Rome’s Legions and the Grass Crown

The Grass Crown is the highest accolade that a Roman officer could receive from the legions. It’s hard for us to imagine how this particular honour came into being, because the award originated in the lower ranks, unlike our system of handing out awards that tend to glorify the peers of serving or retiring officers. With the exception of the Victoria Cross, the granting of awards is treated with cynicism by soldiers in the lower ranks. But the award of the Grass Crown in ancient times was the equivalent of receiving the Victoria Cross on steroids!!!

Rome’s legionnaires were the penultimate warriors of ancient times and, to this day, many current military structures and tactics are based on Roman prototypes, so the details of the legions activities seem very familiar to us. In an effort to recreate the power of the symbolism, that was extant in the Roman Empire and its successors, Hitler used the same eagle motifs in banners that were specific to military divisions, symbols for officers, the panoply of triumphal marches after victories and the espirit de corps that was created within the legions.

Even the uniforms and structures of rank within the legions have been copied by modern armies. The power of the uniform has been copied within a modern context. Who among us couldn’t be impressed by the Roman legionnaire’s uniforms, pack and weaponry? The base unit of the Roman Legions was predicated on a squad of ten soldiers, men who worked, lived and fought together. They were even punished together, hence the term, decimation, whereby one soldier in ten was selected to carry the punishment for the remainder of his comrade. From the time of General Marius, (pre Julius Caesar), each man was required to carry everything that he could need to survive in the field. The list is comprehensive and amazing, considering these men marched everywhere and set up a full, defensive camp every night, before they slept.

The list of equipment carried by individuals in their packs is quite significant. Their standard equipment included, but wasn’t restricted to:

  • Shield
  • Small tent,
  • Spade
  • Axe/Adze or cutting implement to avoid using one’s sword.
  • Rations and water/beer bottle.
  • Cooking implement.
  • Tinder box for cooking fires.
  • A short, leaf-bladed spear.
  • A whetstone, oil and implements for cleaning weapons.

The legionnaires also carried full armour including a mail shirt, breast-plate and back-plate, greaves, shoulder protectors, armlets, helmet (leather lined), gloves and, finally, a heavy red cloak. The soldier’s legs were usual bared as they wore a tunic with a skirt that was armoured with pieces of leather and metal studs that could direct weapons away from the groin. However, some legionnaires were known to wear leather trews that were cut off at the knee when they were serving in colder climes.

The legionnaires wore lace-up, almost full leather sandals or half-boots with heavy leather soles that were studded with metal nails for strength and grip. Men frequently carried knitted socks and underwear when they were serving in cold climates, but the legions were in action in snow and in the dry desert lands, so anything extra that they elected to wear would need to be carried.

Clothing had no pockets so more precious personal objects, including coinage, was carried in a leather pouch that was usually attached to a heavy leather belt.

As well, every soldier carried a knife or gladius, hence the word, gladiator.

The gladius was a short sword that was used for stabbing, as well as slicing. The weapon is much shorter than our western imagination of a sword. Most Roman legionnaires stood between 5’3” and 5’6”, but we are told that Caesar was unusually tall at an estimated 5’8” to 5’10”. He doesn’t fit our idea of tall at all!
The gladius changed in size over the years (originally about the length of a man’s forearm to his fingertips) as more and more barbarians and northerners were added to the legions. Basically, their greater height required larger weaponry. Those warriors who were taller than six feet were considered to be enormous!

The handle of the gladius lacked any cross-bar (it could become tangled in cloaks or armour) and was covered in leather or, preferably shagreen (fish, shark or ray skins) because they are very durable and rough to the touch. This protection ensured that a hand-grip was unlikely to slip if it became slimy with blood.

Given the nature of the legions, the independence of the single legionnaires, his group of ten, and then the make-up of his century, it would have been difficult to win the personal loyalty of all the men, so a commander would have had to be exceptional to achieve undying loyalty. Certainly, preferment could be bought or come from birth during the latter stages of the Empire, rather than through sheer ability, but the Grass Crown could never be bought.

Exceptional soldiers such as Sulla and Caesar commanded the devotion of their soldiers. Caesar’s war strategies and histories are still studied in military colleges to this day, because his tactical ability, the speed and expertise with which he implemented his planning and his ability to create espirit de corps was second to none.