What was life like in the Roman army?

The Roman army was the largest and meanest fighting force in the ancient world.

One of the main reasons Rome became so powerful was because of the strength of its army. It conquered a vast empire that stretched from Britain all the way to the Middle East. The army was very advanced for its time. The soldiers were the best trained, they had the best weapons and the best armour. Being a soldier was a serious business.

When the Romans invaded Britain, their army was so good that it took on armies 10 times its size and won!

Who was in the Roman army?

Only men could be in the Roman Army, no women were allowed. There were two main types of Roman soldiers: legionaries and auxiliaries.

The legionaries were the elite (very best) soldiers. A legionary had to be over 17 years old and a Roman citizen. Every new recruit had to be fighting fit - anyone who was weak or too short was rejected.

Legionaries signed up for at least 25 years' service. But if they survived their time, they were rewarded with a gift of land they could farm. Old soldiers often retired together in military towns, called ‘colonia’.

An auxiliary was a soldier who was not a Roman citizen. He was only paid a third of a legionary’s wage. Auxiliaries guarded forts and frontiers but also fought in battles, often in the front lines where it was the most dangerous.

A Roman Legionary and a Roman Auxiliary soldier stand next to each other
Most soldiers in the Roman Empire came from countries outside Italy. There were soldiers from Africa, France, Germany, Spain and the Middle East.

Click on this Roman legionary below to find out about his equipment.

How did the Roman army fight?

At its largest, there might have been around half a million soldiers in the Roman army! To keep such a large number of men in order, it was divided up into groups called ‘legions’. Each legion had between 4,000 and 6,000 soldiers.

A legion was further divided into groups of 80 men called ‘centuries’. The man in charge of a century was known as a ‘centurion’. He carried a short rod, to show his importance. He would also use it to beat any soldier who disobeyed him.

Some soldiers had special skills. They shot bows and arrows, flung stones from slingshots, or could swim rivers to surprise an enemy.

Roman soldiers usually lined up for battle in a tight formation. After a terrifying burst of arrows and artillery, the Roman soldiers marched at a slow steady pace towards the enemy. At the last minute, they hurled their javelins and drew their swords, before charging into the enemy. Then they used cavalry (soldiers riding horses) to chase anyone who tried to run away.

Roman soldiers firing a catapult.
Artillery soldiers fired giant catapults called ‘onagers’. These machines fired rocks or balls of burning tar.

Watch the video below and take a trip around the famous Roman fort at Vindolanda on Hadrian's Wall.

How well trained were Roman soldiers?

A Roman soldier was a well-trained fighting machine. He could march 20 miles a day, wearing all his armour and equipment. He could swim or cross rivers in boats, build bridges and smash his way into forts.

After a long day’s march, Roman soldiers had to build a camp, complete with a ditch and a wall of wooden stakes. The next day, they had to do it all again!

A Roman soldier almost always followed orders. Anyone who didn't faced tough punishments. If you fell asleep on duty, you could be sentenced to death.

Roman soldiers weren't always at war - they spent most of their time training for battle. They practised fighting in formation and man-to-man. Legionaries also patrolled their conquered territories and built roads, forts and aqueducts (a bridge which carried water).

A group of Roman soldiers training.
This modern painting shows Roman soldiers at Birdoswald Fort (Hadrian's Wall). A centurion watches men training.
Roman mother and child visiting a British hill fort