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(Left to right) A Roman shield, a copper alloy Roman legionary helmet,  an iron sword with gilded bronze scabbard, a suit of parade armour made from crocodile skin and a bronze head depicting the first Roman emperor, Augustus.
(Left to right) A Roman shield, a copper alloy Roman legionary helmet, an iron sword with gilded bronze scabbard, a suit of parade armour made from crocodile skin and a bronze head depicting the first Roman emperor, Augustus. Yale University Art Gallery/British Museum

Legion: Life in the Roman Army exhibition delivers exciting finds but fails to go beyond stories of men and weapons of war enough

The life of a Roman soldier was full of risk, danger and camraderie, but it could also be beset with loneliness. Many soldiers joined in order to build a better future for themselves. We know this was the case for Claudius Terentianus.

Terentianus was a marine who was later transferred onto a legion, a more prestigious unit consisting of Roman citizens. He went on to serve in Syria and Alexandria before finally retiring in the village of Karanis, Egypt.

Terentianus was one of hundreds of thousand of men who served in Roman armies but we know a lot about his experiences thanks to papyrus letters written early in the second century to his father Claudius Tiberianus. Terentianus’s experiences are at the centre of the exhibition Legion: Life in the Roman Army at London’s British Museum.

The British Museum’s first major exhibition devoted to Rome’s armies explores the experience of military service, from enlistment to retirement. The exhibition features collections of military equipment, inscriptions on stone and unique finds from across the Roman Empire.

The structure draws on a fairly traditional research approach focused on tracing careers of military men, and on study of military equipment. It was through work on military equipment that stories of individual men started emerging. These stories were told through personalised items, name tags and hand-made repairs. Legion: Life in the Roman Army reflects these approaches, if imperfectly.

A ‘greatest hits’ selection of Roman military finds

The opening panel sets the tone of the exhibition by focusing on the imagery of military might on Trajan’s column, a landmark of ancient Rome, and introducing the exhibition’s protagonist. The exhibition’s prominent theme is the story of Rome’s legions as the first professional army and of Rome as a highly militarised society.

The exhibition’s narrative starts with the tale of young men taking risk, pinning hopes of improving their livelihoods and gaining citizenship on military service. The exhibition doesn’t shy away from exploring the violence of frontiers, showing from the beginning stories of lives cut short through conflict.

horse armour
A remarkably complete iron, linen and leather cavalry horse armour from excavations at Dura Europos in Syria. Yale University Art Gallery

Some highlights of the artefacts on show including items from the musuem’s own collection, such as a crocodile leather scale armour, a selection of Oxrynhous papyri and an eye catching single red wool sock. It also features loans of some of the most spectacular Roman military finds from Northern England and Scotland, tombstones from Mains and Bonn (Germany) and military equipment from the battlefield at Kalkriese (Germany).

Most striking, however, due to their totally unique nature and extraordinary preservation are loans of material from Dura Europos, Syria. On loan from Yale University Art Gallery, these include the only surviving example of a painted shield and a full horse armour, among other objects.

Rich in finds, but poor in diversity

The exhibition is rich in finds, but fails in its representation of the social diversity on the frontiers and a distinction between life on campaign and life on a settled frontier.

It would have been good to see more context behind how military communities functioned within local societies. For example, curators could have further explored the lives of people not directly in the army, but associated with it such as suppliers, enslaved people and civilians living near military sites.

Enslavement is alluded to in personal stories, including that of Abbas, a boy whose purchase by a legionary is attested on a papyrus and the story of an enslaved concubine, turned freed woman and wife, Regina. However, this could have been pushed further. Some estimates of the numbers of the extended communities easily match or surpass the number of actual soldiers.

A birthday invitation
Wood writing tablet with a party invitation written in ink, in two hands, from Claudia Severa to Lepidina. British Museum

Throughout the three panels on fort life, women are featured only in relation to the men in their lives. They are deceased daughters of soldiers, wives, or concubines. It would have been interesting to juxtapose these with evidence of economically independent women such as Belica, an innkeeper, or women who asserted their agency, such as Sosia Galla, wife of a legionary legate tried for treason.

Sex work and gender-based violence are not addressed explicitly either. A panel above the fort life section mentions Terenatius’ wish to purchase a concubine, but nothing of the accompanying text puts this in context. Instead, the visitor is shown a birthday invitation from Sulpicia Lepidina, who was a wife of a military commander from Vindolanda, a Roman fort near Hadrian’s Wall in Northern England, offering a more comfortable vision of women’s lives on frontiers.

As an expert in Roman frontiers, it was incredible to see so many world famous artefacts I have researched in real life, but I worry the narrative they have woven includes too many blindspots that perpetuate ideas around the might of Rome’s legions. It preserves a horrified fascination with the “boy’s toys” of warfare, while obscuring the issues of inequality and social and gender diversity.

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