Roman army eyetest?

To pay my bills in Rome I, like every other member of the English speaking community in Italy, teach English.  During a listening earlier in the week, I came across a story about an eyesight test taken upon entering the Roman army.  Apparently, the big dipper constellation features a tiny star immediately next to a bigger one.  If conscripts could make out the smaller star, they became archers, and if not, they were thrown into the thick of it serving as infantry in the front lines.

As interesting a story as that is, it doesn’t quite ring true.  I don’t think it’s simply my own inner coward talking here, but surely, news would get out of this test.  With no line of letters to read out and supply proof of your vision, it must have been very tempting give a simple “the small star, ooh yeah, there it is” and radically improve your chances of survival.  What’s more, I’m no expert on the Roman military, but I certainly get the impression that the vast majority of the recruits (discounting the auxiliaries from allied tribes etc who, as far as I’m aware, would fight in the traditional manner of their people) served as infantry.  Assuming a certain number of people could see the star and a certain number said they could, what happened to all of these archers?

Finally, I’ve only ever tried it once as a kid, but I’d guess that it takes more than good eyesight to become an archer.

When I left that TOEFL exam preparation lesson (and before I’d had a chance to think things through), I was quite excited to have learnt this piece of trivia.  I’d really like it to be true, and as none of my suspicions definitively disprove the story, it’s more than possible it could be.  If anybody knows of any ancient sources on the process of enlisting in the legions, let me know and you’ll forever have a chum in me.

The constellation in question.  The stars in question are the second dot(s) in on the 'handle'.

The constellation in question. The stars in question are the second dot(s) in on the 'handle'.


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