This article is an edited transcript from Empire State: How the Roman Military Built an Empire with Simon Elliott on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 1 October 2017. You can listen to the full episode below or for free on Acast.
When you think of the Roman army today, the image that most likely comes to mind is that of a Roman legionary, equipped with his banded iron armour, rectangular scutum shield, deadly gladius and pila. Their depiction is one of the most iconic parts of the Roman empire and they played a critical role in the creation and maintenance of the superpower for centuries.
So who were these legionaries? Were they foreigners looking for Roman citizenship? Were they the children of citizens? And what social backgrounds did they come from?
The legionaries initially had to be Italian; you had to be a Roman citizen to be a legionary. Yet as the Principate progressed into the late second century, when an exponential growth occurred in the number of legionaries (from 250,000 troops under Augustus to the 450,000 under Severus) the ranks were opened up to non-Italians.
An important fact to bear in mind is the division between the legionaries and the Auxilia. The legionaries were the Roman elite fighting machines whereas the Auxilia were, allegedly, the lesser troops. Nevertheless, the Auxilia still comprised about probably half of the military including most of the specialist troops.
In some battles, such as the Battle of Mons Graupius where Agricola defeated the Caledonians in AD 83, the majority of fighting was successfully done by the Auxilia with the legions just watching on.
These Auxilia tended to have the lorica hamata armour (the chainmail), and they also had an oval shield as opposed to the squared off scutum. They also tended to have short spears and javelins as opposed to the pila of the Roman military.
Yet crucially the Auxilias weren’t Roman citizens so their prize ultimately when they finished their term of service was to become a Roman citizen.
The officers in the Roman army were almost always drawn from the various levels of aristocracy in the Roman Empire. At the very top end, you would find the very junior senators and sons of senators becoming legionary legates.
The brother of the emperor Septimius Severus, for example, was a legionary legate as a young man with Legio II Augusta in Caer Leon in south-eastern Wales. The Roman army’s commanders therefore tended to come from the various ranks of the Roman aristocracy – including the equestrian classes and then the Curial classes as well.
The troops came from all ranks of Roman society below that. This did not mean rounding up the waifs and strays with the king’s shilling however; this was an elite military organization.
Recruiters were therefore looking for very fit, capable and able men; not the very lowest ranks of Roman society. In almost all cases, it appears waifs, strays and the lowest dregs of society were not dragged into the Roman military – not even as rowers in the Roman regional navy.
On the Classis Britannica for instance, the remiges, or rowers, were not slaves despite the common perception. They were actually professional rowers because once again, this was an elite military organisation.
Even if they came from diverse backgrounds once a legionary was serving his term of service, some 25 years, he was locked into that. The army was not only your day job; it was your life itself.
Once they were in the units, the soldiers developed a very strong sense of identity within their own unit. The Roman legions had many different names – the Legio I Italica, Legio II Augusta, Legio III Augusta Pia Fidelis and Legio IV Macedonica to name just a few. So, these Roman military units had a huge sense of identity. This ‘esprit de corps’ was undoubtedly a key reason in why the Roman army proved so successful in warfare.