Within ancient Rome itself everyone had the duty and honour to serve their country and the position they would and could take within the army was largely driven by their personal wealth as recorded in the census. All roman soldiers could receive prizes, given a share of booty, be invited to join in the triumphal marches and recognition for their valour or for having saved a comrade’s life (civic crown).
The highest ranks were held by high ranking civilian magistrates who had served many years of military service but were magistrates nonetheless.
Soldiers were broken down into 5 distinct classes – driven by the civilian census of personal status and wealth (ability to pay your own armament). A legion of men was therefore split into:
- cavalry (many nobles and relatively wealthy people able to procure and keep a horse),
- hastati (young spear men),
- principes (middle aged experienced soldiers),
- triarii (older veterans).
- There were also the “velites” who were essentially untrained and unable to purchase much armament for themselves, hence used to make up numbers and cause general chaos in enemy lines. The writer Polibius tells us these men often wore a wolf’s skin in order to frighten the enemy as well as be easily recognizable by their own side. This was in fact a leather helmet known as a Galea or Galerus:
“Et galea hirsuta compta lupina juba” (propertius iv, xi, 20)
- It seems probably that the Velites order essentially disappeared by the time of the empire, to be replaced by figures such as the “Finditores” (slings) and “Sagittarii” (arrows/javelins/darts). Sallust also refers to the “Ferentarii” who used various sorts of weapon.
- In the earliest years of the Roman army, until the 5th or 4th century BC, the army was a not a regular army, in that at the end of the war season (ie after March – the month of the god of war Mars) the soldiers would return home and to their farms to work. A new army would be conscripted and rebuilt every year. This essentially came to an end when Rome’s continued expansion created a need for a professional army.
- The highest rank a professional soldier could reach, without following the “cursus” of elected civilian magistrate positions, was that of Centurion – up to a level of “first centurion” ie centurion leading the first manipulus of men in the triarii. This one position meant you could attend the war councils held by the legion’s top ranking officers (Tribunes, Praetors and Consuls) although not as an active participant. Clearly some magistrates did make their civil magisterial position into an essentially military one, for example Pompey, Julius Caesar and other generals who targeted awarding of the magistrate position in order to be assigned an army, go abroad on military campaigns and gain great personal wealth and power as a result: the essential difference is that normally a consul would have 1 year in power only whilst a general waging several years of campaign would require the magisterial position nomination to be reconfirmed by the Senate (eg as pro-Consul)
Equipment of Ancient Roman Soldiers
When Roman dominions began to expand, and when the Roman empire began to stretch overseas, Ancient Roman soldiers could count on having to spend considerable time away from home. They could also count on having to travel considerable distances along the famous Roman roads. All of this implies that each individual would have to carry a broad range of possessions, not only armour and weapons but also items of day to day use which all together could weigh up to a considerable weight.
It is estimated that the legionaries of Gaius Marius, popularly known as “Marius’ Mules”, carried something in the region of 35-45kg – a very significant weight if you were going to have to march large distances in a day! Clearly much of this weight consisted in their Roman armor and Roman weapons: the shield alone could weigh as much as 10kg but a good deal more was being carried as part of a Roman soldier’s basic survival kit (“sarcinae”), usually by way of a “T” shaped post. Basic items might include….
- Something to sleep on (Livy lib44 tells us the shield might be used as pillow)
- Several days’ grain rations & drink
- Metal tins and pans to eat and drink with.
- Wicker basket to carry earth (lots of digging in the roman army!)
- Equipment for digging trenches or breaking into walls including shovel/spade/pick axe (“dolabrae”)
The tunic of roman legionaries was frequently sleevless, it extended down to the knees and was white or red colour. The cloac was woollen called “sagum” or a poncho type affair called “paenula”. Trousers only entered daily attire toward the end of the empire, probably a Gallic introduction. The shoes were called Calligae – rather like the nickname of Emperor Caligula, acquired by way of the shoes he often wore as a boy in the military camps.
Have a look at the many images of roman soldiers we have collected for you.
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