Weird History
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What It Was Actually Like To Serve In The Roman Army

Updated May 21, 2021 39.2k views13 items
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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. 

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  • Signing Up Was A Battle In Itself

    Recruiters in the Roman army could afford to be choosy. Recruits endured a battery of medical and athletic tests to ensure they were already fit to fight. Basically, they wanted men who didn't need a great deal of physical training before they entered the battlefield.

    Recruits also had to prove they were of Roman birth to be a Legionary, but both legionaries and auxiliaries were required to be freeborn. If an enslaved person was discovered to have enlisted, those responsible were slain. If you met all the necessary requirements, you were finally allowed to swear an oath of loyalty to the emperor and head off to the barracks.

  • They Were Experts At Battlefield Tricks and Tactics

    Roman generals and tacticians devised formations and strategies that were infamous throughout the world. The standard formation was known as the triplex aciesthree lines of warriors arranged like a chessboard, spaced out to allow easy throwing of the pilum and free use of the gladius while tight enough to repel enemy offensives.

    The scutum shield was key to many powerful defensive formations, such as forming a hollow square to repel cavalry or an overhead shell to protect from arrows and spears. The Romans also used cleverness to their advantage between battles, training some of the first messenger pigeons to deliver information from spies and digging hidden trenches in the night so the enemy's horses would fall inside. 

  • At First, They Rarely Used Siege Weapons, But They Eventually Became Masters

    Romans were surprisingly slow to integrate siege weapons into their armies. They often assembled and devised artillery based on Greek designs, and only iterated as necessary. However, after Julius Caesar's success with siege engines at Alesia, the devices became a powerful and well-integrated part of the Roman arsenal.

    The most famous Roman siege weapon, the ballista, hurled massive stones and was known as the onager - or the wild ass - for their incredible kickback after firing. Smaller ballista designed to fire heavy bolts were known as carroballista, or scorpio (scorpions). 

  • Soldiers Didn't Receive Equal Treatment

    Unfortunately, if you weren't a citizen of the Roman Empire, you failed to reap all the benefits of serving. Roman citizens became legionaries, but non-citizens had to become auxiliaries. These forces weren't as well-respected, didn't earn as much pay, and instead of land and a pension, got a military diploma granting them and their offspring Roman citizenship.

    Additionally, soldiers from influential families were often promoted faster, and older men ordered the younger soldiers to take the most dangerous positions on the front lines.