When the Roman military is depicted in movies and video games, then the Roman soldiers are usually white. But is that historically accurate? Were Roman soldiers white or were there also black soldiers in the Roman army?
The Roman army had always been a multi-cultural one. Black soldiers existed in both the Roman legions and the Auxiliary troops since the Roman civil right, the requirement for serving in the legions, was not tied to race or skin color. PoC with Roman citizenship could serve in the Legions while PoC without Roman citizenship served in the Auxiliary troops.
Ok, but were there a lot of PoC among the Roman citizens? We will talk about that in a minute. But first I would to talk about the existence of black soldiers in the Roman auxiliary troops since that is a topic that can be handled quite quickly.
Let`s take a closer look.
Men of Color in the Roman Auxiliary troops
The Roman army basically consisted of two parts (not counting the mercenaries that were hired when needed). The most known part of the Roman military was the Roman Legions, units of heavy infantrymen who were exclusively recruited from Roman citizens (that means men who had the full Roman civil rights).
The second part of the Roman military, the Auxiliary troops, had roughly the same number of soldiers as the Roman legions. But while the Roman legions were exclusively recruited from Romans with full Roman citizenship, the auxiliaries were recruited from men who did not have Roman citizenship. These men usually came from inside the borders of the Roman Empire, but could also come from outside the Roman empire.
There were actually quite a lot of advantages aside from the pay that persuaded many non-Romans to enlist in the Roman auxiliary troops. One of these advantages was that the auxiliary soldier received the full Roman citizenship after he had finished his service.
The Auxiliaries usually served as light infantry, cavalry, or specialized soldiers (archers for example) while the Roman legions provided the heavy infantry. The reason behind that was, that Romans – who mastered the art of fighting as heavy infantry – never distinguished themselves as good cavalrymen. So the cavalry was usually provided by allies of Rome, the auxiliary troops, or even mercenaries.
Caius Julius Caesar actually hired Germanic mercenaries for his Gallic Wars. These Germanic cavalrymen were quite useful when Caesar had to break the rebellion of Vercingetorix. Do you want to find out more about the Gallic Wars and read a first-hand report written by Caesar himself? Then I would like to recommend you the translated version of the „Commentarii De Bello Gallico*“.
Ok, so the soldiers in the Roman auxiliary troops were recruited from all around the Roman Empire including areas like the Middle East and Africa. That explains why there were PoCs and Black men in the Roman auxiliary troops.
But what about the Roman legions?
Did PoCs & Black men serve in the Roman legions?
I have just written that only Roman citizens who met the requirements could serve in the Roman legions. So does that mean that there were no black soldiers in the Roman legions?
Roman citizenship was not tied to one specific race or skin color. Instead, Roman citizenships were handed out quite generously. When a slave was granted his freedom he received limited citizenship. But when the freed slave had sons, then his sons had full Roman citizenship which allowed them to join the legions. So when the freed slave was black or a PoC (not unusual considering the extent of the Roman Empire), then his sons (who were also black or PoCs and had full Roman citizenship) could join the Roman legions.
And that worked kind of the same for the sons of the Roman auxiliary men.
Although the auxiliary men, just like the Roman legionaries, were not allowed to marry and could not have legitimate children that didn`t mean that these men did not have relationships and children during their decades of service.
Instead, as soon as the auxiliary men fulfilled their service and received Roman citizenship they could have their sons legitimized. And that also granted the Roman civil rights to the sons of the auxiliary men and allowed them to join the legions.
By the way. The illegitimate sons of the Roman soldiers who grew up in the settlements in front of the Roman army camps were a valuable reservoir of new recruits for the Roman legions. As soon as their fathers had finished their military service, their sons could be legitimized so that they also received full Roman citizenship. That enabled them to join the Roman legions. And since these men had grown up around soldiers the chance of them also becoming soldiers was pretty high.
That is kind of like with US-American military families. When your grandfather and your father were professional soldiers and you grew up on military bases, then there is a good chance that you are also going to choose a career in the military. It was the same for the ancient Romans.
But let`s look at an example of how that might have worked.
Let`s assume that a PoC joined the Roman Auxiliary troops as a part of the Numidian cavalry (recruited in Northern Africa). He fulfilled his service, was granted full Roman citizenship and had sons.
The former auxiliary man himself was too old to use his newly gained Roman civil rights to enlist in the Roman legions. But his sons, who were also PoCs and who also had Roman citizenship since their father had been made a Roman citizen as a reward for fulfilling his military service in the auxiliary troops, could now join the Roman legions.
So the sons of PoCs or black men, who served in the Roman auxiliary troops and received Roman citizenship as a reward for their service, also had full Roman citizenship and could enlist in the Roman legions while being PoCs or black men themselves.
That kind of integration of former slaves and foreigners was actually one of the reasons why Rome was so successful while other, highly exclusive ancient states like Sparta, quickly lost their significance.
And ever since the Constitutio Antoniana (212/213 AD) granted every free man inside the borders of the Roman Empire full Roman citizenship, every free man with whatever skin color and from whatever end of the Empire could join the Roman legions.
So the Roman army has always been a multi-ethnic army in which PoCs and black soldiers have always served in both the legions and the auxiliary troops.
But there were not only Black soldiers in Antiquity. Black knights also existed during the Middle Ages and even made it into some of the best-known medieval tales.
But that is a story for another time.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
Caius Julius Caesar: Commentarii De Bello Gallico.*
James Clarckson: Migration, mobility and language contact in and around the ancient Mediterranean (2020).*
Chris McNab: The Roman army: The greatest war machine of the ancient world.*
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