General Knowledge

A day in the life of a Roman soldier

The year is 15 CE and the Roman Empire is prospering. Most of the credit will go to the emperor, but this success wouldn’t have been possible without loyal soldiers like Servius Felix. Servius enlisted as a legionary eight years ago at age 18, the son of a poor farmer with few prospects.

Unlike the majority of legionaries, he doesn’t gamble, so he’s been able to save most of his wages. He’s even kept his viaticum, the three gold coins he received when he enlisted. If he survives until retirement, he’ll receive several acres of land. And he’s grown rather fond of a girl back home whom he intends to marry.

But he’ll have to wait until he completes his 25 years of service before that can happen. And the life of a legionary is dangerous and grueling. Today, Servius’s legion, along with three others, has undertaken a “great march” of 30,000 Roman paces, the equivalent of nearly 36 kilometers. Servius’s armor and weapons, including his gladius, scutum, and two pila, weigh over 20 kilograms.

And that’s not counting his backpack, or sarcina, which contains food and all the tools he needs to help build the camp – spade, saw, pickaxe, and basket. Although Servius is exhausted, he won’t sleep much tonight. He’s been assigned the first watch, which means looking after the baggage animals and keeping alert against a possible ambush. After he’s done, he lies awake, dreading the day ahead, which will force him to recall his worst nightmare. At dawn, Servius eats breakfast with his seven tent companions.

They’re like a family, all bearing scars from the battles they’ve fought together. Servius is from Italia, but his fellow soldiers hail from all over the empire, which stretches from Syria to Spain. So they’re all far from home in the northern land of Germania. Servius’s legion and three others with him today are under the command of Emperor Tiberius’s nephew Germanicus, named for his father’s military successes against the Germanic tribes. Each legion has close to 5,000 men, divided into cohorts of about 500, further subdivided into centuries of around 80-100 men. Each century is commanded by a centurion.

An aquilifer, or eagle-bearer, marches at the head of each legion carrying its eagle standard. The centurions march beside the legionaries belting out orders, “Dex, sin, dex, sin,” “Right, left, right, left,” starting with the right foot as the left is considered unlucky or sinister. Despite the strict discipline, there’s tension in the air. Last year, some legions in the area revolted, demanding better pay and a cut in the length of service.

Only their general’s charisma and negotiating skills prevented wholesale mutiny. Today is a “just march,” only 30 kilometers. As the marshes and forests of Germania lie beyond the empire’s road system the men must build causeways and bridges to make headway— something they’ve recently spent more time doing than fighting. Finally, they arrive at their destination, a place Servius knows too well.

It’s a clearing on the outskirts of the Teutoburg Forest, where six years ago, during the reign of the Emperor Augustus, Germanic tribes under their chieftain Arminius ambushed and destroyed three legions. Proceeding along a narrow path, the legions were attacked from forest cover under torrential rain with their escape blocked. It was one of the worst defeats the Romans ever suffered and Augustus never lived it down.

Servius was one of the few survivors. Servius still has nightmares of his comrades lying where they fell. But now the army is back to bury the dead with full military honors. As he helps in the task, he can’t help wondering whether the bones he handles belonged to someone he knew. Several times he wants to weep aloud, but he pushes on with the task. The glory of the Empire can go to the crows. All he craves is to retire on a small farm with his wife-to-be, if the gods should spare his life for 17 more years.

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