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Exhibition Review The life and times of the Imperial footsoldier

TOM KING marvels at the insights into the lived reality of the legionaries of the Roman empire revealed by 2,000-year-old artefacts

Legion: life in the Roman army
British Museum, London

IN 1987 a wooden writing tablet was unearthed at Vindolanda, a Roman fort near Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland, after almost 2,000 years. It records, among sundry orders for tallow, towels, socks and sandals, a request by Gambax, a legionary stationed thither around AD 120, for a quantity of Indian pepper worth two denarii. “Presumably to make palatable his stodgy Romano-British dinner,” ventures historian William Dalrymple, “something to cheer him up as he peeped over the battlements at the naked, painted, spear-waving Picts shouting incomprehensible insults from their forests and bogs.”

This speaks, of course, to the Roman empire’s astonishing reach — forging comprehensive trading relations with a land over 4,000 miles from its axis — but also brings to mind a lonely soldier, far from home and probably damp, shivering away at its northernmost point and longing for the comforts of home. 

Such piercing flashes of human connection form the basis of this comprehensive and sumptuous exhibition at the British Museum, loosely woven around the life and times of one such legionary (a contemporary of Gambax in fact, though I can’t imagine they met) – one Claudius Terentianus, an Egyptian who longed for Roman citizenship and sought it by the only means possible: enlistment. 

Rome’s first emperor, Augustus (63BC-AD14), inaugurated the career soldier (a role hitherto fulfilled part-time by the patrician class) not just for the purposes of imperial expansion, but to enforce, often brutally, its legal system over some 60 million people — a task for 150,000 male citizens, with an equal number of non-citizen auxiliaries bolstering the ranks.

It's hard not think such a hierarchy caused considerable resentment — citizen soldiers were, unsurprisingly, better equipped — and is presumably why Augustus’s successors offered enfranchisement after 25 years’ service to those unfortunate enough to fall outside the imperial aegis. As we are informed at the very beginning: “Rome’s war machine also became an engine for creating citizens” — from conquered territories.

Initially having to make do with the markedly less glamorous marines, Terentianus transferred to the legions and was posted to Syria, but yearned to become that most dashing of soldiers, a cavalryman (an ambition — spoiler ahoy — he never fulfilled). Nevertheless, the perks of the job were many, if death was avoided before retirement, namely: 300 denarii a year, a substantial pension, and a parcel of land to tend and enjoy in his autumn years. 

Terentianus can perhaps also count himself lucky never to have ventured from north African climes — legionaries posted to Britain complained bitterly. Eight would have to share (and pay for) a lice-ridden, goatskin tent while enduring the vagaries of the weather, the “wretched Britons” and were altogether keen to improve their lot. This included frequent requests for woollen socks, a beautifully preserved example of which (found in Egypt: a climate more conducive to sartorial posterity) is crimson, split-toed for use in a sandal, and looks not unlike the severed foot of Futurama’s Dr Zoidberg (Google it). 

Frontier life was clearly tough and surely at points unimaginably grim, especially for the women, children and slaves (interchangeable categories) who, outside of combat, suffered much of the hardship without any material reward. Quite the opposite in fact, as a haunting contract for the purchase of a seven-year-old Syrian boy, Abbas, for 200 denarii (two-thirds of a legionary’s annual salary) makes clear. There is no evidence that Terentianus abducted children, but he does (with ranks below centurion forbidden to marry) send a grovelling request for his family’s permission to “take” an enslaved concubine. Their reply is unknown.

Alongside sex, mundanities were leavened by games and gambling (the ubiquitous draughts board), target practice (a many times punctured ox skull) and I assume hunting (I thought for some time about how one legionary came by his crocodile skin “armour”).

Many remnants are simultaneously quotidian and extraordinary: a pair of children’s shoes, a birthday party invitation sent to Vindolanda by one Claudia Severa (the earliest recorded British example of a woman’s handwriting), and a dice “tower” designed to prevent cheating by randomising the fall of the clattering ivories.

Though emperors and their glittering accoutrements hardly feature at all, there are plenty of handsome artefacts on display, once (and perhaps still) powerful projectors of Rome’s imperial majesty to the borders of the known world. 

Intricately worked swords, shields and standards heralded not only martial conquest but administrative domination, chillingly foretold by the silver-plated roundels from the armour of a war horse, gathered together by a bust of Nero (or possibly Claudius) that surely glinted from the breast of the steed as a new sheriff rode into town. 

The empire was not, however, averse to imitation. A cavalryman’s dragon standard was shamelessly copied from Rome’s Sarmatian foes, and you can see why: colourful material would billow in the wind of its speed as, jaws agape, the “draco” released an eerie screech in flight. (In situ, a black windsock flaps half-heartedly in an artificial breeze, but the dragon is silent, alas). 

Another magnificent beast (a real one, to boot) was the gargantuan Molossian hound — unfortunately extinct but immortalised in a colossal marble statue — which guarded camps and forts from animal and human aggressors. Legionaries, it seems, were not always greeted with open arms and pleas for enlistment. 

Two particular hostilities stand out: the Boudican revolt in AD 60, the eponymous rebellion by the leader of the Icinii in southern England; and that of Arminius, a disenchanted Roman soldier. Hailing from the Germanic Cherusci tribe but tempted by citizenship, he organised a masterful ambush and destroyed three legions (some 15,000 men, not to mention women, children and slaves) under the command of Publius Quinctilius Varus in the Teutoburg Forest in AD9 in what was, perhaps, Rome’s most catastrophic and traumatic defeat.

A cuirass, or body armour, found there and on display, will doubtless inspire some to purchase one of the gleaming and expensive replicas available in the gift shop, along with tunics, shields, helmets and swords (but tragically, no socks). 

A fellow reviewer did so and donned it immediately, clanking forth into the atrium with a spring in his step and the glint of imperial ambition in his eye. 

Runs until June 23. For more information see: britishmuseum.org

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