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Basic Information

The term soldier derives from the Latin solidus - the name of a coin - and refers explicitly to someone who fights for pay1. In the Dark Ages of Europe where the word evolved, this was not altogether a positive thing and had strong connotations of "mercenary" - a man was expected to fight for his overlord, not for whoever happened to have the money to pay him.

Of course, such men had their uses - their employer didn't have to make them a grant of land to get them to serve him, and once called up they didn't disappear after a fixed period to go and get the harvest in. They also didn't have the potential to owe a duty of service to someone else as well as their employer and, having nothing better to do all day, could (at least in theory) train full time as fighting men. As against that needed to be paid - usually in cash - all the time, whether you had a war on or not. For the normally cash-strapped pre-modern potentate, life was a fine balancing act between having the men to hand when you needed them, and paying them when you didn't. The other great use for a professional fighting man was as a stand in when you didn't want to fulfil your feudal duties - you could either hire someone yourself and send him in your place, or pay the king scutage and let him do the hiring.

With the end of the middle ages and the beginnings of de-feudalisation, the idea of professional soldiers started to become much more attractive. Kings began to demand scutage rather than accept it and end the practice of feudal levies … soldiers still didn't get much in the way of respect (and still don't in many circles), but the profession started to become recognised as a job in its own right and, with the beginnings of a modern state came the idea that a man could be employed to fight by that state rather than a specific person within it.

Of course, the idea of the professional soldier also existed before the feudal period - the post-Marian Roman legionary was such, as were the men of the Hellenistic phalanxes who marched with Alexander and his successors.

Today "soldier" means a member of a professional, military land force working for a national government - he need not necessarily be full time (as many reservists are still classified as soldiers) - but is certainly signed on and committed.

For much of history there has also been a disconnect between the idea of soldier and warrior - often the warrior, who was expected to take pride in his skill at arms, could be expected to out perform the soldier - for whom it was merely a job - on a man-to-man basis. The soldiers however, tended to win out on the basis of teamwork and discipline2 - a phenomenon borne out from the conquests of Rome, through the far flung battles of the British Empire, to the bloody skirmishes of modern battlefields. In the modern era, with the continuing emasculation of culture (in the developed world at least) and the incessant demands of the state for a monopoly of force, the two roles are increasingly being forced together.

Various other terms for soldier exist in other languages, but mean more or less the same thing - and interesting one is the late Roman term bucelarius, derived from the bucellum, a hard biscuit which formed a core part of the iron rations of the Roman Army from antiquity3.


1. full source reference

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