Legion: Life in the Roman Army

Written by Amelia Kedge, ITP Assistant

On 1st February, a new exhibition opened here at the British Museum, Legion: life in the Roman Army.

Rome owed its vast empire, spanning more than a million square miles, to military might. Its dominance arose from a deeply militarised society where every male of noble birth was a part-time soldier. But it endured by creating an army of professional commoners, promising citizenship it those without it, offering a better lie for those who survived their service.

The exhibition follows the journey of a real Roman soldier, Claudius Terentianus. A papyrus archive found at Karanis, Egypt, provides a window into the experiences of Terentianus, a legionary in Emperor Trajan’s army. In several letters home, Terentianus recounts his initial failed attempt to join the legions in AD 110, and his experience in the poorer-paid marines before his deployment East for Trajan’s war with the Parthian empire, and eventual promotion to legionary.

Terentianus’ story, along with letters written on papyri by soldiers from Roman Egypt, and the Vindolanda tablets – some of the older surviving handwritten documents in Britain – found near Hadrian’s Wall, reveal first hand what daily life was like for soldiers, women, children and enslaved people who accompanied them.

The exhibition uncovers what life was really like in the Roman army from a soldier’s perspective. Despite the offers of a substantial pension or citizenship, the perils were real with about fifty percent of soldiers surviving illness and violence to reach retirement.  

Alongside the exhibition, and aimed at schools and families, the museum has collaborated with Horrible Histories, a bestselling children’s book and TV series, to create a trail following Claudius Rattus. Marked in distinctive yellow, Rattus brings the exhibition to life with gruesome facts and interactive activity stations for all ages.

What impresses me the most about this exhibition is its sensitivity. Following the story of Terentianus, you become to appreciate this was a real person with dreams and ambitions, determined to make a better life for himself and his family. And yet despite the impressive display of incredibly preserved weapons, shields and armour, the stories of those who wore them with pride, and fled them in fear, are at the forefront of this exhibition. The horrors of war and violence for those on the frontline and in its wake aren’t shied away from, yet nor are they glorified. The objects present the mundanity of everyday life, a reminder that we have always been; wooden-soled slippers worn in baths; board games and dice; and invites to a birthday party written on wooden tablets.

Legion: life in the Roman Army runs until 23rd June 2024.