The Roman Auxilia
Another scrap from the vault of Salah ad-Din, for anyone who's interested...
The Imperial Roman Auxilia
JM, January 2009
The classic image of the Roman soldier is that of the legionary – with his red cape, big rectangular shield, crested helmet, and short sword. What many people, even students of the classical world, fail to realize is that the legions were in fact something of a ‘marine corps’ in the Roman Empire. Numerically speaking, well over half of the Roman Empire’s four hundred thousand soldiers were of a class called the auxilia – ‘the helpers’, in Latin. These soldiers – predominately non-citizens recruited from the ‘barbarian’ provinces of northern and eastern Europe – did much of the dirty work of the Roman military machine. They served as policemen and firemen in the major cities; they hunted down local bandits and put down riots; they served a number of diverse roles in battle itself; and they served as a liaison between the Empire and some of its most proud and warlike tribes. This essay will be a brief summary of the history and strategic, tactical, social, and cultural roles of the Roman auxilia from Octavian’s adoption of the title ‘Caesar Augustus’ until the end of the reign of Diocletian.
I have chosen to start with the date 27 BC as, upon Octavian’s taking the Imperial title (and thus, officially founding the Roman Empire) he reformed the army, and transformed many of the allied and mercenary units into regular regiments of auxilia. I end with 305 AD, as Diocletian had spent much of his reign reorganizing every facet of the Empire, including the army, largely as a result of the fifty years of anarchy and civil warfare that had preceded him. The auxilia of the 4th and 5th Centuries would have a totally different place in the Roman world and war machine than that of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Centuries.
From the earliest times, even before the founding of the Roman Republic in 509 BC, the core of the Roman Army consisted of citizen-soldiers fighting as heavy infantry. Until the 1st Century BC, these soldiers were a militia; the consul and military hero Caius Marius reformed the Roman legions into a professional force of fighting men who spent the prime of their lives in the army. From the early days of the Republic onwards, the Roman citizens had been supported in battle by allies and mercenaries, typically fulfilling light infantry and cavalry roles, but these soldiers (often called socii in Republican days) were only organized into regular, regimented forces after the Marian reforms. They came to be called the auxilia, Latin for ‘helping hands’, because their function was to supply the tactical roles the legions were incapable of fulfilling.
Allied troops played important roles in the Punic, Macedonian, Cimbric, Jugurtine, and Social Wars of the 3rd, 2nd, and early 1st Centuries BC. The majority were of southern Italian origin. Italian socii who performed well in battle won Roman citizenship not only for themselves, but also for their cities, and this along with loot served as powerful motivations for them to help their Roman neighbors. The great conquerors of this period, however, also took local troops into their armies and thus the socii came to include Celts, Spaniards, Numidian Africans, Syrians, and a diverse crowd of Asian and Hellenistic peoples. With the possible exception of the Italians, most of these troops were led by amici (‘friendly kings’ – tribal chiefs kindly disposed towards Rome) and were armed and organized in their native fashions. As late as the late 1st Century BC, this was the face of the Roman auxilia – effectively little more than irregulars and mercenaries fighting alongside Rome under their own commanders and for their own personal goals.
It is during Julius Caesar’s Gallic (58 – 50 BC) and Civil (49 – 46 BC) wars that we find the allied troops playing a more important role in Roman warfare. Caesar recruited vast numbers of Germans and Gauls, mostly cavalry but also infantry, into his army, forming one legion (Legio V Alaudae) and a number of auxiliary cohorts from them. His German cavalry served him faithfully in the war against Pompey; indeed, virtually all of his miniscule portions of cavalry in the civil war were Germanic in origin. Pompey, on the other hand, put much faith in a great crowd of auxiliaries and allies taken from virtually all the nations of southern Europe and the Middle East, including Syrians, Jews, and Asians of all kinds. Again, Pompey’s allies are best known as cavalrymen and archers; the citizen Roman troops were not able to effectively provide either of these troop types.
By 27 BC, when Octavian became Caesar Augustus, he found himself not only the master of 28 legions, but at least that many men worth of allied contingents, ranging from Syrian archers to Germanic horsemen; Spanish slingers to Celtic infantry. He reformed these groups and made regular military units out of them; each unit was given a name and a number and set up so as to have (on paper) a strength of 480 fighting men. From this point onwards the men of these auxiliary units were to serve for 25 years, the same as the men of the legions. Those who survived 25 years of rigorous service in the Roman Army were given Roman citizenship for all of their dependants and offspring, as well as generous land grants.
The auxilia arms of the Roman Army came to play an important role over the course of the 1st Century, and by the beginning of the 2nd Century they had, in many senses, surpassed even the legions in usefulness. Nonetheless, in the 1st Century AD the reputation of the auxilia was marred by several bloody auxiliary revolts. From the years 6 – 9 AD Illyrian and Dalmatian auxiliaries in modern Yugoslavia sided with only partially conquered, anti-Roman tribal factions, and started a bitterly fought guerilla war that seriously depleted Roman manpower. Only a few months after the Illyrian Revolt was put down, in September of 9 a former native auxiliary commander, the Cheruscan German Arminius, lead three Roman legions and some auxiliary units into a trap in the Teutoberg Forest of Germany. The Romans were slaughtered and panic ensued throughout the Empire, even in Rome herself, at the magnitude of the crisis. The Roman frontier was consolidated and restored along the Rhine by Germanicus half a decade later. In 68, the last year of the reign of Emperor Nero, Batavian auxiliary commander Julius Civilis started a revolt amongst a number of Germanic peoples and this movement was put down only with great bloodshed and human tragedy. There were also a number of isolated instances of rebellion – the tragic adventure of the Usipi at the end of the 1st Century being a famous example.
Many of the auxiliary rebellions occurred because the troops’ local sympathies were stronger than their Roman sympathies. Julius Civilis, a proud citizen of the Batavi people, started his rebellion to avenge the honor of fellow countrymen who felt they had been slighted by the Emperor. Likewise, the Illyrian rebels of the beginning of the Century were stationed amongst their ancestral lands, with their families and villages close at hand, and finally decided that the liberation of that which they loved was more important than their oath to the Empire. In light of this, starting in the late 1st Century we find that Roman emperors and generals consciously attempted to post auxiliary regiments far away from their native lands; thus, we find Britons in Dacia, Syrians in Britain, and Spaniards in Egypt. Though many of these troops ended up marrying local girls and probably learning their languages, their local sympathies would have never come close to the loyalty they felt to the Army and their comrades.
The auxiliary regiments fought gallantly in all the great wars of the 1st and 2nd Centuries AD. Spanish, Celtic, and German auxiliaries participated in the Roman invasion of Britain (43 – 51 AD) and afterwards formed the most active part of Britain’s garrison. The much-vaunted cohorts of Batavian infantry proved more than a match for even the boldest of woad-painted Britons in the invasion. A number of auxiliary units, particularly cavalry, served with distinction in the civil war that erupted with the death of Nero (68 – 69 AD) as well as during the contemporary First Jewish War (68 – 73 AD). Auxiliary infantry of German origin formed the vanguard of Julius Agricola’s army during his invasion of Caledonia in the 80’s, occupying a role that had always previously been filled by legions.
The twin Dacian Wars (101 – 105 and 106 AD), in which the Roman Army was personally commanded by the warlike Emperor Trajan, saw the auxiliary cohorts at their peak. Vast numbers of both cavalry and infantry, Celts, Germans, Spaniards, Thracians, and Illyrians, fought the Dacians, and it was a cavalryman of an auxiliary wing who had the honor of presenting the Emperor with the severed head of the Dacian king Decebalus in 106. Auxiliaries, many from Thrace to the south, formed the cream of the new province’s army and played a chief role in its successful Romanization. The rest of the early/mid 2nd Century was relatively peaceful, the Empire managing to maintain its status quo. Troubles in Parthia in the 160’s followed by eruptions of Germans and Sarmatians in the next decade, along with a plague that decimated Italy gave the Empire some nasty wake-up calls in the later part of the century. The death of Commodus in 192 marked the beginning of another civil war, and the general period of 235 – 284 was marked by almost constant internal violence along with occasional Germanic and Persian incursions. Due to the skimpiness of the historical sources, we know little of the auxiliary regiments from the reign of Marcus Aurelius onwards, though inscriptions attest to their existence to the beginning of the 4th Century.
In some respects, the auxiliary units lost their traditional definition during the reign of ‘Caracalla’ (M. Aurelius Bassianus, son of Septimius Severus), in the year 214. In this year he published an edict granting the rights of Roman citizenship to every freeborn person in the Empire. Though this generous act won him the affection of millions of people across three continents, his primary motivation was undoubtedly to gain more taxpaying citizens to help him out of debt – like his father, he had increased the soldiers’ pay to buy their loyalty. After this edict, ‘barbarian’ young men on the frontier provinces no longer had to spend the best 25 years of their lives as virtual slaves to the Army to earn their rights as citizens. As with enrolling in the legions, joining the auxilia meant getting a steady and fairly well-paying job, but it no longer had any special rewards to offer its lower-class recruits. The writings of Vegetius in the 5th Century tell us that there was still a very powerful motivation to join the auxilia – discipline, in comparison to that of the legions, was very lax, and the routine of camp life was easier. Men in the auxiliary regiments were allowed to marry and have legitimate children, and they also developed a reputation for drunkenness and bad behavior when left unsupervised with a civilian population – the entrance of an auxiliary regiment into a major metropolis often caused a scandal.
What kind of men were the auxiliaries of the Roman Empire? Most joined the army when they were young – most tombstones of retired or slain auxiliary cavalrymen reveal that the soldier was between the ages of 18 and 20 when he enlisted, though the Roman Army was known to accept recruits as young as 13 and as old as the mid forties during times of war. Unlike the legions – in which many men were conscripted – most auxiliaries joined the service voluntarily. Often times, in provinces like Britain, Germania, Dacia, and Thrace, entire tribes or villages worth of teenaged boys would either enroll in the local cohort or, if there were enough of them, form a new unit. Because all Roman soldiers of the Imperial period served 25 years, most auxiliaries were at least in their 40’s before receiving an honorable discharge. Their discharge papers were signed by the governor of their province, or sometimes even by the Emperor himself, and guaranteed the rights as citizens to the soldier and any wives/mistresses, legitimate or illegitimate children, and slaves he had. The hard work and psychological stress of military life reduced the lifespan of these men considerably – whilst Roman-era civilians had a life expectancy only slightly behind ours, few soldiers who survived their length of service lived to see 50. There is one extraordinary tombstone from Britain that tells us of a Roman soldier who was 100 years old even when he died.
Auxiliaries could theoretically come from any province; the people of no province, nation, or tribe were banned from military service, though some peoples, Greeks and especially Egyptians, for example, were considered unfit for military service and would be treated with contempt if they enlisted. The vast majority of auxiliaries were always northern barbarians. Nearly half of the Roman cavalrymen of the 1st and 2nd Centuries were Celtic in origin, and most of the others were Thracians. Gauls, Thracians, Africans, and Spaniards dominated the auxiliary cavalry. Auxiliary infantry cohorts could be of Gaulish, British, Spanish, Germanic, Illyrian, Dalmatian, Pannonian, Dacian, Thracian, Syrian, African, or Egyptian origin. Other peoples including Jews and Arabs, the latter of whom often rode astride camels, are also mentioned as serving in the auxilia. As for the Greeks and Egyptians, most soldiers of these nations were confined to their native provinces.
The ideal recruit into the Roman auxilia, was, as said above young and probably noncitizen. He would probably feel loyalty to his tribe before he would feel loyalty to Caesar or Rome. He would also be of lower-class (probably rural) origins, have a good knowledge of hunting and caring for and riding horses, and would have a good work ethic and little knowledge of carnal pleasures – in short, he would be something of an ancient European version of a redneck or hillbilly. Upon enlisting he would swear an oath of loyalty to the Emperor (not to Rome or the Senate) and be outfitted with one or several uniforms, his weapons, and, if he joined the cavalry his horse. He would live in the auxiliary barracks with his comrades, probably sharing a cramped room with up to three other men and their arms and personal possessions. Little is known of auxiliary training except that it was not nearly as brutal as legionary training. It would seem that the cavalry took training more seriously than the infantry.
This would be a good time to describe the various types of auxiliary troops. The auxilia were divided into the infantry (pedes) and the cavalry (eques), and these were divided into units called cohors (cohorts) and alae, respectively. Infantry cohorts were divided into six centuries, each of which was commanded by a centurion and contained 80 men. An ala was divided into sixteen turmae commanded by a decurion. They also had a nominal strength of 480. It is estimated that for every one cavalry ala that was four infantry cohorts, at least in the 2nd Century. A special kind of auxiliary unit know to us predominately from epigraphic evidence from Britain is the cohors equitata – a mixed cavalry/infantry unit of 480 infantry and 120 cavalry. Archaeological evidence suggests that the men of these regiments were not as well-equipped as those of the cohorts and alae, and their careers probably consisted almost exclusively of policing duties.
The most common and generic form of auxiliary infantry were those armed for melee combat – numerically speaking these men may have been the most dominate troop type in the 2nd Century army. In most respects their armament was just a lighter version of that of the legions. They wore chainmail shirts in place of plated cuirasses, and used the oval clipeus shield as opposed to the rectangular legionary scutum. Their helmets were also not as well-crafted as those of the legionaries. Their weapons were the same, however, consisting of a medium-length thrusting sword, a fat triangular dagger, and one or several javelins or spears. The stabbing spear, hasta and the short-headed javelin, lancaea were both used by this type of soldier. Foremost amongst these melee-fighting auxiliary infantry were the Batavian Cohorts. Despite the revolt of Civilis in 68 AD, the Batavian Cohorts remained an elite presence in the Roman Army even into the late 4th Century, playing an especially glamorous role in the British Wars of the 1st and 2nd Centuries. Italian auxiliaries of the late Republic and early Empire, mostly recruited from the Sabines and Samnites, were equipped identically to the legions; their only difference was in their status as non-citizens.
In recent and modern times researchers of the Roman war machine have had a rather low view of the spear-and-sword armed auxiliary cohorts. Among the false claims of these historians are that they never campaigned apart from legions and that their equipment was vastly inferior to that of the legionaries, making it almost impossible for them to stand up to enemy heavy infantry. Auxiliary units did often fight smaller actions without any legionary presence, and in at least one battle (Mons Graupius, 83 AD), they formed the honored front line of the Roman army – meeting the enemy before the veteran legion behind them. Likewise, at least in the north the Roman Fleet (Classis) was manned almost exclusively by troops of auxiliary status, and they skirmished with Germans, Britons, and Irishmen apart from the legions.
On the subject of auxiliary armament in comparison to that of the legions, it is a documented fact that some auxiliary cohorts (like those of the Sabines and Batavians mentioned above) were armed and armored identically to the legions. The majority of auxiliaries were different from the legionaries predominately in that they used oval – rather than rectangular – shields and were more likely to use melee combat spears. Even then, there is plentiful evidence for their using javelins and there are even hints at their using the rectangular scutum on occasion. It is a documented fact, however, that auxiliaries did not usually have well-made helmets; the men of the hastily armed cohors equitata units were known for the slaphappy quality of their arms and armor, particularly their helmets and swords. It seems as though, however, the auxiliary infantry were armed and trained to be flexible and fight both as melee and skirmishing infantry. From the late 1st Century onwards there is evidence for legionaries fighting unarmored and with oval shields, and auxiliaries serving as crack swordsmen, so much so that many archaeologists have begun to doubt the true identity of soldiers depicted in Roman monuments.
The infantry auxilia provided most or all of Rome’s light troops, particularly its archers (saggitarii). The Romans themselves had no tradition of archery – though, at least in the 3rd and 4th Centuries AD legionaries received archery training, it was more so they would be capable of catching their own dinner if a situation demanded it than for them to use this training against enemies. A number of peoples with substantial skills in archery lived within the Roman sphere, however, particularly the East. Syrians and Cretans were known as especially good archers, and even though both of these nations were looked upon with disdain by the Romans, they were welcome in the ranks of the auxilia in both the Republican and Imperial periods. Other peoples known for their archery in the Roman world were the Arabs, Jews, Africans, and Gauls, though to what degree they were used as auxiliaries is not known. The equipment of auxiliary archers was not standardized until at least the 1st Century. It consisted of a chainmail shirt, a conical helmet based on Sarmatian models, a composite bow, and the sword and dagger carried by most or all Roman military men. Archers are not mentioned carrying shields, but if they did these would have been the small round parma used by standard-bearers.
Though slingers and stone – throwers (funditores) appear as irregulars in the Roman army, few such units achieved regular status and apparently only did so in the late Empire. Javelineers, at least in the Imperial period were largely either lightly-armored melee auxiliaries, or specialist light legionaries (lanciarii), but in the 4th and 5th Centuries there were units of (presumably) auxiliary class called exculcatores – and these are believed to have been unarmored (though probably shielded) javelineers. There may have also been auxiliary soldiers equipped with crossbows in the later Empire, but there is very little evidence for them.
It seems I never actually finished this one, but you get the idea:)
(preferably with a love of Roman history)
Well done, Salah. I always enjoy reading your essays on Rome, and particularly her armies.
I'm curious as to how much you've been able to uncover regarding the use of wardogs in the ancient Roman military, and if such units were considered auxilia, or were they attached as special elements to the Legions themselves?
The Celtic Britons apparently had several different breeds of dogs, greyhounds for one, that they used in hunting dangerous game as well as in warfare. These dogs were ranked amongst the more exotic commodities that the Romans sought when trading with the Britons before the conquest of 43 AD.
Dogs were used as guard animals in domestic settings, and were likely used as trackers and attack dogs by policemen. Being fed to the dogs was an execution befitting of a slave or army deserter, a slightly more humane alternative to crucifixion.
I've read dubious claims that the Romans bred rottweilers specifically for the purpose of setting them loose on enemies, or terrorizing slaves with them. I've also read that packs of attack dogs were attached to every legionary unit - overall a similar effect to the "war dog" units in Rome: Total War. But I have yet to find any contemporary references to military usage of attack dogs. It's highly likely, but I have found no proof:wondering:
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