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Roman legion exhibition coming to the British Museum in February 2024

The army of Ancient Rome is getting the blockbuster treatment at the British Museum in February 2024.

The major London exhibition — titled Legion: life in the Roman army — will explore 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 promises to shine a light on the people that made that all possible. It 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 will share the stories of real legionaries and will challenge some of the perceptions about what it meant to be a Roman soldier.

It'll show the 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 will be on show for visitors to see?

Visitors will 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 will feature 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 will be on display in Britain for the first time ever.

A major highlight will be 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 object in the exhibition will be 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 caught up in the eruption of Vesuvius while attempting to help citizens flee. The neighbouring site of Pompeii will also contribute military gear — including a trumpet, sword and standard — in remarkable states of preservation.

In addition, stunning objects will 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.

Closer to home, remarkable material discovered at Newstead, Scotland and on loan from National Museums Scotland will be brought together to show how Roman military developments combined legionary body armour with arm protection more familiar on images of gladiators.

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 Roman army exhibition are available to pre-book 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 if you're really excited for this exhibition, then you'll probably be interested to know that a beautifully illustrated accompanying catalogue will be published in the new year too. Written by the curator Richard Abdy, it'll be shipped in February 2024. But you can pre-order it now to make sure you don't miss out.

Legion: life in the Roman army opens at the British Museum in London on 1 February and runs until 23 June 2024.

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