Soldiers in the Roman Empire: Selection, Training, Duties and Rewards

Home | Category: Military


All Romans citizens were required to participate in the military. Many soldiers non-citzen volunteers who signed up in return for good pay, housing, status and booty from conquests. When they were discharged they became citizens. Even barbarians were recruited with these promises. The army’s greatest expense was its payroll. The expression "worth their salt" comes from Rome where soldiers were paid a salarium (salary) to buy salt.

The Romans managed create a professional army by paying soldiers enough so they were no longer tied to the land. Legionnaires were given a daily stipend. They served six to twenty years (averaging about ten). The completion of military service provided the soldier with citizenship not only for himself but for his entire family. The legionnaires were forbidden to marry, though some did illegally, and their families often "attached themselves to the camps." [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

Military men were highly respected. After completion of their military service in a legion a soldier was rewarded with a bronze plate that had his name chiseled in it. This "diploma" meant that his marriage was sanctified by Roman law and all members of his family were Roman citizens. [Source: Timothy Foote, Smithsonian, April 1985]

Romans soldiers carried 30 kilograms loads. To get a sense of what it was really like to be a Roman soldier. German historian Marcus Junkel and a handful of colleagues donned Roman garb and rode on horseback over the Alps, along the Danube, and beside the Mediterranean. Perhaps the most important thing they learned from the experience was to be careful with horses and weapons. One time a horse fell on him and broke his shinbone. Another time he fell on javelin that pierced his neck. [National Geographic Geographica, October 1993."

In 2001, Oxford historian Dr Roger Tomlin deciphered a document dated to A.D. 75-125 found near Hadrian’s Wall that was determined to be a shopping list for a Roman soldier. It said that for the soldier to buy a clothing outfit at auction would require him to pay 8 percent of his yearly income (25 denarii). He would have had to fork out another 10 percent for a cloak to protect him from Britain's hostile climate.”[Source: Anna Salleh, ABC Science Online, March 5, 2001]

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; Lacus Curtius; The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; British Museum; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

Soldiers Versus Workers in Ancient Rome

military diploma
Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The free-born citizens of Rome below the nobles and the knights may be roughly divided into two classes, the soldiers and the proletariat. The civil wars had driven them from their farms or had unfitted them for the work of farming, and the pride of race or the competition of slave labor had closed against them the other avenues of industry, numerous as these must have been in the world’s capital. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“The best of these free-born citizens turned to the army, which had ceased to be composed of citizen-soldiers, called out to meet a special emergency for a single campaign, and disbanded at its close. From the time of the reorganization by Marius, at the beginning of the first century before our era, this was what we should call a regular army, the soldiers enlisting for a term of twenty years, receiving stated pay and certain privileges after an honorable discharge. In time of peace—when there was peace—they were employed on public works.

“The pay was small, perhaps forty or fifty dollars a year with rations in Caesar’s time, but this was as much as a laborer could earn by the hardest kind of toil, and the soldier had the glory of war to set over against the stigma of work, and hopes of presents from his commander and the privilege of occasional pillage and plunder. After he had completed his time, he might, if he chose, return to Rome, but many had formed connections in the communities where their posts were fixed and preferred to make their homes there on free grants of land, an important instrument in spreading Roman civilization.” |+|

Roman Soldiers and Their Weapons in the 2nd Century B.C.

Polybius wrote in “History” Book 6: “The youngest of these troops are armed with a sword, light javelins, and a buckler. The buckler is both strongly made, and of a size sufficient for security. For it is of a circular form, and has three feet in the diameter. They wear likewise upon their heads some simple sort of covering; such as the skin of a wolf, or something of a similar kind; which serves both for their defense, and to point out also to the commanders those particular soldiers that are distinguished either by their bravery or want of courage in the time of action. The wood of the javelins is of the length of two cubits, and of the thickness of a finger. The iron part is a span in length, and is drawn out to such a slender fineness towards the point, that it never fails to be bent in the very first discharge, so that the enemy cannot throw it back again. Otherwise it would be a common javelin. [Source: Polybius (c.200-after 118 B.C.), Rome at the End of the Punic Wars, “History” Book 6. From: Oliver J. Thatcher, ed., “The Library of Original Sources” (Milwaukee: University Research Extension Co., 1907), Vol. III: The Roman World, pp. 166-193]

“The next in age, who are called the hastati, are ordered to furnish themselves with a complete suit of armor. This among the Romans consists in the first place of a shield of a convex surface; the breadth of which is two feet and a half; and the length four feet, or four feet and a palm of those of the largest size. It is composed of two planks, glued together, and covered first with linen, and afterwards with calves' skin. The extreme edges of it, both above and below, are guarded with plates of iron; as well to secure it against the strokes of swords, as that it may be rested also upon the ground without receiving any injury. To the surface is fitted likewise a shell of iron; which serves to turn aside the more violent strokes of stones, or spears, or any other ponderous weapon. After the shield comes the sword, which is carried upon the right thigh, and is called the Spanish sword. It is formed not only to push with at the point; but to make a falling stroke with either edge, and with singular effect; for the blade is remarkably strong and firm. To these arms are added two piles or javelins; a helmet made of brass; and boots for the legs. The piles are of two sorts; the one large, the other slender.

“Of the former those that are round have the breadth of a palm in their diameter; and those that are square the breadth of a palm likewise is a side. The more slender, which are carried with the other, resemble a common javelin of a moderate size. In both sorts, the wooden part is of the same length likewise, and turned outwards at the point, in the form of a double hook, is fastened to the wood with so great care and foresight, being carried upwards to the very middle of it, and transfixed with many close-set rivets, that it is sooner broken in use than loosened; though in the part in which it is joined to the wood, it is not less than a finger and a half in thickness. Upon the helmet is worn an ornament of three upright feathers, either red or black, of about a cubit in height; which being fixed upon the very top of the head, and added to their other arms, make the troops seem to be of double size, and gives them an appearance which is both beautiful and terrible. Beside these arms, the soldiers in general place also upon their breasts a square plate of brass, of the measure of a span on either side, which is called the guard of the heart. But all those who are rated at more than ten thousand drachmae cover their breasts with a coat of mail. The principes and the triarii are armed in the same manner likewise as the hastati; except only that the triarii carry pikes instead of javelins.”

Property Qualifications and Freeing Slaves to Fight as Roman Soldiers

Soldiers usually supplied their own uniforms, armor and weapons and for a rime had a property requirement. Cristian Violatti of Listverse wrote: “Military service was both a duty and a privilege of Roman citizens. In its early days, the Roman army was composed exclusively of citizens and organized on the basis of their social status (according to the weapons and equipment they could afford). The richest served in the cavalry, those not so rich served in the infantry, and men without property were excluded from the army. [Source: Cristian Violatti, Listverse, September 4, 2016 ]

master and slave

“After the Second Punic War (218–201 B.C.), this recruitment system became obsolete. Rome had become involved in longer and larger wars, and they needed a permanent military presence in the newly conquered territories. The property qualification was therefore reduced. During the second century B.C., property qualification was reduced even more. Then, in 107 B.C., Gaius Marius began to accept volunteers who had no property and were equipped at the expense of the government. (Hornblower and Spawforth 2014: 79)

Valerius Maximus wrote in “Memorable Deeds and Sayings,” in the A.D. 1st century: “For during the Second Punic War (218-201 B.C.) the Roman youth of military age having been drained by several unfavorable battles, the Senate, on the motion of the consul Tiberius Gracchus (consul in 215 and 213), decreed that slaves should be bought up out of public moneys for use in repulsing the enemy. After a plebiscite [(a vote of the Consilium Plebis] was passed on this matter by the people through the intervention of the Tribunes of the Plebs, a commission of three men was chosen to purchase 24,000 slaves, and having administered an oath to them that they would give zealous and courageous service and that they would bear arms as long as the Carthaginians were in Italy, they sent them to the camp. From Apulia and the Paediculi were also bought 270 slaves for replacements in the cavalry... The City, which up to this time had disdained to have as soldiers even free men without property added to its army as almost its chief support persons taken from slave lodgings and slaves gathered from shepherd huts.' [Source: Valerius Maximus “Memorable Deeds and Sayings,”, John Paul Adams, California State University, Northridge (CSUN)]

De Re Militari

De re militari, also Epitoma rei militaris, is a treatise by the Latin writer Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus (died A.D. 450) about Roman warfare and military principles, methods and practices. It is only Roman military tract to survive, and was the most influential military text in the western world until the 19th century. A sort of Western version of Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” it was dedicated to Emperor Valentinian and was probably addressed to Theodosius the Great (ruled 378-395) and is thought to have been written during Theodosius’s reign. Richard the Lionhearted and Henry II of England carried De Re Militari everywhere with them during campaigns, Numerous manuscript copies of Vegetius circulated in the time of Charlemagne and one of them was considered a necessity of life by his commanders. A manuscript Vegetius was listed in the will of Count Everard de Frejus, about 837 A. D., in the time of Ludwig the Just.

“Flavius Vegetius Renatus was a Roman of high rank. In some manuscripts he is given the title of count. Raphael of Volterra calls him a Count of Constantinople. Little is known of his life. It is apparent from his book that he had not had extensive practical experience as a soldier.. He states quite frankly that his purpose was to collect and synthesize from ancient manuscripts and regulations the military customs and wisdom that made ancient Rome great. According to his statement, his principal sources were Cato the Elder, Cornelius Celsus, Paternus, Frontinus, and the regulations and ordinances of Augustus, Trajan and Hadrian.

“The Emperor Valentinian, to whom the book is dedicated, is believed to be the second emperor of that name. He evidently was not Valentinian I since his successor, Gratian, is named in the book. Between the reign of Valentinian II and Valentinian III, Rome was taken and burned by Alaric, King of the Goths, an event that unquestionably would have been mentioned had it occurred before the book was written. Vegetius mentions the defeat of the Roman armies by the Goths, but probably refers to the battle of Adrianople where Valens, the colleague of Valentinian I, was killed.

“It is a paradox that De Re Militari, which was to become a military bible for innumerable generations of European soldiers, was little used by the Romans for whom it was written. The decay of the Roman armies had progressed too far to be arrested by Vegetius' pleas for a return to the virtues of discipline and courage of the ancients. At the same time Vegetius' hope for a revival of the ancient organization of the legion was impracticable. Cavalry had adopted the armor of the foot soldier and was just commencing to become the principal arm of the military forces. The heavy armed foot-soldier, formerly the backbone of the legion, was falling a victim of his own weight and immobility, and the light-armed infantry, unable to resist the shock of cavalry, was turning more and more to missile weapons. By one of the strange mutations of history, when later the cross-bow and gun-powder deprived cavalry of its shock-power, the tactics of Vegetius again became ideal for armies, as they had been in the times from which he drew his inspiration.

De Re Militari

Types of Men That Became Roman Soldiers

Flavius Vegetius Renatus wrote in “De Re Militari” (“Military Institutions of the Romans”): “Praefect of the Workmen: The legion had a train of joiners, masons, carpenters, smiths, painters, and workmen of every kind for the construction of barracks in the winter-camps and for making or repairing the wooden towers, arms, carriages and the various sorts of machines and engines for the attack or defense of places. They had also traveling workshops in which they made shields, cuirasses, helmets, bows, arrows, javelins and offensive and defensive arms of all kinds. The ancients made it their chief care to have every thing for the service of the army within the camp. They even had a body of miners who, by working under ground and piercing the foundations of walls, according to the practice of the Beffi, penetrated into the body of a place. All these were under the direction of the officer called the praefect of the workmen. [Source: De Re Militari (Military Institutions of the Romans) by Flavius Vegetius Renatus (died A.D. 450), written around A.D. 390. translated from the Latin by Lieutenant John Clarke Text British translation published in 1767. Etext version by Mads Brevik (2001)]

Presumably describing a typical Roman soldier, Livy wrote in “Ab Urbe Condita” 42.34 (171 B.C.): “Citizens of Rome. I am Spurius Ligustinus, of the Tribe Crustumina, and I come of Sabine stock. My father left me half an acre of land and the little hut in which I was born and brought up. I am still living there today. As soon as I came of age, my father gave me his brother's daughter to wife, who brought nothing with her save her free birth and her chastity, together with a fertility which would be enough even for a wealthy home. We have six sons, and two daughters (both already married). Four of my sons have taken the toga of manhood; two are still under age. I joined the army in the consulship of Publius Sulpicius and Gaius Aurelius (Cotta) [200 B.C.], and I served two years in the ranks in the army which was taken across to Macedonia, in the campaign against King Philip [V, of Macedonia who died in 179]. In the third year Titus Quinctius Flamininus promoted me, for my bravery, to be centurion of the 10th maniple of hastati. After the defeat of King Philip and the Macedonians, when we had been brought back to Italy and demobilized, I immediately left for Spain as a volunteer with the consul Marcus Porcius [CATO, consul in 195 B.C.]. [Source: Livy, “Ab Urbe Condita” 42.34 (171 B.C.), John Paul Adams, California State University, Northridge (CSUN)]

“Of all the living generals, none has been a keener observer and judge of bravery than he, as is well known to those who through long military service have had experience of him and other commanders. This general judged me worthy to be appointed centurion of the 1st century of hastati. I enlisted for the third time, again as a volunteer, in the army sent against the Aetolians and King Antiochus. Manius Acilius [Glabrio, consul of 191] appointed me centurion of the first century of the principes. When King Antiochus had been driven out [Battle of Thermopylae] and the Aetolians had been crushed, we were brought back to Italy. And twice after that I took part in campaigns in which the legions served for a year. Thereafter I saw two campaigns in Spain, one with Quintus Fulvius Flaccus as Praetor [182, continued in office in 181 and 180], the other with Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus [father of the Gracchus brothers] in command [180]. I was brought back home by Flaccus with the others whom he brought back with him from the province for his Triumph, on account of their bravery. And I returned to Spain becaus eI was asked to do so by Tbierius Gracchus. Four times in the course of a few years I held the rank of Chief Centurion. Thirty four times I was rewarded for bravery by the generals. I have been given six civic crowns. I have completed 22 years of service in the army, and I am now over 50 years old. But even if I had not completed my service, and if my age did not give me exemption, it would still be right for me to be descharged, Publius Licinius, since I could give your four soldiers as my substitutes...' There was an official vote of thanks, and the Military Tribunes, on account of his bravery appointed him First Centurion of the First Legion. The other centurions withdrew their appeal and obediently responded to the call for conscription.”

Foot Soldiers in Roman Army

Roman foot soldiers that served in military units called legions were called legionaries. Elite soldiers were called Centurians. "The golden eagle which glittered in the front of the legion was the object of the fondest devotion," wrote Edward Gibbon in the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Each legion had its own symbol. The emblem of the 20th legion, for example, was the wild boar.

Flavius Vegetius Renatus wrote in “De Re Militari” (“Military Institutions of the Romans”): “Centuries and Ensigns of the Foot: We have observed that the legions had ten cohorts, the first of which, called the Millarian Cohort, was composed of men selected on account of their circumstances, birth, education, person and bravery. The tribune who commanded them was likewise distinguished for his skill in his exercises, for the advantages of his person and the integrity of his manners. The other cohorts were commanded, according to the Emperor's pleasure, either by tribunes or other officers commissioned for that purpose. In former times the discipline was so strict that the tribunes or officers abovementioned not only caused the troops under their command to be exercised daily in their presence, but were themselves so perfect in their military exercises as to set them the example. Nothing does so much honor to the abilities or application of the tribune as the appearance and discipline of the soldiers, when their apparel is neat and clean, their arms bright and in good order and when they perform their exercises and evolutions with dexterity. [Source: De Re Militari (Military Institutions of the Romans) by Flavius Vegetius Renatus (died A.D. 450), written around A.D. 390. translated from the Latin by Lieutenant John Clarke Text British translation published in 1767. Etext version by Mads Brevik (2001)]

“The chief ensign of the whole legion is the eagle and is carried by the eagle-bearer. Each cohort has also its own peculiar ensign, the Dragon, carried by the Draconarius. The ancients, knowing the ranks were easily disordered in the confusion of action, divided the cohorts into centuries and gave each century an ensign inscribed with the number both of the cohort and century so that the men keeping it in sight might be prevented from separating from their comrades in the greatest tumults. Besides the centurions, now called centenarii, were distinguished by different crests on their helmets, to be more easily known by the soldiers of their respective centuries. These precautions prevented any mistake, as every century was guided not only by its own ensign but likewise by the peculiar form of the helmet of its commanding officers. The centuries were also subdivided into messes of ten men each who lay in the same tent and were under orders and inspection of a Decanus or head of the mess. These messes were also called Maniples from their constant custom of fighting together in the same company or division.”

Cavalry in Roman Army

Flavius Vegetius Renatus wrote in “De Re Militari”: “As the divisions of the infantry are called centuries, so those of the cavalry are called troops. A troop consists of thirty-two men and is commanded by a Decurion. Every century has its ensign and every troop its Standard. The centurion in the infantry is chosen for his size, strength and deXterity in throwing his missile weapons and for his skill in the use of his sword and shield; in short for his expertness in all the exercises. He is to be vigilant, temperate, accive and readier to execute the orders he receives than to talk; Strict in exercising and keeping up proper discipline among his soldiers, in obliging them to appear clean and well-dressed and to have their arms constantly rubbed and bright. In like manner the Decurion is to be preferred to the command of a troop for his activity and address in mounting his horse completely armed; for his skill in riding and in the use of the lance and bow; for his attencion in forming his men to all the evolutions of the cavaIry; and for his care in obliging them to keep their cuirasses, lances and helmets always bright and in good order. The splendor of the arms has no inconsiderable effect in striking terror into an enemy. Can that man be reckoned a good soldier who through negligence suffers his arms to be spoiled by dirt and rust? In short, it is the duty of the Decurion to be attentive to whatever concerns the health or discipline of the men or horses in his troop.

Polybius wrote in “History” Book 6: “The cavalry is divided also into ten parts or troops. In each of these, three captains first are chosen; who afterwards appoint three other officers to conduct the rear. The first of the captains commands the whole troop. The other two hold the rank and office of decurions; and all of them are called by that name. In the absence of the first captain, the next in order takes the entire command. The manner in which these troops are armed is at this time the same as that of the Greeks. But anciently it was very different. For, first, they wore no armor upon their bodies; but were covered, in the time of action, with only an undergarment. [Source: Polybius (c.200-after 118 B.C.), Rome at the End of the Punic Wars, “History” Book 6. From: Oliver J. Thatcher, ed., “The Library of Original Sources” (Milwaukee: University Research Extension Co., 1907), Vol. III:The Roman World, pp. 166-193]

“In this method, they were able indeed to descend from their horses, or leap up again upon them, with greater quickness and facility; but, as they were almost naked, they were too much exposed to danger in all those engagements.The spears also that were in use among them in former times were, in a double respect, very unfit for service. First, as they were of a slender make, and always trembled in the hand, it not only was extremely difficult to direct them with exactness towards the destined mark; but very frequently, even before their points had reached the enemy, the greatest part of them were shaken into pieces by the bare motion of the horses. Add to this, that these spears, not being armed with iron at the lowest end, were formed to strike only with the point, and, when they were broken by this stroke, were afterwards incapable of any farther use.

“Their buckler was made of the hide of an ox, and in form was not unlike to those globular dishes which are used in sacrifices. But this was also of too infirm a texture for defense; and, as it was at first not very capable of service, it afterwards became wholly useless, when the substance of it had been softened and relaxed by rain. The Romans, therefore, having observed these defects, soon changed their weapons for the armor of the Greeks. For the Grecian spear, which is firm and stable, not only serves to make the first stroke with the point in just direction and with sure effect; but, with the help of the iron at the opposite end, may, when turned, be employed against the enemy with equal steadiness and force. In the same manner also the Grecian shields, being strong in texture, and capable of being held in a fixed position, are alike serviceable both for attack and for defense. These advantages were soon perceived, and the arms adopted by the cavalry. For the Romans, above all other people, are excellent in admitting foreign customs that are preferable to their own.”

Praetorian Guard: Rome’s Most Elite Soldiers

To support the imperial authority at home, and to maintain public order, Augustus organized a body of nine thousand men called the “praetorian guard,” which force was stationed at different points outside of Rome. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~]

Cristian Violatti of Listverse wrote: “The Praetorian Guard was a specialized unit of the Roman army that acted as household troops to the emperor and his personal bodyguards. During the first century B.C., the Praetorian Guard occasionally got involved in the process of appointing new emperors. [Source: Cristian Violatti, Listverse, September 4, 2016 ]

“But as time went by, their involvement grew larger until they eventually got into a position where they were able to appoint, remove, and even murder Roman emperors. One incentive for murdering emperors and appointing new ones was a practice known as “the donative,” which was an economic reward that the Praetorian Guard received from the newly appointed emperor once the previous one was killed.

“This practice was one of the reasons why emperor succession became truly chaotic during the late history of the Western Roman Empire. Once the loyal protectors of the the head of the Roman government, the Praetorian Guard gradually and ironically turned into a corrupt and dangerous army unit that held significant control over the life of the emperors.

Selection of Recruits for the Roman Army

Flavius Vegetius Renatus wrote in “De Re Militari”: “To treat our subject with some method, we shall first examine what provinces or nations are to be preferred for supplying the armies with recruits. It is certain that every country produces both brave men and cowards; but it is equally as certain that some nations are naturally more warlike than others, and that courage, as well as strength of body, depends greatly upon the influence of the different climates. [Source: De Re Militari (Military Institutions of the Romans) by Flavius Vegetius Renatus (died A.D. 450), written around A.D. 390. translated from the Latin by Lieutenant John Clarke Text British translation published in 1767. Etext version by Mads Brevik (2001)]

“We shall next examine whether the city or the country produces the best and most capable soldiers. No one, I imagine, can doubt that the peasants are the most fit to carry arms for they from their infancy have been exposed to all kinds of weather and have been brought up to the hardest labor. They are able to endure the greatest heat of the sun, are unacquainted with the use of baths, and are strangers to the other luxuries of life. They are simple, content with little, inured to all kinds of fatigue, and prepared in some measure for a military life by their continual employment in their country-work, in handling the spade, digging trenches and carrying burdens. In cases of necessity, however, they are sometimes obliged to make levies in the cities. And these men, as soon as enlisted, should be taught to work on entrenchments, to march in ranks, to carry heavy burdens, and to bear the sun and dust. Their meals should be coarse and moderate; they should be accustomed to lie sometimes in the open air and sometimes in tents. After this, they should be instructed in the use of their arms. And if any long expedition is planned, they should be encamped as far as possible from the temptations of the city. By these precautions their minds, as well as their bodies, will properly be prepared for the service.

“I realize that in the first ages of the Republic, the Romans always raised their armies in the city itself, but this was at a time when there were no pleasures, no luxuries to enervate them. The Tiber was then their only bath, and in it they refreshed themselves after their exercises and fatigues in the field by swimming. In those days the same man was both soldier and farmer, but a farmer who, when occasion arose, laid aside his tools and put on the sword. The truth of this is confirmed by the instance of Quintius Cincinnatus, who was following the plow when they came to offer him the dictatorship. The chief strength of our armies, then, should be recruited from the country. For it is certain that the less a man is acquainted with the sweets of life, the less reason he has to be afraid of death.

“In choosing recruits regard should be given to their trade. Fishermen, fowlers, confectioners, weavers, and in general all whose professions more properly belong to women should, in my opinion, by no means be admitted into the service. On the contrary, smiths, carpenters, butchers, and huntsmen are the most proper to be taken into it. On the careful choice of soldiers depends the welfare of the Republic, and the very essence of the Roman Empire and its power is so inseparably connected with this charge, that it is of the highest importance not to be intrusted indiscriminately, but only to persons whose fidelity can be relied on. The ancients considered Sertorius' care in this point as one of the most eminent of his military qualifications. The soldiery to whom the defense of the Empire is consigned and in whose hands is the fortune of war, should, if possible, be of reputable families and unexceptionable in their manners. Such sentiments as may be expected in these men will make good soldiers. A sense of honor, by preventing them from behaving ill, will make them victorious.

“But what good can be expected from a man by nature a coward, though ever so well disciplined or though he has served ever so many campaigns? An army raised without proper regard to the choice of its recruits was never yet made good by length of time; and we are now convinced by fatal experience that this is the source of all our misfortunes. So many defeats can only be imputed to the effects of a long peace which has made us negligent and careless in the choice of our levies and to the inclination so prevalent among the better sort in preferring the civil posts of the government to the profession of arms and to the shameful conduct of the superintendents, who, through interest or connivance, accept many men which those who are obliged to furnish substitutes for the army choose to send, and admit such men into the service as the masters themselves would not even keep for servants. Thus it appears that a trust of such importance should be committed to none but men of merit and integrity.”

A Roman soldier's enlistment document from Egypt reads: “Enlistment Preliminaries from Egypt, Oxyrhynchus, A.D. 51: Copy of a release. Year 12 of Emperor Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, Pharmuthi 29, Augustan. Released by Gnaeus Vergilius Capito, Praefectus of both ( Egypt and Alexandria? ): Trypho son of Dionysios, weaver, from the Metropolis of Oxyrhynchus, suffering from cataract impairing his vision. Examined and certified in Alexandria. [Source: California State University, Northridge (CSUN) ]

Desirable Qualities in Roman Army Recruits

Flavius Vegetius Renatus wrote in “De Re Militari”: “Proper Age for Recruits: If we follow the ancient practice, the proper time for enlisting youth into the army is at their entrance into the age of puberty. At this time instructions of every kind are more quickly imbibed and more lastingly imprinted on the mind. Besides this, the indispensable military exercises of running and leaping must be acquired before the limbs are too much stiffened by age. For it is activity, improved by continual practice, which forms the useful and good soldier. Formerly, says Sallust, the Roman youth, as soon as they were of an age to carry arms, were trained in the Strictest manner in their camps to all the fatigues and exercises of war. For it is certainly better that a soldier, perfectly disciplined, should, through emulation, repine at his not being yet arrived at a proper age for action, than have the mortification of knowing it is past. A sufficient time is also required for his instruction in the different branches of the service. It is no easy matter to train the horse or foot archer, or to form the legionary soldier to every part of the drill, to teach him not to quit his post, to keep ranks, to take a proper aim and throw his missile weapons with force, to dig trenches, to plant palisades, how to manage his shield, glance off the blows of the enemy, and how to parry a stroke with dexterity. A soldier, thus perfect in his business, so far from showing any backwardness to engage, will be eager for an opportunity of signaling himself. [Source: De Re Militari (Military Institutions of the Romans) by Flavius Vegetius Renatus (died A.D. 450), written around A.D. 390. translated from the Latin by Lieutenant John Clarke Text British translation published in 1767. Etext version by Mads Brevik (2001)]

“Their Size: We find the ancients very fond of procuring the tallest men they could for the service, since the standard for the cavalry of the wings and for the infantry of the first legionary cohorts was fixed at six feet, or at least five feet ten inches. These requirements might easily be kept up in those times when such numbers followed the profession of arms and before it was the fashion for the flower of Roman youth to devote themselves to the civil offices of state. But when necessity requires it, the height of a man is not to be regarded so much as his strength; and for this we have the authority of Homer, who tells us that the deficiency of stature in Tydeus was amply compensated by his vigor and courage.

“Signs of Desirable Qualities: Those employed to superintend new levies should be particularly careful in examining the features of their faces, their eyes, and the make of their limbs, to enable them to form a true judgment and choose such as are most likely to prove good soldiers. For experience assures us that there are in men, as well as in horses and dogs, certain signs by which their virtues may be discovered. The young soldier, therefore, ought to have a lively eye, should carry his head erect, his chest should be broad, his shoulders muscular and brawny, his fingers long, his arms strong, his waist small, his shape easy, his legs and feet rather nervous than fleshy. When all these marks are found in a recruit, a little height may be dispensed with, since it is of much more importance that a soldier should be strong than tall.”

Military Mark Branded on a Roman Solider

The military mark was imprinted on the hands of the soldiers, either with a hot iron, or in some other manner. It was indelible. Flavius Vegetius Renatus wrote in “De Re Militari”: “The recruit, however, should not receive the military mark as soon as enlisted. He must first be tried if fit for service; whether he has sufficient activity and strength; if he has capacity to learn his duty; and whether he has the proper degree of military courage. For many, though promising enough in appearance, are found very unfit upon trial. These are to be rejected and replaced by better men; for it is not numbers, but bravery which carries the day. [Source: De Re Militari (Military Institutions of the Romans) by Flavius Vegetius Renatus (died A.D. 450), written around A.D. 390. translated from the Latin by Lieutenant John Clarke Text British translation published in 1767. Etext version by Mads Brevik (2001)]

“After their examination, the recruits should then receive the military mark, and be taught the use of their arms by constant and daily exercise. But this essential custom has been abolished by the relaxation introduced by a long peace. We cannot now expect to find a man to teach what he never learned himself. The only method, therefore, that remains of recovering the ancient customs is by books, and by consulting the old historians. But they are of little service to us in this respect, as they only relate the exploits and events of wars, and take no notice of the objects of our present enquiries, which they considered as universally known.

“Names of Soldiers Inscribed on Their Shields: Lest the soldiers in the confusion of battle should be separated from their comrades, every cohort had its shields painted in a manner peculiar to itself. The name of each soldier was also written on his shield, together with the number of the cohort and century to which he belonged. From this description we may compare the legion, when in proper order, to a well fortified city as containing within itself every thing requisite in war, wherever it moved. It was secure from any sudden attempt or surprise of an enemy by its expeditious method of entrenching its camp even in the open plains and it was always provided with troops and arms of every kind. To be victorious, therefore, over our enemies in the field, we must unanimously supplicate heaven to dispose the Emperor to reform the abuses in raising our levies and to recruit our legions after the method of the ancients.

“The same care in choosing and instructing our young soldiers in all military exercises and drills will soon make them equal to the old Roman troops who subdued the whole world. Nor let this alteration and loss of ancient discipline in any way affect Your Majesty, since it is a happiness reserved for You alone both to restore the ancient ordinances and establish new ones for the public welfare. Every work before the attempt carries in it an appearance of difficulty; but in this case, if the levies are made by careful and experienced officers, an army may be raised, disciplined and rendered fit for service in a very short time; for the necessary expenses once provided, diligence soon effects whatever it undertakes.”

Training of a Roman Soldiers

Flavius Vegetius Renatus wrote in “De Re Militari”: “The first thing the soldiers are to be taught is the military step, which can only be acquired by constant practice of marching quick and together. Nor is anything of more consequence either on the march or in the line than that they should keep their ranks with the greatest exactness. For troops who march in an irregular and disorderly manner are always in great danger of being defeated. They should march with the common military step twenty miles in five summer-hours, and with the full step, which is quicker, twenty-four miles in the same number of hours. If they exceed this pace, they no longer march but run, and no certain rate can be assigned. [Source: De Re Militari (Military Institutions of the Romans) by Flavius Vegetius Renatus (died A.D. 450), written around A.D. 390. translated from the Latin by Lieutenant John Clarke Text British translation published in 1767. Etext version by Mads Brevik (2001)]

ancient Roman iron cattle brand

“But the young recruits in particular must be exercised in running, in order to charge the enemy with great vigor; occupy, on occasion, an advantageous post with greater expedition, and prevent the enemy in their designs upon the same; that they may, when sent to reconnoiter, advance with speed, return with greater celerity and more easily come up with the enemy in a pursuit.

“Leaping is another very necessary exercise, to enable them to pass ditches or embarrassing eminences of any kind without trouble or difficulty. There is also another very material advantage to be derived from these exercises in time of action; for a soldier who advances with his javelin,.running and leaping, dazzles the eyes of his adversary, strikes him with terror, and gives him the fatal stroke before he has time to put himself on his defense. Sallust, speaking of the excellence of Pompey the Great in these particulars, tells us that he disputed the superiority in leaping with the most active, in running with the most swift, and in exercises of strength with the most robust. Nor would he ever have been able to have opposed Serrorius with success, if he had not prepared both himself and his soldiers for action by continual exercises of this sort.

“The Post Exercise: We are informed by the writings of the ancients that, among their other exercises, they had that of the post. They gave their recruits round bucklers woven with willows, twice as heavy as those used on real service, and wooden swords double the weight of the common ones. They exercised them with these at the post both morning and afternoon. This is an invention of the greatest use, not only to soldiers, but also to gladiators. No man of either profession ever distinguished himself in the circus or field of battle, who was not perfect in this kind of exercise. Every soldier, therefore, fixed a post firmly in the ground, about the height of six feet. Against this, as against a real enemy, the recruit was exercised with the above mentioned arms, as it were with the common shield and sword, sometimes aiming At the head or face, sometimes at the sides, at others endeavoring to strike at the thighs or legs. He was instructed in what manner to advance and retire, and in short how to take every advantage of his adversary; but was thus above all particularly cautioned not to lay himself open to his antagonist while aiming his stroke at him.

“The Drill Called Armatura: The new levies also should be taught by the masters at arms the system of drill called armatura, as it is still partly kept up among us. Experience even at this time convinces us that soldiers, perfect therein, are of the most service in engagements. And they afford certain proofs of the importance and effects of discipline in the difference we see between those properly trained in this branch of drill and the other troops. The old Romans were so conscious of its usefulness that they rewarded the masters at arms with a double allowance of provision. The soldiers who were backward in this drill were punished by having their allowance in barley. Nor did they receive it as usual, in wheat, until they had, in the presence of the prefect, tribunes, or other principal officers of the legion, showed sufficient proofs of their knowledge of every part of their study.

“No state can either be happy or secure that is remiss and negligent in the discipline of its troops. For it is not profusion of riches or excess of luxury that can influence our enemies to court or respect us. This can only be effected by the terror of our arms. It is an observation of Cato that. misconduct in the common affairs of life may be retrieved, but that it is quite otherwise in war, where errors are fatal and without remedy, and are followed by immediate punishment. For the consequences of engaging an enemy, without skill or courage, is that part of the army is left on the field of battle, and those who remain receive such an impression from their defeat that they dare not afterwards look the enemy in the face.”

Swimming, Vaulting and Carrying Burdens

Flavius Vegetius Renatus wrote in “De Re Militari”: “To Learn to Swim: Every young soldier, without exception, should in the summer months be taught to swim; for it is sometimes impossible to pass rivers on bridges, but the flying and pursuing army both are often obliged to swim over them. A sudden melting of snow or fall of rain often makes them overflow their banks, and in such a situation, the danger is as great from ignorance in swimming as from the enemy. The ancient Romans, therefore, perfected in every branch of the military art by a continued series of wars and perils, chose the Field of Mars as the most commodious for their exercises on account of its vicinity to the Tiber, that the youth might therein wash off the sweat and dust, and refresh themselves after their fatigues by swimming. The cavalry also as well as the infantry, and even the horses and the servants of the army should be accustomed to this exercise, as they are all equally liable to the same accidents. [Source: De Re Militari (Military Institutions of the Romans) by Flavius Vegetius Renatus (died A.D. 450), written around A.D. 390. translated from the Latin by Lieutenant John Clarke Text British translation published in 1767. Etext version by Mads Brevik (2001)]

“To Be Taught to Vault: The ancients strictly obliged both the veteran soldiers and recruits to a constant practice of vaulting. It has indeed reached our cimes, although little regard is paid to it at present. They had wooden horses for that purpose placed in winter under cover and in summer in the field. The young soldiers were taught to vault on them at first without arms, afterwards completely armed. And such was their attention to this exercise that they were accustomed to mount and dismount on either side indifferently, with their drawn swords or lances in their hands. By assiduous practice in the leisure of peace, their cavalry was brought to such perfection of discipline that they mounted their horses in an instant even amidst the confusion of sudden and unexpected alarms.

“And to Carry Burdens: To accustom soldiers to carry burdens is also an essential part of discipline. Recruits in particular should be obliged frequently to carry a weight of not less than sixty pounds (exclusive of their arms), and to march with it in the ranks. This is because on difficult expeditions they often find themselves under the necessity of carrying their provisions as well as their arms. Nor will they find this troublesome when inured to it by custom, which makes everything easy.

“Our troops in ancient times were a proof of this, and Virgil has remarked it in the following lines:
The Roman soldiers, bred in war's alarms,
Bending with unjust loads and heavy arms,
Cheerful their toilsome marches undergo,
And pitch their sudden camp before the foe.”

Weapons Training for Roman Soldiers

Flavius Vegetius Renatus wrote in “De Re Militari”: “Not to Cut, but to Thrust with the Sword: They were likewise taught not to cut but to thrust with their swords. For the Romans not only made a jest of those who fought with the edge of that weapon, but always found them an easy conquest. A stroke with the edges, though made with ever so much force, seldom kills, as the vital parts of the body are defended both by the bones and armor. On the contrary, a stab, though it penetrates but two inches, is generally fatal. Besides in the attitude of striking, it is impossible to avoid exposing the right arm and side; but on the other hand, the body is covered while a thrust is given, and the adversary receives the point before he sees the sword. This was the method of fighting principally used by the Romans, and their reason for exercising recruits with arms of such a weight at first was, that when they came to carry the common ones so much lighter, the greater difference might enable them to act with greater security and alacrity in time of action. [Source: De Re Militari (Military Institutions of the Romans) by Flavius Vegetius Renatus (died A.D. 450), written around A.D. 390. translated from the Latin by Lieutenant John Clarke Text British translation published in 1767. Etext version by Mads Brevik (2001)]

“The Use of Missile Weapons: Besides the aforementioned exercise of the recruits at the post, they were furnished with javelins of greater weight than common, which they were taught to throw at the same post. And the masters at arms were very careful to instruct them how to cast them with a proper aim and force. This practice strengthens the arm and makes the soldier a good marksman.

“The Use of the Bow: A third or fourth of the youngest and fittest soldiers should also be exercised at the post with bows and arrows made for that purpose only. The masters for this branch must be chosen with care and must apply themselves diligently to teach the men to hold the bow in a proper position, to bend it with strength, to keep the left hand steady. to draw the right with skill, to direct both the attention and the eye to the object, and to take their aim with equal certainty either on foot or on horseback. But this is not to be acquired without great application, nor to be retained without daily exercise and practice.

“The utility of good archers in action is evidently demonstrated by Cato in his treatise on military discipline. To the institution of a body of troops of this sort Claudius owed his victory over an enemy who, till that time, had constantly been superior to him. Scipio Africanus, before his battle with the Numantines, who had made a Roman army ignominiously pass under the yoke, thought he could have no likelihood of success except by mingling a number of select archers with every century.

“The Sling: Recruits are to be taught the art of throwing stones both with the hand and sling. The inhabitants of the Balearic Islands are said to have been the inventors of slings, and to have managed them with surprising dexterity, owing to the manner of bringing up their children. The children were not allowed to have their food by their mothers till they had first struck it with their sling. Soldiers, notwithstanding their defensive armor, are often more annoyed by the round stones from the sling than by all the arrows of the enemy. Stones kill without mangling the body, and the contusion is mortal without loss of blood. It is universally known the ancients employed slingers in all their engagements. There is the greater reason for instructing all troops, without exception, in this exercise, as the sling cannot be reckoned any incumbrance, and often is of the greatest service, especially when they are obliged to engage in stony places, to defend a mountain or an eminence, or to repulse an enemy at the attack of a castle or city.

“The Loaded Javelin: The exercise of the loaded javelins, called martiobarbuli, must not be omitted. We formerly had two legions in lllyricum, consisting of six thousand men each, which from their extraordinary dexterity and skill in the use of these weapons were discingui.shed by the same appellation. They supported for a long time the weight of all the wars and distinguished themselves so remarkably that the Emperors Diocletian and Maximian on their accession honored them with the titles of Jovian and Herculean and preferred them before all the other legions. Every soldier carries five of these javelins in the hollow of his shield. And thus the legionary soldiers seem to supply the place of archers, for they wound both the men and horses of the enemy before they come within reach of the common missile weapons.”

Roman Discipline and Maintaining Fitness

Flavius Vegetius Renatus wrote in “De Re Militari”: “No part of drill is more essential in action than for soldiers to keep their ranks with the greatest exactness, without opening or closing too much. Troops too much crowded can never fight as they ought, and only embarrass one another. If their order is too open and loose, they give the enemy an opportunity of penetrating. Whenever this happens and they are attacked in the rear, universal disorder and confusion are inevitable. [Source: De Re Militari (Military Institutions of the Romans) by Flavius Vegetius Renatus (died A.D. 450), written around A.D. 390. translated from the Latin by Lieutenant John Clarke Text British translation published in 1767. Etext version by Mads Brevik (2001)]

Recruits should therefore be constantly in the field, drawn up by the roll and formed at first into a single rank. They should learn to dress in a straight line and to keep an equal and just distance between man and man. They must then be ordered to double the rank, which they must perform very quickly, and instantly cover their file leaders. In the next place, they are to double again and form four deep. And then the triangle or, as it is commonly called, the wedge, a disposition found very serviceable in action. They must be taught to form the circle or orb; for well-disciplined troops, after being broken by the enemy, have thrown themselves into this position and have thereby prevented the total rout of the army. These evolutions, often practiced in the field of exercise, will be found easy in execution on actual service.

“Monthly Marches: It was a constant custom among the old Romans, confirmed by the Ordinances of Augustus and Hadrian, to exercise both cavalry and infantry three times in a month by marches of a certain length. The foot were obliged to march completely armed the distance of ten miles from the camp and return, in the most exact order and with the military step which they changed and quickened on some part of the march. Their cavalry likewise, in troops and properly armed, performed the same marches and were exercised at the same time in their peculiar movement and evolutions; sometimes, as if pursuing the enemy, sometimes retreating and returning again with greater impetuosity to the charge. They made these marches not in plain and even ground only, but both cavalry and infantry were ordered into difficult and uneven places and to ascend or descend mountains, to prepare them for all kinds of accidents and familiarize them with the different maneuvers that the various situations of a country may require.

Roman Soldier Records and Donations

Flavius Vegetius Renatus wrote in “De Re Militari”: “Records and Accounts: Several posts in the legion requiring men of some education, the superintendents of the levies should select some recruits for their skill in writing and accounts, besides the qualification to be attended to in general, such as size, strength and proper disposition for the service. For the whole detail of the legion, including the lists of the soldiers exempted from duty on private accounts, the rosters for their tour of military duties and their pay lists, is daily entered in the legionary books and kept we may almost say, with greater exactness than the regulations of provisions or other civil matters in the registers of the police. The daily guards in time of peace, the advanced guards and outposts in time of war, which are mounted regularly by the centuries and messes in their turns, are likewise punctually kept in rolls for that purpose, with the name of each soldier whose tour is past, that no one may have injustice done him or be excused from his duty by favor. [Source: De Re Militari (Military Institutions of the Romans) by Flavius Vegetius Renatus (died A.D. 450), written around A.D. 390. translated from the Latin by Lieutenant John Clarke Text British translation published in 1767. Etext version by Mads Brevik (2001)]

“They are also exact in entering the time and limitation of furloughs, which formerly were never granted without difficulty and only on real and urgent business. They then never suffered the soldiers to attend on any private person or to concern themselves in private occupations, thinking it absurd and improper that the Emperor's soldiers, clothed and subsisted at the public expense, should follow any other profession. Some soldiers, however, were allowed for the service of the praefects, tribunes and even of the other officers, our of the number of the accensi or such as were raised after the legion was complete. These latter are now called supernumeraries. The regular troops were obliged to carry their wood, hay, water and straw into the camp themselves. From such kind of services they were called munifices.

“Soldier's Deposits: The institution of the ancients which obliged the soldiers to deposit half of every donative they received at the colors was wise and judicious; the intent was to preserve it for their use so that they might not squander it in extravagance or idle expense. For most men, particularly the poorer sort, soon spend whatever they can get. A reserve of this kind therefore is evidently of the greatest service to the soldiers themselves; since they are maintained at the public expense, their military stock by this method is continually increasing. The soldier who knows all his fortune is deposited at his colors, entertains no thoughts of desertion, conceives a greater affection for them and fights with greater intrepidity in their defense. He is also prompted thereto by interest, the most prevailing consideration among men. This money was contained in ten bags, one for each cohort. There was an eleventh bag also for a small contribution from the whole legion, as a common fund to defray the expense of burial of any of their deceased comrades. These collections were kept in baskets in the custody of the ensigns, chosen for their integrity and capacity, and answerable for the trust and obliged to account with every man for his own proportion.

Drilling of the Troops

Flavius Vegetius Renatus wrote in “De Re Militari”: “The organization of the legion being thus explained, let us return to the drills. The younger soldiers and recruits went through their drills of every kind every morning and afternoon and the veterans and most expert regularly once a day. Length of service or age alone will never form a military man, for after serving many years an undisciplined soldier is still a novice in his profession. Not only those under the masters at arms, but all the soldiers in general, were formerly trained incessantly in those drills which now are only exhibited as shows in the circus for particular solemnities. By practice only can be acquired agility of body and the skill requisite to engage an enemy with advantage, especially in close fight. But the most essential point of all is to teach soldiers to keep their ranks and never abandon their colors in the most difficult evolutions. Men thus trained are never at a loss amidst the greatest confusion of numbers. [Source: De Re Militari (Military Institutions of the Romans) by Flavius Vegetius Renatus (died A.D. 450), written around A.D. 390. translated from the Latin by Lieutenant John Clarke Text British translation published in 1767. Etext version by Mads Brevik (2001)]

“The recruits likewise are to be exercised with wooden swords at the post, to be taught to attack this imaginary antagonist on all sides and to aim at the sides, feet or head, both with the point and edge of the sword. They must be instructed how to spring forward to give the blow, to rise with a bound above the shield and then to sink down and shelter themselves under cover of it, and how to advance and retire. They must also throw their javelins at the post from a considerable distance in order to acquire a good aim and strengthen the arm.

“The archers and slingers set up bundles of twigs or straw for marks, and generally strike them with arrows and with stones from the fustiablus at the distance of six hundred feet. They acquired coolness and exactness in acnon from familiar custom and exercise in the field. The slingers should be taught to whirl the sling but once about the head before they cast the stone. Formerlyall soldiers were trained to the praccice of throwing stones of a pound weight with the hand, as this was thought a readier method since it did not require a sling. The use of the common missile weapons and loaded javelins was another part of the drill strictly attended to.

“To continue this drill without interruption during the winter, they erected for the cavalry porticos or riding halls covered with tiles or shingles, and if they were not to be procured, with reeds, rushes or thatch. Large open halls were likewise constructed in the same manner for the use of the infantry. By these means the troops were provided with places of drill sheltered from bad weather. But even in winter, if it did not rain or snow, they were obliged to perform their drills in the field, lest an intermission of discipline should affect both the courage and constitution of the soldier. In short, both legionary and auxiliary troops should continually be drilled in cutting wood, carrying burdens, passing ditches, swimming in the sea or in rivers, marching in the full step and even running with their arms and baggage, so that, inured to labor in peace, they may find no difficulty in war. For, as the well trained soldier is eager for action, so does the untaught fear it. In war discipline is superior to strength; but if that discipline is neglected, there is no longer any difference between the soldier and the peasant. The old maxim is certain that the very essence of an art consists in constant practice.

Fetials (Military Priests) and Roman Military Music

Cristian Violatti of Listverse wrote: “Rome had a specialized body of priests known as the fetials, whose sole obligation was to perform the rituals involved in going to war and making treaties. The final step in the ritual of declaring war was throwing a spear into the territory of the enemy. By the early third century B.C., Rome had expanded significantly, covering almost all the Italian peninsula from the Po Valley to the South. Throwing a spear into enemy territory was no longer a convenient procedure for declaring war; the borders of Rome were too far away for the fetials to complete the ritual. [Source: Cristian Violatti, Listverse, September 4, 2016 ]

“Superstitions, however, don’t die easily, and the priests came up with a clever alternative. A portion of land not far from the temple of Bellona (the goddess of war) was declared to be non-Roman. At the time of the war against King Pyrrhus of Epirus (280–275 B.C.), an enemy soldier was captured by the Romans and forced to buy part of this land so that the spear could be thrown into it.”

On Roman legion music, Flavius Vegetius Renatus wrote in “De Re Militari”: “The music of the legion consists of trumpets, cornets and buccinae. The trumpet sounds the charge and the retreat. The cornets are used only to regulate the motions of the colors; the trumpets serve when the soldiers are ordered out to any work without the colors; but in time of action, the trumpets and cornets sound together. The classicum, which is a particular sound of the buccina or horn, is appropriated to the commander-in-chief and is used in the presence of the general, or at the execution of a soldier, as a mark of its being done by his authority. The ordinary guards and outposts are always mounted and relieved by the sound of trumpet, which also directs the motions of the soldiers on working parties and on field days. The cornets sound whenever the colors are to be struck or planted. These rules must be punctually observed in all exercises and reviews so that the soldiers may be ready to obey them in action without hesitation according to the general's orders either to charge or halt, to pursue the enemy or to retire. F or reason will convince us that what is necessary to be performed in the heat of action should constantly be practiced in the leisure of peace.” [Source: De Re Militari (Military Institutions of the Romans) by Flavius Vegetius Renatus (died A.D. 450), written around A.D. 390. translated from the Latin by Lieutenant John Clarke Text British translation published in 1767. Etext version by Mads Brevik (2001)]

Military Sacrifice in Ancient Rome

Livy (59 B.C. - A.D. 17) wrote in “History of Rome” VIII, 9, 1-11: “The Roman consuls before leading their troops into battle offered sacrifices. it is said that the soothsayer pointed out to Decius that the head of the liver was wounded on the friendly side; but that the victim was in all other respects acceptable to the gods, and that the sacrifice of Manlius had been greatly successful. “it is well enough,” said Decius, “if my colleague has received favourable tokens.” in the formation already described they advanced into the field. Manlius commanded the right wing, Decius the left. in the beginning the strength of the combatants and their ardour were equal on both sides; but after a time the Roman hastati on the left, unable to withstand the pressure of the Latins, fell back upon the principes. in the confusion of this movement Decius the consul called out to Marcus Valerius in a loud voice: “we have need of Heaven's help, Marcus Valerius. come therefore, state pontiff of the Roman People, dictate the words, that I may devote myself to save the legions.” [Source: Titus Livius (Livy), “The History of Rome,” Book 8. Benjamin Oliver Foster, Ph.D., Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1926,]

The pontiff bade him don the purple —bordered toga, and with veiled head and one hand thrust out from the toga and touching his chin, stand upon a spear that was laid under his feet, and say as follows:“janus, Jupiter, Father Mars, Quirinus, Bellona, Lares, divine Novensiles, divine Indigites, ye gods in whose power are both we and our enemies, and you, divine Manes, —I invoke and worship you, I beseech and crave your favour, that you prosper the might and the victory of the Roman People of the Quirites, and visit the foes of the Roman People of the Quirites with fear, shuddering, and death. As I have pronounced the words, even so in behalf of the republic of the Roman People of the Quirites, and of the army, the legions, the auxiliaries of the Roman People of the Quirites, do I devote the legions and auxiliaries of the enemy, together with myself, to the divine Manes and to Earth.”

“Having uttered this prayer he bade the lictors go to Titus Manlius and lose no time in announcing to his colleague that he had devoted himself for the good of the army. he then girded himself with the Gabinian cincture, and vaulting, armed, upon his horse, plunged into the thick of the enemy, a conspicuous object from either army and of an aspect more august than a man's, as though sent from heaven to expiate all anger of the gods, and to tum aside destruction from his people and bring it on their adversaries. Thus every terror and dread attended him, and throwing the Latin front into disarray, spread afterwards throughout their entire host. This was most clearly seen in that, wherever he rode, men cowered as though blasted by some baleful star; but when he fell beneath a rain of missiles, from that instant there was no more doubt of the consternation of the Latin cohorts, which everywhere abandoned the field in flight. At the same time the Romans —their spirits relieved of religious fears —pressed on as though the signal had just then for the first time been given, and delivered a fresh attack; for the rorarii were running out between the antepilani and were joining their strength to that of the hastati and the principles, and the triarii, kneeling on the right knee, were waiting till the consul signed to them to rise.”

Roman Military Funeral

Polybius wrote in “History” Book 6: “It will be sufficient to mention one of these, as a proof of the attention that is shown by the Roman government, to infuse such a spirit into the citizens as shall lead them to encounter every kind of danger for the sake of obtaining reputation in their country. When any illustrious person dies, he is carried in procession with the rest of the funeral pomp, to the rostra in the forum; sometimes placed conspicuous in an upright posture; and sometimes, though less frequently, reclined. And while the people are all standing round, his son, if he has left one of sufficient age, and who is then at Rome, or, if otherwise, some person of his kindred, ascends the rostra, and extols the virtues of the deceased, and the great deeds that were performed by him in his life. By this discourse, which recalls his past actions to remembrance, and places them in open view before all the multitude, not those alone who were sharers in his victories, but even the rest who bore no part in his exploits, are moved to such sympathy of sorrow, that the accident seems rather to be a public misfortune, than a private loss. He is then buried with the usual rites; and afterwards an image, which both in features and complexion expresses an exact resemblance of his face, is set up in the most conspicuous part of the house, inclosed in a shrine of wood. Upon solemn festivals, these images are uncovered, and adorned with the greatest care. [Source: Polybius (c.200-after 118 B.C.), Rome at the End of the Punic Wars, “History” Book 6. From: Oliver J. Thatcher, ed., “The Library of Original Sources” (Milwaukee: University Research Extension Co., 1907), Vol. III: The Roman World, pp. 166-193]

“And when any other person of the same family dies, they are carried also in the funeral procession, with a body added to the bust, that the representation may be just, even with regard to size. They are dressed likewise in the habits that belong to the ranks which they severally filled when they were alive. If they were consuls or praetors, in a gown bordered with purple: if censors, in a purple robe: and if they triumphed, or obtained any similar honor, in a vest embroidered with gold. Thus appeared, they are drawn along in chariots preceded by the rods and axes, and other ensigns of their former dignity. And when they arrive at the forum, they are all seated upon chairs of ivory; and there exhibit the noblest objects that can be offered to youthful mind, warmed with the love of virtue and of glory.

“For who can behold without emotion the forms of so many illustrious men, thus living, as it were, and breathing together in his presence? Or what spectacle can be conceived more great and striking? The person also that is appointed to harangue, when he has exhausted all the praises of the deceased, turns his discourse to the rest, whose images are before him; and, beginning with the most ancient of them, recounts the fortunes and the exploits of every one in turn. By this method, which renews continually the remembrance of men celebrated for their virtue, the fame of every great and noble action become immortal. And the glory of those, by whose services their country has been benefited, is rendered familiar to the people, and delivered down to future times. But the chief advantage is, that by the hope of obtaining this honorable fame, which is reserved for virtue, the young men are animated to sustain all danger, in the cause of the common safety. For from hence it has happened, that many among the Romans have voluntarily engaged in single combat, in order to decide the fortune of an entire war. Many also have devoted themselves to inevitable death; some of them in battle, to save the lives of other citizens; and some in time of peace to rescue the whole state from destruction. Others again, who have been invested with the highest dignities have, in defiance of all law and customs, condemned their own sons to die; showing greater regard to the advantage of their country, than to the bonds of nature, and the closest ties of kindred.

“Very frequent are the examples of this kind, that are recorded in the Roman story. I shall here mention one, as a signal instance, and proof of the truth of all that I have affirmed. Horatius, surnamed Cocles, being engaged in combat with two enemies, at the farthest extremity of the bridge that led into Rome across the Tiber, and perceiving that many others were advancing fast to their assistance, was apprehensive that they would force their way together into the city. turning himself, therefore, to his companions that were behind him, he called to them aloud, that should immediately retire and break the bridge. While they were employed in this work, Horatius, covered over with wounds, still maintained the post, and stopped the progress of the enemy; who were struck with his firmness and intrepid courage, even more than with the strength of his resistance. And when the bridge was broken, and the city secured from insult, he threw himself into the river with his armor, and there lost his life as he had designed: having preferred the safety of his country, and the future fame that was sure to follow such an action, to his own present existence, and to the time that remained for him to live. Such is the spirit, and such the emulation of achieving glorious action, which the Roman institutions are fitted to infuse into the minds of youth.

Roman Military Guard Duty

Polybius wrote in “History” Book 6: “The delivery of the signal for the night is secured in the following manner. Every tenth cohort, both of infantry and cavalry, is lodged at the extreme end of those lines which form the separate streets. From each of these a soldier is selected, who is discharged from all the duties of the guard. This soldier, every day about the time of the setting of the sun, goes to the tent of the tribune, and receives from him the signal; which is a flat tablet of wood, with some word inscribed upon it; and having returned back again to his own company, he then delivers the tablet with the signal, in the presence of some witnesses, to the leader of the cohort that is lodged next to his own. From him again, it passes to the following cohort; and, in the same manner, through all the rest in order, till it arrives at the first cohorts, which lie nearest to the tents of the tribunes; and from thence it is carried back again to the tribunes, while it is yet day. If all the tablets that were delivered are brought back, the tribune then perceives that the signal has passed through all the camp. But if any one be wanting, he immediately examines into the fact; and, having discerned by the inscriptions in what quarter the tablet has been stopped, inflicts a suitable punishment upon those that have been the cause of that neglect. [Source: Polybius (c.200-after 118 B.C.), Rome at the End of the Punic Wars, “History” Book 6. From: Oliver J. Thatcher, ed., “The Library of Original Sources” (Milwaukee: University Research Extension Co., 1907), Vol. III: The Roman World, pp. 166-193]

“The guards for the night are thus disposed. One entire company is always stationed around the consular tent. The tents of the tribunes, and the cavalry, are guarded by soldiers taken ,rom each company, in the manner that has before been mentioned. Each separate company appoints a guard likewise for itself from its own body. The other guards are disposed as the consul directs. But the usual custom is, to allot three soldiers to the quaestor; and two to each of the members of the council. The external sides of the camp are guarded by the light-armed forces; who are distributed every day along the whole entrenchment. From the same body, ten men are also stationed before every gate that leads into the camp.

“Among those that are appointed for the watch, one soldier from each guard, the same whose duty it is to take the first watch, is carried in the evening to the tribune, by one of the conductors of the rear of every company. The tribune, having given to all of them some small tablets of wood, inscribed with a certain character, and appropriated to each particular guard, dismisses them to their respective stations.

“The care of making the rounds is entrusted to the cavalry. The captain of the first troop in each of the legions is bound to send his orders in the morning to one of the conductors of the rear; commanding him to appoint, before the time of dinner, four soldiers of the troop to go the rounds; and to send notice also afterwards, in the evening, to the leader of the second troop, that it is his turn to inspect the watch on the following day. The leader of the second troop gives notice, in like manner, for the third day; and the same method is observed through all the rest. The four soldiers, who are thus selected from the first troop by the conductor of the rear, having determined among themselves each particular watch by lot, go afterwards to the tent of the tribune, and receive from thence in writing an account of the several posts, and of the number of guards, which they are required to visit. They then take their station near to the first company of the triarii. For the leader of this company has the care of marking the time of every watch by the sound of a trumpet. And when the signal is made, he, to whose inspection the first watch was allotted, taking with him some of his friends as witnesses, goes round to all the posts that are recited in his orders, and visits all the guards: not those alone that are stationed round the entrenchment, and before the gates, but those also that are placed in every single company and in every troop. If he finds the sentinels awake and fixed in their several stations, he receives from them the wooden tablets. But if he discovers that any one is sleeping, or has left his post, he desires those that are present to bear testimony to the fact, and then retires. The same method is observed in all the following watches. The care of sounding the trumpet, by which notice is given in the same moment both to the sentinels and the inspectors of the watch, is left, as we have said, to the captains of the first company of the triarii, who perform this duty alternately, day by day.”

Punishment for Dereliction of Duty

Polybius wrote in “History” Book 6: “As soon as the morning appears, those who have made the rounds carry the tablets to the tribune. If they bring the full number back they are suffered to depart without any question. But if the number be less than that of the guards, the inscriptions are immediately examined, in order to discover from what particular guard the tablet has not been returned. When this is known, the centurion is ordered to attend and to bring with him the soldiers that were appointed for that guard; that they may be questioned face to face with him who made the rounds. If the fault be in the guard, he that made the rounds appeals at once to the testimony of his friends who were present. Such evidence always is demanded from him; and in case that he is not able to bring this proof, the whole blame rests upon himself. The council is then assembled; the cause is judged by the tribune, and the guilty person sentenced to be bastinadoed. [Source: Polybius (c.200-after 118 B.C.), Rome at the End of the Punic Wars, “History” Book 6. From: Oliver J. Thatcher, ed., “The Library of Original Sources” (Milwaukee: University Research Extension Co., 1907), Vol. III: The Roman World, pp. 166-193]

This punishment is inflicted in the following manner. The tribune, taking a stick into his hand, gently touches the criminal; and immediately afterwards all the soldiers of the legion attack him with sticks and stones; so that the greatest part of those that are thus condemned are destroyed immediately in the camp. If any one escapes, yet he is not saved. For all return into his country is shut against him: nor would any of his friends or kindred ever dare to receive him into their houses. Those, therefore, who have once fallen into this misfortune are lost without resource. The conductor of the rear, and the leader of the troops, if ever they neglect to give the necessary notice in due time, the first to the inspectors of the watch, and the second to the leader of the succeeding troop, are subject also to this punishment. From the dread of a discipline so severe, and which leaves no place for mercy, every thing that belongs to the guards of the night is performed with the most exact diligence and care.”

Tribunes and Punishments for Roman Soldiers

Polybius wrote in “History” Book 6: “The soldiers are subject to the control of the tribunes, as these are to that of the consuls. The tribunes have the power of imposing fines, and demanding sureties, and of punishing with stripes. The same authority is exercised by the prefects among the allies. The punishment of the bastinadoe is inflicted also upon those who steal any thing in the camp; those who bear false testimony; who, in their youth, abuse their bodies; and who have been three times convicted of one fault. [Source: Polybius (c.200-after 118 B.C.), Rome at the End of the Punic Wars, “History” Book 6. From: Oliver J. Thatcher, ed., “The Library of Original Sources” (Milwaukee: University Research Extension Co., 1907), Vol. III: The Roman World, pp. 166-193]

“These offenses are punished as crimes. There are others that are regarded as the effects of cowardice, and disgraceful to the military character. When a soldier, for example, with a view of obtaining a reward, makes a report to the tribunes of some brave action which he has not performed. When any one, through fear, deserts his station, or throws away his arms in the time of engagement. For hence it happens that many, through the dread of the allotted punishment, when they are attacked by much greater numbers, will even encounter manifest destruction, rather than desert that post which they had been ordered to maintain. Others again, when they have lost their shield, or sword, or any other part of their arms in the time of action, throw themselves precipitately into the very midst of the enemy; hoping either to recover what they have lost, or to avoid by death the reproaches of their fellow-soldiers, and the disgrace that is ready to receive them.

“If it happens that many are at one time guilty of the same fault, and that whole companies retire before the enemy, and desert their station; instead of punishing all of them by death, an expedient is employed which is both useful and full of terror. The tribune, assembling together all the soldiers of the legion, commands the criminals to be brought forward: and, having sharply reproached them with their cowardice, he then draws out by lot either five, or eight, or twenty men, according to the number of those that have offended. For the proportion is usually so adjusted, that every tenth man is reserved for punishment. Those, who are thus separated from the rest by lot, are bastinadoed without remission in the manner before described. The others are sentenced to be fed with barley instead of wheat; and are lodged without the entrenchment, exposed to insults from the enemy. As the danger, therefore, and the dread of death, hangs equally over all the guilty, because no one can foresee upon whom the lot will fall; and as the shame and infamy of receiving barley only for their support is extended also alike to all; this institution is perfectly well contrived, both for impressing present terror, and for the prevention of future faults.”

Roman Military Rewards, Honors and Promotions

Roman military diploma

Romans encouraged the soldiers with rewards for their bravery. These were bestowed by the general in the presence of the whole army. The highest individual reward was the “civic crown,” made of oak leaves, given to him who had saved the life of a fellow-citizen on the battlefield. Other suitable rewards, such as golden crowns, banners of different colors, and ornaments, were bestowed for singular bravery. When a general slew the general of the enemy, the captured spoils (spolia opima) were hung up in the temple of Jupiter Feretrius. The highest military honor which the Roman state could bestow was a triumph,—a solemn procession, decreed by the senate, in which the victorious general, with his army, marched through the city to the Capitol, bearing in his train the trophies of war. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~]

On promotion in the legion, Flavius Vegetius Renatus wrote in “De Re Militari”: “Heaven certainly inspired the Romans with the organization of the legion, so superior does it seem to human invention. Such is the arrangement and disposition of the ten cohorts that compose it, as to appear one perfect body and form one complete whole. [Source: De Re Militari (Military Institutions of the Romans) by Flavius Vegetius Renatus (died A.D. 450), written around A.D. 390. translated from the Latin by Lieutenant John Clarke Text British translation published in 1767. Etext version by Mads Brevik (2001)]

A soldier, as he advances in rank, proceeds as it were by rotation through the different degrees of the several cohorts in such a manner that one who is promoted passes from the first cohort to the tenth, and returns again regularly through all the others with a continual increase of rank and pay to the first. Thus the centurion of the primiple, after having commanded in the different ranks of every cohort, attains that great dignity in the first with infinite advantages from the whole legion. The chief praefect of the Praetorian Guards rises by the same method of rotation to that lucrative and honorable rank. Thus the legionary horse contract an affection for the foot of their own cohorts, notwithstanding the natural antipathy existing between the two corps. And this connection establishes a reciprocal attachment and union between all the cohorts and the cavalry and infantry of the legion.

Salaries and Reward for Courageous Roman Soldiers

Polybius wrote in “History” Book 6: “The method by which the young men are animated to brave all danger is also admirable. When an action has passed in which any of the soldiers have shown signal proofs of courage, the consul, assembling the troops together, commands those to approach who have distinguished themselves by any eminent exploit. And having first bestowed on every one of them apart the commendation that is due to this particular instance of their valor, and recounted likewise all their former actions that have ever merited applause, he then distributes among them the following rewards. To him who has wounded an enemy, a javelin. To him who has killed an enemy, and stripped him of his armor, if he be a soldier in the infantry, a goblet; if in the cavalry, furniture for his horse; though, in former times, this last was presented only with a javelin. [Source: Polybius (c.200-after 118 B.C.), Rome at the End of the Punic Wars, “History” Book 6. From: Oliver J. Thatcher, ed., “The Library of Original Sources” (Milwaukee: University Research Extension Co., 1907), Vol. III: The Roman World, pp. 166-193]

Roman salt mine, the word salary is derived from the Latin word for salt

“These rewards, however, are not bestowed upon the soldiers who, in a general battle, or in the attack of a city, wound or spoil an enemy; but upon those alone who, in separate skirmishes, and when any occasion offers, in which no necessity requires them to engage in single contest, throw themselves voluntarily into danger, and with design provoke the combat. When a city is taken by storm, those who mount first upon the walls are honored with a golden crown. Those also who have saved the lives of any of the citizens, or the allies, by covering them from the enemy in the time of battle, receive presents from the consul, and are crowned likewise by the persons themselves who have thus been preserved, and who, if they refuse this office, are compelled by the judgment of the tribunes to perform it.

“Add to this, that those who are thus saved are bound, during the remainder of their lives, to reverence their preserver as a father, and to render to him all the duties which they would pay to him who gave them birth. Nor are the effects of these rewards, in raising a spirit of emulation and of courage, confined to those alone who are present in the army, but extended likewise to all the citizens at home. For those who have obtained those presents, beside the honor which they acquire among their fellow soldiers, and the reputation which immediately attends them in their country, are distinguished after their return, by wearing in all solemn processions such ornaments as are permitted only to be worn by those who have received them from the consuls as the rewards of their valor. They hang up likewise in the most conspicuous parts of their houses the spoils which they have taken, as a monument and evidence of their exploits. Since such, therefore, is the attention and the care with which the Romans distribute rewards and punishments in their armies, it is not to be thought strange that the wars in which they engage are always ended with glory and success.

“The military stipends are thus regulated. The pay of a soldier in the infantry is two obols by the day; and double to the centurions. The pay of the cavalry is a drachma. The allowance of corn to each man in the infantry consists of about two-third parts of an Attic bushel of wheat by the month. In the cavalry, it is seven bushels of barley, and two of wheat. To the infantry of the allies the same quantity is distributed as to that of the Romans: but their cavalry receives only one bushel and a third of wheat, and five of barley. The whole of this allowance is given without reserve to the allies. But the Roman soldiers are obliged to purchase their corn and clothes, together with the arms which they occasionally want, at a certain stated price, which is deducted by the quaestor from their pay.”

Letters by Roman Soldiers

Letter of a Recruit: Apion: “Apion to Epimachus, his father and lord, very many greetings. Before all else I pray for your health and that you may always be well and prosperous, together with my sister and her daughter and my brother. I thank the Lord Serapis that when I was in danger at sea he straightway saved me. On arriving at Misenum, I received from Caesar three gold pieces for travelling expenses. And it is well with me. [Source: “Letter of a Recruit: Apion” Select Papyri I (1932) #112 (II. A.D.)]

“Now I ask you, my lord and father, write me a letter, telling me first of your welfare, secondly of my brother's and sister's, and enabling me thirdly to make obeisance before your handwriting, because you educated me well and I hope thereby to have quick advancement, if the gods so will. Give many salutations to Capiton and my brother and sister and Serenilla and my firends. I have sent you by Euctemon a portrait [eikonin]of myself. My name is Antonius Maximus, my company [kenturi(a)] is the Athenonica. I pray for your health. [Postscript:] Serenus, son of Agathodaemon, salutes you, and . . . , and Turbo son of Gallonius, and . . . .

letter written by a Roman soldier in Vindolanda, near Hadrian's Wall, Britain

[Addressed:] To Philadelphia, to Epimachus from Apion his son. [Additional address:] Deliver at the camp of the first cohort of the Apameni to Julianus, vice-secretary [antiliblario] this letter from Apion to be forwarded to his father Epimachus.

Dr Mike Ibeji wrote for the BBC: “Fortunate soldiers in the unit could expect parcels from their families containing the basics of life, as in the case of this anonymous soldier (Tab. Vindol. II.346): ‘I have sent(?) you...pairs of socks from Sattua, two pairs of sandals and two pairs of underpants, two pairs of sandals...Greet...Elpis...Tetricus and all your messmates with whom I pray that you live in the greatest good fortune.’[Source: Dr Mike Ibeji, BBC, November 16, 2012 |::|] A letter from the cavalry decurion Masculus to Flavius Cerialis, Verecundus' successor in the fort, illustrates just how involved the commander could be in determining these assignments: ‘Masculus to Cerialis his king, greetings. Please, my lord, give instructions on what you want us to do tomorrow. Are we all to return with the standard, or just half of us?...(missing lines)...most fortunate and be well-disposed towards me. My fellow soldiers have no beer. Please order some to be sent.’

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|; BBC Ancient Rome ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.