With an empire spanning from Scotland to Iraq at its height, the power of the Roman military is renowned. But did Rome’s soldiers have a family life?
Roman soldiers had families, but the status and legality of these families varied depending on the period and the soldier’s position. Family members often enlisted together, but soldiers were banned from marrying in 27 BC, creating legal difficulties that lasted until its repeal in 197 AD.
To find out more about what family life was like for Roman soldiers, read on.
The Family Life of a Roman Soldier
Roman soldiers would obviously most often have families in that they had parents and siblings, and family was an important institution in Roman society. Family bonds would also continue into the Roman army, with fathers, sons, and brothers fighting together and forming family units within the military.
The family life of a Roman soldier would have varied depending on the period of Roman history. Prior to the Marian reforms of 107 BC in the Roman Republic, for example, only men under the age of 45 with property would be eligible to be called upon to fight in the army, making it natural to suppose that soldiers in this period would have had family lives back home.
After the reforms, the Senate no longer had a requirement of property for military service, with serving as a soldier becoming a profession. With no limitations on marital status, one can naturally assume that soldiers during this period would have often had family lives to return to after campaigning.
Bonds in the Roman army were often very close for the average soldier, at times in campaigns being made to live in a contubernium, namely a unit of eight men that would live, eat, and fight together. These soldiers would often have close bonds that were perhaps somewhat familial.
However, beyond these fraternal and paternal relations, soldiers would be recruited into the Roman army after the age of 17 to start their military service and would naturally seek out sexual relationships and start family lives of their own.
While for most of Roman military history, soldiers could marry, in 27 BC, Augustus introduced reforms that made it illegal for soldiers to marry, leading to a ban on marriage that lasted around 200 years. However, with or without a ban, soldiers would find ways to have families while in military service.
Family Life and the Marriage Ban
Augustus’s ban on marriage in his legions in 27 BC had a profound impact on the lives of Roman soldiers, opening up a huge number of legal issues and inheritance controversies. The aim of this ban was to promote military discipline and while it just applied to the general rank and file, he also tried to impose it on officers too, although this failed due to pushback.
Officers could generally provide a living space for their families as they would often have a small house when campaigning, although this is not thought to have been common and generals were often only allowed to visit family during non-campaigning winter months. However, this would have been impractical for the average soldier as they lived in small units of eight together with little space for a family.
Of course, human nature takes precedence over legal bans and discipline, and young men would try to establish families in other ways despite the marriage ban. During this time, soldiers would often be stationed for decades far away from their homes back in the north of Italy or the south of Gaul, meaning they would form close ties with their new communities and seek out family life there.
Whole communities would often be established following Roman soldiers and providing them with services. Women would be in these communities, providing services ranging from medical care and trade to prostitution.
Despite the inability to legally marry, soldiers would often enter into concubinatus with these women and have illegitimate children while stationed away from home. This would sometimes lead to legal difficulties with regard to inheritance and these “wives” may not have been Roman citizens, leading to further issues, although rules were later introduced under Claudius to treat Roman soldiers legally as married men.
Roman soldiers would also purchase slaves to act as wives, sometimes freeing them and marrying them when they left military service. Unofficial marriages and families in the military were generally tolerated but looked down on as a breach of disciplinary code.
The ban on marriage was finally lifted by Septimus Severus in 197 AD, making family life and succession easier for Roman soldiers, despite still spending decades away from their homes.