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Gentlemen at the Rear of the Column


"There is also another reason why the Legions have become attenuated: The labour of serving in them is great, the arms are heavier, the duties more frequent, the discipline more severe; to avoid this many flock to the Auxilia to take the oaths of service, where the sweat is less and the rewards come sooner". Vegetius.

For as long as I can remember I have been interested in Roman history. As a result members of my family often had to endure trips to some inhospitable site at the back of beyond. They usually failed to appreciate however that the few earthen banks before them, were anything more exciting than those in the back garden. As I lived in North Wales and had relatives in Cumbria those earthen banks generally belonged to an Auxiliary fort or fortlet. My first job in Archaeology,involved the production of illustrations depicting the fort at Manchester and its Auxiliarygarrison. So my interest in the Auxiliaries grew. Upon joining 'The Ermine Street Guard', I naturally entered the Auxiliary branch of the service. Not the glamour of the Legions for me! Having thus consigned myself to years of good natured abuse, such gems from the public like "you're the cannon fodder then" or as one newspaper put it "the British plebs, in other words". I feel somewhat obliged to offer a few words of my own in defence of my calling. If others feel the same way afterwards then my effort will have been worthwhile.

Identity Crisis

Popular publications dealing with the Auxilia alone appear as frequently as the Guards Auxiliary contingent before a T.V. film crew. Cheesemans "The Auxilia of the Imperial Roman Army" published in 1914 is still the best general account.

In recent years however the Auxilia have received some academic attention. Most notably as regards pay and equipment. A pay receipt discovered at Vindonissa seems to confirm that Auxiliaries received five sixths Legionary pay rather than one third. M.A. Spiedel now suggests basic Auxiliary infantry pay in the early first century A.D. was 250 Sestertii each pay day. This compares with 300 Sestertii each pay day for a basic legionary and Auxiliary cavalryman. I have of course put in a request for ten years back pay.

This generous salary explains how Auxiliaries could afford such elaborate tombstones, often more so than their Legionary counterparts. It also provides an explanation of the transfers between Legionary and Auxiliary units and why the Auxiliary service was increasingly attractive to Roman Citizens. We can now see how an average Auxiliary could keep a wife, sometimes a mistress and often a servant!

Recently the theory was put forward that there was no clear cut distinction between Legionary and Auxiliary equipment. This was an answer to the surprising number of 'lorica segmentata associated finds discovered in forts with known Auxiliary garrisons. Roman iconography and literature unfortunately does not seem to bear this out.

On first century tombstones, in particular when the figures are unarmoured, at first glance there may appear to be no difference. Closer examination however reveals consistent differences.

Figures with pila and curved shields, either oval or rectangular, are Legionaries. Figures with spears and flat shields either oval or rectangular, are conversely Auxiliaries. This scenario is reinforced by Trajan's column and the Adamklissi tropaeum. Here although Legionaries may appear in 'lorica segmentata' or mail, Auxiliaries never appear in anything other than mail.

According to Tacitus, during Otho's revolt against Galba, "weapons were hastily grabbed.Tradition and discipline went by the board. The troops disregarded the distinctions of equipment between Praetorians and Legionaries and seized helmets and shields meant for Auxiliaries".

The different types of equipment employed by Auxiliaries and Legionaries are described in the account of the defeat of the British chieftain Caractacus. The hapless Britons are driven from one form of death to another.

There are problem areas however and some questions remain to be answered. It is known that on occasions some Legionaries and Auxiliary cavalry both wore scale armour for example. The increasing specialisation and independence of Auxiliary units could have drawbacks in the absence of Legionary troops and their equipment and tactics. Does this explain the existence of at least one Cohors Scutata, and the cavalrymen on the sculpture from Arlon in Belgium who appear to wear 'Lorica Segmentata' shoulder pieces?

Amongst the figures on Trajan's Column is a lone Auxiliary carrying a Legionary scutum. This may be the only pictorial evidence for the Cohors Scutata, but is generally regarded as an error on behalf of the artist.

Reasons for the high cost of military expenditure towards Rome's Auxiliary forces is not hard to find. In a largely volunteer army attracting recruits was one reason, maintaining their loyalty was another. Would the image of poorly paid and ill equipped troops have achieved this?

Some students of Roman military history quietly forget that if led by an aristocratic buffoon, even the invincible Roman army suffered defeat. The fact that the army could also contain within its ranks the eccentricities of the reigning Emperor is regarded as heresy. However one Emperor recruited a unit of seven footers while another raised what can best be described as a Macedonian Phalangite re-enactment group, for his eastern campaign.

Trajan's column also contains within its reliefs a few oddities. One group of Auxilia appear wearing animal skins over their helmets. The attitude of their arms and the regular oval shields they carry implies they are not standard bearers; however to suggest otherwise is tantamount to treason. So who are they, another error or an attempt to recreate Republican Velites perhaps?

Next to a slinger another auxiliary prepares to throw a stone. Historians blame the much maligned artist here for another mistake. They say he should have been another slinger. Yet Greek armies employed Thracian "psiloi" stone throwers to considerable effect, and Thrace is not to far from Dacia scene of Trajan's war. Vegetius also describes how recruits should learn to throw stones as part of their training.

When the "Guards" Auxiliary detachment changed the colour of their tunics, to match the red of the Legionaries, this was greeted with horror from some quarters. "They look just like us!" was the cry from one dismayed Legionary. Equally however the Auxilia can now claim that the Legionaries look like them, as more and more Legionaries adopt mail shirts and bronze helmets!

From the public (or the enemies) point of view the argument is irrelevant. The shield either Legionary or Auxiliary completely obscures the tunic and the distinction between troop types is maintained. The above quote from Tacitus, seems to imply that if Legionaries wore Auxiliary helmets and carried Auxiliary shields, they might indeed by mistaken for Auxiliaries. So perhaps in the colour of their tunics there was no difference. In style at least we know this to be correct.

The Legionary equipment found on Auxiliary sites could be explained by the presence of Legionary elements attached to Auxiliary units, either for garrison duty or construction work on the fort itself.

Friend or Foe!

The record of loyal service by the Auxilia in the Roman Army is an impressive one. In times of emergency both Provincial Governors and Emperors had to rely on their Auxiliary forces. In Britain for example, the Governor, Publius Ostorius Scapula, had to suppress a rebellion by the Iceni tribe, using Auxiliaries alone. The Iceni stronghold was stormed by infantry supported by dismounted cavalrymen.

On another occasion Auxi iary troops were sent to uphold the regime of the client queen Cartimandua during the Brigantian civil war. Although the force was insufficient to defeat the hostile forces, it did succeed in rescuing Cartimandua.

When Vanius king of the Suebi and a loyal ally was driven from his kingdom by his sister's sons, helped by Hermandurii tribesmen, immediate action was necessary. The Emperor Claudius ordered the Governor of Pannonia to dispatch a picked force of Auxiliaries to "protect the losers and intimidate the winners!"

Publius Pomponius Secundus, Governor of Upper Germany, defeated a dangerous incursion by the Chatti employing only German levies and Auxiliary cavalry. Not only were the Chatti repulsed but the Auxiliaries also effected the rescue of some Roman prisoners. These turned out to be survivors of the Varan disaster of forty years earlier! One wonders what the reaction was on both sides?

Provincial Governors drew their infantry and cavalry bodyguard from amongst the Auxiliaries stationed in their province. Those belonging to a British Governor were implicated in a plot against the Emperor Domitian. They were transferred, later to redeem themselves in the wars of the Emperor Trajan.

Perhaps indicative of how a local commander would operate is an action described by Tacitus against the Silures of South Wales. Auxiliary cavalry were sent to the aid of a Roman foraging party (Legionary?) which was cut off and surrounded. Unfortunately the cavalry too got into difficulties and Auxiliary infantry were dispatched. Finally, the Legionaries arrived to tip the balance in favour of the Romans.

Often seen as innovative, for its exclusive use of Auxiliaries, the battle of Mons Graupius can now be seen as almost typical. Here Gn Julius Agricola sent in four Batavian and two Tungrian cohorts to fight the enemy in Roman fashion, i.e. with the sword! On the flanks Auxiliary cavalry defeated the enemy charioteers then joined in the melee. When the enemy reserve tried to outflank the Auxilia, they were instead defeated in turn by fresh Auxiliary cavalry which Agricola had held back just in case. The enemy broke and fled pursued by the cavalry and closely followed by the infantry, who rooted out pockets of resistance.

The under strength Legions, present at the battle, were held deep in reserve and had taken no part, much like a guard display really! Amongst the 360 Auxiliary casualties was one Aulus Attius, a Prefect, who, according to Tacitus, had been carried by "youthful impetuosity and mettlesome horse deep into the ranks of the enemy".

The "youthful impetuosity" of other Prefects may perhaps explain the disaster which befell two cohorts that were wiped out by the Silures. Although Tacitus, not adverse to pointing out Roman abuse, blamed it on the greed of their commanders.

The courage and fortitude of the Batavian Cohorts mentioned above was well known. These warriors recruited from the marshlands of Holland and Belgium became the commando troops of their day.

The Batavians were famous for crossing rivers fully armed, such as the Ems during Germanicus' campaigns in Germany and the Po in the civil wars of A.D.69. Although no evidence exists, it is more than likely that the Auxiliaries referred to as crossing the river Medway during the Claudian invasion of Britain, were the Batavians. The task on this occasion was to disable the enemy's chariots and horses while their attention was distracted elsewhere.

One also suspects it is the Batavians who crossed the Menai Straits into Anglesey to destroy the Druid stronghold there. Tacitus describes how "some (the cavalry) utilised fords but in deeper water the men swam beside their horses".

This feat is somewhat surpassed by the achievement before the Emperor Hadrian of Soranus, a trooper in Cohors III Batravorum Milliaria Equitata. Soranus' epitaph records that in A.D. 1 18 he was " . . . the man who, once very well known to the ranks in Pannonia, brave and foremost among one thousand Batavians, was able, with Hadrian as judge, to swim the wide waters of the deep Danube in full battle kit. From my bow I fired an arrow, and while it quivered still in the air and was falling back, with a second arrow I hit and broke it. No Roman or foreigner has ever managed to better this feat, no soldier with a javelin, no Parthian with a bow. Here I lie, here I have immortalised my deeds on an ever mindful stone which will see if anyone after me will rival my deeds. I set a precedent for myself in being the first to achieve such feats."

This certainly puts my own triumph of hitting a four foot target with a six inch Ballista missile at twenty yards into perspective. Soranus must surely rank amongst the great marksmen of history, like William Tell, Robin Hood or at the very least Kevin Costner.

Dio Cassius adds that the Batavians, presumably this includes Soranus, "struck the barbarians with amazement and turned their attentions to their own affairs".

Trajan's Column, erected in Rome as a monument to that Emperor's victories in the Dacian wars, contains within its spiral reliefs hundreds of anonymous soldiers, many of them Auxiliaries.

However, the discovery in northern Greece of a tombstone brought history and archaeology to life. When Decebelus king of the Dacians, his armies broken, fled for safety, Trajan sent Auxiliary cavalry in pursuit. Finally cornered, Decebalus chose suicide rather than surrender. In graphic detail the column relief shows the king about to plunge a knife in his throat. Arriving on the scene too late, an Auxiliary cavalry man throws out an arm in a desperate attempt to stop the tragedy.

It was pure chance that the tombstone discovered belonged to this very cavalryman, one Tiberius Claudius Maximus. His tombstone likewise proudly depicts a similar scene, the highlight obviously of a long and distinguished career.

Maximus was highly decorated by Trajan himself. However it seems it was not normal Imperial policy to reward individual Auxiliaries. The case of Maximus is unusual although not unique. The fact that he was a Roman Citizen, who had served in a Legion before transferring to an Auxiliary Ala, was perhaps influential. Today many Guard Legionaries also see the benefit of moving into the Auxilia (the comfy armour club!) despite the absence of flashy trinkets and baubles!

For acts of bravery it was more likely that Citizenship, either for individuals, or for the unit as a whole, was awarded. Cohorts and Alae, like the Legions, could be given honorary awards such as "VICTRIX" or carry an Imperial family name. Some units for example COHORS 1 BRITTONUM MILLIARIA ULPIA TORQUATA PIA FIDELIS CIVIUM ROMANORUM, could obviously amass a load of titles!

In 128 A.D. Hadrian‘s Empire-wide inspection of the armed forces took him to North Africa. Here he was impressed by the standard of some Auxiliary units during a series of large scale manoeuvres. The sixth cohort of Commagenians for instance made a good impression even by themselves. " The First Cohort of Pannonians " . . . did everything in orderly fashion" and their " javelin hurling was not without grace" and pleased Hadrian "uniformly throughout the whole exercise". I am sure similar words spring into Chris Haines' mind when he sees the Guard Auxiliary contingent on parade!

Hadrian might not have been so uniformly pleased if he had come across the Syrians as described by Fronto. For they were "mutinous, disobedient, seldom with their units, straying in front of their prescribed posts, roving about like scouts, tipsy from one noon to the next, unused even to carrying their arms, and one man after another from dislike of toil laid them aside, like skirmishers and slingers half naked. Apart from scandals of this kind they had been so cowed by unsuccessful battles as to turn their backs at the first sight of the Parthians and to listen for the trumpet as the signal for flight!"

This leads us neatly on to the other side of the coin, the series of alarming revolts led or organised by Auxiliaries and which the Guards legionary contingent should take good note of. Many of these revolts follow a similar pattern. Generally an individual, - perhaps a native chieftain, rebels while serving, or after service, as an Equestrian Officer in the Auxiliary forces. The troops at their disposal could be auxiliaries also from their own tribe, but even natives trained and organised along Roman lines. The available Roman forces often lack local knowledge and are further handicapped by the reliability of their own Auxiliaries, many of whom maybe sympathetic to, or even related to, the tribesmen they are opposing!

Foremost among these rebellions is that of Julius Civilis and the Batavians. Civilis had served as an officer in command of some Batavian Auxiliaries, perhaps in Britain under Vespasian. When Vespasian made his bid for Imperial power his supporters encouraged Civilis to revolt on their behalf and in the rear of his opponents.

Unfortunately the Batavians themselves had grievances of their own. Chief amongst these were the Roman methods of recruitment and how according to Tacitus young good looking lads were dragged off to satisfy the lusts of the recruiting officers!! A problem thankfully not encountered when joining the Guard, well, not to my knowledge anyway.

Civilis soon won over the Batavians stationed in their own country and others recently arrived from Britain. In one of the early engagements against Roman land and naval forces, a Tungrian Cohort along with some Batavian sailors deserted the Roman side. A Legionary detachment was later forced to retreat when its Batavian cavalry deserted and the Ubian and Treviran Auxiliaries ran away, showing the same turn of speed demonstrated by certain Guard members at mealtimes!

The legate of the First Legion, Herennius Gallus, tried to surround, some Batavian emissaries outside his camp. But the Batavians were veterans and although out-numbered managed to form up into squares and beat off the legion.

Somewhere along the way, the pretence of acting on behalf of Vespasian was cast aside and the Batavians were soon in open rebellion. Along with other disaffected Auxilia such as Julius Classicus commander of some Treviran cavalry, the revolt attracted German tribesmen and Romano-Gauls as well.

Throughout the rebellion however the Batavians still played a prominent role. They took part in sieges, building siege engines and manning artillery, perhaps with the help of prisoners and deserters.

Didius Vocula and the Twenty Second Legion almost suffered the indignity of annihilation outside their own fortress! Ironically they were saved by the timely arrival of some Basque Auxiliaries who were mistaken for a much larger relief force. The Batavian infantry suffered heavily in the ensuing defeat although the bulk of the cavalry escaped with a number of captured standards.

The importance of the Batavians as recruits into the army was such however, that not long after the rebellion was put down, Batavian Cohorts were once again serving with distinction in the Roman army.

Another source of valuable recruits into the army were the Moorish horsemen from North Africa, famous for riding bare back and their unarmoured appearance on Trajan's Column. During Trajan's wars in Dacia and Parthia, a Moorish chieftain Lucius Quietus commanded a large force (vexillation) of these warriors. They quickly earned themselves a reputation as one of the Empire's elite units.

Lucius Quietus himself rose in rank to become a Roman Consul and one of Trajan's top Generals. He was eventually removed by Trajan's successor, Hadrian, who saw Quietus as a possible Imperial rival. This and the disbandment of his troops led to their fermenting rebellion in their homeland.

Earlier in African history another former Auxiliary commander Tacfarinas proved to be a thorn in the side of more than one of Tiberius' Generals. Tacitus cynically comments that they celebrated his defeat more than once.

Built around a nucleus of his Numidian Auxiliaries, Tacfarinas modelled his armies on Roman lines. However he also utilised the traditional guerrilla tactics employed by his own kinsmen. This lethal cocktail led to the embarrassing defeat of a Legion at the battle of the river Pagyda. The Roman survivors of which suffered the extreme penalty of decimation.

The Roman Generals faced problems not unlike those encountered by the British in the Boer war, and they responded in a similar fashion. They resorted to the construction of fortified outposts and the use of loyal Auxiliary cavalry to constantly wear down the forces of Tacfarinas.

A notorious exploit by another group of Auxilia is recorded in Tacitus' "Agricola". A Cohort of Usipii from Germany had been transferred to Britain. Here they were undergoing training under the supervision of a Centurion and some veterans. Perhaps not unnaturally this Cohort mutinied and murdered their instructors.

Stealing some warships they attempted to reach home by sailing round the coast of Britain. They frequently failed to obtain supplies during their excursions ashore and so were reduced to a state of cannibalism.

They also proved to be less than accomplished sailors. Instead of arriving home safely they were shipwrecked along the coast of Holland. The survivors were captured by hostile tribes and sold into slavery. Ironically some eventually passed into the hands of Roman traders, who thereby leamt of their ordeal. Their future fate is not recorded; remember they were guilty of mutiny.

Finally historians have suggested that the initial success of the gladiator rebellion. led by Spartacus and the victory of Arminius, in Germany, were both attributable to the same cause. That is at one time they had both served in Rome's auxiliary forces. Indeed Arminius had been granted Roman Citizenship and was given Equestrian status as rewards for former loyal service. Scholars believe he may have held the rank of Prefect or Tribune in command of German Auxilia. Had he not revolted Arminius may well have enjoyed a career like that of Lucius Quietus!

The addition of two Auxiliary cavalrymen in 1993 has added a new dimension to the Guard display, not least in bringing the existing Auxiliary infantry contingent more sharply into focus. On occasions the Auxilia have even fielded their own Centurion, courtesy of a very brave, although less well decorated, member of the Gemina Project from Holland. It is hoped that this brief introduction to a few characters and events will have stimulated an interest in other Guard members towards Rome's Auxiliary forces, past and present. It should also serve as a warning to those Legionaries who still persist in thinking that the Auxiliaries are nothing more than "THE GENTLEMEN AT THE REAR OF THE COLUMN!"


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Connolly. P. (1988) "Tiberius Claudius Maximus the Cavalryman".

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Davies. J. (1977) "Roman Arrowheads from Dinorben and the Sagittarii of the Roman Army". Davies. R. (1 968) "The Training Grounds of the Roman Cavalry".

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