Weird History

What It Was Like To Be On The Front Lines Of An Ancient Roman Battle  

Ryan Sargent
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Over centuries, the Roman Empire conquered almost the entirety of Europe, giving generation after generation the chance to spill blood on the Roman battlefield. From the cold marshes of Britannia to the burning deserts of Carthage, the infamous Roman army invaded, conquered, and occupied massive tracts of land. As a civilization, Rome remains an impressive chapter in the history books.

What was ancient Roman warfare like for the men on the ground, though? The streets of ancient Rome were not the most appetizing in the best of times, so you can bet that in the chaos and ferocity of war, there was plenty of brutality and gruesomeness. What you might not expect is many soldiers saw it as just another job - and sometimes a pretty humiliating one. 

Soldiers' Service Was Long, But Rewarding
Soldiers' Service Was Long, Bu... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list What It Was Like To Be On The Front Lines Of An Ancient Roman Battle
Photo:  Thorvaldsen Museum/CC0

If you wanted to join the Roman army, you were in it for the long haul. The typical Roman soldier served for a whopping 25 years, often running from the time they were 18 until they had reached their mid-40s.

However, soldiers who survived found themselves set for life. The emperor granted all retired soldiers land of their own and a lifetime pension. In times of peace, this was downright lucrative, but the retirement benefits were so good that even during war, many men didn't hesitate to sign up. 

Being A Soldier Was Still Better Than Most Other Jobs
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Photo:  Jean-Leon Gerome/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Despite all the blood and brutality, the average Roman soldier lived a better life than most in the Empire. Many civilian jobs were unstable, with pay rates negotiated for every single gig. As a soldier, you could always rely on steady pay, and you often had easy access to facilities civilians struggled to have access to. 

Bakeries, hospitals, and baths were a part of most barracks, and even broke soldiers could use them for free. The land a soldier earned after retirement was incredibly attractive, because Romans were often living cramped lifestyles in the city.

Small Mistakes Got You Beaten, Big Mistakes Got You Killed
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Photo:  Wellcome Images/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0

Soldiers judged disobedient, cowardly, or grievously incompetent by their commanders faced strict and sometimes cruel punishment. Centurions, who led the legions, carried canes used to strike soldiers to enforce their will or tighten up a sloppy march. Small mistakes could lead to beatings or prison time.

One particular centurion name Lucilius was known as "Another Here" because he beat his soldiers so severely he needed multiple canes for a single punishment. It's not very surprising that Lucilius was offed during the Pannonian Mutiny.

Larger mistakes resulted in more severe punishment, including execution. One particularly grisly punishment, decimation, meant 10% of your unit was simply, somewhat arbitrarily killed. Most infamously, general Marcus Licinius Crassus ordered 500 soldiers decimated for cowardice in the Gladiator Wars. Every group of 10 drew lots, and the unlucky soul who got the short straw was bludgeoned by their nine close comrades. 

They Carried Mighty Weapons
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Photo:  David Friel /Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

Roman legionaries armed themselves to the teeth with heavy battle equipment. Every soldier wore iron armor and a metal (usually iron or bronze) helmet over a wool tunic. Their scutum shields added the most weight, but they provided both protection and an iron knob for bashing the enemy.

The pilum - a large spear designed to be tossed before the start of close combat- was the Roman soldiers' primary weapon. If forced into a tight situation, their gladius swords proved excellent stabbing weapons. Legionaries almost never carried ranged weapons - those were used primarily by specialized auxiliaries.