The Roman army was the most fearsome and effective military force of the ancient world. With some half a million soldiers at its peak, it exercised control over a sprawling empire and conquered swathes of the ancient world, from Britain to the Middle East.
A highly advanced and meticulously structured machine, the Roman army was divided into legions (of several thousand men) and centurions (comprising 80 men).
For Roman soldiers on the ground, life was arduous and expectations were high: daily marches could cover around 30 miles, errors were punished with violence and despite the Roman army’s success, the risk of death or injury was ever-present.
1. The Roman army was divided into legionaries and auxiliaries
There were two main classes of Roman soldier. Firstly, there were legionaries, who were citizens of Rome and were highly respected soldiers. Members of the second class were auxiliaries, who were recruited from the fringes of the Roman Empire and beyond. They would have been paid less and were expected to do the riskier roles, like stand on the front lines during military advances and battles.
2. There were half a million soldiers in the Roman army
The Roman army is thought to have contained roughly half a million soldiers at its peak. This huge number was made up of smaller units, made up of roughly 4,000-6,000 soldiers, called legions.
These legions were then made up of smaller units known as centuries, which probably consisted of around 80 men each. Centuries were ruled by a centurion.
‘A Roman Legion’ by Marco Dente, c. 1515-1527.
3. Soldiers sometimes mutinied against their centurions
Centurions typically ruled by violence: they would carry a short stick or rod of vine and use it to beat unruly soldiers. In 14 AD, a centurion known as Lucilius was referred to by his men as Cedo Alternam, which translates to ‘bring me another’. This referred to his practice of breaking his rod over a soldier’s back before demanding he be delivered a new stick.
But mutinies weren’t unheard of. Reaching breaking point at the hands of vicious disciplinarians, soldiers occasionally rebelled against their superiors. This happened amongst legions of the Rhine in 14 AD, when soldiers attacked their centurions and turned their vine sticks on them.
4. Roman soldiers were paid based on their rank and class
While it’s difficult to convert denarii (an ancient Roman coinage) into modern currency, it’s helpful to reflect the hierarchy of pay in the Roman army.
In the 2nd century, new legionary recruits would receive the viaticum, which was typically 3 gold pieces or 75 denarii. Pay then depended on rank.
A 2nd-century Roman papyrus suggests that auxiliary infantrymen were paid around 100 denarii a year, while their legionary equivalents received around 300. Moving up the hierarchy, centurions would receive at least 1,000 denarii, with the primus pilus (senior centurion) receiving more like 15,000 a year.
5. Legionaries wore iron-plated armour
Roman legionaries typically wore a loria, which consisted of iron plates that covered the chest and shoulders. Helmets protected the head, neck and cheeks.
Weapons varied depending on the legionary’s role, but foot soldiers would typically carry a wooden, rectangular shield and a pilum (javelin), a dagger and a sword.
Auxiliary soldiers, on the other hand, had oval-shaped shields and wore tunics with chainmail rather than iron-plated armour.
6. Training was rigorous and lasted 4 months
Before being dispatched on campaigns, new recruits would embark on around 4 months of rigorous training. This training programme began with marching and progressed to sparring, weaponry training and strategic exercises such as formation drills.
By the time training was completed, soldiers would be able to march 20 miles a day in full armour. Some new recruits took on Roman names, which were seen as a sign of pride.
7. The Roman army handled civil matters as well as military campaigns
While the Roman army was a fearsome force that conquered huge swathes of the ancient world, it also served an administrative role.
As the way by which the Roman state exercised its power upon its lands, the Roman army was also responsible for collecting taxes, building structures like forts, viaducts and roads, policing the people and handling civil administration. In Roman Britain, for example, the Roman centurion Gaius Severius Emeritus oversaw the restoration of the Roman spas at Bath.
8. Roman soldiers weren’t permitted to marry until the 2nd century
Until the late 2nd century AD, Roman soldiers were forbidden by law from marrying. Nonetheless, surviving documents and tombstones suggest that many flaunted this rule, with even centurions and the higher echelons of the military hierarchy taking wives.
9. Soldiers might have to march 30 miles a day while on campaigns
Life on military campaigns was by all accounts arduous work. Soldiers would be expected to embark on either an iustum iter (reasonable march) or a magnum iter (heavier march), which meant walking 20 or 30 miles, respectively.
After the day’s march, soldiers would build a camp surrounded by a perimeter wall. They would sleep in leather tents with around 8 tent companions (known as contubernales). The next morning they would destroy the perimeter wall and repeat the process again.
10. Roman soldiers used a ‘tortoise’ formation to defend against enemy projectiles
Standard bearers would lead each legion into battle, displaying the unit’s standard. Typically, when the front line was approaching 30 metres from the enemy’s lines, soldiers would hurl their pilums and charge. A rear line would rain projectiles such as spears, arrows and stones down on the enemy.
Sometimes, a ‘tortoise’ or ‘testudo’ formation would be adopted. This was where a group of soldiers formed a barricade of shields around them to guard against enemy projectiles.
Jordanian men dressed as Roman soldiers reenact a tortoise formation, 2009.
If the battle was won, the cavalry would chase any enemy troops trying to flee. Prisoners might be taken, the dead would be checked for valuables and their weapons would be seized.