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‘Legion: Life in the Roman Army’

  • Art
  • British Museum, Bloomsbury
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Legion: Life in the Roman Army, British Museum, 2024
Photo: British Museum

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

A blockbuster exhibition taking you into the lives of Roman soldiers across the globe

Life in the Roman empire was as mundane as life in 2024. ‘Legion’ tells the story of a single Roman soldier, recounting a life of hard work, ambition, disappointment and unreachable goals. Take out all the blood and swords, swap the marching for a commute from Stevenage, and it could be the life of any present day office worker. 

Claudius Terentianus had hopes and ambitions. He wanted to be a great legionary in emperor Trajan’s army. But the legion wouldn't have him, so he had to settle for the lowly marines. Once in, he had to scramble for money and social connections to be promoted to the legion, where he found a life of endless marching and battles, surrounded by comrades with their own ambitions to join the cavalry or become a standard bearer.

This show is full of stunning symbols of everyday life for Roman soldiers from across the empire. Red wool socks to protect against the rub of hobnailed leather sandals, purses holding a handful of silver coins, dice for gambling, letters home pleading for a new tunic. It’s just the drudgery of normal existence, same in 60AD as it is now.

Battles, bloodshed and the spoils of war

And amongst all that, symbols of war: gleaming bronze helmets, swords long rusted into their scabbards, a pile of near-fossilised chainmail. A curved cylinder is the only complete long shield in existence, replete with ornate linework and winged victories. It’s jaw dropping. 

It wasn’t all blind, faceless obedience though. A crushed silver bust of emperor Gala speaks of mutiny and rebellion among the troops, while an incredible crocodile-skin suit of armour speaks of local religious traditions.

And then come battles, bloodshed and the spoils of war, spread out through the forts and camps of conquered lands: iron bolts, a quiver for arrows, cracked armour. The bones of two soldiers lay shattered, their weapons at their sides. A body belonging to the only known victim of crucifixion in Britain still has a nail piercing its ankle. 

Then you had to face disgruntled new subjects. Terentianus himself had to quell a Jewish rebellion. A twisted Roman helmet here is all that remains of a soldier obliterated by Boudica in Colchester. 

The Roman army promised citizenship, a pension, glory, if you could survive. And Terentianus did. This powerfully atmospheric exhibition manages to transport you to the past: it’s all brutal, bloody, violent, but somehow totally mundane too. Just like the commute in from Stevenage.

Eddy Frankel
Written by
Eddy Frankel


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