Roman Legionaries: Veterans

Veteran Status

The category of veterans appeared in the Roman army during its transition to a professional basis. In an effort to increase the prestige of military service, the emperors endowed retired soldiers with a number of privileges – for example, they exempted the veterans themselves and their families from paying all taxes and performing municipal duties. At the end of the service, veterans received permission to enter into an official marriage, and the children who had appeared before that time acquired legal status and could inherit the property of their parents. Veterans who served in the auxiliaries received Roman citizenship for themselves and their family members. In the provinces where they settled, veterans became the top of the local society and formed the basis for the policy of Romanization. The children of veterans made up a large proportion of the recruits in the Roman army.

Funeral stele from Athens in the second half of the 2nd century, depicting two brothers, Eucarpus and Philoxenus, one of whom is a civilian, and the other is a retired military man. 
National Museum of Archeology, Athens

The Greek historian Polybius reported that Roman citizens are required to serve in the army until the age of 46, and during this period must make 10 campaigns in the cavalry or 20 in the infantry. In practice, even in the middle of the II century. BC. citizens usually served in the army for 4–6 years, after which they were demobilized and retired, and younger recruits came to the service. Volunteers who chose the career of professional military served much longer. Among them were many poor people who lost their land, for whom military service was the main source of income and life prospects. A well-known example was Spurius Ligustin, who, out of his 50 years of life, served 22 years, first as a soldier, and then as a centurion.

With the growth of the size of the Roman Empire, the number of conscripts conscripted into the army increased. If at the beginning of the II century. BC. military service covered about a quarter of the adult population of Rome and Italy, then in the middle of the 1st century. BC. between a third and a half of the Romans had military experience behind them. In the era of the Civil Wars, the proletarianization of the Roman army took place, in which the percentage of poor poor among the soldiers greatly increased. Following their commander into fire and water, the soldiers hoped to improve their financial situation in the future with his patronage. In turn, ambitious warlords, having won the allegiance of the army with promises of land distributions, could now lead it against any enemy, even against the Republic.

The most desirable rewards for soldiers were money and land. The victorious warlord sought to settle his retiring warriors in the colonies in Italy and beyond. In 81-79 years. BC. Lucius Cornelius Sulla gave land from 50 to 80 thousand of his soldiers, taking it away from his opponents. Gaius Julius Caesar in 45-44 BC. settled 80,000 of his veterans partly in Italy, partly in the provinces, where he began to actively withdraw colonies.

Octavian Augustus in 42–36 BC. settled in Italy veterans of 34 legions who fought in the battle of Philippi. In 30–28 years. BC. in addition, another 85,000 people who retired with the end of the Civil Wars were settled on lands partly confiscated for this purpose from the previous owners, and partly redeemed for cash. During his reign, 28 colonies were established. The lands were given not only to his own soldiers, but also to the retired veterans of Antony, Lepidus, Brutus, and Cassius. In the text of his “Acts …” Augustus said that more than 300,000 veterans were bred in the colony, while 600 million sesterces were spent on acquiring land in Italy and another 260 million sesterces – land in the provinces.

In total, according to modern historians, during the period from the reign of Sulla to Augustus, approximately half a million veterans received land allotments in Italy. This was the largest redistribution of landed property since the Roman conquest.

Veterans in the professional army

After the victory over Antony and the end of the Civil Wars, Augustus had an army of 50-70 legions, which numbered about 230,000 people. Over the next seven years, he reduced the number of legions to 18. They formed the backbone of the Roman army. Unlike the legions of the Republican era, these formations existed on an ongoing basis, and the soldiers who were in them were demobilized after serving their full term of service.

Apparently, this period was originally set at 16 years, while the soldiers were promised large cash payments upon retirement. In “Acts …” Augustus reported that in 29 BC. he issued 250 denarii to each retired veteran. However, since at this time the Roman army waged numerous wars in various parts of the world, this period was insufficient, and in 5 AD. it was increased to 20 years, while at the same time cash payments for full service were increased to 3,000 denarii.

After serving 16 years, the soldier received the status of a veteran and was transferred to the Vexilla of Veterans, which was part of each legion, where he served for another 4 years with lighter standards compared to the usual load. True, during the rebellion of 14 AD. veterans complained that it was only a new name for the old hardships, and soon all news of the veterans’ vexillas from the sources disappeared.

In 13 BC Augustus passed a law banning military marriages. However, the government turned a blind eye to the violation of this prohibition, as it saw in the sons of veterans the most important source for replenishing the legions. A stele from Alexandria depicting a soldier and his son, first half of the 3rd century A.D.

Over time, the duration of military service increased even more, and by the middle of the 1st century. AD soldiers on average had to serve for 23-26 years. Usually the military command sought to detain soldiers upon retirement. To this end, demobilization was carried out every two years, because about half of the veterans had to serve an extra year. This custom continued until the beginning of the 3rd century, when demobilization began to be carried out annually, and the service life for all soldiers was 26 years.

Retirement, veterans’ rights and privileges

The rights of veterans were guaranteed by an edict issued by Augustus. Veterans, as well as their family members, parents, wives and children, received exemption from all direct taxes (inheritance tax and slave leave tax), and after 83 AD. they also paid no indirect taxes, including port and road tolls. They were also exempted from performing all municipal duties (without prejudice to holding priestly or administrative positions), with the exception of those that they were willing to accept voluntarily.

Retirement after full length of service was accompanied by the receipt of a land plot for farming or the payment of a large cash gift equivalent to a salary for 10 years of service. Veterans also received conubium, i.e. permission to marry or legally formalize relations with a de facto cohabitant, as well as Roman citizenship for previously adopted children. Together with Roman citizenship, the right of conubia was also granted to veterans of auxiliary units.

The heirs of Augustus regularly confirmed these privileges without significant changes, but at the same time they tried to regulate their nature and conditions of application. Thus, over time, a distinction arose between the privileges of veterans of the Praetorian Guard, legions, auxiliary troops and fleet, privileges of various types of property of a veteran, privileges associated with the difference in the number of years of service and types of retirement.

Types of Discharge

For veterans, the type of discharge one received was important, as it also determined the type life one might have enjoyed afterward. The discharge types were missio causaria (discharge through injury or illness), missio ignominiosa (dishonourable discharge), and honesta missio (honourable discharge).

The 3rd century Roman jurist Lucius Aemilius Macro worte about types of discharge in his 2nd book of his work “On Military Affairs”:

“There are three main types of resignation: honorable, respectful and defamatory. An honourable discharge is given with a full length of service, a respectful discharge [takes place in cases] when a soldier is declared unfit for military service due to a physical or mental illness; dishonourable discharge occurs when a soldier is released from the oath as a result of a crime committed by him.

Lucius Aemilius Macro Dig.

Honorary resignation (honesta missio) included receiving privileges to the fullest extent. The prestige of an honorable retirement can be seen in the widespread desire of veterans to record it in their grave epitaph. Sometimes the full formula for granting an honourable resignation (missus honesta missione) is abbreviated in inscriptions to a brief MHM

A respectful resignation (causa missio), for example due to injury or illness, most of the time was also accompanied by the receipt of full rights. There are a large number of inscriptions whose authors are known to have received a respectful resignation, and yet indicate the honour of being awarded the honesta missio.

Subsequently, Roman jurists began to distinguish between two types of resignation. A veteran who served impeccably in the army for 20 years and received a respectful resignation could receive the full amount of privileges and payments, as if he had received an honourable resignation. If he did not have time to serve the prescribed 20-year term by that time, he received reduced benefits, calculated in proportion to the term served.

 A bronze diploma certifying the receipt by its owner of an honorable resignation and related privileges. The recipients of such diplomas were Legionary veterans
© British Museum CC BY-SA 4.0

Veterans farm

After the resettlement of veterans of the Civil Wars in 42-36. BC. and 30–28 years. BC, when soldiers in the colonies settled in whole units led by former commanders, Augustus and his successors preferred not to return to this practice. When in 14 B.C. a large number of veterans who had entered the service on the eve of the Battle of Actium retired at the same time, there was no longer any free land in Italy, and Augustus, according to the historian Cassius Dio, “offered them cash rewards in return for the land they always sought” . With the money received from him, the veterans were to purchase land in the cities where they came from and where they returned after retirement.

According to Augustus himself, he gave money four times to veterans who remained in their municipalities, and spent 400 million sesterces for this purpose. With an average land value in Italy of 1,000 sesterces per 1 yuger (2,523 square meters), 70,000 retired soldiers could provide themselves with plots of 5 yugers on average, sufficient for small-scale agriculture. In the future, according to Augustus, such small peasant farms were to become the most favorable social environment for military recruitment.

 A retired veteran who dedicated his weapon in the temple. Stele of the middle of the III century.
© British Museum CC BY-SA 4.0

But in practice, the new system often failed. Warriors, cut off from running their own economy for 25 years of service, often lost all the skills necessary for farming, as well as the very desire to do it. It is noteworthy that during the rebellion of the legions in 14 AD. one of the requirements of the soldiers sounded like this: “So that the reward for those who have served their time should be issued right there on the spot and only in cash . ” It was widely believed among the soldiers that, as a reward for the hardships of service, they would be driven to the ends of the world, where, under the guise of land, veterans receive a marshy bog or barren stones in the mountains that cannot be processed.

This, however, was completely untrue. Even receiving land in Italy, veterans often easily abandoned their allotments and made their way back to the provinces where they spent their lives, where their colleagues and cohabitants from among local women remained . Wishing to attract colonists to the frontier provinces and to stimulate the development of agriculture on the outskirts, the emperors provided especially large plots of land here, 200 or even 500 yugers each. The allotments that the soldiers received in more settled and civilized lands were an order of magnitude smaller, within 20–30 yugers.

Archaeological material shows that the farms that emerged in this way used advanced farming methods for that time, agronomic systems and methods of soil cultivation, care crops and harvesting. In social terms and in terms of well-being, their owners belonged to the stratum of small and medium-sized owners, whose total number in Italy and the provinces was 3 or 4 million people.

Military settlements and canaba

A significant number of veterans, after retiring, settled in canabs – trading posts that spontaneously arose outside the gates of the camp. The Kanab population consisted of artisans and merchants who served the legion, wives and children of soldiers, etc. Kanabs did not have city rights and therefore did not have their own territory for agriculture. In administrative and legal terms, they remained in the position of villages and were subordinate to the military command or municipal authorities of the nearest cities.

The privileged part of the Kanab population were Roman citizens, usually from among retired military men. They formed an assembly headed by an elected curator or magistrate. Like the municipal authorities, he was engaged in maintaining order in the streets and in public places, supplied the settlement with food and drinking water, oversaw the repair of roads, maintained public buildings in order, arranged games and held religious ceremonies. This activity was not paid and even assumed the need to constantly sacrifice one’s own property in the public interest. However, it provided honor and respect from the local population. Many inscriptions have survived to our time, which testify to the honors rendered to such benefactors on behalf of the entire population of the kanaba.

During the 2nd-3rd centuries many kanab legions received municipal status from the emperors, thereby turning into full-fledged cities. Retired army veterans formed the basis of the elite of the municipal nobility, which was part of the decurion estate.

Veterans and Romanization of provinces

Veterans played an important role in the cultural and social Romanization of the provinces. Penetrating into the social environment, making the necessary connections with the local aristocracy, entering into mixed marriages and having common children, the veterans thereby created the basis of a romanized stratum in the provinces. Thanks to their creative activity, Roman orders, a characteristic way of life, and housekeeping according to the Roman model were established in the provinces. The spread of the Latin language also took place, since Latin in the military environment was the main means of communication. It conducted legal proceedings, trade deals were concluded and administrative management was carried out.

Who were the Evocati?

During the Empire, however, veteran soldiers were invited to continue service as evocati, or they re-enlisted willingly. There were two classes of evocati– the regular evocati of the legions, and the Evocati Augusti, the ‘Emperor’s Evocati’, who were former Praetorians who became evocati. Evocati reported directly to the governor of a Roman province, so, in times of emergency, they could be used to reinforce the garrison.

Lastly, men could be requested to re-enter service by the consul or their former commander. This happened frequently during civil wars. At the battle of Pharsalus, Pompey used 2000 evocati against Caesar, and later, Octavian enlisted 3000 evocati when going up against Marcus Antonius. In A.D. 67, Mucianus, the governor of Syria, is said to have enlisted 13,000 evocati to move against Emperor Vitellius.

I cannot give the exact strength…for the Evocati. Augustus was the first to employ this corps when he re-enlisted those troops who had served under Julius Caesar to fight against Antony, and he kept them in service afterward. To this day, they constitute a special corps and carry ceremonial rods as centurions do.

Cassius Dio, The Roman History 24

It seems that when a man became an evocatus, he had special privileges. The Evocati did not go back to digging ditches and manning the front lines in battle. They were too valuable an asset for that.

Apart from fighting when the need arose, the Evocati fulfilled various other roles. They became instructors of aquilifers and other standard bearers, and physical trainers for the regular troops. Many evocati returned to the ranks to be officers or qualified and skilled administrators in the legions. Some joined the vigiles, Rome’s police and firefighting force. Others were army surveyors, architects, and quarter masters.

There were many roles an evocatus could fill in the legions.

More often, the higher-ranking and skilled evocati came from the Praetorian Guard, though sometimes from the regular legions.