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Military History

The Legionaries of Rome’s Britannia

From AD 43 to AD 410, during the Roman occupation of what was then Britannia, Roman legions were the backbone of imperial authority. Read more here.

From AD 43 to AD 410, during the Roman occupation of what was then Britannia, Roman legions were the backbone of imperial authority. Read more here.

by Eric Niderost

The Roman legionary of the 1st century AD was a formidable fighting man, well trained and well equipped. His cassis (helmet) was usually of the “Imperial Gallic” style, which featured two large armored cheek pieces and a “lobster tail” rear that protected the back of the neck. A knee-length red woolen tunic was his basic garment, his armor the lorica segmentata style that was introduced around AD 30-40. The lorica segmentata featured bands of iron that girded his shoulders and torso. His feet were shod in heavy boot-like sandals called caliga. We know the mad Emperor Gaius (ruled AD 34-41) by his nickname Caligula, meaning “Bootsie” or “Little Boots.”

It should be noted that older styles of armor were also worn, including chain mail tunics that were not unlike their later medieval incarnations. The Roman sword was the gladius, or short sword, a thrusting and stabbing weapon made of the finest steel available at the time. It was stubby, and decidedly inelegant, but it did the job. It was well balanced and superb for the close-in stabbing, hacking, and thrusting that the Romans excelled in.

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The basic throwing weapon for a Roman legionary was the pilum (plural: pila), a seven-foot javelin well adapted to Roman needs. It featured a relatively small iron head and tapering “neck” that was fixed to a wooden shaft. It was mainly designed to disrupt enemy battle lines, because once transfixed into a shield it was hard to remove—particularly in the heat of battle. Usually the encumbered shield was discarded—frequently with fatal results.

Roman Occupation Forces

In the 1st century AD Britannia’s Roman occupation forces fluctuated between three and four legions. Legions came and went, and they were not always up to strength, but it’s safe to assume there were usually somewhere between 36,000 and 48,000 Roman troops in Britannia at any given time. (One must include auxiliaries in this figure.) In the early years of occupation the legion bases were earth and timber forts, scarcely better than those built while on campaign, but as Roman power became more established permanent stone structures were built. By the 80s AD permanent bases included modern-day York and Chester.

Some legions were based in Britannia for a very short time, while others remained on the island for centuries. The ill-fated IX Legio Hispana, the one so badly mauled by Boudicca’s army, was part of the original invasion force that landed in Britain. It departed around AD 110. The XX Legio Valeria Victrix was also part of the original invasion force, but managed to win fresh laurels against Boudicca and also during later campaigns in Scotland. The hard-fighting Twentieth finally left Britannia at the end of the 2nd century AD.

Not all legions were so enduring. The XIV Gemina Martia Victrix was yet another legion from the original invasion force, but its tenure was brief. It left in AD 66, and apart from a brief visit in 70, never returned. It should be noted that its unusual name Gemina (“twin”) usually signified one legion made from two, or two legions created from one original.

Auxiliary Units

Auxiliary units were basically support troops, useful for frontier duties such as patrolling, scouting, and manning distant outposts. Auxiliaries were recruited from local populations, and in time they too helped in the slow but steady process of Romanization. After 25 years of service, the auxiliary received Roman citizenship, a valuable asset in the 1st century.

Auxiliary equipment was much the same as that for the legionary, though auxiliaries are usually depicted with flat, oval shields. Auxiliary units could be infantry, cavalry, or even mixed units of infantry and cavalry. Cavalry units were called ala (plural: alae), or “wing.” The Roman army was basically an infantry arm, and the cavalry was mainly used for scouting, relaying messages, and other such duties.

Rebellions Were Rare

Major rebellions like Boudicca’s Revolt were relatively rare events. Many legions served in frontier areas for decades without ever throwing a pilum in anger. During these peaceful interludes Roman legionaries were often employed as builders. The greatest evidence of such efforts is Hadrian’s Wall, which divided Roman Britannia from barbarian Caledonia (Scotland) to the north. The wall was a mighty engineering feat that stretched for 70 miles. It was built of stone and featured “mile castles” at two-mile intervals.

The massive construction was ordered by the Emperor Hadrian after AD 122, but scholars have debated about its actual purpose. It served as a kind of customs barrier, controlling movement and trade through the frontier. It could certainly impede small raids and similar incursions from the “barbarian” Picts, though it was not designed to stop a major invasion. The wall also was a symbol of the power of Rome, designed to awe the natives by its skill and magnificence.

Some historians have suggested that the wall’s construction also kept legionaries occupied, and perhaps too busy to foment rebellion. Idle and disaffected legions sometimes proclaimed their leader emperor, and—as in AD 69—even marched to Rome to install their candidate. There were times when it was wiser to have a legionary wield a pick than a pilum.

By the 4th century AD Britannia was thoroughly Romanized, though powerful Celtic influences remained. Over the centuries barracks were expanded for use by family units, and there’s no doubt that at least some Roman soldiers married local British women. Conquerors and the conquered, so powerfully at odds during Boudicca’s Revolt, had created a Romano-Celtic civilization, and in so doing achieved a measure of reconciliation.

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