Bronze helmet lying on the earth, mostly intact but with the crest box, one cheek-piece and several of the bosses missing.

Introduction to Legion: life in the Roman army

By Carolina Rangel de Lima, Exhibition project curator

Publication date: 18 October 2023

While males of noble birth were expected to serve as part-time soldiers, the bulk of the Roman army was a professional army of commoners. Most stories of the Roman empire describe the history of powerful men but Legion takes a different course.

This exhibition focuses on the experiences of ordinary soldiers, both the citizen legionaries and the non-citizen auxiliaries, as well as their families. Following the life of one legionary whose letters home have survived the centuries, Claudius Terentianus, the exhibition will take visitors on a journey from enlistment to retirement. Over several letters, Terentianus recounts his failed attempt to join the legions in about AD 110. He writes home asking for clothing and equipment and reports his struggles to fit in. While hoping for a transfer, he was deployed to the eastern front in Trajan's war with Parthia. He eventually achieved his goal, becoming 'a soldier of the legion' as he called himself and his survival into retirement.


Regular pay and social status proved attractive incentives for potential new recruits to the Roman army. Citizens who became soldiers would benefit from regular wages during their service – and on their retirement, would receive a pension worth a decade's pay. But most of the empire's inhabitants were not so privileged. Leaving aside the desperate circumstances of the enslaved, most of the freeborn lacked the social status – and legal rights – of Roman citizens. They could still join the Roman army, albeit for less pay. For non-citizens, the reward of Roman citizenship after 25 years' military service offered social transformation, not only for themselves, but their families too.

There were strict physical and social requirements for recruitment: they had to be men of at least 172 cm (5 feet 7 inches) tall and, though there was no minimum age requirement, they had to join before the age of 35. All recruits needed a letter of recommendation and faced gruelling training. Free people from all over the empire enlisted, creating a diverse army. Soldiers were often posted to unknown places, far from home, serving alongside people from unfamiliar cultures. 

Once they took the oath (sacramentum), recruits could no longer back out and most were committed to serve in the army for at least 25 years. Even citizen soldiers lost their rights to legally contest military discipline involving corporal and capital punishment. The gold coin shows the oath being taken by a recruit. Two soldiers stand facing each other with swords resting on a sacrificial pig, held by an attendant, who takes the oath. After that, medical discharge, retirement or death in service were the only honourable means of escape.

Ranks and roles

Once they were sworn in, an ambitious soldier could seek different roles within the ranks. Marines seem to have been the least desirable branch of the non-citizen auxiliary service, but would take citizens like Terentianus, who were unable to join the legions. Terentianus yearned to transfer to a land-based auxiliary cohort: besides the extra hazards of seafaring, marines' shore duties were often arduous or unsociable and included roadbuilding, firefighting and guarding Rome's grain supply. 

With the right social connections, soldiers could get transferred. Better paid regiments included the auxiliary cavalry, whose glamour could even attract legionaries. Even having or learning a useful skill, such as carpentry, could exempt soldiers from menial duties. Otherwise, they had to rely on promotion. Soldiers hoping for promotion needed to be among the most able and to have the ability to read and write. The coveted role of standard bearer was only attainable to those who were numerate, as well as literate since they kept the soldiers' accounts. Standard bearers earned double the pay of ordinary soldiers while centurions, the only officer class within reach of commoners, could earn 15 to 60 times the basic wage. 

Cavalrymen were among the most coveted roles in the army. They received extra pay, needed to maintain their horse and its equipment. They were assigned fewer chores and had the chance to participate in spectacular displays wearing special face-mask helmets, sometimes referred to as cavalry parade helmets. 

Dressing for battle

Soldiers had to buy and maintain their own arms and armour. New or second-hand purchases could be made from fort armouries, or sometimes from local craftsmen. Some veterans kept their arms instead of selling them back to the armoury, and these could be passed on. Used equipment remained in service for a long time, passing down multiple generations. They could even be modified and updated.

Bronze helmet.
Bronze helmet, Germany, 10 BC – AD 30. Private Collection UK.

Such is the case with this helmet from Eich, Germany. Its original form was current at the turn of the first century AD, but has modifications consistent with helmet design from half a century later: a Roman armourer has lowered the neck guard and added a carry handle. This savvy reuse suggests long service. Another helmet in the exhibition has been scratched with the names of four soldiers suggesting a century of use. However, post-modification, the Eich helmet carries only one owner's name: 'Marcus Arruntius from Aquileia (Italy) who served in the century of Sempronius.'

Camps and campaign

Soldiers endured extensive rough living before they ever reached the battlefield. This included months of marching and nightly camps; groups of eight men shared a tent, as well as duties in camp. Tents became a temporary home for soldiers and emperors alike and even, on occasion, empresses. Julia Domna, wife of emperor Septimius Severus, was known for travelling with her husband on campaign and was extremely popular with the soldiers. She was given the title of Mater Castorum – mother of the camp. This bust shows her distinctive hairstyle, in this case a wig, with whisps of her hair near the ears. The curve along the back of the wig gives it the appearance of a helmet – perhaps a deliberate attempt on her part to display her connection to the army. 

Marble portrait of Julia Domna.
Marble portrait of Julia Domna, probably Italy, AD 203–17, Photo: Yale University Art Gallery, Ruth Elizabeth White Fund.

Roman legions deployed in highly organised battlelines and shield walls. Their battle tactics and formations allowed them to face off against even the seemingly unstoppable heavy shock cavalry (cataphracts) of their eastern enemies. Cataphract cavalry used armour that covered the whole body – both man and horse. This armoured horse blanket was a find from Dura Europos, a site in modern day Syria; it was lost when the site was destroyed by the Sasanians in AD 256–67. It uses scales larger than those on human armour. 

Iron, linen and leather cataphract horse armour.
Iron, linen and leather cataphract horse armour, Syria, AD 200s. Photo: Yale University Art Gallery, Yale-French Excavations at Dura-Europos.

Fort life

The Roman army built forts wherever a more permanent military presence might be required – along the empire's frontiers or in restless areas to prevent local uprisings. Their standardised design mirrored that of Roman towns, but with barracks and other military buildings. Civilian townships (vici) with bathhouses, shops and taverns developed just beyond the walls. Soldiers could enjoy private life outside military duties with their families, both official and unofficial. Objects relating to domestic life and even leisure time are common finds from forts, such as this sandstone gaming board and glass gaming counters from Vindolanda. 

Sandstone gaming board with glass gaming pieces.
Sandstone gaming board with glass gaming pieces from Vindolanda, AD 85-410. Photo: The Vindolanda Trust.

Ordinary soldiers (below the rank of centurion) were not officially allowed to marry, but they still formed meaningful relationships with women and had families. Enslaved men, women and children also inhabited the fort, with some even travelling with soldiers on campaign. Evidence of women, children and the enslaved connected to the army is common on forts and funerary iconography. This tombstone of the daughter of Crescens, an imaginifer (a form of Roman standard-bearer), depicts her reclining on a couch while a young enslaved servant girl serves her. The names of servants are rarely recorded and, in this case, Crescen's daughter's name also does not survive on the tombstone so both women remain nameless.

Some of the most evocative pieces of evidence of families living in forts are the many shoes from Vindolanda belonging to men, women and children. Among those we will display in the exhibition are a pair of small leather children's shoes.

A pair of children’s shoes
A pair of children’s shoes from Vindolanda, England, AD 85-410, Photo: The Vindolanda Trust.

Enforcers of occupation

Rome conquered and assimilated an unprecedented expanse of territories. The people of these territories (provinces) became subject to Roman law – and the soldiers were responsible for enforcing that law, in particular by enacting punishments. There was a limited number of soldiers to police a vast empire, which could lead to oppressive and exploitative forms of control. As enforcers, Roman soldiers were unsurprisingly unpopular, and could be at risk of retribution. Regimental rosters could list soldiers 'killed by bandits'.

Full scale revolts were sporadic, but when they happened, there was often a large toll, both on the army and the locals. In AD 9, a Germanic tribal leader's son, Arminius, commissioned as a Roman cavalry commander, betrayed his employers to lead a revolt against Roman control. Joining forces with his native tribes, he destroyed three entire Roman legions in AD 9, at the Teutoburg forest, halting the takeover of his homeland. More than 40 years later in Britain, Queen Boudica of the Iceni tribe lead a less successful revolt, which resulted in the burning down of nascent Roman settlements including St Albans, Colchester and London. 

The armour below is the oldest and the most complete Roman segmental cuirass, the form of body armour often depicted on legionaries seen on Roman monuments such as Trajan's column. Found in the Teutoburg forest, it is believed to have belonged to a soldier killed in Arminius' revolt. The bones of its wearer had long decomposed to chemical traces but the almost skeletal form of this flexible but sturdy Roman armour is an evocative reminder of the individuals killed in the revolt. 

Near-complete Roman segmental armour
Near-complete Roman segmental armour, Kalkriese, Germany, AD 9. Photo: Museum und Park Kalkriese.


At the end of the exhibition, we explore soldiers' retirement and what their lives and legacy might be after their time in the army. It is estimated that around 50% of soldiers survived illness and violence to reach retirement. Citizen-soldiers received a lucrative bonus on their retirement, enough to buy land or live comfortably. 

Retired auxiliary soldiers received their citizenship, the start of their and their families' social transformation. As proof of this status, they were given bronze military diplomas – durable documents to carry with them in future. The example below belonged to an Egyptian-based fleet rower named Marcus Papirius. Contrary to the impression given in epics such as Ben Hur, Roman galley oarsmen were free men (and expected to fight like soldiers in battle). Even as a lowly rower, Marcus Papirius had a right to citizenship following his years of service, the same as any marine or fully land based soldier. The document specifies that the citizenship was extended to both Papirius' wife, Tapaea, and son, Carpinius. 

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Legion: life in the Roman army open 1 February 2024.

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This exhibition is supported by Graham and Joanna Barker, Hugh and Catherine Stevenson  and Christian Levett.