Today tattoos are widely common. But even a few hundred years ago tattoos were the sign of criminals and outlaws. So there has definitely been a change in how tattoos are seen and accepted during the last couple of hundred years.
But what if we look even further back into Antiquity? Did the ancient Romans have tattoos?
Roman soldiers did either get a tattoo or a brand on their hand. That permanent mark identified them as soldiers even when they were not wearing armor and made deserting much harder. Apart from these normal tattoos, there were also special tattoos that marked dishonorably discharged soldiers.
Let`s find out more!
Did Roman soldiers get Tattoos?
The history of tattoos goes much further back than just antiquity. Even in the Stone Ages people would get tattooed. A good example of a tattooed stone age man is Ötzi, the natural mummy of a man who lived somewhere between 3350 and 3105 BC, and who had a total of 61 tattoos. But there are also tattooed mummies from Egypt that are about as old.
So the practice of getting tattoos existed long before Rome became powerful!
But while the tattoos in the stone age were most likely done for therapeutic purposes, most of the tattoos on the mummy Ötzi had been placed on acupunctural areas of the body, the Romans used tattoos as a permanent mark.
Roman soldiers would either get a tattoo or a brand on their hand when they were officially recruited into the army and right before they joined their Legion for basic training.
For more information on the recruitment of Roman soldiers and the 3 steps, getting tattooed being one of them, that transformed a civilian into a soldier I would like to recommend you my article here.
But there was another occasion on which certain soldiers would get tattooed.
Additionally, soldiers who were dishonorably discharged were also tattooed with special tattoos that would permanently mark them and would deny them all of the benefits that honorably released soldiers received. You can find more information on the 3 ways a Roman soldier could be discharged from the army in my article here.
So there we have it, Roman soldiers got official tattoos. But that bears one question. Why did Roman soldiers get tattoos?
Why did Roman soldiers get tattooed?
When the talk about the reasons why Roman soldiers got tattooed we have to look at what being a soldier meant during the time of the Roman Empire. During the time of the Roman Empire, the military was professionalized and soldiers enlisted for decades, more on the length of service here.
But that made one problem obvious: How exactly do you identify a soldier?
Sure, when soldiers were recruited they got the signaculum, a piece of metal that was worn around the neck (more on that here). But that was a sign that could easily be removed. Now one might say well, Roman soldiers were wearing armor, a military belt, and carried weapons. So that could easily identify a soldier.
And yes, that is particularly true. But two of the many tasks aside from fighting that Roman soldiers could be assigned to was the construction of streets and the running of the provincial administration. On both occasions, these men would not wear armor, weapons, or even their military belt when they performed these tasks in friendly and safe regions of the Empire.
A tattoo or a brand on the hand, the had is apart from the face the most visible part of the body, made it easy to identify a soldier even when he was performing duties that did not allow him to wear his armor.
But there was another reason. A permeable mark like a tattoo also made it much harder to desert without getting caught. Think about it, you show your hands whenever you give or receive anything.
Without these tattoos, a deserted soldier could easily be able to disappear into a crowd and escape the harsh punishments with which desertion was punished. More information on the punishments for desertion but also for other more minor crimes is in my article here.
The last reason for Roman soldiers getting tattooed had to do with the life in the Legions. Until the second century AD Roman soldiers were prohibited from marriage, more on the reasons for that here, so the military family was basically built as a replacement for the real family.
Since all Roman soldiers had the same tattoo on the hand, one of the most visual body parts, that common permanent sign would help to create the strong comradery that was essential for the success of the Roman army.
But not only Roman soldiers did get tattooed.
Tattoos on slaves
There were not only tattoos on Roman soldiers. Slaves also often had tattoos for the exact same reasons a soldier would get his tattoo.
Sometimes Roman slaves had the names of their masters tattooed and in case a slave had run away and was caught the word „Fugitus“ (= Fugitive) was tattooed or branded onto his forehead to mark him in case he would run off again.
But the Romans were not the first ones to mark slaves and criminals by tattooing them.
Did the ancient Greeks have Tattoos?
Just like the Romans after them, the ancient Greeks also used tattoos as a form of identification.
In ancient Greece, both slaves and criminals were tattooed to mark them and prevent them from fleeing.
That was especially necessary since most of the slaves in ancient Greece (and also Rome) were visually similar to the free inhabitants. Yes, there were blond germanic slaves or black slaves from the sub-Saharan lands. But they were a minority among the slaves. Most slaves in antiquity unlike the slaves in the US, were more on why slavery was more common in the South of the US than in the North here, did not drastically differ in skin color, haircut, or clothes.
I mean the visual difference between a person from Italy and Spain is basically nonexistent. So there was the need for another, permanent, mark that would help to differentiate between a free man and a slave.
Just like the tattoos on Roman soldiers the tattoos on slaves and criminals in ancient Greece served the purpose of identifying these marked people within a crowd of visually similar people.
I hope you enjoyed our trip to Antiquity.
If you want to learn more about the daily life of the average Roman soldier I would like to recommend you my article here where I talk about the diet of a Roman soldier and if Roman soldiers were really vegetarians (like it is sometimes claimed).
And for more information on the accommodation of Roman soldiers both on a campaign and in permanent camps, I would like to recommend you my article here.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
H.J. Höper: Alltagsleben römischer Legionäre (1985).
M. Junkelmann: Die Legionen des Augustus: Der römische Soldat im archäologischen Experiment (1986).
R. Knapp: Invisible Romans (2011).