Roman Army? or Roman Armies?

Roman Army? or Roman Armies?

Ewan again (again), this time looking at the popular presentation of the Roman Army as a uniform monoculture…

What do you visualize when you think of the Roman Imperial army? Shining plated legionaries in lorica segmentata and red tunica marching rank and file? Perhaps in a fashion that wouldn’t seem out of place in a propaganda clip from Cold War USSR or the modern DPRK? This is indeed the image presented in popular video games like Rome Total War (RTW) and Hollywood films like Gladiator: a mass of uniformed warriors, depicted in a very different space from their Roman civilian counterparts. Indeed, in games like RTW, the soldier is never seen in a civilian context. They are ‘forever soldiers’, with no life beyond preparation for, recovery from, and entering into the field of battle.

Another bunch of well dressed 2nd Century CE legionaries in a clip from the opening battle scene in the 2000 movie Gladiator. From JohnnysWarStories : YouTube.

But scholarship over the last few decades has challenged this perception, presenting the Roman army as a mutli-layered and diverse entity. Indeed, as Simon James and Johnathon Coulston note, the Romans had no word for ‘the army’, just ‘armies’ (exercitus). Perhaps we should see the ‘Roman Army’ as more of a collection of armies with a strong sense of communal identity, not some monolithic fighting machine? (James 2011)

For instance, most uniform military institutions have, well… a uniform. We have no evidence to suggest there was a sanctioned Roman ‘uniform’ in the modern military sense. Trajan’s column (see below) is often referred to as evidence for a uniform because it presents a similar image to that which is presented in Hollywood and RTW. However, we must remember that — much like these modern mediums of representation — the Column is not necessarily a reflection of reality, but rather a representation limited by the constraints of the medium and its function (propaganda?).

Indeed, many factors which forced modern 17th century armies to adopt uniforms — such as visually similar enemy forces and battlefields clouded by gunpowder smoke — were not present in the Roman Empire. Instead, it is more likely that any degree of uniformity “arose from practical ergonomics, localised small-scale production, and copying of pieces as troops moved around the empire” (Coulston 2004). Research into army production chains could shed light on these processes (the overly keen Roman supply fanatic can find such research on Housesteads and Hadrian’s Wall).

Now, this is not to say that there was no uniformity in terms of appearance, just no uniform. The archaeological record reveals that certain items of dress were indeed very popular amongst servicemen and their wider communities in the Roman world. These were usually small items of dress related to, or drawing attention towards, typical features of army dress, such as belts (baltei) and military cloaks. For example, the Aucissa fibula (a style of brooch clasping military cloaks), can be found across the Empire. These predominantly 1st century CE brooches identified a Roman soldier as a member of the army and its related communities (Allison 2013), be they in Dalmatia or Britannia (where the example below is from).

However, these were not exactly the same specimens across the Empire. There were local variations, with inscriptions on the brooches sometimes featuring names of local producers for example. Here, we see a feature of their larger Roman army culture being adapted to local and regional contexts.

But what was the point of these distinguishing pieces if not to be part of an ‘official’ ‘Roman’ uniform? Well, to distinguish the members of the Roman army community from civilians and (sometimes) soldiers from non-combatants, because, despite how they are presented in media (and sometimes scholarship), the soldiers of Rome were not always cut off from civilian.

While some have claimed otherwise, it has recently been argued that women and other non-combatants were present in spaces previously thought to be solely the realm of ‘military men’, namely army camps. For instance, by mapping the distribution of artefacts typically associated with females, Penelope Allison convincingly demonstrated that women and other non-combatants were present in 1st-2nd century CE Roman camps in Germany. Similar cases can be seen elsewhere (but not everywhere), like at Vindolanda in the UK. This does not mean that all camps and spaces were always home to non-combatants, but one should no longer assume there were none by default.

Now one must ask why all of this matters? What are the effects of this ‘uniform’, masculine and overly militarised (in the modern sense) representation in pop culture?

One adverse effect, when coupled with the overexaggerated ‘whiteness’ of Romans, is that it can feed into white supremacist tropes sometimes found in video games: as observed by one fan of Rome Total War II in relation to its depictions of Roman legionaries. Furthermore, the removal of women and non-combatants from army spaces (e.g. camps) may misrepresent the ‘reality’ in the Roman world and exaggerate the ‘masculine’ nature of these spaces. This is, of course, not as cut and dry (or nefarious) as it may seem. Game and film developers are often working on tight timeframes and resources and there are a myriad of factors that affect their products.

I am not saying that we can not enjoy these games and movies. We just have to consume these media critically — enjoying it as we do so!

Further Reading

Allison. 2008. ‘Measuring Women’s Influence on Roman Military Life: using GIS on published excavation reports from the German frontier’.

Allison. 2013. People and spaces in roman military bases.

Coulston. 2004. ‘Military Identity and Personal Self-Identity in the Roman Army’.

Dungworth. 2001. Metal Working Evidence from Housesteads Roman Fort, Northumberland.

James. 2011. Rome and the Sword: How Warriors and Weapons Shaped Roman History.


Ewan Coopey | PhD Candidate Macquarie University | @EuuanXCVI

Banner photo by Will CA : TotalWarWiki

An introduction to Agency (with a Tombstone)

An introduction to Agency (with a Tombstone)

Ewan again, this time musing about agency in the past and demonstrating how it is preserved within a Roman tombstone.


image of a roman spindle whorl made from metal. the spindle whorls is circular with a whole in the middle, like a doughnut, and about 3cm in diameter. there is an above, below and side shot. the spindle whorl is decorated with some sort of geometric design.
Portable Antiquities Scheme / Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY-SA 2.0 via WikiCommons.
Spindle whorls such as these are often seen as evidence of ‘female agency’ in Roman military spaces. See Alberti 2018.

There are various ‘stances’. You decide where you place the weight in your research.

a photo of a roman tombstone with a triangular pediment at the top flanked by floral designs enclosing a circular motif. Underneath the pediment is an inscription field with latin letters. The inscription is damaged with two deep rectangular grooves flanking the inscription field
J. Lendering, Split Archaeological Museum CC0 1.0
The tombstone of L. Vegonius

Here lies Lucius Vegonius, son of Lucius, a veteran of the 7th legion from the city of Florentia. Placed during her lifetime for herself and her husband by Tropaena Fabricia

It doesn’t stop here though: this interplay between agents (Lucius & Tropaena), objects (tombstone) and structures (community) is reciprocal. By erecting this monument Tropaena is active in the military community, continuing the tradition of monumental commemoration for servicemen and their families. Further even, this lovely tombstone will remain as a model for future community members long after Tropaena — influencing military (and local) mortuary culture for decades to come.

Agency evidently takes many forms and works in ways that we may not see at first, with our agency living on through the objects we create.

This too is just one dynamic of agency and practice preserved: we could also examine the role of Lucius & Tropaena as agents of Empire in a provincial landscape or the role of the stonemason in the monuments form and content

Your turn

So with this in mind, whether an historian of Greek law or an archaeologist of early medieval burial practices, think about your ‘theory of agency’. Single it out for your readership (or yourself). Perhaps examine or muse about the various forms of agency visible in your source material, its preservation and its presentation. How do they intersect? What forces are at play? Explore the concept further perhaps and check out the papers below — there’s a little something for everyone.

Further Reading

Please get in touch if you are unable to access any of these resources.

  1. I’m sure social scientists would be horrified by these gross simplifications.

Community, COVID and Tombstones

Community, COVID and Tombstones

Last month, as we in NSW Australia sat in a surreal state of supposed ‘post-lockdown’, I attended the PhD welcome for the Macquarie Arts faculty. This virtual meet and greet involved the usual welcome messages by the Arts HDR Dean and helpful housekeeping by the ever amazing professional staff. However, the most engaging part was a stimulating discussion about why we research and what our value as Arts researchers is. With such a wide range of brilliant HDR researchers in the Room Zoom, this was a truly stimulating and enlightening conversation that got me thinking about the value of my research and more broadly the various fields I class myself within (history, classics, archaeology and epigraphy). The product of this ‘thinking’ (brave of me to call it that) is this humble blog post.

I research about the Roman military community in the province of Dalmatia, which includes parts of modern Albania, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, and Serbia (see below). I do so through archaeological and epigraphical (inscribed) material from the early Roman Empire / 1st century BCE/BC to 2nd century CE/AD. I am theoretically informed by (or try to be informed by) social and symbolic interactionism as well as healthy doses of social constructionism and materialism (or ‘new materialism’). These concepts need not be discussed here beyond stating the fact that they allow me to examine the construction of communities and identities amongst Rome’s diverse soldiery and their extended communities. My MRes thesis did exactly this with the inscribed funerary monuments of the Roman seventh legion ‘legio vii Claudia pia fidelis‘ dating between 7-59 CE. It is my findings from this research that I will be focusing upon here.

A map of roman Dalmatia overlaid onto a modern satellite map. The region displayed is the eastern Adriatic coastline and hinterland, with the province covering parts of Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia and Albania
Map of Dalmatia as of 117 CE overlaid onto a modern map. Image: DARMC, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

The COVID pandemic had many impacts on our lives here in Australia and abroad and has drawn attention to multiple issues and inequalities in our contemporary society. One obvious impact was upon our social lives. In Australia, for the good of our fellow citizens, many of us were locked down with minimal ‘real’ human contact for months. For me, and I’m sure many others, this has illuminated the importance of community in our lives – the ever enriching social groups which permeate so many realms of our daily lives and provide us with a sense of belonging and even purpose. Us humans are social beings and to some degree that facet of our persons was stripped from us by this pandemic. Not all communities have been removed of course, with online communities remaining particularly significant. Interestingly, even prior to the pandemic, some academics have argued that community itself is ‘in decline’ and becoming less enriching, though there is by no means a general consensus and many see community as simply evolving.

So I ask, as we now emerge from lockdown how can we nourish new and enriching senses of community, perhaps even more fruitful than before? How can we get back to ‘being social’ again at our own individual paces? What can those of us looking to reignite that social vibrancy of our pre-COVID lives do? For this, I think the members of legio vii and their tombstones can provide some valuable insight.

The members of legio vii (or BROMANS as I like to call them) were a diverse bunch. Epigraphic data preserved in over 80 inscribed tombstones, altars and epitaphs which can be found here (and soon here) records that 21 servicemen hailed from Asia Minor (Galatia and Asia), 20 from across the sea in Italy, 4 from Macedonia and 5 from sites which for a myriad of reasons cannot be located. Now that’s a wide range of individuals from a number of domicilia (places of origin), and this represents just a fraction of ~6000 soldiers who served in legio vii and its fellow Dalmatian garrison legio xi whilst they were stationed in Dalmatia (Matijević 2017). How did these soldiers (milites) navigate their differences and fashion a sense of community?

line drawing of the triangular top of a tombstone. There is a frieze which has an array of weapons and armour inside, and then above there is a triangular pediment which depicts two fighting animals but is damaged
The top of the funerary stela (tombstone) of Titus Ancharenus. CIL 3, 2709. Archaeological Museum in Split Inv. No. A 2588. Illustration: Jack Roberts, CC BY-SA 4.0

The answer is both simple and complex (isn’t everything?). Firstly, the sense of community was reinvigorated through things such as combat training, communal messes and shared sleeping quarters. A key practice was also the communal setting up of tombstones and other funerary monuments for fellow servicemen. Unlike these previous practices, this ritual involved members of the broader community such as wives, children and freedpeople – groups previously absent from Roman military discussions but brought into view by scholars such as Penelope Allison. On some tombstones community members are actually recorded as commemorators, either by name, as seen with Lucius Atilius who dedicated a monument for his veteran uncle, or through expressions such as frater fratri ‘by a brother for a brother’ – an expression found across several Roman provinces (observed by Jana Kepartová). At a basic level this practice of communal commemoration brought together members to mourn and/or celebrate. At a deeper one it strengthened social ties, fed cohesion through shared experience and acted as a means of social rejuvenation – keeping the community relevant.

Secondly, the community was structured around shared symbols, values and ideas drawn from the soldiers’ shared experiences. Again funerary monuments provide a great snapshot of this. The monuments of legio vii frequently feature sculpted weapons, armour and equipment, drawing attention to the deceased’s occupation as a legionary of the Roman Empire. A common example of this is seen with sculpted friezes of weapons and armour which sat at the top of several tombstones, such as those of Titus Ancharenus (pictured above), Quintus Oppius and Lucius Fabius. Diving deeper, these symbols suggest shared values of martial prowess and military action – even though most of the soldiers would never have been on campaign.

Interestingly, some common symbols were significant communally yet did not draw upon ideas of combat or violence. For instance, another motif which was very popular amongst Roman soldiers in Dalmatia was a door with four panels, the so-called ‘porta-inferi’ or ‘Asia Minor façade’ shown below on the tombstone of Gaius Longinus. Used almost exclusively by soldiers in a funerary context, the motif was obviously of communal significance and by using it (and the other military symbols mentioned above) the soldiers were establishing membership within the military community as a defining feature of their identities in death.

line drawing of a tombstone with two main fields and a third broken off at the top. The broken one once held a portrait bust. The second or middle field has a latin inscription. The third or lower field had a four panelled door with two lions head door knockers and two standing figures in ancient dress
The stela of Gaius Longinus, legio vii miles. CIL 3, 9737. Archaeological Museum in Split Inv. No. A 178. Illustration: Jack Roberts, CC BY-SA 4.0

Thus these inscribed monuments and the individuals they commemorate were able to develop a strong community through what we could describe as ‘sharedness’: shared practices, shared experiences, shared ideas and shared symbols. Crucially, this did not conflict with their many differences, particularly their diverse origins, focusing instead on what was shared (we can get on to shared boundaries another time…).

Linking back to the original inspiration for the post and the questions I posed earlier: what, then, can we learn from this? For me, by studying the material produced by people of the past not only can we unlock their stories (a means to an end in itself) but we can also learn a lot about ourselves. In this instance, it is the fact that people from diverse backgrounds can come together and form a socially enriching community through shared practices, experiences and interests. Therefore let us think about what symbols, practices and ideas we can use, take part in and share, for this may be where we too can find meaning, enjoyment and belonging – just like the unnamed centurion of an unknown legion or the legio vii cavalryman Marcus Titius who both erected monuments in Dalmatia bearing the four-panelled door, setting in stone (ha) their military membership for all to see.

I do not have the answers of course, but I will leave you with some places to perhaps start. Think about those rituals that you enjoy or those values that are important to you and ask yourself: who shares these in some way? Do you enjoy reading? Perhaps set up or join a book club. Passionate about environmental activism? Link up with fellow campaigners. Stressing about a PhD deadline? Stress together with other HDR candidates! Then, if you feel like it, draw upon these experiences when you express yourself, pulling symbols and ideas from these social realms – put a favourite book quote in your Instagram bio or wear a t-shirt from a rally to signal your membership. Communities are formed from the ground up, by us, so get out there and get community-ing like it’s 1st century CE Dalmatia!

Further Resources:

I would like to thank Aimee, the editor of this wonderful blog, for allowing me to contribute my (kind of) structured ramblings to this great resource, as well as the Croatian Studies Foundation for funding this research.

Ewan Coopey | PhD candidate Macquarie University | @EuuanXCVI |