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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