When we see Roman soldiers in movies we usually see them in the shape of a well-oiled fighting machine. But while the battles that the Roman soldiers fought in, their tactics, and their equipment are pretty well known one part about the Roman soldier often remains a mystery.
That part is the discharge of Roman soldiers! How many ways of getting discharged were there? And what were the reasons for the different types of discharges? And maybe the most important question: What happened to the discharged soldiers depending on the way they were discharged.
All these questions will be answered in the following!
There was the missio ignominiosa, the dishonorable discharge, the missio causaria, the discharge because of physical or mental disability, and the missio honesta, the honorable discharge after the end of service. Soldiers who earned the missio honesta or the missio causaria received retirement and other benefits while soldiers who were dishonorably discharged were ostracized and did not get any compensation for their service.
Let`s take a more detailed look at these 3 options and learn more about the circumstances under which each release from the army was granted.
The missio ignominiosa (= the dishonorable discharge)
The missio ignominiosa was the worst possible way for a soldier to leave the army. Well at least after the possibility of dying in battle. There were multiple reasons for that.
When Roman soldiers enlisted during the time of the Roman Empire they were promised a retirement. That retirement could either be handed out in the shape of a gift of land or a gift of money, more on that in my article here. Providing the soldiers with a secure retirement was on the one hand a reward for long and loyal service, more on how long Roman soldiers served here, but was also leverage against these soldiers.
In case of one severe offense or several repeated minor offenses the missio ignominiosa, the dishonorable discharge, was a punishment that took any sort of retirement away from the punished soldier and ostracized him for the rest of his life.
That ostracization was manifested by tattooing the punished soldier. More on how tattoos were used in the Roman army in general here.
But by getting a dishonorable discharge the soldier did not only lose his retirement claim but also several other benefits that released soldiers enjoyed like the exemption from certain levies.
It should not come as a surprise that the dishonorable discharge with its many disadvantages was a powerful punishment that was used to maintain discipline within the Roman army. For more information on the kind of offenses that would justify a dishonorable discharge, I would like to recommend you my article here.
So getting a dishonorable discharge would ruin the soldier’s economic future by not only taking away his retirement but also by visibly making him an outcast from society. That was done by tattooing the man.
By the way, Roman soldiers were not only tattooed to mark them in case of a dishonorable discharge. All Roman soldiers would also get a tattoo on their hands when they officially entered service. More on the reasons for that in my article here.
The next, also not ideal, way to leave the army was the missio causaria.
The missio causaria (= the discharge because of physical or mental disability)
In Antiquity just like on modern battlefields the number of wounded soldiers was usually a lot higher than the number of killed soldiers. And even though Roman soldiers enjoyed pretty good health care (far better than the average Roman civilian) certain wounds could not be completely healed.
That, by the way, does not only include physical but also mental wounds! You can find more information about mental wounds like PTSD in the Roman military in my article here.
The missio causaria was an honorable discharge because of physical or mental invalidity that had to be determined by a committee of 3 army physicians. The missio causaria meant that the disabled soldiers received their retirement and several other benefits so that their livelihood was secured, at least on a basic level.
In order to get the missio causaria, a soldier had to have such severe physical or mental wounds that a continuation of service was impossible. The impossibility of continuing the service had to be determined by a committee of 3 army physicians. By the way, once a soldier was discharged because of physical or mental disability it was almost impossible for him to rejoin the army in case his wounds had healed.
Soldiers who had gotten a missio causaria could only rejoin the army on rare occasions. Not only did their wounds have to be fully healed, but they also had to be examined by two physicians and the governor of the province.
Unfortunately, we do not know how many soldiers got the missio causaria each year. But we have several accounts about what happened to them. The famous general Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus for example populated the city of Nicopolis that he founded after his victory over Mithridates VI with veterans and disabled soldiers who had gotten the missio causaria.
That kind of solution was probably the best possible scenario since these disabled soldiers would live among their former comrades. And these former comrades had probably much more compassion for the disabilities and suffering of these injured soldiers than regular citizens would have had.
Since the missio causaria was seen as an honorable discharge these men would also have at least a basic level of financial security since they, like all honorably discharged Roman soldiers, got a retirement. For more information on the retirement of Roman soldiers and how they could use their gift of money or land, I would like to recommend you my article here.
So now we have the worst option (the dishonorable discharge) and the still pretty bad option of getting discharged for mental or physical invalidity. The only option missing is the best possible scenario, the honorable discharge.
The missio honesta (= the honorable discharge)
The missio honesta was the best possible scenario a Roman soldier could hope for.
Not only did receiving the missio honesta mean that the man had survived decades of military service, more on the length of the Roman military service here, it also meant that the soldier would now get a retirement that was either paid in the shape of a piece of land or a gift of money.
Here you can find my article with more information on the retirement of Roman soldiers.
Additionally, the discharged soldier would also receive benefits like the exemption from certain levies. And apart from these monetary benefits of getting honorably discharged there was one other, more personal benefit.
While Roman soldiers were prohibited from marrying during their service they often had long-term relationships. And these relationships could be legitimized as soon as the soldiers had retired! You can find out more about the reasons why Roman soldiers were prohibited from marriage and the significance their inofficial relationships had for the romanization of the provinces in my article here.
I hope you enjoyed our trip into the fascinating topic of the possible releases from the Roman army.
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).