Roman Legion XX: Military Life In Roman Britain

The Roman Legion XX, Valeria Victrix, played a key role in the conquest of Britain and in subduing the local tribes to Roman authority and culture.

Jun 19, 2021By Tatiana Valente
roman legion xx
Centurion tombstone from Cumbria; with Caesar’s first invasion of Britain, by W. Linnell after E. Armitage, 19th century; and Hadrian’s Wall; photo by David Marks

 

The Legion XX Valeria Victrix was one of the Roman legions led by Emperor Claudius in 43 AD, during the conquest of Britain. It remained in Britain for the rest of its existence, until at least the 5th century AD, fighting unsubordinated tribes, defending the conquered land, building walls, a network of roads and towns such as Deva Victrix (Chester), and “Romanizing” the uncivilized natives.

 

These soldiers lived and died in Roman Britain, making lives for themselves and rising through the Roman military ranks. Rome’s soldiers were of utmost importance to the history of England, and they helped to shape its people, its culture, and its landscape.

 

Roman Legion XX Valeria Victrix

boar roman legion xx valeria victrix army
Molded antefix roof tile showing the badge and standard of Legion XX, Clwyd, Wales, via Enacademic.com

 

Many Roman Legions became famous for their warring feats, whether by expanding the territory of the Roman Empire, bringing “roman greatness” to the “barbarians” or by defending and fighting against those who tried to escape the Roman conquests.

 

One of the most famous Roman Legions was the Legion XX, the Valeria Victrix, which spent most of its existence stationed in Roman Britain, exerting Rome’s power against those who tried to oppose it. Valeria Victrix, or the Victorious Valeria, was an Imperial Roman Legion. It emerged from the imperial army created by the Emperor Augustus, and it was the product of the numerous armies that were raised by the opposing factions who tried to dominate Rome in the final decades of the Roman Republic. Its epithet has been thoroughly discussed by scholars.

 

Are you enjoying this article?

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

Some say it might have emerged from a victory it achieved under the command of General Marcus Valerius Messalla Messalinus, in the Great Illyrian Revolt (6 – 9 AD), others say that it simply derives from the Latin word valeo, which means to possess military or political power. Its emblem — a charging boar — was seen as a symbol of strength, of the warrior spirit, and of humility.

 

emperor claudius roman conquest britain
Posthumous portrait head of Emperor Claudius, 54-68 CE, via Seattle Art Museum

 

Its formation likely derives from the Cantabrian Wars (25 – 19 BC), where it was deployed as part of a large Imperial Army, whose mission was to finalize the conquest of Hispania. Velleius Paterculus, a Roman historian, gives us one of the earliest pieces of evidence for the existence of this legion, in the Great Illyrian Revolt. After that, most of the source material comes from Tacitus, who mentions their presence on the Rhine, during the mutinies of 14 AD, and in the military campaigns that followed.

 

In 43 AD, this Roman Legion was one of four taken by Emperor Claudius to invade Britain, and there it remained, at least until the first decades of the third century AD, according to our historical sources. Some scholars believe that it may have remained active in Britain until 407, the year that Constantine III is said to have pulled the bulk of Rome’s military forces from Britain.

 

The Roman Conquest Of Britain

caesars invasion roman britain
Caesar’s first invasion of Britain, by W. Linnell after E. Armitage, Via the Wellcome Collection

 

As with other regions close to the edges of the Roman Empire, Britain benefited from diplomatic and trading connections with Rome, at least since the conquest of Gaul. However, in time, as with all these regions, the never-ending expansionist desires of Rome inevitably put them at risk. For Britain, this began in 55 BC with Caesar’s invasion.

 

At first, several British tribes were forced to become client states of Rome to preserve their “independence.” They knew they were no match against Rome’s military power. “Peace” and tribute were thus obtained from Britain without direct military occupation. However, having to pay Rome tribute, often with hostages, led to the rebellion of several British tribes.

 

They started to put pressure on Rome, and to halt such rebellious acts Augustus planned several invasions to the island, although none were realized because more pressing revolts were happening in other parts of the Empire, and the Romans were able to reach terms with the British tribes — or at least with some of them.

 

Nevertheless, internally, Britain became divided amongst those who wished to ally and pay tribute to Rome, and those who wished to oppose it. War soon emerged amongst the tribes, making the conquest of Britain imperative for Rome. However, because Britain is an island and because the English Channel had to be crossed, the invasion was complicated.

 

Emperor Caligula may have planned a campaign in 40 AD, even positioning his troops for it, but it was only in 43 AD that Emperor Claudius reassembled Caligula’s forces and crossed the Channel.

 

roman britain campaigns conquest legions claudius
Map of Britain Campaigns of conquest from 43 to 60 AD, via Enacademic.com

 

Only Legion II Augusta is mentioned in the sources as part of the invasion, but it is likely that three others took part in it, namely Legion IX Hispana, Legion XIV Gemina, and Legion XX Valeria Victrix. Under General Aulus Plautius, a main invading force crossed in three divisions departing from somewhere in Boulogne and landing in Richborough, though neither their departing nor landing points are certain. From then onwards, the conquest progressed from the Southeast to the East and North against the Britons, who were forced to surrender and accept Roman rule. However, surrender was attained slowly and not without resurgences.

 

Boudicca’s Rebellion, Roman Britain, And The Unconquerable North

boudicca statue parliament
Boadicea and her daughters, by Thomas Thornycroft, Via Wikimedia Commons

 

One of the most famous uprisings of British tribes against Rome was the one led by Boudicca, the queen of the Celtic Iceni. In 60 or 61 AD, she is said to have incited other tribes to join her in rebellion. They destroyed Camulodunum (modern Colchester), at the time a colony for discharged Roman soldiers, and the site of a temple to Emperor Claudius.

 

Then she defeated the Legion IX Hispana and burned Londinium (modern London) and Verulamium (St Albans in Hertfordshire). Shortly afterward, Suetonius, with the help of Legion XX, was able to put down this rebellion, but thousands are said to have perished on both sides during the conflict. Boudicca herself, has remained a symbol of Britain to the present day. After putting down Boudicca’s rebellion, the legions continued the conquest of Britain.

 

Legion II Adiutrix, composed of a Roman fleet, sailed upriver from Chester, and Legion IX Hispana pushed east, while the Legion XX Valeria Victrix, by then commanded by Gnaeus Julius Agricola, moved westwards. By 78 AD, Agricola was appointed governor and conquered Wales, before marching north, using both land and naval forces. In the interim, he built a network of military roads and forts that helped him secure the conquered territory.

 

agricola military campaigns caledonia roman britain
Agricola’s military campaigns of Northern Britain, via Enacademic.com

 

The north, however, proved impossible to conquer. The Caledonian territory was harsh and irregular, which made it difficult to secure. The northern tribes were difficult to control, but there is also no evidence to suggest that the Romans were at open war with any of them, except the Selgovae in the southernmost part of Caledonia. Lack of economic reasons may explain the unwillingness of Agricola’s successors to continue expanding further north, aside from the fact that the newly gained territory had still to be fully subdued.

 

Under Emperor Hadrian, the occupation of Roman Britain withdrew to a defensible limit. Around 122 AD Hadrian’s Wall was constructed, stretching from the banks of River Tyne on the North Sea, to Solway Firth on the Irish Sea. Milecastles and turrets were built along the wall, and a fort was built every five Roman miles.

 

In 142 AD, an attempt was made to push the border north again, between the Rivers Clyde and Forth, where another wall was built – the Antonine Wall. However, two decades later, the Romans were forced to retreat to the older border, along Hadrian’s Wall. Although several incursions were made in subsequent decades, and a trading relationship was established between the two sides, the north was never conquered by the Romans.

 

Roman Military Ranks: Recruitment And Career

centurion tombstone roman legion
Centurion tombstone from Cumbria, via The British Museum

 

There is no doubt that Roman Legions, like the XX Valeria Victrix, were fundamental for the conquest of foreign territory. Although some regions may have been won without bloodshed, thanks to political or economic instigation, most were conquered by the sword, or by fear of it.

 

Until a province was considered completely “pacified” or “Romanized,” it was the Legions who were in charge of “keeping the peace” by “bending or breaking” anyone who opposed them. This was no different in Roman Britain, including where the Roman Legion XX was stationed.

 

Because of the rich epigraphic and archaeological evidence, a wide array of information has been gathered about those who served under the Legion XX in Roman Britain. As in every Legion, the Valeria Victrix was officially composed of about 6,000 men, although only 5,300 were fighting men. These were divided into 10 cohorts, which consisted of 6 centuriae (a total of 480 fighting men, plus officers). Each centuria was made up of 10 conturbernium (8 men each), totaling 80 men commanded by a centurion. Additionally, each Legion had 120 Eques Legionis (cavalry units).

 

Within this general organization, each cohort was also equally arranged throughout every Roman Legion. The first cohort was always made up of the elite troops, commanded by the Primus Pilus, the highest-ranking officer among the centurions. The second, fourth, seventh, and ninth cohorts were where the newer and weaker recruits were placed; the sixth, eighth and tenth were where the finest select troops were; while the third and fifth contained the remaining average soldiers. These cohorts were normally mixed together in battle, so that the strongest and the weakest units could mingle to maximize effectiveness.

 

roman legion army military sarcophagus
Ludovisi Sarcophagus, with Romans fighting Germans, 3rd century CE, via National Roman Museum, Rome

 

Mainly through the epigraphic sources, we know the names of many of those who served in Legion XX as low-, mid-, and high-level officers. As legions tended to move quite frequently, the archaeological evidence that they left behind is often scanty. Nevertheless, we know that the men in the Valeria Victrix had varied origins.

 

As the Empire expanded, the recruitment of soldiers from Italy diminished, while more soldiers were drawn from the provinces. In Roman Britain, there is evidence that Italian, Celtic/Germanic, and Hispanic recruits were common. There is also evidence for recruits from Noricum, and further east of the Danube, as well as recruits from Arabia, and North Africa.

 

Men from various roman military ranks could either serve in just one legion, or be transferred to others throughout their military careers. Typically, a recruit (called a tirones) would take about six months to become a full milites (a basic private level foot soldier). From there, he could start his military career as a fighting soldier, or he could train to take an immunes position (a trained specialist), such as engineer, architect, surgeon, etc., and thus dispense with the hard labor.

 

However, if they chose the fighting path, they could aspire to become a principales, the equivalent of a modern-day non-commissioned officer. Other roles included the imaginifer (carrier of the standard bearing the image of the Emperor), the cornice (hornblower), the tesserarius and optio (seconds in command to the centurion), the signifier (carrier of the banner of the centuria and responsible for men’s payment and savings), and the aquilifer (carrier of the legion’s standard, a prestigious position that could lead to the position of centurion).

 

cavalry helmet roman britain
Romano-British Cavalry Helmet, 1st Century CE, Via the British Museum

 

The mid-level officers of every Roman legion were the centurions. Each legion would have one to command each centuria of 10 cohorts. Since each cohort was ranked from first to tenth, and each centuria from first to sixth as well, the rank of a centurion was reflected by the centuria he commanded.

 

Within the senior officers, the lowest rank was that of the Primus Pilus, the commanding centurion of the first cohort. The ability to reach this position would allow a soldier to enter the Equestrian social class upon retirement. Above him were the Tribuni Angusticlavii, five equestrian citizens who served as tactical commanders as well as officers and who were in charge of important administrative tasks. The camp prefect, or Praefectus Castrorum, was the 3rd in command of the Legion and was normally a long-serving veteran who had been promoted from the centurions.

 

The 2nd in command would be the Tribunus Laticlavius, a man from the senatorial rank appointed by the Emperor or the Senate, and finally, the Legatus Legionis was the Emperor’s appointed 1st commander. Normally he would serve for 3 or 4 years, but there are some examples of those who served longer. In a province with just one legion he would also be the provincial governor, and in those with more than one legion, the provincial governor would have command over the Legatus.

 

vindolanda letter roman legion
A writing-tablet, from Vindolanda Fort on Hadrian’s Wall, 97-103 CE, Via the British Museum

 

A soldier could either be lucky enough to have a long and rather easy life, serving in the army for as long as he wished, or he could have a short and painful life, if he was unlucky in battle. However, whether lucky or not, he had to put his service to Rome above all else. The average age of recruitment was 17 to 25 years old. If a man chose a military career they could stay in the army for as long as they wished, rising through the Roman military ranks, and it was not uncommon to find men that served for over 20 years.

 

Remaining a soldier would grant them money and land if they were lucky enough to survive, but it wouldn’t grant them the freedom to have a legal marital relationship. Until the third century AD, the low- and mid-rank soldiers were forbidden to marry, however, evidence of “wives” and children abound in the epigraphic records which seems to suggest that soldiers were nevertheless allowed to have unofficial relationships.

 

The Roman Legion: The Backbone Of Roman Power

hadrians wall roman britain
Hadrians Wall, Photo by David Marks, Via Pixabay

 

Despite all the impressive administrative and logistical skills that the Romans used to conquer and subdue its extensive empire, none of it would have been achieved without a well-organized and professional army like the one just described. The Roman imperial legions, a product of the last decades of the Roman Republic, transformed the way the army was seen. The soldiers serving in the Roman Army were not only expected to fight, they were also expected to serve as an example to others.

 

A stationed soldier, like those serving under Legion XX, was expected to defend the conquered land, “Romanize” the conquered cultures, pacify the opposition, and build a network of roads and bridges that would connect the Empire. This was achieved by a combination of political, military, craft, and building skills.

 

deva victrix minerva chester roman legion fort
Illustration of Deva Victrix as it probably appeared, via Enacademic.com

 

We may not always remember, but we owe the existence of many towns across the Mediterranean and beyond to the Roman army. One of these, Deva Victrix, is modern-day Chester in the United Kingdom. Deva Victrix was a legionary fortress built by Legion II Adiutrix around 70 AD, and a few decades later, rebuilt by Legion XX, where it remained until the late 4th – early 5th century AD.

 

As was common, around the fortress, a civilian town grew up, likely made up of the soldiers’ families, as well as those who saw the chance to profit from being close to the army stationed there. It was the soldiers serving under Legion XX that helped build it all, not only the military fort itself, which included barracks, granaries, headquarters, and even baths, but many of the buildings in the town as well, such as the amphitheater and temples.

 

Roman soldiers were not just simple fighters, they were crucial workers that, under the leadership of Rome, transformed a vast empire into a uniform and outstanding culture.

Author Image

By Tatiana ValenteTatiana is an archaeologist and researcher in Classical and Middle Eastern History, graduated at Porto University (Portugal). Her main lines of research are on social, economic and political relationships, with a focus on the ceramic and metal artefacts found on excavations. She is also fascinated by religious and military viewpoints of ancient societies. She believes that History must be understood, and not simply observed through its remnants. Because history tends to repeat itself, knowledge about the past can allow us to better understand our present, and thus prepare us for the future.