Legion: Life in the Roman Army

Steve Russell


Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery, British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DG
1 February 2024 – 23 June 2024

The exquisite head of Augustus, Rome’s first Emperor, welcomes you to Legion. It is a wonderful, comprehensive exhibition, which tells the story of the men, women and children, and enslaved people who were part of the Roman Empire. There are over 200 exhibits, some being shown in the UK for the first time. 

Central to the exhibition is Claudius Terentianus, a recruit from Egypt who’s surviving letters inform us of his experiences as a soldier. He wrote about how he saved money by sending home for equipment, about being injured suppressing a riot, food poisoning and buying a concubine. He wore socks with a split toe for flip-flop style sandals and needed to replace his footwear twice monthly. It was tough being a soldier in the Roman army; they led a short and dangerous life, disease killing more men than fighting. You became a Roman citizen, with all the benefits, if you survived and served twenty-five years.

There is so much to see. From the head of Emperor Augustus made of Bronze, calcite, glass and plaster, 27-25 BC, to the woollen sock (wool, Egypt, AD200-500). We can all relate to such a personal object, it is in such perfect condition, you wonder how it survived.

There are many pieces of weaponry, including the only remaining complete Roman shield (wood, leather and bronze, (early AD 200s and boss, metal, early AD 100s). Shields would be painted to represent their unit’s motifs. Also on view, the most complete Roman legionary’s articulated cuirass (iron, AD 9). These two pieces are breath taking, they personify all that has been written and filmed about the Roman soldier in contemporary culture.

There are many exquisite pieces of sculpture. Including the beautifully composed square marble relief (Marble, Rome, Italy, AD 100-200), depicting the spoils of war, including helmets, cuirasses, shields and various weapons. The Molossin hound (marble, AD 100-200), is another exquisitely executed exhibit. These dogs were used for fighting and in the amphitheatre.

It’s a great shame we have no idea who the sculptors, craftsmen and the painters were. The craftsmanship displayed here is outstanding. This exhibition really gives us a fascinating insight into legionary life coupled with a clear view of the aims and consequences of the Roman Empire. It’s difficult to balance the exquisite objects and sculpture with the barbarity inflicted on the then known world and their own population, however this exhibition cleverly describes and balances the realities. 

Ecology Legion 05 Spoils of War
Ecology Legion Steve Russell emperor L and sock R
Ecology Legion Steve Russell shield L and dog R

Steve Russell

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

Steve Russell, artist. Dealing with issues of self, identity and symbols through the medium of paint, ephemera and other drawing materials. My practice is a figurative style that marries diverse elements into an instantly recognizable, idiosyncratic idiom that is at times touching, dramatic and visceral. Using line and dramatically visceral expressive colour, I produce images that manage to be optimistic and intriguing, even in seemingly mundane or problematic contexts.


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