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What exactly was a "tessera militaris" and how was it used?

Smith's old Dictionary states:
Quote:Tessera... From the application of this term to tokens of various kinds, it was transferred to the word used as a token among soldiers. This was the tessera militaris, the συνθημα of the Greeks. Before joining battle it was given out and passed through the ranks as a method by which the soldiers might be able to distinguish friends from foes.

This seems odd to me, and the suggested use appears cumbersome. Does anyone know how it worked, and how common it was?
Isn't that the sign/countersign password? Changed at intervals, and kept by the tessarius (keeper of the watchword). They didn't pass a "thing" to the soldiers, just a "word".
wasn't the watchword written on a pice of pottery and kept by the tessarius?
Quote:wasn't the watchword written on a pice of pottery and kept by the tessarius?

Right, and that piece can be probably called a tessarae (militaris), I think.
Okay, that makes sense. Thanks!

Just out of curiousity: have there ever been any physical specimens found?
Quote:What exactly was a "tessera militaris" and how was it used?

This is explained in more detail on the same site

As detailed there, the tesserae were used as tallys used to check that all the men on stag were awake, and were also used on occasion for passing orders.
In vindolanda pottery parts were found. SOTW does reproduce them
Have fun

The fact that a watchword or password was sent to enter the Roman camp (especially at night) has been known in Polybius in the Republic army. This password was written on a wooden tablet ("xylephion").
The responsibility for distributing the password was assigned to Tesserarius which takes its name from tesserae, small fragments of ceramic with the password.

In the eastern desert forts (praesiedia) defending the trade routes of Myos Hornos and Berenice, the list of passwords found on several ostraca (IInd century AD) shows simple words used, repeating a week on the other (to allow soldiers to better retain them) source: H. Cuvigny - Ostraca of Krokodilo IFAO 2005 :

date Password

23 Minerva
24 Salus
25 Iuppiter
28 Minerva
29 Pax
30 Neptunus
2 Ve--
9 Pax
I can't remember which Roman Army book i read it in but these were issued to each of the sentries and during their watch the Tribune responsible for inspecting the Guard would make his rounds and collect these from the sentries. If he found the sentry asleep he would move on without collecting the tessera. Any sentry who had his tessera in the morning was liable to be put to death for sleeping on guard. As a soldier I find this a little incredible, I can't see inspecting then leaving a post with a sleeping sentry and having that sector unguarded just to punish the solder later. Leaving a sentry asleep puts the whole camp at risk.
The information on the use of tesserae and the camp sentinals came from The Histories of Polybius (Loeb Classical Library edition) sections 36 and 37.

"36 When this time comes, the man to whom the first watch fell by lot makes his rounds accompanied by some friends as witnesses. He visits the posts mentioned in his orders, not only those near the vallum and the gates, but the pickets also of the infantry maniples and cavalry squadrons. If he finds the guards of the first watch awake he receives their tessera, but if he finds that anyone is asleep or has left his post, he calls those with him to witness the fact, and proceeds on his rounds. Those who go the rounds in the succeeding watches act in a similar manner. As I said, the charge of sounding a bugle at the beginning of each watch, so that those going the rounds may visit the different stations at the right time, falls on the centurions of the first maniple of the triarii in each legion, who take it by turns for a day.

Each of the men who have gone the rounds brings back the tesserae at daybreak to the tribune. If they deliver them all they are suffered to depart without question; but if one of them delivers fewer than the number of stations visited, they find out from examining the signs on the tesserae which station is missing, and on ascertaining this the tribune calls the centurion of the maniple and he brings before him the men who were on picket duty, and they are confronted with the patrol. If the fault is that of the picket, the patrol makes matters clear at once by calling the men who had accompanied him, for he is bound to do this; but if nothing of the kind has happened, the fault rests on him.

37 A court-martial composed of all the tribunes at once meets to try him, and if he is found guilty he is punished by the bastinado (fustuarium). This is inflicted as follows: The tribune takes a cudgel and just touches the condemned man with it, after which all in the camp beat or stone him, in most cases dispatching him in the camp itself. But even those who manage to escape are not saved thereby: impossible! for they are not allowed to return to their homes, and none of the family would dare to receive such a man in his house. So that those who have of course fallen into this misfortune are utterly ruined. The same punishment is inflicted on the optio and on the praefect of the squadron, if they do not give the proper orders at the right time to the patrols and the praefect of the next squadron. Thus, owing to the extreme severity and inevitableness of the penalty, the night watches of the Roman army are most scrupulously kept."
Sleeping on guard duty is not a great idea, then, is it?