Anno Urbis - The Roman Empire Online

LIFE IN THE ROMAN WORLD OF NERO AND ST. PAUL

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THE ARMY: MILITARY SERVICE: PUBLIC CAREER

In the older days of Roman history the fighting forces had been a "citizen army," called out for so long as it was needed, and levied from full and true Roman citizens. In the imperial times with which we are here dealing it had become a standing army. Soldiering was a profession, for which the men volunteered, and, so far as Roman citizens were concerned, it was now seldom, if ever, the case that military service required to be made compulsory on their part. It is true that a young man of the higher classes who proposed to follow a public career, leading to higher and higher offices of state, must have gone through some amount of military training, but no other Roman was actually obliged to serve. The empire was so vast and the total of the standing forces comparatively so small that it was always possible to fill up the legions with those who had some motive or inclination that way. Theoretically the state possessed a claim upon every able-bodied man, but the population of the empire was probably a hundred millions, and to collect a total of some 320,000 soldiers, made up of Roman or romanized "citizens" and of provincial subjects in about equal shares, was a sufficiently easy task, and the recruiters could therefore afford to pick and choose. Above all we must clear our minds of the notion that the Roman soldiers necessarily came from Rome, or even from Italy. They were drawn from the empire at large, and a legion posted in Spain, for example, might be recruited from a special class of Spaniards.

Roughly speaking, the regular army, extending along the frontiers from Chester to Jerusalem and from Jerusalem to Algeria, was composed of two main divisions, called respectively the "legions" and the "auxiliaries." Other special or detached forces--such as the twelve regiments of Imperial Guards and the six of the City Guard--came under neither of these headings, and we may leave them out of the question for the present.

A legion was a brigade of about 6000 infantry, with 120 horsemen attached to it. It was recruited from any convenient part of the empire, but only from men already enjoying the rights of Roman citizens, or else from those other provincials who were considered sufficiently homogeneous with the Roman civilisation to stand shoulder to shoulder with such citizens. In being permitted to serve on these terms a man regularly becomes ipso facto a citizen. The qualifications required were that you should be free-born--that is to say, neither slave nor ex-slave--your physique must be good, and your height about 5 feet 10 inches: there must be nothing serious against your record or character as viewed from the Roman standpoint; and, if you were not already a citizen, you must belong to one of those organised communes which were the units of administration and of taxation within the empire. You undertake to serve for twenty years, after which time you will receive an honourable discharge and either a sum of money--at this date apparently about £50--or a grant of land. By ability and character you may rise from private soldier to centurion, that is to say, commander of a hundred, but in ordinary circumstances you can climb no further up the military ladder. If at the end of your term you are still robust and are considered useful, you may, if you choose, continue to serve in a special detachment of "veterans," with lighter duties and with exemption from common drill. The Roman legions would thus be made up for the most part of troops from about 18 to 38 years of age, although a considerable number might be somewhat older.

A legion once formed had a perpetual existence; its vacancies were filled up as they occurred; and it is obvious that it must have consisted of respectable men of picked physique, mostly in the prime of life, and perfectly trained in all the qualities of a soldier. When not on actual campaign they were drilled once a day, and the recruits twice. They practised the hurling of spears and all the attitudes of attack with sword and pike, and of defence with the shield. Now and then there was a review or a sham fight. They learned how to fortify a camp, how to attack it or to defend it. Every month they put on full armour, marched out with steady Roman tramp for ten miles and back again to camp for the sake of practice. Meanwhile they were made useful in building the military roads, bridges, and walls. Add to this the strict Roman discipline, and it is difficult to conceive of any training more capable of turning a body of 6000 men into a stubborn and effective fighting machine. The half-naked German across the Rhine was physically as strong and as brave; the woad-dyed Celt of Britain was probably more dashing in his onset; the mounted Parthian across the Euphrates was more nimble in his movements; but neither German nor Celt cultivated the organisation or solidarity of action of the Roman, nor could the Parthian equal him for steady onward pressure or determined stand.

To each legion was given a number and also a name of its own, acquired by some distinguished feat or some conspicuous campaign, or adopted in vaunt or compliment. Thus it might be the "Victorious" Legion, the "Indomitable," or the "Spanish" Legion, or it might, for example, wear a crested lark upon its helmet and be called the Legion of the "Lark." The commander of the whole legion is a man of senatorial rank; its standard is a silver eagle on the top of a staff, commonly holding a thunderbolt in its claw. To each legion there are ten regiments, called "cohorts," averaging six hundred men, and every such regiment has its colonel, or, as the translation of the Bible calls Claudius Lysias, "its chief captain." The regiment in its turn consists of six companies or "hundreds," with a "centurion" at the head of each, and every pair of hundreds, if not every company, possesses a standard of its own, consisting of a pole topped with large medallions, metal disks, wreaths, an open hand, and other emblems.

[Illustration: FIG. 97.--ROMAN STANDARDS.]

[Illustration: FIG. 98--Armed Soldier.]


Let us imagine a certain Scius to become a private soldier in a legion. He was born in Gaul, in the district of Lugdunum or Lyons, and he is either a full Roman or sufficiently romanized to rank with Romans. He is drafted to the Twentieth Legion, otherwise known as the "Victorious Valerian," and finds himself stationed in the island of Britain at that farthest camp of the north-west which has since grown into the city of Chester. On joining his company he is made to take a solemn oath that he will loyally obey all orders of his commander-in-chief, the emperor, as represented by that emperor's subordinates, his immediate officers. That oath he will repeat on each 1st of January and on the anniversary of the emperor's accession. For full military dress he will first put on a tunic reaching nearly to his knees, and, since he is serving in the northern cold, a pair of fustian breeches covering the upper leg. On his feet will be a pair of strong sandals, of which the thick soles are studded with hobnails. Over his breast, and with flaps over the shoulders, he will wear a corslet Of leather covered with hoop-like layers, or maybe scales, of iron or bronze. On his head will be a plain pot-like helmet or skull-cap of iron. For the rest he will possess also a thick cloak or plaid to be used as occasion needs. In his right hand he will carry the famous Roman pike. This is a stout weapon, over 6 feet in length, consisting of a sharp iron head fixed in a wooden shaft, and the soldier may either charge with it as with a bayonet, or he may hurl it like a javelin and then fight at close quarters with his sword. On the left arm is a large shield, which may be of various shapes. One common form is curved inward at the sides like a portion of a cylinder some 4 feet in length by 2½ in width: another is six-sided--a diamond pattern, but with the points of the diamond squared away. Sometimes it is oval. In construction it is of wicker-work or wood, covered with leather, and embossed a blazon in metal-work, one particularly well known being that of a thunderbolt. The shield is not only carried by means of a handle, but may be supported by a belt over the right shoulder. In order to be out of the way of the shield, the sword--a thrusting rather than a slashing weapon, approaching 3 feet in length--is hung at the right side by a belt passing over the left shoulder. Though this arrangement may seem awkward to us, it is to be remembered that the sword is not required until the right hand is free of the pike, and that then, before drawing, the weapon can easily be swung round to the left by means of the suspending belt. On the left side the soldier wears a dagger at his girdle. The writer of the Epistle to the Ephesians is thinking of all this equipment when he bids the Christian put on "the whole armour of God," including the "belt of truth," the "breast-plate of righteousness," the "shield of faith," the "helmet of salvation" and the "sword of the spirit." The officer, of course, wears armour, cloak, and helmet of a more ornamental kind, and must have presented a very martial and imposing figure.

[Illustration: FIG.99--A Roman General.]

Our friend Scius goes through the drill, the exercises, and the hard work already mentioned. His pay will be somewhere about £8 a year, or a little over three shillings a week, and his food will consist mainly of wheaten porridge and bread, with salt, and a drink of thin sour wine little better than vinegar. His wheat--the price of which is deducted from his pay--is measured out to him every month, and it is his own business to grind it or get it ground and converted into bread. Vegetables he will procure as he likes or can; but meat, except a limited amount of bacon, he will commonly neither get nor very much desire. On one occasion indeed we find the soldiers complaining that they were being fed altogether too much upon meat. It deserves to be remarked that the results speak well for the wholesomeness of this simple diet of the legionary. For his quarters he will be one of ten sharing the same tent under the supervision of a kind of corporal. There are no married quarters. Not only are women not permitted in the camp, but the soldier cannot legally marry during his term of service.

[Illustration: FIG. 100.--CENTURION.]

Scius will meet with no gentle treatment while in his pupilage. The grim centurion, or commander of his company, is a man of iron, who has risen from the ranks; his methods are sharp and summary, and he carries a tough switch of vine-wood, with which he promptly belabours the idle or the stupid. Any neglect of duty or act of disobedience is inevitably Punished, sometimes by hard labour in digging trenches, sometimes by a fine, sometimes by stripping the soldier of his armour and making him stand for hours in civilian attire as a butt for ridicule in the middle of the camp, sometimes by a lowering of his rank corresponding to the modern taking away of a "man's stripes." If a soldier proves a hopeless case he is expelled with ignominy from the camp and army. If he deserts or plays the traitor he may either be decapitated or beaten to death with cudgels. If a whole company or regiment gets into disgrace, it may have to put up with barley instead of wheat for its rations, and if it is guilty of gross insubordination, or of some crime which cannot be sheeted home to the individual, it may be "decimated," or, in other words, every tenth man, drawn by lot, may be condemned to death. The last, of course, is an extreme measure, and is only mentioned here as belonging to extreme cases.

[Illustration: FIG. 101.--STANDARD BEARER.]

On the other hand, if Scius is a smart soldier he will gradually gain recognition as such. He may become the head man in his mess of ten; or be made an orderly, to carry the watchword round to the messes; or he may be chosen by the centurion as his subaltern. As he gains maturity and steadiness, and wins confidence, he may be elected to bear the of his company, in which case a bear's skin will be thrown over his shoulders, and the top of his helmet will be concealed beneath the head of that beast, worn as a hood. Being a saving man, and taking a pride in himself, he will gradually decorate his sword-belt and girdle, and perhaps his scabbard, with silver knobs and ornaments. Also behaving well in the victorious brushes with the Britons, he will acquire, besides occasional loot and booty-money, a number of metal medallions or disks, to be strung across his breast somewhat after the manner of the modern war-medals. Gradually, as he becomes a veteran, he may rise to be centurion, when he will wear a crest upon his helmet and greaves upon his shins, have his corslet of scale-armour covered with medallions, and will himself carry the vine-rod of authority. If he should ever succeed in becoming, not merely the centurion of his company, but the first or senior of all the sixty centurions belonging to the whole legion, he will rank practically as a commissioned officer, will retire on a competence if he does retire, and will in all probability be made a knight. In that case he may proceed to higher commands, as if he had been born in that order to which he has at last attained.

[Illustration: FIG. 102.--BAGGAGE-TRAIN.]

But all this promotion is yet a long way off. One morning, while Scius is still a private, he hears, not the "taratantara" of the long straight trumpet which calls to ordinary work, but the sound of the military horn, which means that the legion is to march. He helps to pack up the tent, the hand-mills, and other indispensable needments, and to place them on the mules, packhorses, or waggons. He then puts on his full armour, although, if it is hot, and if there is no immediate danger, he may sling his helmet over his shoulder, while his shield, marked with his name and company, may perhaps be stacked with others in a baggage-waggon. His food-supply for sixteen days--the Roman fortnight--is wrapped in a parcel, and this, together with his eating and drinking vessels and any other articles such as would appertain to a modern knapsack, is carried over his shoulder on a forked stick. It is known that to-night the army will be obliged to camp on the way, and it is a binding rule of the service that no camp arrangements shall be left to chance. Surveyors will ride on ahead with a body of cavalry, and will choose a suitable position easily defended and with water near. They will then outline the boundaries according to a certain scale, and will parcel out the interior, according to an almost invariable system, into blocks or sections to accommodate certain units. When the legion arrives, it marches in with a perfect understanding as to where each company of men and each part of the baggage-train is to quarter itself. Being in an enemy's country it is not enough simply to post sentries. A trench must be dug and a palisade erected round the camp, and for that purpose every soldier on the march has carried a couple of sharpened stakes and a sort of small pickaxe. It may therefore be readily understood that Scius is heavily laden. Besides the weight of his body-armour and his shield, pike, and sword, his orthodox burden is about forty-five English pounds.

[Illustration: FIG. 103.--SOLDIERS WITH PACKS.]

[Illustration: FIG. 104--ROMAN SOLDIERS MARCHING. (Scheiber.)]

Before entering upon this description of service and armour of the legionary troops, it was stated that the legions made up but one-half of Roman army, the other half consisting of what were known as "auxiliaries." If there were in the whole Roman empire 150,000 soldiers of the kind described there were also about 150,000 of a different type. Just as it is a natural part of the British policy to raise bodies of Indian or African troops from among the non-British subjects of the empire, so it was an obvious course for the Romans to raise native troops in Africa, Syria, Spain, Gaul, Britain, or the German provinces on the western bank of the Rhine. And just as the British bring their non-British regiments into connection with the regular army, and put them under the command of British officers, so the Romans associated their "auxiliary" soldiery, mostly under Roman officers, with the regular force of the legions. To every legion of 6000 men there was attached, under the same general of division, a force of about 6000 men of non-Roman standing. The subject people of a province was called upon to recruit a certain quota of such troops, and, when so recruited, the soldiers of this class were required to serve for twenty-five years. At the expiration of their term they became Roman citizens, and their descendants ranked as such in the enjoyment of Roman opportunities. Such forces were not themselves formed into "legions" under an "eagle"; they served in separate regiments. Some of them were infantry almost indistinguishable from the Roman; others were armed in a different manner as to shield, spear, and sword; others were light skirmishing troops using their native weapons, such as javelins, slings, and bows. A very large proportion were cavalry, and whereas a legion possessed only 120 Roman horsemen, the auxiliary cavalry attached to it would number one or more regiments of dither 1000 or 500 men each. But it was also part of the Roman policy to employ such auxiliary troops, not in the region in which they were raised and among their own people, but elsewhere, and sometimes even at the opposite extremity of the empire. Thus in Britain might be found, not only Germans and Batavians, but Spaniards or Syrians, while in Syria there might be quartered Africans or Germans, and in Africa troops from the modern Austria. We cannot call this custom an invariable one, but it was usual, and obviously it was politic.

[Illustration: FIG. 105.--Imperial Guards.]

To these two co-operating forces--legions and auxiliaries--we must add the Imperial Guards, twelve regiments of 1000 men each, quartered in Italy, and generally congregated in a special camp just outside the gate at the top of the Quirinal and Viminal Hills beyond the modern railway station. Like other Guards, these were a picked body, containing many volunteers from Italy itself, while others came from the most romanized parts of Gaul or elsewhere. They enjoyed many privileges, wore a more gorgeous armour, served only sixteen years and received double pay. Frequently it came to be the case that this particular body of troops was the one which made and unmade emperors, chiefly under the influence of pecuniary promises or largess. Besides these, 6000 City Guards were in barracks inside the metropolis for the protection of the town; 7000 gendarmerie, already mentioned, served as night-watch and fire-brigade, but perhaps scarcely rank as soldiers. Here and there in the empire there also existed separate volunteer detachments of various dimensions serving on special duty, and it was to one of these that belonged the Cornelius of the Acts of the Apostles, who is there described as a centurion of the "Italian band."

[Illustration: FIG. 106.--BESIEGERS WITH THE "TORTOISE."]

It would carry us too far afield if we entered into detailed descriptions of Roman warfare--of Roman marches, Roman camps, and fortifications, Roman sieges, and military engines. Otherwise it would be highly interesting to watch the attack made upon an enemy's wall or gate by a band of men pushing in front of them a wicker screen covered with hide, or holding their shields locked together above their heads, so as to form a roof to shelter them from the spears, stones, firebrands, and pots of flame which rained down from the walls.

[Illustration: FIG 107.--ROMAN ARTILLERY.]

Or we might see moving up on wheels a shed, from the open front of which protrudes the great iron head of a ram affixed to a huge beam. If you were under the shed, you would see that the beam was perhaps as much as 60 feet in length, and that it was suspended on chains or ropes by which it could be swung, so that the head butted with a deadly insistence upon the masonry of the wall. Meanwhile the enemy from the ramparts are doing their best to set the shed on fire, to break off the ram's head with heavy stones, to pull it upwards by a noose, or to deaden the effect of the shock by lowering stuffed sacks or other buffer material between it and the wall. At another point, in place of the shed, there is rolled forward a lofty construction like a tower built in several stories. When this approaches the wall it will overtop it, and a drawbridge with grappling irons may be dropped upon the parapet. Elsewhere there is mining and countermining. From a safer distance the artillery of the time is hurling its formidable missiles. There is the "catapult," which shoots a giant arrow, sometimes tipped with material on fire, from a groove or half-tube to a distance of a quarter of a mile. The propelling force, in default of gunpowder or other explosive, is the recoil of strings of gut or hair which have been tightened by a windlass. There is also the heavier "hurler," which works in much the same manner, but which, instead of arrows, throws stones and beams of from 14 pounds to half a hundredweight, doing effective damage up to a distance of some 400 yards.

[Illustration: FIG. 108.--AUXILIARY CAVALRYMAN.]

Scius joins his legion as a private infantry soldier. He is in the "hobnailed" service. But if our young noble, Publius Silius Bassus, enters upon a military career, he will probably become one of the 120 Roman horsemen attached to the legion, and will be serving as a "knight" or "gentleman," with servants to relieve him of his rougher work. The cavalrymen among whom he serves do not ride upon a saddle with stirrups, but on a mere saddlecloth. On their left arm is a round shield or buckler; they carry a spear of extreme reach, wear a longer sword than the infantrymen, and on their back is a quiver containing three broad-pointed javelins, very similar to assegais, which serve them as missiles. If by good service they obtain medallions like the infantry, they will fasten them to the bridles and breast-straps of their horses, and altogether will make a fine and jingling show. Through the influence of his family, Publius will most likely be taken under the personal supervision of the general in command, will frequently mess with him, and will perhaps act as a kind of honorary aide-de-camp. After a sufficient initiation into military business, he will be appointed what may be called colonel of an infantry regiment of auxiliaries, then colonel of a regiment of the legion, and subsequently, if he is following the profession, colonel of a regiment of the auxiliary cavalry. He does not at any time pass through the rank of centurion, any more than the British officer passes through that of sergeant-major. The class distinction is at least as great in the case of the Romans.

When the young noble has completed this series of services--although the whole of it is not absolutely necessary, and it will be sufficient if he has been six months titular colonel of a regiment of the legion--he may perhaps return to Rome, and at the age of twenty-five may enter upon his first public position, and so become himself a senator. His duties may be connected with the Treasury at Rome itself, or more probably he will accompany a proconsul who is on his way to govern a province for a year--perhaps Andalusia, or Macedonia, or Bithynia. To his chief he stands for that year in a kind of filial relation. His main business will be to supervise the financial affairs, to act as paymaster, and to keep the accounts of the province, but he will also, when required, administer justice in place of the governor. In this capacity he learns the methods of provincial government in readiness for the time when he himself may be made a governor, whether by the senate or by the emperor. His next step upward will be to the post of aedile, one of the officials who control the streets, public buildings, markets, and police of Rome. By the age of thirty he may arrive at the second highest step on the official ladder, in a position which qualifies him to preside over a court of law. Or it may bring with it no greater function than that of presiding over "games" in the circus or amphitheatre, and of spending a liberal sum of money of his own upon making them both magnificent and novel. After this he may receive from the emperor the command of a brigade--the 12,000 men composed of a legion and its auxiliaries--perhaps at Cologne or Mainz, perhaps at Caerleon-on-Usk, perhaps near Antioch. In this position his movements are subject to the authority of the governor of the province, who is the "lieutenant" or "deputy" of His Highness in the larger capacity, while he himself is but a "lieutenant" of Caesar as commanding one of his legions.

He may now himself be appointed governor to a province, but hardly yet to those which are the "plums" of the empire. There is still one highest post for him to fill. This is the consulship. Under the republic the two consuls had been the highest executive officers of the state, and the year was dated by their names. Nominally they were still in the same position, and the sane emperors made a point of treating them with all outward respect. They took precedence of all but "His Highness the Head of the State." But whereas under the republic there had been but two consuls holding joint office for the year, under the emperors the post had become to such a degree complimentary, and there were so many nobles who desired the honour or to whom the emperor was minded to grant it, that it became the custom to hold the position only for two months, so that twelve persons in each year might boast of being ex-consuls or having "passed the consul's chair."

Publius Silius, we may suppose, passes up each step of the ladder, or what was called the "career of honours," and becomes senatorial governor of no less important a province than "Asia"--that nearer portion of Asia Minor which contained flourishing cities like Smyrna, Ephesus, and Rhodes. In that office, as in any other which he may hold, it behoves him to comport himself with caution and modesty. If he is a man of unusual influence or popularity he will do well to keep the fact concealed. There must be nothing in his demeanour or his speech to lay him open to a charge of becoming dangerous to the emperor. That emperor is Nero; and even stronger and saner emperors than Nero watched suspiciously the behaviour of aspiring men.




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