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Roman Legion recruitment

In my previous post, the main character meets a Roman legionnaire in the context of ordering supplies for a newly levied legion. I’d like to go into a little of what I understand of late Republic legion levy and recruitment, and some of how that newly formed legion might supply itself.

To start, there doesn’t seem to be much primary source evidence for how this process worked. Some of the sources that do exist, such as Vegetius, mostly describe mid- to late-Empire legions, and the veracity of Vegetius’ work is itself somewhat questionable based on what I have read.

In Vegetius’ favor, however, is that the Romans, and the military in particular, kept things that worked (in general), and did those things for a long time. Once the legions figured out something that was effective, whether that was a training method or a weapon or helmet design, it was adopted and kept. So, even if he wasn’t contemporaneously writing with the late Republic military, his information might still reflect the reality of that time—even if it is not precisely correct.

However, that doesn’t mean we can’t make some general assumptions, and extrapolate a plausible scenario in a fictional work. So, with that in mind, let me make the one overriding statement about this (and really all other) historical reality that I rely on: as fiction, I still want for a reader of this story to feel like they are reading a real-life account. I want it to be viscerally true, to have the quality of grabbing the reader, and when the reader puts down the book, to feel as if they were in the training camp of Legio XI. To feel as if they were dodging spears and javelins and slingstones standing on the walls of Vesontio, or need to grab a blanket to fend off the winter chill of a legionnaire patrolling around a winter camp in Belgae.

That’s my goal. So here’s what I am thinking about the recruitment of Roman legions in the late Republic, and how they might have set about supplying themselves before the legion itself had all of the troops and ancillary manpower necessary to create and repair supplies.

New Legion Supply

After the Roman military had (essentially) fully adopted the “Marian” reforms*, and each soldier was issued a standard kit by Rome, it seems to have become standard for each legion to source most of these supplies on their own, at least in general. A fully-formed legion on campaign or in a more-or-less permanent camp could fabricate most of the equipment they needed, and could repair pretty much everything they used. The legion would have a smithy, armory, leather and cloth making capabilities, and could manufacture and repair pretty much any standard equipment, as well as fabricate new items from time to time.

Initial supply, however, would likely have come from other sources. When a new legion was levied, the recruits would need armor—probably the lorica hamata, or chain mail—as well as swords, helmets, shields, daggers, and other articles of their kit like boots, tunics, and so forth. Although the newly formed legion was not entirely made from scratch—somebody had to be the centurion, the optio, the primus pilus, and so forth—it doesn’t seem likely that an existing legion’s smith or animal handlers or other specialists would have been removed en masse, leaving a campaigning legion bare of these while a new legion is being outfitted.

So, with that in mind, I think it’s very likely that any levy of a new legion during this time would rely on the new legion’s Quaestor being given a purse specifically for the purchase of locally-sourced supplies for many items. Probably not armor or most weapons, at least not swords or daggers, because there wasn’t much need for that kind of smithing everywhere in the Republic. Those items probably came from specific smithies, and were coordinated by Rome rather than the individual legion.


In my research, I didn’t find much late Republic information about how the legions were levied. It seems that early Republic legions were levied from the various families and voting blocs, and happened yearly. Each family was expected to send soldiers when they were told to.

The aforementioned reforms changed who could be in a legion, and what they did. Without going into too much detail, it basically boils down to this: before the reforms, only Roman citizens who owned property could be in the legion, and their role largely depended on how much property they owned. After, any Roman citizen could sign on with the legions, whether they owned property or not.

It seems as if it would not be possible after the reforms to send a letter to these various landed families and demand soldiers, and indeed it seems as if the recruitment shifted away from this compulsory levy to more of a volunteer system.

One thing that would still have been true is that any Roman who was not “of age” would still be obligated to follow the father’s rules, and would need his permission to do anything including join the legions. So the father would have to consent to anyone in his family who wanted to join.

What did it mean to be “of age?” Well, based on what I have found, it was whether or not they had shaved yet! It appears to be that Roman boys, once they started puberty, would not be allowed to shave their beards until they were around 21 or so, and then there would be a private celebration where his first shave occurred. The shorn beard would be offered to the family’s deity, and the newly-shaved man would be considered separate from his father.

In any case, since the legion recruited pretty much anybody who showed up, and wanted new recruits to be about 17-20 years old, there would be a lot of recruits who hadn’t yet had their shaving day. The new recruits likely also came from all kinds of backgrounds, and from all over the recruitment area.


Finally, one thing that seems to be fairly consistent over the roughly millennia that Romans recruited and trained legions between approximately 500 BC and AD 395 is that their assembly and training occurred as a single group in a single place. They apparently did a fairly similar pattern that lasts even today in the US Army (or did, when I was in it), which was to train the recruits how to move around from place to place, teach them marching and drill & ceremonies, and formation training, and then moved onto training with weapons and small unit combat.

So, in any event, there’s a brief backdrop of some of the historical setting, and some of my own perception of it. Let me know what you think below, especially if I have misunderstood something!

Thanks for coming by 🙂


*: I put Marian in quotes because it seems to be that although Marian is credited with instituting them, it’s really more that he kickstarted them into full gear. Many of the reforms were already in progress when Marius is purported to have made them, such as the transition from manipular legions to cohort legions.

Published inHistory