Old School Strength (VI) – Athleta Ex Oblivione

We have more than enough information to reconstruct the training and diet of Roman legionnaires and get a pretty good idea of how physically impressive they would have been. (Around 5.600 words, estimated reading time: 28 min, dropping down to about 15 min if you skip the asides).

Any reconstruction of the effect of Roman legionnaires’ diet and training is bound to involve some speculation.

“We are coming now rather into the region of guess-work,” said Dr. Mortimer.
“Say, rather, into the region where we balance probabilities and choose the most likely. It is the scientific use of the imagination, but we have always some material basis on which to start our speculation.

Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Mortimer (The Hounds of the Baskervilles, Ch. IV)

Then again, it is, as Sherlock Holmes would put it, the “scientific use of imagination” and we have solid factual bases in literary, epigraphic, and archaeological sources, some physical anthropology, and exercise science. Actually, the premises of today’s argument were all either mentioned explicitly or hinted at in previous installments of the Old School Strength series but also in the Analytic Fitness™ Dictionary. You can try to guess which entries are relevant from the diagram in the section on legionnaire’s conditioning.

Because almost everything is already here and there, this post is more synthesis than analysis. Still, there are details to hammer out and some analytic skills might still come in handy. In order to balance things out, the synthesis is in the main text and the analysis in the asides. I also implemented a system of internal references so that you can decide if you want to read them right away following the paragraph they complete, or all at once when you are done. I hope you’ll enjoy this more interactive ride.

Legionnaire’s Conditioning

We know a lot about the training and daily routines of Roman legionnaires.

Of course, what we know mostly serves as a basis for “the scientific use of imagination”. I made the case earlier in the series that the scientific use of imagination grounded in Analytic Fitness™ compares favorably with mainstream scholarship. As for the reason why it does, I will leave them for the first aside of this post.

Ideally, I should try to imagine (in the scientific sense) the legionnaire’s “preparedness”, that is his ability to perform the variety of tasks he should be expected to display knowing:

  • which physical qualities are improved by his training and (when an estimate would be possible) by how much compared to baseline; and:
  • which physical qualities are impaired by accumulated fatigue and (when an estimate would be possible) by how much.

However, this cannot be done without anticipating too much on topics that I have not yet covered in this blog. So I’ll focus on the legionnaires’ conditioning and will briefly tackle the fatigue issue in conclusion.

I’ll consider an average Mulus Marianus of the late Republic or Early Empire. Because of all the guesstimates, “average” here as a special sense that I’ll leave for a methodological aside. Our average Joe Legionnaire average Primus Mulus’ conditioning results from the combined effect of the physical activity modalities represented in the diagram below. It’s an improved version of the one from Old School Strength (II): Nemo Metuit Facere and this section addresses the boxes clockwise.

© The Older Avocado 2019

Analytic Fitness™ Methodology and special knowledge. Analytic Fitness™ methodology is in fine the application of the methodology of analytic philosophy and systematic philosophy of science to fitness-related issues. Earlier in this series I have on occasion argued for this methodology improves upon mainstream scholarship. There is nothing magical about it that would allow to do so. The non-magical reason is simple: one task of systematic philosophy of science is to detect the shortcomings of special scientific argumentations and suggest improvements. Being trained in systematic philosophy of science (as I am) entails being trained in detecting weaknesses in special scientific argumentations and trained in suggesting improvements. However, there is also another benefit to proper training in systematic philosophy of science: a well-trained systematic philosopher of science is to science what an internist is to medicine. Internists are specialist that tackle systemic conditions and are trained to diagnose (and deal with) co-morbidities, that is, the interplay between several severe conditions and the singular patterns of symptoms they result in. Similarly, systematic philosophers of science are trained to detect shortcomings of scientific argumentation resulting from the interplay of multiple weak arguments. Having special knowledge helps too when one wants to get into the details of some specific special argumentation. The analogy still holds here, as internists often specialize in domains where deceases have systemic effects. Systematic philosophers of science likewise specialize in sciences known to have “systemic” issues, such as physics or biology. As for myself, I’ve always prefered history and recently discovered the systemic issues of exercise science. Needless to say, one of the many problems of historical scholarship on war, logistics, etc., is the often complete ignorance of the actual physical demands of the tasks described. This ignorance lead Roth to miss one good third of the calories a legionnaire would have needed daily. A combination of general knowledge about science and special knowledge about exercise physiology is thus the skillset appropriate to spot Roth’s shortcomings and propose an alternative.

The ‘average’ Mulus Marianus Following a common practice in science this post describes a prototypical Mulus Marianus. By “prototypical”, I mean that: (1) he embodies all the qualities an ‘ideal’ Mulus Marianus should be expected to have but not necessarily to the higher degree; and: (2) if we could randomly pick a Mulus Marianus, we should not expected him to be capable to perform significantly better or worse than the prototype (but our expectations could be betrayed if the legionnaire we picked up were an outlier).

Loaded Marches and Daily Chores

By Darekk2 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Beginning at the top, we find loaded marches. According to
Vegetius, whose Epitoma Rei Militaris, rehashes in the 4th century CE the training standards from the Marian reforms, the legions were trained to cover between 20 (regular pace) and 24 Roman miles (forced pace) in 5 Summer hours — about 29.5km and 36 km at the regular and forced pace. Assuming the best-case scenario (75-minute Solstice hours, see diagram on the right) and a geographic location in Latium this amounts to 4.7 km/h and 5.7 km/h, respectively.

The pace of those marches is comparable to test marches in modern armed forces enforcing tough standards for loaded marches, in particular, the British infantry where loaded marches are called tactical approach to battle (TAB). Of course, later in July and August, the pace would become slightly faster. Ditto in countries up father up North (Gaul, Germany, etc.) where Summer hours would have been longer. So, Roman legionnaires were trained to walk fast under load.

Compared to loaded marches, carrying around the water, firewood and animal fodder to supply the contubernium and its pack animals, milling wheat rations, hunting, fishing, and foraging, would have been below the level of effort that Roman legionnaires were adapted to (or, more precisely, accommodated to). Still, daily chores could contribute to avoiding detraining during periods loaded marches were spaced out. Notice that ‘detraining’ is more about of strength than of cardiovascular fitness, although marches would have maintained both (for an analysis of this claim, see Loaded Marches and Loaded Carries below). Then again, after basic training had raised the aerobic base, loaded marches and daily chores would have been sufficient to maintain it (see the aside on Aerobic Base for more details).

Loaded Marches and Loaded Carries.There is furthermore a case to make (that I actually made in Old School Strength (III): Ad Optimam Valetudinem Fingendam) that the preparedness of Marian legions matches that of modern special operation capable forces (SOC) such as the British Royal Marines or the French Foreign Legion. The Roman legions’ level of preparedness exceeds that of modern conventional forces because their TAB marches would have been significantly longer, including as they did the process of moving during campaigns. Modern conventional forces typically rely on transport vehicles for that, but SOC cannot always do so and must be ready for longer TABs. As for the daily chores in a Roman camp, they would have prevented detraining not so much by maintaining cardiovascular fitness than core strength. The loads carried by Roman legionnaires during marches has been estimated between 20 and 40 kilos depending on periods, with 25kg being a conservative figure. Based on anthropometric estimates -I’ll come back to that) this weight exceeds 1/3 of the bodyweight of the average legionnaire, and thus, of Primus Mulus. That third is the cut-off value above which marching performance cannot improve by additional unloaded cardiovascular exercise (running, swimming, etc.; again, see Old School Strength (III): Ad Optimam Valetudinem Fingendam). Daily loaded carries contributed to preventing loss of loaded march performance by maintaining mechanical stability (see Loaded Carries in The Analytic Fitness&trde; Dictionary). Sloshing water and shifting wood and fodder might even have on occasion contributed to proactive CNS error correction (see Trick Train Your CNS, Get Stronger), but the effect would likely not have been significant.

The aerobic base. Given the above, the marching performance of Primus Mulus depends more on his strength than on hisaerobic fitness. This does not entail that their aerobic fitness was by any means lagging. Recruits were trained to run, swim, jump over obstacles, etc., establishing an aerobic base (VO2max) that later loaded marches (and daily chores) were sufficient to maintain, and that weapon training would maintain and very likely improve upon. However, Roman soldiers did not spend much time developping non-specific cardiovascular fitness. They ran less than, for instance, Greek hoplites, who (unlike Roman legionnaires) could not be relieved during battle, could not take turns with fresher comrades, and had therefore to have a superior aerobic base. I will cover this when I address battle-specific skill training, but the upshot is that while a superior aerobic base was a must for both Gree hoplites, Roman legionnaires, and other Ancient soldiers, the Romans’ training and deployment styles made combat less dependent on it and accommodated the soldiers to the aerobic demand of combat without specific training past boot camp.

Weapon & Tactical Training

Moving clockwise, we get to weapon training. Vegetius recommends weapon training at the post (similar to gladiators) and sparing twice daily. He also recommends what he calls armatura, a term also found in the writings of soldier-historian Ammianus Marcellinus (330-400 BCE). There is some ambiguity as to whether they refer to a specific martial arts skillset or to the practice of that skillset, that could otherwise be learned with a master in a civilian context, under realistic military conditions. Following my gut feeling and recent historical scholarship, I take it that armatura refers to large-scale, all-out mock battles also known as simulacra pugnae, which in the Latin means “mock battles” (the word “duh” applies here). There’s more about gut feelings and scholarship in the aside Simulacra Pugnae.

Identifying armatura with simulacra pugnae entails that it could not have been a form of anaerobic training, after all. On that, I stand self-corrected. I I doubt that an optio could have rotated his frontline men every 2-3 minutes. Perhaps training at the post may have been at times tantamount to high-intensity interval training and brought the legionnaires into anaerobic territory. But the goal must have been to practice a pace sustainable during either mock or actual battle. Therefore, training at the post and armatura/simulacra pugnae are probably best-understood as higher-intensity aerobic training (for more details, see the Energy System entry in the Analytic Fitness ™ Dictionary).

Now, there is a minor puzzle around Vegetius’ recommendation to train at the post in the gladiator’s fashion, that is with double-weighted wicker shield and wooden sword (compared to the regular scutum and gladius), before sparring with a partner with regular weapons. Experts tend to agree that training with heavier-than-regular weapons carries over to fighting with regular ones when the regular ones are already heavy. Vegetius’s recommendation does not, therefore, make much sense relative to the 0.8-1kg gladius, as pointed out for instance by Matt Easton on this YouTube video (the gladius puzzle is mentioned between 1:08 and 1:40). I’ve already promised that I would address it, but I did not after all, because I realized that it pertains to skill training rather to strength-and-conditioning. I will thus postpone this discussion once again but still provide a fair bit of context in two asides: Double-Weighted Military Weapons and Double-Weighted Gladiatorial Weapons.

Legion XXI Rapax, Simulacra Pugnae (by Cezary Wyszynski, used with permission)

Simulacra Pugnae. I have argued for the identification of armatura with the attested practice of mock battles in Old School Strength (II): Nemo Metuit Facere with two references to Livy. The oldest was how Scipio had drilled his troops in New Carthage in 209 BCE every 4 days. The other was about an anonymous platoon of young soldiers and a drill they used to demonstrate in the arena, that they used in the Battle of Heracleum in 169 BCE. I left some of the details of this identification aside (for instance, that Polybius describes, in Greek, the 4-day wave of training Scipio got his troops through but in a different order). I was not aware at the time of an article written by Philip Rance and titled Simulacra Pugnae: The Literary and Historical Tradition of Mock Battles in the Roman and Early Byzantine Army”, published in Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies (41, pp. 223-275) in 2002 (dated 2000 due to backlog). Rance vindicates, inter alia, Livy’s version of the New Carthage training, the identification of armatura with simulacra pugnae, as well as the notion that these exercises were carried on a large scale and for extended lengthes of time. The troops would be divided in two halves, one fighting after the fashion of the ennemy, and the other the regular way, and then the roles would be reversed, during the same training. Based on Rance’s analysis, the goal of weapon training cannot be to bring the soldiers into anaerobic territory but is best understood as lactate threshold training withing an overall aglycolytic training system (see Energy Systems in The Analytic Fitness Dictionary).

Double-Weight Military Weapons. Reenactors and HEMA practitioners generally gravitate around two propositions about double-weight Roman training. According to the first, Romans did not understand physilogy the way we do, they got fooled by appearances. Picking up regular sword-and-shield after training with heavier ones deluded them into thinking they were getting faster. Poor sods. This entails that Roman weapon masters failed to notice a lack of performance improvement for anything between 600 and 900 years. The gladius-scutum pair was introduced roughly between the Samnite wars of the 4th century BCE, and remained in use until the fall of the Empire in the 5th Century CE. If heavier-that-regular training began with the Marian reforms in 107 BCE and the introduction of gladiatorial training techniques that would amount to 600 years of illusion. If it had begun with the introduction of the gladius that’s 900 years. This view dumbs down the relations between science and empirical knowledge to such an extend that calling it naive would be an insult to the naive people community. So let’s not, and let’s put it at rest.

According to the second positions, Roman weapon masters were smartasses who had figured out how to kill the two birds of skill training and functional strength with one stone gladius-scutum pair.The argument is perhaps best illustrated by the Metatron video below (pro tip: watch it at 1.75 speed). Then again, it’s the best illustration of a hypothesis that’s not very good, so Metatron’s video is not particularly good either, so don’t keep your hope up. I does, however, highlight interesting factoids, such that the amount and quality protein in the legionnaires’ diet, to which I’ll come back in due time.

Unfortunately for Metatron and the advocates of the “two-birds-with-one-gladius-and-scutum” hypothesis, it flies in the face of the Principle of Overload. A 22kg of double-weight gladius-and-scutum would not have caused any significant muscle growth past the first couple of months of training at best. The culprit is, the Law of Adaptation. Legionnaires trained with too much volume (morning and afternoon) from the get-go, and otherwise moved heavier weights too often during camp-building and public woork, that the strength-and-hypertrophy training effect of weapong practice would have soon become negligible.

Double-Weight Gladiatorial Weapons. Gladiatorial weapons were significantly heavier than the military gladius, designed to hit with the edge rather than the point, and cause ghastly wounds that would please the crowd. From literary as well as archeological sources, we know that gladiators’ weapons could chop off limbs on occasion, which would require a strong arm holding a heavy blade. As we have seen, training with heavier-than-regular weapons makes more sense when the regular weapon is already heavy, which gladiatorial weapons were. Hence, training at the post with double-weight gladiatorial weapons would have built functional strength and some muscle mass in the initial phases of gladiatorial training. After gladiators-in-training would have accommodated to the weight, other modalilities of resistance training could have been introduced (and certainly were). Evidence from the Ephesus gladiator cemetery shows significantly hypertrophied muscle, pointing to a strength training regimen that exceeded by far the two-birds-with-one-sword-and-shield (or trident-and-net) regimen (see Old School Strength (IV): Crassi Fututores). Then again, during a few months of initial traiong, double-weight weapons would have allowed for focusing on skill training while still getting somes trength-and-conditioning bang for the lanista‘s bucks sestercii.

Castrametation and Public Work

With castrametation and what I will call by want of other words “public work”, we are getting into the “strength” part of “strength and conditioning”. Castrametation is, again, just a fancy word for “Camp building”, which includes everything from shoveling dirt to setting up tents in an orderly fashion. Typical camp-building would include earthworks (dig defensive trenches, elevate and level the ground, etc.) and raising palisades (which could include felling trees). The main work of shoveling dirt and raising poles would be complemented by auxiliary activities such as wheelbarrowing soil, walking about balancing logs on one’s shoulders, or sharpening sticks the bloody barbarians were meant to be bloody on.

Anyone with even a passing familiarity with the sport of strong(wo)man will acknowledge that castrametation is a type of strong(wo)man training. I bet CrossFitters, too, could be tempted to call Roman castrametation as a forerunner, but they most likely would be wrong. For one, I doubt that Roman legionnaires would have displayed the same kind of frantic energy CrossFitters display when flipping tires or hitting them with sledgehammers. Don’t mistake me for a CrossFit® hater here, as I’m actually pointing to a difference in training philosophy. CrossFit® is all about intensity (for which it has its specific definition) but if I’m right, a legionnaire’s life was all about conservation of energy. There is actually more to the CrossFit® comparison than just a question of who-can-claim-to-be-the-successor-of-whom, but I’ll leave that for an aside on The Many Faces of Intensity.

Legio XXI Rapax camp
(by Cezary Wyszynski, used with permission).

When stationed on semi-permanent camp (like the one shown on the picture above) legionnaires would be of course exempt from setting up camp regularly. However, such semi-permanent camps were generally established to secure a supply line. The legionnaires stationed there would not stay idle for long, as building roads, canals and bridges were all parts of the maintaining supply lines. Jonathan Roth, in The Logistics of the Roman Army at War, acknowledges that this aspect of the legion’s life was common enough, but he forgets to factor it in the energy needs of legionnaires (as shown in Old School Strength (V): Poscam Bibere, Caseum Edire, Sub Sole Otiari). Note that Roman’s obsession for normalization may have had some interesting consequences, but again, I’ll leave them to an aside on Regulation-Sized Stuff.

The Many Faces of Intensity. A common way to define intensity in exercise science studies is with the formula I=Wt/R, where I reads “Intensity”, Wt reads (total) “Workload” and R read “Repetitions”. CrossFit® relies on another formula, namely I*=W/T where I* reads “Intensity”, W reads “Work” and T reads “Time”. Discussions about what constitutes work in this or that exercise are often as endless as they are pointless (cf. the infamous example of the “American Swing”) but work is commonly obtained by multiplying the absolute weight being displaced by some coefficient of range of motion (lift) or distance (loaded carry). As a definition of intensity, I* is confusing for people with a varnish of exercise science, for whom it corresponds better to density. To see that I and I* do not coincide is easy: consider a set of 10 repetitions of Deadlift done with 100kg done in one minute, and a workout consisting of 10 Deadlift singles done every minute on the minute for 10 minutes. For both, I=1000/10, but for the first, I*=W/1 while for the second I*=W/10. With a priority given to I*, CrossFitters chase anaerobic state that leaves them writhing on the ground in a pool of their own sweat for the edification of their Instagram followers. Since the anaerobic state is accompanied by systemic acidosis that seriously impairs performance (see Energy Systems in the Analytic Fitness™ Dictionary), Roman soldiers were most likely not shoveling dirt and raising palisades at a pace that would have left them writhing on the ground in a pool of their own sweat for the edification of their centurio. This does not mean however that density (I*) had no place in the training of legionnaires. In fact, it might have been quite the opposite (cf Regulation-Sized Stuff below).

Regulation-Sized Stuff. Part of the doctrine of castrametation was that any Roman soldier who would walk into a camp could know his way around without asking anyone and walk straight to the Prefect’s tent to bring whatever news he was carrying without any delay or distraction. But Romans, who even at war remained a people of engineers and lawyers with OCD, pushed the “knowing one’s way around” to the extreme and actually legislated about earthworks, palisades, tents, and the length of camps alleys. And they did the same for the size of the stones that should be used in roads, aqueducts, canals, or bridges. Incidentally, that’s how archaeologists can look at a Roman road, and after gauging the size of the stones, give their best Sherlock Holmes impersonations detailing when the road was built, if it was refitted and when, etc. In view of the previous aside on Intensity, this has interesting consequences: the only way for a Roman soldier to increase his workload would have been to increase density (or I*) once he’d be accommodated to the effort of moving around regulation-sized palisade poles, road/bridge/aqueduct stones, with intensity (I) remaining more-or-less constant (R would increasing pretty much at the same pace as W, due to regulation-sized loads remaining near-constant). The importance of this will become conspicuous in the next section.

Legionnaire’s Brawn

With a clear idea of the physical demands of a legionnaire’s physical activity, an educated guess of a typical legionnaire’s brawn is neither far-off nor far-fetched.

Essentially, taking that guess is tantamount to answer the question of what comes out of pairing high-volume, high-frequency submaximal strength work with a protein- and carb-rich diet. Answering this question is not rocket science but depends on parameters scientific imagination has some leeway to set. So let’s get at it.

Body type

Thanks to recent physical anthropology data from the early 2000s that I discussed already in the previous post of this series, we know that the average height of Italians did not vary much throughout the Republic and Empire and was somewhere around 168cm. Vegetius recommends a minimum height of 171cm while making room for exceptions for shorter vertically challenged guys. This has often been interpreted as a realistic compromise with an unrealistic ideal, but the recent data sheds on this an entirely different light. But I’m getting ahead of myself, so let’s go by stages.

In the late 1990s, the consensus among historical anthropologists was that the height and weight of pre-Industrial Era populations could be extrapolated from older statistical data (mid-19th century, thanks in particular to census during Napoleonic Wars) and contemporary data about developing countries. The 1990s methodology did not support Vegetius’ figure which was viewed as an ideal. There are serious issues with this notion when one considers that Vegetius is rehashing Late-Republic regulations, but I’ll leave them for an aside (Standard Issue Armor).

Eventually, Geoffrey Kron’s (2005) re-analysis of the data of Italian cemeteries in “Anthropometry, physical anthropology, and the reconstruction of ancient health, nutrition, and living standards” published in Historia: Zeitschrift fur Alte Geschichte, led to the a revision of the estimate of average height of Italians during the Roman Era (500 BCE-500 CE) to 168cm. Kron uses direct calculations rather than projections from modern data and argues convincingly against these projections (in particular due to the quality of the Ancient’s diet). Most importantly, Kron also adds that the data set is biased by the inclusion of older individuals and that the average height of military-age Italians would have been a good 3cm higher thereby validating Vegetius’ 171cm as a reasonable-rather-than-ideal figure.

Vegetius, however, recommends that well-muscled, lean individuals that fall short (pun intended) of the regulation height should not be turned down. Especially if they come from the countryside (see “A Roman Fetish” in the entry on Loaded Carries in the Analytic Fitness™ Dictionary). While a shorter stature may seem to put a legionnaire at multiple disadvantages (shorter stride, shorter reach, etc.) shorter legionnaires would actually have been on a par with taller ones and possibly at an advantage. Again, the details are best left for an aside on The Vertically Challenged Guy’s Edge.

This leaves us with the question of how much muscle would a legionnaire build from his training alone? (assuming, of course, adequate amounts of food and rest). To fully answer this question, I’d need to get into the details of the hormonal changes that said training would have caused in our Primus Mulus’ body. This would essentially amount to embedding here a summary of the yet-to-be-written Science and Bullshit of Lifting (VI): Recovery (2). So I’ll leave the details hanging and will simply say that, from a hormonal standpoint, they could have built a lot (but not as much as gladiators). The main drivers of this “bodybuilding” would have been castrametation and fast-paced, short duration load-bearing the like of which Scipio in New Carthage, and secondarily, sparing.[1]

Sparring in armor contributed indirectly to muscle-building.
(Legio XXI Rapax, by Cezary Wyszynski, used with permission.)

Standard Issue Armors. The lorica segmentata is the iconic armor of the Roman legions, and for good reasons. First, except for a handful of Gladiators (crupellarii) nobody else was wearing it. And second, it was a marvel of engineering, that could be stored efficiently and adjusted to the height and bulk of a legionnaire in no time. However, it was adopted as regular armor for the legions sometimes around 9 BCE, mid-way of the reign of Imperator Caesar Divi filius Augustus (spanning from 27 BCE to 14 CE). Thus, for about one century into the Marian Reforms of 107 BCE, the Legions had been outfitted with regular chain-mail shirts, which were much more labor-intensive to produce than segmented armors. Which means that the 171cm requirement dates had been the standard for bulk-ordered chain-mails for about one hundred years. Whoever knows how long it takes to weave an extra 3-cm length of chainmail, how much more iron it requires, and how much it adds to the weight of the shirt, will immediately understand that the Romans would not have issues requirements for ‘ideal’ soldiers lightly (pun intended). By the time of Vegitius, chainn-mail was back in favor, but a well-muscled 165cm (or even 160cm) guy could get away with the extra weight (see below).

The Short Guy’s Edge. Recommending shorter recruits provided that they make up in muscle power what they lose in stature is remarkably perceptive of Vegetius, or whoever he plagiarized. Assuming equal bodyweight, a taller soldier’s lean body mass (LBM) always comprises more bones and organs, and thus less muscle, than a shorter soldier’s LBM. Whatever advantage the shorter soldiers loses in stride’s length is furthermore compensated by the higher strength ceiling that goes with a higher percentage of lean muscle mass (LMM) on LMB. Overall, given how loaded-bearing march performance depends on strength shorter and well-muscled legionnaires would have had a head-start on their taller comrades in that respect. It is also likely that shorter, well-muscled soldiers with a higher LMM/LBM ratio and a lower center of mass would have been at a tactical advantage given the combat style of the legions. But that speculation pertains to specific skill training and I’ll cover it in a future installment of this series.


I’ve covered the Legionnaire’s diet in quite some details in the previous post of this series (cf. section Calories Counting MK II in Old School Strength (V): Poscam Bibere, etc.) and don’t have much to add to it. All in all, we know that legionnaires received rations that were under caloric maintenance for high-effort days (forced-pace marches, emergency engineering work, intensive public work, etc.) but could sustain them for a few days without loss of performance. 80% of the nation’s energy came from cereals and legumes, with the remainder from a small quantity of salted meat and oil. The ration was likely intended to sustain soldiers when additional hunting, foraging, fishing, and cheesemaking could not be performed, with all these activities intended to be the norm rather than the exception.

A close examination of the legionnaire’s diet shows that their protein intake from rations alone would match the protein recommendations for resistance-trained individuals. A 2017 systematic review with metanalysis published in the British Medical Journal established these recommendations at 1.6g of protein/kg of overall body mass/day. Some recent research seems to cast some doubt on the dependence on body mass but I would not put too much stock on it. Being the cash-cow that it is for the supplement industry, protein research is among the most bullshit-laden topics you could find.

Based on the above figures, and calculations considering a 5000kcal/day diet including both rations and the products of fishing, hunting, foraging and cheesemaking (see Old School Strength (V): Poscam Bibere, …, “The Legionnaire, an unacknowledge athlete”) the protein intake would have supported a body mass of a whopping 109kg. Assuming the protein intake from rations alone (about 3.500kcal) legionnaires’ rations could support protein-wise a body mass of about 76kg. Given the cumulative effect of the legionnaires’ training, I am inclined to think that 171cm for 76kg is a fairly reasonable average for Primus Mulus. Allowing for genetic variations of an order of +/- 10kg, we recover at one end the US Army RDA-based theoretical figure from Roth (171cm/66kg) and at the other end the elite CrossFitter-lookalike from Old School Strength (IV): Ad Optimam Valetudinem Fingendam (171cm/86kg). The mid-range is consistent with the representation of the legionnaires in the Trajan Column, a few of which are reproduced below.

Conclusion (for today): Skinny Bastards Macri Bastardi

The Trajan Column is one of our best source about legionnaires at the height of the Empire’s power.

There are, of course, some tropes looming in the background, similar to those that lead ancient authors (like Galen) to describe athletes as overfed, overtrained and overindulgent. However, if anything, those tropes would actually lead to represent the legionnaire as a frugal, skinny bastard and if anything, to downplay his brawn a bit.

A complete discussion of how accurate the Trajan Column can be would evaluate the cumulative metabolic effect of the legionnaires’ training, overall physical activity, diet and rest. Such evaluations must, in turn, be based on some sufficiently strong theoretical models or run the risk to join the “two-birds-with-one-gladius-and-scutum” on the heap of born-dead hypotheses. Some of the relevant models have already been introduced in this blog already:

We are still is missing is a theory that could explain why legionnaires did not die of overtraining before reaching the point where they would have accommodated to their regular workload. The same holds mutatis mutandis for gladiators, and I am of a mind to carry a comparison between the crassi fututores and the macri bastardi once the remaining theoretical issues are taken care off.

In the meantime, valete!


[1] There is good quality empirical evidence that supports the contribution of fast-paced, high-impact exercise (running, sprinting and jumping) on power and bone density, but I have only had a superficial look at it. The bibliography at the end of that blog post on strategicathlete.com is a good starting point if you don’t wait for future installments in this series. While the power work from those exercises would not elicit much hypertrophy in itself, its lasting fitness effect would improve the efficiency of other parts of the legionnaire’s training (mostly castrametation, and public work if carried on short rotations) thereby promoting strength adaptations, including muscle hypertrophy. Sparring includes some jumping under load, too, and thus doubles as power training.

Leave a Reply