Fighting men have been recognised and rewarded for valour since the earliest times, but it was during the Roman period - more specifically, the late Republic to early Empire (c. 100 BC – c. AD 100) - that a proper system of merit was developed, and it was quite interesting…
The Romans called their military awards and decorations dona militaria or ‘gift of the military’ (the same word root as ‘donate’). Typically, it was a general, or perhaps a representative of the emperor (e.g. a proconsul or propraetor) that would award the lucky soldier at a triumph, or on the field of battle, or more often, when a legion was disbanded and the men returned to their home garrisons.
Unlike our modern military medals, crosses and ribbons, the Roman awards of merit could be quite extravagent. Take this guy, for example:
That is an image of Marcus Caelius, First File (triarius) Centurion of the 18th Legion, stationed in Germania in the first century A.D.
There’s nothing particularly special about Centurion Caelius – he was just one of 16,000 – 20,000 Roman soldiers under the command of General Publius Quinctilius Varus who were massacred by Germanic tribesmen in the Teutoburg Forests around 2000 years ago - a catastrophe of such magnitude that the Emperor Augustus, back in Rome, was seen to strike his head against a wall and cry out:
“Quintili Vare, legiones redde!“ - Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!
But before our centurion, Marcus Caelius, died at the hands of a Germanic barbarian, he amassed quite a few honours in his military career; now depicted on his gravestone.
On his head is a crown of oak leaves called the corona civica. This was awarded to a soldier who had saved the life of a Roman citizen. and represents the most ancient of awards. However, the corona civica came with a catch: once awarded, the citizen had to treat his saviour with the same respect and honour that he would his own father for the rest of his life. A huge burden in the Roman times of paterfamilias!
Other types of crown may have been awarded for various acts of bravery. The corona vallaris, a gold crown with the appearance of a palisade wall, was awarded to the first man who fought his way into an enemy camp. Similarly, the rarer corona muralis (another gold crown) was awarded to the first man to climb the walls of a city under siege and place the standard on the battlements.
Perhaps the rarest and most enigmatic of the Roman military crowns was the corona obsidionalis, or ‘grass crown’. It was presented by the men to their commander, general or officer if that person had saved an entire legion or army from death. The crown was made from the grasses of the battlefield or city from which the soldiers had been saved. Very few of these crowns were awarded during the Roman Republic, and none during the Empire.
Returning to Centurion M. Caelius of the 18th – on his chest we can see five large discs. These are termed phalerae and were often awarded in sets of nine. Phalerae were pinned to leather straps that sat above the breastplate (or cuirass), and depicted the faces of gods, goddesses, emperors, animals or various other sprites and beasties. Of all the dona militaria, these are the most commonly discovered.
An AD 1st - 2nd century phalera, probably depicting the militaristic god, Mithras. Available in the Timeless Galleries.
Phalerae could be made of gold, silver, or plated bronze, and were often given in conjunction with arm bands (armillae) and, as can be seen on Marcus Caelius above, gold or silver torques. However, unlike Celts and Gauls (who would wear their torques around their necks), the Roman military would wear a pair of torques – one on each shoulder.
Lastly, it would be nice to think that in his hand, Centurion Caelius holds a Hasta Pura, or True Spear. Only awarded to ranks of senior centurion or above, the hasta pura was given to a soldier who had entered into single combat with an enemy (though not on the battlefield) and where danger could have been avoided. It is thought that the hasta was a ‘headless spear’, although ‘headless’ in this case may mean that the spearhead was made of precious metal, rather than iron.
However, it is more likely that our centurion is actually holding a vine-staff – an early forerunner of the modern military officer’s ‘swagger stick’ and the mark of a centurion, which they used to punish wayward soldiery.
We’ll never know what Triarius Caelius did to merit his awards, but we do know that he was buried with his former slaves (Privatus and Thiaminus who flank his image on his tombstone) and his epigraph can still be read in the Rheinisches Landesmuseum of Bonn, Germany.
R.I.P. Centurion Marcus Caelius!