Today, the Roman army is remembered as the mightiest fighting machine that the ancient world had ever seen. And with good reason. But it took centuries to grow into the ferocious force that would strike fear into peoples spread across a sprawling empire.


In its earliest days, Rome’s army was raised on an as-need basis from the citizenry based on property qualifications. At the top came men who could provide a horse, right down to the ordinary soldiers, or legionaries, who could afford only a sword. It required Rome’s first two Punic Wars against Carthage in the third century BC for the Roman army to develop into the military behemoth that dominated the ancient world.

As the army’s power grew, the number of men who served in it ballooned. In the Republic, numbers had varied according to requirements. They were mainly in the tens of thousands until the Late Republic (c104–
31 BC), when Rome’s warring generals raised vast forces to pursue their political ambitions. Under the emperors (27 BC–AD 337), the numbers rocketed from around 250,000 to 450,000, made up of citizen legionaries in the 5,000-strong legions and provincial auxiliaries in roughly equal numbers.

But the Roman army was about much more than war. It was almost the only means by which the Roman state exercised its power. Soldiers erected forts, built aqueducts, acted as bodyguards, policed civilians, managed quarries and prisons, and collected taxes. They also had families, petitioned the emperor, marched on campaign, committed acts of great valour and atrocities, and worshipped their gods. Some died from disease, enemy action, or accidents. Others lived to sign on again as veterans, or retired to find their way in civilian life.

The Roman army was about much more than war. It was almost the only means by which the Roman state exercised its power

Yet despite its many roles in Roman society, the army is still best remembered for its military might. So how did the force manage to be so successful? It wasn’t immune to defeat – far from it. But the Romans had a staggering ability to cope with adversity. Coming back from the disasters of Lake Trasimene (217 BC) and Cannae (216 BC) during the Second Punic War (when the Romans were heavily defeated twice by the Carthaginian general Hannibal who was roaming at will in Italy) was a turning point.

The Roman army was based on organisation and flexibility, always adapting to circumstances. Its soldiers were also exceptionally well-equipped, most notably with the gladius Hispaniensis, the ‘Spanish sword’. It was a vicious weapon that reflected the harsh reality of brutal face-to-face fighting. But in the imperial age the soldiers became all too prone to toppling one emperor after another in search of ever bigger handouts and pay rises, destabilising the empire.

Stories of the army endured long after the last soldiers died – chiefly because the Romans left so much information about it. Historians such as Livy, Josephus and Tacitus loved military history and provide us with a huge amount of detail about campaigns and battles. And the soldiers themselves were also more literate than the general population and were more likely to leave records of their lives, be it in tombstones, religious offerings or letters. This has left a vast archive, and there is no parallel for any other ancient or medieval army.


Some soldiers took new Roman names…

In the second century AD a young Egyptian called Apion fulfilled the exacting criteria for eligibility for the Roman military – he was between the ages of 17 and 46, freeborn, and passed a rigorous medical examination – and signed up to join the fleet. He then embarked on a dangerous journey from his village in Egypt to Italy, coming close to being shipwrecked en route. Happily, Apion safely reached the Roman fleet base at Misenum on the northern side of the bay of Naples, where he joined the company of a ship called the Athenonica and promptly set about writing home to his father.

His letter, which has survived, is in Greek, the everyday language in the eastern Roman empire. “I thank the lord Serapis that when I was in danger at sea he immediately saved me,” wrote Apion. He was also delighted on arrival to have “received from Caesar three gold coins for travelling expenses”. This was a considerable sum of money, equivalent to around half a year’s pay for a member of the fleet. Apion had something else to tell his father, Epimachus: “My name is Antonius Maximus” – this was his brand-new Roman name. Although not every auxiliary soldier took a Roman moniker, some did – and it was a common practice in Apion’s fleet. His new name was typically Roman, and for Apion a matter of pride.


There were rivalries for the best jobs

During Julius Caesar’s Gallic campaign (fought in modern-day France), two centurions (commanders of 80 men) called Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus earned undying fame in the heat of a vicious battle. Caesar was so impressed that he even made a special point of telling their story.

The pair were bitter rivals for the best jobs. One day in 54 BC the legion was under attack from the Nervii tribe (a warlike people who lived in the north of Gaul). Pullo goaded Vorenus, accusing him of waiting for a better opportunity to prove his bravery. Pullo then dived into the fight, leaving Vorenus no alternative but to follow him in case he was thought a coward.

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Pullo threw his spear and struck one of the Nervii. But other Nervii flung their spears at Pullo, who had no chance of escaping. He had one spear stuck in his shield, another in his belt, and his scabbard had been pushed out of place. Vorenus dashed up to help, diverting the tribesmen’s attention on to him because they thought Pullo was dead. Vorenus killed one and chased off the others, and during the melee Pullo had been able to get away and bring up reinforcements. They escaped back behind the Roman defences, lucky to have their lives.

Caesar said: “It was impossible to decide which should be considered the better man in valour.”


Sleeves had a secret meaning

An early third-century AD tombstone from South Shields fort reads: “Victor, a Moorish tribesman, aged 20, freedman of Numerianus… who most devotedly conducted him to the tomb.” In the tombstone’s engraving, Victor wears a long-sleeved tunic (men who wore this item of clothing were assumed to have a preference for male partners) and robe while he lounges on a couch. Whether he and Numerianus shared a sexual relationship can only be conjecture, but the unusually affectionate nature of the piece suggests that possibility.

Scipio Africanus, the famous general of the Second Punic War over 400 years earlier, disapproved of such relationships. He once described “a young man who with a lover has reclined (at meals) in a long-sleeved tunic on the inside of a couch, and is not only partial to wine, but also to men. Does anyone doubt that he does what sodomites are accustomed to doing?”

Victor’s tombstone amounts to a visual realisation of Scipio’s words, but replacing condemnation with veneration. It suggests that, by Victor’s time and in this frontier fort, his relationship with Numerianus was most likely conducted openly and in safety.


Bullying centurions

Centurions played a key part in the everyday disciplining of soldiers, and it could backfire. During the mutiny among the Pannonian legions in AD 14, one harsh disciplinarian of a centurion called Lucilius was killed. He had earned himself the nickname Cedo Alteram (‘bring me another!’) in reference to his habit of breaking his vine rod symbol of office over the back of one ordinary soldier after another and calling for a fresh stick to be brought. The VIII and XV legions were on the point of coming to blows over another centurion called Sirpicus, as he also bullied common soldiers. Only the intervention of Legio VIIII saved him.

In that same year, a mutiny was stirred up among the Rhine legions over the way pay and conditions had been ignored. The men’s first target was the centurions “who had fuelled the soldiers’ hatred for the longest”. The soldiers all bore the scars of beatings they had endured. They struck each centurion with 60 blows to match the number of centurions in a legion, killing some and severely injuring the rest, and threw them into the rampart or into the Rhine. Only the general Germanicus was able to calm the men down.


In pursuit of pleasure

Some officers spent their spare time composing poetry or writing, but others had less refined hobbies – and for these men, hunting was often top of the list. In around the third century AD, Gaius Tetius Veturius Micianus, the commanding officer of the Gaulish Ala Sebosiana in northern Britain, triumphantly hunted down a boar that had apparently fought off all other attempts to capture it.

The officer commemorated his kill on an altar that he set up on Bollihope Common. Its text brags: “Gaius Tetius Veturius Micianus, prefect commanding the cavalry wing of Sebosians, willingly set this up to the Divinities of the Emperors and Unconquerable Silvanus [in return] for taking a wild boar of remarkable fineness which many of his predecessors had been unable to turn into booty.”

This fourth-century Roman floor mosaic shows a boar hunt
This fourth-century Roman floor mosaic shows a boar hunt, a popular pastime among officers. (Photo by CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)

A civil war tragedy

In AD 69 Rome descended into a vicious civil war that involved four rival emperors who battled it out in turn: Galba, Otho, Vitellius and the eventual victor, Vespasian. As violence raged across the empire, one particularly tragic event occurred.

Legio XXI Rapax supported Vitellius. One of its soldiers was a Spaniard called Julius Mansuetus who had left a son behind at home. Not long after this, the boy reached adulthood and joined Legio VII Gemina, formed by Galba, one of the four rival emperors, in AD 68. But by the time of the second battle of Bedriacum, VII Gemina was on Vespasian’s side.

During the fierce fighting, the young soldier unknowingly fatally wounded his own father. Only when he was searching Mansuetus’ barely conscious body did he realise what he had done. Profusely apologising to his father before he died, he then picked up the body and buried it. Other soldiers noticed what was going on, and they all ruminated on the pointless destruction the war had brought. The historian Tacitus, however, told his readers that it made no difference. Nothing stopped the soldiers carrying on “killing and robbing their relatives, kin and brothers”. Calling it a crime, “in the same breath they did it themselves”.


Laying down the law

The job of centurion carried with it great responsibility – not only were they in charge of soldiers, but some were tasked with civilian administration, too. The centurion Gaius Severius Emeritus oversaw the region around the spa at Bath in Britain. He was disgusted to find that one of the sacred places had been wrecked “by insolent hands”, as Emeritus called them. Frustrated by gratuitous vandalism and the oafs responsible, he had the place restored, and set up an altar to commemorate the fact.

It seems to have been a good idea to keep these powerful men on side, and many tried to bribe them. During the reign of Hadrian, Julius Clemens, a centurion of Legio XXII Deiotariana, wrote to Sokration, an Egyptian civilian who had sent Clemens a bribe of olive oil, and implored: “And do you write to me about what you may need, knowing that I gladly do everything for you.”

The potential for centurions in charge of civilian administration to abuse their positions is obvious. But they weren’t alone. The poet Juvenal, who had himself once commanded an auxiliary unit, was deeply critical of how Roman soldiers threw their weight about, beat up members of the public and flouted justice.


Soldiers came from diverse homelands

Although most legionaries came from Italy, Gaul and Spain, the auxiliary forces were raised from all over the Roman empire. Let’s take, for instance, an auxiliary soldier called Sextus Valerius Genialis. He was one of the Frisiavone people and hailed from Gallia Belgica (a region covering modern-day north-eastern France, Belgium and Luxembourg), but he served with a Thracian cavalry unit in Britain and had a completely Roman name.

The ethnic titles the auxiliary units sported – such as Ala I Britannica – are often taken surprisingly literally by military historians and archaeologists, who assume the men in these units must have been of the same ethnicity. However, the records of individual soldiers show that unless very specialised fighting skills were involved (like those of the Syrian archers), the reality was often different. From AD 240–50 the cavalry wing Ala I Britannica had around six Thracian men recruited to its ranks, and these men served with others of Pannonian origin (men from central Europe) – despite the fact that the cavalry wing was supposedly made up of Britons. Similar stories can be found in the fleet, too. A Briton named Veluotigernus joined the Classis Germanica fleet and was honourably discharged on 19 November AD 150 along with veterans from the auxiliary cavalry and infantry units in Germania Inferior.


Forbidden family

Although Roman soldiers were not supposed to marry (the law that prohibited them from taking a wife was only relaxed at the end of the second century AD) the evidence from tombstones and documents is that plenty did. In the late first century – around 100 years before the law was eased – the poet Martial knew a centurion called Aulus Pudens who was married to a woman called Claudia Peregrina (‘Claudia the Provincial’). Martial tells us Claudia was very fertile and that she had “sprung from the woad-stained Britons”. In Egypt, meanwhile, a soldier called Julius Terentianus placed his children and his other private affairs in the hands of his sister, Apollonous, in Karanis. As he refers to the care of his children in letters to her, it is quite possible that this was a case of brother-sister marriage, which was well-known in Egypt. In AD 99 Apollonous wrote to him to say: “Do not worry about the children. They are in good health and are kept busy by a teacher.” More often we know about soldiers’ children only because they died tragically young. For instance, Simplicia Florentina, a child “of the most innocent spirit”, had lived for a scant 10 months before she passed away. Her father, Felicius Simplex, a centurion of Legio VI Victrix, buried her at York. Likewise, Septimius Licinius, who served with Legio II Parthica at Castra Albana in Italy, buried his “dear son Septimius Licinianus” when the boy was only aged three years, four months and 24 days.


Leaving their mark

Just before the battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC Julius Caesar asked Crassinius, one of his centurions, how he thought the battle would go. Crassinius replied: “We shall conquer, O Caesar, and you will thank me, living or dead.” Crassinius was true to his word and covered himself in glory that day, but he lost his life. Caesar gave the centurion’s body full military honours and had a tomb built specially for Crassinius alone, close to the mass burial mound for the rest. Unlike Crassinius, the vast majority of Roman soldiers have no known resting place. However, the tombstones that have survived tell us a great deal about fighters’ individual lives and their mindsets. This is quite unlike other ancient and medieval conflicts, such as the Wars of the Roses, for which there is no equivalent record. For instance, from examining the tombstone of Titus Flaminius, who served with Legio XIIII in the earliest days of the Roman conquest of Britain and died at the legion’s base at Wroxeter aged 45 after 22 years’ service, we can see that he seems to have had no regrets. His tombstone has a poignant message for us: “I served as a soldier, and now here I am. Read this, and be happy – more or less – in your lifetime. [May] the gods keep you from the wine-grape, and water, when you enter Tartarus [the mythical pit beneath the Earth]. Live honourably while your star gives you life.”

Guy de la Bédoyère is a historian and broadcaster. His new book, Gladius: Living, Fighting and Dying in the Roman Army (Little, Brown Book Group, 2020) is available now


This article was first published in the Christmas 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine