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Soldiers in Ancient Rome—Part II

We continue with Justin, our ancient Roman warrior.

Who’s Who in the Roman Army

The Army is divided into Legions, then cohorts, then “centuries”   of about 80 men.

Foreign soldiers are considered more expendable  and typically serve in the front ranks of battle, probably with less protective armor.

This Army was extremely hierarchical.  Technical expertise — say, in metal,  carpentry,  or medicine exempted the lucky soldier from certain difficult tasks.  The man carrying the Legion’s eagle emblem was considered particularly privileged.   He was highly decorated and led the Legion in battle.

Within the Legion, there were about 60 Centurions, the backbone of the Army — Generally, Centurion was the highest rank.

Above the Centurions were about five young men — tribunes of aristocratic rank.  They served for only a brief period of time before returning to Italy and civilian life.

Heading the Legion was an officer called a Legate.  He was typically a senator who would serve for a few years.

Here Comes War…

Justin’s leaders prefer to fight on level terrain.  To lead Justin and his buddies into battle, there will be a Centurion, standing on the far right of the force;  and a standard-bearer.

Justin and his fellows will throw their spears  from about 30 yards away, then run to ram the enemy.  They will try to grind the boss on their shield into the bellies of their opponents. They will use bow and arrows and throw spears.   In larger battles, they will be supported by catapults.

When they win, Justin and his fellow soldiers will strip the dead and dying of their valuables — particularly armor and weapons.  If the  fighting is particularly bitter, Justin’s leaders may sever some heads and place them among the trophies taken.

Good luck, if Justin is wounded.  There are doctors — but injuries are often fatal.

If Justin is pronounced unfit for further service, he will get an honorable discharge. That means he will not have to pay civilian taxes or perform civic duties.

Life in Garrison;  Discipline

When Justin is not fighting, he and his fellow Legionnaires take on the role of engineer, road maker, surveyor, bridge builder, or carpenter.   The amazing Roman road system was largely the creation of the Army – some 8,000 miles in ancient Britain alone.

What if Justin misbehaves?  Not a great idea.  His Centurion has the power of life and death over him.  If the offense is minor, the Centurion likely will beat Justin with a rod .  Other serious offenses will get him fined, demoted, or transferred.  Falling asleep on guard duty in enemy territory is not tolerated – Justin’s fellow soldiers may well be given a command to club him to death!

If an entire unit is deemed disobedient for some offense, the authorities will command that one man in ten will be beaten to death by his fellow soldiers.


Conditions of service for Justin and his fellows could be appalling.    One Legion mutinied in 15 A.D.  They complained of long-standing abuses, especially for old-timers who have served for 30 or 40 years and remained ill-treated, though badly ailing.

Some soldiers were posted to God-forsaken parts of the empire — such as backwater Britain.

Strangely, Roman citizens seemed to be somewhat contemptuous of men like Justin who guarded the Empire.

Still, Army service carried considerable benefits. Those permanently assigned to a province  enjoyed many advantages.  They might take a common law wife  [Until 193 A.D., these relationships were not recognized as a true “marriage.”]  Centurions could marry whenever they wished; wives and children  often accompanied them to foreign lands.

Prostitutes traveled with the soldiers.

There was a technical prohibition against soldiers owning property in occupied lands  — but it was loosely enforced.  A veteran, opting to remain in his province after military discharge,  might well be awarded a land grant and build up a good commercial business based on his already-acquired property .


If Justin survives a full military career, he will get an impressive retirement package — typically this will be at around 25 or 26 years’ service.  He will receive either a grant of land or a sizable financial reward.   A bronze diploma will recite his entitlements.  A foreigner who fought for Italy received the priceless gift of Roman citizenship.

The average soldier’s chance of reaching retirement age, historians suggest, is about 50-50.  He’s been frequently in harm’s way and, besides, not many people survive to old age anyhow.

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