The Roman Legionary: Part I

Augustus Caesar once wrote: “Five hundred thousand Romans citizens swore the military oath to me.”

This lead me to wonder about the men who enlisted and how they differed or were alike to those who are serving in the United States Army.

Let me put that in context.  The United States army in 2015 will be approximately 450,000 in size.  From 2000 on the size of the army has been fluctuating from around 500,000 to a maximum of 600,000 or so and is now slowly winding down.  Now, it is true that the United States military forces include other branches with many more people under arms, but it is still surprising to see that the Romans field an army roughly comparable to that of a modern nation.  (It should be noted that the US Army is roughly 40% of the number of the people under arms in active service to the United States.  Hence, the total under arms in active service is about 1,250,000 to about 1,400,000.)

Having said that,  I wonder in what other ways the Roman army would compare to a modern army. The ideal height to join the first cohort of the legions was 5 Roman feet and 10 Roman inches, which would translate to 5’7″; whereas, the ideal height of a legionary was 6 Roman feet, which would be 5’9″.  To join the US Army, the height range is 5’0″ to 6’8″, for males.  Hence, the Roman legionary would feel right at home, at least from a height perspective in the modern US Army.

The age of a recruit to the legions was usually between 17 and 23, with age 20 being the most usual age of enlistment.  In Rome, however, a boy of 13 or 14 could join the legions.  In addition, men as old as 46 were liable for military service.

To join the US Army, a recruit must be 17 years old.  While there is not a draft, per se, today  in the United States men who are 18 must register within 30 days of their birthday with the Selective Service System.  There is a requirement for all men between age 18 and 26 to be registered also.

For a person enlisting in the United States Army, there pay would be $18,378.00, although for the first four months, this figure is lowered somewhat.  For a Roman legionary, the initial pay was 900 sesterces which is 300 denarii.  Legionaries received a  grain allotment, as well as food, and housing making them relatively well paid.  This is so, because the average worker received a denarii a day, or about 312 denarii a year, but had to pay for housing, and food, including grain, for that wage.  So, although I can not prove it, I think the modern soldier and the legionary were about comparable.

One thing the Roman legionary received that is not comparable is the discharge bonus, which amounted to 3,000 denarii.  This bonus, however, was paid after completing service which under Augustus was increased to 20 years, as well as four more years as a veteran, the so-called vexillum veteranorum.

What distinguished a  legionary in dress from the common man was not a uniform, as is the case with the modern soldier, for the tunic and cloak were little different from the common man.  The legionary did, however, wear a belt and boots that were distinctive.  The military belt, called the balteus, was either in the form of a single belt or two crossed belts with silvered or embossed bronze plates.  During the reign of Tiberius, the niello, an alloy of silver, lead, and sulphur, which was black, began to be used to make inlaid plates on the balteus.  The balteus was confiscated, if a man were dishonorably discharged from the army.  In one instance, pranksters in a crowd in Rome in 69 AD, used razor sharp knives to slice legionaries’ belts off.  The legionaries responded by going upon a rampage in retaliation.

The second feature distinguishing a legionary from a civilian was the military boots, called caliage.  This was a heavy duty sandal which had an iron-nail sole.  The pattern of the nails indicates that it gave support to the ball, heel, and arch.  Both the shape of the caligae and the nailing pattern were very much standardized.

In subsequent posts, I will continue to write about the legionary.

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