Ancient Pay Slip Shows That This Roman Soldier Slaughtered for Nothing

An ancient pay slip details how a Roman soldier had partaken in a battle that ended up with the  mass suicide  of hundreds of innocent Jews. But what is the interesting fact that comes out of this piece of ancient evidence, is the fact that, after deductions, the warrior had literally worked for nothing. Zilch.

Archaeologist Joanne Ball first publicized the 1,900-year-old Roman auxiliary soldier’s papyrus pay slip in a  Twitterpost in March 2019. Ball said the soldier, Gaius Messius, was an Imperial grunt who participated in the  Siege of Masada : the last battle of the  First Jewish-Roman War , also known as The Great Revolt. Messius had earned a total of 50 denarri for his services to the  Roman Empire . However, this legionary cavalryman fed his horse and mule and when deductions for barley, food and military equipment were calculated, he ended up with nothing.

The Jewish Families Who Chose Death Over Enslavement 

James Clark wrote an article about the papyrus in the March of 2019 edition of the military magazine  Task & Purpose . The writer reported that the translation of the ancient pay slip is available to the public on the  Database of Military Inscriptions and Papyri of Early Roman Palestine . During the First Jewish-Roman War, which took place from 66 to 73 AD, Gaius Messius fought in the Siege of Masada. This ancient settlement is located 12 miles (19.31 km) east of  Aradin the Southern District of Israel overlooking the  Dead Sea . It was heavily fortified by  Herod the Great  between 37 and 31 BC and Israeli archeologist  Yigael Yadin  first excavated the site between 1963 and 1965.

Papyrus pay slip for Gaius Messius shows that this soldier ended up with nothing after putting his life on the line. ( Dr Jo Ball  / Army of Roman Palestine )

According to the  History Channel  after Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD, fleeing rebels relocated to Herod’s fortress in Masada. Over the preceding weeks an army of 8,000 Roman soldiers, including Gaius Messius, completely surrounded the base of the mountain on which Masada is perched. The  Great Revolt  ended with destruction of Jewish towns, the slaughter and displacement of people and the appropriation of land for Roman Military use. At Masala, when the Roman soldiers eventually stormed the fortress, 960 Jewish rebels and their families who were sheltering in the ancient city committed an act of mass suicide rather than becoming  Roman slaves .

The desert fortress of Masada, the location of the Siege of Masada where the Roman soldier Gaius Messius fought, as seen for the air. (Andrew Shiva /  CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The Worst Kind of Blood Money: Lots of Blood, But No Money

While the  Roman soldier’s pay slip provides an interesting insight into the life of a Roman soldier at the time of the  Siege of Masada , it is harrowing to think that this man had waded amidst the corpses of hundreds of Jewish families, for nothing. Not a bean. The very opposite was the case with  the oldest pay slip ever discovered in Mesopotamia , in the city of Uruk (in modern-day Iraq). A 5,000-year-old cuneiform tablet depicts a human head eating from a bowl and drinking from a conical vessel. The tablet is marked with scratches that record the quantity of beer assigned to each worker and this is why it is known as the  oldest record  of pay for work ever discovered.

According to a  Smithsonian article, this poor payment was not unique to  Roman soldiers. Paying workers with beer was also prevalent in ancient Egypt, circa 25th century BC, when “around a total of 4-5 liters of beer were assigned daily to the laborers working on the Great Pyramid.” By the time of the Hebrew  Book of Ezra  (550 to 450 BC), salt production was strictly controlled by the ruling elite. The servants of King Artaxerxes I of Persia said “we are salted with the salt of the palace,” with the term “salt” meaning to be in service to. This is the original association between the term salt and work. So the next time some smarty-pants tries to tell you the Latin word “ salarium” originally meant “salt money” i.e., the sum paid to soldiers in  salt, tell them to get new chat. Because, according to Peter Gainsford’s 2017 book  “Kiwi Hellenist: Salt and salary: were Roman soldiers paid in salt?” : there exists “no evidence for this.”

Top image: According to the pay slip found at Masada (inset), the Roman soldier Gaius Messius literally shed blood for nothing. Source:  Luis Louro  / Adobe Stock / Inset;  Dr Jo Ball

By Ashley Cowie

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