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Beneficiarii in Roman Britain



The Roman legion was not just a fighting machine, but contained within its ranks a variety of staff, specialist and secretarial posts. A few of these had their origins in the Republican legionary structure, but the majority were introduced during the Empire as the legion became a more complex organisation to cope with the demands placed upon it. In addition the auxiliary units of the imperial army had scaled down versions of this structure.

One such staff post was that of beneficiarius whose duties do not have an exact modem equivalent and hence the title defies adequate translation. In the late Republican era a beneficiarius was a soldier attached to a particular commander who, through his beneficium, was granted special privileges such as freedom from fatigues (Caesar, Civil War, 1.75.2; III.88.5). In the principate the term came to be used for a specific grade of officer within the military staff (officium) attached to each equestrian officer of an auxiliary unit; each camp prefect; each legionary tribune and legionary legate; each provincial procurator and other equestrian officials within a province and each provincial governor.

Beneficiarii within Units

Duties and Numbers

Beneficiarii of equestrian and senatorial officers have left some records in Britain. The earliest in date, a tombstone from Wroxeter, has given rise to debate over the exact appointment of the deceased, C.Mannius Secundus of legio XX. He died after 31 years service as ‘ben(eficiarius) leg. pr.’ (RIB 293). It has generally been assumed that he was a beneficiarius of the governor and so died in the pre-Flavian period. But it has recently been argued that he was a beneficiarius of the legionary legate and that he would have died when his legion was at Wroxeter c.A.D. 67-86 (Britannia 23 (1992) 141-5).

Two other beneficiarii of legates of the Twentieth are known. One, Titinius Felix, died at Chester after 22 years service (RIB 505). The other, Mommius Cattianus, died at Rome on secondment having risen from ordinary soldier to optio in the first cohort after having been beneficiarius legati and cornicularius legati (Annee Epigraphique 1951, 194). This progression gives a clear idea of the hierarchy of posts as well as showing that this post was not a dead-end for capable men. The only other beneficiarius legati known in Britain is attested at Caerleon (Brit. 19 (1988) 490 n4).

Moving down the legionary hierarchy there are a few beneficiarii tribuni known from Britain, with Chester being the chief source of information. Two tombstones of men in that post have been found there. G. Julius Marullinus died aged 45 (RIB 532), the other died with 23 years service (RIB 545). G. Pomponius Valens was a beneficiarius tribuni of an unknown legion who was buried in London. He is notable for having been born not far from London at Victricensis (Colchester) (JRS 52 (1952) 190 nl).

Switching to auxiliary units, there is only one beneficiarius known from a named unit. Hurmius, a German, died at Housesteads on Hadrian’s Wall as beneficiarius praefecti in Cohors I Tungrorum (RIB 1619). The only two other auxiliary beneficiarii known may also have served in that cohort when it was based at Vindolanda. An account on a writing tablet reveals that on 26 September of an unknown year Lu( ...) beneficiarius received 6 modii of wheat (Tab.Vindol. 1,180.17-19). On the back of this account is a draft petition probably addressed to the provincial governor where the civilian applicant explains that he could not complain to the auxiliary prefect because he was ill and “I sought the beneficiarius” also in vain” (questus sum beneficiario ... )

Seconded Beneficiarii

The most important beneficiarii were those attached to the officium (headquarters staff) of the provincial governor. If there was no legionary garrison in the province then the troops would be auxiliaries and were known as beneficiarii procuratoris as in the provinces of Noricum and Raetia.

In provinces with legions the men were legionaries and were called beneficiarii consularis whether the governor was a consular in charge of two or more legions or a praetorian in charge of one.

As with most institutions of the Roman Empire the officium developed from small beginnings into a complex organisation. In the early empire the numbers and roles of these men were not fixed because the means by which the empire was run were still being developed. At this early date there are just a few known beneficiarii of governors and they normally name the man they served. It is possible that a beneficiarius of Julius Agricola, the father-in-law of the historian Tacitus and governor of Britain between AD77 and AD84, is mentioned on a writing tablet found at Carlisle. The document is fragmentary but is of the correct date and records a beneficiarius who is a legionary (Britannia 23 (1992) 152 and note 57).

An idea how gubernatorial beneficiarii were utilised in the early empire can be found in the correspondence of Pliny with the Emperor Trajan while the former was govemor of Bithynia, c.ADI 11-113. In one instance he refers to 10 beneficiarii whom he had assigned to Virdius Gemellinus, the procurator (Pliny Ep.X,27). In another he says he assigned 10 beneficiarii to Gavius Bassus, prefect of the Pontic Shore, from the cohorts within his command (Pliny Ep.X,21). In both instances it is clear the men were assigned to the official in question while they were required, rather than as part of a career pattern as emerged at a later date.

The Officium

By the middle of the second century each officium comprised a large number of trained and experienced soldiers fulfilling a wide range of duties. Based on third century evidence from Numidia and Pannonia it is possible to gain an idea of how many men a legion would second to the headquarters staff. From this evidence it is possible to estimate the size of the staff of Ulpius Marcellus who was governor of three legions in Britain in the reign of Commodus.

3 cornicularii - executives who ran the staff, each of whom had assistants (adiutores)
3 commentarienses - judicial recorders, each of whom had assistants (adiutores)
30 speculatores - messengers andexecutioners
180 beneficiarii - chosen men
?60 frumentarii - couriers and secret police
30 quaestionarii - torturers

interpretes - interpreters
haruspices - seers
librarii - archivists
notarii - secretaries
exacti - recorders
exceptores - short-hand writers

The numbers of beneficiarii consularis in a province like Britain reveals why it is difficult to pinpoint their role. With so many men a wide range of tasks could be carried out.

One major part of their work was apparently introduced by Trajan and is evidenced by inscriptions, mainly altars, set up in various parts of the empire. These represent the remains of the static network, a series of posts established at key places along the road network to oversee the imperial post (cursus publicus). One such static was at Sirmium in Pannonia Inferior where 84 altars were discovered in 1988. Analysis of these has shown that usually one beneficiarius was in post at a time and that he was there for one to two years. These findings are also supported by significant epigraphic finds at the stationes at Osterburken in Upper Germany and Celeia in Noricum; though at the former 6 months seems to have been the more normal tour of duty.

Finds of inscriptions from Britain reveal part of a statio network along the road from the legionary base at York to Corbridge. Altars set up by beneficiarii consularis have been found at Catterick Bridge (Rib 725); Binchester (RIB 1030 and Lanchester (RIB 1085). At Catterick Bridge, Q. Varius Vitalis rededicated an altar in AD 191 to the god who invented roads and paths which emphasises the connection with road supervision.

Stationes along major roads naturally connect to stationes where that route reached the frontier of the empire. Beneficiarii attested along frontiers would therefore not just supervise traffic but would also liaise with frontier troops and their commanders on behalf of the governor. They could also produce intelligence reports for the governor which would be separate from any the latter received from commanders of auxiliary units on the frontier. Thus beneficiarii consularis are attested at Housesteads (RIB 1599) and Risingham (RIB 1225). The latter, Gavius Secundinus, says of himself “Habitanci prima statione” (on his first tour of duty at Habitancum). This implies it was possible to be sent on further tours at the same place which is proven by examples from elsewhere of iterata statione (second tour of duty) and even tertia statione (third tour).

Also on the northern frontier, at Vindolanda, was stationed Aurelius Modestus who was a beneficiaries consularis provinciae superioris (RIB 1696). This shows that after the division of Britain by Septimius Severus, the governor of Upper Britain could still gather his own intelligence from Hadrian’s Wall in the lower province. This is not an isolated instance as there is a second man from Upper Britain attested at Greta Bridge (RIB 745). One other beneficiaries consularis is known from the military zone in Britain and he is attested at Lancaster (RIB 602).

It is not just in the military zone that these men are recorded, because there were other duties that they could carry out for the provincial governor. In Egypt it is known that there was one beneficiarius in each nome who was expected to supervise the collection of materials such as the corn supply. He would also receive complaints from the local inhabitants to pass on to the Prefect of Egypt. Other roles were to help supervise the imperial estates and imperial mines. This would explain the presence of a beneficiaries consularis at Winchester (RIB 88) and at Dorchester-on-Thames (RIB 235). They could also serve as clerks. This is known from tombstone evidence elsewhere in the Empire but it would not be a surprise for beneficiarii consularis to be recorded at London or in the third century at York, the capital of Britannia Inferior. Thus while there seem to be a large number of beneficiarii consularis it is obvious from the available evidence that they were spread very thinly and would not have been able to keep down unrest. The picture which is built up from the evidence is that the post of beneficiarius consularis was not a specialist one. Rather that any or all of a wide range of duties might have to be fulfilled while on secondment. While men who served in this capacity were experienced, it was possible to be promoted to further posts where the experience gained would prove useful.

Whatever duties they carried out away from the provincial capital they did so as the representative of the governor. This explains the number of miniature “beneficiarius lance” badges found on military sites in Northern Europe. These would have been attached to leather belts or strap ends and showed that the person was an official of the governor and operating on his behalf independently of any other military officer.