The latest in a series looking at history through a single object in the archaeology collections at Israel’s national museum
We do not know the name of the Roman war veteran who owned this bronze certificate, which marked his discharge from active service 1,922 years ago. His name was engraved on the tablet when it was issued in Rome, but that part is missing.
We do know that he was discharged in 90 CE and that he served in one of the empire’s combat units stationed in the unruly province of Judea. Because a Roman soldier served 25 years before being released, we can deduce that this anonymous fighter was in active service as a younger man during one of the key events in Jewish history: Rome’s suppression of the Jewish revolt and destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. He might have been a participant.
The certificate, currently displayed along with other Roman military artifacts at the Israel Museum, was a copy given to the soldier — the original remained the property of the government and would have been displayed in Rome, on the Capitoline Hill or in the Forum. It was issued, the text informs us, in the name of the emperor Domitian, identified here as “Imperator Caesar Domitianus Augustus Germanicus, son of the deified Vespasian, Pontifex Maximus.”
The inscription also identifies the commander of Rome’s forces in Judea at the time, an imperial administrator named Titus Pomponius Bassus, who was known to scholars from other records. Bassus spent several years as a governor in Anatolia, and later ran a government program in southern Italy that offered incentives to encourage childbirth, according to a 2003 article in the museum’s journal, Studies in Archaeology, which first published details of the certificate after its acquisition. But this tablet was the first indication that Bassus had ever been governor of Judea.
These details are important to historians, but the most important detail for the anonymous soldier himself would have been the end of the inscription, the part that said he had been “honorably discharged after 25 years of military service” and officially granted him civitas — Roman citizenship.
Troops in the Roman auxiliaries, like our soldier, were from conquered provinces and were not citizens of Rome, unlike members of the empire’s crack detachments, the legions. Citizenship was the Empire’s reward for the successful completion of a quarter-century of military campaigns, interspersed with periods of grueling fortification and construction work: It was a privilege he could pass on to his children, an upgrade in his social status and a powerful incentive to join the military in the first place.
Many of our soldier’s comrades, we can assume, did not live to receive the honor.
The certificate lists nine Roman units that were in Judea the year it was issued. We don’t know which he belonged to, but one of them, the Ala Veterana Gaetulorum, is known to have participated in crushing the Jewish revolt two decades before. Forty years later, the province’s Roman garrison would be engaged in suppressing yet another Jewish revolt, this one led by Simon Bar Kochba. On that occasion, too, the Jews would prove no match for Rome.
Physical remains of the Roman military presence in the land of Israel all those years ago still crop up with some frequency. Last year, for example, a complete legionnaire’s sword and sheath were found in a Roman-era sewer underneath Jerusalem. Most of these artifacts can be traced to the unit that was long the empire’s dominant local force — the famed Tenth Legion, which arrived to suppress the first revolt and stayed for the better part of three centuries. Roof tiles, bricks, belt buckles and other paraphernalia have been found bearing the legion’s name — Legio X Fretensis, or the Tenth Legion of the Sea Strait — and its trademark symbols, a wild boar and a warship.
Perhaps the most evocative of these discoveries is a pay slip belonging to one Tenth Legion man, a soldier from Beirut named Gaius Messius. The parchment fragment was found at Masada during excavations there; it was the troops of Gaius’s legion who besieged and stormed the desert fortress that was the Jews’ last stronghold after the fall of Jerusalem. The assault was in 73 CE, and the pay slip dates to around that time.
Gaius’s fate is unknown. All that history remembers of him is how much he made that year: 50 denarii.
Of that, according to the slip, most was deducted for supplies, including 16 denarii for barley, five for boots, two for leather straps and seven for a linen tunic.