Roving reporter Ryan and Oxford historian Lydia took Nat Geo’s trusty time machine back to the first century CE to get the word on the via about life in the Roman Empire.
Here we speak to soldier Quintus Valerius Secundus, stationed in Britain at the Empire’s edge.
Heus! Tell us, Quintus, how is it that a soldier in the Roman army is all the way out in Britain?
Britannia, as we call it, is Rome’s newest province, at the western frontier of the Empire. My father was a soldier in the Roman military campaigns in Britain under the emperor Vespasian, and I decided to follow in his footsteps and enlist under his son, Emperor Domitian. We’re here at the Fort Vindolanda, a castrum in the north of Britannia and an important outpost in the fight against the native Britons.
My four brothers are also soldiers, stationed throughout the Empire. As the youngest, I am the lowest ranked at legionary, part of the infantry. My oldest brother Publius is a centurion, a junior officer, stationed in Gaul; my brother Septimus is an optio, or what you call a lieutenant, in Hispania; and finally my brother Titus has a very unique position. He is an imaginifer in Germania. His job is to bear the standard with the image of Emperor Domitian to remind all us soldiers where our true loyalty should lie.
What did you and your fellow soldiers bring with you to Britain?
We all have our weapons and armor, of course. I always carry my gladius, a short sword, and I have a pilum, which you would call a spear or a javelin. Then we have our galeae, suits of lorica segmentata, and scuta. While we are the best-equipped army in the world, here in Britain, we often have to wait weeks for replacement supplies to be sent to us.
Beyond what’s necessary for battle, we have few personal belongings. I have a small pen made of bronze, and I borrow wood tablets and ink from the other men to write letters often. Our days are not particularly full of action. I write many, many letters home.
To eat, we rarely get more than basic bread and cheese or puls, a grainy porridge. We sometimes have boiled meat with dinner, but lunch is a much quicker affair. My brothers who are officers in their legions—and therefore receive double or even triple the normal rate of pay—write to me that they actually dine quite well and have slaves to prepare their food.
What do you write about in your letters home?
Like all lower-ranked Roman soldiers, I am forbidden to marry until my 25 years of service are complete, a law passed a few years ago under then Emperor Augustus. Even though I leave no wife or children behind, I miss my parents and siblings and write to them regularly, mostly so they know I’m still alive! The military post is quite efficient, though of all my brothers it takes my letters longest to reach our home in Rome.
Typically, I ask for basic news of life from home—who has married, had children, who has died. As it is quite a bit colder here in Britannia than on the continent, I also asked recently for some warmer clothing and heartier food to be sent to me.
What I have not yet told my family is that I may soon take an unofficial wife here, a Briton. It is not uncommon among our camp for men to raise families with local women, though only those with higher ranks are given the legal right to officially marry them.
Think about it: We are stationed here for 25 years, and many stay longer, with little to do and only a handful of battles each year. Our reward for surviving—and here the frostbite is more of a threat to that than battles themselves—is a small plot of farmland off in some forgotten corner of the Empire. How can I be expected to adjust to such a life after 25 years as a soldier?
My brothers tell me in their letters that it is common in Gaul and Hispania, as well, for Roman soldiers to marry local women. As they are stationed in more established Roman provinces, these women are often the daughters of local women and Roman soldiers who were stationed there years ago. Whether they have Roman blood in them or not, these new wives are given Roman names and expected to behave as the wife of a Roman citizen-soldier would, so I suppose in a few generations we won’t even know the difference.
2,000 years from now, what should people remember about soldiers in the Roman Empire?
We are trained in the most advanced military techniques there are, and there isn’t one among us that hasn’t killed a man in battle. But there is more to us than this. The young among us want families and a peaceful life one day, and the old among us miss the families they have left behind.
Rome may think it can forget about us once we’re sent out to the frontiers of the Empire, but we know that this Empire, mighty as it is, would crumble without each one of us.
Letters Home from Hadrian’s Wall
Most of what we know about Roman soldiers’ lives in Britain comes from the Vindolanda tablets found near Hadrian’s Wall, a 129-kilometer (80-mile) fortification built in the second century CE and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The tablets—believed to be the oldest surviving documents in Britain—contain military records as well as personal letters and messages from soldiers of all ranks. The tablets were discovered in 1973 by archaeologist Robin Birley, and now more than 700 of them sit on display at the British Museum in London.
A Rare Rebellion
There are very few instances in the history of the Roman Empire in which a legion revolted against the wishes of its commander or the emperor. One notable example came in 14 CE at the beginning of Emperor Tiberius’s reign, in which legions stationed in the northern provinces of Germania (what is today Germany) and Pannonia (on the northwestern Balkan Peninsula) threatened mutiny when they were not paid bonuses promised them by the previous emperor, Augustus. Tiberius sent his young nephew Germanicus to rally the legions, and he was eventually able to quell the rebellion.
activities designed to achieve a social, political, or military goal.
member of a country, state, or town who shares responsibilities for the area and benefits from being a member.
performing a task with skill and minimal waste.
ruler of an empire.
to use or employ someone for a specific purpose.
person who is owned by another person or group of people.
largely unpopulated area that is slowly being opened up for settlement.
injury or destruction of skin and tissue due to exposure to extremely cold temperatures.
soldiers trained to fight on the ground with weapons they can carry.
long, light spear usually thrown by hand.
ancient Roman military unit, consisting of between 3,000 and 6,000 infantry and cavalry troops.
settlement or station located in a remote area.
thick, pasty soup made from boiled cereals or beans.
division of a country larger than a town or county.
flag or emblem used as a rallying sign in a battle.
method of doing something.
tool to hurt or combat an opponent.