At one point of time in the history of humankind, the Roman army was invincible. A Roman soldier would spend, on an average, six years of his life in the army. They not only fought wars, but also helped the Roman emperors build amazing buildings and well-planned cities. How were these soldiers enlisted? Did the Roman generals look after them?
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, on The Great Courses Plus.
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.
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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.
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 1st century A.D. volunteers had become more numerous than conscripts.
Learn more about being a rich Roman.
The Other Facets of the Roman Army
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.