Have you ever heard the myth that Romans (like all people in Antiquity and the Middle Ages) were rather short? I certainly have heard that myth several times, oftentimes with the addition that the short Roman soldiers had to face hulking Germanic warriors who towered over them.
But was that really the case? How tall were Romans? And how tall did you have to be to join the Roman Army?
A Roman man was on average 170 cm (5`6.93 ft) tall and weighed around 143,3 lb (65 kg). Today an Italian man is on average 174 cm (5`8.5 ft) tall. To join the Roman Legions a recruit had to be at least 168 cm (5`6.14 ft) tall and to join the Auxiliary cavalry at least 172 cm (5`7.72 ft) tall.
Let`s take a closer look at these numbers before looking at how common extreme height deviations in both directions were.
The Roman military had different height requirements for different types of units. As mentioned, the Roman infantryman had to be at least 168 cm (5`6.14 ft) which was slightly under the average height of Roman men 170 cm (7`6.93 ft).
Of course, there were also other requirements, not only regarding physical appearance and strength but also regarding family status and social background. You can find out more about that in my article here.
However, these requirements, including the height requirement, were occasionally loosened when Rome had to quickly raise new armies, for example after a crushing defeat. Do you wonder how high the casualty rate of a Roman battle was? Then I would like to recommend you my article here.
Oh and by the way, when we leave the Roman military and talk about the average height of Roman men in general then I talk about Roman men living on the Italian Peninsula. (In other parts of the Roman Empire the average height of men could differ). And even today the average Italian man is 174 cm (5`8.5 ft) tall which is not that much taller than an ancient Roman man who was 170 cm (5`6.93 ft) tall.
But just because the average height of a Roman man was 170 cm (5`6.93 ft) that does not mean that all Roman men were of that size. Indeed the deviations in both directions were pretty substantial, especially compared with today.
A good example of that kind of deviation in height can be found in the year 66 AD.
In 66 AD the Roman Emperor Nero gave orders that a new Legion should be raised on the Italian Peninsula and that all recruits had to be at least 182 cm (5`11.65 ft) tall. Now one might think that it took forever to find and recruit enough men who were tall enough considering the average height of Roman men was around 170 cm (5`6.93 ft). But that wasn`t the case. Instead, the Legion could quickly be raised and set in motion.
So even though the average Roman was a lot shorter than what Nero demanded of recruits for his new Legion, there were still plenty of suitable recruits who were tall enough.
And that brings us to the idea that there was actually a wider range of deviations from the average height than we have today.
The reason behind that could be pretty simple. Today children who show signs of growing too short or too tall can be treated with medications that bring them close to the average height of their country. In Antiquity (and in the Middle Ages) such medications didn`t exist so children could not be treated when they grew too slowly or too quickly. That of course also negatively impacted their life expectancy.
Ok, so now we found out that ancient Romans were not that much shorter than modern-day Italians. But how do they compare to Vikings and medieval knights? You can find the answer in my article here.
One of the reasons why ancient Romans were not drastically shorter than modern-day Italians can be found in their diets. While Rome had to provide some of its citizens with food stamps, more on that here, the diet of the average Roman was not too bad.
Well, at least as long as the import of Grain was not disturbed by pirates, storms, or corruption. For more information on why Rome rather imported bread wheat instead of growing it in Italy (despite excellent soil) and where the bread baskets of the Roman Empire were situated I would like to recommend you my article here.
And here you can find out more about the diet of Roman soldiers and the drink „Posca“ that was not only consumed by Roman soldiers but also handed to the dying Jesus. But that is a story for another time.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time