Weighty matters

An artist's conception of the field pack ancient Roman soldiers wore

An artist's conception of the field pack ancient Roman soldiers wore

About seven years ago, I read G. R. Watson’s The Roman Soldier (originally published by Cornell University in 1969; I read a copy of the 1985 paperback reissue), a handbook summarizing what scholars in 1969 knew about life in the ancient Roman army.  One point Watson made that I’ve been thinking about ever since I read the book had to do with the field packs Roman soldiers wore.  Some scholars in Germany had tended to give very high estimates of the amount of weight that Roman soldiers had to carry, in some cases solemnly asserting that a legionary would march about all day with over a hundred pounds of equipment on his back.  Dismissing these estimates as a self-evident absurdity, Watson tries to figure out just how heavy the pack might have been (in the 1985 reissue, that discussion is on pages 62-66, continued in note 140 on pages 175-176.)  The best estimate he can come up with puts the average weight of the Roman soldier’s pack at 30 kilograms (66 pounds,)which happens to be identical to the standard for most modern armies. 

Watson’s evidence suggests that throughout history armies have tended to increase the amount of weight soldiers have to carry, until the kit becomes so heavy that the high command has no choice but to cut it down to something weighing about 30 kilograms.  I suppose that the obvious reason for this tendency is that many people are involved in deciding what it is essential that a soldier should carry in the field.  Each of those people has ideas about items that should be on that list, and each sees the addition of his or her favorite item as a victory.  When no one involved in decision-making at that level has to wear a full field pack on a regular basis, the decision makers have no immediate incentive to deny each other their little victories.     

I wonder if there might not be a second, less obvious reason for this tendency.  Ed Yong’s Not Exactly Rocket Science reports on a psychological experiment which indicates that people who are holding heavy objects tend to take matters more seriously than the same people do when they are not holding heavy objects.  If this tendency is and has long been general among all humans everywhere, then we would expect that people who are interested in human behavior would have noticed it.  Military commanders are interested in human behavior.  Perhaps, noticing the overlap between the category “people holding heavy objects” and the category “people showing seriousness,” commanders have formed the idea that they could induce ever greater seriousness in their subordinates by weighing them down with ever more heavily loaded field packs. 

If there’s anything to this speculation of mine, perhaps it is also part of the reason why there is so little protest against the spine-damagingly heavy backpacks that so many American children are forced to lug to and from school every day.  Of course, many people are involved in deciding what a student should learn and do in school, and that is an obvious reason why the collection of textbooks and other materials students must transport on their persons tend to grow so heavy. 

heavy backpackBut perhaps a belief that the weight of the physical burden one carries correlates directly with the seriousness of one’s attitude is also part of it.  We want children to take school seriously.  We have observed that people holding heavy objects tend to be serious.  If holding heavy objects translates into seriousness, maybe holding even heavier objects will translate into even more seriousness!  It will definitely translate into more back injuries, but isn’t that a small price to pay for keeping the wee ones doubled over for much of the day?

Down with Justinian!


In ancient times, the Romans observed a festival called the Parilia every year on 21 April.  We remember this festival as “Foundation of Rome Day,” since first-century Romans like Ovid believed that 21 April was the day when Romulus laid out the boundaries of the new city.  The Romans settled on  753 BC as the year of the city’s founding only centuries after they had agreed on 21 April as the day.  From their point of view, the day returned regularly and could be celebrated, while the year was gone forever and therefore had no practical value.   

Apparently to emphasize the association between the Parilia and the founding of Rome, the emperor Hadrian changed the name of the festival to Romaea in AD 121.  The importance of 21 April outside the city of Rome rather declined as the center of the empire moved eastward in the centuries after Hadrian; by the time the western empire officially collapsed in AD 476, it is doubtful whether the festival was observed in the east at all.  When in AD 547 the Byzantine emperor Justinian decreed a new system for naming years, the Romaea or Parilia lost all official status in the east. 

So, those of us who have a soft spot for Foundation of Rome Day have a grudge against Justinian.  Apparently, we are represented at Language Log, where Bill Poser today posts a note about some of the more hideous aspects of Justinian’s proudest achievement, the law code known as the Corpus Iuris Civilis.

Ancient Gas Warfare

From the BBC, a report that ancient Persians used poison gas in a battle with the Romans.

What have the Romans ever done for us?

Apparently when the Romans went to Wales, they took leeks.  The BBC reports on research giving the old empire credit for introducing that signature vegetable to Welsh gardens.

Aulus Gellius Online

I’m sure you’re all as fascinated by the second-century miscellanist Aulus Gellius as I am.  Who isn’t?  Here’s his book, the Attic Nights, online, in Latin with some of the English from the Loeb translation.


Here’s Gellius referenced in Irving Babbitt’s Literature and The American College.


Here’s the frontispiece from an early edition of the Attic Nights.

Blame the Romans!

Quoth the BBC:

The spread of the Roman Empire through Europe could help explain why those living in its former colonies are more vulnerable to HIV.”


How so?

The claim, by French researchers, is that people once ruled by Rome are less likely to have a gene variant which protects against HIV…

They say that the frequency of the variant corresponds closely with the shifting boundaries of the thousand-year empire.

In countries inside the borders of the empire for longer periods, such as Spain, Italy and Greece, the frequency of the CCR5-delta32 gene, which offers some protection against HIV, is between 0% and 6%.

Countries at the fringe of the empire, such as Germany, and modern England, the rate is between 8% and 11.8%, while in countries never conquered by Rome, the rate is greater than this.

However, the researchers do not believe that the genetic difference is due to Roman soldiers or officials breeding within the local population – history suggests this was not particularly widespread, and that invading and occupying armies could have been drawn not just from Italy but from other parts of the empire.

Instead, they say that the Romans may have introduced an unknown disease to which people with the CCR5-Delta32 variant were particularly susceptible.

A slightly more detailed account of this study can be found on The New Scientist‘s website. 


The original article is available only to subscribers.  Here’s the link anyway.