When we talk about the Roman military we immediately think of important battles, great Generals, and glorious triumphs. But while all these three aspects are fairly well known the normal life of the average Roman soldier remains unknown for the most part.
In this series of articles, I would like to shed some light on the personal lives of the average Roman soldier. And what could be more personal than the love life and the relationships of these men?
So let`s dive into the relationships of Roman soldiers and find out why these men were not allowed to marry and what alternatives they had to get married.
Soldiers of the Roman Republic were allowed to marry. Only during the Roman Empire from the rule of Augustus (31 BC-14 AD) to the Severan dynasty (193-235 AD), regular soldiers were prohibited from marrying while officers could only marry Roman citizens. If a married man joined the army his marriage was canceled. Despite not being allowed to marry soldiers often had long-term relationships that could be legitimized when they retired.
Let`s find out more.
Roman soldiers and marriage during the Roman Republic
Due to the way the Roman Army was structured during the time of the Roman Republic it was normal that married men joined.
There was no such thing as a standing army during the time of the Roman Republic. Men were recruited for each individual campaign and would be released from service as soon as the campaign was over. Especially during the early Roman Republic, every citizen between the age of 17 and 46 who was wealthy enough to buy weapons and armor could be recruited for a total of 16 campaigns.
That meant that many of the militiamen of the early Roman Republic were married farmers who would temporarily join the army and who would return to their farms and families after each campaign.
During the middle and late Roman Republic, the principles of that system didn`t change. The only difference was that due to the impoverishment of the Roman middle class, more on the reasons and effect of the impoverishment of the Roman middle class here, these militiamen did no longer own land to which they could return to after a campaign was over. They had become professional soldiers within a militia system.
By the way. That switch from militiamen to professional soldiers in a militia system made it necessary that soldiers would receive pay and retirement. Here you can find out more about the pay of Roman soldiers and here you can find out more about the retirement of Roman soldiers.
But just like the militiamen during the early Roman Republic, the professional soldiers of the late Roman Republic were oftentimes legally married. It wasn`t until Augustus won the Civil War and became emperor that soldiers were prohibited from marrying.
There were several reasons why Augustus did not want his soldiers to be married. Let`s take a look at these reasons!
3 reasons why Imperial Roman soldiers were not allowed to marry
There were basically 3 reasons why Augustus did not want his soldiers to be married. And all of the 3 reasons are linked to the responsibilities of the Imperial Roman army.
During the Roman Republic, the army was only assembled for individual wars and was dissolved as soon as the war was over. Under Augustus, the Roman Army was transformed into a standing army that was mostly stationed at the borders of the Empire.
So the soldiers were often living in the newly conquered territory and had to be prepared to be relocated to distant destinies. Both were hindered by the existence of wives and children since marrying local women could have caused contrasting loyalties between family and employer. Additionally, the responsibility of caring for the widows and orphans of fallen soldiers disappeared when soldiers could not have legitimate relationships.
Avoiding regional and family ties
Augustus had transformed his army into a standing army that was mostly stationed in border provinces. That had multiple benefits for him. To prevent that he would suffer a similar fate like Caius Julius Caesar Augustus was extremely careful to not give the impression that he was the singular ruler of Rome (that he was in reality).
One measure he took to not appear like the singular ruler of Rome was giving control over some provinces back to the Senate. Augustus would only keep direct control over the border provinces since these were especially endangered. But these border provinces were also the provinces in which the majority of the Roman soldiers were stationed so Augustus could indirectly control the majority of the Roman military while giving the impression that he did not have total control over the military.
But the Imperial military was not only stationed in the border provinces but also designed to be able to quickly march from one end of the Empire to the other Empire. That kind of mobility and speed was actually always a big strength of the Roman army.
When soldiers who had families would have received a marching order that had the other end of the Empire as their destiny then that would have caused major displeasure, maybe even rebellions, among the soldiers. And since speed was important the families could also not be brought along.
Additionally, soldiers with a wife and children would have had a limited operational readiness since they would always have the responsibility for their families in mind. And that would have brought limitations to the use of the soldiers.
Avoiding the problem of a split loyalty
Another problem was the available women. As mentioned, most of the Roman military was stationed in border provinces of which some had only recently been conquered. That meant that there was a lack of Roman citizens in general and of Roman women in particular.
Due to a lack of Roman women in the Provinces, most soldiers would have married local women who did not have the Roman civil right. In case of a local rebellion that could have caused problems with the loyalty if a soldier had to decide between being loyal to the Emperor, his employer, or his local family.
That by the way was also the reason why even officers (who were generally allowed to marry) were prohibited from marrying local women who didn`t have the Roman civil right.
Now that prohibition of marriage did obviously not mean that Roman soldiers did not have relationships with local women. These relationships were not only useful for the romanization of a region, more on that here, but could also be legitimized when a soldier left the army. But more on the different levels of relationships between Roman soldiers and women later.
Avoiding the problem of having to care for widows and orphans
Another benefit was that since soldiers were not allowed to marry there were also no wives of legitimate children who had to be taken care of in the case of the soldier’s death.
That was actually pretty important since the retirement of the Roman soldiers, more on that here, was already expensive enough. And although the mortality rate of Roman soldiers was not as high as one might think it was still a real risk to not live until retirement.
If you are interested in the mortality rate of Roman soldiers you might want to check out my article here.
So now we found out about the 3 reasons why soldiers were legally not allowed to marry. But I think we all know that just because marriage was illegal did not mean that Roman soldiers would not have relationships with (local women).
Let`s now look at the different levels of relationships that Roman soldiers had with mostly local women.
Roman soldiers and their relationships to women
During the first century AD, the Roman strategy slowly started to change from an active to a defensive strategy. And that had impacts on the relationships between Roman soldiers and local women.
Permanent relationships between Roman soldiers and provincial women
The switch to a defensive strategy also meant that units would stay at one location for longer times. Because of that more permanent camps were erected. And since soldiers were paid pretty well, more on that here, it usually didn`t take long until a civilian settlement developed in the neighborhood of the army camp. By the way, many veterans who had received money as retirement would also settle in the civilian settlements next to the army camps and would often start businesses that supplied the army.
Here you can find out more about the retirement of Roman soldiers and how much the average soldier could expect.
But not only that. More or less permanent relationships between local women and Roman soldiers started to develop even though these relationships were not legitimized.
It would actually take until the time of the Severan dynasty between 193 and 235 AD that Roman soldiers were allowed to marry.
So until the Severan dynasty soldiers were not allowed to marry but still had relationships with local women. And it seems like one of the reasons why soldiers were originally excluded from marriage actually came true. The mobility of the Roman legions actually suffered quite drastically and since the time of the Flavian dynasty (69 to 96 AD) units would only rarely change their locations over long distances.
But that didn`t only have negative effects.
The relationships between Roman soldiers and provincial women were an important factor in the romanization of the provinces. The goal was that even though marriages of Roman soldiers were still prohibited, long-term relationships between Soldiers and provincial women could be legitimized as soon as the soldier retired.
That kind of compromise was great since it allowed relationships between Roman soldiers and non-roman women that were lived under the influence of the Roman army and the Roman culture. As such these inofficial relationships and families became germ cells of romanization in the provinces.
To understand how these relationships led to romanization we have to take a brief look at who was considered a Roman.
In contrary to Sparta and many other societies Rome did not differentiate between Barbarian and Roman because of birth but because of language, culture, and legal status. So after a soldier was released from the army his spouse and children could be legitimized which granted them the Roman civil right.
The sons from these relationships could be full Roman citizens if they were legitimated after their fathers retired from the army. And that meant that these families were a productive reservoir for new generations of soldiers. Since these sons would grow up around the military chances were that they would also join the military, more on the recruitment of Roman soldiers and the requirements men had to meet in my article here.
It is estimated that around 3 million people were romanized through these relationships between Roman soldiers and non-roman provincial women. And that number only refers to the first century AD!
Just to give you an example for how revolutionary that idea of citizenship through culture, language, and legal status was: To be a Spartan you had to be born in one of the 5 villages of Sparta, more on how rigid Spartan society was here in my article. If you weren`t born in one of the 5 villages and you didn`t meet the other requirements you would never become a Spartan no matter how much you assimilated spartan culture.
Rome on the other hand allowed even the sons of freed slaves to become full Roman citizens with all privileges. One Roman emperor was even a son of a freed slave! If you want to learn more about that emperor and why that kind of social permeability made Rome so successful I would like to recommend you my article here.
But let`s return to the 4 possible relationships between Roman soldiers and women.
4 types of relationships & their legal significance
There were 3 types of relationship (Concubinatus, matrimonium ex iure gentium, and matrimonium iustum) between a Roman soldier and a woman although the concubinatus was the only official type of relationship a soldier could have during his active service.
Additionally, there was also the option of a loose relationship with a slave or a prostitute.
The concubinatus was the lowest legal level of a relationship between man and woman and the only one open to Roman soldiers during their service. When the Roman soldier who had a Roman civil right got his honorable discharge the relationship to a woman without the roman civil right could be legitimized.
In that case, not only the woman but also the children would get the Roman civil right which enabled the sons to join the legions.
The problem was that until the time the soldier retired the relationship was officially recognized. So in case of the soldier’s death, his children would not automatically inherit the money he had saved. More on that here.
Matrimonium ex iure gentium
The matrimonium ex iure gentium was a marriage between two persons without the Roman civil right. So a member of the Auxilary could have been married to non-roman women before he joined the army. But remember, as soon as a soldier joined the Imperial Roman army any existing marriage was canceled.
The matrimonium iustum was the most privileged type of relationship and on one level with the conubium, the marriage between two Roman citizens.
In case a soldier got his honorable discharge and wanted to legitimate his relationship the concubinatus would be changed into a matrimonium iustum that was seen as equal to the marriage between two roman citizens (conubium).
To change the legal status approval was necessary. But since these long-term relationships were lived under the influence of the Roman army, we have already talked about that, that kind of approval was usually not a problem.
Apart from these long-term relationships between two free people, there was also the possibility that a soldier would be in a (forced) relationship with his slave. Sometimes these long-term relationships between a soldier and his slave could even be legitimized as some gravestones indicate. Apart from that the civilian settlements next to the military camps obviously also offered the services of prostitutes, both free and enslaved.
Homosexuality in the Roman army
So now we have talked about the relationships between Roman soldiers and women. But what about relationships between men? Was homosexuality accepted in the Roman army?
In the army of the Roman Republic, homosexual interactions between men of equal social status were prohibited and punished. There is no proof for the punishment of homosexual interactions in the army of the Roman Empire although sources suggest a marginalization of homosexual soldiers.
During the time of the Roman Republic, homosexuality between two soldiers was punished but probably not because of homosexuality in general but because of the homosexual act between two men on the same social level. During the time of the Roman Empire, homosexuality was accepted although some sources indicate that homosexual soldiers could be excluded from certain events.
There is actually one source that especially comes to mind. A soldier is accused of supporting a coup against the emperor and defends himself by claiming that he would have never been invited to that coup since he was known to be the passive part of a homosexual relationship.
That is quite interesting since it indicates that even though the homosexual soldier would not be trusted as a member of a coup he could still serve without any punishment even though his homosexuality was known.
It seems that as long as a homosexual soldier could prove his worth as a soldier and comrade his homosexuality was accepted by both comrades and superiors even though it is certainly possible that he had to endure some jibes.
That should be enough about the relationships Roman soldiers had.
Please also check out the other articles that deal with the lives of normal Roman soldiers like the one here, where you can find out more about the diets of Roman soldiers.
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).