Monthly Archives: March 2012

The Roman Army’s Company Clerks

In about 100 C.E., under the reign of the Emperor Trajan, the professional Roman Army is a well-oiled machine capable of quick and powerful military action (Matyszak 6). Wherever you end up serving in the empire, becoming a company clerk is an ideal choice for those hoping for a military career with perks and job mobility.

Vegitius tells us that recruiters for the Roman army specifically look for individuals with the ability to write and do mathematics. He says, “Since there are several administrative departments in the legions which require literate soldiers, it is advisable that those approving recruits should test for tall stature, physical strength and alertness in everyone, but in some the knowledge of ‘symbols’ [in Milner’s footnotes defined as ‘short-hand writing’] and expertise in calculation and reckoning is selected” (Vegetius 51).

Example of Roman Shorthand. Vindolana Tablet 122. Used by permission. Copyright Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents and Trustees of the British Museum. Vindolanda Tablets Online. Oxford University. Web. 17 Mar. 2012.

It is interesting to note that Vegitius uses the word “but” in the former description. Though the Roman Army prefers clerks with physical prowess, it seems that they will select individuals specifically for their documentary and mathematical skills in some circumstances. The army’s willingness to compromise in special circumstances makes sense because the army’s “bureaucracy require[s] literate clerks and propagate[s] a documentary culture” (Phang 286). This “documentary culture” is necessary to maintain order in the army; company clerks keep daily records of everything that happens in a legion including which soldiers perform which duties, pensions, and who is taking time off (Vegetius 52). Enough military documentation and correspondence takes place that shorthand is even “used in military circles on the frontier of the Roman world by about AD 100” at Vindolanda (Bowman and Thomas).

Because clerks play an important role in maintaining order within each legion, they receive special privileges. A company clerk in the Roman army is an immunis, a soldier who “is still a miles gregarius, a common soldier” but one for whom “life is generally somewhat easier, as is shown by the fact that an immunis may be punished by having this status stripped away for misbehaviour” (Matyszak 79). Though clerks are still soldiers, their specialized skills allow them to work indoors and help them avoid more physical assignments like ditch-digging (Matyszak 79-80). Additionally, “the social and economic status of clerks seems to be relatively high, both before their enlistment and inside the army” (Phang 296). Since clerks are literate, they tend to come from the middle or upper classes and have greater social mobility than many of their “common soldier” counterparts (Phang 296). Some even end up becoming head clerks, optios, and centurians (Phang 296).

Works Cited

Bowman, Alan and David Thomas. “Shorthand Texts: Tablets 122-126.” Vindolanda Tablets Online. Oxford University. Web. 15 Mar. 2012.

Phang, Sara Elise. “Military Documents, Languages, and Literacy.” A Companion to the Roman Army. Ed. Paul Erdkamp. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2011. Print.

Matyszak, Philip. Legionary: The Roman Soldier’s Unofficial Manual. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2009. Print.

Vegetius Renatus, Flavius. Vegitius: Epitome of Military Science. Trans. N.P. Milner. 2nd ed. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1996. Print.

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Alexander’s Hostages

From 334 B.C.E. to 323 B.C.E. Alexander the Great marched with an army conquering territory in the name of Greece (Wikipedia Contributors). He marched from Greece, conquered Persia, and eventually moved into India at the end of his campaign. Though there were many logistical concerns for the young conqueror, hostages were an important way to consolidate power and ensure accurate military intelligence.

Hostages served as important way to consolidate power in newly conquered areas. Arrian records several specific instances of Alexander taking hostages. At the battle of Issus he “forgave the debt of fifty talents still owed him from the fine he had imposed on the citizens of Soloi, and restored their hostages” (Arrian 77). Near the Hydraotes River Alexander also took hostages from the city, specifically “a thousand of the tribe’s strongest men,” but eventually “released their hostages” (Arrian 250). By actively restoring hostages in these two situations, he would have been able to help foster good relationships with his newly conquered people by creating a merciful image.

"Small Bust of a Persian Woman." Persepolis Archeological Museum. Jona Lendering. 23 Mar. 2007. Web. 15 Mar. 2012.

Marriage also served as an important way of consolidating power for Alexander. One of his wives, the Persian Barsine, belonged to a powerful Persian family and had been kept at the Persian court as a hostage to ensure the loyalty of her husband Memnon (Lendering). Though Alexander’s marriage to Barsine is not described by sources at the time specifically as a hostage situation, the marriage did serve as a way to keep Barsine and her powerful family close at hand.

Hostages also served as an important way to ensure the accuracy of military intelligence. Since Alexander often relied on local people for information about neighboring towns, “sometimes relatives of the guides would be taken as hostages to ensure good performance” (Engels 332). Since Alexander was conquering the homelands of the people he was seeking to gain information from, such insurance was certainly necessary.


Works Cited

Arrian. The Landmark Arrian: The Campaigns of Alexander. Ed. James Romm. Trans. Pamela Mensch. New York: Pantheon Books, 2010. Print.

Engels, Donald. “Alexander’s Intelligence System.” The Classical Quarterly 30.2 (1980): 327-340. Web.

Lendering, Jona. “Barsine.” Jona Lendering. 23 Mar. 2007. Web. 15 Mar. 2012.

Wikipedia contributors. “Alexander the Great.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 10 Mar. 2012. Web. 15 Mar. 2012.

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Trajan’s Column: Battle

While it’s exact purpose is ambiguous, Trajan’s column certainly serves to commemorate Roman victory in the Dacian Wars (101-106 AD). Most believe that the content depicted on the column would have relied to some extent on Trajan’s Dacica, his personal narrative documenting the Dacian campaigns; however, only four words have survived from this work, making the column a primary source for military and topographical information regarding these campaigns (Davies).

The official explanation is that Trajan started the war because he wanted to end Domitianic payments to the Dacians and halt the aggressive activity of the Dacian chieftain, Decebal (Salmon). However, the commencement of the First Dacian War has a combination of reasons; the attractive wealth of the region, restoration of Roman prestige, and personal glory for Trajan himself may all have played a part. The Second War has a simpler explanation: Trajan wanted to divide the trans-Danubian tribes by establishing a province in their midst.

The events carved on Trajan’s column are incredibly detailed and precise. It is suggested that each scene is clearly based on a careful sketch that must have been made in the area from actual details on the spot (Richmond). The Romans are generally presented much in the way we would expect to see them, marching behind standard-bearers, headed by horses and grooms of the emperor, and armed in cuirass, shield, gladius, and spear. Although gone now, many of the javelins and spears were actual metal that added more dimension to the carvings. Most of the legionaries have long curly hair and beards, with only a few following Trajanic fashion of straight hair and a clean shave (Richmond).

Even the Dacian physiognomy of aquiline noses and high cheek bones have made their way onto the columns (Richmond). They fight using flat oval shields and the curved Dacian blade, the falx. Right down to the scale armor on the horses of the Sarmatian cavalry, Trajan’s Column presents a detailed historical record. While it is detailed and seemingly accurate, onlookers should take care to remember the possibility of propaganda politics and watch for the effects of artistic license.

Works Cited

Rockwell, Peter. “Trajan’s Column.” The McMaster Trajan Project, 1999. Web. 14 Mar 2012.

Davies, Penelope J.E. “The Politics of Perpetuation: Trajan’s Column and the Art of Commemoration.” American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 101, No.1 (Jan. 1997) p.41-65. Web.  13 March, 2012.

Richmond, I.A. ”Trajan’s Army on Trajan’s Column” Papers of the British School at Rome, Vol. 13 (1935) p. 1-40. Web. 14 March, 2012.

Salmon, Edward Togo. “Trajan’s Conquest of Dacia.” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 67 (1936), p.83-105. Web. 14 March, 2012.