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Profile - Paperwork, Roman Style

We are indebted to the Roman Army for many military institutions, soldiers and scholars alike reaching back to Roman models during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when standing armies once again became commonplace in Europe.  But Roman models didn’t always work, and it took time for the proper bureaucracy to develop, for the ancient sources failed to mention one very important Romans military invention, paperwork. 

The Roman Army was the first in history in which a significant proportion of the troops were literate; evidence exists to suggest that at the height of the Empire probably a third of the men were able to read and write. There’s plenty of evidence for this, as literally thousands of documents – orders, letters, notes, reports, memoranda, receipts, and more – have been found in the trash at the sites of Roman Army posts from Britain to Germany to Egypt.  Although the precise quantity and nature of the paperwork demanded by the Roman Army is still unknown, and probably changed over the ages, as well as depending upon the nature of the units involved, what is known will surely bring a faint smile to anyone who has pounded the keys in a headquarters.

Enough material has survived to give us a good idea of the volume of paperwork that had to be managed in the era of the "Five Good Emperors” (A.D. 96-180).

  • Morning Reports & Orders of the Day: Include unit designation, date, number and classes of personnel, commanding officer, password of the day, personnel movements and special notices and orders, such as oaths, religious observances, personnel assigned to guard the standards, etc.
  • Monthly Reports: Unit rosters summarizing the status of personnel.
  • Daily Activity Report: Prepared by the unit clerk for the “praepositus – provost” from written or oral reports by subordinates, possibly termed “renuntia,” and probably used in the preparation of after-action-reports and similar documents.
  • Pridiana: An annual personnel summary, filed on December 31st, giving accessions, losses, with cause (death, discharge, execution, promotion, etc.), and absenteeism through the year.
  • Acta: Compiled headquarters paperwork, including orders, directives, intelligence reports, and more.
  • Commentarii: What we would call “After Action Reports,” outline accounts of operations, of which edited versions of Caesar’s have survived, because he took pains to circulate them. They were presumably compiled from the commander’s diaries, reports from subordinates, daily activity records, and other documents, including the commanders acta.
  • Pay Records: Although in this period the troops were paid quarterly, records would have had to be maintained on an almost daily basis, due to deductions, bonuses, bank deposits, discharges, enlistments, and so forth.
  • Receipt Books: A number of these have been found, indicating that units maintained an official register of purchases and outlays, apparently with special account books for particular commodities, such as fodder.
  • Staff Reports: Personnel responsible for managing particular types of supplies and equipment, such as tentage, horses, or artillery, or performing special functions, such as the medical staff or the engineers, quartermasters, paymasters, and so forth, had to file reports from time to time, to permit the more efficient management of resources, and, of course, personnel attached to the intelligence service would have been responsible for maintaining a steady stream of information to commanders... 

Although none have survived, there were presumably also some sort of personnel files. Certainly there had to be some way to keep track of a soldier’s career, particularly as he began to move up the promotion ladder, into the centurionate, and perhaps even higher, since changes in rank usually seem to have involved transfers from one unit to another, often in distant theaters.

In addition, a Roman headquarters would have had a fairly substantial shelf of reference materials. This included Army regulations, of course, as well as standard manuals for engineering, fortification, construction and siege works, and itineraria, essentially hand books for troop movements, which provided information on routes, local resources, and so forth, including what we would call “strip maps.”

Finally, every commander, or at least every serious commander, would have had a personal library of military literature, including generals’ memoirs, of which there were a surprising number, though only Caesar’s have come down to us, treatises on strategy, tactics, and deception, and so forth.

 

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