The Treatment of the Roman Battle-Dead
Over the many centuries of Roman rule in Europe, hundreds of thousands of soldiers laid down their lives on the battlefield for Rome – but very little is known about what happened to them in the aftermath of battle. Only a few ancient authors make passing reference to the treatment of the Roman battle-dead, covering only a very limited number of battles, probably as the practices were already well-known to contemporary readers. These references can be supplemented by a small amount of archaeological evidence which can give further insight into the treatment of the Roman battle-dead.
One thing that is clear from the evidence is that the vast majority of the Roman battle-dead were not repatriated after death in battle, but were left on the battlefield – in most cases, only elite commanders could expect their remains to be returned home. The battle-dead were seemingly interred on the battlefield en masse soon after the battle ended. In earlier Roman warfare, when casualty numbers were likely smaller, the battle-dead were likely inhumed in mass graves on the battlefield. However, the Roman writer Pliny the Elder reveals that by the C1st AD, the Romans had transitioned to cremating the dead on the battlefield (the exact point where this change happened is unknown). The reason, according to Pliny, is that the Romans had realised that the enemy were returning to battlefields and despoiling the Roman battle-dead as soon as the Roman army had left the area – something which needed to be prevented, as far as possible.
Depending on the number of casualties, dealing with the battle-dead could be a substantial operation, and potentially time-consuming in a period when armies often left the battlefield within 12-24 hours of the battle, and much of this time would be spent recovering and treating the wounded, resting and eating, and looting the battlefield. As such, although not mentioned directly in any of the sources, it is likely that the burial of the Roman battle-dead was delegated to a smaller group, either within the army, or commissioning local civilians to carry out the task, perhaps under military supervision.
Roman battlefield burials, whether inhumation or cremation graves, do not generally seem to have been marked on the surface with monuments or any other constructed features. Soldiers did not receive individual tombstones at the battlefield – almost all the surviving Roman military tombstones belong to soldiers who died off the battlefield – and their names were generally not recorded on any monument constructed to mark the grave. The only known exception to this is at Adamklissi (Romania), where a mass memorial complex to the Dacian Wars of the emperors Domitian and Trajan (AD 86-88, AD 101-102, & AD 105-106) was built. This included a memorial altar inscribed with the names of the Roman war-dead from the campaign; although only a few fragments of the inscription survive, reconstruction based on the size of the altar suggests it may originally have listed nearly 4,000 Roman casualties. The complex stands on the (probable) site of the Battle of Adamklissi, and it is likely that the Roman battle-dead were also buried on the field – however, given the high profile of the site, it is unlikely that these particular remains were at any risk of exhumation.
But in some cases, it may not have been possible to give the Roman battle-dead a proper burial. In wider Roman funerary practices, it was considered important that bodies received a proper burial (of one kind or another), for the future well-being of both the living and the soul of the dead – particularly for entering the Underworld and resting in peace. It has often been assumed by historians that the burial practices used to dispose of the Roman battle-dead were broadly consistent with those in wider society, and therefore that all casualties would receive a proper burial – and indeed, that soldiers would have demanded this, with any aberration from normal practice a potential threat to morale. However, the logistical difficulties of burying the Roman battle-dead on the battlefield has never been fully considered, and there are some indications that the reality may not have been so straightforward. The philosopher and lawyer Cicero, for example, made a special point of noting that while ordinary people would suffer if their bodies were unburied, Roman soldiers had divine exemption from this because they had given their lives for Rome, and so would be able to enter the Underworld even if their remains went permanently unburied.
Roman soldiers appear to have been at greatest risk of non-burial during civil wars, when the battle-dead of the defeated army would frequently be left to rot unburied on the battlefield, usually as an example to others who might be tempted to join their side. The bodies could lie exposed for months, even years, before circumstances changed enough to allow them to finally be buried, if anything was left by that point. On some occasions, the ultimate victor of the civil war might allow the burial of the ‘enemy’ battle-dead as a sign of reconciliation and forgiveness, but this would often come months, if not years, after the battle.
Soldiers who died in inaccessible locations might also find themselves without formal burial. Several Roman soldiers killed in a counter-mine during the siege of Dura-Europos (Syria) were left in the tunnel where they died, discovered during excavations at the site.
The Roman battle-dead might also be denied burial in cases where the Roman army had been defeated in battle, and their bodies were probably despoiled before being abandoned on the battlefield. After the AD 9 Battle of the Teutoburg, or ‘Varus Disaster’, in which three Roman legions were ambushed and annihilated in Germany, the remains of the Roman dead were left to rot on the surface for a number of years after the battle. It was only in AD 15, when another Roman army visited the area, that the surviving skeletal remains were finally buried. Excavations in the area have turned up several human bone-pits from the period, with the skeletal material inside consistent with surface exposure for a period of between 2 and 10 years – these may be the remains of a very small number of the battle’s casualties.
Of course, at the same time, the Romans in victory made little effort to ensure the burial of the enemy battle-dead, nor even to return them to their people. They do not seem to have treated the remains of the battle-dead with any great respect, however – the writer Plutarch describes how the bones of the Germanic battle-dead from the Battle of Aquae Sextiae (102 BC) were later used by farmers to fence their vineyards, and commented on how rich the bodies had made the soil, creating bumper harvests for several years following. It likely fell to local civilians to bury any battle-dead who remained on their land – if nothing else, so they could start using it again.