Challenging Life of a Roman Soldier

From the Lecture Series: The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World

By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University

Imagine you are young and you have seen a poster calling for recruits in the Roman army. You decide to enlist because you are not happy in your job. What should be your qualification to become a Roman soldier? Where will you get the training to become a fearless and formidable warrior?

Roman helmet on a dark background.
A person had to undergo a grueling training session of four months to become a Roman soldier. (Image: Vadym Sh/Shutterstock)

Who Can Become a Roman Soldier?

What should be your age if you are thinking of joining the Roman army? Ideally you are aged between 17 and 23, although you might be as young as 14 or even as old as 36. You have got to be five feet ten inches tall, although this qualification was later lowered to five foot eight. However, we do occasionally hear of soldiers who were as short as five feet four inches tall.

You are more likely to be accepted if you come from the countryside. There was some prejudice against city slickers in the Roman army. They were thought to be unruly and in general a rather bad influence. If you are a foreigner, you will serve as an auxiliary, although you will need to have at least a smattering of Latin to understand the orders that will be barked at you.

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.

The Beginning of a Roman Soldier’s Career

Assuming that the adjutant in charge of recruitment thinks you are the right person, your name along with any distinguishing physical characteristics will be entered down on the roll of the cohort to which you have been assigned. A cohort consists of about 600 men.

Now or perhaps later you swear an oath of allegiance to your emperor. The oath is known as the sacramentum, and you will renew your oath every New Year’s Day. You will be paid three gold coins (aurei) as a sign-up fee. An aureus was worth 25 denarii and a denarius was worth about $15, so you probably received about $1,000 or more—a considerable inducement, therefore.

Getting Trained to Become a Roman Soldier

Now you will have to undergo four months of grueling training. If you have enlisted in Rome or its environs, your training will take place in the Campus Martius, the field of Mars, beside the River Tiber.

You will be taught how to thrust with the sword, how to throw the spear or pilum a distance of about 30 meters, how to handle a bow and arrow, and how to shoot darts with a sling.

You will also learn how to practice formations, including the testudo, “the tortoise”, build a camp, and swim. In the tortoise formation, a soldier would move forward protected by a roof and a wall of shields, rather as if you were protected by a tortoise shell.

Learn more about being Roman.

A Roman Soldier’s Uniform and Weapons

A 3d illustration of the Roman armor.
A Roman soldier’s armor was made of iron plates and hoops. (Image: Denis Gorlach/Shutterstock)

You wear a covering over your shoulders and chest known as a lorica that is made out of iron plates and hoops. You wear a helmet, also made out of iron, in the shape of a domed bowl. It has a brow guard, a neck guard, and cheek pieces.

You wear a leather apron with metal studs attached to your sword belt, which protects your private parts. Your shield, which is in the form of a curved rectangle, is made of wood. It has a center panel with a bronze boss and bronze edging. You carry an iron-tipped pilum, an iron dagger, and an iron sword. All this weighs about 67 lbs (about 30 kg).

A Roman Soldier’s Campaign

When you are on the march, you will have to carry a sarcina, or a pack containing the tools you will need to build a camp—namely a pickaxe, a saw, a spade, and a basket for removing earth.

Once you set off on campaign, you will be expected to cover 20 miles (say about 32km) in five hours—that is known as a iustum iter—a just or reasonable march. A magnum iter—a not-so-reasonable march—will be up to 30 miles (about 50 km).

At the end of every day you will have to build a temporary marching camp as a protection against a surprise attack, unless you are lucky enough to be on a stretch of road where there is a permanent legionary fortress. You might be asked to fetch water, forage, or look after the baggage animals, and construct latrine trenches. If you are in hostile territory, you might get tapped for guard duty.

You sleep in a leather tent with seven other legionaries. They are known as your contubernales, “tent companions.” They are the most important people in your life—the ones you are most closely bonded to. You not only eat with them but you also stand alongside them in battle.

Before you depart from your temporary camp, you will have to destroy the perimeter wall that you built the previous night.

Learn more about being a rich Roman.

A Roman Soldier Fights in a Battle

Now it is time to engage with the enemy, you are drawn up in battle formation, perhaps 10 or more ranks deep, preferably on level, open ground. There are gaps in the line so that individual units will be able to maneuver more easily.

Your centurion is standing in the front rank, on the far right. Your standard bearers will lead you into battle, ahead of your line. They have a very important role in the battle because the legionary standards they carry have to be visible at all times.

You are given the order to charge when you’re about 30 yards (just under 30 m) from the enemy. First you hurl your pilum, then you ram the enemy at speed, trying to grind the boss of your shield into his belly or groin. Stones and arrows, as well as spears and perhaps balls unleashed by catapults, are hurtling all around you. Eventually the enemy gives flight.

You take prisoners, plunder their camp and strip the dead of all their valuables. You erect a trophy with the spoils you have taken from the dead—their armor and weapons especially.

If you have been wounded, there are surgeons, medici, to take care of you. There are no antibiotics so wounds often tend to be fatal. If you are pronounced unfit for service, you will be given an honorable discharge like all other veterans. That means you won’t have to pay any taxes or perform any civic duties.

Common Questions about the Life of a Roman Soldier

Q: What all did a Roman soldier carry in his sarcina?

A Roman soldier carried his tools to build a camp in his sarcina. His tools included a pickaxe, a saw, a spade, and a basket for removing earth to make a camp.

Q: What weapons did a Roman soldier carry?

A Roman soldier carried an iron-tipped spear, an iron dagger, a wooden shield, and an iron sword.

Q: What were the different parts of a Roman soldier’s helmet?

A Roman’s soldier’s helmet had a brow guard, a neck guard, and cheek pieces.

Keep Reading
The Roman Army: Its Evolution and Growth
How Did a Legion of the Roman Army Function?
When did the Roman Empire Fall?