Roman Soldiers Relationships in the Frontier a bibliographic Essay

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Roman Soldiers Relationships in the Frontier (a bibliographic Essay)


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Modern debates surrounding personal relationships developed between Roman soldiers in military settlements and women in canabae and vici, civilian communities, in the frontier provinces in the Imperial period, has received increased attention among scholars. Studies have attempted to explain how personal relationships were viewed by citizen soldiers and how the state viewed their relationships, with native women. Recent works on the relationships of low ranking soldiers explore literary and epigraphic records left from the provinces to obtain a greater understanding of the soldiers and the familial relations they developed on the periphery of the empire.

Soldiers in combat situations or stationed for long periods of time far from home developed close relationships with fellow soldiers, and the Romans in the frontier were no exception. Research conducted and presented by Ramsay MacMullen in “The Legion as a Society” reveal the strong ties that developed among soldiers of the frontier Legions. MacMullen examines sources left by soldiers such as personal letters, and tombstone inscriptions to determine that soldiers developed family-like bonds with their contubernales, members of the standard eight men barrack blocks within military bases.1MacMullen explains further using modern examples to demonstrate how close community networks among soldiers enabled them to fulfill their individual potential as soldiers and enter into danger with thoughts for their comrade’s lives as well as their own.2 His examination of troops under Brigadier General Marshal and Veterans of the Lincoln Brigade reflect the same type of brotherhood that developed among Roman soldiers; that honour and reputation among comrades and pride in their outfit makes better soldiers.3 The development of strong bonds between soldiers served the dual purpose of developing a more reliable fighting force and giving men a sense of identity among their peers.

The recent work by Valerie M. Hope which examines tombstones and trophies commemorating Roman soldiers, reaches similar conclusions to MacMullen regarding soldiers’ relationships in military settlements.4 Hope’s examination of military tombstones and trophies is essential when explaining the relationships of frontier soldiers and how these relationships progressed after the formation of permanent military settlements. Hope explains that tombstones represent a level of stability and permanence in military settlements, and commemorations by soldiers reveal a supportive network of military comrades who acted as a pseudo family.5 MacMullen and Hope agree that soldiers in military settlements formed significant bonds; however this is brought into question by Adrian Goldsworthy who focuses on the daily duties and assignments of individual soldiers. Goldsworthy examines surviving duty rosters of soldiers, arguing that contubernium, the eight man divisions that slept together, would rarely have been together because Romans duties were assigned to individuals and not contubernales, as well as the fact that it is possible several soldiers from each contubernium would often be on patrol or leave outside the settlement.6 The theory presented by Goldsworthy reveals that soldiers were busy and often on duty but does not outweigh the literary sources and extensive number of inscriptions revealing that strong ties developed between contubernales.

The bond developed between soldiers may have striking resemblance to modern soldiers but, unlike most modern militaries relationships with women were regulated by the state. After Augustus instituted permanent military settlements and lengthened the period of service soldiers began to form alliances with women in the vici that formed near military settlements. With large numbers of men permanently placed in a region far from Rome Augustus instituted a law that no soldier in active service could legally marry. A recent and extensive look into the “marriage” of Roman soldiers has been released by Sara Phang examining the marriage ban by Augustus and what was practiced in the distant military settlements of the Empire.7 Conclusions by Susan Treggiari demonstrate that the soldiers’ marriage ban was inconsistent with the current Roman marriage law`s aim of increasing civilian manpower, revealing different laws for Roman enlisted men.8 It is possible to theorize, as Walter Scheidel does, soldiers’ attitude towards such a ban, which likely caused Claudius’ granting the legal privileges of married men to soldiers in 44 CE.9 Oddly enough, men were granted the rights of a married man even though they were not allowed to legally form marriages. Scheidel clarifies that soldiers were not prevented from forming relationships with women or even raising children, but the conjugal family had no legal status and therefore recommends that “non-recognition” of marriage is a more precise term than “ban.”10 The theory that marriage was not recognized as opposed to being banned is supported by the tombstone commemorations which became extensive from the first century CE on. Sheidel reveals that husbands and wives, as we will call them, commemorated each other on tombstones, revealing that both parties believed in the marriage regardless of Roman law; inscriptions examined by Phang and Hope reach similar conclusions about soldiers’ marriage based on tombstone commemorations.11 Clearly soldiers in permanent military settlements developed marital relations and raised children, though the state viewed the relationship as concubinage with illegitimate children.

As shown, soldiers and women believed their relationship was a marriage, however ancient and modern sources debate whether these women achieved the status of wife or were simply concubines. This question has been taken far too lightly in the past by scholars like Harold Mattingly, who stated briefly that soldiers had concubines and marriage was not permitted or engaged in before Septimius Severus.12 More recent historians have explained the issue in much greater detail. Phang explains in extreme detail the misconceptions about Herodian’s statement that Septimius Severus granted soldiers legal marriage in 197 BCE.13 The translation of the Greek term used by Herodian to describe marriage has been greatly debated and often referred to as concubinage. This argument is suppressed by Phang who rationalizes that concubinage had been in practice for centuries and the privilege granted by Septimius did constitute legal marriage leading to the probability that soldiers weren’t permitted to legally marry prior to 197 BCE.14 The argument for concubinage is also reviewed by Phang in relation to how concubinage was viewed and practiced within Rome.15 In Rome concubinage was primarily practiced by young men before marriage or by older widows to avoid a new marriage and production of legitimate children that would upset inheritance arrangements, rarely was concubinage related to the formation of a family.16 The provincial relationships do not conform to the Roman perception of concubinage and marital terms are increasingly common in the evidence from the provinces, validating that marriage was practiced by soldiers regardless of legitimacy.17

We are now able to assume with a degree of surety that marital relations were practiced by soldiers before 197 BCE, and can attempt to comprehend the parameters of the relationship. As shown above Scheidel revealed that soldiers were not prevented from cohabitating with women or raising the children born from such relations.18 This point is agreed upon by Mattingly who states that men could live with their (what he calls concubines) and raise children, and that soldiers were at times able to live in the vici with their family and not in the barracks of the base.19 The question of whether soldiers lived outside the base with their family or the family was brought inside the base is discussed by Goldsworthy who acknowledges the debate over controversial archaeological finds within the excavations of Roman barracks.20 The issues discussed by Goldsworthy reveal that artefacts and clothing associated with women and children have been found in barracks suggesting that soldiers may have brought their families within the walls of the base, though it is expressed that this would have been unlikely in such confined living quarters.21 It could be argued that families were brought into the base during times of threat, which could reveal the soldiers commitment to a family that was as yet recognized by the state. However, scant evidence makes it difficult for scholars to reach a consensus on whether soldiers were permitted to live with their family in or out of the base.

One main issue that has caused controversy among scholars regarding the inscriptions pertaining to soldiers’ wives are the Romanized names of the women, which according to Sheidel make up 90% of all epigraphic evidence.22 Several theories have been expressed as to how these wives, who would have primarily been native, assumed Roman names. Once again Phang is the authority promoting first that wives could have Roman names because some soldiers married their freedwoman, who upon manumission adopted their husband or future husband’s name.23 Both Scheidel and Goldsworthy attest to the likelihood that many soldiers’ wives using Roman names were likely freedwomen who were married, however the high number of inscriptions present this as only probable in some cases. It is presented as more likely that even though legal marriage was prohibited, soldiers held to Roman marriage practice and would have preferred Romanized wives, resulting in women adopting Roman names to better assimilate into the culture of their husbands.24 Scheidel goes further by stating that non-assimilation was not an option for soldiers’ wives who had no choice but to take necessary measures to fit in with their husbands and with state.25 Adoption of Roman names by wives is still debatable to some degree but cannot be denied when viewed in relation to the abundance of epigraphic evidence attesting to it; however questions arise whether this was an attempt by the family to legitimize children from the relationship.

Children born out of soldiers’ marriages provide an interesting study with the understanding that Roman marriage focused on providing legitimate heirs for inheritance. Romans also had strict family structures with all members under the patria potestas of the father, which is called into question when regarding illegitimate children born in the frontier. The inscription pertaining to children on funerary epitaphs and laws that developed in response to the growing number of soldiers’ marriages producing children provide the fullest understanding of the status of soldiers’ children. Mattingly discusses the importance of soldiers’ children and their value to recruitment in the frontier, a recruitment which gained them citizenship.26 Gaining citizenship through military service as adults however does not recognize inheritance issues of illegitimate children or the high regard for legitimate heirs in Roman society. Scheidel exposes several legal cases that left children born during their father’s military service illegitimate, consequently having no claim on their father’s estate unless named heir’s in their fathers will.27 The issue of illegitimate children being soldiers’ heirs received enough attention that the emperor Hadrian decreed that soldiers’ children could inherit as cognate relatives if no legitimate heir or relative could be found.28 Scheidel points out that this would have caused issues for children attempting to establish descent from men not formally regarded as their father, but that issue itself demonstrates how abundant the conjugal family was in the military settlements of the frontier.29

The high number of children in the frontier is also demonstrated by Phang who reveals several interesting circumstances regarding soldiers’ children. As it has been shown above Roman men preferred Roman ways of life in their family and several accounts examined by Phang record petitions to the Senate to legitimize their children, primarily to gain patria potestas over them.30 It is shown that this did not cause large scale legitimacy but was a route for Roman soldiers to pursue, again revealing that children born to soldiers in the frontier were regarded as an issue by the Roman Senate.31 Like soldiers’ wives the use of Roman names also presents difficulties when discussing the legitimacy of soldiers’ children. Phang demonstrates that in soldiers’ family epitaphs, children usually have the paternal nomen as if they were legitimate, though they could not all have been procreated prior to enlistment or after their fathers’ discharge.32 It is suggested by Phang that the legitimate nomenclature for children could reveal that some children were legitimized by adrogation, though adrogation was cumbersome and cannot account for the high number of epitaphs recording children with the paternal nomen.33 It appears much more likely, and the opinion of Phang that “soldiers gave their children their nomina because their children were not “bastards” but their acknowledged progeny of socially existent marriages.”34 Much like soldier’s wives’ nomenclature blurred legal status and makes defining the status of women and children difficult, though understanding the need to assimilate to Roman ways of life presents a better understanding of Romanization in the frontier provinces.

The bonds of fellowship and marital relationships were essential social aspects of a Roman soldier’s life in the frontier. The relationships comforted and gave a sense of belonging to soldiers living far from home and for long periods of time. Marital relations were beneficial for soldiers and the empire, regardless of the states attempt to suppress soldiers’ marriage. Children procreated by soldiers often joined the military - strengthening frontier forces - and marriage acted as a cultural exchange between natives and Romans, advancing Romanization and the understanding of “barbarian” culture. The professional armies after Augustus were primarily unpropertied men, whose occupation for most of their adult life was soldiering, leaving little choice for soldiers but to form family bonds among themselves and native women.


Campbell, Brian “The Marriage of Soldiers under the Empire,” The Journal of Roman Studies 68 (1978): pp. 153-166

Gardner, Jane F. Women in Roman Law and Society. Bloomington and Idianapolis: Idianapolis University Press, 1991

Goldsworthy, Adrien Kieth. The Complete Roman Army. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2003

Hope, Valerie M. “Trophies and Tombstones: Commemorating the Roman Soldier,” World Archaeology 35 (1) (June 2003): pp. 79-97

MacMullen, Ramsay. “The Legion as a Society,” Historia: Zeitschrift fur Alte Geschichte 33 (4) (1984): pp. 440-456

Mattingly, Harold. Roman Imperial Civilization. London: W.W. Norton and Co, 1971

Phang, Sara Elise. The Marriage of Roman Soldiers (13 B.C – A.D. 235). Brill: Leiden; Boston; Koln, 2001

Rawson, Beryl “Roman Concubinage and other De Facto Marriages,” Transactions of the American Philological Association 104 (1974): pp. 279-305

Saller, Richard P. and Shaw, Brent D. “Tombstones and Roman Family Relations in the Principate: Civilians, Soldiers, and Slaves,” The Journal of Roman Studies 74 (1984): pp. 124-156

Scheidel, Walter. Marriage, Families, and Survival: Demographic Aspects. In A Companion to the Roman Army, edited by Paul Erdkamp, 417-434. Malden: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2007

Treggiari, Susan. Roman Marriage: Iusti Coniuges From the Time of Cicero to the Time of Ulpian. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991

1 MacMullen, Ramsay. “The Legion as a Society,” Historia: Zeitschrift fur Alte Geschichte 33 (4) (1984): p. 442-444

2 Ibid., pp. 443-455

3 Ibid., pp. 447-448

4 Hope, Valerie M. “Trophies and Tombstones: Commemorating the Roman Soldier,” World Archaeology 35 (1) (June 2003): pp. 79-97

5 Ibid., p. 86

6 Goldsworthy, Adrien Kieth. The Complete Roman Army. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2003: p. 90

7 Phang, Sara Elise. The Marriage of Roman Soldiers (13 B.C – A.D. 235). Brill: Leiden; Boston; Koln, 2001: p. 116

8 Ibid., p. 116-117

9 Walter Sheidel, Marriage, Families, and Survival: Demographic Aspects, in A Companion to the Roman Army, ed. by Paul Erdkamp (Malden: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2007), p. 418

10 Scheidel, p. 418

11 Scheidel, p. 420; Phang, p. 152; Hope, p. 87

12 Mattingly, Harold. Roman Imperial Civilization. London: W.W. Norton and Co, 1971: p.143

13 Phang, p.16-20

14 Ibid., p.21

15 Ibid., p.199

16 Ibid., p.198-199

17 Ibid., p.199

18 Scheidel, p.418

19Mattingly, p.143

20Goldsworthy, p.103

21 Goldsworthy, p.103

22 Scheidel, p.423

23 Phang, p.193

24 Sheidel, p.423-425; Phang p.190-195

25 Scheidel, p.424

26 Mattingly, p.143

27Scheidel, pp.418-419

28 Ibid., p.418

29 Ibid., p.418

30 Phang, pp.310-311

31 Phang, pp.316-319

32 Ibid., p.312

33 Ibid., p.312

34 Ibid., p.312

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