Equipping a Roman Soldier
We all carry stereotypical images around with us. “Think of a Roman” is an old chestnut of a question – 95% of people conjure an image of a white, Italian, male legionary, as if the Roman Empire was bereft of women, slaves, merchants etc and the army wasn’t made up from recruits of all colours and nationalities. Similarly, pupils tend to see a legionary as someone who spent all his time fighting, his only equipment the weapons he’ll use on the battlefield.
This activity, developed by Maggie Wilson at Wyke Manor School, Bradford, helps her Y7 students get a much better and fuller picture of life in the Roman army. Here Maggie describes how she develops and resources the activity but there’s plenty of scope for varying the props to use as the various items of kit.
The purpose of this activity is to show that a legionary didn’t just carry his pilum, gladius and shield but was loaded down with a range of other equipment – carrying pole, rations, stakes, saw, pickaxe, rope etc etc. This enables pupils to build a fuller picture of the life of a Roman soldier.
1. I base the ‘dressing up’ on what the kids can find from the source sheets (below) – which they investigate and highlight for 5/10 minutes.
2. Then, ‘okay, who’s going to be the Roman soldier?’ [always too many volunteers – I try and choose someone little and non-muscular so we can emphasise the ‘powerful shoulders’ etc]
3. Now it’s time to equip the soldier, creating his equipment out of an assortment of props. For the equipment I use whatever I can find in the classroom, plus some string and sellotape to convert a few things:
- the ‘shield’ [most often an empty tray] needs a loop to put the arm through, leaving hands free for board rulers/broom handles [spears/fence posts/axe/mattock].
- For some reason I have had an empty, clean, large plastic plant pot in the cupboard for a while – it’s clearly a helmet [though it doubles as Thomas Becket’s mitre at times] and short rulers are tucked into belts/trouser tops as swords.
- A rolled up coat is the blanket/cloak, tied on, and 2 or 3 of the most bag-like school bags, bulging if possible, are draped around the body. These would contain food amongst other things – a small bag of rice etc would get that idea across.
- A dustpan and brush usually manage a role as shovel and saw tucked in wherever possible.
- I use lost property to supply socks and we can usually find a lunch box and various containers for rations and cooking pots.
- Dice don’t take up much space but will be useful for board games if the soldier has any energy left after his march. And he might need a pen and notebook – many legionaries, though not auxiliaries, were literate.
4. I call a halt when it’s clear nothing more can be attached to the unfortunate volunteer … and I then tell him or her that it’s time for a 5 hour march to Leeds and back, no resting and no slacking and set him off round the classroom a few times!
The class remember quite a lot of what was carried [usually in the ‘correct’ format!] and certainly retain the idea that the soldiers had to take everything with them!
These written sources can be used at the outset of the activity and supported by illustrations, such as those on Trajan’s column.
1. Vegetius, A Military Digest, 4th century AD
So a young soldier who is chosen … should have alert eyes and should hold his head upright. The recruit should be broad chested with powerful shoulders and brawny arms. He should not be pot-bellied or have a fat bottom. His calves and feet should not be flabby; instead they should be made of entirely of tough sinew [muscle]. When you find these qualities in a recruit you can afford to take him even if he is a little on the short side. It is better for soldiers to be strong than tall.
2. An extract from a letter found at the Roman fort at Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall
I have sent you .. pairs of woollen socks, two pairs of sandals and two pairs of underpants ..
3. Flavius Josephus, The Jewish War, written in the 1st century AD
Foot soldiers are armed with a cuirass (body armour) and a helmet. They carry two swords .. a spear and round shield. In addition .. a saw, a basket, a mattock (pick) and an axe, as well as a leather strap, a sickle, a chain and enough rations to last him for three days. In fact he carries so much equipment he is not very different from a mule.
4. Vegetius, A Military Digest, 4th century AD
For building the trenches they find it useful to have pick-axes, shovels, baskets and other equipment always on hand.
5. Vegetius, A Military Digest, 4th century AD
The young soldier must be given frequent practice in carrying loads up to 60lbs while marching at the normal speed because on difficult campaigns they will have to carry their rations as well as their weapons. This is not difficult if they get enough practice.
… At the beginning of their training, recruits must be taught marching in step. For nothing is more important on the march or in the field as all men keeping their marching ranks. They will only learn to march quickly, and in time, with continuous practice and so in the summer months they must complete a march of 20 miles in 5 hours at normal marching speed. When they march at a faster speed they must cover a distance of 24 miles in the same time.
6. From a modern textbook
A Roman soldier would march 20 miles a day carrying his armour and weapons AND 2 posts about 2.4 metres long to make a fence at night, a thick cloak to keep him warm and to sleep in, his cooking pot, bowl and spoon, a spade to dig holes for the posts, corn, dried beans and salt for 3-4 days, a bag with spare boots, money, dice etc.
- Who did you choose to be the soldier and was he/she a good choice – and why?
- Did students enjoy the nature of the activity and what impact did this have on their learning?
- What have they learned about the Romans other than what a soldier carried and wore? Can you link this into broader questions about the Roman Empire, such as why they won and were able to keep their empire?