We live in a world in which retirement, especially for younger generations, gets more and more distant and insecure. Over the years the promise of getting a good education, working hard for decades, and then getting a comfortable retirement to live out your golden years has gotten cracks.
When I was thinking about my own (very distant) retirement I also started wondering about how the problem of retirement was solved in antiquity, especially in the Roman army.
Roman soldiers who achieved the honesta missio (= honorable discharge) either received a piece of land (before 14 BC) or a lump sum of money (after 14 BC) as their praemium militare (= retirement). A legionary would receive 3.000 Denarii, officers would get a multiple, and praetorians got 5.000 Denarii. Every year 6.000 to 7.000 soldiers retired. Auxiliaries, men who didn`t have the Roman civil right, only received the Roman civil.
Let`s find out more!
Retirement of Roman soldiers in the Roman Republic
Just like when we talk about the pay that Roman soldiers received, more on that here, we also have to differentiate between the time of the Roman Republic and the time of the Roman Empire when we talk about the retirement and Pensions of Roman soldiers.
Because of that, I will give a brief overview of retirement and Pensions during the time of the Roman Republic before I talk about how Augustus, the first Roman emperor, standardized the Retirement of his soldiers.
The idealized idea of retirement in the early Roman army
The early Roman army was made up of militiamen who joined the army for individual campaigns and would return to their civil lives, most of them were wealthy farmers, as soon as the campaign was over. That system, like the equipment and the fighting style, had been adopted from the Greek hoplites.
During that time every Roman citizen between the age of 17 and 46 who was wealthy enough to afford armor and weapons had to serve in a total of 16 campaigns. As long as these campaigns were limited to central Italy that was not a big problem since the farmers who made up the bulk of the army could return to their farms within a few weeks.
During the early Roman Republic, the idea was that the militiamen who were mostly farmers would return to their farms as soon as the campaign was over. There they would continue their civil life until they were recruited for the next campaign. Since the veterans owned enough land to support themselves and their families a special retirement was not necessary.
By the way, that limited time for warfare was one of the downsides of the Militiasystem that Philipp II, the father of Alexander the Great, remedied by creating a standing army. More on the different units that made up the army that his son Alexander would later use for his war against the Persians in my article here.
But very soon the expansion of the Roman Republic forced the soldiers to fight in more and more distant regions. And that caused problems.
Some of the Roman soldiers who were deployed to Spain would not return to their farms for 6 consecutive years. And when they returned they usually found their farms in so much debt that they had to sell them.
I actually wrote an entire article where I go into more detail about that problem and the consequences it had on both the Roman middle class and the Roman state. You can check it out here. One of the consequences outlined in the article was the decline of the recruitable population. Remember, a recruit still had to be wealthy enough to provide his own armor and weapons.
But since fewer and fewer recruits were able to afford the equipment Rome started to reduce the minimum requirements when it came to wealth until the requirement of a certain wealth was completely scraped. But that also caused problems.
Unlike the militiamen of the early Roman Republic, the soldiers of the middle and late Roman Republic were basically professional soldiers in a militia system. Just like their predecessors, they were only recruited for individual campaigns. But unlike their predecessors, they did not own a piece of land to return to after a campaign was over.
So suddenly the question of how these soldiers should survive between the campaigns became urgent. By the way, that was also the time when Roman soldiers really started to get paid. More on that in my article here.
First steps toward providing soldiers with a retirement
So we just found out that during the early Roman Republic the militia system made it unnecessary to provide soldiers with a retirement since the veterans owned their own land to which they could return. But that changed when the minimum wealth requirements were dropped and men without land ownership were allowed into the Roman army.
So first steps were taken to provide soldiers with a retirement. But one mistake was made!
The care for the retirement of the soldiers was not put on the Roman senate but the individual generals. And that created an unhealthy economic dependency of the soldiers on their generals. Soon the soldiers were no longer loyal to the Roman Republic but to their general who promised them to secure their retirement. That put events into motions that would weaken and eventually end the Roman Republic. But that is a story for another time.
A good example of an early attempt of providing soldiers with retirement was made after the Second Punic War for the soldiers of the General Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus, more on why Roman names could get so long here.
After the Second Punic War, the soldiers of General Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus who had served in Spain and Africa were provided with land as retirement. Each soldier would get 2 iugera (1 iugera is 2989,97 square yards/ 2500 m2) for each year of service. On average each soldier got between 10 and 12 iugera of land which was barely enough to feed a family.
The important part is that as early as the end of the Second Punic War in 201 BC the care for the retirement of the Roman soldiers was put into the hands of the Generals. Other soldiers who fought in the Second Punic War under other Generals did apparently not get land which shows the dependency of the soldiers on their Generals when it came to their economic future past their time as soldiers.
By the way, the benefits behind giving land to the 30.000-40.000 soldiers of Scipio Africanus was not purely rewarding the soldiers for their loyal service, there were also other, partially economic, benefits. More the benefits of settling down soldiers in my article here.
The problem of providing soldiers with a retirement would remain one of the major questions of the late Roman Republic. It wasn`t until Augustus that the retirement of the soldiers was reformed and standardized.
But before we talk about how Augustus changed the retirement of Roman soldiers we have to take a brief look at the requirements a soldier had to meet to qualify for retirement.
The Requirements for receiving a Retirement
When it came to being eligible for receiving a retirement the Roman army was pretty straightforward.
Only Roman soldiers who had achieved the honesta missio (= honorable discharge) or who were released due to mental or physical disability received a retirement either in the form of a gift of land or a gift of money. Auxiliaries, men who did not have the Roman civil right, were not rewarded with money or land but with the Roman civil right.
How many Roman soldiers retired per year
When things had normalized after the end of the Civil War the number of Roman soldiers who retired every year was rather small which in return also meant that the number of recruits was rather small. Because of that recruiting by force was rare, more on that here.
While Augustus retired 85.000 soldiers after the battle of Actium in 31 BC the number of soldiers who retired per year dropped significantly as soon as the massive armies of the Civil War had been reduced. After the Civil War, only 6.000 to 7.000 Roman soldiers retired each year.
That number is rather small when we recognize the size of the Roman Empire. But let`s now find out what kind of retirement and Pension a Roman soldier could expect during the rule of Augustus.
Retirement of Roman soldiers under Augustus (after 6 AD)
Just like the pay that a Roman soldier received the retirement he received was not organized by the Roman state but by the General under whom the soldier served. And it also stayed like that during the first years of the rule of Augustus.
In 6 AD Augustus transformed the obligation of paying and providing retirement for the soldiers from his obligation to an obligation of the state by introducing the aerarium militare, the military treasury, that was funded with a singular donation of 42,5 Million Denarii from the purse of Augustus, a 5% Inheritance tax, and a 1% tax on all auctioned goods.
Before that, the retirement (as well as paying) of the soldiers was the personal duty of Augustus just like it had been the responsibility of the Generals of the Roman Republic.
Augustus actually kinda brags about that in his memoirs, the Res Gestae*, that he wrote towards the end of his life as a report of his deeds. There Augustus explains that between 30 and 14 BC he had bought land for a total of 215 Million Denarii in Italy and the Provinces which he used to provide land as retirement to the soldiers who fought in the civil war.
The Res Gestae is particularly interesting since they were not written by a historian after the death of Augustus but by himself. That means that the booklet gives us a good insight into how Augustus himself saw his deeds and which deeds he saw as especially important.
I personally really enjoyed reading that booklet since it gives a good insight into the mind of one of the most influential men of ancient Rome (maybe of history in general). If you are interested in checking out the Res Gestae yourself then you can find the English translation of the book here* on Amazon.
But let`s return to the two options, land or money, that the retirement could be handed out. Before we go into more detail about both methods I would like to present a few downsides of handing out land as a retirement that might explain why Augustus decided to switch to handing out money instead of land after around 14 BC.
- The Problem of attaining the land
The first and biggest problem was the acquisition of enough land for all soldiers. Now directly after the civil war that was not really a problem since a lot of the land that had previously been owned by the political enemies of Augustus had been expropriated. That land could then be distributed to veterans.
But as things normalized after the end of the civil war that stream of available land ended. Now land had to be bought, often for top dollar. And even if enough land could be accumulated there was another problem.
- The inefficiency of measuring and assigning the land
Before land could be handed out as a retirement the land needed to be parcelled out and then assigned to the individual soldier. And that was much more administrative work than just handing out a lump sum of money.
- Tying the Veterans to one place & taking their options away from them
Another problem was that getting a piece of land as retirement tied the veteran to a specific part of the Empire. Let`s say the soldier originated from southern Italy and had plans of returning home after having finished his service. More on how long Roman soldiers served here. But the soldier would get a piece of land in Gaul for retirement. Either he would have to come to terms with the fact that he now remains in Gaul or he had to sell the land which opened him up to being deceived about the actual value of the property.
- Agriculture or leasing out the land requires knowledge
The last reason was that agriculture needs knowledge and a certain passion. And not every soldier who spent the largest part of his life in the army would be comfortable with becoming a farmer. And the option of leasing out the land and living off the lease also required special knowledge,
So there were definitely benefits to just handing out a lump sum of money for retirement. But before we talk about that gift of money that became the predominant way of retirement after 14 BC I would like to talk about the gift of land as a retirement first.
A gift of land as retirement
As explained above: Handing out land to the soldiers had been a popular way to secure their retirement. And Augustus also used that way, especially during the first years of his rule. Founding colonies and populating them with veterans who had received land in these colonies had multiple benefits, more on these benefits here.
Because of different social, political, and economical problems, the settlements of veterans that were organized during the Roman Republic (for example by Caesar) were short-lived while the settlements that were established by Augustus usually survived.
But the locations of the land that was given to the veterans also changed with Augustus. Over time the amount of Italian land that was handed out to veterans vanished while more and more veterans received land in the Provinces. That can be seen in the way Augustus handed out land to veterans after the battle of Actium where he defeated his rival Marcus Antonius (with Cleopatra) and became the sole ruler of Rome.
After the battle of Actium (2 September 31 BC) Augustus released 85.000 soldiers and granted them land as retirement. While 2/3 of these 85.000 men received land within Italy only 1/3 received land in the Provinces. In the later years of his rule, Augustus would almost exclusively hand out land in the provinces before he would switch to handing out money as retirement in 14 BC.
There were multiple reasons why Augustus would later hand out land in the provinces. Some of the reasons have already been discussed. Another reason was that settling Roman veterans in the Provinces did not only romanize these regions but also made it easier to control these parts of the empire, more on that here.
Since a regular soldier received 3.000 Denarii as retirement and an iugera (2989,97 square yard/ 2500 m2) did cost an average of 250 Denarii we can assume that a soldier would get 12 iugera. That was barely enough to feed a family.
For more information on how expensive life was in ancient Rome, you might want to check out my article here where I go into depth about the pay of a soldier and the deductions for stuff like food.
By the way. The romanization of the provinces was definitely wanted. Although Roman soldiers were not allowed to marry, relationships between Roman soldiers and local women were at least tolerated and would often be legitimized after the soldier had archived his honorable discharge. More on why Roman soldiers were not allowed to marry and why many still had long-term relationships and children in my article here.
A gift of money as retirement
After 14 BC a gift of money became more and more common for retirement and replaced the gift of land.
Just like the pay of a soldier the amount of money a soldier received for retirement depended on his rank, the question of if he served in a legion (which meant he had the Roman civil right) if he was a member of the praetorian guard or a member of the Auxilary.
The praemium militare was a singular payment a soldier received for his retirement. A regular roman soldier who served in a legion got 3.000 Denarii. The officers got a multiple, probably the same multiple that was also used to calculate their pay, more on that here. Members of the Praetorian guard would get 5.000 Denarii.
Auxiliaries would not get any money since they were rewarded with the roman civil right. But just like Roman soldiers the Auxiliaries also profited off several privileges (the so-called imunitatas) like being exempt from certain levies.
Additionally, most soldiers were also able to save some money during their active career, more on that here, and the special skills they had learned in the army made them predestined for filling positions in their civil local administration.
So now we have talked about the two kinds of retirement a Roman soldier could receive. But what kind of standard of living did that kind of retirement offer? Or to put it differently: Was the amount of land or money a soldier received enough to uphold his standard of living for the rest of his life?
What could veterans do with the money they got for retirement?
It seems like retired Roman soldiers apart from the officers could not uphold the same standard of living they had during their service. The reason for that was that the average soldier had a standard of living than his civilian counterpart.
To uphold the same standard of living he had as an active soldier a veteran would have had to make an annual return of 7.5% on the 3.000 Denarii he received for his retirement.
Even today that kind of return is ambitious. So I think it is pretty clear that the average retired soldier could not just sit back and enjoy the rest of his life but had to work during his retirement.
And depending on whether the soldier had received a piece of land or a lump sum of money he had different options of putting his pension to use.
The utilization of the gift of land
The most obvious use of the piece of land a soldier got as his retirement would be to farm it himself. But to be a successful farmer you had to be at least somewhat interested in agriculture and, even more important, you had to have agricultural knowledge. I think it is safe to say that a man who has spent the biggest part of his life as a professional soldier is not necessarily the most talented farmer.
The 12 iugera of land, that is roughly 7.5 acres, that the normal soldier would receive as retirement was already barely enough to feed a family. So mistakes that an inexperienced farmer would most likely make could quickly prove fatal.
To get rid of the worry of actually having to work on the fields some soldiers would rent their land and would live off the rent. It seems likely that that kind of rent would also not be enough to live off so that the veteran would have had to find some additional lines of income.
The utilization of the gift of money
If a soldier received a gift of money instead of a piece of land as his retirement he had much more options on how he invested his money.
Many veterans used their retirement money to start small businesses that were often suppliers of the Roman army. Since they were veterans they could count on benevolent treatment by the Roman army.
Most of these businesses were started in civilian settlements outside of the Roman army camps. That had multiple benefits. On the one hand, the soldier was close to the army camp that was oftentimes the major customer. On the other hand, the veteran could enjoy the amenities that such kind of romanized settlement offered.
By the way, these civilian settlements that were close to the Roman army camps did not only provide soldiers and veterans with amenities. They were also important factors in the romanization of the provinces since most of the illegitimate spouses and children of the Roman soldiers lived there.
Do you want to learn more about why Roman soldiers were prohibited from getting married and how they were able to avoid these prohibitions while still having relationships? You can find out more in my article here.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
R. Knapp; Invisible Romans (London 2011).
M. Junkelmann; Die Legionen des Augustus: Der römische Soldat im archäologischen Experiment (Mainz 1986).
Y. Le Bohec; Die römische Armee: Von Augustus zu Konstantin d. Gr. (Stuttgart 1993).
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