How much did Roman soldiers earn? And what expenses did these men have? That might sound like a simple question but it is actually far more complex than just giving a quick number. While the expenses of a soldier were pretty similar the pay depended on multiple factors.
The militiamen of the early Roman Republic only received a small compensation for their expenses, not regular pay. From the time of Caius Julius Caesar to Domitian a legionary received 225 Denarii per year divided into 3 payments plus a hiring bonus of 75 Denarii, a soldier of the Praetorian guard 375 Denarii. Centurions 1.125 Denarii, and a Primus Pilus 4.500 Denarii. An infantryman of the Auxilary got 100 Denarii per year, a horseman serving in a cohors equita 150 Denarii, and a horseman serving in an ala 200 Denarii.
Let`s take a closer look at the development from compensation for expenses to pay, how much that pay was, and what deductions a Roman soldier had to accept.
Are you ready? Let`s go!
How did the pay of Roman soldiers develop over time
When we talk about the pay of Roman soldiers we have to recognize that the idea of paying a soldier only developed over time and wasn`t fully codified until the year 6 AD. In the following, I would like to give a brief overview of the development of the soldier’s pay during the time from the early to the late Roman Republic.
In the next paragraph, we will then talk about how Augustus reformed that system and how the Roman monetary system worked. But we will also discuss how high the pay of a Roman soldier was and what kind of buying power the pay of a regular Roman soldier had.
But before we talk about all that we will now go back to the early Roman Republic that began when the Romans overthrew their kings. More on why and when the Romans decided to overthrow their kings in my article here.
The pay of Roman soldiers during the early & middle Roman Republic
First, we have to realize that contrary to today being a soldier was not always seen as a profession.
During the early Roman Republic, military service was seen as an unpaid duty of every male Roman citizen between the age of 17 and 46 who was wealthy enough to afford weapons and armor. Each man had to participate in a total of 16 campaigns.
That system (and also the fighting style) had probably been adopted from the Etruscans who in return had adopted it from the Greeks who were living in Southern Italy. Here you can find out more about that kind of warrior.
Now that system worked well during the early days of the expansion of the Roman Republic. As long as the wars would be waged against neighboring tribes in central Italy these militiamen would not have to be absent from their farms for too long. But during the 4th century BC that changed.
After the 4th century BC Rome started waging war in more and more distant regions, more on that here. And that caused problems not only for the militiamen who now were kept away from their farms for years but also for the state.
The idea during the early (and middle) Roman Republic was that the army was made up of wealthy farmers who joined the army for an individual campaign but would return to their farms when the campaign was over.
But since the soldiers were kept off their farms for years at a time many of them lost their farms due to debt. That caused multiple problems for both the impoverished soldiers but also for Rome that I present in my article here.
It was actually during that time when the campaigns led roman soldiers into more and more distant regions that the idea of paying the soldiers was first developed. But the „pay“, the so-called stipendium, during the time of the early Roman Republic was more compensation for expenses than actual pay. And it was certainly not high enough to compensate for the losses that were caused by the absence of the farmer from his farm.
Because of that more and more farmers lost their farms, more on that here, and had to move to Rome where they joined the army of the impoverished citizens. Because of that, the number of men who had the wealth necessary to be recruited into the army dwindled every year.
In an attempt to solve that problem the amount of wealth that was necessary to join the army was reduced several times until it was completely abolished and the army was opened to men without any possessions.
The pay of Roman soldiers during the late Roman Republic
Because of the developments that have already been briefly described and that can be found here in more detail the Roman army was opened to Roman citizens without any kind of possessions.
Recruiting not only wealthy farmers but also completely penniless citizens had the advantage that the number of possible recruits exploded. The disadvantage was that these men had nowhere to return to after the campaign for which they were recruited was over.
Suddenly you had a class of professional soldiers in a system that was still operating like a militia system in which soldiers were only recruited for individual campaigns and released as soon as the campaign was over.
Since the majority of the soldiers of the late Roman Republic did not own a piece of land to return to and only knew being a soldier as a way to earn a living the question of both pay and retirement of the soldiers would become the major question of the late Roman Republic.
Unfortunately, the politicians of the Roman Republic, more on the political system here, did not centrally organize the pay and retirement of the soldiers but left it up to the individual generals to represent the claims of the soldiers for pay and retirement.
That dependency of the average soldier on his general for pay and retirement caused the soldiers to be more committed to their Generals than to the political system of the Roman Republic.
While Roman soldiers of the early Roman Republic (ideally) served as soldiers because of their patriotic beliefs in the system of the Republic and their duty as Roman citizens the soldier of the late Roman Republic served for economic motives. And that had consequences.
It is important to note that every General during the Roman Republic was also a politician, more on why that was the case here. And during the late Roman Republic, a time during which the political system had already been destabilized, these politicians now started to abuse the dependency of their soldiers for their own reasons. By promising their men to provide them with estates for retirement many Roman Politicians, including men like Caesar or Octavianus, were able to get their men to fight the institutions and armies of the Republic.
That dependency of the soldiers on their generals combined with an already destabilized political system would eventually cause the end of the Roman Republic. More on that here.
The new leader Augustus had used the loyalty (one could also call it dependency) that the soldiers of his adoptive father Caius Julius Caesar had for him as Caesar’s heir to put himself into power.
But Augustus had closely studied the events of his youth that led to the fall of the Roman Republic and had rightfully identified the dependency of the soldiers on their generals (and not on Rome) as the main problem. And to keep himself from being overthrown by another general and his loyal legions (that`s kinda like Augustus himself got to power) he decided to reform the system of how Roman soldiers got paid.
6 AD: Augustus reforms the system of how Roman soldiers got paid
After Augustus had won the civil war and secured his power he had to drastically reduce the armies of both himself and the defeated (and killed) Marcus Antonius.
Especially the retirement of these soldiers proved to be expensive. Between 30 and 14 BC Augustus paid 215 Million Denarii out of his own pocket. More on what he what kind of retirement that money bought his veterans in my article here.
So until 6 AD Augustus paid both the pay and the retirement of the soldiers out of his own pocket.
After 6 AD these expenses for the pay and the retirement of Roman soldiers were changed to a state duty instead of the private duty of the emperor. That shift was financed by the introduction of the aerarium militare, the military treasury, that was equipped by Augustus with 42.5 Million Denarii from his private purse, a 5% inheritance tax, and a 1% auction tax.
So, that should be enough overview over how the pay of Roman soldiers developed over time.
Let`s now take a look at the monetary system of Rome and the buying power of the different coins before we talk about the actual pay of a soldier.
Roman money and its buying power
Augustus did not only reform the system of how Roman soldiers got paid but also the monetary system. Please note that all these values only refer to coins during the rule of Augustus (27 BC to 14 AD). Over time the share of precious metals in the coins was drastically reduced which caused the coins to lose value.
By the way. That loss in value due to a reduction of silver in the coins was the reason for the drastic increase of the soldier’s pay around the year 70 AD.
The Roman monetary system
There were 4 different Roman coins:
8.19 gr heavy
Equivalent of 25 Denarii
|Denar:||Silver coin |
3.98 gr heavy
Equivalent to 4 Sestertii
The linguistic origin of the Arabian Dinar
Equivalent to 4 asses
Roman coin with the lowest value
The buying power of Roman money
- We know that in order to become Equites, more on the Equites and the one difference between them and the Senators here, you had to show that you had a net worth of at least 100.000 Denarii.
- We also know that the annual diet of a Roman Soldier, more on what Roman soldiers ate here, had a value of 60 Denarii. These 60 Denarii were actually deducted from the pay of the soldier, but more on that later.
- During the first century AD, one iugerum (that’s 26909 square feet/2500 square meters) of farmland would cost an average of 250 Denarii
- And Emperor Caligula set the maximum severance pay for a Primus Pilus (the highest-ranking professional officer of every legion) at 150.000 Denarii
So that should give us a rough indication of the value of a Denar. But Let`s now finally look at the pay of a Roman soldier.
The pay of a Roman soldier
When we talk about the pay of a Roman soldier we also have to clarify if we are just talking about soldiers with the Roman civil right (that would be the legionaries and the members of the Praetorian guard) or also the members of the Auxilary. The Auxilary consisted of men who did not have the Roman civil right until they would get their honorable discharge, more on that here.
In the following, I use the term Roman soldier synonymous with legionary and talk about the soldiers of the Auxilary troops separately.
The pay of Roman legionaries
Until the time of Caius Julius Caesar, a regular Roman soldier received 112 Denarii per year. The amount was doubled by Caius Julius Caesar and would remain at 225 Denarii until the rule of Domitian (from 81 to 96 AD).
From the time Caesar had doubled the pay to the time of emperor Domitian (81 to 96 AD), a regular Roman soldier would get 225 Denarii per year, additional gifts from the emperor and a part of a potential bounty, plus one additional hiring bonus (= viaticum) of 75 Denarii. The wage would be paid 3 times per year but large parts of the money would be kept back, for example for the food that the soldier would consume.
A Centurion, the leader of 80 soldiers, would receive 5 times the pay of an average soldier, a Primus Pilus (the highest-ranking centurion of a legion) 20 times the pay of a regular soldier which was at least 4.500 Denarii.
Additionally, soldiers would also receive donations from the emperor and special allowances like the so-called clavarium:
- The clavarium was a special allowance in case a unit was moved into a distant camp. Since the sandals of the Roman soldiers had nailed soles long marches would damage these nails. The clavarium (a literal translation would be nail money) was probably paid that soldiers could repair their sandals and replace the worn-out nails.
- Another additional pay that Roman soldiers could receive was a so-called donativa. Donativa were gifts of money that the emperor would grant his soldiers on special occasions. Occasions for such a gift were the coming into power of a new emperor or when a son of the emperor reached manhood.
The downside of these donativa was that they could get quite expensive. Just one example: During the year of the 4 emperors (69 AD) a total of 4 emperors (Nero, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian) came into power. If each of the men wanted to hand out a gift of money to the soldiers then that could hurt the state finances.
There is one other interesting fact about these additional gifts of money. While occasions like a new emperor coming into power were a common reason for a donativa (probably to reinsure the loyalty of the soldiers) military victories were never rewarded with a donativa. The reason was probably that the emperor wanted to prevent his soldiers from demanding more and more wars to get such a donativa.
The pay of the Praetorian guard
During the time of the emperor Augustus, a soldier of the Praetorian guard would get paid 375 Denarii per year, that’s 150 Denarii more than the normal roman soldier (the legionnaire).
The pay of soldiers of the Auxilary
The pay that soldiers of the Auxilary received was lower than the pay that regular Roman soldiers (who were Roman citizens) got. Additionally, the soldiers of the Auxilary would also not get the same retirement as Roman soldiers but instead receive the Roman civil right (plus a diploma to prove it). More on the retirement of both Roman and Auxilary soldiers in my article here.
Infantrymen of the Auxilary would roughly get 100 Denarii per year, a horseman serving in a cohors equita 150 Denarii per year, and a horseman serving in an ala 200 Denarii per year.
Since the men of the Auxilary had similar deductions like Roman soldiers they likely had an even harder time saving money for retirement. But more on retirement and pensions in the Roman army in my article here.
So as already mentioned: There were not only additional payments but also deductions from the pay that a Roman soldier would get. Let`s look at them!
Deductions from the pay of a Roman soldier
So we have established that the normal Roman soldier would get 225 Denarii per year and that his pay would be handed out 3 times per year. But he would not get all of the money at once. Actually, he would never see most of it.
Thanks to a papyrus that has been found in Egypt we have a pretty good idea of the deductions that a Roman soldier had to accept when he was paid.
That papyrus lists how the soldier Quintus Julius Proculus, more on why Roman names had three parts in my article here, from Damascus actually only gets 13 Denarii at that specific payday. And there is also a list of the positions that were deducted from the pay.
Deductions for food and equipment
The papyrus lists that 134 Denarii off the pay of the soldier Quintus Julius Proculus were kept back to pay for his cost of living. The costs of living (not all have been preserved) are mentioned as follows…
|Food||60 Denarii (Here you can find out more about the diet of Roman soldiers)|
|Straw (probably to sleep on)|
|Membership in a funeral association||Like Gladiators and Roman civilians, Roman soldiers were members of funeral associations. Here you can find out more about why these funeral associations were so important to Romans.|
Interestingly the costs for armor and weapons is not listed on the papyrus. It seems likely that the mentioned soldier had already served long enough to pay off his weapons and armor. And the deduction for providing the soldier with straw actually gives us some insight into the accomodation of Roman soldiers, more on that here.
Roman soldiers had to pay off the costs for their weapons and armor with parts of their pay. Likely, a good part of the 75 Denarii they got as hiring money (=viaticum) was used for that.
But there were also additional voluntary expenses.
When a Roman soldier reached his honorable discharge he would be rewarded with either a piece of land or a sum of money, more on the retirement and the pensions of Roman soldiers here. The problem, as explained in the article, was that neither the amount of land nor the money a soldier would get was enough to fund a similar standard of living as he had as a soldier.
So saving money during the cause of a soldier’s work life was certainly a good idea. The papyrus shows that the soldier Quintus Julius Proculus was able to save 68 Denarii of his total pay of 225 Denarii. The savings of each soldier (just like the membership fees for the funeral association) were managed by the signiferi, the man who carried the standard of his centuria (the unit of 80 men).
By the way. In case a roman soldier died it was actually quite difficult for potential children to get an inheritance. The reason for that was that Roman soldiers were prohibited from marrying and children that they fathered during their military service, more on the length of the military service here, were seen as illegitimate. More on that and the reasons why Roman soldiers were not allowed to marry in my article here.
But there was one other kind of more or less voluntary deduction. A deduction that would cause major problems in any modern army. And that was money that was used to bribe superiors.
Bribery of superiors
Like in any army in history the Roman army also offered a wide variety of unpleasant work. Assigning soldiers to these unpleasant types of work was the duty of the Centurions.
In case a soldier did not want to carry out an unpleasant type of work he could bribe his Centurion to get exempt from that kind of work. That kind of bribery was widely known and so common that it was an unofficial side income for Centurions.
Now one could think that that kind of bribery was voluntary and yet I wrote that it was more or less voluntary to bribe one’s superiors. The reason for that is simple.
Since accepting that kind of bribe money was widely accepted many Centurions would be persistent when it came to collecting that money. Just think about it. Your centurion knows that you save a substantial amount of your pay and he also knows that you don`t bribe him to get exempt from unpleasant work. In that case, nothing would keep the centurion from giving you so much of the most unpleasant jobs that you were basically forced to bribe him.
That kind of bribery was soon seen as a problem for both discipline but also moral. In an attempt to control that custom the emperors during the second half of the first century AD started to pay these bribes in kind of a flat rate.
So now we have talked about both the pay of the Roman soldier and also the deductions a Roman soldier had to accept. And although some of the deductions (like the bribes) seem strange to us it is important to state that the average Roman soldier had a higher standard of living than his civilian counterpart. Not only did he get regular and guaranteed meals, free healthcare, and a secure income for 25 years, he also received a Pension for retirement.
All of these circumstances were much more insecure for civilian Romans, especially for the large lower class. Are you interested in the differences between the diet of poor and rich roman citizens? Here you can find out more about the diets of poor Romans and here more about the diets of rich Roman citizens (including a recommendation for a recipe book of the Roman upper class).
Retirement & Pensions of Roman soldiers
After years of service, more on how long Roman soldiers had to serve during different times here, both a Roman soldier and a soldier of the Auxilary would get released from service and were rewarded with a pension. The pension of a Roman soldier was extremely different from the Pension of a soldier of the Auxilary, But that is a story for another time. You can find out more about the Retirement and the Pensions of Roman and Auxilary soldiers in my article here.
And if you have ever wondered if Roman soldiers were allowed to marry (and what might have been reasons to prohibit soldiers from marrying) you might enjoy my article here.
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).