During most of the Roman Republic, the Roman armies weren`t made up of professional soldiers but Roman citizens for which participating in a certain number of wars was a civic duty. That meant that these men, most of them in their late 20s and early 30s, had a civilian life and oftentimes a family at home that they had to leave temporarily. But over time a temporary absence could turn into years of absence.
So what happened when a Roman was away on military duty and something happened at home to his farm or his family? Could Roman soldiers get leave to return home and sort out their personal business in such a case?
Roman troops regularly went into winter quarters. And while the majority of soldiers had to remain in the winter quarters, sources report that soldiers with good reasons (like urgent personal matters awaiting them at home in Italy) were granted leaves that allowed them to travel home and take care of their problems but also gave them a date when they had to be back.
Let`s find out more!
During most of the Roman Republic the Roman army was not made up of professional soldiers but of drafted men who had to leave their civilian lives and their farms behind when they were called to war.
But while these wars often only lasted a couple of weeks during the early days of Rome, the expansion of the Roman territory made it necessary for Roman armies to fight in more and more distant lands so that soldiers were often away from home for years at a time.
However, these wars were usually not waged with the same intensity throughout the entire year. Instead, Roman troops fighting in both Italy and later also throughout the Mediterranean would regularly go into winter quarters. And during that time warfare usually went on with limited intensity which also meant that fewer soldiers were needed.
So while most soldiers still had to remain in the winter quarters as a garrison, individual soldiers with pressing personal matters at home – for example in case the father of a soldier had died and the drafted son had to be present to claim the family farm to prevent it from becoming vacant – were granted leave so that they could travel home, sort out their business, and then return to their unit before the army left its winter quarters.
There are actually several sources reporting that.
Two occasions where soldiers were granted leaves will be presented in the following.
In the winter of 170/169 BC, many of the Roman soldiers stationed in Greece were allowed to go on leave and so many of them ended up in Italy that the Censores took it upon themselves to send these men back to their units.
I think it is safe to assume that when even troops stationed in Greece could get a leave that allowed them to temporarily return to Italy, then the soldiers stationed in winter quarters within Italy were probably also able to be granted a leave to visit their families in case of personal problems.
Another example of such a leave that is interesting for two reasons can be found in 141 BC.
In 141 BC, proconsul Quintus Metellus Macedonicus granted leaves to every soldier who applied without any examination of the soldier’s reasons or any time limit when the soldier had to return to his unit.
That was quite unusual and Roman writers often attributed it to Quintus Metellus Macedonicus having a fit of rage.
By the way, have you ever wondered why Roman names could get so long and why some of them have the last part with a geographical reference (like Macedonicus -> Macedonia)? You can find the answer to that in my article here!
So during the time of the Roman Republic, individual Roman soldiers could be granted leave. However, that does not mean that every soldier could get leave to just go on vacation. To be granted leave the soldier had to have a good reason and the general situation had to be relaxed enough that a reduced army strength was acceptable. Such a situation usually arose during the colder months when fighting was limited and the Roman troops had gone into their winter quarters.
Do you want to find out more about the accommodation of Roman soldiers in both the war camps as well as the more permanent winter quarters? Then I would like to recommend you my article here.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
Johannes Kromayer: Heerwesen und Kriegsführung der Griechen und Römer (München 1963).
Nathan Rosenstein: Rome at War. Farms, Families, and Death in the Middle Republic (Chapel Hill 2004).