This Soldiering Life: The Roman Army in Britain

When four Roman legions landed in Britain in AD 43, many of their citizen soldiers had been recruited outside Italy, e.g. from Spain and southern Gaul.  The auxiliary troops that accompanied them were drawn from many areas of Roman Europe.  Many of these soldiers may have been conscripted into the army.  The first-century to second-century author Suetonius reports that Augustus had sold a cavalryman and his property publicly as a punishment for maiming his sons to make them unfit for military service, avoiding conscription.  Soldiers were usually recruited aged between 18 and 20.

After the reign of the Emperor Hadrian (AD 117-138) local and voluntary recruitment began to increase.  At Caerleon, the tombstone of Tadia Vallaunius also commemorates the death of her son, Tadius Exuperatus, who died at the age of 37 on the ‘German Expedition’.  Tadius is recognised as the son of a Caerleon legionary soldier of the Second Augustan Legion who became a soldier himself, serving and dying in Germany.  Continued continental recruitment is also evidenced at Caerleon; by the tombstones of Quintus Julius Severus (from Digne in France, who survived life in the Second Augustan Legion to retire as a veteran, marry and settle near his fortress base) and of Titus Flavius Candidus (who unfortunately died in service after serving seven years in the Second Augustan Legion as a foot-soldier or miles.  Originally from Xanten, he had joined the Second Augustan Legion at the age of twenty with his brother, who set up his memorial).

A Roman legion was made up of ten cohorts.  Nine had six centuries of 80 men.  One, the first cohort, was nearly double strength with 800 men in five centuries of double-size.  The commander of the legion was its legate, a man of senatorial rank. Below him were six tribunes, also from the elite, ruling and upper, classes.  Below these were the professional soldier officers called the centurions.

The fourth-century AD Roman author Vegetius gives a sense of the rhythm of life for a serving soldier.  Toughened by daily exercise, practising manoeuvres, marching, jumping and swimming, carrying burdens of up to sixty pounds and hurling javelins to improve accuracy and body strength.  The lazy were punished.  Three times each month the cavalry and infantry would march ten miles from camp in full armour and return at the military pace, with part of the route at a quicker pace.

There were many mundane chores connected with running the camp; collecting firewood, stoking furnaces at the baths, cleaning barracks and the latrines.  Other duties included guard and escort duties, maintaining buildings and roads, manufacture of arms, armour, tiles and bricks, etc.  Medical staff, clerks and specialist craftsmen were immunes, exempt from mundane routine duties.  The hospital at Caerleon lay within the walls of the fortress, close to the fortress baths which were a popular haunt for off-duty soldiers.

Military service was a career with recognised pay and service conditions.  By the mid-first century AD legionaries and auxiliaries served for 25 years.  Upon retirement, a legionary soldier received 12,000 sesterces (3,000 denarii) or an equivalent plot of land.  Occasionally, one-off payments (donatives) were made to the soldiers in the name of the Emperor to supplement military pay and encourage their personal loyalty.  From the late first-century and during most of the second-century AD, legionary soldiers received 300 denarii per year minus deductions for rations, the regimental dinner, compulsory savings (effectively a pension scheme), equipment, the burial club and the clothing and arms supplied.

Serving legionary soldiers were not permitted to legally marry until probably about AD 197.  Many developed relationships and had children informally whilst serving with the army.  The official ban on marrying had been widely unpopular with the soldiers.

In addition to the approximately 5,500 legionary foot soldiers and officers, 120 horsemen called equites (scouts or dispatch riders) were also attached to a legion.  At Caerleon, Aurelus Herculanus is commemorated on his tombstone as an ‘aeques’ or trooper.

At base, the legionary soldiers occupied barracks which each accommodated one century of eighty soldiers.  Their commanding officer, their centurion, occupied a range of rooms at the end of each block. The men occupied pairs of rooms for each of the ten companies or contubernia, of eight men.  Tasks such as food preparation would have been shared within the contubernia or century.  At Caerleon, a mortarium (mixing bowl) from Usk belonging to the mess unit, or contubernium, of Messor is displayed.  At Caerleon, bread stamps were used to mark bread produced for the centuries of the centurions ‘Quintinius Aquila’ and ‘Vibius Severus, produced by Sentius Paullinus’.

Soldiers were literate and were able to read their daily tasks on the duty rosters.  Part of a wooden writing tablet has survived at Caerleon.  The hand-written ink words can still be read and tell of guards sent to fetch pay and parties of soldiers collecting building-timber (materia).  Writing has also survived at Caerleon on a Cretan wine amphora (again in ink), lead baggage labels and on a lead curse tablet addressed to Nemesis, all displayed in the National Roman Legion Museum.

On festival days the soldiers were entertained in the legion’s amphitheatre (ludus).  Gladiators and blood sports would have featured.

After a successful campaign, soldiers could expect to be rewarded with a share of the spoils of war or a cash gift, extra rations and, possibly, promotion.  In peace time, a provincial governor needed a large staff for policing or guard duties and administration within his province.  His officials were normally drawn from the legions.  An early third-century soldier called [….] Celsus from the Second Augustan Legion (based at Caerleon) was a speculator (despatch rider/messenger and executioner) probably on the Governor’s staff at London, where he was buried.

Whilst we know that the legionary foot-soldiers Titus Flavius Candidus, Tadius Exuperatus and Julius Julianus died in service, we also know that some soldiers lived to retire from the army as veterans:  The tombstone of the veteran soldier Julius Valens claims he ‘ . VIXIT . ANNIS . C . ‘ – ‘lived one hundred years’, no doubt assisted by the Roman military recognition of the importance of hygiene.

Mark Lewis M.Sc., Ph.D. is Senior Curator (Roman) at the National Roman Legion Museum, Caerleon