Life with the Legions
by: Aldus Marius Peregrinus
On the Frontlines of Germania with the VI Victrix
A Feature Article for the De Rerum Natura by CATULLUS TUMULTUOSUS, Feature Reporter
(translated from the Latin by Marius Peregrinus)
NOVAESIUM, GERMANIA INFERIOR, ante diem VIII Kalendas Iulii:
Gods, it's damp out here. First day of summer, and when it's not misting it's raining; I might as well be in Britannia, that's not much further...Now back in Rome, where I would have stayed if I'd had any sense, the weather this time of year is warm and breezy. But no, I had to take a job as a feature writer for a newsmonthly; my gracious editor at the De Rerum Natura is at liberty to send me to the ends of the earth if he so pleases--and, by Vesta's hearth, this time he's actually done it.
Germania, for Pollux's sake!
"Go to the frontlines," he says. "Find out how things are faring with our troops 'over there'. Tour one of the camps; talk to the commander if he'll see you, to the men if he'll let you--Say! Maybe you could go on a route march--although by the look of you you might need to be carried; no problem there, though, you can't weigh much more than a marching kit..." (Yes, he actually said that. He's always on me about being such a little fellow.)
So here I am at the main entrance--the Porta Praetoria--of the castrum (fortress) at Novaesium, home of the Legion VI Victrix. And here's a sentry shouting down at me: "State your business!"
"Catullus Tumultuosus, with the De Rerum Natura, to see your commanding officer!" I shout back.
A short discussion ensues between the gate guard and the three others sharing duty with him. Bits of it drift down to me: "Tumultuosus? What kind of a name is that?" "Why, it's longer than he is! Must be some cub reporter *..." "Now, which commander's he want: the Legatus or old Marius?" "Well, which one would you rather disturb?" "Oh, definitely the Legatus..."
* [Historians believe the author's name, which does in fact translate as 'Storm Puppy', was most likely a nom-de-plume --Ed.]
The decision made, one soldier leaves to fetch the proper official--when we are suddenly assaulted by a solid wall of sound from within the camp, which resolves itself into the language of someone issuing a severe dressing-down. The speaker is addressing himself to the guards, the gist of his presentation being that he, too, seems to have overheard certain portions of their conversation, which have met with his extreme disapproval.
The barrage subsides. The thick, iron-shod wooden doors are unbolted, and I am met at the threshold by a highly-decorated senior Centurion wearing so many medals over his bronze muscle cuirass that he needs a leather harness to hang them on: "Marius Flavius. No relation to the Emperor *--just 'Old Marius'. Come on in--I've been expecting you."
* [Vespasian (Titus Flavius Vespasianus) --Ed.]
So we enter the fortress, Marius palming his vine cudgel, casting a steely glance at the Legionaries up on the tower and muttering, "I don't know what the Army's coming to these days."
If you've been out of civics class as long as I have, you may want a short refresher course on how the Legions are organized. The Emperor Augustus, after the wars, re-aligned the Army into twenty-eight Legions, distributing them between the Provinces and along the frontier as he saw fit. Some have been lost or disbanded since then, new ones have been raised by successive Emperors, and many have shifted to other Provinces as the need arose; but the total number has hovered right around the original mark ever since. Sometimes two or more Legions share the same unit number but may be distinguished by their cognomina or nicknames; thus Legions VI Victrix ("Victorious") and VI Ferrata ("Old Ironsides") are not confused with one another.
Each Legion is divided into ten cohorts. A cohort contains three maniples; a maniple, two centuries. A century, in theory, ought to have a hundred men in it; but in practice the number is closer to eighty, yielding one hundred and sixty to a maniple, four hundred and eighty to a cohort, and forty-eight hundred to a Legion. This, plus one hundred and twenty cavalrymen, sixty Centurions, forty-two standard-bearers (one for each maniple and cohort, and two for the Legion), as many trumpeters, six Military Tribunes and the Legatus or commanding general, gives the unit its full complement of over five thousand men--not counting headquarters staff, medics and other specialists.
Marius, as it turns out, is the Praefectus Castrorum, or camp commander, at Novaesium. Before this he was Primus Pilus, that is, Centurion of the First Century of the crack First Cohort, and thus the chief Centurion of the Legion. It has taken him fourteen promotions and most of thirty years to attain his present rank, the highest possible for an enlistee; and now, being a veteran much too valuable to lose to retirement, he will in all probability stay on as Praefectus for as long as he has breath in him--making him a true "lifer", one label he doesn't mind at all.
We're sitting in his office in the Principia, the Legion's headquarters building and administrative center. Here courts-martial are held, new recruits sworn in, and weapons and armor stored; the shrine of the Standards, the sacred emblems which are carried into battle, is at the rear of a huge central courtyard where the whole Legion can stand shoulder-to-shoulder to hear a commander's address. Religious ceremonies are held here; auspices taken; parades formed; the guard changed. Elsewhere in the complex are the offices of the Legatus and his staff, the soldiers' treasury and the stockrooms of the quartermaster. But the Principia is above all the center of the unit's daily life--the writing and filing of reports, compiling of duty rosters, updating of the rolls, inventory of supplies and other routine official business.
Marius' responsibilities include maintaining the camp's facilities in good order; provision of siege equipment and ammunition; contracting-out of services to the local provincials; layout of the temporary marching camps the Legionaries put up when in the field; and overall supervision of the various "specialists" attached to the fortress on headquarters staff. These include medics, surveyors, muleteers and other non-combatants; but, lest he seem out-of-place in such tame company, be reminded that in the Legatus' absence he also takes full command of the Legion.
So what drew him into the military life?
"I'm not quite sure anymore," he muses, "it was such a long time ago--and anyhow, the reasons a boy in his teens does anything might not make too much sense to the same man in his fifties..." He smiles slightly, taking a break from being Mars Incarnate now that we're in private. "Our family was one of the first to settle in the veterans' colony near Hispalis *, so in a way I grew up military. But as to the actual reason, I suppose I just got fed up of chucking stones at gamebirds for my supper; so I took my little gang of hellraisers, we headed north to the fortress at Legio ** and turned ourselves over to the Victrix, stationed in Hispania at the time. That was during Claudius' reign; I've been with Her"--he means the Legion--"ever since."
* [Seville, Spain; the colony was called Italica. --Ed.]
"She's taken good care of you," I remark, gesturing at the awards and memorabilia tastefully but proudly displayed about the room.
"Oh, those," he grins. "Well, I guess I got somebody's attention by showing up with nine other lads after a long trek through rough country; my Centurion was told to keep tabs on me, though I didn't know why at the time. We survived basic training in one reasonably solid piece, and I discovered in the process that I liked the life. It must have liked me, too, at least passably well; by year's end I had earned my first decoration--a corona civica, for saving the life of a fellow citizen--and was up for promotion to Optio, a Centurion's understudy. In another year I was made a Centurion myself--Third Century, Tenth Cohort--after which I was advanced, cohort by cohort, keeping the same relative position but working my way up from the Tenth to the Second; and when I'd done my twenty I was offered a choice: retirement, or a spot with the First Cohort--the finest troops in all the Legion. Well--!" By now his eyes are positively shining--"I suppose you can tell which option I took. And if promotions have slowed up something fierce since I came to the First, yet I haven't regretted it once in the last ten years."
He asks me to caution my readers against expecting the same spectacular success of their acquaintances in the Legions. Marius' career has been far from typical; his promotions not automatic by any means, but based on proficiency and merit which will of course vary from man to man. His awards and decorations tell the real story; they include several more civic crowns of oak leaves, a few coronae muralis for being the first man over the walls of an enemy stronghold, a golden torque, two silver ones, his set of gold phalerae (the medal-and-harness arrangement he was wearing at the gate), two silver spears (hastae purae)--and once, just once, he was presented by the Emperor with the coveted silver standard--an unprecedented honor for a ranker, it being a miniature replica of the Legion's own.
** [Now called Leon, about 350 miles from Italica. --Ed.]
|>[LEG VI VI P F]<|
The Victrix Herself, to use Marius' term, has existed since pre-Augustan times. Her men like to think of her as the direct descendant of great Julius' Sixth Legion--but the VI Ferrata in Syria makes the same claim, and Marius is convinced that if they weren't stationed at opposite ends of the Empire they would long since have come to blows over the issue. Never mind--!
We first hear of the Victrix under Her present name when, in the seven hundred and twenty-sixth Year of the City *, she and six other Legions were brought to Hispania by Marcus Agrippa to quell the persistent unrest of the natives. It took fourteen years to make an end of the trouble, and four Legions--including the Victrix--had to stay behind to keep things on an even keel. The effort was a success; Hispania is now and has been for some time one of the most stable and productive Provinces, and a prime recruiting area rivalled only by Gaul and by Italia herself.
* [27 BCE --Ed.]
The transfer to Germania took place only ten years ago, in 822--the dreadful Year of Four Emperors *, when our world was once again rocked by civil war. I will not attempt to retrace the confusions of the political situation during that painful time; suffice it to say that the Legions in Hispania (now three in number) had declared for Vespasian, and those along the Rhine for Vitellius, when a Batavian chieftain curiously named Civilis saw the chance to complicate things a little further. Announcing his support of Vespasian (as a ruse to stir up the garrison), he annihilated two Legions and caused four more to surrender, demanding their oath of allegiance to something calling itself the "Gallic Empire". Vespasian wasn't having any of it--he sent the Legatus Petilius Cerialis and nine Legions, including all of Hispania's, to straighten things out. When the dust settled, Germania was ours again; the defectors were allowed to swear loyalty to Vespasian, but those four Legions were disbanded for their disgraceful conduct, two new ones raised in their place, and these, along with five of Cerialis', became the new permanent garrison along the German frontier. VI Victrix settled into Her new home at Novaesium, her ranks now fortified by newly-minted combat veterans--who nevertheless, says Marius with a wink, complained of the cold and damp, just like me.
* [A.D. 69 --Ed.]
Speaking with the Praefectus, listening to him, I am already getting a feel for what attracts young men to military service. It isn't in anything he's actually said--his career, as I've mentioned, has been an exceptional case; but while, by that demonstration at the gate, I know this man can be terrifying when it suits him, towards me he has been courteous, even friendly, making an effort to include me in his world and even loosening his military bearing a notch or two. I get the impression he's bending over backwards not to frighten me off. In our conversation there has been none of the usual disdain for someone of my slight stature. I would not wish to anger such a man, but I can guess what a sense of confidence he must inspire in the five thousand Legionaries who can count on having him in their corner when things get rough. It is this sense of togetherness, even fellowship, and pride in the unit that makes a career in the service so appealing to so many; we Romans always have liked being part of something bigger than ourselves...
But no, says Marius, that's not what brings people into the Legions. That may be why they stay in, but, as with Marius, the average recruit only discovers the esprit-de-corps after his name has been entered on the rolls. As for what brings them in the first place--in such a steady stream that no dilectus or draft has had to be levied in years:
"We have, quite simply, the most comprehensive package of pay and benefits in the known world. There's nothing like it in any other army anywhere. The Legions are paid regularly in three installments a year; we can get advances in case of need; expenses for food, clothing and equipment are automatically deducted, so the troops can take out what they want and put the rest in the bank--and they usually do! We get increases in both pay and retirement benefits with each promotion, 'nail pay' (clavarium) for long marches, the donatives new Emperors have been in the habit of making, and the occasional campaign booty; all in all, a man has the chance to save up a pretty penny with the Legions.
"And when he leaves--! That's when Mother Roma pours on him the full measure of Her gratitude: He can take his retirement grant in either land or money. If it's land, a common Legionary can find himself sitting on two hundred iugera * anywhere in the Province that's not already taken; or he can opt for cash--three thousand denarii--that's over thirteen years' pay, mind you, above and beyond what he's already saved--head back home with it and start up a business. The size of the grant, as I've said, goes up with his rank; a Centurion can enter civilian life with enough to qualify for equestrian status, and many of them have donated temples, libraries and other public buildings out of their retirement funds. This makes the veterans pretty popular wherever they settle--and that doesn't hurt recruiting, either."
* [About 150 acres --Ed.]
The recruiting itself, he adds, is only open to Roman citizens--to natives of Italia, of the more Romanized parts of Gaul and Hispania, and of municipia (official townships) and veterans' coloniae all over the Empire. A Legionary need only serve twenty years on active duty and five as a "veteran"--a sort of reserve status, in which he will train periodically with other veterans and be available for recall in case of emergency. Non-citizens, natives of the Provinces, may join the Auxilia, the other branch of our armed forces, in which twenty-five years of active service will net the gift of Roman citizenship in addition to retirement benefits similar to those of the Legions.
Senior officers--the Legatus and the six military tribunes--come in on a different track; for them, military service is but a step in their political careers. Legati will be of Senatorial rank, between thirty and forty years of age, with previously-demonstrated proficiency in military matters; they are appointed by the Emperor and thus directly obligated to him for their advancement. After serving under the Provincial governor for three or four years, a Legatus will return to civilian life and the pursuit of higher office.
Tribuni militum, so called to distinguish them from the Tribunes of the People back home, may be of either Senatorial or equestrian rank; they, too, are chosen by the Emperor, and serve for one year. Their duties are mainly administrative: arranging veterans' discharges, approving leave requests, hearing courts-martial, submitting performance reports on the Centurions and keeping the Legion's roster up-to-date. Once service is completed, the Senator-designate (still in his twenties) can look forward to holding a local magistracy or a quaestorship before, hopefully, returning as a Legatus; an equestrian Tribune, on the other hand, must hold two more military posts--perhaps heading up an auxiliary cohort or a cavalry wing--before likewise resuming his civilian career.
Are our Legions, then, commanded by men who may have their minds on something else besides soldiering from time to time? Not necessarily; we have had many good and competent leaders in these positions--but we have also had demonstrated to us time and again the nuisance, even the danger, of giving political considerations any sway at all in the military. How, then, is this prevented from becoming a problem?
Friend Marius is too polite to mention it, but the primary check on the ambition of the Legatus is the Praefectus Castrorum. His wealth of military expertise can lend assurance to a cautious commander, or keep a reckless one out of most serious kinds of trouble. But what lends weight to his counsel is that he does not serve under the Legatus but, like his commander, reports directly to the Provincial governor. His independence thus assured, he is in a position to raise the roof if need be without fear of retribution. Fortunately this has rarely been necessary; a wise general will look to his Praefectus as a resource, not a threat, and Marius assures me that both he and the Victrix have been very fortunate in this regard.
Steadily, then, and with the confidence in his abilities that his long years of experience have leant him, Marius Flavius (no relation to the Emperor) goes about his duties. Those duties are beginning to press in on him now; there are people waiting in the corridor to see him, and I have taken rather generously of his time. But before declaring himself completely done with me, he summons an Optio in his mid-thirties: "Aurelius, I'd like you to escort Catullus here on a tour of the premises. Show him what we've got, answer any questions he may have and don't let the Legionaries give him any lip--he only looks little."
I swear I see him wink as I follow Aurelius out through the courtyard!
AB URBE CONDITA DCCCXXXII
|>[LEG VI VI]<|
TABLE I: Pay and Benefits--the Roman Legions
A. Pay Scale--
||Asses per diem
|Legionary (basic pay)
|Optio, signifer (2x base)
|Optio ad spem ordines (3x base)
|Centurion (5x base)
|Primi ordines (1st Coh: 10x base)
|Primus pilus (20x base)
Paid in three installments per year; automatic deductions made for rations, fodder (cavalry), clothing, initial issue and maintenance of weapons and armor, annual banquet, and burial society.
Infantry: one bushel of wheat per month, deducted from pay
Auxiliary Infantry: the same, but free
Cavalry: three bushels of wheat; 10.5 of barley (horse feed)
Auxiliary Cavalry: two bushels of wheat and 7.5 of barley
C. Retirement Grants--
||iugera of land
|Optio ad spem
The as is a copper coin; the silver denarius is worth 10 asses, and the gold aureus worth 25 denarii.
Optio in line for promotion to Centurion, pending a vacancy.
One iugerum equals approximately three quarters of an acre.
Barker, Phil. The Armies and Enemies of Imperial Rome. Illus. Ian Heath. 4th ed. N.p.: Wargames Research Group, 1981.
Charlesworth, M.P. The Roman Empire. 1951. London: Oxford UP, 1958.
Parker, H.M.D. The Roman Legions. 2nd ed. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1961.
Tacitus. Historiae. Trans. Kenneth Wellesley. London: Penguin, 1964.
Webster, Graham. The Roman Imperial Army of the First and Second Centuries A.D. 2nd ed. London: A&C Black, 1979.
Windrow, Martin. The Roman Legionary. (The Soldier Through the Ages Series.) Illus. Gerry Embleton. London: Franklin Watts, 1984.