A historian once remarked, “It was upon the backs of the Roman Legions that modern Western civilization was born”, and he might well have been correct. Pulling together various traditions, civic, and political ideologies, Rome’s influence on Western civilization is indisputable, and its impact is perhaps best seen in the militaries of these modern nations. Today most modern militaries are modeled after Rome’s example, and making up the bulwark of ancient history’s mightiest armies was the fabled Legionnaire.
Ancient Europe was a terrifying place. Roman ingenuity had brought clean drinking water to cities dozens of miles away from rivers and lakes, and vast Roman libraries and universities added daily to man’s understanding of his world.
Rome’s massive economic and political power had carved out an empire that brought stability and safety to millions of people- yet at Rome’s borders, where the forests grew thickest and darkest, lurked hordes of barbarians, with an ever-hungry eye always turned towards Rome’s riches.
Roman Legionaries one job was protecting the empire
The job of safeguarding the empire fell upon the Legionnaire, and at its height Rome had thirty Legions made up of 6,000 fighting men each along with auxiliaries all dispatched along the length and breadth of Rome’s borders.
Despite the size of the Roman military though, the truth is that Roman units were often outnumbered in battle, seeing as the Legions couldn’t be everywhere at once. Famously, a single Roman Legion once faced off against a horde of 25,000 Germanic barbarians, and still achieved victory. The secret to Rome’s military success? The Roman Legionary.
How did they become Roman legionary?
To be a Legionary one must be a Roman citizen, though non-Romans could also find a place in the Roman military. Non-citizens were often recruited, or conscripted into service as Auxiliaries, and could fill any role from light infantry to cavalry or even siege engineers.
Roman citizens however would often volunteer for service, or in times of crisis, be drafted as Legionnaires. As the backbone of the Roman army, Legionnaires received the best equipment and the best training- but more importantly, required the greatest amount of loyalty to Rome, hence why only Romans could become one.
With a diet made up primarily of bread and vegetables, Romans were notoriously short, though Legionnaires had a height requirement of at least five and a half feet. The almost uniform lower stature of Roman citizens actually worked to their advantage in battle, as it ensured that their famous tortoise phalanx-like formations could remain tightly packed together and secure from penetration.
Roman military used strong formation in battle – testudo formation
In the testudo or tortoise formation, soldiers locked their shields together to form a wall that went from shin to eye-level and protected the formation on all sides. The soldiers in the center then raised their shields above their head and also interlocked them, thus protecting from arrows, sling stones, and javelins.
The tortoise formation was said to be so effective and secure, that a chariot could be driven across the top of it. It’s easy to see then why a uniform height was preferable for Roman Legionnaires, as soldiers of varying heights would have created gaps in the formation, and made it vulnerable.
The real reason why Roman men wanted to become Roman legionary
Military service was attractive to Roman men, as it ensured steady food and steady work. Every year Roman soldiers were paid the equivalent of a few hundred dollars in today’s money, though some of that money was taxed and used to maintain and purchase the soldier’s equipment as needed.
At the end of sixteen years of service, eventually increased to twenty five years of service, a Roman legionary could expect to receive a pension for his service, and even a plot of land of his own. As in any ancient society and even today, owning property was a huge financial safeguard, and helped ensure the financial security of the retired Legionary and his family.
Non-citizen soldiers enlisted as auxiliaries would often receive about a third of the pay of a Roman citizen, but could also look forward to earning a pension at the end of his service. Property within the empire would also be awarded, as well as Roman citizenship which could be passed down to his children. This made service for non-Romans an extremely attractive option, as their rights and even financial opportunities as non-citizens were very few.
For a Legionary, life was all about the military. Men would sleep together in barracks that housed eight, making up the base unit of the roman military- the contubernium. These would be the men you lived, ate, and fought with for your entire career, with new recruits taking the place of retirees or those lost in battle or to illness and injury. Upon waking, the men would enjoy a small breakfast of oatmeal or bread, and then fall into formation for morning inspection.
Rome’s military success relied on two things: discipline and training
To this end, daily inspections were vital for keeping Roman units fighting fit. Each man would have his weapon, shield, and armor inspected for dirt, rust, and other signs of general disrepair, and if any was found punishment would be swift.
As in the modern military, the punishment could involve anything from additional physical fitness training to pulling extra duties around the camp, though at times beatings and even death were mandated for extreme infractions.
A sentry caught sleeping for example could earn himself the death penalty. Seeing as Roman Legions typically operated far from home and on the borders of the empire, next to very dangerous territory, it’s easy to understand why infractions such as sleeping on your post could have such dire consequences.
After morning muster and inspection, if the unit was not on the move and garrisoned, then there would typically be a few hours of physical fitness training. Roman Legionnaires were expected to march twenty or more miles in five hours, all while wearing up to forty five pounds of equipment.
Armor of Roman legionary
At the height of its power, Rome equipped her Legionnaires with body armor that reached to the waist and was made of strips of iron joined together with leather straps.
The layered iron armor provided good protection from blades and spears, while still remaining relatively easy to mass-produce for Rome’s soldiers. An iron helmet protected the Legionnaire’s head, and stiff leather greaves afforded some protection to the shins and lower legs.
The greatest protection though came from the scutum, or the body shield that Roman Legionnaires are so famous for. The scutum was made of layers of wood glued together, covered with canvas and leather. At times brass or iron fittings at the center reinforced the scutum, and gave it a center of mass that made it a little easier to wield for the Roman legionary.
The shield was meant to be held with the left arm, and in a charge, Legionnaires would hold their left arm outstretched, with the top of the shield resting on the Legionnaire’s shoulder, only to drop it as the enemy was met in an attempt to knock the enemy off his feet.
Then the Roman legionary would let the shield fall to the ground and fight from behind it in a slightly hunched position. The enemy would have to try to deliver blows across the other side of a nearly full-body shield while the Legionnaire could retaliate with swift stabs from his sword or spear.
When fighting in formation, the shields would lock together and present a nearly impenetrable wall to the enemy. Inside of the formation, Legionnaires would brace once against the other, lending their strength to the men on the outside edges. This made the formation incredibly difficult to break, and in fact, in some battles, Legionnaires surrounded by the enemy would simply lock into formation as friendly archers delivered devastating volleys of arrows directly on top of them.
The Legionnaires would ride out the storm of arrows as their foes were felled by the dozens. When the barrage was over, they would simply emerge from their tortoise formation and begin the assault anew.
Other duties of Roman legionary
While on the move, the Legionary would also have to carry extra equipment though, and each man would be responsible for a sack of flour and carrying some of the unit’s support equipment.
Carts would often carry the components for siege weapons and many of the various beams and canvas supplies for tents, but a great deal of the smaller pieces of equipment needed for life on the road was given out for the men to carry. With marches that could last all day and go for dozens of miles, the Legionary had to be in incredible health and good fitness.
They built defensive encampments every night
On the road, at the end of each march, the Legionnaires would construct a defensive encampment for themselves- yet another feature of the Roman military that made them so difficult to defeat in battle.
These encampments would consist of a ditch which surrounded the camp, with the excavated dirt being used to build a defensive berm. Atop this berm, a palisade of sharpened wooden sticks was built, and often the bottom of the outer ditch would also be filled with sharpened wooden stakes.
Attacking enemy infantry would thus have to run down into the ditch and then scramble up the berm to reach the Legionnaires, who would be on top of it firing down arrows and javelins the entire time.
Roman legionary would constantly train
While in garrison though, Legionnaires would replace their traditional long road marches with a variety of busy work or training. At least two to three times a week Legionary would train with practice equipment, which helped to relieve tensions between individuals and keep morale high.
The rest of the week though Legionnaires would be assigned varying duties. The skills you had before you joined the Roman military would dictate what other duties you may be assigned to do, and the less skilled you were, the worse the job you might end up doing for most of your enlistment.
Skilled craftsmen would often be assigned to maintain the Legions’ equipment; blacksmiths and fletchers would see to the weapons and armor of the Legion, and the ever-important task of creating new arrows and bolts for the Legion’s ballistas or other siege weapons.
Less skilled Legionnaires may pull long guard duty shifts, or be stuck cleaning out the pipes in Rome’s famous baths, or even worse- the pipes in the latrines. If that’s still not bad enough, one might find themselves having to empty the actual ditches the latrines empties out to.
Battle was the real duty of Roman legionary
The real meat and bread of a Legionnaire’s life though was battle, and given the violence of the ancient world, a Legionary was typically not at a loss for opportunities to practice his craft. Roman legions preferred to fight cautiously, making extensive use of scouts to fix an enemy’s position and numbers, and then attempt to fight on the battlefield that best suited them.
Though Legionnaires were the heart of the Roman military, the majority of Rome’s military forces was actually made up of mercenaries or conscripts looking to earn their Roman citizenship and eventual pension- and Rome made good use of these auxiliary forces.
Typically, Rome would meet her enemies with lighter armed Legionnaires, who would pelt advancing enemy forces with javelins and throwing spears. Auxiliary slingers or bowmen would join in the long-range attack, and upon making contact, the light infantry at the front would switch to their swords.
Advancing on the wings of the formation, more light infantry auxiliaries would press against the enemy’s flanks, while heavy cavalry would ride out and then turn in against the enemy’s rear and flanks. Advancing up the center and behind the first line of lightly armed Legionnaires would be a force of heavy infantry, who would engage the core of the enemy formation.
Battle signals used by Roman military
A variety of flag signals and horns allowed Roman military units to react on-the-fly even in the middle of combat. This close coordination between light infantry, auxiliary forces, the cavalry, and heavy infantry allowed Roman legions to outmaneuver and outfight nearly any enemy it encountered. Tactics and training counted for Roman success far more than might.
After a battle, the Legionnaire was typically allowed to enjoy some of the battlefield spoils, which could be sold off for personal profit. More valuable battlefield loot however was taken for the coffers of Rome itself, as running a massive military was an expensive undertaking.
Did Roman legionaries have families?
Back at their home garrisons, Legionnaires were forbidden from marrying and having families, with only senior officers and generals allowed to marry- yet most Legionnaires had girlfriends and unofficial wives, and these could either become camp followers in more remote regions, or set up communities directly outside of established garrisons.
While technically not allowed to have them, most commanders would look the other way as Legionnaires left a garrison at night to spend time with their families.
Western civilization was greatly defined by both Rome’s political and civic traditions, and her willingness to defend those traditions with military force. While professional armies had existed before her time, Rome stands out as fielding one of the largest professional fighting forces of the ancient world, and the centuries of experience it gained in commanding a large national fighting force established a legacy of customs that is still obvious in modern militaries to this day.
Featured image: Roman legionaries, by Hans Splinter, licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0