top of page

Tell Me All About The Roman Army - A Handy History Guide With Author Douglas Jackson

Douglas Jackson, man of the moment and answerer of our questions.

Douglas Jackson has forgotten more about Ancient Rome than most people have ever learned – including us! By my – likely inaccurate - count, Doug has written thirteen best-selling and thoroughly awesome historical fiction novels set in Rome. Last time we spoke with Doug, we spoke about his book ‘The Wall’ and life on the frontline of the Roman Empire.

Now, with his latest page-turning delight ‘The Barbarian’ hitting bookshelves and ebook devices, we thought it would be a great time to pick Doug’s brain (not literally, I’m pretty sure that’s illegal) and learn more about the Roman Army from him.

Do you want to know:

What training to be a Roman Legionnaire was like?

What weapons and armour a Legionnaire would be equipped with?

What actually happened if a Legionnaire survived long enough to retire?

And loads more fascinating history stuff?

Yes? Then you’ve absolutely come to the right interview!

No? Then you should still read the interview anyway, it’s fantastic!

Imagining History - Hi Doug, first off, could you tell our grown-up readers a little about your brilliant new book, ‘The Barbarian’?

Doug Jackson - Thanks for having me back! The Barbarian is my second novel featuring Marcus Flavius Victor, who we met in The Wall. Instead of winning fame and glory as the man who destroyed the power of the Picts, Marcus has been consigned to internal exile in the wetlands of eastern England where he and the troopers of the Ala Sabiniana try to keep the raiding Saxons at bay. Worse, someone has been spreading rumours that he’s plotting against the Emperor and he’s suspected of treason. His old comrade Flavius Stilicho, Rome’s foremost general, sends word that Marcus should join him and clear his name, but the Briton has unfinished business which takes him into the very heart of darkness in the barbarian lands where the Empire’s enemies are gathering.

We’d like to find out about Roman Legionaries, what was the training like to become a soldier of Rome?

In a word, tough, but I suppose you could say that about any soldier’s training. The new recruit would first have his fitness tested by daily marches which would get longer and longer until twelve miles was a gentle stroll. At need, he could complete twenty miles in full armour and still be ready to fight a battle at the end. Then he’d be taught to wield a heavy wooden practice sword until his arms felt like they were going to fall off, before being given a proper gladius. He’ll also be expected to become proficient in throwing the pilum, a weighted spear, and how to cope with being on the wrong end of it. And while he’s perfecting all these disciplines he’ll be drilled mercilessly in all the manoeuvres his unit might be expected to carry out in a combat situation. How to move from column to line, line to square, to wheel left or right, and to form the famous cuneus, or wedge, the arrow-shaped formation used to smash through enemy lines. Basically, training was so hard that campaigning and battle would come as a welcome relief.

Roman Legionnaires stood in a testudo formation.
Romans loved their battle formations. Here some reenactors perform the 'Testudo'.

Who could become a Legionary? Could anyone sign up or was it for Roman Citizens only?

For most of the duration of the Empire, a legionary had to be a Roman citizen. He would be recruited as a single man, and during his twenty-five-year service he would have to remain unmarried, at least nominally. In reality, many soldiers would have lifelong partners and families who would follow them throughout their service. A man had to be of good character, no criminals or slaves need apply. He must be of at least medium height and of sound health. The chronicler Vegetius said a young soldier should have ‘a broad chest, muscular shoulders, and strong arms’ although he also suggested those in charge of the levies should recruit some men for their skill in writing and accounts.

What were the perks of the job?

Comradeship, naturally, as long as you get along with your tentmates, and tough luck if you don’t. Two square meals a day and a roof over your head, even if that roof is quite often a leather tent on some piece of windy moorland or parched desert. The pay’s not bad and the legion will look after your savings. If you become ill, the medicus or his assistants will soon sort you out at the valetudinarium. The opportunity to see the world, if you like midge-infested Scottish swamps inhabited by savages who’d like to hang you from a tree by your innards, or Dacian barbarians wielding giant reaping hooks capable of cleaving not just your helmet in two, but your head with it. It helps if you’re an immunis with a trade or a specific skill, which absolves you from being handed the worst jobs, like latrine duty and digging the camp ditch every afternoon on campaign.

Roman Centurion stood with a vitis
A Centurion with a vitis, he clearly means business!

And what were the negatives?

Getting killed or captured by said savages and barbarians is obviously the biggest negative, but major disasters were few and far between and the casualties are usually much heavier on the other side. If your centurion doesn’t like you he can make your life hell, and not just with a lick of his vitis, the vine wood staff he carries. For minor infractions he can dock your pay, give you extra guard duty or order you to clean the latrines. If you’re really unlucky and fall asleep on guard duty you could be whipped before the entire unit, but the ultimate punishment is fustuarium where a legionary does something so bad his comrades are ordered to beat him to death.

Sounds Unpleasant! What sorts of weapons and armour were Roman Legionaries equipped with?

The best that the technology of the time could supply. When a Roman soldier went into battle he could generally be assured he would be better armed and armoured than his opponent. His head is protected by an iron helmet fitted with cheek and neck protectors. His body is encased either in lorica segmentata, plate armour consisting of 34 separate pieces which protect the back, breast, and stomach, or chain armour (both of which are notoriously difficult to keep rust-free). When he stands in line with his comrades it’ll be behind a scutum, the oblong oak or birch shield that protects him from shoulder to knee, and in his right hand he’ll hold a gladius, the brutally efficient, double-edged, needle-pointed short sword he uses to kill his enemy. Before the barbarians hit the Roman line they’ll already have suffered casualties from a hail of pilum weighted spears launched by the legionaries.

Marching was a big thing for Roman Legions, how many miles (Roman or otherwise) could a Legionary expect to clock up during a year?

It depends. On campaign the legionary would march a minimum of twelve miles a day. We know this because you can actually track the progress of Roman armies through the marching camps they created and which are scattered across Scotland, England, and Wales. At the end of each day’s march, the legion would set up a defensive perimeter within a ditch and a bank topped with a palisade of pointed sticks carried for the purpose. Inside the walls, the legionaries set up their eight-man tents in the same position each day, have a meal and spend the night in relative security. The next day they’d break camp at dawn and be back on the march. Some of the surviving camps still have walls up to a couple of metres tall. I helped restore one at Pennymuir in the Borders that had been ploughed up to plant trees and you had to cross the bank and ditch to get inside it. But, to answer your original question, I doubt a legionary would have clocked up fewer than two thousand miles a year, either on campaign or just to keep in shape, and probably much more.

Roman Legionnaire's marching.
Legionnaire's sure like marching! Here are some re-enactors doing their very best marching.

They must have been fit, I have trouble just getting out of bed in the morning! How were Roman Legions organised?

The cohort was the main tactical formation of the legion. A legion consisted of ten cohorts, nine of them formed from six centuries of eighty men each, and the ‘double strength’ first cohort which was ten centuries strong. Each century consisted of ten contubernium or squads, of eight men each, who shared the same tent, cooked, ate, and fought beside each other. There was also a cavalry contingent of a hundred and twenty-eight troopers, used mainly for patrolling and message-carrying. They fought for their Emperor, their eagle, and their legate, a Roman aristocrat, who was assisted by a camp-prefect - a veteran who’d come up through the ranks - a senior military tribune, and five junior tribunes.

How come a century doesn’t consist of 100 Legionaries?

A century did contain a hundred soldiers in Republican times, but it was reduced to eighty during the `Marian Reforms’ of General Gaius Marius, who created a professional Roman army composed of slimmed-down legions. Presumably, Marius couldn’t come up with a better name.

If a Legionary survived their service, did they really receive a plot of land for their retirement?

In some cases, they certainly did, originally in Italy, but after Augustus most Emperors preferred their veteran soldiers to be settled in the provinces, where their military skills would be useful in maintaining security. When large numbers of soldiers were due to retire at the same time they were settled in what became known as Colonia, colonies of veterans granted land or privileges and encouraged to create Roman enclaves in what was hitherto enemy territory. Colchester is an example of a Roman legionary fortress that became a veteran’s colony, and Lincoln is another. Of course, the land had originally belonged to someone else, so there’s little doubt the practice caused bad feelings among the dispossessed.

Thanks for an absolute masterclass on the Roman Army Doug!

If you are a grown-up (or a child looking for an awesome birthday present for a history book-loving parent) be sure to check out ‘The Barbarian’ by clicking here.

If you've not read the first book in the series, 'The Wall', don't worry, it is now out in paperback! Find out more by clicking here.

bottom of page