Category Archives: Civilian Jobs Done by Legionaries

Legionarii: Not Just for Fighting

Welcome to Rome Across Europe!

In previous articles we have discussed the Legio Romano at length. We have even had a few videos to further display the backbone of the Exercitus Romanus.

What we have yet to do is show how a Legionary soldier has acted in a non-military role. Well that ends now.

Today we are going to explore some civilian positions done by those still in service to the Roman State!1

The Legionarius was often used as an Administrator. As both military and civilian commanders, Governors drew their staff from the ranks of the Legions.

A Praetorium (Headquarters of a Governor) was essentially a military affair. All of the staff there was taken from armed units under the Governor’s command, detached from their usual units to serve under the most senior commander in the region (aka the Governor himself).Praetorium

Some of these men still had quasi-military roles, such as bodyguards for the Governor and his senior staff. But many, more acted as various kinds of administrators.

There were Cornicularii (Clerks) who oversaw the smooth running of the administration. Exceptores and Notarii were the men who filled roles similar to what we now think of as an Administrative Assistant. Cornicularii

Exacti and Librarii kept track of growing archives of documents and kept the books. Commentarienses made and maintained records of what was going on in the provincia.Librarii

There were assistants in the form of Adiutores. At the top of the heap were more senior positions with titles such as BeneficiariiFrumentarii and Speculatores, who were all part of the bureaucratic instrument.

Officers in charge of local garrisons also acted as administrators. The representatives of Rome in their local areas, they were a natural point of contact for locals, and natural choices for their superiors to turn to when anything needed to be organized.

As a result, these men were involved in work such as gathering census reports, while playing the role of the local bureaucrat.

The Legionary also served as a Builder since the Roman way of war relied heavily on men with the skills needed for building projects. There were specialists such as the Engineers who created siege machines and the Architects who oversaw the construction of siege works.Siege Works

There were also craftsmen who had plied another trade before joining the Legios, or who had developed practical skills while carrying out work on military construction projects. Even when not undertaking a siege, life on a campaign was full of construction.

A Roman Legion on the march would build a defended camp every night, digging ditches and using the earth to build ramparts. The business of getting the Roman Army from one place to another meant a lot of construction.

Hadrian's WallIt was, therefore, natural that Legionaries would be used for large-scale construction projects even when these could have been done by civilians. Hadrian’s Wall (Vallum Aelium) was built by the 3 Legions stationed in Britannia at the time: II Augusta, VI Victrix and XX Valeria Victrix.

As in battle, the unit structure of the Legions came in handy here, with the work being split into parts that could each be assigned to a century.

Road construction was also sometimes jobs for the Legionary. Roads provided better transport networks when the military needed them, as well as helping with the civilian economy.

In addition there were projects of purely civilian purpose, such asCaesareaMaritimaRomanAqueduct restoring the aqueduct at Caesarea Maritima in Judea or digging a canal near Antioch. The Legions had the skills and manpower to make these projects a reality.

The Legionary would also serve as a Manufacturer. Like construction work, the industrial role of the Legios arose from their military needs.

Workshops were a common feature of large military camps, as they allowed weapons and armor to be produced and maintained. This meant that men in the Legion had to have the skills to work the forges.Ancient-Rome’s-Military-Marching-Camps-2

Similarly, the Legions needed cooking vessels. Like the tiles used in constructing permanent barracks buildings, there were produced in potteries owned and staffed by the Legios.

Tiles stamped with the mark of military units have been found on civilian sites. This would indicate that these items weren’t just used by the military.

It was natural for Rome’s Army to supervise sites such as the lead mines of hazardous western Britain or the quarries from which the Legions took their stone. Sometimes a Governor would even use soldiers for the hard labor of mining.

Germania SuperiorThis was the case in Germania Superior. Governor Curtius Rufus had soldiers mine for silver in his province, a scheme whose profits earned him high honors from the Emperor.

It was easy for Emperors, Governors or Army Commanders to rely upon the work machine that was the Roman Army. Since Legionaries typically signed on for contracts lasting at least 20 years, there was a wealth of well experienced men at the beck and call of those in charge.

We hope you enjoyed today’s exploration into the non-combative lives of Rome’s soldiers. Come back soon to see what we have in store.

Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!



Cowan, Ross, and Angus McBride. Roman Legionary: 58 BC – AD 69. Osprey Publishing, 2003.

Matyszak, Philip. Legionary: the Roman soldier’s (unofficial) manual. Thames & Hudson, 2009.

Watson, G.R. The Roman Soldier. Cornell University Press, 1993.

4 Civilian Jobs Done by Roman Legionaries”. War History Online.

Vigiles – Rome’s Watchmen

Welcome to Rome Across Europe!

The Exercitus Romanus was the most advanced fighting force of the ancient world, that’s been stated many times before. What is not known about this military body is that it was also quite innovative.

As the Roman Army was broken down into Legions and Cohortes the men were used in very specialized roles. Some of these roles were even civilian-based.

Today we take a look at one of these roles as we explore the Vigiles – Rome’s Watchmen!officers-and-soldiers-of-the-praetorian-guard-relief-2nd-century-ad-roman

The Vigiles or more properly the Vigiles Urbani (Watchmen of the City) or Cohortes Vigilum (Cohorts of the Watchmen) were the firefighters and police officers of Ancient Rome.

Privately owned slaves known as the Triumviri Nocturni (Three Judges of the Night) were the first organized group that combated the common problems of fire in Rome. The privately operated system became ineffective, so in the interest of keeping himself and Rome safe, Augustus instituted a new public firefighting force called the Vigiles.

romanvigilAugustus modeled the new firefighters after the fire brigade of Alexandria, Egypt. The Vigiles were also known by their nickname Spartoli (Little Bucket Fellows) which was given to them because of the buckets they carried water in, which were made of rope sealed with pitch.

In AD 6, Augustus levied a 4% tax on the sale of slaves and used the proceeds to set up the new force. They were commanded by the Praefectus Vigilum, who was of Equestrian rank, and a Subpraefectus.

The Vigiles were divided into 7 Cohorts commanded by a Tribunus, with each Cohort further divided into 7 Centuriae, each of 70–80 men commanded by a Centurio.

Each Cohort patrolled 2 of the city’s 14 administrative regions. They were doubled in size in AD 205.

Corps of VigilesEvery householder was obliged to keep equipment for fighting fires, and the men themselves were equipped with pumps, buckets, hooks (for pulling down burning material), picks, mattocks and axes. They also used ballistae for knocking down burning houses and creating firebreaks.

They even had their own Medical Support (Medici), with 4 doctors attached to each Cohort, and their own Chaplains (Victimarii). A Siphonarius operated a pump and an Aquarius supervised the supply of water. The ordinary firefighters were called Milites (Soldiers).

Every Cohort was equipped with standard firefighting equipment. The sipho (fire engine) was pulled by horses and consisted of a large double action pump that was partially submerged in a reservoir of water.bas-relief-covered-carriage

A major duty of the Vigiles was to enforce preventative measures against the outbreak of large blazes. The Digest of Justinian decrees that Vigiles are “ordered to remind everyone to have a supply of water ready in his upper room”.

While the Vigiles only had advising authority, their recommendations were often followed to avoid repercussions for negligence. Corporal punishment was the most common punishment for negligence according to the Digest of Justinia, “where persons have paid insufficient attention to their fire, the prefect … orders them to be beaten”.

vigile2The Aquarii needed to have an accurate knowledge of where water was located, and they also formed bucket brigades to bring water to the fire. Attempts were made to smother the fire by covering it with patchwork quilts (centones) soaked with water.

There is even evidence that chemical firefighting methods were used by throwing a vinegar based substance called acetum into fires. In many cases the best way to prevent the spread of flames was to tear down the burning building with hooks and levers. For fires in multiple story buildings, cushions and mattresses were spread out on the ground for people to jump onto from the upper levels.

During the Great Fire of Rome in AD 64 over one third of Rome was destroyed by flames. The young Emperor Nero helped to direct the Vigiles in fighting the flames.Great Fire

It was rumored that the Vigiles intentionally allowed the city to burn under orders from Nero, who later built his palace on land that was cleared by the fire. Regardless, Nero enacted fire code laws following the Great Fire to avoid further conflagrations. These laws called for more public access to water and prohibited buildings from sharing a common wall.

The Vigiles also acted as a night watch, keeping an eye out for burglars and hunting down runaway slaves. Starting about 27 BC, Augustus added a police function to the Vigiles to counterbalance the urban mobs that had run rampant during the latter days of the Republic.Prätorianer

The task of guarding the baths was added as a duty of the Vigiles during the reign of Alexander Severus when the baths remained open during the night. They dealt primarily with petty crimes and looked for disturbances of the peace while they patrolled the streets.

Sedition, riots and violent crimes were handled by the Cohortes Urbanae , though Vigiles could provide a supporting role in these situations. The Vigiles were considered a para-military unit and their organization into Cohorts and Centuries reflects this.

Often, the mere presence of the Vigiles was enough to keep people safe while upholding law and order. Small garrisons stationed along major travel routes could deter bandits, allowing merchants and messengers to pass in peace.

This dispersed policing role explains how soldiers so often found themselves spread across the provinces and so becoming local administrators. Egyptian papyri record many occasions when people appealed to local officers to investigate and punish the perpetrators of thefts, assaults, and threats.roman-army-9

Vigiles were also stationed at the harbor cities of Ostia and Portus. A Vexillatio (detachment) of 4 Centuriae was detached from Rome for 4 months at a time, with 2 Centuriae being stationed at each city.

In the beginning, the corps had difficulty recruiting men. In an effort to entice men to enlist the Lex Visellia was passed in 24 AD, granting full citizenship and a bonus cash stipend to Vigiles after 6 years of service. By the 2nd Century, citizens were also allowed to enlist.

The first Vigiles sequestered private homes and buildings to use as their command posts. It was not until the mid-2nd Century that official stations were built explicitly for the Vigiles to use. By the early 3rd Century sub-stations (excubitoria), which held 40-50 men, were constructed to accommodate the expanding city and the surrounding suburbs.

The locations of 4 of the 7 Cohort barracks have been fairly definitively identified:

I Cohort: On the east side of the Via Lata opposite the Saepta;Graffito_Vigiles_Trans_Tiberim

III Cohort: On Viminal;

IV Cohort: Near Baths of Caracalla;

V Cohort: On Caelian Hill near present site of S. Maria in Domnica.

VII Cohort was probably housed in a station provisionally identified near the Aemiian Bridge.

During the 3rd Century AD, prominent jurists with a legal background began serving as Praefectus to fulfill the magisterial capacity of the office. As a judge, the Prefect made rulings in his court for the common thieves caught during the night.Receiving a Witness

Eventually, the Prefect was given jurisdiction over daytime petty crimes as well. According to Justinian, in the event of more serious crimes the decision was made by the Praefectus Urbi, “if the offender is a person of such thuggish and infamous character … the case is sent on to the prefect of the city”.

Beyond the office of the Prefect, the Vigiles were ordered by rank similar to the military. While some terms of service could extend beyond 20 years, most commissioned ranks were much shorter. Since the Vigiles never achieved the prestige of the Praetorian Guard or the Urban Cohorts, serving in the corps was usually only a means of achieving more honorable and lucrative posts.

We hope you enjoyed learning about the force designed to keep Rome safe. It may not be the “world’s oldest profession” but the Vigiles were the forerunner for units that are needed in today’s societies.Soldier

Come back soon to see what we have in store. Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!



Bunson, Matthew. Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. Facts on File Inc. New York, NY (1994).

Daugherty, Gregory N. The Classical Journal, Vol. 87, No. 3. Classical Association of the Middle West and South, Inc. (1992).

Justinian I. The Digest of Justinian. Book I, XV (529). Translated by Monro, Charles Henry. Cambridge University Press (1904).

Reynolds, P.K. BaillieThe Vigiles of Imperial Rome. Chicago, Illinois (1996). ISBN 0-89005-552-1.

Tacitus, Publius Cornelius. The Annals. In: The Complete Works of Tacitus. Translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb (1942).

4 Civilian Jobs Done by Roman Legionaries. War History Online.

Conflagrations in Ancient Rome. The Classical Journal, Vol. 27, No. 4. Classical Association of the Middle West and South, Inc. pp. 270–288.