Roman Army Life in Britain I

During the Republic, the Romans had created an efficient fighting machine, which resulted in the inexorable expansion of Rome until the second century ad. The Emperor Augustus, aware of the power of this force, began a series of reforms which created a professionally paid army, loyal to the emperor, and provided an officer class drawn from the senatorial and equestrian orders, following a career structure (cursus honorum) that included holding successive military and civil appointments. The underlying assumption was that Rome’s military might was superior to any opposing force, both in her fighting techniques and by the fact that Rome was destined to rule the known world.

The Romans were a practical people. Military superiority was achieved by adapting and changing tactics, and by utilizing the manpower of other areas. Thus men from the provinces were enrolled into the army either individually or in tribal groups, some keeping their own methods of fighting so that in the auxiliary forces provincial customs and habits were accepted. Cavalry units especially were recruited from such sources and provided an essential complement to the legions, which were almost entirely composed of infantry. Native forces were recruited as professional troops and this subtly began to alter the relationship between the military and the civilian. This could be both a strength and weakness as it was uncertain where loyalties would lie. This polyglot force had to be moulded into one serving emperor and empire. In addition, it was relatively unusual for ordinary soldiers to change units and, if a unit stayed too long in one area, the men might become embedded in the community. Legion XX was established at Chester about AD 87. Although vexillations were sent to build the Hadrian and Antonine Walls and to keep order in the north, the legion remained at Chester until probably the fourth century AD. Some of the wall garrisons remained in place for many years.

The Roman military force at its greatest in Britain has been estimated to be between 50,000 and 55,000 men. Aulus Plautius had arrived with 20,000 legionaries and auxiliary soldiers with nominal strengths of 500 or 1,000 men. But legions and auxiliary forces were brought into or removed from Britain as circumstances demanded. The largest number of troops was stationed on Hadrian’s Wall, and the Wall itself and the associated military zone contained perhaps 20,000 men. The number of troops stationed in Britain indicates that the province had to keep one of the largest provincial garrisons, probably the result of the hostility of its Celtic inhabitants and the fact that the Romans never succeeded in conquering the whole island. Hostile tribes in Scotland were never entirely subdued, although finds of Roman artefacts suggest that there may have been interaction between Romans and natives. Nor did the Romans conquer Ireland, which might have prevented later Irish raids on the western shore areas.

There was also the loyalty of the Roman troops to be considered. At first, men had been recruited in Italy but by the first century AD the legions had recruited men from the provinces, especially Gaul, Germany and the Belgic areas. Few troops were stationed in Italy apart from the Praetorian Guard and the emperor’s personal bodyguard until the reign of Septimius Severus. Gaul had been pacified so that most of the military units were stationed in Britain and Germany, away from Rome and from the central administration.

The Roman forces were divided into two distinct parts – legions and auxiliary – having distinct roles, although their training was similar. Latin was the language of command and men were expected to take Latin names on enrolment. Probably men spoke their own language or a kind of patois but if they wanted to progress to higher duties a command of Latin would be expected. Messages sent from the Vindolanda fort were in Latin cursive script and at least twenty-five different writers have been identified. Although men were expected to worship the Roman deities with particular emphasis on the Imperial Cult they might express their loyalty to their own particular deities, probably an essential element as far as provincial troops were concerned. For many provincials, such as the Celts and the Germans who had a martial ethos, service in the army was attractive as it allowed them to continue this warlike trait. Until AD 212 service in the auxilia had the prize of a grant of Roman citizenship after twenty-five years provided that men had received honourable discharge (missio honesta). This was not necessarily given if they had been invalided out through necessary discharge (missio causaria) or had been cashiered as a result of dishonourable discharge (missio ignominiosa). This career, engraved on a pair of bronze tablets, a diploma militaria, was a valued document which could lead to further advancement or additional rewards, such as the granting of Roman citizenship to a veteran’s children.

Service in the army, expected to last about twenty-five years, provided men with a settled existence, regular pay, a career structure and the opportunity at the end of service of a gratuity and a possibility of a further career. Men took an oath of loyalty to the current reigning emperor and there was always an uneasy time before a new emperor gained control. Indeed, many emperors were elected by the army and gave donations to it as a bribe for support. Until the late second or third century men could not marry, although unofficial liaisons with women were not, and indeed could not, be prevented. This created a dilemma. Married men might prefer a settled existence that prevented them from moving quickly from base to base. On the other hand, if army men had sons, these could provide recruits for the future. The Roman army was not a monastic force. Soldiers consorted with prostitutes and slaves, and with women in the vici outside the forts. In AD 197 Septimius Severus allowed soldiers to live with their wives but it is not certain if this legalized what had been happening for a long time or whether it implied liaisons with concubines to make a proper marriage.

That this provided a social community around and probably in the forts is not surprising. The vici would house a labour force; many soldiers probably had slaves, freedmen and grooms living in the vici and probably relatives moved nearer. Troops who had served in Britain for long periods would, on retirement, decide to settle near their camps and forts with their families, especially auxiliaries whose terms of service were registered on a diploma. This gave them citizenship, which could also extend to their children. Four coloniae provided opportunities for veterans from the legions to settle in these towns and have a grant of land in the surrounding area. This is not to say that there was constant harmony between soldier and civilian in Britain. The main purpose of the army was to put down revolts, keep order (the Pax Romana) and ensure that taxes were regularly collected, but given the interaction of soldier and civilian this might have been done with discretion.

Legionaries were recruited, as far as possible, from Roman citizens. Originally each legion in theory numbered just under 5,000 men and consisted of 10 cohorts of 480 men, each comprising 6 centuries. Each century was divided into 10 contubernia (units) of 8 men who shared a tent on the march or 2 rooms in a barrack block. Although again in theory each century was composed of 100 men, in practice there were only 80. Vespasian raised the first cohort of a legion to 5 double centuries, from 4,800 to 5,120 men. In addition a legion had at least 120 cavalrymen attached to it acting as despatch riders and scouts. There would also be clerks, administrators and other men with duties attached to the legions so that the total might be between 5,500 and 6,000 men.

There were other posts, which could provide more pay and give opportunities for promotion or more interesting duties, a vital necessity if men were serving in the same fortress for several years. An immunis had exemption from fatigues, a sesquiplicarius would have one-and-a-half times the basic pay and a duplicarius double pay. A tesserarius gave orders to the guards, including the day’s password. An aquilifer was a standard bearer of the legionary eagle; an imaginifer carried an image of the emperor. An altar at Bath was erected to the goddess Sulis for the welfare of Gaius Javolenus Saturnalis, imaginifer of Legion II Augusta, by his freedman Lucius Manius Dionisias.

A signifer, who had double pay, was probably proud to be entrusted with the legionary standard in battle. A tombstone at Wroxeter records Marcus Petronius of Legion XIV Gemina, a standard bearer who died at Wroxeter aged thirty-eight, having served in the army for eighteen years. Lucius Duccius Rufinus, whose tombstone at York records his death aged twenty-eight, was a standard bearer of Legion IX and is depicted holding the standard with its medallions in his right hand. A standard bearer also acted as a pay clerk and keeper of records, and Lucius holds a wax tablet indicating this in his left hand. A librarius was a clerk, a necessary duty in the organization of the army; Martius and Flavus are recorded as having this duty during their service at Vindolanda. The work of these men can be seen in the numerous tablets found there. Musicians (tubicen, cornicen, bucinator) played music on the march. There were about 180 of these varied posts in the legion and such was the competition that centurions could be bribed to promote those whom they favoured.

An optio served a centurion and an optio ad spem ordinis was awaiting a vacancy for promotion to the rank of centurion. One unfortunate man never made this promotion. His tombstone at Chester recorded him being lost in a shipwreck. A tombstone normally records H(ic) S(itus) E(st) meaning ‘here he is lying’, but in this case the H is missing, implying that his body was never found.

The centurions were non-commissioned officers who gained promotion after service of sixteen or more years and had held several posts. They could be directly posted from the equestrian order or be transferred between legions. T. Flavius Virilis served in Legions II Augusta, XX Valeria and VI Victrix before moving on to serve in Legions III Augusta in Africa and III Parthica in Italy over a career of forty-five years. Conversely if a man had been a centurion he could achieve equestrian status or even become a senator. Pompeius Homullus, who had been primus pilus (centurion in charge of the first cohort of the first century) of Legion II Augusta, became procurator of Britain about AD 85 and then was promoted finance officer to Emperor Trajan. The long career of Petronius Fortunatus, who died in Cillium in Africa, was detailed on a monument erected to him. He had served as librarius, tesserarius and optio before becoming a centurion after the short time of four years. Numerous transfers between legions throughout the empire brought him to Legion VI Victrix in York, only to be transferred again to serve in legions in the eastern provinces of the empire. After serving fifty years in the army he retired, probably about AD 206, in his seventies and died aged over eighty. A centurion could become a praefectus castrorum, who took charge of the camp when the legionary commander was away, but the unfortunate career of Poenius Postumus, who hesitated about bringing Legion II Augusta to the aid of Suetonius Paulinus in the Boudiccan rebellion, showed that some men might not have had decision-making qualities. Yet others could be given command of provinces, such as Egypt, where men of senatorial rank were not eligible.

A Legatus Legionis of senatorial rank commanded a legion. Vespasian commanded Legion II Augusta in its march along the south coast after the AD 43 invasion. Six military tribunes were also appointed, one of senatorial rank, the others from the equestrians. A senator had a broad stripe round his toga, a superior status indicated by Tineius Longus, who described himself on an altar dedicated to the Celtic god, Anocitius, at Benwell as ‘having been adorned with the broad stripe and designated quaestor’. The other five tribunes had a narrow stripe on the tunic and these men could become officers in auxiliary cohorts and alae (cavalry units).

Beneficiarii would act as aide-de-camps or be sent on special duties. Gaius Mannius Secundus of Legion XX who died at Wroxeter was on a discreet mission as he described himself on his tombstone as a beneficiarius of the governor. Those serving in London, as already mentioned, seemed to have formed a guild there and another guild is suggested at York. These guilds would have provided a meeting place and comradeship for men separated from their own legions for a while.

Auxiliary units were usually formed from recruits from the provinces. The units were divided into cohorts of infantry and alae of cavalry, usually 500 strong, although some could be 1,000 strong. There could also be mixed cohorts with 120 or 240 cavalry included in the cohort. Cavalry were elite regiments, divided into 24 tumae under the command of a decurion, and an ala raised by Augustus was stationed at Corbridge in the first century ad. After service elsewhere, the Ala Augusta Gallorum Petriana milliaria civium Romanorum bis torquata, as its titles proclaim, was given a grant of Roman citizenship by Domitian and awarded first one torque and then another by Trajan. It then returned to Britain and was stationed at Stanwix.

The names of the cohorts indicate where they were raised – Vangiones and Lingones from Upper Germany, Batavians from Lower Germany, Nervians, Menapians and Tungrians from Gallia Belgica, Vardulli and Vascones from Spain, Thracians, Gauls, Pannonians, Raetians – all served in Britain at some time. It was common practice to station units far from their homeland but many of those discharged from the army would settle in Britain. Men recruited into the army from Britain usually served in other provinces. An Ala Britannica served in Italy with Vitellius in AD 69, a Cohors I Ulpia Brittonum and an Ala I Flavia Augusta Britannica are recorded elsewhere – but Cohors I Cornoviorum, obviously raised from the British tribe, possibly during Hadrian’s visit, was recorded in the Notitia Dignitatum as being stationed at Newcastle. Later regional groups became diluted as men recruited from other areas joined their ranks, although the name of the unit remained the same.

There were other units in the army, usually specialist groups. In the second century a unit of Sarmathian cavalry came to Britain in AD 175 and later was stationed at Ribchester. Most men had ridden horses but as cavalry they needed to mount horses quickly, with or without armour; recruits not familiar with horses practised on a wooden horse. Fighting from horseback without stirrups would require particular training. This was probably the purpose of a circular area (gyrus) about 34 m (111.5 ft) in diameter, surrounded by a wooden palisade, excavated and reconstructed at the fort of Baginton (Warwickshire). Men on horseback could trot and canter in it or break in new horses, while other men would hit weapons and shields on the wooden sides so that the reverberated noise would accustom horses to the sound of battle. Cavalry exercises included the hippika gymnasia where displays of horsemanship and tactical skill in weaponry were tested. Another was the cantabrian circle, an exercise calling for an observant eye and swift arm movements from two men in the centre, who were warding off javelins thrown by galloping riders.

Smaller units, the numeri, carried out particular tasks. A numerus of Syrian archers is recorded at Kirkby Thore (Cumbria) in the third century AD. The numerus Barcariorum Tigrisiensium recorded at South Shields in the fourth century AD acted as bargemen and lightermen on the River Tyne; there is a similar unit attested at Lancaster in the third century AD. A numerus Hnaudifridi recorded at Housesteads in the third century was probably named after its commander Hnaudifridus (Notfried). They may have carried out scouting duties, as did numeri Exploratorum stationed at Netherby, High Rochester and Risingham and in the south at Portchester. The Venatores Bannienses, a unit of huntsmen, was stationed at Birdoswald in the fourth century ad, presumably to hunt down men although they could have been used to bring in supplies of wild game. The Raeti Gaesati are recorded at Risingham and Great Chesters.

Volunteers joined both legionary and auxiliary forces from the age of seventeen, usually with an introduction from a patron. A tablet found at Vindolanda recorded an auxiliary prefect, Claudius Julius Karus, writing to the fort prefect, Cerialis, asking him to recommend someone named Brigionus to Annius Equester, a legionary centurion at Luguvalium (Carlisle) – ‘by doing so you will place me in your debt both to his name and to mine’. Annius is entitled centurio regionarius – centurion in charge of the region – which indicates that Carlisle was strategically central to an area on the west of Hadrian’s Wall and that this particular centurion held a powerful command, possibly in charge of taking the census in the area. The message bridges the centuries for it is in the ‘Hope you are well’ tradition: ‘I hope you are enjoying the best of fortune and are in good health.’

Some men joining the auxiliary from the provinces were freeborn Roman citizens; others might attain this on their retirement, having served twenty-five years. One of their privileges was that they could designate heirs in their will. Vegetius, who wrote a military manual in the fourth century AD but which incorporated material from earlier centuries, said that boys from the country were the best recruits, probably because they had been toughened by agricultural work. Boys who had followed other trades such as blacksmiths, stonemasons and wheelwrights were particularly welcomed as were sons of hunters. Sons of soldiers living in the vici outside the forts were regarded as potential recruits. Theoretically men were expected to be at least 1.78 m (5 ft 10 in.) high but, as more men were needed in the army, Vegetius noted that recruits were taken for their physical strength rather than their height.

Once accepted, the recruit was given three gold coins and took the oath of allegiance to the emperor, which was renewed each year by the whole army. He would be tattooed on the arm or the hand, which might have been to portray his loyalty but presumably made it easier to identify him if he deserted. He also had to hand over any money in his possession either to the standard bearer or to the centurion for self-keeping, although one might speculate how much the recruit got back.

In the early days of the empire a legionary received 75 denarii on joining up and 225 denarii pay per year, but inflation soon began to gnaw at its value until under Caracalla he was receiving 650 denarii. Pay could also be given as payment in kind. On promotion to a centurion the soldier could earn 5,000 denarii. A man took an oath of loyalty to the current emperor and there might always be an uneasy period between his death and the accession of a new emperor. To ensure loyalty men were given donations and there might be others on special occasions. Stoppages were made for food, armour, weapons and clothing. About a third of the pay was compulsorily saved so that a gratuity was available on leaving the army. Until Hadrian’s reign, legionaries could receive grants of land rather than money, as presumably did those veterans who settled at the coloniae of Colchester and Gloucester soon after the conquest. Auxiliaries received about a third less pay than that of a legionary. Soldiers supplemented their pay by asking friends and relatives for gifts. One of the wooden tablets found at Vindolanda indicates that a soldier had received socks, four pairs of sandals and two pairs of underpants. Soldiers’ pay spent in the vici added to the economy. The Vindolanda records indicate that quite a few soldiers borrowed money, either from each other or in advance of their payday.

Soldiers seemed to have kept their money in ‘arm purses’, cup-like objects with a round handle and a lid. These could have been pushed up the arm to secure the lid tight. As they would have been uncomfortable to wear and could easily catch on a protruding object, a better way might be to hang them from a belt. Two, found respectively at Birdoswald and Barcombe, contained large sums of money. The Barcombe one held three aurei and sixty denarii of the reigns of Trajan and Hadrian, so unworn that it would seem this unfortunate man, possibly a centurion, had lost his pay as soon as he received it.

A soldier usually made a contribution to a guild, which provided a burial club so that he could be buried or cremated with the correct rites and commemorated on the anniversary of his death. Inscriptions mentioning guilds have been found in or near the forts of Birdoswald, High Rochester, Caernarfon, York and Lincoln. The funeral of Julius Vitalis of Legion XX, who died at Bath, had been paid for by the guild of armourers.

Training was essential and Vegetius laid it out in precise terms. Battle drill included interlocking of shields to form a cover (testudo) and the instinctive use of weapons to protect the body and disable the enemy. Physical exercise and marching were essential – a distance of 32.19 km (18.4 miles; 20 Roman miles) in five hours. This did not allow for halts. The full kit of armour, weapons, turf-cutter, dolabra (a pickaxe), saw, cooking pot, mess tin and possibly rations for three days weighed about 30 kg (66 lb). A leather satchel found at the Bar Hill fort may have been used to carry some of the gear. The weight worn by a cavalryman was about 70 kg (154 lb) and he could carry about 3–4 kg (8–9 lb) in his saddlebags for three or four days’ supply.

Practice in swimming was necessary. Tacitus said that Agricola chose auxiliaries who had been trained to swim with their arms and horses when he invaded Anglesey to complete the defeat of the Ordovici. Exercise prevented boredom. Vegetius comments that, ‘even in winter men were obliged to perform their drills in the fields lest an intermission of discipline should affect both the courage and the constitution of the soldiers’. Parade grounds outside forts would provide space for training and exercise. They would also be used for ceremonial occasions, including dates on which the units were raised or the emperor’s birthday. At Maryport (Cumbria), buried by the side of the parade ground, was a sequence of fourteen altars dedicated to Jupiter Optimus Maximus. Each one noted the name of the unit and the commanding officer. The fact that they were unweathered indicates that the burial was deliberate so that when a new altar was dedicated the old one was buried with due ceremony. Amphitheatres outside the legionary fortresses and small auxiliary forts could be used both for military exercises and gladiatorial and other contests to provide the troops with diverting entertainment.

2 thoughts on “Roman Army Life in Britain I

  1. Pingback: Roman Army Life in Britain I – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

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