Romans Go Home

I watched a documentary on some headless Romans while I was having my tea (as you do),  and it brought up a question I’d like to ask you guys.

It’s not about the main point of the story (though that is interesting too), it’s about their recreations of the Romans. Not having painted a Roman since I was a wee lad, I’d never really thought about how many different skin colours you’d find in a legion, century, or even a single contubernium. Now I actually come to think about it they should be a mix of all sorts of people from all over the Empire, and increasingly so as time wears on (and the recruiters get ever more desperate to fill the ranks). Now I know this harks back to the article I posted the other day, but I promise you this is just a coincidence.

Anyway, to my question.

Does anyone know of any published research on the ethnic origins of individual legionaries? Books, articles, whatever. I’m thinking about the origins of the men themselves rather than the nominal origins of the legions, which are unlikely to remain representative for long. Strontium isotope testing is unlikely to have been done on everyone in a cemetery, but there may be papyri or other stuff kicking about. Just wondering. I know of a few snippets from various places, but I really wanted a larger scale analysis.

And I know that I can paint things whatever I like. Happy to. I just like to know what the actual history is (if I can) before I ignore it 😉

Having just finished re-reading some of Graham Sumner’s excellent books about the Roman uniform colour debate it would be an other facet that would not only make the legion look rather less uniform. The more I read, the more that Victorian textbook ideal is looking unlikely.

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15 Responses to Romans Go Home

  1. Eric says:

    Funny you ask, I just read this article yhis morning.

  2. Joe says:

    I have been listening to “The Life of Ceasar” Pod Cast. Julius recruited several of his Legions of in Trans Alpine Gaul. So they were not made up of Roman Citizens. As Rome passed from Republic to Empire the Legions changed from being made up of Roman Citizens into Soldiers earning thier Roman Citizenship. There were Legioners serving on Adrean’s Wall from Palistine. I saw this on a NOVA or a history channel show.


  3. sideofiron says:

    Which roman army are you interested in?

    Early empire, cultural diversity would have been fairly minimal within the legions. Only citizens were eligible to serve as in the legion. The auxiliaries however would have been more representative.

    In the later empire, as provinces with the Latin Right were granted full citizenship, cultural and ethnic diversity may have been more prominent.

    I’ll try and find some academic support, but a friend of mine wrote a paper on this a few years ago.

    • Quirkworthy says:

      Which Romans? All of them 🙂

      There are many factors influencing this. As you say, the early legions had a high bar of status and wealth to enter, and this gradually changed over time. Also, the Empire expanded and so had a larger and more diverse pool to draw on. As Italians became less inclined to serve themselves, more non-Italians were needed. And all through this, the auxiliaries were probably more diverse (and more representative of the places they nominally came from).

      This is more a curiosity rather than having any specific gaming content (though that will come). I’m just thinking of the rather non-uniform appearance the Roman legions may well have had, and how this contrasts with the image presented to me as a child. You have not only the varied ethnicity, but also varied age, colour of uniform (even if it started the same the colours were less fast than modern ones), and also the apparently ability of individuals to decorate their kit. Not to mention the debates about armour types…

      All of which makes for a much more visually interesting looking unit, in my view. And one I find much easier to empathise with.

  4. Brynn Wood says:

    Some info here,
    Great idea, in my mind the only way a legion would all be uniform is if founded from a specific location and that would only last untill it needed reinforcement and resupply.

    • Quirkworthy says:

      And even then… see my comments above on uniform colour, personal adornment, etc.

      Great article, by the way. A shame it doesn’t seem to name the author. I’ll have to dig out a physical copy and see if he ever followed this up. What would also be interesting is to consider how this unit would have changed. If, as it seems on the surface, it served in Britain for two centuries, then it’s unlikely to still be drawn from the same group by the end. Sons and occasional influxes of new recruits from “back home” would help retain that character, but I’d be surprised if there wasn’t a broad mix by the end.

  5. Brynn Wood says:

    And this article has percentages,
    Leach et al. (2009) provide evidence for intense foreign settlement. At one burial ground near Roman York, craniometric analysis revealed that 66% of the individuals clustered most closely with Europeans, 23% with sub-Saharan Africans, and 11% with Egyptians. At another, the proportions were 53% European, 32% sub-Saharan, and 15% Egyptian (Leach et al., 2009).

    • Quirkworthy says:

      Another intriguing article, and what an unexpected set of results! 23% sub-Saharan? That’s far more than I would have guessed. I don’t recall ever coming across “craniometric analysis” as a serious analytic tool when I was studying archaeology, and it smells a little of phrenology to me. I’d need to understand their methodology better before I really trusted those numbers. More fun stuff to research though 😉

  6. riksowden says:

    I think it would depend on period, later Republican and Imperial Rome did feature none Roman-born Roman Citizens who served as legionaries, however, as James says many soldiers were not legionaries – particularly in the later Imperial period when (Roman trained) mercenaries were widely used.

  7. Danny says:

    I wonder if the soldiers, even though serving in the same unit, or same army, were kept racially segregated, or at least culturally segregated. I say this because fighting alongside other soldiers requires a lot of trust, which is easily diminished. In certain circumstances, trust can deteriorate quickly when soldiers of different races or cultures are forced to serve together, particularly those who feel they have been invaded or unjustly conquered. We’ve seen this very recently in Afghanistan where Afghan soldiers serving in Afghan forces alongside Western nation forces have turned their weapons on the Western forces and also providing intel to Taliban forces.

    It’s not hard to imagine, with Roman forces conquering several regions, and then drawing on those regions to support its own military machine, that there would be a lot of bad blood between the conquered cultures, especially so back in those days where rape and pillage by victorious soldiers would not have been frowned upon as it would be today.

    So to tie this back into the discussion at hand. Would it be likely that race or cultural segregation in a unit or an Army would be maintained for trust reasons? So smaller units may contain all of one type of race.

    Another supporting and very logical factor for this would be the Language Barrier. If you had a unit of troops from several regions, all speaking their own language and perhaps only a spattering of Roman, but all orders were been given by a Roman officer in Roman, it would certainly create a less effective unit. It would be better to have units segregated based on languages spoken and have an officers or an officers interpreter relay the orders.

    • Quirkworthy says:

      Well Rome’s history has it’s fair share of allies-turned-enemies. Just ask Quinctilius Varus 😉

      Personally, I expect that legions and auxiliary units used Latin, and any new recruits were put wherever needed them and simply had to learn quick. There were only a few orders, and the Centurion carried a vine stick to help people who had trouble. It’ll be fine.

      One of the reasons I suspect this was the case is that Imperial auxiliary units sometimes (or possibly often) had legionary officers seconded to them. There is evidence for this on surviving gravestones. The implication is that this was to install the same discipline and tactics in them as in the legions. Hard to be sure though.

      Foederati, on the other hand, are most logically imagined as fighting in their traditional styles, “uniforms”, equipment and language, under their own leaders.

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