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See life of a Roman legionary through their own eyes at the BM

New exhibition from the British Museum tells the story of the life of a Roman legionary through their own eyes and those closest to them.

By Theresa Thompson, Timeless Travels Arts' Correspondent

Above: Copper alloy Roman legionary helmet © The Trustees of the British Museum

What was it like to be a soldier in the Roman army 2,000 years ago? How can you tell that story when there were some 300,000 of them stationed across the disparate forts and frontiers of an empire numbering 60 million people and stretching at its height from Scotland to the Red Sea? When the recruits came from all walks of life and all parts of that vast empire?

A bust of Emperor Augustus, Rome’s first emperor (63 BCE - 14 CE) from the British Museum’s collections stares glassily at visitors entering the exhibition. Its presence – it was Augustus who created the empire’s first full-time career soldiers - seems to set the scene for an exhibition, yes, about the Roman army, but one perhaps focusing on battles and bloodshed, figureheads and victories. But that would be wrong.

Legion: Life in the Roman Army, the British Museum’s major new exhibition, isn’t about the elite or military or political expertise, and it is not at all triumphalist. Instead, it brilliantly tells the stories of the everyday life of rank-and-file soldiers from recruitment to retirement. Much of the narrative is built around letters written home by two real soldiers from Egypt (then a Roman province): Apion who later adopted the Roman name Antonius Maximus, and Claudius Terentianus, who served under Trajan and whose letters home have survived, amazingly, discovered in a papyrus archive in Egypt.

The reality of everyday life was often harsh for the men, women and children who were part of the machinery that allowed Rome to master its empire, but it also was surprisingly domestic. Many lived in settled military communities. The curators hope that the stories shared in the exhibition of real legionaries – woven around the 200 extraordinary and ordinary items on view - will challenge some perceptions about what it meant to be a Roman soldier. To show that the Roman army was as much an engine of social change as a formidable war machine.

Above: Gold coin - oath-taking scene between two soliders © The Trustees of the British Museum

It was not easy to join the army. To start with, they had to be tall enough: at least 172cm tall, meaning that even some boys as young as thirteen enlisted. And letters of reference were a must. If those weren’t good enough, the recruit could join as a lower-paid marine rather than legionary. Terentianus failed to join the legions as he’d hoped, and rather disgruntled, started as a marine (though in time, he did achieve his ambition and became a legionary; and after an eventful 25 years of service retired with his pension – soldiers apparently had only a 50 per cent chance of making it to retirement).

A steady income was a big draw. As was, for non-citizens, the path to Roman citizenship – offering the chance of social transformation – unless death or dishonour intervened in the ensuing 25 years of service. New soldiers could still back out, but once they took the oath, were bound to the army for 25 years. Many supported families despite a general ban on marriage for ordinary soldiers at the time.  They had to pay for their uniform and equipment out of their wages. “Nothing can be done without money,” grumbles Terentianus in a letter to his father.

The training was gruelling, and marching very much part of it, and of army life. Road building was part of the job, building and maintaining the empire’s huge network of roads. Terentianus complained that he did so much marching he had to replace his (hobnail) boots twice a month. A soundtrack of cawing crows and tramping boots helps this section of the exhibition along. Likewise, parts of Terentianus’ letters are read on loop, and later on, shouts, clanging swords and various battle sounds (though I have to say, that felt a bit hollow).

It’s a spacious and easy to follow exhibition, with fascinating, wide-ranging displays. From, for example, a Colchester tombstone of a young man who gained the aspirational position of centurion (fifteen times more pay, and command of a century of 80 or so men), to displays about the cavalry, both horse and camel (the display highlights a dinky little lead camel from Egypt, most probably a toy; a nice touch – as are the stations in the Horrible Histories themed trail for families, see note below). Living in often cramped, or controlled conditions, doubtless grievances and prejudices did the rounds: a famous one revealed on a wooden tablet (85 – 150 CE) from Vindolanda fort on Hadrian’s Wall shows that the Romans weren’t impressed by the fighting ways of our ancestors whom they nicknamed the Brittunculi: “the wretched Britons” who apart from their other deficiencies, apparently fought unprotected by armour.

Above: Roman scutum (shield) - Yale University Art Gallery, Yale-French Excavations at Dura-Europos

In the middle section, the exhibition moves up a gear (or two) to focus on arms and armour. Here, on rare public display is the stunning Crosby Garrett mask helmet found in Cumbria in 2010. One of the finest and most complete cavalry helmets ever found, this copper alloy helmet (100 – 250 CE) bearing the idealised face of a Trojan wearing a Phrygian cap is astonishing. Here too, near an impressive array of helmets and side arms demonstrating how styles developed over time, some extraordinary armour from Egypt made of crocodile skin steals the eye. The curators suggest that the crocodile scalp headdress might have been a ritual piece, as crocodile worship was common in Egypt; on the other hand, it might have been a local adaptation of the fierce lion and bear hoods worn by Roman standard bearers.

Many of the items are displayed in the UK for the first time ever. This includes the world’s only intact legionary long shield, on loan from Yale. The iconic long shield, or scutum was an integral part of the Roman military for centuries. The vividly coloured shield on display (restored), painted in military crimson and military motifs – a “roar-some lion” and “winged victories” – is in staggeringly good condition. Soldiers were encouraged to paint their own shields, explained curator Richard Abdy. It was found on Rome’s Syrian frontier, where the dry climate preserved the wood and the painted leather surface. Missing its central metal boss, it was probably never used however.

Another extraordinary find, also new to display in the UK, is the oldest and most complete classic Roman segmental cuirass, or body armour ever found. Unearthed from the battlefield at Kalkriese (Lower Saxony, Germany) in 2018, and surprising everyone as it came to light right at the end of an excavation period, it was uniquely well-preserved find, notwithstanding being in some 400 fragments that had to be put together by conservationists like a jigsaw puzzle.

Above: Armour from the Arminius revolt - Museum und Park Kalkriese

Kalkriese is the site of a massive rout in 9 CE of three Roman legions and auxiliaries by a coalition of Germanic tribes. Described by historians as the Varian Disaster after the Roman commander, Publius Quinctilius Varus, a senator and friend of the emperor Augustus, it is one of the most devastating defeats ever suffered by the Roman army.

On from campaigns and battlefields, the exhibition moves to the aftermath, with sections covering the spoils of war, the brutality faced by prisoners of war and enslavement, the language of victory (triumphal symbols on coins and such like), and fort life, hygiene and all. Warm bathhouses were good places for off-duty soldiers to relax and socialise in – and play, or cheat at games like ludus latrunculorum, meaning ‘game of little bandits’.

Now, the exhibition focuses on the women who inevitably accompanied the cohorts of men, from enslaved concubines to the military wives who played significant roles in camp life, as the letters on wooden tablets from Vindolanda fort near Hadrian's wall attest. Ranks below centurion were forbidden to marry, but soldiers could start unofficial families with local women or enslaved concubines. One of the best is Claudia Severa’s note, handwritten in now-faded ink on a thin strip of wood, warmly inviting her sister to her birthday party. At one point in his career Terentianus wrote beseeching his father for his permission to buy a woman. His answer is unknown.

Mundane objects like the nit combs, a sandal sock (red, split-toed), slippers worn in bathhouses (men’s and women’s sizes), a board game, as well as letters, and what’s written on tombstones, do well to bring home what everyday life was like for the recruits. But the skeletons on display do more than that. It is not comfortable seeing skeletons in exhibitions, but here they return us to the raw reality of life, and death in the Roman army.

Above: Sword of Tiberius - Iron sword with gilded bronze scabbard

One poor fellow was apparently executed by crucifixion (a nail remains in his foot); one pair was murdered at Canterbury in the course of police work; and finally, there is a Roman soldier who is believed to be one of the marines commanded by Pliny the Elder caught up in the 79 CE eruption of Vesuvius who died while attempting to help citizens flee. It’s in the smaller details as much as in the flamboyant military gear or fearsome battle standards that this exhibition has its power. If you’ll forgive the cliché, it is a triumph.

Sir Mark Jones, Interim Director of the British Museum, said: “The story of the Roman Army is more than just pitched battles and war. Legion: life in the Roman army is a chance to show different perspectives and showcase the lives of the men, women, and children who formed one of the most famous armed forces in the world.”

Richard Abdy, Curator Roman and Iron Age coins comments: “This is a really exciting opportunity to present an epic subject on a human scale. Sword and sandals, helmet and shield are all on parade here as would be expected, but told through often ordinary individuals, unfamiliar stories can also help us to understand the deceptively familiar figure of the Roman legionary. Every soldier has a story: it’s incredible that these tales are nearly 2,000 years old.”


Legion: life in the Roman army

Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery

British Museum, London

Showing until: 23 June 2024

See here for more information

A beautifully illustrated catalogue, Legion: life in the Roman army, written by Richard Abdy, is published by the British Museum Press. British Museum exclusive paperback, £30, ISBN 9780714122946. Hardback, £45, ISBN 9780714122939.

Horrible Histories – Children’s Trail

The British Museum is for the first time partnering with Horrible Histories, author Terry Deary and illustrator Martin Brown’s bestselling book series, to engage children in its upcoming exhibition Legion: life in the Roman army.

Through a specially designed Horrible Histories themed trail of the exhibition, alongside a variety of family interactive stations en route, children of all ages will be guided through the show, led by Horrible Histories ’beloved character, Rattus.

Rattus, who will be playfully renamed Claudius Terrattus, will take younger visitors on his journey of becoming a soldier in the Roman army and the trials and tribulations faced by those serving2,000 years ago.

Through the course of the special exhibition trail, Rattus explains his ambition to become a Roman soldier, the dangers and difficulties he could face and the riches and rewards he could receive. Carefully chosen family-friendly exhibition objects will be highlighted along the way, accompanied by commentary from Rattus himself.



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