentry pickets and fatigue parties, and so had to receive and pass on the watchward of the day. Finally there was the custos armorum who was in charge of the weapons and equipment.

Battle Order

Front Line
5th Cohort | 4th Cohort | 3rd Cohort | 2nd Cohort | 1st Cohort
Second Line
10th Cohort | 9th Cohort |8th Cohort |7th Cohort | 6th Cohort

The first cohort of any legion were its elite troops. So too the sixth cohort consisted of “the finest of the young men”, the eighth contained “selected troops”, the tenth cohort “good troops”.

The weakest cohorts were the 2nd, 4th, 7th and the 9th cohorts. It was in the 7th and 9th cohorts one would expect to find recruits in training.

The Roman Legionaries Uniform

Roman uniforms were not typically standardized. Although in general they all seemed similar, each legion bore slightly different attire depending on the province their uniform was manufactured in.

Many legions uniforms were made up of a variety of styles as long as the uniform was serviceable. As the legionaries had to purchase their own uniforms, many legionnaires wore uniforms handed down through the family from retired soldiers. Others soldiers bought used uniforms if they could not afford to buy the most up to date issue.

This made it possible for one attachment of legionaries to be wearing an assortment of uniforms spanning a considerable time throughout Romes history.


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