top of page
  • Writer's pictureRichard

Life of a Roman Legionary through their own eyes

A major new exhibition just opened at the British Museum London looks at what it was like to be in one of the most elite fighting forces of all time.


Copper alloy Roman legionary helmet
Copper alloy Roman legionary helmet

Legion: life in the Roman army explores the reality of daily life for the men, women and children who were part of the machine which allowed Rome to master its vast empire. Protecting a superpower for over half a millennium, the imperial Roman army acted as a military, naval and police force to around a quarter of the Earth’s population.


However, life for the majority of those serving was surprisingly domestic, with many living in settled military communities stretching from Scotland to the Red Sea. Legion will share the stories of real legionaries and will challenge some of the perceptions about what it meant to be a Roman soldier by showing the army was as much an engine of social change as a formidable war machine.


Tombstone of an imaginifer’s daughter; AD 100-300
Tombstone of an imaginifer’s daughter; AD 100-300

Recruits came from all walks of life and joined to advance themselves, acquire Roman citizenship, and support their families – despite a general ban on marriage. Visitors will hear from a recruit from Egypt called Terentianus who related his experiences through surviving letters, as well as hearing about a Roman soldier on a humanitarian mission caught up in the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, and – a century later – a pair seemingly murdered in Canterbury in the course of policework.


This blockbuster exhibition is made up of over 200 objects including loans from 28 lenders, from national and international institutions, and is supported by material from the collection. It features iconic Roman military objects alongside contemporary evidence of the real lives of men, women, and children – citizens and non-citizens, free or enslaved – in forts and frontiers across the empire.


Roman scutum (shield)
Roman scutum (shield)

Many of the items will be on display in the UK for the first time ever, including the world’s only intact legionary shield - on its maiden transatlantic loan from Yale - and the oldest and most complete classic Roman segmental body armour, recently unearthed from the battlefield at Kalkriese (Germany) in 2018.


One standout exhibit includes the remains of a soldier found at Herculaneum, who will be reunited with his belt and equipment for the first time outside of Italy. He is believed to be one of the marines commanded by Pliny the Elder caught up in the eruption of Vesuvius while attempting to help citizens flee.


Armour from the Arminius revolt
Armour from the Arminius revolt

The neighbouring site of Pompeii will also contribute military gear – including a trumpet, sword and standard – in remarkable states of preservation. In addition, stunning objects will help to illustrate the magnificence of the Roman cavalry, including a rare public display of the Crosby Garrett mask helmet found in Cumbria in 2010, and a unique and fearsome dragon standard found in Germany, making its first visit to the UK from its usual lair in the castle of Koblenz. Closer to home, remarkable material discovered at Newstead, Scotland and on loan from National Museums Scotland will be brought together to show how Roman military developments combined legionary body armour with arm protection more familiar on images of gladiators.


Sword of Tiberius - Iron sword with gilded bronze scabbard
Sword of Tiberius - Iron sword with gilded bronze scabbard

Open Saturday – Thursday 10.00–17.00, Friday 10.00–20.30. Last entry 70 mins before closing. Tickets from £17, under 16s free, 2-for-1 tickets for students on Fridays, and concessions and group rates available.

15 views0 comments

Comments


bottom of page