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Speaker – Gordon Henderson - The Roman Military Tuesday 17th February 2015


Gordon previously gave a talk to the club in October 2012 on Roman medicine. He has had an interest in history from the age of 5 and has been involved in the excavations and research at Binchester Fort near Bishop Auckland. He gave an enthralling talk on the Roman military and brought with him several examples of weapons and protective clothing.

Gordon explained that the Romans established the world’s first professional army. Before about 100BC, men became soldiers to fight and, if they survived, they would resume their daily life. Marius, Julius Caesar’s uncle, completely altered the structure and recruitment methods. Legions of 5000 men were created and a recruitment day was held every year when centurions encouraged young Romans to enlist. Once recruited, a soldier would never pay tax again. After signing on, a new recruit would receive one year’s salary tax free. The first part of training was a 3 month boot camp where unsuitable men were weeded out. Men served for a minimum of 25 years and were never allowed to be in their own country.

Soldiers contributed to pension and burial funds. A deduction of 25% was made from salaries and sent to families. A soldier could not marry – only centurions had this privilege -but he was expected to produce sons. When he retired he could marry his common law wife and his children then became Roman citizens. Sons were then eligible to join the army.

Auxiliary fighters were mercenaries or from conquered countries. After 25 years’ service they became Roman citizens. They retained their own ways of fighting and were never in their own lands. A tombstone for one man showed that he had fought in 42 countries in 26 years.

Battle practice typically took 8 hours every day using weapons of twice the weight of the real thing. In battle, a soldier would fight at the front for only 15 minutes, before being replaced to ensure that every man was fresh and had time to recover. Practice marches were 18-22 miles per day and, once a month, soldiers were expected to march 50 miles in full kit.

Helmets and shields were fashioned to be both protective and offensive. Shields were made of the first plywood and could be used to make ladders for scaling walls, to break ankles as well as to hold opponents at a distance.

In the 2nd century, cavalry took over from infantry and this led to changes in weapons and protection. The well balanced infantry sword was replaced with one with a heavy blade, because it would normally be used downwards. The helmet had a flexible neck guard rather than the fixed guard for the infantry head gear. All the equipment for battle was decorated; the Romans liked bling.

The Romans developed the catapult which could kill at 1/3 mile. Each legion had 55 and they could fire 3 times a minute. They might fire stones, crushed glass or scorpions. After a catapult attack, the enemy was invited to surrender. Those who did became auxiliary soldiers. If the enemy did not surrender, their town would be flattened and the fields salted to make them infertile. The Romans are believed to have used gas in a tunnel in Iraq and also were known to have used bees and wasps as weapons.

They were very inventive. Caesar diverted a river after the enemy had destroyed bridges. They had spies in Britain for 50 years before they invaded. They made maps and found springs so that Caesar was well informed before he landed.

In answer to questions, Gordon said that Binchester is now thought to be a marshalling area for Hadrian’s Wall. It is approximately 3½ times the size of Housteads. Metal detectors have been both a blessing and a scourge. Items which would never have been found have been recovered, but many items have been stolen. Fortunately, the creation of a national register has solved this to a large extent.


DW