Roman legion

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The Roman legion (Latin : legiō, Latin: [ˈɫɛɡioː] ), the largest military unit of the Roman army, comprised 4,200 infantry and 300 equites (cavalry) in the period of the Roman Republic (509 BC – 27 BC) and 5,600 infantry and 200 auxilia in the period of the Roman Empire (27 BC – 476 AD).


The Roman Legio (Imperial) and sub-units. A grey circle represents one Legionary. Red circles, Officers. Roman Imperial Legion Units.svg
The Roman Legio (Imperial) and sub-units. A grey circle represents one Legionary. Red circles, Officers.


The size of a typical legion varied throughout the history of ancient Rome, most legions were led by a roman Imperial Legate with complements ranging from 4,200 legionaries and 300 equites (drawn from the wealthier classes – in early Rome all troops provided their own equipment) in the Republic, [1] to 5,500 in the Imperial period.

A legion had 4,800 legionaries (in 10 cohorts of 6 centuries of 80 legionaries) from the late republic to the time of Julius Caesar. It expanded to 5,280 men plus 120 auxiliaries in the Imperial period (split into 10 cohorts, nine of 480 men each, with the first cohort being almost double-strength at 800 men). These are typical field strengths while "paper strength" was slightly higher (e.g. 600 and 1,200 respectively for Imperial cohorts).

In the early Roman Kingdom the term legion may have meant the entire Roman army, but sources on this period are few and unreliable. [2] The subsequent organisation of legions varied greatly over time but legions were typically composed of around five thousand soldiers. During much of the republican era, a legion was divided into three lines, each of ten maniples. In the late Republic and much of the imperial period (from about 100 BC), a legion was divided into ten cohorts, each of six (or five) centuries. Legions also included a small ala , or cavalry unit. By the third century AD, the legion was a much smaller unit of about 1,000 to 1,500 men, and there were more of them. In the fourth century AD, East Roman border guard legions ( limitanei ) may have become even smaller. In terms of organization and function, the republican era legion may have been influenced by the ancient Greek and Macedonian phalanx. [3]

Function and constitution

For most of the Roman Imperial period, the legions formed the Roman army's elite heavy infantry, recruited exclusively from Roman citizens, while the remainder of the army consisted of auxiliaries, who provided additional infantry and the vast majority of the Roman cavalry (provincials who aspired to Roman citizenship gained it when honourably discharged from the auxiliaries). The Roman army, for most of the Imperial period, consisted mostly of auxiliaries rather than legions. [4]


Many of the legions founded before 40 BC were still active until at least the fifth century, notably Legio V Macedonica, which was founded by Augustus in 43 BC and was in Egypt in the seventh century during the Islamic conquest of Egypt.

On the other hand, Legio XVII ("Seventeenth Legion"), Legio XVIII ("Eighteenth Legion") and Legio XIX ("Nineteenth Legion"), founded by Augustus around 41 BC, [5] [6] [7] were destroyed by a Germanic alliance led by Arminius in the Varian Disaster (September 9, AD 9) and never raised again by the Romans thereafter. [8]

Quintili Vare, legiones redde! (Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!) [9]

Overview of typical organization and strength

Imperial Roman legionaries in tight formation, a relief from Glanum, a Roman town in what is now southern France Roman Legionaries-MGR Lyon-IMG 1050.JPG
Imperial Roman legionaries in tight formation, a relief from Glanum, a Roman town in what is now southern France

Because legions were not permanent units, and were instead created, used, and disbanded again, several hundred legions were named and numbered throughout Roman history. To date, about 50 have been identified.

The republican legions were composed of levied men that paid for their own equipment, with emphasis placed on service to the Republic as opposed to military career. At any time there would be four consular legions (with command divided between the two ruling consuls) and in time of war extra legions could be levied.

The Roman military extended service beyond Roman citizens to also the peregrini (non-citizens), who could sign on as auxilia (auxiliaries), mainly as a means of passing upkeep costs from Rome itself to its allies instead. Only during the time of Claudius were they rewarded with Roman citizenship upon completion of service and all the rights and privileges that it entailed. In the time of Augustus there were nearly 50 legions in active duty which were in various states of disorder. He regulated and reduced this number to that of about 25–35 legions, which remained as such for most of the empire's history.


Almost nothing is known about the legion of the Roman Kingdom period that could have included 1000 men from each of the three original Roman tribes. The earliest surviving detailed description comes from Polybius, who was writing c.150 BC and his account most likely was influenced by the organization of the Roman army after the defeat of Hannibal in the Punic wars some 50 years earlier. [10]

The legions of the Republic were only conscripted in times of conflict and usually limited to four legions, two to be commanded by each consul, though more could be levied if needed. Legionaries lacked the opportunity of a military career; they were not paid well, their primary form of income being what they could loot from the battlefield, and were simply called upon when needed and returned to their civilian lives when they were no longer required.

In terms of organization and function, the early Republican era military was inherited from the Etruscans and seemingly influenced by the ancient Greek and Macedonian phalanx. [3]

Depiction of Roman legionnaires Roman holiday birthplace of rome roman soldiers-883133.jpg!d.jpg
Depiction of Roman legionnaires

After a crushing defeat at the Battle of the Allia, in 387 BC the military structure was reformed. Under the Camillan system the legions were initially structured based on social class, with the poorest being the first line of the formation. The legionaries most often fought with hastae (spears) and scuta (large rectangular shields) in a checkered maniple formation with assistance from skirmishers. The exception to this was the triarii , the final line of the formation who instead fought as hoplites, using Greek clipei and whose wealth could afford them gladii in the case of a broken spear.

By the 3rd century BC, this system was seen to be inefficient. Under the new Polybian system the ranks were no longer structured by wealth, and instead by age and experience. All legionaries had their hastae replaced by gladii, along with two pila , which were used as an opening volley before melee. The former classes of poor legionaries, the accensi , rorarii, and leves were replaced by the velites . Unit sizes were also expanded.

Non-citizens or peregrini were also offered a position in the military as auxiliaries.

The Republican legion evolved from 3,000 men in the Roman Republic to over 5,200 men in the Roman Empire, consisting of centuries as the basic units. Until the middle of the first century AD, ten cohorts made up a Roman legion. This was later changed to nine cohorts of standard size (with six centuries at 80 men each) with the first cohort being of double strength (five double-strength centuries with 160 men each).

By the fourth century AD, the legion was a much smaller unit of about 1,000 to 1,500 men, and there were more of them. This had come about as the large formation legion and auxiliary unit, 10,000 men, was broken down into smaller units – originally temporary detachments – to cover more territory.

In the fourth century AD, East Roman border guard legions ( limitanei ) may have become even smaller.


Roman Kingdom (c.752 to 509 BC)

In the period before the raising of the legio and the early years of the Roman Kingdom and the Roman Republic, forces are described as being organised into centuriae of roughly one hundred men. These centuries were grouped together as required and answered to the leader who had hired or raised them. Such independent organisation persisted until the 2nd century BC amongst light infantry and cavalry, but was discarded completely in later periods with the supporting role taken instead by allied troops. The roles of century leader (later formalised as a centurion), second in command and standard bearer are referenced in this early period.

Rome's early period is undocumented and shrouded in myths, but those myths tell that during the rule of Servius Tullius, the census (from Latin: censeō – accounting of the people) was introduced. With this all Roman able-bodied, property-owning male citizens were divided into five classes for military service based on their wealth and then organised into centuries as sub-units of the greater Roman army or legio (multitude). Joining the army was both a duty and a distinguishing mark of Roman citizenship; the wealthiest land owners performed the most years of military service. These individuals would have had the most to lose should the state have fallen.

Mid Republic (509–107 BC)

At some point after the overthrow of the Roman monarchy the legio was subdivided into two separate legions, each one ascribed to one of the two consuls. In the first years of the Republic, when warfare was mostly concentrated on raiding, it is uncertain if the full manpower of the legions was summoned at any one time. In 494 BC, when three foreign threats emerged, the dictator Manius Valerius Maximus raised ten legions which Livy says was a greater number than had been raised previously at any one time. [11]

Also, some warfare was still conducted by Roman forces outside the legionary structure, the most famous example being the campaign in 479 BC by the clan army of gens Fabia against the Etruscan city of Veii (in which the clan was annihilated). Legions became more formally organised in the 4th century BC, as Roman warfare evolved to more frequent and planned operations, and the consular army was raised to two legions each.

In the Republic, legions had an ephemeral existence. Except for Legio I to IV, which were the consular armies (two per consul), other units were levied by campaign. Rome's Italian allies were required to provide approximately ten cohorts (auxilia were not organised into legions) to support each Roman Legion.

In the middle of the Republic, legions were composed of the following units:

Each of these three lines was subdivided into (usually ten) chief tactical units called maniples. A maniple consisted of two centuries and was commanded by the senior of the two centurions. At this time, each century of hastati and principes consisted of 60 men; a century of triarii was 30 men. These 3,000 men (twenty maniples of 120 men, and ten maniples of 60 men), together with about 1,200 velites and 300 cavalry gave the mid Republican ("manipular") legion a nominal strength of about 4,500 men.

Late Republic (107–27 BC)

Visual representation of the legion showing size and disposition for Infantry formations Legion Task ORG.png
Visual representation of the legion showing size and disposition for Infantry formations

Each century had its own standard and was made up of ten units ( contubernia ) of eight men who shared a tent, a millstone, a mule and cooking pot.

Full Roman citizenship was open to all the regions of Italy. At the same time, the three different types of heavy infantry were replaced by a single, standard type based on the principes: armed with two heavy javelins called pila (singular pilum ), the short sword called gladius, chain mail ( lorica hamata ), helmet and rectangular shield ( scutum ).

The role of allied legions would eventually be taken up by contingents of allied auxiliary troops, called auxilia. Auxilia contained immunes (specialist units), engineers and pioneers, artillerymen and craftsmen, service and support personnel and irregular units made up of non-citizens, mercenaries and local militia. These were usually formed into complete units such as light cavalry, light infantry or velites , and labourers. There was also a reconnaissance squad of ten or more light mounted infantry called speculatores , who could also serve as messengers or even as an early form of military intelligence service.

A typical legion of this period had 5,120 legionaries as well as a large number of camp followers, servants and slaves. Legions could contain as many as 11,000 fighting men when including the auxiliaries. During the Later Roman Empire, the legion was reduced in size to 1,000 to allow for easier provisioning and to expand the regions under surveillance. Numbers would also vary depending on casualties suffered during a campaign; Julius Caesar's legions during his campaign in Gaul often only had around 3,500 men.

Tactics were not very different from the past, but their effectiveness was largely improved because of the professional training of the soldiers.

Throughout the history of Rome's Late Republic, the legions played an important political role. By the 1st century BC, the threat of the legions under a demagogue was recognised. Roman governors were not allowed to leave their provinces with their legions. When Julius Caesar broke this rule, leaving his province of Gaul and crossing the Rubicon into Italy, he precipitated a constitutional crisis. This crisis and the civil wars which followed brought an end to the Republic and led to the foundation of the Empire under Augustus in 27 BC.

Early Empire (27 BC–AD 284)

Map of Roman legions by 14 AD Roman-legions-14-AD-Centrici-site-Keilo-Jack.jpg
Map of Roman legions by 14 AD
Roman Empire and legions in 125 AD near its maximum extent Roman Empire 125 political map.svg
Roman Empire and legions in 125 AD near its maximum extent

Generals, during the recent Republican civil wars, had formed their own legions and numbered them as they wished. During this time, there was a high incidence of Gemina (twin) legions, where two legions were consolidated into a single organisation (and was later made official and put under a legatus and six duces ). At the end of the civil war against Mark Antony, Augustus was left with around fifty legions, with several double counts (multiple Legio Xs for instance). For political and economic reasons, Augustus reduced the number of legions to 28 (which diminished to 25 after the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, in which three legions were completely destroyed by the Germanics).

Beside streamlining the army, Augustus also regulated the soldiers' pay. At the same time, he greatly increased the number of auxiliaries to the point where they were equal in number to the legionaries. He also created the Praetorian Guard along with a permanent Roman navy where served the liberti, or freed slaves. The legions also became permanent at this time, and not recruited for particular campaigns. They were also allocated to static bases with permanent castra legionaria (legionary fortresses).

Augustus' military policies proved sound and cost effective, and were generally followed by his successors. These emperors would carefully add new legions, as circumstances required or permitted, until the strength of the standing army stood at around 30 legions (hence the wry remark of the philosopher Favorinus that It is ill arguing with the master of 30 legions). With each legion having 5,120 legionaries usually supported by an equal number of auxiliary troops (according to Tacitus), the total force available to a legion commander during the Pax Romana probably ranged from 11,000 downwards, with the more prestigious legions and those stationed on hostile borders or in restive provinces tending to have more auxiliaries. By the time of the emperor Severus, 193–211, the auxiliaries may have composed 55 to 60% of the army, 250,000 of 447,000. Some legions may have even been reinforced at times with units making the associated force near 15,000–16,000 or about the size of a modern division.

Throughout the Imperial era, the legions played an important political role. Their actions could secure the empire for a usurper or take it away. For example, the defeat of Vitellius in the Year of the Four Emperors was decided when the Danubian legions chose to support Vespasian.

In the Empire, the legion was standardised, with symbols and an individual history where men were proud to serve. The legion was commanded by a legatus or legate. Aged around thirty, he would usually be a senator on a three-year appointment. Immediately subordinate to the legate would be six elected military tribunes – five would be staff officers and the remaining one would be a noble heading for the Senate (originally this tribune commanded the legion). There would also be a group of officers for the medical staff, the engineers, record-keepers, the praefectus castrorum (commander of the camp) and other specialists such as priests and musicians.

Later Empire (from 284 AD)

Map of Roman legions by 212 AD Roman-legions-212-AD-Centrici-site-Keilo-Jack.jpg
Map of Roman legions by 212 AD

In the Later Roman Empire, the number of legions was increased and the Roman army expanded. There is no evidence to suggest that legions changed in form before the Tetrarchy, although there is evidence that they were smaller than the paper strengths usually quoted. The final form of the legion originated with the elite legiones palatinae created by Diocletian and the Tetrarchs. These were infantry units of around 1,000 men rather than the 5,000, including cavalry, of the old legions. The earliest legiones palatinae were the Lanciarii, Joviani, Herculiani and Divitenses.[ citation needed ]

The 4th century saw a very large number of new, small legions created, a process which began under Constantine II. In addition to the elite palatini , other legions called comitatenses and pseudocomitatenses , along with the auxilia palatina , provided the infantry of late Roman armies. The Notitia Dignitatum lists 25 legiones palatinae, 70 legiones comitatenses, 47 legiones pseudocomitatenses and 111 auxilia palatina in the field armies, and a further 47 legiones in the frontier armies. [15] Legion names such as Honoriani and Gratianenses found in the Notitia suggest that the process of creating new legions continued through the 4th century rather than being a single event. The names also suggest that many new legions were formed from vexillationes or from old legions. In addition, there were 24 vexillationes palatini, 73 vexillationes comitatenses; 305 other units in the Eastern limitanei and 181 in the Western limitanei. [16] A rare instance of apparent direct continuity between the legions of the early Empire and those of the post-6th century army was Legion V Macedonica; created in 43 BC, recorded in the Notitia Dignitatum as a legione comitatense under the title of Quinta Macedonica and surviving in Egypt until the Arab conquest of 637 AD. [17]

According to the late Roman writer Vegetius' De re militari , each century had a ballista and each cohort had an onager, giving the legion a formidable siege train of 59 ballistae and 10 onagers, each manned by 10 libritors (artillerymen) and mounted on wagons drawn by oxen or mules. In addition to attacking cities and fortifications, these would be used to help defend Roman forts and fortified camps (castra) as well. They would even be employed on occasion, especially in the later Empire, as field artillery during battles or in support of river crossings.

Despite a number of organisational changes, the legion system survived the fall of the Western Roman Empire. It was continued within the Eastern Roman Empire until the 7th century, when reforms begun by Emperor Heraclius to supply the increasing need for soldiers resulted in the Theme system. Despite this, the Eastern Roman armies continued to be influenced by the earlier Roman legions, and were maintained with similar levels of discipline, strategic prowess, and organization.

Legionary ranks

Aside from the rank and file legionary (who received the base wage of 10 assēs a day or 225 denarii a year), the following list describes the system of officers which developed within the legions from the late republic (100s BC) until the military reforms of Diocletian (c.290).

Senior officers


An historical reenactor in Roman centurion costume Centurion 2 Boulogne Luc Viatour.jpg
An historical reenactor in Roman centurion costume

The rank of centurion was an officer grade that held much responsibility. The most senior centurion in a legion was known as the primus pilus (lit. "first maniple" [20] ), who directly commanded the first century of the first cohort and commanded the whole first cohort when in battle. Within the second to tenth cohorts, the commander of each cohort's first century was known as a pilus prior and was in command of his entire cohort when in battle. The seniority of the pilus prior centurions was followed by the five other century commanders of the first cohort, who were known as primi ordines.

There is a story of one centurion, Petronius Fortunatus, making rank in four years, then spending the next forty-two years in twelve different legions never once serving in the primi ordines. [21]

The six centuries of a normal cohort, were, in order of precedence:

The centuries took their titles from the old use of the legion drawn up in three lines of battle using three classes of soldier (each century would then hold a cross-section of this theoretical line, although these century titles were now essentially nominal). Each of the three lines is then sub-divided within the century into a more forward and a more rear century.


The Roman army maintained a complex position and grading system for its soldiers that reflected the many and varied duties of the Roman army. There were three pay grades within the rank of legionary: standard, one and a half, and twice the basic pay rate.

Standard duty positions

Special duty positions


Legionaries received 225 denarii a year (equal to 900 sestertii) until Domitian, who increased it to 300 denarii. In spite of the steady inflation during the 2nd century, there was no further rise until the time of Septimius Severus, who increased it to 500 denarii a year. However, the soldiers did not receive all the money in cash, as the state deducted a clothing and food tax from their pay. To this wage, a legionary on active campaign would hope to add the booty of war, from the bodies of their enemies and as plunder from enemy settlements. Slaves could also be claimed from the prisoners of war and divided amongst the legion for later sale, which would bring in a sizeable supplement to their regular pay.

All legionary soldiers would also receive a praemia (veterans' benefits) on completion of their term of service of 25 years or more: a sizeable sum of money (3,000 denarii from the time of Augustus) and/or a plot of good farmland (good land was in much demand); farmland given to veterans often helped in establishing control of the frontier regions and over rebellious provinces. Later, under Caracalla, the praemia increased to 5,000 denarii.

Pay scales


From 104 BC onwards, each legion used an aquila (eagle) as its standard symbol. The symbol was carried by an officer known as aquilifer, and its loss was considered to be a very serious embarrassment, and often led to the disbanding of the legion itself. Normally, this was because any legion incapable of regaining its eagle in battle was so severely mauled that it was no longer effective in combat. [24]

Reenacters portraying Roman legionaries of Legio XV Apollinaris Roman soldiers with aquilifer signifer centurio 70 aC.jpg
Reenacters portraying Roman legionaries of Legio XV Apollinaris

In Gallic War (Bk IV, Para. 25), Julius Caesar describes an incident at the start of his first invasion of Britain in 55 BC that illustrated how fear for the safety of the eagle could drive Roman soldiers. When Caesar's troops hesitated to leave their ships for fear of the Britons, the aquilifer of the tenth legion threw himself overboard and, carrying the eagle, advanced alone against the enemy. His comrades, fearing disgrace, 'with one accord, leapt down from the ship' and were followed by troops from the other ships.

With the birth of the Roman Empire, the legions created a bond with their leader, the emperor himself. Each legion had another officer, called imaginifer , whose role was to carry a pike with the imago (image, sculpture) of the emperor as pontifex maximus .

Each legion, furthermore, had a vexillifer who carried a vexillum or signum, with the legion name and emblem depicted on it, unique to the legion. It was common for a legion to detach some sub-units from the main camp to strengthen other corps. In these cases, the detached subunits carried only the vexillum, and not the aquila, and were called, therefore, vexillationes . A miniature vexillum, mounted on a silver base, was sometimes awarded to officers as a recognition of their service upon retirement or reassignment.

Civilians could also be rewarded for their assistance to the Roman legions. In return for outstanding service, a citizen was given an arrow without a head. This was considered a great honour and would bring the recipient much prestige.


The military discipline of the legions was harsh. Regulations were strictly enforced, and a broad array of punishments could be inflicted.

Minor punishments

Major punishments

Factors in the legion's success

Reenactment: training

Montesquieu wrote that "the main reason for the Romans becoming masters of the world was that, having fought successively against all peoples, they always gave up their own practices as soon as they found better ones". [27]

Examples of ideas that were copied and adapted include weapons like the gladius (Iberians) and warship design (cf. Carthaginians' quinquereme), as well as military units, such as heavy mounted cavalry and mounted archers (Numidians and Parthians).

See also

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  1. "Organization of the Roman Army: Manipular legion Organization of Legion". Penn State. Retrieved 2023-03-03. Each of these three lines contained five manipuli of 120 hastati, 120 principes, and sixty triarii
  2. Cornell, T. J. (1995): The Beginnings of Rome
  3. 1 2 Manousos Kambouris, Spyros Bakas (2016). "Greco-Macedonian influences in the manipular Legion system". Archaeology and Science. 11 2015: 145–154.
  4. Data in: Goldsworthy, Adrian (2003). Complete Roman Army. pp. 95–95; Holder, Paul (1980). Studies in the Auxilia of the Roman Army. pp. 86–96; Elton, Hugh (1996). Frontiers of the Roman empire. pp 123. See table in article "Auxiliaries (Roman military)" for compilation of this data.
  5. Adkins, Lesley; Adkins, Roy A (2004). Handbook to life in ancient Rome (2 ed.). Facts On File. p.  270. ISBN   0816050260.
  6. Boyne, William (1968). A manual of Roman coins. p. 13.
  7. History of The Roman Legions: History of Rome. Self-Publish. 2015.
  8. Watson, G. R. (1969). The Roman Soldier. Thames and Hudson. p. 121.
  9. A saying attributed to Emperor Augustus, according to the Roman historian Suetonius in The Twelve Caesars .
  10. Campbell 2015, Early republic.
  11. Livy, Ab urbe condita , 2.30
  12. Mccall, Jeremiah B. The Cavalry of the Roman Republic: Cavalry Combat and Elite Reputations in the Middle and Late Republic. (New York, Routledge, 2002) pp. 53ff
  13. Quesada Sanz, Fernando (28 September 1996). "Gladius hispaniensis: an archaeological view from Iberia" (PDF). Journal of Roman Military Equipment Studies. 8: 251–254.
  14. "Map".
  15. Totals from summary of Notitia Dignitatum in Richardot, Philippe, La fin de l'armée romaine 284–476 [3rd ed.] Economica, 2005. ISBN   2717848614.
  16. Jones, Later Roman Empire, pp. 1449–1450
  17. Esposito, Gabriele (2016). The Late Roman Army. Winged Hussar. p. 77. ISBN   978-0996365796.
  18. Bowman, Garnsey, Rathbone (eds) The Cambridge Ancient History, Volume 11 pp. 326–327
  19. Birley, Anthony R. Septimius Severus: The African Emperor. (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1989) p. 40
  20. Radin 1915, p. 301.
  21. John, Warry (1995). Warfare in the Classical World. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. p. 173. ISBN   0806127945.
  22. Caesar's Civil War, Adrian Goldsworthy, p. 20
  23. "Payscales for different grades of Roman soldier" (PDF). Retrieved 3 January 2022.
  24. Several Authors (2015). History of The Roman Legions: History of Rome. Self-Publish. pp. 1069–. GGKEY:DXPWT430TXP.
  25. Edwards, H. J. "The Histories of Polybius: Fragments of Book VI". The University of Chicago. p. 357. Retrieved April 2, 2020.
  26. "It's totally fine to use 'decimate' as a synonym for 'devastate'. This is why". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved October 24, 2018.
  27. Montesquieu C., Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline, Hacket, 1999, p. 24