Legion at the British Museum
When one imagines the Roman Empire, as so many do as we recently learnt, the sheer scale implies some kind of chaotic organisation. With the boundaries stretching from Scotland to Libya, and from Portugal to the Caspian Sea, the requirement for a highly trained and organised military force to help administer the vast area was manifest. Many questions arise as a consequence: who were the men that constituted the Roman army? How was it equipped? What were the terms of employment? And what of the battles – over it’s near thousand year life, there were many victories, but what of the defeats?
The new exhibition at the British Museum, Legion: Life in the Roman Army answers these and more in a display that grips from the first piece to the last. Upon arrival we are faced by the BM’s own statue of Augustus, having walked past the trigger warning for the presence of 2,000 year old skeletons, and this is an important statement, since it was under Augustus the era of Pax Romana began.
We follow the legionary Terentianus, an Egyptian recruit who initially joined the marines before entering the army. His letters survive and provide an enlightening guide throughout Legion, as he writes of his aspirations for promotion, and his desire for female companionship.
The armour and weaponry on display remains in remarkable condition. From the intact shield, the only of its kind, to the segmental breast plate found in Germany in 2018, along with several legionary helmets that are quite stunning.
The eruption of Vesuvius in October 79AD features, and as we know Pliny the Elder was in command of a vessel containing marines tasked with assisting in the evacuation of citizens. The remains of one of those troops is presented, along with equipment found at Pompeii, including sword and standard, and all preserved remarkably well. This being a natural disaster, what about a military one? Well the great and somewhat mysterious clash at Teutoburg Forest in 9AD is included, when three legions were annihilated by the Germanic tribes under the command of Arminius.
Towards the end we are presented with everyday life on the camp, and ending with a twist. Eight men to a tent, board games and rations, and two skeletons: victims of violent assault and unceremoniously dumped in a hasty grave, this is particularly fascinating for the bloodthirsty among us.
Legion: Life in the Roman army is on at the BM until 23rd June, and has many treasures. It is one of the best exhibitions presented in recent years, and with the inclusion of Horrible Histories commentary throughout, is sure to find favour with both the young and old.
Oliver Webb-Carter is the editor of Aspects of History.