When it comes to the Roman army then we usually imagine victorious and heavily armored soldiers, important battles, and the expansion of the Roman territory. However, the normal day-to-day life of the average Roman soldier often remains a mystery.
In this article that is part of a series on the lives of the average Roman soldiers, I would like to present the accommodation of Roman soldiers both on a campaign and in the permanent camps.
Each contubernium, a group of 8 soldiers, shared a tent made out of goat leather (during a campaign) or a barrack (when stationed in permanent camps). Soldiers would sleep on the ground and use their panulae (= cloaks) as blankets. Straw was used as mattresses whenever it was available. The soldiers were usually woken up before sunrise and went to bed at nightfall.
Let`s find out more!
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Where did Roman soldiers sleep?
When we look at where Roman soldiers slept then we have to differentiate between the life in the temporary camps during campaigns and the life in permanent camps.
These permanent camps would become especially present when the primary task of the Roman army changed from expanding to securing the borders. More on that development and why it came along with the establishment of a standing professional army in my article here.
Let`s start with the barracks within the more permanent military camps.
Where did Roman soldiers sleep in permanent camps?
Contrary to the temporary camps that Roman armies would erect during their campaigns the permanent camps were built out of more sturdy materials like clay bricks, wood, or even peat. The used materials depended on the natural resources that were available in proximity to the campsite.
By the way, the civil settlements outside of these camps were usually the germ cells of Romanization. Not only veterans but also the spouses and children of the soldiers (although they were not official marriages since Roman soldiers were prohibited from marriage, more on the reasons for that here) would settle there and would create a reservoir for further generations of soldiers.
Each century, a unit of 80 infantrymen that was commanded by a centurion, would live in one of the barracks. Within these barracks, each contubernium, a unit of 8 men as well as the centurion, had an apartment consisting of a living room and a bedroom.
The apartment of the centurion, who as an officer could have a wife and live with her, had about double the size of an apartment that was shared by the 8 men of a contubernium. That gave the barracks an L-shape. There was also a covered porch in front of the 8-10 apartments that made up a barrack on which the soldiers could prepare their food, more on their diet here, clean and maintain their equipment or socialize.
It is important to note that the presented layout was only used for infantry units. The barracks of the cavalry had a similar layout but with two differences.
- Only 3 cavalry men instead of the 8 infantrymen of a contubernium shared an apartment
- Contrary to the apartments of the infantrymen that were split into a living room and a bedroom the apartments of the cavalrymen were split into a bedroom and a staple for the men’s horses
By the way, the structure of these camps was highly standardized. So while the material that was used to build a camp could differ drastically depending on the location the layout was the same no matter if the camp was built in Gaul or Africa.
Unlike the layout, the bedding that Roman soldiers used was not standardized. But we will come back to that in a minute. For now, I would like to look at the accommodation of Roman soldiers during their campaigns.
Where did Roman soldiers sleep during a campaign?
Even the temporary camps that Roman soldiers might have only used for an overnight stay were accurately set up and fortified with a ditch and a palisade (the soldiers would carry the pales for the palisade as well as entrenching tools with them).
There are several examples where Roman writers talk about units setting up fortifications after a long march. One example of that is Caius Julius Caesar. He, for example, describes in his book „The Gallic War“* how his army is attacked by Gaul warriors while they are still entrenching. Should you be interested in reading a first-hand report of that war from the feather of Caius Julius Caesar himself then you can find the translated booklet here* on Amazon.
Just like the permanent camps, the temporary army camps were also set up in a highly regulated way. The idea behind the standardized camp setup was that wherever the unit currently was, each soldier still knew exactly where he had to go to take his position in case the camp was attacked.
The difference between the accommodation on a campaign and in a permanent camp is the housing. While the permanent camps provided the soldiers with barracks the housing on a campaign had to be transportable and quick to set up.
So during their campaigns, each contubernium, a unit of 8 soldiers, would sleep in a tent made of goat leather (the so-called papillo). The centurion had a tent for himself. The tent was carried by the mule that each contubernium possessed.
By the way, that mule also carried a part of the rations of the soldiers. More on the diet of Roman soldiers here in my article.
But there is still one question left. What did Roman soldiers use to sleep on? Let`s find out.
What did Roman soldiers use to sleep on?
So now we have talked about the accommodation, either in the shape of tents or in the shape of barracks. But what did the interior of such a barrack/tent look like? Did Roman soldiers have beds?
Let`s find out!
Roman soldiers slept on the ground and would use straw as a mattress whenever it was possible. Additionally, they would also use their woolen cloaks (= panulae) as blankets.
Beds were not used for multiple reasons. They were impossible to transport while on campaign while upkeeping the speed of the army (actually one of the reasons for the success of the Roman army, more on that here).
That was obviously not a worry in the permanent camps. But beds were still extremely expensive. So while officers might have been able to afford beds the pay of the average soldier, more on that topic here, was too little to pay for these extravagancies (especially since the soldier would not have been able to bring his bed with him if his unit was deployed).
By the way, the pay of the Roman soldier is also one of the reasons why we know that Roman soldiers slept on straw.
The pay was not entirely paid out to the soldiers but a part of it was held back to pay for the food that a soldier would consume, his equipment, his funeral association, and also for straw. You can find out more about the height of these deductions (and how much soldiers of the legions, auxiliary troops, and the praetorian guard would get paid) in my article here.
At what time did Roman soldiers wake up?
So we have talked about the accommodation and what Roman soldiers used to sleep on. That leaves one question open. When did Roman soldiers wake up and when did they go to bed?
Let`s find out.
Roman soldiers were woken up at sunrise and were assigned to their tasks by their centurion. And the sunset was usually the sign to go to bed.
One of the reasons for that was the lack of artificial light. While artificial light in the shape of oil lamps and candles did exist they were too expensive for daily use and as such a limitation for work during the night.
By the way, another regular deduction from the pay of the Roman soldier were bribes for officers to not get assigned to especially unpleasant jobs. More on these bribes and why paying them would eventually be taken over by the emperor in 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).