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British Museum explores the personal tales of Roman soldiers in new blockbuster exhibition

British Museum's new exhibition delves into Roman army life
British Museum's new exhibition delves into Roman army life Copyright Credit: British Museum
Copyright Credit: British Museum
By Theo FarrantAP
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London’s British Museum's latest exhibition invites visitors to step into the shoes of an ordinary Roman army soldier.

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From stone carvings to iron helmets, a new blockbuster exhibition at the British Museum, "Legion: Life in the Roman Army," explores what it was like to be a soldier serving in one of the most elite fighting forces of all time.

Featuring over rare 200 artefacts, including loans from 28 lenders, the exhibition moves past the conventional narrative of a Roman war machine, instead shedding light on the personal stories of real soldiers.

Visitors can discover the first-hand accounts of Terentianus, a recruit from Egypt, who shared his experiences through letters that documented his survival, as well as a Roman soldier, thought to be one of the marines under the command of Pliny the Elder, who became entangled in the eruption of Vesuvius while attempting to help citizens flee. 

Carolina Rangel de Lima, the exhibition's curator explains the exhibition transcends "the big man history that we often get with Roman archaeology - about emperors and great battles - and really focusing in on the personal stories of the soldiers who served in the army." 

The exhibition reflects the day-to-day realities of military life, from the tents they lived in to the games they played to stave off boredom.

What's on display at the exhibition?

Display showing the last intact Roman scutum (shield)
Display showing the last intact Roman scutum (shield)Credit: AP Photo

Perhaps the star of the show is the only surviving complete Roman scutum - the iconic rectangular and curved shield used by legionaries. 

"The scutum from Dura-Europos in Syria, is the only surviving complete Roman shield. I called it a scutum because that's a type of Roman shield that legionaries used. It's the most iconic type that everyone will recognise. It's rectangular and curved," explains Carolina Rangel de Lima

She adds: "It's really remarkable, because it is so unique, but also the beautiful artistry and the artwork on it is really, really rare and very special." 

Also on show and on loan from Germany is the most complete cuirass body armour in the world. It dates back to a major defeat of the Roman army in AD 9, when three legions were ambushed and destroyed by local tribes in the Teutoburg Battle.

It was unearthed at the battlefield in 2018 and this is likely to be the only time it will be seen outside of Germany as it will later go on permanent display at the Museum und Park Kalkriese.

Tombstone of an imaginifer’s daughter; AD 100-30
Tombstone of an imaginifer’s daughter; AD 100-30Credit: The trustees of the British Museum
Gold coin - oath-taking scene between two soldiers
Gold coin - oath-taking scene between two soldiersCredit: The Trustees of the British Museum

Other notable exhibits include ancient coins, letters written on papyri by soldiers from Roman Egypt, and the preserved remains of a soldier found at Herculaneum, who is reunited with his belt and equipment for the first time outside of Italy. 

"Legion: Life in the Roman Army" runs until 23 June 2024. 

Check out our video above for a look inside the exhibition.

Video editor • Theo Farrant

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