Roman Legionary — professional heavy infantry of Roman Empire

Learn more fascinating facts about equipment, training, salary, and formations of the deadliest soldiers of the Ancient world — the legionaries.

Peter Preskar
May 25 · 6 min read
Artistic image of Roman Legionary (Source: Devianart/@shatterdesigns)

Considered the deadliest heavy infantry ever produced in the history of humankind, Roman Legionary is a legendary soldier who created one of the greatest empires world has ever seen — the Roman empire. Roman legionary was well-trained, well-equipped, and efficiently led. One of the rarely mentioned advantages was that Roman legionaries were well-fed. It is difficult to win battles on an empty stomach!

Roman Legionary — equipment

Roman Legionary Equipment: Armour, helmet, shield (Source: Twitter/@historychappy)

Armor or lorica segmentata was consisting of metal strips, fastened to internal leather straps. Romans were able to mass-produce such armor. It was perfect for deflecting arrows and swords.

Shield or scutum was made out of plywood and leather. It was oval-shaped and rectangular, more than 1 meter high. Used primarily for protection, but it could serve also as a weapon.

Helmet or cassis was made out of bronze and protected the whole head. It was decorated by horsehair or feathers.

A short sword or gladius was the primary weapon of choice. Ideal for stabbing and slashing was especially effective in close combat.

Javelin or pilum was around 2 meters long, with a metal tip and with a weighted end. Javelin was hurled into the enemy and it had a devastating effect on the opponent. Experienced legionaries could hit the enemy which was 20 meters away.

Each legionary carried 2 javelins to throw at the enemy.

Sandals or caligae were made out of leather and had hardened soles. They were designed for air to circulate around the feet and reduce the risk of blisters during marching. Legion could march 25 miles (40 km) a day.

Roman Legionary — length of service and salary

In 13 BC emperor August increased standard term from 10 to 16 years and 4 years in reserves. In 5 AD standard term was increased to 20 years and 5 years in reserves.

Roman legionary was a professional soldier. He was paid 20 denarii a month, if he was lucky and he made it to Pretorian guard (=personal guard of the emperor), he would earn 60 denarii. Centurions would earn 300 denarii per month.

Once he retired he would receive praemia. This meant 3000 denarii and a plot of good farmland. Additionally soldiers were allowed to keep part of war booty such and sell captured enemies as slaves. Each time a new emperor took power, soldiers would get substantial donations.

In the time of Julius Ceaser a loaf of bread cost 0.25 of denarii, cow 200 denarii, male slave 500 denarii, and small farm 100.000 denarii.

Roman Legionary — training

Roman legionary training with a wooden sword (Source:Jori Avlis)

Roman Legionary was well trained fighting machine. His life was dedicated to war. In between the battles roman legionary built roads, served as local police, and trained.

Young legionary started their training with marching. Roman legion could march for 40 km a day while legionary was carrying up to 45 kg of equipment.
Marching would give them endurance and discipline.

Under the supervision of doctore (military officer in charge of training) young legionary would use a wooden sword or rudis and a wicker shield to learn how to stab and slash at the opponent. The wooden sword was much heavier than real gladius.

Basic training took 4 months. But Roman legionary trained their whole life. They trained in battle formations and hand-to-hand combat.

Repetitio est mater studiorum (repetition is the mother of studying)

Roman Legionary (Source:Pinterest/@Jorge Carles)

Although skilled man-to-man combat, his greatest strength was his ability to fight as a unit. A legion. Well-led and disciplined legions regularly beaten enemies with a higher number of soldiers.

Roman Legionary was extraordinarily disciplined. Punishments for not following orders were extremely severe.

Death by beating (Pinterest/@Andy Freifeld)

For example, soldiers caught sleeping during guard duties were sentenced to death.

The origin of the word “decimated” comes from the Roman legions. Decimation was a form of punishment for a whole unit. Soldiers would be called to the formation and every tenth soldier was singled out. Remaining nine soldiers were forced to beat their comrades to death.

Roman Legionary — formations

Roman Legionaries in legion (Pinterest/

Contubernium was the smallest unit of 8 legionnaires and 2 slaves. They shared the same tent. They fought together, they ate together and in case of death, those alive took care of the family of a killed comrade. Each man knew additional skills like cooking, hunting, being engineer, or a blacksmith. The leader was called Decanus.

Century consisted of 10 Contuberniums which means 80 soldiers and 20 slaves. It was lead by a Centurion. Only the bravest and the most experienced legionnaires would become centurions.

Cohort was made of 6 centuries. Each cohort had a distinctive trumpet calls and could be maneuvered individually around the battlefield. The most experienced of 6 centurions was also the leader of the cohort. Cohort thus consisted of 480 legionnaires and 120 slaves.

Legion had 10 cohorts, meaning 4800 legionnaires and 1200 slaves. Interestingly, it was lead by a Legate (a representative from Senate), by Tribute (representative of People) and by Prefect (selected from Legionnaires)

Battle formation (Pinterest/@Enchanted Ravenclaw 13)

During the battle after the first row of legionaries did some fighting they would form a shield wall using their big shields and body weight as leverage. Behind the second line would form. Once centurion blew his whistle, the first-line would slowly retreat backward to regain energy. Fresh, rested the second line would continue with fighting.

Testudo or tortoise formation was used during sieges. Testudo is the Latin word for “tortoise”. Legionnaires would align their shields to form a packed formation covered with shields on the front and top.

Such formations were emulated throughout history to this very day.

Testudo formation (Source:Pinterest/@Pawel Kurowski)

Roman legionary — machines of warfare

Scorpion or Scorpio, was an early crossbow, a bolting weapon used as field artillery and as a siege weapon. Each legion had 60 of those beasts. Experienced soldiers could shoot 4 bolts per minute and easily hit a target 100 meters away. Bolts would pierce opponents' shields with ease.

Roman legionary manning a scorpio (Source:Pinterest/

Siege towers were up to 20 meters high and were incredibly effective as a siege weapon. Romans added battering rams, a boarding bridge, and multiple fighting platforms. Engineers constructed them with wheels.

Sometimes siege tower looked so formidable that defenders surrendered right away. If not, they would try to burn it. Romans covered wooden parts in clay or hide soaked in vinegar to prevent fire.

Siege tower (Source:Pinterest/

Catapults were best when used against the walls. Their effective range was around 500 meters and could throw a rock weighing up to 150 kilograms. Romans adopted catapults from Greeks.

Roman Legionnaries manning catapult(

Roman Legionary dominated ancient warfare for centuries. Occasionally, opponents were able to defeat legions like Partians defeated Crassus, Hannibal Barca won at Cannae, or Germanic tribes annihilating legions in the Teutoburg forest.

However, legionnaires always learned from mistakes, adapted tactics and regrouped, and came back — as winners.

Roman legionaries could loose a battle, but they would always win a war!

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Peter Preskar

Written by

Learning junkie and lover of nature, gardening, history, psychology, and writing.

History of Yesterday

From the times that the pyramids were raised to the end of the cold war in this publication you will find it all. This is a publication that has been created to tell the stories of forgotten battles and fortunes that have crafted the world that we live in today.

Peter Preskar

Written by

Learning junkie and lover of nature, gardening, history, psychology, and writing.

History of Yesterday

From the times that the pyramids were raised to the end of the cold war in this publication you will find it all. This is a publication that has been created to tell the stories of forgotten battles and fortunes that have crafted the world that we live in today.

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