Ancient, News

Moaning about Unfair Pay in the Roman Army

The discovery of a 1900-year-old pay slip outside the ancient fortress at Masada has shed light on the unfair labour practices of the Roman army.

The document is one of only three ever found in the Roman Empire. The slip belonged to Gaius Messius, a Roman auxiliary soldier who served during the siege in the Judaean Desert between AD 72 and 75. 

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The pay slip shows that once the military recouped expenses for meals, equipment, clothes, and even horse feed, Messius was left penniless. He had to repay his entire stipend to cover his essentials. 

The document provides a detailed summary of Messius’s salary over two of three pay periods.

The Army did not Offer a Huge Pay Cheque.

While the pay slip only provides a glimpse into a single soldier’s expenses, it is clear that the soldiers did not serve only for the salary. Suggestions for additional context can be found by reviewing different historical texts preserved in the Israel Antiquities Authority Dead Sea Scrolls Laboratory.

Octavian Augustus laid the foundations of the modern military salary system in AD 6. He created a military fund, Aerarium Militare, which provided for the army and war invalids and veterans. This replaced the previous system in which soldiers were not paid at all!

The pay cheque is nearly 2000 years old. It shows all was not well in the Roman Army. (Shai Halevi, Israel Antiquities Authority)

Under the new system, active soldiers received three stipends a year. About 75 denarii in January, May, and September equaled 225 denarii annually.

Riders received similar pay. However, auxiliary soldiers like Gaius Messius received three stipends of only 25 denarii. Centurions, who commanded company-sized units called Centuria, earned five times more than regular soldiers.

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The pay slip of Gaius Messius, discovered outside the ancient fortress at Masada, shows that the soldiers’ salaries were not enough. As a result, many had to rely on other sources of income.

Side Hustles

Another document discovered in the Cave of Letters in Nahal Hever, from the time of the Bar Kokhba Revolt, reveals that Roman soldiers engaged in side hustles to earn extra cash.

The document is a signed loan deed in which a legionary charged a higher interest rate than allowed by the law. 

Oren Ableman, senior curator-researcher at the Dead Sea Scrolls Unit of the Israel Antiquities Authority, said the document suggests that additional sources of income may have augmented the soldiers’ salaries.

Breaching Fortress of Masada 

The fortress of Masada was built between 37 and 31 BC by Herod the Great, the Rome-appointed client king of Judea. It is situated on the stunning heights of a plateau that overlooks the Dead Sea, southeast of Jerusalem. It included storehouses, barracks, an armoury, and at least one palace. 

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During the First Jewish-Roman War, the fortress was taken by the Sicarii, a splinter group of the Jewish Zealots – one of the earliest organised groups of assassins. The Sicarii slaughtered all 700 members of a Roman garrison at Masada. The Romans, led by the governor Lucius Flavius Silva, marched on Masada in or around AD 72 to break the Sicarii resistance.

An amazing view of the impressive fortress at Masada. The Dead Sea can be seen in the distance.

The Romans erected a siege wall of 10 kilometres around the mountain plateau and supported it with fortified encampments. After several failed attempts to penetrate Jewish defences, the Romans built a massive ramp scaling 61 meters up the western side of the fortress. A siege tower and battering ram were moved up, and in AD 73, the walls of Masada were finally breached.

Mass Suicide

According to the first-century Romano-Jewish historian Josephus Flavius, the soldiers found 960 men, women, and children dead. 

He said the defenders killed their own families. They drew lots to determine who would finish the job. Ten men were chosen to slay all the rest. The men laid down next to their wives and children on the ground and offered their necks. When these ten men had slain them all, they made the same rule for casting lots for themselves. By the end, the one remaining person would commit suicide.

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According to the historian Josephus, the defenders of Masada chose to kill themselves rather than be enslaved by the Romans. The remains of 28 individuals were found, including 14 males, six females, four children, and a single embryo.

The historian’s account has some discrepancies compared to archeological findings. Still, some details, such as the existence of cisterns and colorful stone floors, are correct.

Yadin’s Expedition

Professor Yigal Yadin discovered skeletal remains at Masada during an archaeological expedition (1963-1965). Yadin believed that the remains were those of the Jewish defenders – not those who surrendered to the Romans during the First Jewish-Roman War. The article further notes that there were discrepancies between Yadin’s findings and Josephus Flavius’s.

The funeral in 1967 in Masada of the 27 skeletons that were uncovered during a dig.

Yadin only found the remains of 25 individuals. A subsequent study helped identify the ages and genders. Most of the skulls matched those discovered in the Caves of Bar Kochba in Nahal Hever. The result led Yadin to conclude that the remains belonged to the Masada defenders.

Despite conducting a thorough search and making several exploratory sectional cuts, the team was unable to find any additional remains.

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The passage discusses the current state of Masada and its historical significance. It notes that the Roman attack ramp and the circumvallation wall remain intact and can be visited. Many ancient buildings, including Herod’s palaces, bathhouses, synagogues, and rebel houses, have been restored. 

Masada was registered as a world heritage site by UNESCO in 2001 due to its historical importance. The place is a symbol of the ancient kingdom of Israel, its destruction, and the last stand of Jewish patriots.