10 Interesting Facts On Ancient Roman Soldiers


Ancient Roman soldiers may be divided into two main types, legionaries and auxiliaries. The former were citizens of Rome while the latter were not. There were 12 major ranks which a Roman soldier could achieve with the highest being legatus augusti proparetore, the military governor of a province of the empire. Main weapons carried by the Roman soldier were gladius, pugio and pilum. They also carried a shield called scutum and a helmet called galea. If found guilty of misconduct, the Roman soldiers were subjected to a brutal punishment called Decimation. Other interesting facts about the Roman soldiers include that they were forbidden by law to marry while in military service. The most famous Roman generals include Gaius Julius Caesar, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus and Marcus Antonius. Know more about the training, uniform, rank, armor, weapons and shieldsof the Ancient Roman soldiers through these 10 interesting facts.


#1 Roman soldiers were extensively trained

The Roman soldiers were known to be perfectly drilled. This was made possible due to the extreme fitness and strength that they inculcated. This can be gauged from the fact that they could march for more than 20 miles a day. Moreover, they were able to undertake such treks even when they were wearing full armors and carrying heavy weaponry and equipment such as shields and swords. In addition to fitness, Roman soldiers were trained to fulfill specific purposes. Some of them excelled at being archers, some were skilled at using giant catapults, some were adept at using large crossbows while some were trained to fight on horse-backs. Given the fact that the Roman Army size was immense and consisted of millions of soldiers, all this made them a formidable force to reckon with.

Roman soldiers training
Depiction of training of a group of Roman soldiers


#2 There were two main types of Roman soldiers

Roman soldiers may be divided into two main types: legionaries and auxiliaries. Only men above the age of twenty were allowed to join one of the legions in the Roman army. Legions were elite troops that were at the higher end of the spectrum in terms of earning and quality of armors. All legionaries were Roman citizens but this did not necessarily mean that they resided in Rome. In fact, soldiers joined the ranks from all over the Roman empire, including regions such as Africa, Spain, Germany, France and Britain. Auxiliaries, on the other hand, were soldiers who were not Roman citizens. An auxiliary was paid only a third of a legionary’s wage. Auxiliaries guarded forts and frontiers but also fought in battles, often in the front lines where it was the most dangerous.

Depiction of a Roman legionary


#3 There were 12 major ranks for Roman military officers

Roman centurion
A re-enactor as a Roman centurion

The highest military rank a Roman could reach was legatus augusti proparetore, the military governor of a province of the empire. The legion was the largest unit of the Roman army. The single, long-term commander for each legion was legatus legionis. The tribunus laticlavius was the second-in-command of a legion while praefectus castrorum was the thirdincommand. The basic battlefield unit of a legion was a cohort composed of six centuries. The cohort was commanded by pilus prior, who was also the commander of the senior century in the legion. A century in the legion was commanded by a centurion. Each centurion had under his command three principales: optio, his second-in-command; signifer, the standard bearer; and tesserarius, the guard commander for the century. The most senior centurions were the primi ordines, centurions in the first cohort of a legion. The auxiliaries were the non-citizen corps of the Roman army. The auxiliary units were commanded by praefecti. The standard career path of a praefecti was: praefecti of an infantry unit; then tribunus anticlavius; and then praefecti of a cavalry unit.


#4 Roman soldiers had no concept of standardized uniform or armor

Unlike present day military uniforms, the Romans had no concept of standardized uniforms in the military. Similarly, the armor of Roman soldiers were non-standardized and even that produced in state factories varied according to the province of origin. Roman soldiers were even free to use armor that were handed down to them by family members; or buy armor from soldiers who had completed their military service. Hence, it was common for soldiers within the same legion to wear a mix of various styles instead of following a single dress code. Artifacts from ancient Rome like surviving items of clothing indicate that while the basic tunic of soldiers was of red or undyed wool, senior commanders wore white cloaks or plumes.


#5 There were three types of metal armors used by Roman soldiers

On an average, a Roman soldier carried 60 to 100 pounds of armor and weapons. The first layer worn by the Roman soldier underneath all the layers of armor was the tunic, a loose garment which was typically sleeveless and reached the knees. On top of the tunic, there were three main types of metal armor worn on the chest. The first was the lorica hamata, a chain armor which consisted of small metal rings linked together in a pattern to form a mesh, producing very flexible, reliable and strong armor. However, lorica hamata was hard to make and expensive. The second was lorica segmentata, a plate armor which consisted of pieces of iron fastened to internal leather straps. And the third was lorica squamata, a scale armor which consisted of overlapping bronze or iron scales. Lorica squamata was the cheapest of the three but also the least flexible.

Roman armor Lorica Segmentata
A reenactor dressed as a Roman soldier in lorica segmentata


#6 They used a shield called scutum and a helmet called galea

Roman soldiers complemented their dresses with various pieces of accessories. These include the baldric, a belt worn over one shoulder and used to carry a weapon; the balteus, a standard belt used to tuck clothing; the focale, a scarf that protected the neck from chafing due to constant contact with their armor; and the loculus, a satchel or a bag carried on the shoulder. A famous part of the Roman soldier’s armor was the galea, his helmet. The galea provided protection to not just the head, but also the neck and parts of the face. For footwear, the Roman soldiers used the caligae, which were sturdy and heavy-soled military boots. The shield used by the Romans is called the scutum. It was initially an oblong and convex shield but with time it developed into a rectangular, semi-cylindrical shield.

Galea (left) and Scutum (right)
Roman helmet Galea (left) and Roman shield Scutum (right)


#7 Main weapons carried by them were gladius, pugio and pilum

Roman soldiers used a variety of weapons. The most prominent among them include the following:-

  • Gladius: the primary sword from which the word ‘gladiator‘ comes. The Gladius was a short sword with a length of around 24 inches or 60 cm. It also double edged and ideal for close range combat as it excelled at both slashing and thrusting.
  • Pugio: a dagger used by Roman soldiers as a sidearm. It had a large, leaf-shaped blade 18 to 28 cm long and its width was around 5 cm. Pugio was usually used as a last resort when other weapons had been exhausted.
  • Pilum: A javelin consisting of a 1.4 m (4.6 ft) wooden shaft from which projected an iron shank about 7 mm in diameter and 60 cm long with a pyramidal head. The pilum was used as a long distance weapon with incredible penetrating power that could go through enemy shields and even injure the shield bearer.

Apart form these three, other weapons used by Roman soldiers include lead-weighted darts called plumbata; falx, a curved blade that was sharp on the inside edge; and a composite bow (arcus) with an arrow (sagitta).

Gladius, Pilum and Pugio
Roman Weapons Gladius, Pilum and Pugio


#8 Roman soldiers were forbidden by law to marry while in military service

Since 30 BCE, after the Romans started having a standing professional army, Roman soldiers were required to serve for a period of twenty-five years before they were granted official retirement. Given that one had to be more than 20 years old to join the army, the minimum retirement age thus comes out to be 45 years. The Roman soldiers were prohibited by law to marry during their period of military service. However, this law was difficult to enforce and caused the authorities trouble from the start. Evidence suggests that despite the law, many soldiers married. This prohibition on marriage was ultimately lifted by Emperor Septimius Severus, who reigned from 193 CE to 211 CE. Emperor Severus used his troops to fight his way to power and thus he was pro-army. In fact, while on his deathbed, he proclaimed to his sons, “Enrich the soldiers and scorn the rest”.

Septimius Severus
Roman Emperor Septimius Severus – Who uplifted prohibition on marriage of Roman soldiers


#9 Guilty Roman soldiers were subjected to a brutal punishment called Decimation

Cowardice, mutiny, desertion and insubordination were some of the offenses for which Roman soldiers were punished. In order to punish units for such capital offenses a very brutal method called Decimation was used by Roman commanders. The word decimation is derived from Latin meaning “removal of a tenth”. In order to punish a cohort by decimation it was divided into groups of 10. The ten soldiers were asked to draw lots. The soldier who picked the shortest straw was then executed by his nine comrades, often by stoning, clubbing or stabbing. As the punishment fell by lot, all soldiers in a group sentenced to decimation were potentially liable for execution, regardless of individual degrees of fault, rank or distinction.

Roman Decimation
Depiction of a Roman Decimation


#10 The best known Roman generals include Julius Caesar and Marcus Antonius

The greatest Roman generals include Nero Claudius Drusus, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, Gaius Julius Caesar, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus and Marcus Antonius. Drusus was the first Roman general to successfully lead campaigns east of the Rhine, pushing his troops as far as the Weser and Elbe rivers. Agricola was the general who is most famous for conquering Britain. The most famous Roman general Julius Caesar conquered Gaul and extended Rome’s territory to the English Channel and the Rhine. Pompey The Great was the leading Roman general of his time until Caesar defeated him and he had to flee to Egypt. Marcus Antonius was a friend of Caesar who became Rome’s leader after the assassination of Caesar. He is considered by some as the greatest general of Rome.

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