Curiosities about the Roman army, from Pliny the Elder

(To Alessandro Rugolo)

Natural Stories, by Pliny the Elder is - as stated by his nephew Pliny the Younger - a "vast, erudite work, not inferior to the same nature, for variety of subjects". Divided into 37 books and published in 77 AD, it was dedicated to the Emperor Titus.

Pliny the Elder, collects all the knowledge of time in his work. In the tenth book he talks about the animals, real and fantastic, and also collects historical information that has to do with these. This is how he mentions that the Roman legions, starting from the second consulate of Gaius Mario (around 103 BC), adopted the eagle as a characteristic symbol.

Pliny states that in the past the eagle was one of the symbols used by the legions, together with the wolf, the minotaur, the horse and the boar.
For this reason, he says, the winter quarter of a legion was located where there was a pair of eagles.

The story of the eagle used as a symbol of the Roman legion is certainly known to many. Perhaps less well known is that of geese and of the activities related to the collection of feathers.

Pliny tells us that the best goose feathers came from Germany, where geese were smaller than Roman ones and were called "ganti". 
The price of those feathers, at that time, was five denier a pound and because of that, he adds, it often happened that the auxiliary troop leaders were put on trial on charges of having sent the cohorts to capture the geese, depriving them of the guard posts.

Pliny adds, puzzled: "we have come to such softness in our costumes that not even the necks of men can do without feathers!"

(photo: ancient coin of Emperor Vespasian with the eagle of the legion on the back and symbol of imperial power)