If you have ever taken part in an Easter media production or any other Roman period piece, there is a good chance you wore a Roman soldier costume.
Portraying one of the troops in the Roman army was, no doubt, a fun experience, but do you ever wonder what it was really like serving as a protector of the ancient Roman Empire? If so, now’s your chance to find out!
Being a Roman legionary was more than simply putting on a Roman soldier costume. It was considered your professional full time gig and like all jobs in today’s world, there were qualifications that had to be met. Among these requirements were being a Roman citizen between the ages of 18-45, meeting a height standard of at least 5’5″, and making a commitment to serve in a legion for 25 years. The Roman army was particular in their selection process, seeking the best of the best, and while not necessary, a letter of recommendation wasn’t a bad idea to maximize your odds. If you were among the chosen to be a part of a Roman legion, that’s when the hard work would begin. There was compensation of around 300 denarii annually, some of which went towards army expenses and a portion going to a pension given to a soldier when their service was done.
Once a part of the army, the first order of business was training, which was no easy feat. Grueling hours were spent mastering effective weapon usage, learning techniques, and practicing battle tactics and formations under the watch of a staunch Roman commander. Marching was also a key component in the process. Each troop member was expected to eventually be able to march 25 miles in full armor in a mere 5 hours. If you have ever worn the full Roman soldier costume ensemble, you know this task would be far from easy in the heat of the day, with so many pieces weighing you down. In addition, road construction and fort building was a part of a soldier’s daily activities.
The foundation for legionary training was discipline and structure. There was little to no room for slacking off and those that did paid for it with severe consequences, some of them being beatings, sleeping outside protected camp, and even execution. In contrast, those who proved themselves as disciplined and obedient were rewarded with higher rank and other perks.
Another aspect of being in a Roman legion was traveling. Divided into many groups, legions were stationed on the outer limits of the Roman Empire to protect against adversaries. They would set up camps at specified locations and move to another spot periodically when summoned. The journey from one camp to another was a rigorous one, as it required miles and miles of marching in a column-style formation with tents, equipment, and weapons weighing 40 pounds or more.
While gear and weapons were a burden to bear, legionary dress was a little lighter. Styles varied somewhat within each legion with no standardized uniform, but most Roman troops wore something similar to the Roman soldier costume that is typical of today’s re-enactments. Base attire for Roman soldiers consisted of a linen undergarment, a woolen tunic reaching the knees, and leather trousers were eventually added. Typical Roman legionary armor consisted of metal strips hinged together along with bronze helmets which were later replaced by iron ones. To compliment their armor, Roman soldiers often carried wooden shields, a pilum (throwing weapon), and gladius (short sword) with them.
In summary, there’s your snapshot of what it was like as a Roman legionary. It was a life of discipline and devotion. So, the next time you step into a Roman soldier costume, take a moment to reflect upon the true reality it represents.