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War of Words – ‘soldier’

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‘Be a soldier to thy purpose,’ Dionyza counsels Leonine in Shakespeare’s 1607 play Pericles, Prince of Tyre. What is a soldier, pray tell? It is one who serves in an army, ordinarily for pay. A reminder of the payment received is embedded within the word itself.

Between AD 235 and 284, the Roman Empire suffered through what is today called ‘the Crisis of the 3rd Century’. Beset by foreign invasions, internal rebellions, and usurpations, the empire was nearly overwhelmed. Financially drained, the imperial coinage was severely debased, leading to rampant inflation.

Emperor Constantine
Emperor Constantine

In the early 4th century, Emperor Constantine (r. 306-337) introduced a new gold coin of stable value, with 72 such coins per pound. This became the specie used to pay Rome’s soldiers, who in their slang called it the solidus, meaning ‘solid bit’.

The Late Roman infantry soldier of the 4th century differed substantially from his classic Early Empire legionary predecessor, who had been armed with a rectangular shield (scutum), short sword (gladius), heavy javelin (pilum), and segmented plate armour.

His equipment tended to be simpler and cheaper, and usually included a long-sleeved tunic, a multi-part helmet, an oval shield, a long sword (spatha), javelins, and a lancea, a short spear. As body defence, he typically wore either mail or scale armour.

Appearing in English in the 13th century, the term ‘soldier’ may be traced to Old French soudier and soldier, which are themselves derived from soulde, meaning pay, particularly for army service. Soulde itself ultimately hails from the solidus given to Roman soldiers.

Today ‘soldier’ is used in many ways. It is now a verb, meaning to serve as a soldier, and one may ‘soldier on’ – carry on or persevere.

It is used in the insect world, too, where a ‘soldier ant’ is one specially detailed to defend its colony.

Marc DeSantis

This is an article from the April/May 2021 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.


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