New exhibition to explore the ordinary lives of Roman soldiers

A new exhibition is set to explore what ordinary life was like for soldiers in the Roman army. Legion, opening in February at the British Museum, will boast more than 200 objects on display, including the world’s only intact legionary shield and recently unearthed body armour.

According to the museum, the exhibition will ‘share the stories of real legionaries’ and ‘challenge perceptions about what it meant to be a Roman soldier’.

The imperial Roman army was one of the most formidable fighting forces in history, protecting a vast empire that, at its height, stretched from Scotland to the Red Sea.

But life for the majority of serving soldiers was relatively ordinary, with many recruits joining to advance themselves and support their families.

Enticed by the promise of Roman citizenship and a substantial pension, soldiers typically lived in settled communities throughout the empire. Sometimes, though, they were witnesses of history.

For instance, visitors to the exhibition will have the chance to see the remains of a soldier found at Herculaneum, believed to have been caught up in the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79 while attempting to help citizens flee to safety.

Also included will be many artefacts that have never been on display in Britain before, including the world’s only intact legionary shield and the oldest classic Roman segmental body armour, unearthed in Germany in 2018 (pictured).

Roman armour from the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, 9 AD. Chemical analysis has suggested that the soldier died wearing it. Image: Museum und Park Kalkriese/British Museum

Other items featured will include the Crosby Garrett mask helmet, and surviving letters from an Egyptian recruit, Claudius Terentianus, detailing his experiences in military campaigns and enforcing occupation.

‘The story of the Roman army is more than just pitched battles and war,’ said Sir Mark Jones, Interim Director of the British Museum.

‘The exhibition is a chance to show different perspectives and showcase the lives of the men, women, and children who formed one of the most famous armed forces in the world,’ he added.

Legion: life in the Roman army opens on 1 February 2024 at the British Museum’s Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery.