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British Museum's 'powerful' Roman army exhibition opens at the British Museum

Updated: 4 days ago

The army of Ancient Rome has received the honour of the blockbuster treatment at the British Museum in 2024.

The major London exhibition — titled Legion: life in the Roman army and running at the museum in Bloomsbury until June 2024 — explores the reality of daily life for the men, women and children who were part of the massive fighting machine which allowed Rome to master its vast empire thousands of years ago.

It’s difficult to comprehend just how powerful this army was. It helped keep the mighty superpower in charge across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa for half a millennium. At its height, the imperial Roman army acted as a military, naval and police force to around a quarter of the Earth’s population.

The British Museum’s exhibition shines a light on the people that made that all possible. Curators says that, for the majority of those serving, life in the legion was surprisingly domestic. Many lived in settled military communities stretching from Scotland to the Red Sea.

And so the legion exhibition shares the stories of real legionaries it challenges some of the perceptions about what it meant to be a Roman soldier.

It shows the ancient army was as much an engine of social change as a formidable war machine. Recruits came from all walks of life and joined to advance themselves, acquire Roman citizenship, and support their families – despite a general ban on marriage.

What is on show for visitors to see?

Visitors get to discover over 200 objects including loans from 28 lenders from the UK and around the world — and all complemented by items from the British Museum’s own world-class collection.

A gold Roman helmet
Copper alloy Roman legionary helmet © The Trustees of the British Museum

It features iconic Roman military objects alongside contemporary evidence of the real lives of citizens and non-citizens — free or enslaved — in forts and frontiers across the empire.

Many of the items in the show are on display in Britain for the first time ever.

A major highlight is the world’s only intact legionary shield — on loan from Yale University — and the oldest and most complete classic Roman segmental body armour, unearthed from the battlefield in Germany just five years ago.

Another standout exhibit in the exhibition is the remains of a soldier found at Herculaneum, who will be reunited with his belt and equipment for the first time outside of Italy. He is believed to be one of the marines commanded by Pliny the Elder who were caught up in the eruption of Vesuvius while attempting to help citizens flee. The neighbouring site of Pompeii also contributes military gear — including a trumpet, sword and standard — in remarkable states of preservation.

From the UK, an exceptionally rare piece of Roman armour from National Museums Scotland’s collection has been painstakingly reconstructed from dozens of fragments so it can be shown here in the exhibition.

A woman uses a small brush to dust the armour of an arm guard on a stand on a table in front of her
Conservator Bethan Bryan with the Roman arm guard. Photo Duncan McGlynn

The brass arm guard is seen in its entirety for the first time in almost 2000 years in the Legion show, and has only been made possible thanks to conservators in Edinburgh spending weeks rebuilding it. It is the most intact surviving example of its kind, and one of only three known from the whole Roman Empire.

Other stunning objects help to illustrate the magnificence of the Roman cavalry, including a rare public display of the Crosby Garrett mask helmet found in Cumbria in 2010, and a unique and fearsome dragon standard found in Germany, making its first visit to the UK from its usual lair in the castle of Koblenz.

When announcing the exhibition for the first time, Richard Abdy, Curator of Roman and Iron Age coins at the British Museum said: “This is a really exciting opportunity to present an epic subject on a human scale. Sword and sandals, helmet and shield are all on parade here as would be expected, but told through often ordinary individuals, unfamiliar stories can also help us to understand the deceptively familiar figure of the Roman legionary. Every soldier has a story: it’s incredible that these tales are nearly 2000 years old.”

A Roman shield with a red colour
Roman scutum (shield) - Yale University Art Gallery, Yale-French Excavations at Dura-Europos

Sir Mark Jones, Interim Director of the British Museum, said: “The story of the Roman army is more than just pitched battles and war. Legion: life in the Roman army is a chance to show different perspectives and showcase the lives of the men, women, and children who formed one of the most famous armed forces in the world.”

How much are Legion exhibition tickets at the British Museum?

Tickets for this exciting exhibition are available to buy now. Adult tickets are from £17, but under 16s go free and there are 2-for-1 tickets for students on Fridays during the run. Other concession rates are available. And of course, British Museum members go free.

And as the Legion exhibition opened to rave reviews from critics — with one calling it the "most powerful" at the museum in memory — then you should expect that tickets are going to start selling fast, so pre-book yours now to avoid disappointment.

And if you're really excited for this exhibition, then you'll probably be interested to know that an accompanying Legion catalogue has been published too. Written by the curator Richard Abdy, you can buy it now to delve even deeper into the landmark show.

If you visit Legion during the final weeks of the run, you could combine it with a visit to another major history exhibition at the British Museum. A show on Michelangelo’s last decades opens on 2 May, and looks at the prolific last 30 years of the artist's life.

Legion: life in the Roman army is now open at the British Museum in London and runs until 23 June 2024.

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