The primary qualification for joining a legion was Roman citizenship, although this does not mean that all legionaries came from Italy. On the contrary, citizenship throughout the empire was widely awarded for meritorious service, especially in the army’s auxiliary regiments. Selection procedures were rigorous and the training tough. Legionaries were well paid, and on satisfactory completion of service - usually 25 years - they received a substantial lump sum which often allowed them to settle in the civilian areas of the province and become citizens of substance.

B/w photograph of legionaries marching, from Trajan's Column.

Legionaries on Trajan's Column march out on campaign. They wear segmented body-armour and carry long cylindrical shields and short swords. Helmets are slung on their right shoulders, while over their left they carry stakes on which their kit is hung. Their javelins or pilae were represented in metal, which is now gone.
© Author's collection

In the organisation, equipment, and tactics of its legions the Roman army had refined the simple technologies of the ancient world to devastating effect. Success was achieved by a combination of shock, disciplined order, and adaptability. In action the legionaries would first present a wall of shields. This protected them from enemy missiles. As they drew close to the enemy line each man discharged two javelins, or pilae, with soft iron shanks which bent on impact. If they found their target this made them hard to withdraw, while if they missed they were useless for throwing back. As battle was joined the shields became offensive weapons, used in concert to push against the enemy and knock him off balance. At the same time the legionaries brought their short stabbing swords to bear, thrusting out from between the shields to inflict deadly penetrative wounds. The tactics were akin to those of modern riot police, though vastly more lethal.

Photograph of a Roman sword.

A legionary sword or gladius from Newstead.
© SCRAN/National Museums of Scotland

This formidable weapons-system was greatly enhanced by the ability to switch tactics in the midst of battle. A classical author, Josephus, explains that ‘their drills are bloodless battles, their battles bloody drills.’ The design of legionaries’ helmets supports his statement: they were cleverly adapted to give maximum protection without compromising their wearer’s hearing, forward and peripheral vision, and ability to communicate by voice. Unimpeded use of all the senses was evidently vital on the Roman battlefield.

Photograph of a replica Roman helmet.

The author wearing a replica Roman legionary helmet
© Paula Martin

Because a Roman legion was virtually impossible to defeat, it almost never had to fight. Its mere presence was usually enough, rather like the nuclear threat during the Cold War. Even when battle was joined the legions were normally held back, to be used only in the last resort. In describing Mons Graupius, when Agricola defeated the Caledonian host, Tacitus observes that the legions stood in reserve, noting that ‘victory would be vastly more glorious if it cost no Roman [i.e. citizen] blood’. On this occasion the bloody work was accomplished solely by non-citizen auxiliary troops.

B/w photograph of Rman soldiers felling timber, from Trajan's Column.

B/w photograph of legionaries building a fort, from Trajan's Column.

Legionaries on Trajan's Column fell and transport timber.
© Author's collection

Legionaries build a fort: another scene from Trajan's Column.
© Author's collection

Complementing a legion’s ability to fight was another asset which the Roman mind prized even more strongly. This was the ability to build. On Trajan’s Column, a monument intended above all else to glorify the achievements of the Roman army, legionaries are almost never seen in combat. Instead they are shown labouring - cutting down trees; digging ditches; building forts, roads, bridges, or boats; harvesting grain. It is always the humble auxiliaries who engage in the rough-and-tumble heroics of battle. The perception of contemporary Romans is clear - anyone can fight, but only Rome’s elite citizen troops can build.

B/w photograph of legionaries harvesting grain. from Trajan's Column.

Photograph of a Roman sickle.

Left, legionaries harvest grain outside their camp,
a detail from Trajan's Column.
© Author's collection

Above, a sickle from Newstead.
© SCRAN/National Museums of Scotland

To the Romans, building was more worthy and far more enduring than fighting. The subjugation, occupation, and control of enemy territories was achieved by setting up the networks of roads and garrisons which legionary soldier-craftsmen alone could create. Along these roads and among these garrisons information was passed, processed, and acted upon through the medium of literacy. Writing, and the infrastructure through which it was transmitted, was the Roman army’s ultimate secret weapon. Information technology could be as powerful in the ancient world as it is today.

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