Ancient History & Civilisation

After Service

After service auxiliaries were granted Raman citizenship, proof of which came in the form of the diploma, a bronze copy of the document registering their citizenship in Rome. This one was presented to a Spanish cavalryman.

The Roman army recognized three different types of discharge. Soldiers who became unfit for service through sickness or injuries were released from service (missio causaria). This was not done lightly, but only after thorough medical examination had confirmed that it was extremely unlikely that they would ever recover sufficiently to serve again. Dishonourable discharge (missio ignominiosa) was the penalty for soldiers committing a serious crime. Such men were barred by law from living in Rome itself or from entering imperial service in any form, and may at some periods have been branded or tattooed with a symbol of ignominy. In addition they enjoyed none of the rights and privileges granted to soldiers honourably discharged (honesta missio) at the end of their service. In most respects men discharged for medical reasons were treated as honourably discharged, although the size of any grants made to them was usually scaled in accordance with their length of service.

Thorough documentation accompanied a soldier throughout his military career and inevitably marked this final transition back to civilian life. The type of discharge was marked against a man’s name in his unit’s records as he was removed from their strength roster. The soldier probably received a written statement of his release from military service, such as the statement found in Egypt and dating to 4 January ad 122 confirming the discharge of Lucius Valerius Noster, cavalryman from the turma of Gavius in Ala Vocontiorum. There were also cases when an entire group of soldiers discharged at the same time chose to commemorate this important event by erecting a monument. Such inscriptions list from around 100 to some 370 names, and various calculations have been made in attempts to show what percentage of legionaries lived long enough to leave the army. Unfortunately, the sample of evidence is tiny, and anyway so many factors determined the number of men eligible for discharge in a single year that it would be rash to generalize.

Praetorian guardsmen and men from the auxilia each received a copy of a bronze diploma, which listed in detail their new legal status as veterans. Legionaries did not receive similar tablets, but it was very important for all men to have proof of their membership of a particular branch of the service and honourable discharge from it, to ensure that they actually gained the status and legal rights to which they were entitled. The text of a petition recording the case of 22 Egyptian veterans in AD 150 has been found at Caesarea in Judaea. These men had originally enlisted in the fleet, but had at some point been transferred to Legio X Fretensis, perhaps when it was in need of manpower during the Jewish Rebellion under Hadrian. The men wanted and were granted written confirmation of their service in the senior branch of the forces, for legionaries enjoyed far higher status than sailors.

At some periods discharged soldiers, especially legionaries, were settled together on land in military colonies. Augustus claims in the Res Gestae - a long inscription set up outside his Mausoleum recounting his great achievements - that he settled some 300,000 veterans in colonies or sent them back to their home communities. Such massive programmes of settlement were required to ensure that the vast numbers of troops raised during the civil wars could be re-integrated into civilian society and so did not threaten the stability of the Augustan regime. The limited archaeological evidence for the colonies of this period suggests that housing consisted of small blocks or insulae of the type common in Roman towns, each divided into several flats occupied by an individual veteran and his family In many cases the colonists lived not in a central settlement, but on individual farms. In some recently conquered areas, colonies served a strategic purpose. During the initial stages of the conquest of Britain under Claudius, the tribal capital at Camulodunum was one of the army’s most important targets. After its occupation a legionary fortress was built nearby to control the region, but when this unit, Legio XX, was moved west to rejoin the field armies in the late ad 40s, a veteran colony was established to take its place. There is some evidence to suggest that barrack blocks were rebuilt to provide housing for the veterans. Something similar may well have happened at Gloucester, where another colony was created on the site of a legionary base, although the chronology and relationship between the two is unclear. Farms were provided for the veterans by surveyors dividing the land into large squares, a traditional Roman practice known as centuriation. One of the complaints of the mutineers in the Pannonian legions in AD 14 was that when finally discharged they were given a farm consisting of swampland or barren mountain. In most cases the land had been confiscated from the conquered peoples and its location was not necessarily determined by its suitability for agriculture. Inevitably, the Roman veterans were resented by the native population which had suffered defeat and the requisition of their territory. When the British tribes rebelled under Boudicca in AD 60, the first target of the Tri- novantes was the colony of Camulodunum established in their land. The town was burned to the ground and the settlers massacred.

Twenty-five years of military service represented at least half the lifetime of most soldiers, and even the shorter 16-year term served by praetorians was still a major part of their lives. Such long spells in the army, living within a closely defined hierarchy, his daily routine closely regulated and ordered, must have had a big impact on a man. Certainly, veterans continued to define themselves as members of their old unit even when they lived on for several decades. A good number of men lived near their old base, taking up residence in the vicus. Since soldiers often married local women this acted as another incentive to remain in the province where they had served. Often their sons went on to join the army, their daughters to marry soldiers or veterans. However, in other cases men did return to their homeland. This trend is especially visible in Egypt because of the survival of correspondence and records from several villages. Such a move was obviously especially likely for men who had corresponded with their families during service. Army veterans had some privileges, for instance exemption from certain types of punishment and restrictions on their liability for public service in the local communities, and were also Roman citizens. To an extent they formed a privileged sub-group within the wider population, but in most cases they were not the only such privileged group. The society of the Roman world was a good deal more complex and multi-layered than many modern commentators allow.

Auxiliary veterans

Much of what has already been said applies as much to auxiliary soldiers as to legionaries. Such men acquired Roman citizenship as a result of service and tended to be drawn from the less urbanized and developed parts of the Roman Empire, and in some cases from tribes outside the formally organized provinces. Service in the Roman army can only have been a dramatically different experience from their former lives, and many scholars have wondered to what extent they became ‘romanized’ through this experience. If they returned home after discharge as many, perhaps most, appear to have done, they would return as citizens, a distinction which was likely to have been rare in their native communities. Auxiliary recruitment could then be seen as a means of spreading Roman culture and ideas throughout the provinces, and so helping to consolidate Rome’s power. It is possible that it did, consciously or not, perform such a role, although the evidence is really insufficient to reach a firm conclusion, but it would be unwise to see this as the main purpose of the auxilia. These existed because the army needed manpower to serve as an effective fighting force. Yet in one respect the Romans were convinced that service with the auxilia changed a man and that was by giving him an understanding of the Roman way of warfare. It was a common Roman conceit that their most dangerous enemies were men who had served with their own armies. Arminius and Gannascus in Germany, Tacfarinas and Jugurtha in North Africa, and even according to one source the leader of the slave rebellion Spartacus, learned their trade with the auxilia.

The tombstone of Longinus of the Ala Sulpicia avium Romanorum shows the soldier reclining on a couch in the Roman manner. Beneath is another scene showing him walking behind his horse and carrying two spears The top of his helmet appears to be shaped in a stylized portrayal of hair, a feature of many surviving cavalry helmets The horse's saddle and harness is shown very clearly on this relief

(Above) The tombstone, from Mainz, of Lucius Valerius Verecundus, who served in the first cohort of the fleet and died at the age of 25 after four years service Even such comparatively simple monuments as this were expensive items

Death and burial

One of the deductions from a soldier’s pay was a standard contribution to the burial club organized by the century, a highly important ritual for most peoples in the Roman world. Should the soldier die during service, this would then cover the costs of a basic funeral. After a major battle, the need to dispose of large numbers of corpses normally led to the mass cremation of the bodies, but in peacetime a greater ceremony was observed. A funeral procession, carrying the corpse on a couch, would leave the fort or camp, for like many contemporary societies the Romans insisted that burial take place outside the settlement. Once outside, and often on a site running alongside the main road leading to the fort, the corpse would be laid on its couch on top of a funeral pyre. There it would be burnt and, once consumed by the flames the ash of both corpse and pyre gathered into a funerary urn, made sometimes of marble or metal, but most often of glass or pottery, which was then buried. Around the grave site the mourners took part in a funeral banquet.

This was a common form of ceremony during the Principate, but the army included men from many cultures and with an immense range of religious beliefs, and there was a considerable variety in funeral practices. In Egypt the practice of mummification continued throughout this period, and in general inhumation became more common than cremation in Late Antiquity. The chief mourners were a man’s comrades and, as the practice of taking an unofficial wife became widespread, his family. It is doubtful that the burial club paid for more than the most rudimentary of markers for the grave, but many soldiers set aside money to pay for expensive stone monuments. Many tombstones state that they were erected by a man’s heirs in accordance with his will. Some consist of a simple inscription, which often details a man’s age, rank, unit and length of service - details which even veterans frequently felt appropriate to add. The most elaborate were carved with a picture of the soldier. There is considerable variation in this, with legionaries tending to have themselves shown with minimal military equipment, whilst auxiliaries, especially auxiliary cavalrymen, are shown armed for battle and in warlike poses. A common type of cavalry tombstone shows the deceased riding a rearing horse and brandishing his weapons as one or more seminaked barbarians cower beneath its hoofs. Some monuments also depict a man’s slaves or freedmen.

(Below) A 3rd-century monument from the province of Dacia showing the retired soldier reclining on a couch at a feast. The spots on the garment draped around him may be intended to represent some kind of animal fur.

Some things are rarely mentioned on a man’s tombstone. The cause of his death, whether battle or sickness, is usually omitted, making it especially interesting when this detail is included. The senior centurion Marcus Caelius Rufus died with Varus’ army in the Teutoburg Wald in AD 9, and was commemorated in a lavish monument by his brother, who added on the inscription the clause that ‘should they ever be found, his bones may be interred here’. Later in the 1st century AD Aulus Sentius, veteran of Legio XI, was killed in the territory of the Varvarini in Dalmatia, although it is unclear if he was a discharged veteran or still serving his five years with the legion when this occurred. Lucius Flaminius of Legio III Augusta was killed in battle in North Africa at the age of 40. A fragmentary tombstone from Chester commemorates an optio marked out for promotion to the centurionate (optio ad spem ordinis) who had drowned in a shipwreck. There is also an intriguing reference on another tombstone from Britain to a soldier killed by an enemy in the camp, which could mean either by a sudden attack which penetrated the fort or murder by a comrade. Yet such details are so rare that we cannot possibly calculate the chances of a man being killed in action or dying of illness or accident during his term of service. Probably, with the exception of occasional major disasters and in common with all armies until the 20th century, the latter was always far more likely.

Military tombstones rarely record how the man died, but this fragmentary tombstone from Chester to an optio from Legio XX Valeria Victrix tells us that he died in a shipwreck. This event cut short a promising career, for the man was awaiting a vacancy as centurion (optio ad spem ordinis). Although the man’s name luis been lost, the surviving part of the inscription states that he was from the century of Lucilius Ingenuus.

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