‘Auxiliary’, from the Latin auxiliarius, denotes something helpful or supportive, or an assistant. In grammar, for example, an auxiliary verb indicates a verb, such as ‘be’, ‘can’, ‘do’, or ‘have’, that is used to indicate tense, voice, or mood for other verbs.

Roman auxiliaries as depicted on the Column of Marcus Aurelius in Rome. The sculptor has managed to convey the highly drilled, disciplined, machine-like character of the Roman Army in battle. Image: WIPL.
Roman auxiliaries as depicted on the Column of Marcus Aurelius in Rome. The sculptor has managed to convey the highly drilled, disciplined, machine-like character of the Roman Army in battle. Image: WIPL.

The Roman legions needed support too. By the 1st century AD, the citizen legionaries of Rome, drawn primarily from Italy, were supplemented by many thousands of auxiliary ‘helper’ soldiers recruited from non-citizen peoples who possessed military skills the Romans lacked.

With their forte being heavy infantry, the Romans actively recruited horsemen from Gaul, Spain, Germany, and elsewhere to support their legionaries in battle. Other auxiliaries included archers from the eastern provinces and slingers from the Balearic Isles. Auxiliaries did much of the policing of Rome’s far-flung imperial frontiers.

Auxiliary, in the military sense of foreign supporting troops, first appeared in English in Robert Johnson’s 1601 translation of Italian priest Giovanni Botero’s The Traveller’s Breviat: ‘They maintaine three sorts of soldiers… the third are Auxiliaries, which serve for pay.’ Not long afterwards, it appeared in Philemon Holland’s 1603 translation of Plutarch’s Moralia: ‘To send unto him auxiliarie soldiers.’

During the reign of Emperor Augustus, the auxilia, as the full corps of auxiliaries was known, became a professional fighting force, organised into longstanding units such as Cohors IX Batavorum, composed of Batavians, which was based at the fort at Vindolanda near Hadrian’s Wall. An auxiliary served a lengthy term of service, 25 years, but on completion, he acquired Roman citizenship and immunity from taxes, both appealing benefits.

The sense of auxiliary as supportive of the regular military survives. In World War II, women served in Britain’s Auxiliary Territorial Service and, in this century, the Royal Auxiliary Air Force provides volunteer reservists for the RAF.

Marc DeSantis


This article is from the July 2019 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.



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