Roman Soldier: Life in the Army and Beyond

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

By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University

When we think of a Roman soldier, we imagine a person wearing an armor, a helmet, carrying a sword, holding a spear and a shield, ready to engage with an enemy. We can imagine him obeying orders of his seniors fighting for Roman glory. Who were his seniors? Was a common soldier happy?

The painting shows Roman soldiers with their general.
The Roman amy followed a strict hierarchy and the soldiers had to follow the commands of their seniors during the military campaigns. (Image: Vuk Kostic/Shutterstock)

The Structure of the Roman Army

The Roman army was divided into legions, each comprising about 4,800 infantry and 120 cavalry. A legion was subdivided into 10 cohorts, comprising 480 men apiece, and each cohort was subdivided into six centuries comprising 80 men apiece—not 100 as the name suggests. The designation “century” refers to the fact that a legion at full strength would have comprised 6,000, but 4,800 was nearer to the mark in reality.

If you enlisted as a foreigner, you would be assigned to an auxiliary unit. You were obviously much more expendable than legionaries and for that reason you would typically be placed in the front ranks in battle. You would wear less protective armor than legionaries.

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.

Hierarchy in the Roman Army

Like all armies, the Roman army was very hierarchical. If you had technical expertise in metalwork, carpentry, or medicine, you joined the ranks of the immunes, which means that you were exempted from some basic tasks, such as standing guard. If you were among the elite, you were known as the principales, “the principals,” hoping to be promoted to the rank of centurion.

The most privileged among this class was the aquilifer or eagle bearer. He was the one who carried the eagle standard of the legion and who led the legion into battle.

Below him was the signifer, there were about 60 in all, each of whom who carried the signum, or standard, of one of the centuries. These men were all highly decorated and next in rank to the centurions.

The Centurions and Above in the Roman Army

A legion warrior of the Roman Empire.
An ordinary legionary could aspire to become a centurion in the Roman army. (Image: Axel Wolf/Shutterstock)

A centurion was in charge of about 80 men in his legion. He was the backbone of the army. A soldier could not afford to misbehave in the Roman army. If he committed a mild offense, the centurion would beat him with a rod. If he committed a more serious offense, the centurion would impose a fine on him, get him demoted, or even transferred to another legion. If the soldier fall asleep on the guard duty in enemy territory, he would have ordered other soldiers to club him to death.

Within the ranks of the centurions, too, there were divisions. The most important centurion was the primus pilus, the centurion in charge of the 1st century of the first cohort. Centurions couldn’t rise any higher, except to become praefectus castrorum, “prefect in charge of the camp.” So the rank of centurion would be the highest rank you could aspire to, if you joined as an ordinary legionary.

Then above the centurions were five young military tribunes of equestrian rank and one senior tribune of senatorial rank known as the tribunus laticlavius or the “broad-striped tribune.” He was so named because senators wore a toga with a broad purple stripe.

Military tribunes served for only a brief period before returning to civilian life. At the head of the legion was the legatus legionis, the legionary legate. He was a high-ranking senator and would typically remain in post for three to four years.

Learn more about being Roman.

Unhappy Soldiers in the Roman Army

When the German legions mutinied in A.D. 15, their ringleaders, according to the historian Tacitus, had this to say about the treatment they received:

Old men have been serving for 30 to 40 years, their bodies maimed by wounds. If anyone lives through these dangers, he’s sent to the ends of the earth and given a waterlogged marsh or unplowed hillside, which they call a farm. There’s no rest from beatings or wounds.

Roman soldiers fight against Pyrrhus elephants.
Roman soldiers worked hard and gave up their lives to guard their empire, yet they had to deal with prejudice at home. (Image: Massimo Todaro/Shutterstock)

A Roman soldier had to deal with a lot of prejudice back home. It seems odd that Roman civilians should have contempt for the soldiers who guarded their empire, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that this was indeed the case. Tacitus often refers to ordinary legionaries as the volgus, “the mass or the mob,” a very pejorative term.

Benefits in the Roman Army

If you were permanently assigned to a province, you’d be able to lead a domestic life of sorts. Many soldiers took a common law wife, variously referred to as a hospita or focaria. Hospita means “hostess,” whereas focaria means “kitchen girl.” Until the Emperor Septimius Severus came to the throne in A.D. 193, however, you were not permitted to marry, although you were entitled to join the army if you were married already.

If you rose to the rank of centurion, however, there was no such restriction and you could marry whenever you liked. If you were on the march, your wife and children would at times be able to accompany you. And if you didn’t have a wife or significant other, there was no shortage of prostitutes accompanying you on the march or awaiting you at your next stopover.

Though there was a prohibition against owning property in the province that you were serving in, it was not strictly enforced. Particularly in the west, veterans chose to stay in the same province after discharge, many of them no doubt settling down with a local girl.

It is true that a soldier’s pay, the stipendium, which he received three times a year, was very low. But each new emperor gave him a donative (from the Latin donativum), a monetary gift, both on his accession and by the terms of his will.

Learn more about being a rich Roman.

Retirement in the Roman Army

Discharge was only possible on alternate years. It was given either in the form of a grant of land or as a financial gratuity. An auxiliary soldier was granted Roman citizenship.

On discharge each soldier was presented with a bronze diploma, stating his rights. However, there was a downside to the military career. It wasn’t only because of the challenges he faced in the battlefield, but also because people died so much younger in those days.

Nonetheless, Roman military men played a crucial role in bringing glories to the Roman Empire.

Common Questions about a Roman Soldier: Life in the Army and Beyond

Q: Who were the immunes in the Roman army?

The soldiers with technical expertise in metalwork, carpentry, or medicine, joined the ranks of the immunes in the Roman army. They were exempted from some basic tasks, such as standing guard.

Q: Who were the auxiliaries in the Roman army?

The auxiliaries were the non-citizens in the Roman army. They wore less protective armor than legionaries and were placed in the front ranks in battle.

Q: Who was the centurion in the Roman army?

In the Roman army, a centurion was in charge of about 80 men in his legion. He had the authority to punish a soldier who made a mistake or misbehaved.

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