We are legion

  • Themes: Exhibition, Rome

A riveting British Museum exhibition lays bare the lives of Roman infantrymen.

A comic book sketch of the Romans in Britain.
A comic book sketch of the Romans in Britain. Credit: Walker Art Library / Alamy Stock Photo

If you’ve ever wondered what life was like in the Roman army, you could do no better than visit the new exhibition at the British Museum, a five-star blockbuster dedicated to Rome’s crack infantry force, the Legion. While there have been many books on the subject, there is nothing quite like seeing the paraphernalia of real recruits to understand what the soldiers endured on the ground.

Some of the first objects you see as you enter the ground-floor gallery are funereal and record the brevity of many men’s service. Recruits to a Roman legion, which consisted of ten cohorts comprised of six ‘centuries’ of 80 men, signed on for 25 years. There are tomb sculptures here for soldiers who managed five, six, nine, 11 and 17 years before dying in service. It has been estimated that only 50 per cent of legionaries ever reached retirement.

Milan-born Quintus Petilius Secundus, who served five years in Legio XV Primigenia before losing his life at the age of 25, looks as strong as an ox in the sculpture on his surviving tombstone. He stands full-frontal holding a pilum (javelin) which gives away his position as one of the heavy infantrymen. His scutum (long shield) is not depicted, nor is his helmet, but there are more than a few examples of each on display elsewhere in the exhibition.

One of the most impressive loans (from Yale University Art Gallery) is a third-century scutum from Dura-Europos (in modern Syria), which is painted red and richly patterned with the imagery of a lion and an eagle and divine Roman ‘victories’. It is one of a kind, made of wood and leather, and complete but for the metal boss, which would have been placed at its centre. The most surprising thing is how long it is. At over a metre high, it would have covered the soldier’s midriff as well as his thighs, but not as effectively as it seems today; over time its surface has curved, as if to embrace the body behind it, whereas originally it was flat.

The helmets here are equally astonishing for their state of preservation. A few have missing cheek-pieces, but most look strikingly modern, almost astronaut-like, with neck-guards and all-over coverage. There’s richly decorated armour for a horse’s face, too, with gaps for tea-strainer-like eye guards. Particularly exciting is an almost complete segmental cuirass (breastplate) from the battlefield on which Varus fell in the autumn of AD Nine.

The Roman legate had been leading three legions through the Teutoburg Forest near the River Weser in Germany when the members of a Germanic tribe launched their attack. The Roman legions were annihilated. The disaster was a major setback following the progress made by Drusus, brother of the future emperor Tiberius, at the end of the previous century. A set of exquisite blue glass phalerae (medallions) captures the future of Drusus’ family. The portrait of Drusus’ son Germanicus with three of his own children is particularly charming.

Another set of phalerae used as horse-trappings referencing the military authority of Pliny the Elder in Germany is displayed far more magnificently here than in the usual Roman galleries of the museum. Phalerae, military standards and ship-figureheads, were consistently finely crafted. The exhibition has an enticing example of a bronze and gilt standard finial moulded to resemble a crocodile-like dragon, found at Niederbieber in Germany, and a figurehead of Minerva looking quizzical that might once have adorned the prow of one of the ships sunk at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC.

Repeatedly, you are struck by the care that was given to adorning even the most practical items, including hobnail boots (made for walking up to 35 kilometres a day), sandals and – one of my favourite objects – a red sock, knitted to a careful design with separated toe, uncovered in Egypt and dated to the third century. Legionaries often earned less than agricultural labourers and had to buy their own boots and tunics. What they bought, though, was clearly high quality.

Some of the most captivating treasures in the show are the smallest. Do not miss the tiny bronze soldier, probably meant to represent a cavalryman from North Africa, which stands at just six cm tall. Or the dice tower with the words, in Latin: ‘Picts defeated, enemy destroyed, play in safety’ cut into its sides. Or the five and a half centimetre bronze mouse playing a tuba. There was a hierarchy of musicians in the legions, with cornicines who played the enormous spiralled cornu to govern the movement of the standards ranking at the top, and tuba-players with straight horns directing the soldiers enjoying less kudos. When discipline in the ranks was low the tubicen might well have felt as small as a mouse.

One peculiarity is the wide date-range given for some of the objects. The miniature cavalryman, for example, is dated AD 43-410 in the exhibition catalogue, as is a hobnailed sandal found in London. The range incorporates the period of Roman occupation following Emperor Claudius’ invasion, and conveys that things like sandals might not have changed very much in that time, but one wonders whether the dating of some of the objects, at least, has been a little  too cautious.

Towards the end of the show you are confronted by two male skeletons. Far from being ceremonially laid out, they had been deposited in a ditch, one on top of the other, their swords thrown in after them. They were, it is believed, victims of murder. In breach of ancient laws, which dictated that the dead could not be interred within a city’s walls for fear of causing religious ‘pollution’, the two soldiers had been surreptitiously covered over in the city of Canterbury in the second century AD.

Both were tall enough to have held senior positions in the army – a man had to be at least 177 centimetres tall to serve in the Praetorian Guard or in the first cohort of a legion – and were aged between 20 and 34 in one case and between 35 and 49 in the other. The elder of the pair probably grew up in the region of the Danube. The circumstances of the men’s deaths may never be recovered, but curator Richard Abdy draws our attention to a regiment roll-call from Egypt mentioning the loss of at least one cavalryman to murder by bandits. As if fighting in a legion wasn’t precarious enough.

Legion: Life in the Roman Army is at the British Museum until June 2024.

If you enjoyed this piece by Daisy, listen in through the link below to her in conversation with the EI team: 


Daisy Dunn