Further to my last post, though, there would be one thing I would be pretty sad to see destroyed. It’s a small thing, which actually may not be particularly valuable. But it’s very unusual, and very old, and therefore it would be quite difficult to replace. It’s my legionnaire’s lamp, pictured to the left.
I got it as a present. My parents took a trip to England and bought it from an antiquities dealer there. It’s not big — maybe five inches long. Much lighter than you might think; it’s made out of relatively thin terracotta. It was probably decorated with a stamp press rather than hand-carved. The stamp decorating it is an erotic scene, a heterosexual couple with the woman in what professional adult entertainers would call the “reverse cowboy” position, reclining on a Roman-style couch.
I know from my parents, who were told this by the antiquities dealer, that the lamp was unearthed at a dig of a Roman campsite in England, and it was dated at between 1,900 to 2,000 years old. Trade between Roman Gaul and Britain had been going on since Caesar’s conquest of Gaul. So it’s possible that the lamp came before the legions, or that it got to England in the pack of one of Caesar’s men as part of one of his two brief expeditions. But it’s much more likely that the lamp came with a soldier during either the Claudian invasion in 43, or in response to the Bouddican revolution in 60.
So I think about that soldier sometimes, the man who bought a cheap little reading lamp in Rome or some Roman town in Italy, and put it in his pack with the few other personal possessions he had room for after he had joined the legion. It would have been a good lamp for that purpose because it was so light, and reasonably durable if he wrapped it in some kind of padding like a spare sock.
There’s no name scratched on the lamp, so I don’t know what his name was. He could read, obviously, or else he wouldn’t have needed a reading lamp in the first place. Based on the mass-production qualities of the lamp, he didn’t spend a lot of money on it. That makes it likely he wasn’t an officer. A centurion at the most, a regular soldier of the line more likely. The lamp is made of terracotta, which is more common in southern Europe than northern France or England, so that means it was carried from somewhere like Italy, Greece, or Provence up to England. I’m assuming the soldier bought it in one of the Romanized areas of the Empire and took it with him, but it’s reasonably possible some merchant did that, and then sold it to the soldier once he was in England — the ancient equivalent of a BX or an outsourced quartermaster.
The solider could have had any of a number of duties. Infantry were the basic need; something like two-thirds of a legion would have been infantrymen. The soldier would have spent days, weeks, months drilling with his comrades in arms. Ten of them would have been a maniple (that translates to “finger”) and ten maniples would have been a century. His century would have practiced various maneuvers all day, breaking down into maniples and individual soldiers, so that on a single barked command from the centurion, each of the hundred men would know where to be and how to position themselves and execute various maneuvers.
His best friend was his oversized rectangular shield, which would have been painted red with either a geometric design or the insignia of his legion on its metal front, lined with leather or wicker on the inside, and weighed between twenty to thirty pounds. The shield was his best friend because it kept him safe from enemy arrows and spears, and was a formidable weapon in its own right. He could have held it in front of him as he charged the enemy and if he had enough arm strength (and he probably did) he would have used the weight of it as a huge bludgeon upon first impact with an enemy at hand-to-hand combat range. After that, he could use it to trip or stab at his enemy, while also using it to block sword, axe, or spear blows.
He would have had a gladius, a straight, double-edged sword about two and a half feet long. Weight would be a factor, so a super-long sword would not have been practical. Long swords would be good for slashing from about five feet away, but the big Roman shield would have let him guard against an enemy trying thing. He beat his enemy by getting in close and stabbing. Stab wounds, by the way, are much more effective at taking the other guy down than a slash wound. Once the enemy is taken down, he can’t fight back, so it doesn’t matter if he’s dead or not — when you win, you can go back and kill him, or not, as you please.
In addition to the gladius, he’d have carried two javelins, one about a foot longer than the other, with detachable heads. The heads were detachable because earlier generations of soldiers found that their enemies would pick up the javelins and throw them back at the charging Roman legions. If the head detaches on impact, it still does damage to the enemy, but can no longer be re-used. The long spear would be deadlier for its greater weight, but the short spear could be thrown a little farther. There would have been endless hours practicing throwing the unarmed spear shafts while running — running up hills, down hills, across fields, through rivers.
So that’s how he would have fought. First he and his mates would form a tortoise — they’d lock their shields together for protection from arrows and spears, and march at a slow pace to where they wanted to be. When they got there, they’d form up and wait for the enemy to get too close. When the enemy did that, they’d charge. On the run towards the enemy, they’d throw first the short spear, then the long one, and by then they’d be close enough to ready their shields for impact. Bam! Hopefully the shield would help knock the first guy back, or at least off balance, and then stabby-stabby with the sword, until all the enemy were dead.
He’d do all that wearing about forty pounds of iron or bronze armor. It looked a lot like the armor you saw the soldiers wearing in the movie Gladiator, with the leaves of plates over the shoulders sitting atop a solid cuiriass with leather straps for a little extra protection making up his sleeve and a low-hanging fringe below the belly. If he had some money or a generous general, he’d also have metal greaves and sleeve guards to protect the fronts of his arms and legs. He would not have protected his back very much — his enemy was never supposed to see his back in the first place, so there’s no need to armor it. Besides, that gets heavy. And he’d have a metal helmet, of course, to protect his head. I’m assuming that my guy was a regular soldier so his helmet would have been unadorned with any decoration and would have had leather straps to keep it tied to his head during combat or training.
Probably the most important part of his uniform on a day to day basis wasn’t his armor but his boots. He walked everywhere. He probably walked from Rome to the English Channel, and then walked from wherever he landed (Dover, if he was in the initial invasion, or London, if he came in response to Boudicca) to wherever he fought. He needed strong, comfortable boots. But no matter how good his boots were, his feet were going to hurt at the end of the day.
His pack also would contain the most important tool he had — his shovel. Every night, after marching fifteen to twenty miles, he’d have to help dig trenches and lay out the camp. The camp was a square, with a ten-foot deep moat dug around it and the earth dug up into a ten-foot high battlement just inside the moat. It took half the guys in the legion to dig the moat and build the battlement, and they did it in an hour to an hour and a half. Other guys levelled the earth inside the square and set up tents, all in neat rows and columns. My soldier and his mates from his maniple would share a tent in an assigned spot; every night his tent would be in the same place.
Let’s assume that he landed in London to go fight Boudicca. After disembarking, he’d be hungry. He’d have probably been seasick on the passage across the Channel and up the Thames, and lost his lunch and his appetite along the way. Upon arriving in the military encampment and surrounding town of Londinium, he’d have been given a few hours’ liberty to get something to eat and drink, and told to report to the permanent camp there. He’d have spent a few coins getting some bread and meat and whatever vegetables were in season from a public house near the harbor on the north side of the Thames, near where the Victoria Bridge is today. If he were of a mind and heavy with coin, he could rent a girl, but chances would be good that he wouldn’t have had time for that sort of thing. London would be his last chance to visit anything like a decent bath for weeks, so that would be a higher priority. Cleaned and shaven, he’d have collected his things from the locker in the bathhouse and walked about a mile north to the big camp on the hill at the edge of town, where the financial district in The City is found today. It’s London we’re talking about, so he’d have been chilly and had to peer through fog to find the camp. If it wasn’t raining, that is.
After slogging it up the hill in the rain or the fog, he’d get to the camp gate and maybe had to have given a password to gain entry, and proceeded to his tent. He’d have known where to go without needing to ask anyone. Same tent, same place, every night. There, some of his mates would have built a little fire and maybe they would pass around some wine and tell bawdy stories to one another. Because Londinium was a permanent camp, there would have been cots. He would not enjoy such luxuries out in the field. Like nearly all soldiers, he’d have fallen asleep more or less instantly upon laying down.
About an hour before dawn, he’d wake up, go to the hole dug for use as a privy, and taken care of that business. Then he’d get into his uniform, eat a piece of hard-tack bread, and pack up his things for muster. His centurion would have been briefed either that morning or late the previous night about the day’s assignment by one of the general’s legates. Since I’m imagining that my soldier came to fight Boudicca, he would have been told of the wild woman leading a pack of a hundred thousand screaming Britons wearing only furs and blue clay smeared all over their faces. This would have amused him more than it scared him. The centurion would give instructions for what to do if there were a surprise raid on the column, and give the command to move out. Today’s direction — north into the wilderness.
All day, he’d have walked. He’d have made conversation with his buddies, maybe talking about religion or politics but more likely talking about his family back home or what it was like in his buddy’s home town. He’d eat lunch while walking, and on his turn for guarding the column, he’d quiet down and watch on his flank for anything suspicious in the woods or fields nearby. He’d never lose sight of his standard — a wooden carving of an eagle, gilt in gold, bearing the legion’s name and number and a flag hanging below it to show which century it belonged to. The strongest, best fighter in the century would have the honor of carrying the standard. When it was time to fight, he’d have to drive it into the ground before drawing his weapon, but any soldier could look up at any time during the fight and see the eagles on the poles, and know where he could go to rally with other soldiers if he got into real trouble.
Come dusk, the general would identify a suitable place for building the camp, hopefully near a stream or river to get fresh water. Local trees could be cut down to build towers or pikes to guard the palisade, and scouts would go out hunting local game, but my soldier would be digging the moat. After an hour of digging, he’d be down his ten feet and another soldier would pull him out. On a good night, some deer might be brought back and passed around. On a not so good night, the men would pull salt pork out of their packs and cook that along with the flat soldier’s bread they’d bake in their pans over their small campfires. Fast messengers would arrive with packets from Londinium. He and the other men in his maniple would draw straws, and the short straw had to do guard duty. Tonight, my soldier didn’t mind getting the short straw so much because there was a message from him in the packet.
That’s when he’d pull out the little reading lamp, which now sits on my bookcase. He’d pour a little olive oil into it, and run a small piece of twine or flax down the hole. When the wick was saturated with the oil, he’d use a flint to spark on it until the flame caught, and it would give off acceptable enough light. Then, sitting atop the palisade, he’d have just enough light to read the letter from his sweetheart back home. No soldier away from home was ever more happy than when a letter from his girl came. True then, true now.
When he was done reading, he’d maybe take a few minutes to write her back, using a small stylus and some charcoal. Ink would have been hard to carry around. The charcoal would smudge a little bit but that was what would be available to a soldier — and it would really have been no worse than a letter written in pencil today. He’d seal up the letter and write his sweetheart’s name and city, and if it was a big city, her neighborhood, and get it to one of the camp boys to put in the morning dispatch back to Londinium.
Next day, same thing. North again. March another fifteen, twenty miles, build a camp. But that night, a bad message came in from Londinium — the town had been attacked by Boudicca. The battle was still going on when the messenger left on his dispatch to the legion. News would have shot through the camp like wildfire and sleep would have come harder for most of the men, but not my soldier — he hadn’t slept the night before.
Come muster the next morning, my soldier would have been surprised to hear that the legion’s orders were not to wheel back to Londinium to relieve the garrison there, but to march west, towards what is today St. Alban’s. But soldiers follow orders and that’s what the legion would have done. Another two days of marching, more sullen this time as news of the sack of London came in along with some refugees seeking shelter with the legion. Dispatches from the Empire would stop until the line of communication back with Gaul was re-opened. That meant that the enemy had to be met in battle, soon. By this time, the legion would know that they were to rendezvous with the Roman governor of Britain, Seutonius Paulinus.
When they did, they might have been discouraged to find that the combined force totalled only about 10,000 men. Two-thirds or more would have been infantry and the rest auxilliary units like archers and cavalry. There would also be support personnel — quartermasters, young boys (we’d call them “interns” today) running messages around, cooks, blacksmiths, and the like. Few women, but some, selling themselves for the “comfort” of the centurions and junior officers. But a pitifully small number of fighting men pitted against what the men would have been told was upwards of a quarter million angry Britons, as ten or more tribes had united under the warlike Queen of the Icenii.
Only six days after landing, my soldier’s legion would meet a force of fighting men (and some women) who outnumbered the Romans by nearly twenty to one. Seutonius had a few advantages, though — he picked the terrain of the battlefield, and chose a hilltop with forest on two sides, so he would only have one direction in which to face his enemy. His men were better-armed, better-armored, and much better-trained. My soldier had practiced and drilled every day since joining the legion, and he feared the beating and shame his centurion could administer much more than he feared his enemy. Still, it is a daunting thing to confront an enemy who outnumbers you by that much.
The battle was joined early the next summer day. It did not end until the sun went down and the Romans won. My soldier would have thrown his spears, bashed in heads and arms with his shield, and bloodied his sword many times. He would not have been seriously touched, though, by the relatively untrained Britons he fought — they would have been wearing heavy furs or leather, and his sharpened sword would have cut through those easily, and pierced the blue-painted flesh of his enemies many times. The dispatch sent back to Rome of the battle that day listed eight hundred Roman casualties, with about 400 dead and about 400 wounded out of the 10,000 fighting men who took the field. Seutonius claims to have defeated a force of just over 200,000 Britons, killing some 80,000 of them. That’s a 200-to-1 kill ratio. If that number is even close to accurate, my soldier would have had to have killed
one man every four minutes, from sunrise to sundown, eight men that day to do his share of the slaughter, and he probably wounded about an equal number. If he were in the infantry, though, it would have been more than that.
You might imagine that no amount of training or conditioning could possibly prepare someone for a day like that. But that just might be underestimating the power of Roman infantry training. The odds were very good that my soldier would have survived with only superficial wounds and bruises; in retrospect it seems his biggest danger would have been exhaustion or heatstroke during extended periods of hand-to-hand combat. Adrenaline can only take you so far. So he must have had the surreal experience of being relieved on the battlefield for what amounted to a lunch break while the battle wore on.
Boudicca herself eluded capture, returned home, and poisoned herself rather than be taken captive. My soldier would have learned why she revolted — after not paying her husband’s debts to Seutonius, she was declared no longer under Rome’s protection and some soldiers like himself had raided her camp, abducted and tortured her, and raped her daughters. She began her rebellion seeking personal revenge, which the soldier would have understood if not exactly liked, and ended it by claiming three massive victories in the cities known today as Norwich, Colchester, and London, sacking and essentially destroying each Roman encampment before finally being defeated at somewhere in the west Midlands, traditionally identified as somewhere near St. Albans. He’d have acquired a high level of respect for Boudicca and, while he would have seen the Romans as the good guys and the Britons as the treacherous rebels, one can imagine his feelings towards his enemy were not unlike the kind of grudging admiration and respect that Union soldiers in the Civil War must have felt for Robert E. Lee — a capable and worthy enemy, one from whom much could be learned.
My solider would have stayed on for many years in Britain, keeping the peace, protecting tax collectors and second-tier politicians, building roads and aqueducts, and maybe having a few engagements with minor uprisings, but nothing like the Battle of St. Albans ever again in his life. I imagine he had a sweetheart back home but he must have got lonely and maybe found a girl in Britain. I wonder, did he marry the British girl or did he go back home to the girl in Italy? Maybe he got a grant of land and was encouraged to settle in the land he had helped re-conquer for the Empire. Maybe he got transferred to Gaul and helped acclaim Vitellius in the Year of the Four Emperors. I hope not, for his stake — Vitellius did not do well and wound up having to give way to Vespasian.
My hope is that my soldier got to make a good life for himself, building up what had been destroyed in the revolution, and that he got to go home and marry the sweetheart who wrote him love letters while he prepared to face the horror of St. Albans. Maybe he lost the lamp in the battle; it could have fallen out his pack and into the muck and mud raised by all the troop movements, and never recovered in the cleanup after the battle. If it had fallen out while wrapped in his sock, and got trapped in mud near the camp, that would explain its good condition and its survival over the years to be unearthed in the closing days of the twentieth century.
It’s a plausible enough story.