Mapping Roman legions: how “limits” tell about the centre

Roman legions c. 14 AD


“Quintili Vare, legiones redde!”

Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!”

(Augustus Caesar, after the battle of Teutoburg) 


Centrality can tell about itself right from the centre ‘where power dwells,’ even if its narrative is usually charged with ideology: discourse analysis of the centre can be useful when done in critical préjugés-free ways.

But how periphery, borders, frontiers, “outsiders”, “outskirts”, limits, limitates can tell about the centre and about power dwelling in this centre? How can they tell its development, apogee, decadence, decline and even collapse?

Let me demonstrate the example of the Roman legions, the most important corpus of the Roman armies which carried out Rome’s power, thus centrality, from Scotland to Arabia and from the Atlantic to the Caucasus. The legions, Rome frontiers’ guardians, do reflect the story of the centre of the Empire: at the beginning they were deployed where the centre thought the worst danger might come from. Then, when the Empire is at its peak, they are deployed throughout the “dangerous” borderlines. Then, when central power is declining some of the most dangerous parts of the borders are left legion-less, a way to the collapse of the Empire: and this happens when the centre can no more run and affords no more to pay its periphery: the centre collapses and its decline is read from the farthest, from its “limits”.

First, I begin by a general introduction on Roman legions, then I continue with the methodology and references. Later, I present three maps of Roman legions in three different dates with a brief discussion of each. In the conclusion I discuss the relevance of studying a centre from the perspective of its limits.


Roman legion, the central unit of Roman army

The Roman legion was the largest (and the most important) unit of the Roman army. All soldiers were Roman citizens or granted citizenship upon discharge or retirement from their auxiliary service. Between 5000 and 6000 men served in each of the legions. The commander of a legion was a legatus legionis (legate) appointed by the emperor himself. The legions were deployed, from the time of Augustus Caesar up to the end of the Principate, on the frontiers and in the imperial provinces. The last were the provinces where the emperor has the right to appoint the governor, in contrast to the senatorial provinces where the Senate appointed the proconsul, a provincial governor. When one legion existed in the provinces its legatus was the governor. When more than one legion stationed in the province the legati were subject to a legatus Augusti pro praetore (an envoy of the Emperor) who was the provincial governor and under the direct imperial command.

Each legion was designated a number. But Augustus Caesar kept the original names of old legions so some had the same number. Augustus had three “legio III” and two “legio IV”, for example. They also had epithets to distinguish the different units, usually names originated in the legions’ homes countries, their station for a long time, their original place of operation, or even the name of the founder-emperor (thus Parthica, Traiana, Augusta, Cyrenaica, etc.). Sometimes military virtues are added to the name, Pia Fidelis (loyal) and Victrix (Victorious), amongst others.


Mapping methodology, sources and tools

The method used to map Roman legions is simple: each legion is represented by a red square with yellow edges (the original colours used in the Roman army). In the legend to the bottom right of the map all legions represented on the map are given numbers, so reading the number on the map allows to know the name of the legion on the legend[1]. The legion symbols in the third map are smaller than the ones of the first and second ones, simply because the legion lost its importance as the central corpus of the Roman army and became “abandoned” in many aspects.[2] is the main source on the history and locations of Roman legions in the maps. Some legions are less known than others: we have good historical information about a big number of those Roman legions; yet for some others no historical documents about have survived to our age.

All Roman legions were supposed to be equally strong and powerful, yet some were indeed stronger than others: some were financed by emperors themselves for many personal reasons (for example the emperor served in this legion before going up the ranks, or the legions would bear his name or the name of his gens or founded by him, etc.). Some were poor and abandoned. Cartography here suggests that all legions are equal. In reality the situation was not that ideal: some legions did have a de facto supremacy over and strength more than others.

A last point must be clarified in methodology: I am not a historian, but more of some sort of political geographer. So the maps are shaped, too, by my views and readings of the world and to show relations between the centre, always taken as the abode of power, and its subject territory.

For the choice of dates I tried to find relevant dates for the Empire: by the end of Augustus Caesar’ Rule (c. 14 AD); by the end of Septimius Severus’ Rule (c. 211 AD); and after the division of the Empire into East and West parts and the death of Theodosius (c. 400 AD). But a more accurate representation would need three or four more maps as some legions were born and later were discharged or disbanded during the periods between 14 and 212 AD or 212 and 400 AD.


Three maps of Roman legions

1. Roman legions at the time of Augustus Caesar (Figure 1)

Figure 1: Roman legions c. 14 1D

Figure 1: Roman legions c. 14 AD


By the time of Augustus Caesar the legions became the central part of the Roman army, and Augustus, the new and first emperor, is given exceptional powers by the Senate and People of Rome as an Imperator, commander-in-chief of Rome and her army: he is in charge of defence and decides to send legions to station in troubled and dangerous provinces of the Empire.

The Roman Empire is rising now, out of the Roman Republic (more of continuity than of a rupture). Augustus Caesar, along with his Senate and People of Rome, find that the frontiers on the Rhine are the most dangerous for the Empire: the Limes Germanicus is being fortified and numerous legions station by or not far from it. After the catastrophe of Teutoburg (c. 9 AD) three legions were “erased” from the map and some new ones were sent to cover the borders and stop any “Germanic” penetration into the Empire. History would prove the farsightedness of Augustus Caesar and his esteem of high danger the Rhine frontiers represented to the Roman State. Illyria was a natural passage way into Italy and a strategic land which connects Rome to her eastern possessions, so the station of some legions there was to be understood in this aspect. Syria and Judaea were not calm and were on the easternmost edge of the Empire. Northern Spain was in trouble with the Cantabrian war.

The senatorial provinces are mostly legion-free. Italy, being the territory of the city of Rome and where local populations were granted Roman citizenship, was also governed locally and without any important legion station.


2. Roman legions at the time of Septimius Severus (Figure 2)

Figure 1: Roman legions c. 211 AD

Figure 2: Roman legions c. 211 AD

The Roman Empire is, arguably, at a peak: the Roman sovereignty extends from Hadrian’s Wall in Northern England to Thebes in southern Egypt and from the Atlantic to the Caucasus. The legions are stationed along the limitates and by the borders considered to be dangerous. The Danube here is considered to be as dangerous as the Rhine: it is not a secret that the easiest passage into the Empire was supposed to be the Pannonian Plain around the Danube bend.

The Parthian Empire was also the main “civilised” enemy of Rome. Numerous legions station by the Euphrates and on the Armenian borders to stop any eventual Parthian march on the east Roman provinces. Syria and Judaea are still regarded as a place of relative high danger. The African possessions of the Empire, from Egypt to the Atlantic, seem to be calm: only two legions station in this vast territory. Britain has its own three legions and the Legion VI Victrix built Hadrian’s Wall. Dacia, a relatively-new province where many Romans settled, is guarded by two legions.

But the interesting fact is the existence of a legion stationed by Rome, in Castra Albana just to the north of the Latium. This legion, II Parthica, is levied by Septimius Severus for the Parthian war and was dignified by many victories and then returned to station in Italy. It was said that the Legion II Parthica is a “reserve” but in fact emperors considered that Rome might be a source of problems, so the existence of a legion by the Caput Mundi would be useful in case of popular revolt in order to “calm” the things down.

During Roman history many legions stationed in Italy, and it always meant that power is afraid of losing its own dwelling…


3. Roman legions at the time of Theodosius (Figure 3)

Figure 3: Roman legions c. 400 AD

Figure 3: Roman legions c. 400 AD

The legions are by now less important: the Roman army was profoundly changed in the time of Diocletian and some army units station in the heart of the Empire where troubles can break out. Then the Lamb was assimilated by the Wolf: the Empire became Christian, a very profound change which shaped present-day geography and politics of all the states heir to the Roman Empire.

The more and more chaotic political atmosphere can be seen on the map: two legions guard the mountain passages in the south of Asia Minor, one of the calmest regions in the past. The mountaineer population, the Isaurians, are no more “calm” or “calmed” by the Empire. The same in the Alps where Legion III Iulia Alpina stations in the Alpes Cottiae between actual France and Italy. Even Egypt, a relatively calm province, needs some legions to calm the unrest, and here we can underline the importance of the Egyptian province being the “breadbasket” of Rome as Egyptian wheat was used to feed the Roman people. The Persian Sassanid Empire is the most dangerous enemy to the east, thus legions must keep safe the Euphrates and Armenian provinces of the Empire.

Is the Empire losing control of the remote places and the centre is short of power? I do not know the answer. But of what I see on the map the administration is not the most efficient as some supposedly calm places are in need for legions to keep them.

The capitals, Constantinople in the East and Milan (Mediolanum) in the West are thought to be protected by numerous legions stationing along the Danube, where the pressure of nomadic tribes and peoples to the north could be felt heavily. Yet the Limes Germanicus on the Rhine is abandoned, a defence policy very different from Augustus’, who clearly believed, after what the first map shows, that the potential danger on the Empire might come from the Rhine borders. History proved that his view was right as the “collapse” began when Vandals, Alans and Suebis crossed into the Empire on 31st December 406 after the Rhine had frozen and served for a bridge.


Discussion: Rome and the limitates, telling about the centre from its limits

How to tell about change in the centre, Rome, when reading the “periphery”, arguably the limitates and the borders of the Empire?

The effect, as one may see in the maps, is mutual: disorganization and chaos in the centre leads to “loose” limits which lead on their turn to a collapse of the centre; a danger from inside leads to a sensitive “contact” situation which leads to a penetration from outside. The emperor, “head of state”, august, pontifex maximus and commander-in-chief of Rome was the centre of the centre: the Senate and the People of Rome delegate extraordinary powers to the emperor who, by his own person, incarnates Rome’s greatness and power. He is in charge of the frontiers: the centre of the centre is in charge of the outer limits of the realm, the very heart is in direct control of the farthest parts. When this centre becomes weak (we shall not discuss all the reasons here) the weakness can be felt inside, right in the heart; but more probably on the limits. The limits become fragile and abandoned, so any incursion can lead to the collapse of the centre and the loss of its power over its territory and its power to represent all the space it polarises.

The Roman legions are the “long arms” of the centre in the remote and dangerous provinces of the Empire, their abandon express, in my view, a despair, an implicit statement of failure and bitterness. The centre can no more be in charge, but the “discharge” will lead to a no better situation.

As a conclusion we can say that the centre is defined, too, by the frontiers, spatial and intellectual, of its power. Of the Roman case we can generalise and say that changings of these frontiers mean a change in the heart, that power is reshaping itself or changing from inside.

In some next post I shall discuss Roman road systems and improve this very post in order to turn it into an academic article for a peer-reviewed journal.

Domus Augustana, Augustus Caesar's primary residence on the Palatine Hill in Rome.

Domus Augustana, Augustus Caesar’s primary residence on the Palatine Hill in Rome.



[1] ex. gr. In the first map the square with the number “18” on the map is “18 XII Fulminata, Raphanea” on the legend.

[2] An internet site on ancient history managed and monitored by the historian Jona Lendering.


Image credit: Jack Keilo, Ancient World Mapping Center


Map use: You can use the map for non-commercial ends. Please put and “Jack Keilo” as author. Please note that the reference background map is made by Ancient World Mapping Center in 2011.

Please if you want to oppose or to suggest something related to the maps and the mapping method please contact me on my email, I would love to discuss the maps and develop a better mapping of Roman legions.


Further readings: References used in this article.

Ancient World Mapping Center, 2011, The Romans: from village to Empire, URL:

Durant, Will, 1944, The Story of Civilization III, Caesar and Christ, Simon and Schuster.

Durant, Will, 1950, The Story of Civilization IV, The Age of Faith, Simon and Schuster.

Grataloup, Christian, 1996, Lieux d’histoire, essai de géohistoire systématique, Reclus., The Roman Legions, URL :

Notitia Dignitatum, URL:

Roth, Jonathan, 1994, “The Size and Organization of the Roman Imperial Legion”, in Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, 43..

Smith Monica L., 2005, “Networks, territories and the cartography of ancient states” in Annals of the Association of American Geographers, volume 95 issue 4.

Toynbee, Arnold J., 1961, A Study of History, Oxford University Press.

Varusschlacht, Museum und park kalkriese, Roman Legions, URL:

Wikipedia, Liste der römischen legionen, URL:

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