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Kelsey in Focus: Installment #7

Kelsey in Focus Installment #7 explores the lives of soldiers in the Roman army.

The Experience of a Roman Soldier

Curated by Nic Terrenato, Curator for the Archaeology of the Italian Peninsula, and Amelia Eichengreen, IPAMAA PhD Candidate

Roman soldiers served decades-long military careers—often posted all over a sprawling empire. If they survived, they would be recognized as veterans and given land to cultivate.

During the centuries of the early empire (30 BC–200 AD), the Roman army was a massive organization that controlled the entire Mediterranean and large parts of northwestern Europe. With an effective force in the hundreds of thousands, it was composed of volunteer recruits who hailed from and could be deployed to the vast dominion of the empire. Usually signing up in their 20s, these individuals had to serve for 16–25 years—though even longer periods are attested.

Being in the army was typically an exclusive career, preceded by a rigorous examination of physical condition, background, and citizenship status that determined one’s position within the Roman forces. Young men without citizenship (or with other shortcomings) could serve in the auxiliary units instead of becoming legionaries. The bulk of the army consisted of foot soldiers—outfitted with heavy armor and armed with javelins, sword, and shield—who fought in close formations (nos. 1–2). Elite, tall recruits could be horsemen, with higher pay and greater prestige (no. 3). Another option was to enlist in the navy (no. 4), which was physically demanding but essential in a transmarine empire. Military service of any kind was highly respected, and having served as an officer was a prerequisite for a political career; virtually all Roman emperors were veterans.

The actual life of a Roman enlisted man was challenging and dangerous. It involved long years away from home and a very high risk of dying during service, especially considering the much lower life expectancy at the time. Having a wife and children was forbidden in theory (though in reality, many men formed families). Those who survived their decades of service were honorably discharged and given an inscribed token (no. 5) that attested their veteran status and typically entitled them to a plot of land to cultivate. Auxiliaries would receive their coveted Roman citizenship. Often settled near other veterans of the same unit, Roman servicemen lucky enough to come out alive could enjoy a peaceful and respectable old age.

1. Diorama of Roman Soldiers Fighting Celts 

Miniatures by C. and N. Terrenato. Scale 1:56

This diorama shows a skirmish between Roman soldiers and Celtic warriors, somewhere in France or England in the early 1st century AD. The legionaries (on the left) have standard-issue equipment and heavy armor, while the Celts have little protection. The Roman army typically deployed combined forces with infantry, cavalry, and artillery.

2. Relief Fragment with the Head of a Soldier

Epoxy, marble, resin
Cast created ca. 1995, based on Roman Period (69–79 AD) fragment
Kelsey Museum collections, 1998. KM 1998.1.7, KM 1998.1.15 

A marble relief from a temple in Rome depicting a Roman legionary. Dated to the mid-1st century AD, the temple was dedicated to the Flavians—an imperial dynasty that had come to power through military service. Copies of the originals are held at the Kelsey Museum and the Museo Nazionale Romano in Rome.

3. Horseman Figurine with Helmet

Roman Period (3rd–4th century AD)
Fayum, Egypt. P. Ruthven collection, 1914. KM 6504

A horseman figurine wearing a helmet, a short-skirted garment with a V neck, and a belt, raising his right arm in a fist. This object was fashioned by mold-made unfired clay and is from the Fayum region of Egypt.

4. Naval Inscription

Roman Period (71–214 AD)
Misenum, Italy. G. De Criscio collection, 1986. KM 878

This inscription in Latin commemorates the service of Lucius Calpurnius Rufus—a navy officer who had died on a mission to Turkey. He belonged to the Praetorian Guard, an elite unit within the Roman army. The stone was set by his mates at Misenum (near Naples), a major naval base in western Central Italy. The text reads:

To the Shades of the Underworld: for Lucius Calpurnius Rufus, an officer of the Praetorian fleet of Misenum. This man, sent to Ephesus on duty, died and was buried there in a marble sarcophagus. Marcus Sittius Africanus, his fellow countryman and heir, made this memorial at the camp.

5. Military Diploma

Bronze, copper
Roman Period (157–161 AD)
Karanis, Egypt. University of Michigan excavations, 1933. KM 21412

These military discharge papers (known as diploma) dating between December 10, 157, and March 7, 161 AD, record the honorable discharge of a soldier who served 25 years in a unit stationed in Egypt. He was granted citizenship and the right to a legal Roman marriage. The text reads: 

[The] Emperor Caesar, son of divine Hadrian, grandson of divine Trajan Parthicus, great grandson of divine Nerva Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus Augustus Pius, Pontifex Maximus, holding the yearly tribunician power for the 20th time, acclaimed “Imperator,” having been consul four times, father of his country, has granted to the infantrymen and cavalry who were soldiers in the 4th wing, who are called the Gallic veterans, cohort 13 of the province of the Vocontii of the 1st Ulpian legion of Africa, the 1st Apamenorum Pannonian, the 1st Augusta Lusitania, the 5th Pactus Nerva, the 2nd Iturian, the 2nd Theban and the 3rd, 5th, and 7th Iturians in Egypt, serving under the Prefect Marcus Sempronius Liberalis, and likewise to the men honorably discharged from their companies and cohorts who have served 25 years, their names are listed below, have been granted Roman citizenship and Roman marriage, if they are unmarried, with those women they might marry later, with one wife for each man. 

(Translation by Amelia W. Eichengreen and James Nesbitt-Prosser)