All too often, exhibitions about the Romans tell stories of generals and emperors, but this engrossing British Museum exhibition is led by the stories told by a homesick soldier.

In doing so, it brings to life the harsh life of a soldier of Rome, but also the many privileges that came from service. If they survived, that is.

The theme running through the exhibition is the letters written by Claudius Terentianus, an Egyptian who initially joined the navy but hated it so much that he was transferred to a legion instead, and the letters he wrote home have survived to give us the insights into life away from the glittering buildings of eternal Rome.

That an Egyptian is the source is itself informative, a reminder that anyone under the Roman yoke could join the military and earn citizenship and a fortune. It was a truly multicultural empire that didn’t really care where you were born, so long as you served Rome.

And died for Rome.

About half of the people who signed up for the unbreakable 25-year service as a legionary would not live to collect their pension, a sack of gold coins worth a decade’s salary.

And they’d earn it because this exhibition shows those 25 years would be uncomfortable, if at times very lucrative, especially if you weren’t above throwing your weight around the unarmed population the army was subjecting.

There are a number of examples in the exhibition of locals pleading for relief from their overbearing overlords, and more gruesomely, an example of the punishment meted out to a soldier convicted of a crime. And it’s not just the men at arms here, but their wives, and ahem, extras, who spend as much time complaining about conditions in wet, cold Britain as their menfolk do.

The exhibition is large, filled with many objects from papyrus to armour and stone monuments, but it’s very much the stories told that make it such an informative exhibition.

Finally, the voice of the ordinary person speaks louder than any emperor.

The exhibition ends pretty much as it started – with Terentianus, now much older and with a sack of gold coins, hopefully rather less grumpy than his previous letters had suggested.

The exhibition, Legion life in the Roman army is at the British Museum until 23rd June 2024.

It’s best to book in advance, which you can do here.

Entry is free for Members, and membership gets you unlimited visits to all their paid exhibitions, so it is worth considering if you are a regular visitor.

Monday to Friday:

Adults £22
Adults + £3 donation £25
Seniors (60+) £22 (£11 on Monday afternoons)
Students and 16–18 years £20 (2-for-1 tickets on Fridays)
Under 16s free Free when accompanied by a paying adult, booking required
Jobseekers £20
Disabled visitors £20 (Assistant free, booking required)
National Art Pass £11
Members Free

Saturday to Sunday:

Adults £24
Adults + £3 donation £27
Seniors (60+) £24
Students and 16–18 years £22
Under 16s free Free when accompanied by a paying adult, booking required
Jobseekers £22
Disabled visitors £22 (Assistant free, booking required)
National Art Pass £12
Members Free

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