Thanks in large part to Jesus-movies and swords-and-sandals cinematic epics (e.g., Ben-Hur, Masada, Spartacus), there is a widespread perception that distinctively Roman soldiers infested Palestine during the life of Jesus – often signaled in such films by highbrow British accents in contrast with the unpretentious American dialect spoken by Jews. As deeply engrained as this image is in the popular consciousness, it is not entirely accurate. There were several different types of soldiers in the Roman East during the New Testament period and the differences between these soldiers were significant; the languages they spoke, the government they worked for, their relationship to the civilians they encountered, their pay, and many other specifics differed considerably.

This image of identifiably Roman soldiers occupying the land of Palestine operates on the assumption that biblical soldiers were all legionaries. Legionaries differed from other soldiers of the early Roman period in several respects. First, legionaries were employed directly by Rome. Their allegiances were to the emperor and whichever general they served, not to any particular king, religious group, or province. Unlike most other soldiers, legionaries were Roman citizens before they were recruited. Though a legionary could theoretically come from any province within the Empire, the requirement of Roman citizenship had consequences for demographics: legionaries were more likely to speak Latin than non-citizen soldiers, they were usually recruited from the most heavily Romanized cities and provinces, their citizenship held inherent prestige that afforded them privilege over both civilians and other soldiers, etc. Legions primarily garrisoned in major imperial provinces, such as Syria, Pannonia, and post-War Judaea. With the exception of Egypt, all provinces with at least one legion were required to have a governor with Senator status. Legions primarily consisted of infantry soldiers, with a few cavalry or archers present among their ranks. Roughly 30 legions were active at any given time within the Empire and each consisted of approximately 5400 soldiers and officers.

Roughly equal in number to the legionary soldiers across the Empire were auxiliaries. Auxiliaries, like legionaries, served the government of Rome, but were divided into two distinct military types: cohorts and alae – infantry and cavalry, respectively – with a few mixed units termed cohors equitatae as well. Auxiliary soldiers were mostly non-citizens who were awarded Roman citizenship in exchange for military service. Consequently, auxiliary soldiers were significantly less Romanized than legionaries: auxiliary soldiers in the Roman East spoke the lingua franca of Greek and often local languages as well (e.g., Aramaic), typically with limited competence in Latin. The ethnic nature of these units led Rome to create many “specialist” cohorts (e.g., dromedary, archery, sling) that worked with combat methods familiar to one or another ethnic group. Though auxiliaries often served in major imperial provinces alongside legionaries, they also served in minor provinces as well. Thus, provinces and regions with a governor of Equestrian status (e.g., Raetia, Noricum, pre-War Judaea) had no legions, but only auxiliaries. Until about 70 CE, many auxiliary soldiers were stationed in their home province; Judaeans were in Judaea, Syrians in Syria, etc. In addition to the Jewish War (66-73 CE), problems with soldiers’ divided loyalties with the Revolt of the Batavi in Germania Inferior (69-70 CE) and the Year of the Four Emperors (68-69 CE) led emperors to actively undermine any remaining ethnic homogeneity in the auxilia, stationing soldiers outside their homeland in increasingly diverse units. Finally, auxiliaries were paid less than legionaries and did not receive all the bonuses granted to legionaries if they were successful in the same battle.

There were also royal forces that did not directly serve Rome, but were under the authority of a client king. The periphery of the Roman Empire was peppered with kingdoms allied with Rome that maintained their own militaries independent of the Empire proper (e.g., Herod the Great’s Judaea, Antipas’ Galilee, Cleopatra’s Egypt). These armies differed from kingdom to kingdom with respect to their hierarchies, pay scale, recruitment strategies, and so on. Rome occasionally expected kings to contribute soldiers to military campaigns as part of their reciprocal loyalty. Because kings could not offer their veterans Roman citizenship, the matter was irrelevant. With little invested in Romanness, royal soldiers spoke the local lingua franca and rarely had knowledge of Latin or other aspects of Roman culture.

Remembering the distinctions between these three military forces – legionaries, auxiliaries, and royal forces – is pivotal for understanding both pre-War and post-War Palestine. The Jewish War (66-73 CE) was a catastrophic event for civilians in the region, regardless of their participation in the revolt against Rome. The destruction of the temple, the imposition of massive new military and administrative apparatus, widespread devastation, significant loss of life, among other factors, led to significantly different experiences of the military before and after the Jewish War. It is impossible to talk about the pre-War and post-War life without attending to the details of these different units, especially auxiliaries and legionaries.

When Herod the Great reestablished the cities of Caesarea Maritima and Sebaste in 27 BCE, he granted his veterans land plots in these cities; Caesarea and the Sebaste quickly became the primary recruiting grounds for Herod’s royal army.[1] Though both of these cities were in northern Judaea, their ethnic demographic was primarily Syrian, which came to be reflected in the military as well; though Jews and Samaritans likely formed the majority of the army under Herod, by the time of the Jewish War their numbers had been eclipsed by ethnic Syrians. Josephus notes that Syrian Caesareans were proud that their kin comprised the bulk of the auxiliaries (A.J. 20.176). The cities of Caesarea and Sebaste provided five cohorts of infantry and one ala of cavalry as a standing army for Judaea. From the time of Herod until the Jewish War, Palestinians had only incidental interaction with Roman legions or its commanders. It is therefore useful to discuss the demography of soldiers of this era as a distinct chronological period, despite some significant differences between auxiliary and royal forces. Roman military historian Jonathan Roth summarizes:

While there certainly were some changes, the military forces of the region remained basically the same from the reign of Herod, through his successors Archelaus, Antipas, Philip, Agrippa I and II, down to the end of the Jewish War. Even the so-called Roman garrison [i.e., auxilia] was in fact only a number of Herodian units put in Roman service. Most, perhaps all, of these soldiers were Aramaic speakers ….[2]

Samuel Rocca likewise concludes that “although scholars long argued that Herod’s soldiers were for the most part foreign mercenaries, modern authorities … believe that most of his troops were in fact Jews, and that Herod’s army thus did not differ much from the Hasmonaean army that preceded it.”[3] This continuity was particularly useful in ensuring stability through the political vicissitudes of the region. We will see later that the Jewish War marked a significant change for military demographics, shifting toward an army of occupation with an influx of foreign-born soldiers.

Though Palestinian soldiers remained in their homeland after Archelaus was banished and his principality annexed in 6 CE, some noteworthy changes occurred. Since Judaea was now officially part of Rome, royal Herodian soldiers were subsumed into the Roman army as auxiliaries, though the Roman governors decided to continue recruitment policies in place since the time of Herod the Great.[4] Military diplomas – bronze tablets given to auxiliaries after completing their service as proof of their citizenship – attest units named cohors I Sebastenorum and ala Sebastenorum, an infantry and a cavalry unit named after the city of Sebaste.[5] However, the mere fact that the cohort is given an ordinal number indicates that there was, at the very least, also a unit named cohors II Sebastenorum  and thus two cohorts and one ala.[6] There is no reason to doubt Josephus’ claim that the other three cohorts were recruited from Caesarea and Sebaste as well, presumably forming cohortes III et IIII et V Sebastenorum. Judaean governors continued recruiting troops from Caesarea and Sebaste, who were then stationed within Judaea’s borders. The military demographic of the region shifted with the Jewish War, whereupon the Syrian legions became a vital part of the social landscape.

In the Palestinian hinterlands, it was not practical to use Sebastene and Caesarean soldiers, so other locals were deployed to form military garrisons before the War. Indeed, there was little reason for Judaea to supply soldiers to principalities like Galilee and Batanaea. Herod transplanted some Idumaeans into Batanaea to serve as a garrison against regional bandits (Josephus A.J. 16.285, 292) and also fortified several villages to pacify Galilee’s Hasmonaean sympathizers (Josephus J.W. 1.210). But as Herod’s concern with Hasmonaean partisans declined so also did the strength of his forces in Galilee: a hoard of royal weapons at the Galilean city of Sepphoris fell out of use before Antipas began his reign (Josephus J.W. 2.56, 3.35-36). Josephus mentions other Herodian colonies at Hesbonitis, Gaba, and Idumaea, though little data survives regarding these sites. Herod set up a particularly important colony of Babylonian Jewish cavalry in Bathyra: its soldiers eventually served in the armies of Philip, Agrippa I, and came to comprise about half of Agrippa II’s forces (Josephus A.J. 17.23-31; cf. Tg. Ps.-J. Num 34:15). Three inscriptions attest a Jewish Bathyran cavalry commander named Diomedes under Agrippa II (§§30, 31, 32) and a different officer, Philip son of Jacimus, apparently mistreated shepherds of the Syrian desert (§145). The Bathyra colony included not only Jewish cavalry, but numerous Jewish civilians as well (A.J. 17.25-26; syngeneis). These civilians included women to marry soldiers and veterans to encourage the cavalry’s proliferation. Caesarea and Sebaste were both major cities, so their military colonies served different functions from those of Bathyra, but the cities nevertheless encouraged veteran settlement and marriage. Even though Caesarea and Sebaste were primarily Gentile, we will see that Caesarean Jews also served in the Roman army.

While nearly all the forces of pre-War Palestine were native, there is some evidence of foreigners in their ranks as well. Josephus mentions Thracian, Galatian, and German soldiers attending Herod’s funeral (A.J. 17.198, J.W. 1.672), but there is only limited evidence of their use during his reign and none among his successors. Rather, we find that Herod’s army is treated as Judaean in Josephus’ works.[7] The heavy enrollment of Palestinian soldiers is also evident in the epigraphic record for both Herodian and Roman forces.[8] 1) The aforementioned Diomedes son of Chares was in the Babylonian Jewish cavalry at Bathyra, serving as eparch under Agrippa II and in cohors Augusta during the Jewish War (§§30, 31, 32). Despite his Judaism, Diomedes openly supported Batanaea’s local (i.e., non-Jewish) religions.[9] Josephus names a few other members of this colony, though Philip son of Jacimus is the only other one attested epigraphically (§145) 2) Herod son of Aumos was an Idumaean colonist in Batanaea who served as a high-ranking officer under Agrippa II (§23). 3) Lucius Cornelius Simon was a Caesarean Jew that served Rome in the Jewish War (§294). 4) Publius Aelius Mercator was a Caesarean local who fought in legio I Adiutrix during the Bar Kokhba War (§199). 5) Aelius Silvanus was a Jerusalem native who fought in legio II Adiutrix during the Bar Kokhba War as a centurion (§200). 6) Bar-Simsus Callisthenes was a Jewish man from Caesarea in cohors I Vindelicorum miliaria296). 7) A soldier named Matthew garrisoned in Herodium, though it is not clear whether he was a royal soldier or Roman auxiliary (§120). 8) Titus Flavius Iuncus was an officer in various auxiliary cohorts and legio X Fretensis, born in Neapolis (§§192, 193). 9) One inscription attests two soldiers from Caesarea and other soldiers from Gaza and Anthedon in legio III Augusta during the early second century (§184). 10) Ausos son of Aios was an Arabian Batanaean who joined Agrippa II’s army (§34). 11) Matthias son of Polaius, a Jewish man from somewhere in Syria-Palestine, served in legio I Adiutrix293). There is also extensive evidence of soldiers recruited from the Decapolis.[10]

Research concerning Jews in the army is hindered by historical accidents that prevent us from knowing much about most soldiers. Aside from obvious problems of fragmentary inscriptions and the unpredictability of archaeological finds, the question of soldiers’ names impedes identification of origin and ethnicity. While many biblical scholars assume that soldiers with Roman names must have been Roman citizens, evidence suggests otherwise: one papyrus written 103 CE indicates that some auxiliaries received Romanized names (i.e., tria nomina) shortly after recruitment, even before training completed.[11] Because some soldiers changed their name shortly after recruitment, the mere act of joining the military often obscured soldiers’ ethnic and geographic origins. Benjamin Isaac thus observes a few obvious instances where soldiers from the Decapolis dropped their Semitic birth name to take up a Roman one.[12] Consequently, there is no way to know the birth name of, say, the auxiliary soldier Domitius son of Domitius (who was from the Decapolis city of Philadelphia), since he followed the convention of adopting the name of his commander (§295, in this case the Syrian legate Domitius Corbulo).

Thus, while Rome did not conscript Jews into military service against their will, there is no indication that this prevented them from serving on their own accord. In addition to the Palestinian Jews mentioned above, Jewish soldiers born elsewhere in the Empire also warrant attention. 1) Best documented is a collection of letters from an Egyptian soldier named Julius Apollinarius to his family (§§167-171, 390-399). Julius served in legio III Cyrenaica and had a Jewish grandmother named Sambathion.[13] Julius’ father was also a member of that legion. 2) Several tax receipts of a Jewish decurion named Jesus around the turn of the first century survive from Edfu in Egypt (§§172-179). 3) Another tax receipt from Egypt attests a Jewish centurion named Hananiah in the early second century (§183). 4) A somewhat later inscription may honor the descendent of another Egyptian centurion named Benjamin (§71). 5) A diploma was issued to Aggaeus Bar-Callippus, a Jewish veteran who retired to the Syrian city of Samosata (§257). 6) We should not forget the famous example of Tiberius Julius Alexander, governor of Judaea and Egypt, a Jewish officer who led the assault on the Jerusalem temple in the Jewish War (§§364-373).

But how did the Jewish religion fit into the Roman army? Though many commentators assert or assume that soldiers were obligated to worship the emperor or the Roman pantheon, the Roman military generally respected troops’ religious practices.[14] There is little reason to suppose that Jewish soldiers no longer identified as Jews, even if it became complicated at times: a Jewish soldier named Matthew tended to the pigs at Herodium (§120); even if Matthew’s labor rendered him unclean by the prevailing ritual standards of Judaism, there is no reason to infer that he no longer cared about Jewishness. Several veterans kept some part of their Semitic birth names even when eligible for the tria nomina; military diplomas attest auxiliary veterans with the names of Bar-Callippus (§257), Matthias (§293), Lucius Cornelius Simon (§294), and Bar-Simsus (§296), each of whom could have abandoned it in favor of a more Romanized name. Ethnic heritage thus served as a continuing point of identity among Jews and other Palestinians in the military.

All of this would indicate that it is important to avoid involvement in the authenticity politics concerning first-century debates as to whether Jews in the military were “really” Jewish or not. Andrew Schoenfeld is particularly critical of the assumption that Jews in the Roman army were apostates and thus effectively Gentile.[15] Jewish practices varied considerably, such that one person’s piety might be another’s heresy. To be sure, upon reintegration in civilian life, certain military practices may have compromised their adherence to Judaism in the eyes of some (e.g., Sabbath labor, table fellowship). However, in-group debates among Jews of the Roman period about the (in)sincerity of Jews in the military and the parameters of “authentic” Judaism should not be mistaken for scholarly definitions of these terms. We cannot ascertain the degree to which Jewishness or Jewish cultic norms remained important to these men upon joining military service. No doubt these soldiers had complex, conflicted, and even conflicting internal lives just as we do today.

Dr. Christopher Zeichmann, Lecturer in Religious Studies, Ryerson University


[1] See, e.g., Josephus A.J. 15.296, 20.122, 20.176, J.W. 1.403, 2.52, 2.58, 2.74, 2.236, 3.66.

[2] Jonathan P. Roth, “Jewish Military Forces in the Roman Service,” in Essential Essays for the Study of the Military in Early Roman Palestine, ed. Christopher B. Zeichmann (Eugene: Pickwick, 2019), 82.

[3] Samuel Rocca, The Army of Herod the Great (Oxford: Osprey, 2009), 13; cf. Israel Shatzman, The Armies of the Hasmonaeans and Herod: From Hellenstici to Roman Frameworks (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1991), 170-216.

[4] See the discussion of this process in Ian Haynes, Blood of the Provinces: The Roman Auxilia and the Making of Provincial Society from Augustus to the Severans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 116-119. Evidence concerning the effects of annexation on royal armies is scarce, though Judaea appears to have been very simple in its annexation of military forces. After Nabataea was annexed in 106 CE, its soldiers were divided up into cohortes I-VI Ulpiae Petraeorum, a transition aided by the Nabataean kings’ modelling of theirs upon Roman military hierarchies (D. F. Graf, “The Nabataean Army and the Cohortes Ulpiae Petraeorum,” in The Roman and Byzantine Army in the East, ed. Edward Dąbrowa (Krakow: Drukarnia Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego, 1994), 265-305). The annexation of Pontus and the Gallic Julii (John Drinkwater, “The Rise and Fall of the Gallic Iulii: Aspects of the Development of the Aristocracy of the Three Gauls under the Early Roman Empire,” Latomus 37 (1978): 824-831) involved direct transfer of soldiers from the existing army to the Roman military, like Judaea (Tacitus, Hist. 3.47).

[5] The standard argument on the name of the auxiliary units in Judaea remains Emil Schürer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (175 B.C.—A.D. 135), trans. Geza Vermes, Fergus Millar and Matthew Black, Revised English ed., 3 vols. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1973-87), 1.363-365. See also the texts cited in note 1 above.

[6] §§210-212, §§214-227, §§229-231 on cohors I Sebastenorum. §§232-245 on ala Sebastenorum. It is likely the other cohorts were devastated in the Jewish War (see, e.g., Josephus J.W. 2.430-437).

[7] Shatzman, Armies, 186 has a thorough treatment of Josephus’ testimony. He cites the Nabataean-Judaean War of 31-30 BCE (A.J. 15.111-146, J.W. 1.366-384) and the rebellion upon Herod’s death in 4 BCE presumes a great number of Jews in his army (J.W. 2.52).

[8] For further discussion, see Jonathan P. Roth, “Jews and the Roman Army: Perceptions and Realities,” in The Impact of the Roman Army (200 BC–AD 476): Economic, Social, Political, Religious, and Cultural Aspects, ed. Lukas de Blois and Elio Lo Cascio, Impact of Empire 6 (Leuven: Brill, 2006), 409-420; Andrew J. Schoenfeld, “Sons of Israel in Caesar’s Service: Jewish Soldiers in the Roman Military,” Shofar 24/3 (2006): 115-126; Samuel Rocca, “Josephus, Suetonius, and Tacitus on the Military Service of the Jews of Rome: Discrimination or Norm?” Italia 20 (2010): 7-30, but especially insightful is Raúl González Salinero, “El servicio militar de los judíos en el ejército romano,” Aquila Legionis 4 (2003): 45-91.

[9] While worship of a single deity was regulated by Jewish social norms, it was not always observed strictly, as Jews commonly partook in cultic rituals featuring other gods. See Paula Fredriksen, “Review of N.T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God,” CBQ 77 (2015): 390.

[10] See, e.g., §33, §147, §158, §162, §198, §204, §209, §294, §295, §363. See also §184 with one soldier from Scythopolis and two from each Damascus and Hippos.

[11] P.Oxy. 1022. See the discussions of the text in Roy W. Davies, Service in the Roman Army (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1989), 17-18 and RMR 87. Cf. BGU 423 and Nigel Pollard, Soldiers, Cities, and Civilians in Roman Syria (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000), 128 on RMR 1. Auxiliaries in cohors I Hispanorum also had tria nomina in 83 CE (IGR 1.1337).

[12] Benjamin Isaac, “The Decapolis in Syria: A Neglected Inscription,” ZPE 44 (1981): 72-73 cites §147 and §295. Recall also the names of Agrippa I and II: Gaius Julius Agrippa and Marcus Julius Agrippa, neither of which suggests Jewishness.

[13] Julius’ references to “the gods” suggest that this Judaism was peripheral to his identity practices (§§167-168); this may also be the case with Chares who, though a Zamarid, dedicated a statue to Zeus Beelbaaros (§32). Note also that while Julius’ father was a legionary, it is not clear whether Sambathion was Julius’ maternal or paternal grandmother.

[14] Allan S. Hoey, “Official Policy towards Oriental Cults in the Roman Army,” Transactions of the American Philological Assocation 70 (1939): 456-481; Oliver Stoll, “The Religions of the Armies,” in A Companion to the Roman Army, ed. Paul Erdkamp, BCAW (London: Blackwell, 2007), 464-471; cf. the locus classicus Tacitus Germ. 43.

[15] Schoenfeld, “Sons of Israel,” 116-117.

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