The Roman Army was one of the most successful in the history of the world and its soldiers
were rightly feared for their training, discipline and stamina. As a result, the army was a major
player in Roman politics and maintaining its loyalty was an essential task for any Emperor.
|Statue of soldiers in the Roman Army
The Roman legions
The Roman Empire was created and controlled by its soldiers. At the core of the army were its legions,
which were without equal in their training, discipline and fighting ability.
By the time Augustus came to power, the army contained 60 legions. Each of these was divided into ten
cohorts of up to 480 men. The minimum term of service for a soldier during the first century AD was twenty years.
Weapons and armor
Each legionnaire (or 'miles') carried a short sword, called a gladius. This was his main weapon. He also carried a
'pilum' (javelin), a helmet, armor, shield and a pack with supplies. Soldiers were rigorously trained to march long
distances, fight in precise formations, and kill expertly with all the weapons they carried.
The toughest postings for soldiers were those at the frontiers of the Roman Empire, where legionnaires never had
enough supplies, faced hostile local tribes and had to endure tedious routines.
At the northern limit of the Roman Empire was Britain. Soldiers and their families found it to be a cold, remote,
hostile place with little to do. Like soldiers ever since, they spent much of their free time writing letters home,
asking for news and warm clothing.
When they retired, every legionnaire was entitled to a plot of land to farm. Soldiers looked forward to this generous
reward for a lifetime of loyal service. Despite the hardships, many who had been posted to Britain settled there,
taking plots of land near remote Roman forts.
Rome was not always able to honor the important promise of land. In 14 AD, just after Tiberius had become emperor,
a mutiny broke out among legions in central Europe. Soldiers complained that Rome was not keeping to the spirit of
The length of service, combined with the trials of military life, meant that soldiers developed deep camaraderie and
these complaints struck home with other soldiers. The mutiny gained momentum: some soldiers began showing their scars;
others looted and killed their officers.
A serious army mutiny spelled potential disaster for any emperor, whose power, both at home and abroad, was based on
his control of the army.
Tiberius sent Germanicus, his nephew, to deal with this problem before it got even worse. It was a good choice:
Germanicus was a popular, charismatic general whom the soldiers respected as one of their own. His son, Caligula,
had been born in an army camp and was a mascot to the Roman legions.
At first, the arrival of Germanicus and his family appeared to be a big mistake. Fearing further violence, he sent
his wife and son away. Ashamed, the soldiers begged her to return. The mutiny was all but over.
It had taught an important lesson - that the loyalty of the army was essential for the empire to exist, but that
loyalty could not be taken for granted.
Keeping the army on side
As future Emperors would discover, while soldiers were loyal to their emperor, this loyalty was nothing compared to
the loyalty felt by many legions to their commanders. Holding the monopoly on force that underpinned empire and emperor,
the army was always politically important. A discontented army was a powerful enemy and a popular commander was a
Where to next:
The Social Order in Ancient Rome - On the Frontiers
Enemies and rebels - Boudicca and Britain