Friday, September 11, 2015

Invisible Romans: The Common Soldier

It should be no surprise to most that know me that I would choose to write about and analyze Soldiers as I gave 12-years of service in the US Army (and Army National Guard). While the military is a prominent symbol in ancient Roman history and even modern movies, little is ever covered about the life of the common soldier. In this article, I will cover what causes them to be considered “invisible,” what evidence there is, what gaps there are in our knowledge, some information that is known about this group and how we know it, and the significance of the soldier in understanding ancient Rome.

Soldiers are thought of as an invisible group for several reasons. First off, there exists hardly any record noting an individual soldier; instead, they appear in mass, usually referred to as “the Army” or “the Legion”. Any exceptions to this would be due to exceptional service and in “semi-fictionalized situations”. Secondly, the common soldier was seen as a tool to be used by the elite. Tacitus, like other elitists and pro-elitist historians, saw common soldiers as low born, potentially dangerous, simple-minded as they were motivated by basic human instincts, and the dregs of society who failing at all other endeavors entered into service in the Roman Army; secondary to the command level who were of real importance. Thirdly, often information was left out about certain events and individual soldiers if it displayed a high-ranking officer in a negative light. We see such an instance when Plutarch applauds Julius Caesar’s ability to win his soldiers, but overlooks Caesar’s turning a blind eye to misconduct and thus lack of control over the troops or rather specific soldiers. Fourthly, like today teamwork was required for success so more often than not common soldiers lost their individuality and for such reasons, successes and failures were attributed to the group rather than the individual.

Lastly, even in death, the soldiers were often invisible. According to Valerie Hope, “The ultimate fate of a soldier killed at Waterloo in 1815 was little different from that of a Roman soldier: both shared anonymous interment in a mass grave.” Hope continues by discussing the reasoning behind anonymity with the mass graves. Prior to burial the dead would be stripped, cremated, and interred, situation permitting. They were stripped as the military needed the equipment, clothing, and weaponry, and would not want to see the bodies burgled by the enemy forces. They would have also been concerned with sanitation and stopping the spread of disease for which reasons they would have cremated the bodies. For obvious reasons, the body could not be returned to the soldier’s family. If they could afford to the family would erect a marker as remembrance, not necessarily where the body lay. During peacetime, the family would have to pay for the body to be transported otherwise the body would be buried at the location of service. The remembrance of a fallen soldier was a private matter as it was the victories and successes that were to be remembered not the means by which someone died, and for the common soldier, the remembrance was held sacred in the hearts of his family and friends thus to be forgotten over time and lost to future ages.

There is not a large variety or quantity of evidence that discusses the common soldier of ancient Rome, but what does exist comes in the form of tombstones, mass grave site discoveries, papyrus manuscripts, historical narratives, military (metal) diplomas (also referred to as citizen certificates), tablets, and codices. According to Valerie Hope:
“Reconstructing Roman attitudes to war and commemoration is a complex process. Much of the surviving literature reflects an elite male perspective and we gain few insights into the impact of military death upon the rank-and-file soldier and his family. Archaeological evidence, whether mortuary, monumental, or epigraphic, is often incomplete and frequently de-contextualized. In addition the geographic and chronological breadth of the empire create problems of interpretation. What might have been the norm in Rome of the second century BC might not have been characteristic of Roman Britain in the second century AD.”
As Hope points out much of what exists today was written by those who favored the aristocrats and high ranking bureaucrats so often we see the successes of the military attributed to the great, high-born commanders and the failures attributed to the common soldier who failed in mass. This viewpoint was also supported by Ramsay MacMullen who calls most accounts of battles “self-serving” or full of “ideological distortion.” Though others point out that with such a skewed viewpoint we can see Romans preferred to view their past.

As Valerie Hope stated above, interpreting past records with our current standards creates problems and in her article, Eugenia Kiesling delivers her skepticism about the harshness of corporal punishment in the Roman Legion with the following:
“Given thinness of the sources, modern confidence in the existence of harsh military punishment in Rome seems to rest on assumptions and even wishful thinking. The assumptions may be a consequence of more recent history, since most Western armies retained flogging at least until the French Revolution.”
Another avenue of research about soldiers and aspects of their lives comes to us from the surviving tombstones. Tombstones represent a certain level of stability and permanency as tombstones were a camp-based activity often characteristic of peacetime. It is from these tombstones that we gather information of the age that Romans would join the military as these epitaphs were inscribed with the length of service and the date of birth, and through subtraction of years of service from the age gives us an approximate age, but we are warned that ages could not be exact due to age rounding. It is seen that there was continuity from throughout Republican and Imperial Rome of young men joining within a few years of attaining legal maturity. During times of peace, the soldiers were usually camp bound and deaths are attributed to natural causes. Like today’s military, there was a concern about the spread of disease through close quarters. To ensure cleanliness they needed proper drainage, sewer systems, and water systems to ensure water didn’t stagnate and spread a variety of diseases through the camp which could, and can still today, ravage an army. To help fight against disease and help the wounded the Roman Army did employ doctors of various levels and skills, which aspect of military life was frequently documented and there is ample amount of archaeological evidence. There is a debate among scholars as to the exact rank or social status that one had to be to a doctor or “medici”.

For those who survived serviced and were capable of securing a retirement from the military, and earning the title “Veteran” we find remnants of military diplomas, and in cases of the auxiliary units “certificates of citizenship”. These are writings engraved upon tablets of durable metal. While in recent times more have been discovered, there is still a void of information and which it is believed can be attributed to needing the metal for weapons production or in other times of crisis for which metal was needed; or rather these tablets could have been made out of less durable metals, but this is just purely hypothetical and may never be proven. These tablets were of importance not to only the veteran while living, but to the descendants who may have needed to prove their heritage so it is understandable while tablets needed to be made of durable metals. These diplomas give us a glimpse of life after service where we see that often veterans would enter into running businesses or farms, but, as they were free from this duty, we see very few taking part in municipal duties and political events, and when they did it was hesitant. If not in the realm of running a business, service, or farm, we see veterans taking a greater interest in taking part in religious activities than political ones.

As with most of the history of ancient Rome, there are considerable gaps in our knowledge about the common soldier. Written literature is written from a viewpoint of a higher class who did not think much of the common soldier so they were often excluded and the archaeological evidence is taken out of context or misinterpreted based upon modern ideologies and beliefs. There is little written on the common soldier and like the historical narratives often they were referred to as the unit, but some authors have attempted to use sociological and archaeological studies to help put the pieces into place. Taking the accounts of such historians like Polybius or Livy, and contrasting them with other accounts along with physical evidence we can see aspects of the soldier's life.

We can see that the common soldier was slightly better off than the common Roman citizen as they ensured regular pay, meals, medical services, benefits of war, and eventually with retirement prospects of some social and military advancement. Barracks were often crowded, but this would be a vast improvement for some. The military would become the soldier’s new family and as cities often grew around or near the fort, the soldier had the benefits of an illegitimate family while never actually being burdened by the same, even if he was willing to bear such a burden as soldiers were said to be prevented from having a legal family while in service.

We can see that the common soldiers did have some power in mass. In historian's highlights of elite leaders and commanders, we can see that some leaders instead of punishing soldiers placated the masses in the face of mutiny or used deceptive methods of dispensing with troublesome soldiers.

Even with the surviving tombstones, military diplomas, and epitaphs, it is difficult to ascertain the average life expectancy of the common soldier. Some believe that it ranged between 20-30 years, but there is hardly any reliable primary data so many use life tables to find the life expectancy. Using this is believed to give a low number as it doesn’t take into consideration early discharge, death in battle, and camp-related diseases. This difficulty holds true to the attrition rate of the military and most scholars rely on general assumptions based off of a few surviving discharge rosters in a given year. There again is a discrepancy as it still doesn’t take into account those who take an early discharge (for whatever reason).

Through surviving archaeological evidence and literature we know that the common soldier was a free-born Roman male within a few years of hitting legal maturity. Life would have been hard, but, as stated above, with many benefits such as regular pay, meal, traveling allowances, discharge bonuses, medical care, legal protection, housing, the learning of new skills, and rewards from success on the battlefield. Their life would have been one of routine, filled with eating, sleeping, training, completing chores, and combat training.

Training could consist of marching long distances with wearing heavy gear, long-distance running, swimming in armor, and weapons training. The training was needed as battles would often last for hours and soldiers had to bear the weight of armor, shields, and weapons. Now soldiers wouldn’t be at the front lines fighting the entire time, but rather would switch out after some time and therefore had to be trained on how to pull back without disrupting the formation, prohibit the enemy from breaking through the lines, get refreshed, reform, and surge back forward replacing other tired units. Here the individual soldier shined and had a huge incentive to train as a battle could be seen as series of individual battles where one was responsible for his own safety, but at the same time called for the need for teamwork as you also needed to look out for your immediate neighbor, and have faith he would have yours.

As will be discussed later, soldiers learned new skills. This came out of necessity to spread the Roman Army as well as keeping the soldiers busy during peace. During times of war, soldiers had to build up bridges, forts, and siege engines. And when they were not on a campaign they built roads, aqueducts, canals, and other types of structures. During times of peace, the soldiers needed to be prepared to go to war at any moment so they had daily chores to keep the camp, equipment, animals, and weapons in good order. There also a need for the essentials like collecting firewood, guarding the fort, escorting convoys, administrative duties, surveying, and in some instances acting as the policing and state authority in the region.

Sleeping quarters from our viewpoint today could be seen as cramped, but nonetheless provided a living space for the soldier. Barracks were commonly tents or small structures filled with bunk beds. Although there is debate about the enforcement, there was a ban against soldiers having legal families while in service, but some believe that certain classes of soldiers would have been exempt and allowed to have families stay with them. This ban didn’t prohibit soldiers from having sex, it just prohibited the legal recognition tied to marital unions. This ban could have come around for various reasons. Some argue that it was due to keep the Army “masculine” and focused on their mission (whatever it may be) rather than on their family, thus continuing the separation from the civilian world and encouraging to recognize your Brothers-in-Arms as your family.

Whether or not a common soldier had a de facto family near the camp was irrelevant in some respects as military service provided soldiers’ access to the spoils of war such as slaves who were sometimes used as prostitutes who could be sexually used at will. We must not also forget the act of “brotherly love” that did occur within the ranks of the Romany Army. According to Robert Knapp, homosexuality was hypocritically looked down upon by the elites, but tolerated. Homosexuality, when it did occur, was between social equals, but was discouraged as the “receptive” partner was looked at as effeminate and again we see a push for soldiers to be a symbol of masculinity.

As a veteran, one of the benefits I see for enlistment in the learning of new skills. This was true for the soldier in ancient Rome who were craft, masonry, blacksmithing, and engineering skills; reading; writing; and medical techniques. Surviving evidence suggests most veterans entered into the agricultural profession, but there exist other examples of veterans running shops and small businesses. To be considered for regular honorable discharge those serving as Legionaries had to serve for 16-years and soldiers had to serve 25-years with additional 5-years in reserve.

A common soldier is a significant group as it was by their labors that Rome spread as far as it did. They were the ones whose blood, sweat, and tears conquered the barbaric and foreign lands, not the Senators in Rome or the elite who were treated with much more respect for far less effort. While they were under the direction of noted men of history, it was the common soldier, the countless forgotten, who built the infrastructure needed to maneuver the Army and supply the Empire in her expanse. Likened to today’s military, the Roman soldier was seen by outsiders and the conquered as a symbol and representative of the Roman Empire. It was also through the common soldiers that Romanization occurred with their interaction with the locals in the outer provinces.

Untold faceless soldiers were overlooked and under-appreciated by the elite, but remnants scatter across the former boundaries of the empire in form of mass grave sites or still-surviving architecture and infrastructure. They came from the bottom looking for a little slice of pie and promises of a better life for service to the Empire. They were sent thousands of miles from home as just another piece in the big game of the aristocrats trying to gain more power. While there are glaring differences, we can still strong similarities between ancient Rome and modern militaries; particularly the camaraderie and unity needed for any successful military formation. We rely on tombstones, biased narratives, and remnants of military diplomas to feed us the information we do have on the common soldier, but much of it must fall to speculation and assumptions in the absence of information. Maybe future discoveries will un-Earth something that can shed some further information on this group of invisible men who helped build Rome to her greatness.


1. MacMullen, Ramsay. “The Legion as a Society.” Journal of Ancient History 33, no. 4 (1984): 440-456. 

2. Kiesling, Eugenia. “Corporal Punishment in the Greek Phalanx and the Roman Legion: Modern Images and Ancient Realities.” Historical Reflections 32, no. 2 (2006): 225-246. 

3. Knapp, Robert. Invisible Romans. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011. 

4. Huntley, Katherine. “Roman Army” Lecture, HIST302 from Boise State University, Boise, ID, February 13, 2013. 

5. Hope, Valerie. “Trophies and Tombstones: Commemorating the Roman Soldier.” World Archaeology 35, no. 1 (2003): 79-97. 

6. Stout, S. E. “Training Soldiers for the Roman Legion.” The Classical Journal 16, no. 7 (1921): 423-431. 

7. Erdkamp, Paul (ed). A Companion to the Roman Army. Blackwell Publishing, 2007. Blackwell Reference Online. 09 May 2013 

8. Kajanto, Iiro. “Tacitus' Attitude to War and the Soldier.” Latomus 29, no. 3 (1970): 699-718. 

9. Allen, George H. “The Advancement of Officers in the Roman Army.” Supplementary Papers of the American School of Classical Studies in Rome 2 (1908): 1-25.

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