Life in a Roman Legion, and Life after Leaving


By Gregory S. Aldrete, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin Green Bay

Life in a Roman legion was not easy. Recruitment in a legion meant no family life and committing all your youth to the army. The training was rigorous. Working in a legion demanded a lot of discipline. It is amazing that still, so many people were keen to join the Roman army.

Picture of a heavy cavalry named Clibinarii in late Roman empire.
Cibinarii, a type of heavy cavalry, grew in prominence in the late Roman Empire, along with other forms of cavalry as the Roman legionary became less important. (Image: Biblioteca Digital Hispánica/Public domain).

The Ideal Roman Recruit

Analyzing the tombstones of soldiers brings out the fact that in the Roman legion, about two-thirds of soldiers enlisted between the age of 17 and 20. While much content has survived showing that parents were in favor of their children joining the military, there are some which show a different attitude. There is a letter from a woman reprimanding her husband who was suggesting that their son to join the army. The letter goes like this:

Concerning Sarapas our son, he has not stayed with me at all but he ran off to join the army. You did a bad thing by exhorting him to enroll in the army. Because when I said to him to not enlist he said, “But my father told me I could join the army.”

The Romans had a belief that farm boys would be the best soldiers because they were so used to hard work and physical labor; on the other hand, the urban people would prove to be too soft for the army life. The Roman military author Vegetius has provided a list of some other professions that he thought could make great soldiers. These included blacksmiths, butchers, carpenters, and hunters.

For enlisting, prospective recruits had to show proof of being free Roman citizens, and generally, there used to be a medical examination at this initial stage. Ideally, the Roman legion recruited soldiers who were at least five feet eight inches tall, although apparently many men of shorter heights were serving.

On passing all the tests, they were attached to a legion and had to go to whichever place it was stationed. They had to swear the military oath called sacramentum on reaching the legion, in which they pledged their loyalty to the emperor.

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Training in a Roman Legion

Following this, they underwent rigorous training for many months whose first phase put emphasis on physical fitness. This meant new recruits in the Roman legion spent most of their time marching and drilling. The expectation from them was that they should be able to cover 24 Roman miles with full equipment in five hours. This was followed by the weapons training. Initially, they practiced with wooden weapons. These were twice as heavy as the actual weapons. This was done to build their strength and endurance. 

This is a picture of Roman slingers in action.
These are Roman slingers (funditores) in action in the Dacian Wars. (Image: Attributed to Apollodorus of Damascus / Public domain)

New soldiers were asked to practice swordplay against a wooden box. They learned both to stab and slash. In close battles, Roman soldiers were masters of making lethal pushes with their swords. The ancient sources often compare the highly disciplined and accurate stabs of a Roman legionary with the wild, slashing strokes of their brutal enemies. There was never a break in the drill and the training in the Roman legion and much of their spare time was spent by units in practicing formations, battle simulations, and maneuvers.

In the period of the early empire, the standard yearly pay for a general Roman legionary was 900 sesterces but this figure kept rising consistently in the later centuries. While it may be considered decent pay, the legionaries could get only a fraction of it because most of it was taken out for their food, clothing, and equipment and they got a minimal amount of money in cash. It was a long term commitment to enroll in a Roman legion. They were required to serve for 16 years, which was later raised to 25 years. The last five years of these were in light, detached duties as a veteran.

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Life After Discharge

The actual reward for being a Roman legionary came only after they were discharged. Once they were able to complete their term, they were awarded a metal diploma on being discharged that stated that they were veterans, which accorded certain legal privileges to them. Apart from that, they were given a lump sum cash amount or the title of a plot of land. The system of the Roman military was peculiar in the sense that the soldiers never got much money during the whole course of their service but got a big reward upon their discharge.

Soldiers had one resentment. It was that there was a law by which they could not marry till the time they were on active duty. In reality, most of the soldiers had wives and children but technically speaking they were mistresses and the children were illegitimate till the time of discharge after which they could legally marry and adopt the children. This law was ultimately changed under the emperor Septimius Severus.

This is a transcript from the video series The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome. Watch it now, Wondrium.

The Roman Auxiliaries

A Roman legionary was always fighting on foot and had heavy infantry and equipped with sizable armor. But there are other types of soldiers needed for the armies like horsemen, archers, and lightly armed skirmishers. A cavalry unit was attached to each Roman legion, but most of the time Romans put non-citizen auxiliaries in such supplemental positions called auxilia. They were generally arranged in groups of 500 or 1000. Within the empire, a few cultural or geographical groups were considered to be talented in some specific styles of warfare and were often organized in groups or auxilia units based on these specialties.

Drawing of a Balearic slinger. He wears a spare sling as a headband and a bag of missiles.
Balearic people were recruited to the Roman Army as auxiliaries who used slingshots. (Image: Johnny Shumate ([email protected]) / Public domain)

To give an example, certain tribes from North Africa were outstanding horsemen prompting the Romans to recruit them for light cavalry auxilia. Similarly, the natives of the island of Crete were thought to be very skillful with the bow, so battalions of Cretan archers were raised by the Romans.

The inhabitants of the Balearic Islands were experts in using the slings so Balearic slingers were held in high esteem. The pay of auxiliaries was less than a soldier in a Roman legion and they were supposed to serve for 25 to 30 years. But there was a big incentive for them. If they completed their term, they got full Roman citizenship. Sons of many auxiliaries enlisted as legionaries which meant that the auxilia was one of the main forces for Romanization in the empire.

Common Questions About the Roman Legion

Q: What is the size of a Roman legion?

The Roman army was a very large army. It was therefore divided into smaller groups called legions. Each Roman legion comprised 4000 to 6000 soldiers. A legion was further sub-divided into groups called centuries and each century had around 80 soldiers.

Q: Which was the most elite force in the Roman empire?

The most elite force in the Roman empire was The Praetorian Guard. Their main job was to protect the royal family. On rare occasions, they were also sent to battles when ordered by the emperor.

Q: What was a Roman soldier known as?

A main Roman soldier was known as a legionary and he had to be a Roman citizen or get Roman citizenship if an outsider, to get into the Roman army.

Q: What happened to the Roman legion in Carrhae?

Fifty-three years before the birth of Jesus Christ, the Battle of Carrhae ended with a great humiliation of the Roman legions. Seven legions with a strength of 45,000 were routed by just 10,000 Parthian archers.

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