10 fascinating things you should know about the Imperial Roman legionary

Imperial Roman Legionary-Roman Legionary-Roman Empire

Previously, we talked about how the ancient Roman battle tactics had evolved from their kingdom days to the empire epoch. This ever-changing tactical side of affairs was also accompanied by the subtle progression of the Roman legionary – in terms of their arms, equipment and even general military role. Thus we have used the term ‘Imperial Roman legionary’ to differentiate him from the ‘classic’ Roman legionaries of yesteryear (just after the Marian reforms). In essence, by Imperial Roman legionary, we want to denote the category of soldiers who served the Roman Empire at its height (but with a fair share of adversities) from 2nd century AD to late 3rd century AD.

1) The ‘barbarian’ Imperial Roman legionary –


In one of our previous articles about the Roman legionaries, we mentioned how each legionary had to claim his origo (origin) from a city or at least a town. However, in spite of such claims, the vast majority of the legionaries came from a rural background. As a result, their city-based origo credentials were often fabricated during the time of enlistment, usually by the officials themselves. Now the question arises – why go to such lengths? The primary reason was that the Romans preferred the hardy folks from agricultural backgrounds (as opposed to the ‘cosmopolitan’ environs), since it was assumed that these men were accustomed to the rigors and tribulations that an Imperial Roman legionary was expected to go through. Vegetius quipped in late 4th century AD (in his Epitoma Rei Militaris treatise) –

They are nurtured under the open sky in a life of work, enduring the sun, careless of shade, unacquainted with bathhouses, simple-souled, content with a little, with limbs toughened to endure every kind of toil, and for whom wielding iron, digging a ditch, and carrying a burden is what they are used to from the country.

A few ancient writers also talked about how the rural conscripts were less prone to mutiny, though such anecdotes could have been instruments of propaganda. In any case, some members of Roman elite class were still not culturally acquainted with the idea of ‘barbarian’ soldiers serving in the Roman legions. As Roman senator (and historian) Cassius Dio mentioned how the Pannonian legionaries (hailing from the territory comprising present-day western Hungary, eastern Austria and northern Croatia) were savage in their appearance and speech, and yet were the better soldiers when it came to actual battles. Thus we can see the pattern of (grudging) acknowledgment and acceptance of rural folks into the legionary ranks of the Roman Empire – suggesting an outcome of military practicality.

2) Erratic pay system and compensations –


By 6 AD, the initial length of service for a Roman legionary was increased to 20 years, and it was complemented by the praemia militare (or discharge bonus), a lump sum that was increased to 12,000 sesterces (or 3,000 denarii). However by the middle of 1st century AD, the service was further extended to 25 years. This service length was still ‘officially’ followed in the 3rd century AD – though some legionaries had to unconditionally serve even beyond 25 years due to the ‘Crisis of the Third Century’, a helter-skelter period during which 26 men were declared emperor by the Roman Senate in just five decades!

Emperor Septimus Severus raised the pay (by possibly 50 percent) of the Imperial Roman legionary in 197 AD, which amounted to around 450 silver denarii per quarter, or 1,800 denarii per year. This revised pay-scale came after more than hundred years since emperor Domitian initiated some reforms in the late 1st century AD. Interestingly enough, Caracalla did one better by doubling the annual pay of the legionaries to 3,600 denarii per year – though this caused major financial strain on the treasury. But when later emperors tried to revoke the increased pay-scale, there were numerous instances of mutinies in the Imperial Roman legionary ranks. And given the crucial nature of support (and influence) that some legions commanded, a few emperors (like Maximinus) tried to overcompensate by even doubling Caracalla’s figures in 235 AD – though such ‘appeasing’ measures were only temporary, much like the power of many 3rd century Roman emperors.

Furthermore, it should be noted that the rising inflation of the 3rd century, along with the reduced percentage of silver in the later Roman denarii, actually made the pay-hike lesser than these figures suggest. On the other hand, the Imperial legionaries were somewhat compensated by presentation of gifts from the ascending emperor – that included gold and silver coins, along with rations. It should also be noted that many potential recruits were still drawn to the prospect of joining a legion because of the booty factor. In essence, many charismatic commanders touted the apparent prevalence of loot and plunder (and their ‘fair’ distribution), especially when conducting wars against the richer and powerful neighbors.

3) The impracticality of ‘full’ fighting legions –


Credit: Artist Jason Juta / Copyright : Karwansary Publishers

While Roman legions fighting with their full capacity was a regular occurrence during early 2nd century AD, by the middle of the 3rd century the conflicts faced by the Roman Empire (and the changing emperors) were pretty volatile from both the geographical and logistical scope. And so it was uncommon and rather impractical for the entire legion to leave its provincial base to fight a ‘distant’ war on the shifting frontiers of 3rd century AD. As a solution, the Roman military commanders sanctioned the use of vexillationes – detachments from individual legions that could be easily transferred without compromising the core strength of a legion (which was needed for fortifying and policing its ‘native’ province). These mobile combat ‘divisions’, comprising one or two cohorts, were usually tasked with handling the smaller enemy forces, while also being used for garrisoning duties along strategic points like roads, bridges and forts. And on rare occasions when the army under the Roman Empire was faced by a large number of opposing troops, many of these different vexillationes were combined to form a bigger field army.

4) The founding of the comitatus


However, the importance of detachments was not only limited to the combat-duty bound vexillationes. Emperor Gallienus (who ruled alone from 260 to 268 AD) created his own mobile field army consisting of special detachments from the praetorians, legio II Parthica and other guard units. Hailed as the comitatus (retinue), this central reserve force functioned under the emperor’s direct command, thus hinting at the ambit of insecurities faced by the Roman rulers and elites during the ‘Crisis of the Third Century’. Interestingly enough, many of ‘extra’ equites (cavalry) that were assigned to each conventional legion, were also inducted as the elite promoti cavalry in the already opulent (and the militarily capable) scope of the comitatus.

5) The canabae settlements of the Roman Empire –


The vexillationes system also had another major impact on the Roman Empire, this time on the social side of affairs. Since less number of soldiers had to transfer from their ‘native’ province to fight, many of the Roman legionaries started ‘settling’ around their fortresses, sometimes forming lasting relationships with the local women. As a result, settlements cropped around many legions’ barracks and military stations. Known as canabae, these pseudo-towns had all the establishments tailored to the Imperial Roman legionary, including taverns, markets and even brothels.

Interestingly enough, during the time Augustus, the legionaries were simply banned from marrying until their official discharge (though some soldiers still married in secret). This seemingly rigorous measure had a practical angle since the Romans wanted to separate their military systems from familial ties – thus decreasing the role of non-combatants (like wives and children) when entire legions were transferred elsewhere to fight their wars. However by 197 AD, Septimus Severus revoked this law; and with the system of vexillationes further down the line, the legion became more of a static reserve of men stationed in its particular province (as opposed to a dynamic fighting force). Thus canabae settlements were more frequent in the later part of the Roman Empire, with many legionaries fulfilling the role of permanent (or semi-permanent) settlers/soldiers who lived with their wives, concubines and even families.

6) The specialized ‘elite’ light infantrymen –


Other than smaller detachments and mobile field armies, the 3rd-century evolution of the Roman military also brought forth specialized troops who operated within the centuries-old parameters of a legion. One of these elite soldier types was known as the lanciarii. Mostly used during the Parthian Wars of Caracalla and Severus Alexander (though there are earlier mentions of them), these legionaries were possibly armed with lancea subarmales that entailed smaller throwing javelins. Given these type of weapons, it can be hypothesized that the lanciarii fought as dedicated skirmishers who proceeded before the ‘heavy’ legionaries (armed with sword and conventional pila). In essence, they performed the task of flexible lightly-armed infantrymen who could deftly reorganize and counter the agile horse-archers and cavalry of the Parthians – as can be deduced from Herodian’s account of the Battle of Nisbis in 217 AD.

Now of course, bearing the brunt of skirmishing and fighting, while also keeping up their dynamic formations in the battlefield, must have required expert levels of skill and experience on the part of the lanciarii. Such credentials allude to their elite status within the ranks of the Imperial Roman legions (especially legio II Parthica), thus harking back to the promachoi ‘champions’ of the Mycenaean Greek military during Bronze Age.

7) The Greek phalanx ‘imitators’ –


Sometimes false names can carry forth a symbolic legacy, especially when it comes to the military history of the Imperial Roman legionary. The phalangarii possibly belonged to this infamous category, with propaganda (or at least misinformed accounts) playing a big role in their ‘hype’. For example, Cassius Dio hailed the phalangarii of emperor Caracalla as a 15,000 strong army who were armed in the ‘ancient’ fashion of the Macedonian phalanx (made famous by the feats of Alexander the Great more than 500 years ago). Herodian also talks about a Spartan phalanx serving in the Roman armies. However archaeological assessments of then-contemporary gravestones of the Roman-Spartan ‘phalangites’ have shed light into how these soldiers fought in a similar manner like a conventional Imperial Roman legionary (with oval shields and swords).

So the question arises – why such ‘fake’ credentials? Well, the answer might have to do with Caracalla’s military campaign against the Parthians where the Roman emperor wanted to outvie the eminent Alexander. In fact, some of these legionaries were truly drawn from the Macedonian heartland, though most originated from Thrace. As for their pike equipment, the ancient writers may have referred to the thrusting spears that some legionaries under the Roman Empire were specially equipped with (probably to deal with enemy cavalry).

8) The evolution of longer swords –


By 2nd century AD, the shorter sword type (gladius) of the Imperial Roman legionary was gradually substituted in favor of a longer blade weapon (possibly the spatha). Now of course the gladius was not completely abandoned, with its usage still prevalent among the lighter troops. And even more interestingly, in spite of their longer spans, ranging from 30 and 39-inches, the ‘newer’ swords were probably still used as thrusting weapons (rather than slashing) – thus hinting at the Roman penchant for disciplined sword fighting.

There was a practical side to this tactical scope of thrusting, since the massed formations fielded by the Roman armies usually left little room for wild hacking and slashing. Moreover, the act of thrusting allowed more balance for the legionary – who could still control his shield (and torso) for better melee defense, while his ‘aggressive’ foe would have had the tendency to let his guard down to timely thrusts and cuts. The writings of Vegetius and Ammianus conform to such disciplined tactical options often demonstrated by the Imperial Roman legionary.

9) Tactics against cavalry –


The Battle of Carrhae that pitted Roman consul Crassus against Parthian general Surena, outlined the shortcoming of the Roman infantry against the Parthian cavalry tactics in 1st century BC. However, by 2nd century AD, the Romans were quite successful (though at the times the overarching conflicts amounted to stalemates) against the Parthians who relied heavily on their numerous horse-archers and a few elite cataphracts. A major parcel of such favorable battle outcomes in the east had to do with the adoption of flexible infantry tactics on the part of the Romans, as opposed to full-scale employment of countering cavalry troops. Simply put, the Romans kept up their trademark strength of massed and disciplined infantry columns, while improving their battlefield tactics with more dynamic formations and mobility. The evolution and use of lanciarii troops possibly mirrored such subtle changes to the tactical scope. Other than that there are also scant evidences of specific use of heavy cavalry divisions, like the Equites cataphractarii – though they were more common in the late Roman army rather than the Imperial Roman Army.

For example, in the Battle of Emesa (272 AD) fought between the Romans and the Palmyran forces, Emperor Aurelian opted for a standard Roman push – with his troops comprising legionaries from various parts of Europe and Asia. According to 5th century historian Zosimus, the underwhelming Roman cavalry feigned retreat after seeing the approach of the heavy clibanarii from the Palmyran side. Thus the pressure was on the Imperial Roman legionary detachments to secure the initiative on the battlefield – and they did so successfully by wheeling around the already scattered Palmyran forces (many of whom were still pursuing the Roman cavalry), and then routing them in a piecemeal fashion. Interestingly enough, Zosimus also mentions the devastating effect of blunt weapons like clubs and cudgels wielded by the allied Palestinian troops on the heavy cavalrymen of Palmyra.

10) The punishment of ‘damnation’ –


Rigorous punishments always played their ‘disciplinary’ roles in the Roman army. The extreme ‘decimation’ (or decimatio) – a vicious process which entailed the choosing every tenth man from a cohort (approximately 480 men) to be put to death, is one such example. However on the practical side of affairs, such cruel punishments were very rare – especially given the volatile political climate of 3rd century, which frequently led to mutinies among the soldiers. But since we brought up the mercurial political scope, the Roman devised a punishment specially fit for such erratic circumstances – and it was known as the damnatio memoriae.

Usually reserved for the Imperial Roman legionary units who took the ‘wrong’ side in civil wars, the punishment basically allowed the victor to completely wipe off their names, numerical and achievements from the ‘official’ monuments and records. Simply put, it was a method used for eradicating the legacy of an existing legion – and as such the soldiers were usually dishonorably discharged or unceremoniously transferred to other legions. The unfortunate ones, who were dishonorably discharged, had very few ‘career’ options within the Roman Empire on account of their regular snubbing from the society (much like the ostracized Spartan men who were judged to be ‘cowards’). As a result, some of these experienced legionaries even had to turn to brigandage to support themselves and their families (and communities).


Sources: Roman-Empire / Ancient Encyclopedia / V-Roma

Book References: Imperial Roman Legionary AD 161-284 (By Ross Cowan) / Arms and Armour of the Imperial Roman Soldier: From Marius to Commodus, 112 BC-AD 192 (By Raffaele D’Amato) / War and Society in Imperial Rome (By J. B. Campbell)

About the Author

Dattatreya Mandal
Dattatreya Mandal has a bachelor's degree in Architecture (and associated History of Architecture) and a fervent interest in History. Formerly, one of the co-owners of an online architectural digest, he is currently the founder/editor of Realmofhistory.com. The latter is envisaged as an online compendium that mirrors his enthusiasm for ancient history, military, mythology, and historical evolution of architecture.
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