Legion - Life in the Roman Army

It’s that exhibition that Roman enthusiasts are clamouring to see.

The British Museum is rather good at themed exhibitions; the Nero one was terrific as were those featuring Pompeii, the Celts and the World of Stonehenge. When ‘Legion – Life in the Roman Army’ was first announced in the members’ newsletter, I wept bitter tears as I had no plans to be in the UK in the first part of 2024 so I would miss it. But happily, a family occasion in the UK coincided and I insisted on a day trip to the museum during that week.

The museum is imposing in itself; you cannot hope to see a fraction of the exhibits, let alone the special exhibitions like this one in a single visit. I resolutely ignored the call of other fascinating exhibits and focused on striding through the Great Court and headed for the Sainsbury Room and life in the legion. Prime objective was to see the only surviving whole legionary scutum, the classic curved rectangular shield that we think of as ‘typically Roman’.

Dura-Europos scutum

The shield was made from layers of leather and wood strips, bound with bronze edging. Held like a suitcase handle, complete it likely weighed 5.5 kg but was stored without ever being fitted with a boss. While Roman auxiliaries mostly used flat oval shields, this semi-cylindrical profile helped legionaries interlock shields in battle manoeuvres. By the AD 250s, legionaries abandoned this shield type in favour of those common to other regiments.
Wood, leather and bronze Dura-Europos, Syria, early AD 200s, Yale University Art Gallery, Yale-French Excavations at Dura-Europos

Back of scutum


Scene from Trajan’s column showing the testudo (tortoise) manoeuvre. Interlocking long shields aid this tank-like formation to advance under enemy fire – the soldier’s hobnails trample falling enemies underfoot. Troops could also run along the top to jump up onto walls. I wouldn’t like to be underneath when that happened!

This is the world’s most complete Roman legionary’s articulated cuirass, often referred to as the lorica segmentata by later historians. In AD 9, Arminius, a Roman citizen and cavalry commander of Germanic origin, treacherously teamed up with his native tribes and successfully ambushed three legions led by Publius Quinctilius Varus, the Roman governor of Germany. Varus and his entire army were destroyed in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. This cuirass was found on the battlefield. Analysis suggests the soldier died wearing it.
Iron, Kalkriese, Germany, AD 9,VARUSSCHLACHT im Osnabrücker Land Gmbh /Museum und Park Kalkriese

Despite the armour being commonly associated with the Romans, it was used by other civilisations before them;  Parthians, possibly Dacians, Scythians, or Sarmatians. The segmented cuirass was possibly introduced into the Roman army after Crassus’s defeat at Carrhae in 53 BC.

Around the middle of the third century the lorica segmentata fell out of favour with the Roman army, although it did remain in use during the Late Roman Empire. Soldiers wearing the lorica segmentata were depicted on the Arch of Constantine, a monument erected in AD 315. However, it has been argued that these depictions are from an earlier monument by Marcus Aurelius, from which Constantine incorporated portions into his Arch. The latest known use of the armour was in the 4th century.

And Arminius?  He evaded Roman retribution, ridding his homeland of Roman rule, but was ultimately murdered by opponents within his own tribe.

Marcus Caelius, a high-ranking centurion of the 18th legion, was killed when Arminius defeated Varus. The 17th and 19th legions were also destroyed.

This monument was raised for Caelius, then a high-ranking and highly decorated centurion of the 18th legion. He was 53 at the time of his death in Germany. As a senior centurion, he earned thirty times an ordinary legionary’s wages. Here Caelius wears a harness of medals, bracelets and torcs on his shoulders. His most significant military decoration is an oak wreath crown, awarded for saving the lives of his fellow Roman citizens. He’s flanked by his freedmen, Privatus and Thiaminus, enslaved men liberated by their wealthy master’s death and who are requesting that Caelius’s bones be buried if ever found.
Stone replica, Bonn, Germany, original: AD 9, replica: late 1800s – early 1900s, LVR-Landesmuseum Bonn

Under Augustus’s successors, non-citizens gained citizen rights after 25 to 26 years’ military service. Above is the earliest known example of a retirement ‘diploma’. It records Emperor Claudius’s grant of citizenship to Sparticus Dipscurtus, a Thracian (modern-day southeast Europe) who served far from home as a marine at Misenum, in the Bay of Naples, Italy. Citizenship of Rome extended to his wife and children.
Copper alloy, Castellammare di Stabia (near Naples), Italy, AD 52, MiC – Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli

These are a few – a very few – of the exhibits in this outstanding exhibition. I’m not a professional photographer, but a mere smartphone user. However, I hope they give you a flavour of what you could see.


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO, CARINA (novella), PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA, NEXUS (novella), INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO,  and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. Double Identity, a contemporary conspiracy, starts a new series of thrillers. JULIA PRIMA,  Roma Nova story set in the late 4th century, starts the Foundation stories. The sequel, EXSILIUM, is now out.

Download ‘Welcome to Alison Morton’s Thriller Worlds’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email update. You’ll also be among the first to know about news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

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