Know Your Heroes

You have seen this scene a thousand times. A Commanding General stands before the assembled troops. His adjutant calls forward a soldier and reads off a citation while the general affixes a pretty piece of cloth and metal to the soldier's uniform.

Two thousand years ago, the same scene could have been witnessed, because the presentation of military awards, and verily, the awards themselves, descend almost directly from the traditions of the Roman Army. Polybius tells us how a Roman general would assemble the troops, call forward those who shall be decorated, and proclaim loudly the man's deeds and heroic actions for which he was to be decorated. Then he would present the man a torc, armband, or set of phalerae- or affix the item to the man's armor himself, much like a modern general decorates his heroic soldiers.

The Romans were among the first nations to codify decorations of soldiers for bravery. Before them, there were grants of land to some, extra portions of booty to others, or a good clap on the back. Sometimes a feast, if one was lucky. This was not a good enough system for the practical Romans, who evolved a standardized system of awards and decorations so all who gazed upon them could know at once what the brave soldier had done.

The Romans took their system a step further than simply 'do this deed, earn this decoration'. Theirs was also filtered by rank- some awards were for the legionaries, others reserved for centurions and other officers, while some few were reserved for only the generals themselves. And strangely, the highest decorations were not for simple valor, but for saving a life or lives while in battle.

For the common legionary who performed bravely above and beyond the call of duty, there were torcs awarded. These golden circlets worn about the neck were once a Celtic symbol, which became a Roman award when Publius Manlius slew a Celtic chieftain in single combat and thereafter stripped the torc from around the Celt's neck and affixed it upon his own. Thereafter he was known as Torquatus, and later the torc duly made its way into the system as an award for bravery.

A step above the torc is the armilla- an armband. It too was awarded to legionaries and common soldiers for bravery in the same manner as denoted above.

Exceptional bravery was rewarded with a set of decorated/embossed discs sewn together known in the plural as phalerae. Like the torc, they were originally a Celtic decoration. These were awarded in different metals- bronze, silver, and gold, but almost always in sets of nine- three rows of three sewn together. While it was known that these were issued in the three metals, the reasoning for it is lacking. Some scholars felt the silver was for the second award, while gold was for the third, while others believe the degree of valor determined the metal. Still others claim the materials used were whatever was at hand, or passed best with the uniform of the unit.

A soldier who "slew and stripped an enemy"- evidently not during the battle itself, but as a form of duel or single challenge before the battle, could be award a cup- or if a cavalryman, horse trappings.

There were also awards of extra booty or spoils for lesser feats of valor.

These awards were somewhat arbitrary. There was no set limit of how many enemies one had to slay, or if one charged out of formation, or whatever. If the commander felt the man deserved recognition, he was able to reward the man. If an entire unit performed a heroic feat, the general could award the decoration to the unit- and allow it to be displayed on the unit standard. There was also no apparent limit to how many times a man could win a certain

Two awards most sought-after were not awards for heroism at all, at least not directly. These were the missio honesta and the military diploma. The first was a simple honorable discharge, received upon separation of service without malice- that is, the soldier was released without being thrown out. The second was a bronze tablet given as a reward for twenty five years good service. It also granted its bearer Roman citizenship if he did not have it before- a very high honor for foreigners and (to them) definitely worth twenty five years of service.

There were two other lower awards that ought to be mentioned. One was the hasta pura- a (possibly ceremonial) silver spear. This was at times given to a Primus Pilus upon his retirement, to an officer who "wounded an enemy," and at other times for reasons unknown. It is known the hasta pura existed, though sources dispute its exact requirement. The other is the vexillum, a miniature standard often mounted in a silver base. Its requirements, like the hasta pura, is disputed. Most tend to agree that is was awarded by a unit to its commander for distinguished service.

Above the phalerae ranked the crowns. These were distinguished from the lower awards by a qualification- a feat or deed that must be performed before it could be awarded. The Romans had many crowns, some military, some not- like the corona nuptialis, a wreath made of flowers mixed with other herbs picked by the bride for wear on her wedding day, or the corona sacerdotalis worn by priests performing official duties. Our discussion shall hold to the military crowns.

Above the lesser decorations already discussed were the crowns. These were made of various materials, from gold to bronze to leaves of a tree to simple grass. The materials of the crown did not determine its value or honor- the two seemed totally unrelated. For example, the Gold Crown- made of solid gold- was considered far inferior to the Grass Crown, made from common grass.

The Corona Aurea, the Gold Crown mentioned above, was restricted to centurions- and sometimes principal officers- for killing an enemy in single combat, then holding the ground throughout the battle. This must have been a quite common award in the early days, less so as units and battles become more organized.

The Corona Vallaris was a simple gold crown depicting the palisades of a fortification. This was awarded to the first soldier or centurion who breached an enemy fortification. Likewise, the Corona Muralis was awarded to the first centurion or soldier who made it upon the walls of a city. In place of the palisades, it depicted turreted walls.

There was also the Crown of the Preserver, a crown awarded by civilians to "those who have shielded and saved any of the citizens or allies". This crown carried the additional benefit of having the givers treat the recipient as a parent- which in those days meant that the winner of the crown became patron to those awarding the crown- and could call upon their services. The client-patron relationship was very important in those days, much more so than today.

An interesting note about Roman military awards is that they were not limited or restricted to land battle. There were at least two naval crowns that could be won by sailors- the Corona Navalis for the first sailor to board an enemy ship, and the Corona rostrata for an admiral who utterly crushed an enemy fleet, or performed some other heroic feat. The physical difference between the two golden crowns was the number of rams (ship's beaks) depicted- one for the navalis, many for the rostrata.

There were two major crowns ranked higher than those mentioned above. One was open only to a general, while the other was open to all.

The Corona Civica was awarded to any Roman warrior, regardless of rank, who saved the life of a fellow citizen and held the ground upon which this act was performed for the duration of the battle. This was a very high honor in Roman eyes, and its recipients were rewarded with more than just a chaplet of oak leaves. Sulla passed a law allowing winners of the Corona Civica to enter the Senate immediately, and other honors and rewards were granted its winners. This crown was the highest to which a non-commanding general could aspire.

The highest crown, the most honored, was that of the Corona Graminea, also known as the Corona Obsidionalis. This crown was made of common grass, or weeds, or flowers- whatever was growing on the field of battle where it was earned. It was picked and woven by the legion or army and awarded to its general on the field, in recognition of the general's action in saving the legion, or occasionally the entire army. Only a commanding general who by personal deed or action caused the relief of a beleaguered or besieged Roman legion or army could be awarded this crown by the rescued force- a very rare occurrence. Sulla was awarded the Corona Graminea at Nola, when his besieging army found itself under attack by the Samnites. He held his men together and rallied them until the foraging parties returned and fell upon the Samnite rear. Scipio Africanus and Fabius Maximus were likewise awarded this precious crown, though no general after the Republic is noted as earning one. The last general to receive it was Quintus Sertorius for actions in Spain before the Rise of Sulla, and the last to be offered the Grass Crown was Augustus- by the Roman Senate to honor his political leadership. He wisely refused the honor.

There was one honor higher than the Corona Graminea, also restricted to generals. This was the spolia opima, the stripping of spoils. A Roman general had to engage his opposing commander in single combat, slay him, and strip the body in order to qualify. It was said to have been claimed by only three generals or commanders, two of which were legendary, leaving a single man (Marcus Claudius Marcellus) as the only known true recipient. There were, however, several others who have qualified, but their claims were never verified, authorized, or claimed. One of these was Torquatus, who slew a Gallic chieftain and took his torc, while another is Marcus Licinius Crassus, grandson of the triumvir Marcus Licinius Crassus of Carrhae notoriety. Crassus the Younger killed his opponent in Macedonia in 29 BCE, but his claiming of the spolia opima was quashed for political reasons. The reason why Torquatus did not claim his spolia opima is unknown.

There was one difference, though, between modern awards and the Roman awards. Today's awards may be awarded posthumously to fallen heroes who gave their lives for their fellows, but it was not so in Rome. A Roman wishing to earn a decoration had to be alive afterward to collect his award. This had the side effect of limiting the number of decorations a general could hand out after a battle. Rome did not decorate fallen soldiers- only living heroes.

Sources :