Saturday, January 7, 2017

Ancient Rome and the Footsoldier

The Footsoldier in ancient Rome

Martin Windrow and Richard Hook Illustrated By Angus Mcbride
For centuries Rome's army consisted of volunteers, citizens who served only in times of need. As the Roman Empire grew, leaders decided that the army needed professional soldiers full-time trained fighters paid by the Roman government. The story that follows tells about the life of professional soldier Sextus Duratius, 2nd Augusta Legion.

The story that follows tells about the life of professional soldier Sextus Duratius, 2nd Augusta Legion.

As you read, think about what makes people willing to lead the life of a soldier.

As a soldier, in what he considered the finest legion in the Empire, Sextus could hope for travel, adventure, and promotion: promotion, perhaps, to the unapproachable godlike status of a senior centurion, commanding a cohort1 of 500 men. In return for hard knocks and unquestioning obedience he would receive 337% silver pennies a year, in three installments less compulsory2 deductions for rations, boots, replacement of lost kit,3 burial insurance, and anything else the penny-pinching clerks could think up. He might get handsome4 bonuses from time to time if he was in an important victory, or if a new Emperor came to power. Part of his pay would be safely banked for him, and if he survived his term of enlistment he would get a generous lump-sum pension, or a grant of land instead. It was not at all a bad deal provided you lived to collect it.

During the first months Sextus often doubted that he would survive his first year. He learned the soldier's trade the hard way, harried about the parade ground and practice During the first months Sextus often doubted that he would survive his first year. He learned the soldier's trade the hard way, harried about the parade ground and practice field by the brazen5 tongues and vine-wood cudgels6 of the instructing  centurions. He learned how to keep his armor clean and bright, even if it meant sitting up half the night. He learned how to march twenty-five miles a day in full kit, rain or shine, with hob-nailed sandals raising blisters on his blisters. As often as not he reeled back to barracks only to be herded straight off to the practice ground to dig ditches and build ramparts   and to see them filled in again, ready for tomorrow's session. He learned to handle javelin, sword and shield. He suffered more bruises and grazes than he could count from the double-weight wooden swords they practiced with before being trusted with Roman steel in their shaky hands.

He learned to recognize the signals for the different battle formations the "wedge," the "saw," and all the other tricks of combat. And he learned just who, when, and how much to bribe, in order to avoid the frequent appearance of his name on the centurion's little lists for latrine-cleaning, cookhouse-cleaning, camp-cleaning, and a dozen other traps for the unwary recruit. Before two years had passed he was a thoroughly trained, disciplined, and dangerous professional soldier.

It had been eight years before Sextus and his comrades started their long journey by foot and barge and ship from the familiar surroundings of Strasbourg, with its stone barracks and lively civilian town, to the empty beaches and rolling, forested hills of Britain. In that time he had served on two or three short local expeditions on the German frontier nothing serious, not much more than tax-gathering trips enlivened by the occasional brisk skirmish.8 He discovered that his training really worked, and that gave him confidence.

He had needed it, on this rather frightening expedition into the far northern mists. Only the gods knew what horrors awaited a man in these black woods and wind-haunted uplands, to say nothing of the dangers of drowning in the choppy grey seas or dying under the spears of the Britons. They were only savages, of course, but there had been a lot of them in some of the early battles of the invasion. But the magic of Roman arms and discipline worked again, and Sextus soon forgot his doubts and fears.

When the Augusta was detached from the other legions and marched westwards things improved even more. Away from the eyes of the generals and staff officers, the Legate Vespasian proved a fair and decent commander. He expected his legionaries to do their duty and do it quickly and thoroughly; but he didn't nag at men who were fighting almost every day.

Tonight, for instance, when the battle was over and to judge from the thickening smoke and the noise from beyond the gateway it wouldn't be long now Sextus could hope for a good night's rest. Perhaps the auxiliary cohorts which hadn't been in action would be ordered to dig the ramparts and pitch the tents for the men who had fought today? At any rate, Sextus probably wouldn't have to stand guard.

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