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Soldiers in Ancient Rome—Part I

We’ve been enjoying Great Teacher courses on CD; terrific for car travels.  Professor Robert Garland of Colgate University has an engaging series on ancient Rome, including the Roman military.

We suspect this is good material for advocates.  Why?  [a] knowing a bit of military history shows the lawyer’s respect for the subject and engagement  — judge and military jurors likely will be impressed by a defense counsel who knows a little bit about the “lore” of the military  [b]  some matters — discipline, retirement, even discharge review boards  — were present in ancient Rome and can be brought into opening/closing argument when apropos  [c] we keep suggesting that each litigator should have a “gimmick.”  One good technique is to embed a little bit of military history into each court-martial.  In fact, sitting jurors may even look forward to see what defense counsel comes up with this time.

Not Much Different From The USA.

Many of the signs of modern military life go back to old Rome.  Barracks life, promotion, bugle calls,  an infirmary, a Personnel shop,  morning report, leaves, bonuses for enlisting, retirement plans,  even a discharge review board   — all can be found in records of ancient Roma.

Originally, Roman citizens were conscripted annually.  Citizen soldiers  able to do so provided their own armor;  for those in poverty, the State would supply equipment.  These men were known as “conscripts”  — Latin for writing your name along with others ready to fight.   These citizen soldiers were often farmers who returned home to find their fields ruined.   The “fix:”  voluntary enlistment.

Pay [customarily enlarged by generous donations from the wills of dying emperors and gifts from the newly-elected] was  just about enough to live on.  However, problems arose after discharge — the huge majority failed to save for the proverbial rainy day.   These ‘old timers’ would be dependent on the general they served for whatever retirement provisions he’d make.

In time, these generals became very powerful.  Legionaries began to identify with the general rather than with the Republic itself (Caesar’s army in Gaul served him for eight years and saw him —  not the Roman Senate —  as their leader.  These men gladly followed Caesar across the Rubicon.

The length of military service was generally about six years.  Later, the Emperor Augustus pensioned off perhaps 50,000 citizen-soldiers, awarding them land to colonize in Italy and elsewhere.

As in America, the concept of the voluntary professional soldier won out.  Soon, volunteers were more numerous than conscripts.

Noncitizens were permitted to join, as were friendly forces allied to Rome.  The result: An Army of many languages and customs, all defending the interests of Rome.  There was another advantage — serving under Rome was a great way to integrate “outsiders” into the empire and Italian ways.

Life for the Roman Soldier

Suppose we “enter the skin” of an ancient warrior.   Let’s call him Justin.

Perhaps Justin came to the Army bored with a dead-end menial job.  He saw a recruiting poster and decided to try joining up. Typically, Justin is between 17 and 23 – the oldest recruits were about 35.   Justin meets height requirements – he is at least 5’10”.   He’s a farmer, and that is a plus — country folk are favored over “city slickers,” regarded as unruly.

Justin is a Roman.  If he were a foreigner, he would need at least a smattering of Latin to understand orders.

Justin’s name and physical characteristics will be entered into his Legion’s rolls.  He will be assigned to a group of about 600.   He will swear an oath of allegiance to the Emperor; he will renew the oath  yearly. [Incidentally, the requirement to swear an oath to the  Emperor meant acknowledging his “divinity;”  it created a problem for observant Jews and, later, Christians] .

Every year, there will be an enlisted bonus of three gold coins — roughly $1000  today.

Welcome To The Legion! 

Justin has now become a member of the world’s most efficient fighting force.   He undergoes four months of grueling training.   He will be taught to use a sword and spear, and learn to handle a bow and arrow.  He will learn how to maneuver and join up in formation.  He will always march by following Roman custom and first putting forward his RIGHT foot– the basis of our saying today of “putting your best foot forward.”

Justin is issued an iron  helmet  with guards for his brow, neck,  and cheeks.  He will wear a leather apron, long enough to protect his private parts.  He will be issued a wooden shield  with a bronze boss and trim. He will carry an iron spear, dagger, and sword.   Justin’s equipment will weigh about 67 pounds, a considerable burden in battle.

On marches, he will have to carry additional materials enabling him to make camp.  He will be expected to walk about 20 miles in five hours, on the average.  Forced marches  will require a faster pace and more miles.  Justin will have to assist in building a temporary camp each evening unless he is lucky enough to be considered a specialist, exempt from such routine duties.  There will be plenty for Justin to do — everything from lighting the campfire to digging out a latrine.    Then there’s guard duty — at any one time, perhaps 20% of the Legion was on guard duty, particularly in hostile country.

Each night’s temporary installation will have a headquarters and small hospital.  Justin will sleep in a leather tent with seven other soldiers. These tent companions, in effect are his “squadron.”  They will stand together in battle.

 ‘Persequendum est’ –to be continued.


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