Late Roman Army
Life In The Legion
By the 4th century soldiers were expected to serve at least 20 years. The honesta missio given after 20 years could be turned into an emerita missio after 24 years, giving the full privileges of a veteran. These included the exemption from poll tax for themselves and their wives, market dues, custom dues and the like. Veterans were given land allotments with oxen and seed corn, or, if they preferred a cash bounty. Soldiers retiring due to wounds, illness or age could receive a causaria missio, but they may have had to serve a qualifying period.
According to Vegetius new recruits should have alert eyes, straight neck, broad chest, muscular shoulders, strong arms, long fingers, small stomach, be slender in the buttocks and have muscular calves and feet. Rural recruits were considered more hardy than urban dwellers. These could be toughened by drill, enduring heat and dust, by carrying heavy loads, feeding them a moderate rural diet and making them camp in tents.
Some troops would have been volunteers, but many would have been conscripts. Some would have been the sons of soldiers who were legally forced to serve, some would have been conscripted from the local communities who would each have to provide a quota of men. Communities tried to pay a conscription tax to avoid sending quotas of men, but this system was open to abuse. A recruit was valued at 36 solidi, 6 of which were for equipment. The money could be used to obtain low quality recruits, and any difference pocketed by the officers.
Some men resorted to mutilation to avoid serving in the army by cutting off their thumbs. However in AD 381 Theodosius stated that two such mutilated recruits could serve instead of one whole man. Desertion seems to have become common. Recruits were citizens or barbarians, mainly Germans. Slaves, freedmen, innkeepers, cooks and provincial officials were excluded from service. The recruit or tiro was to be between 19 and 35 years old. Some seem to have been branded or tattooed to try and reduce desertion. The height limit was set as 5’7’’ (Roman). Recruits were exempted from poll tax.
New recruits took the military oath, the sacramentum. One recruit was chosen to recite the entire oath, after which the rest would in turn say “idem in me”, meaning “the same in my case”. The recruit was then entered into the records of the unit, the final legal stage of becoming a soldier.
Troops were expected to build marching camps, be able to bridge rivers, handle small boats. They could still march in full armour to the field of battle, route march carrying their spears but with their heavy equipment on wagons, or operate as light troops away from their supporting units carrying small shields and light equipment. Tents are mentioned, and some leather fragments have been recovered. They would be taught to use the whole range of weapons available to the pedes of the late fourth century, and may have specialised in some.
Infantry were drilled in order to get them to the battlefield, and able to deploy from column to line. They would engage in mock battles using staffs or naked swords. Soldiers were praised for physical strength, and wrestled “soldiers’ fashion”.
They would have hunted wild boar, wolves, deer and foxes. Soldiers played board games such as tabula and latrunculi, as well as dice. They could relax in the civilian settlement outside the walls, the vicus, where as Severus Alexander said, soldiers could “make love, drink, wash”.