In this coursework I shall try to explain why the Romans were able to conquer and maintain such a large empire. To do this, I will examine the Roman Army in depth, explaining its format, chain of command, tactics, weapons and technology, which are still key factors in the success of an army today. I will also look at the Roman navy’s role in this success. I chose to study this particular area because I think that there are many misconceptions about the Roman army in the world today – such as it being ‘unbeatable’. The Legion Legions evolved from the Roman citizen militia which armed itself in times of crisis for the defence of the state.
During the Second Punic War, Scipio reorganized the Roman army’s divisions and improved its tactics. Under Marius ‘men of no property’ were recruited into the armed forces and a professional army appeared and new training methods were introduced. Ten cohortes with standards formed a named and numbered legion with an eagle standard. The cohortes, divided into six centuriae commanded by a centurio, became the main tactical unit of the army. Cavalry and auxiliaries supported each legion. Augustus established a standing army to man the frontiers of the empire.
There appears to have been twenty-eight permanent legions, each having a number and an honorific title. Severus added three legions; Constantine increased the number but also severely limited the number of men to allow flexibility and avoid mutiny. Furthermore, he placed them under equestrian prefects instead of the traditional senatorial legates and replaced the eagle on their standards with a Christian symbol. On retirement, a veteran in the early days earned a land grant in a ‘colony’ where he continued to act as a Romanizing and pacifying influence and as an example of ‘pietas’ throughout the empire.
However, from the time of Augusts it was ore usual for him to receive a payment. Nevertheless, many settled in the area where they had served, thus effectively ‘colonizing’ it. This was obviously beneficial for Rome Recruitment and training On joining a legion, a new recruit would first be interviewed. This was to check that he had proper legal status – he needed to be a roman citizen. He had to have a medical examination to check that he was physically able. The Roman army favoured recruits from certain trades, as they would be helpful if needed.
They especially favoured ‘blacksmiths, wagon makers, butchers and huntsmen’, disapproving of ‘confectioners, weavers and those who have been employed in occupations appropriate to the women’s quarters’. Once enrolled, a soldier swore an oath on the aquila, the legion’s standard. This resulted in his allegiance being to the legion, not its commander. Training was very thorough, systematic and demanding. The first phase was physical training. During this phase, recruits would learn to march at the regulation pace for at least 35km (in one day), while wearing a heavy pack.
Physical fitness was further developed by running, jumping, swimming and drilling. The next phase was the weapons training, starting with wooden-practice swords and wicker shields. The recruit learned to handle the shield correctly and to attack a dummy with the point of his sword. The sword was for stabbing only: strictly no slashing. When he had mastered the basic skills with dummy weapons he progressed to the real thing and finally would be permitted to practise individual combat in pairs, probably with a leather button on the end of his sword and leather guards down the blade.
He would then learn how to throw the pilum (javelin). He would be required to throw it at a target at least 25 metres away. Once he had reached proficiency in handling his weapons and was physically fit, the soldier would leave the barracks and was ready for his advanced training. This began with route marches, on which he had to carry his armour, weaponry, several days’ ration food and equipment for making a camp (including a saw, an axe and a basket for moving the earth to build structures with, as shown below).
Much importance was attached to the proper construction of the camp at the end of the day’s march. Each recruit was given detailed instructions and lots of practice. Several practice camps and forts have been discovered across the Roman Empire. At one of these, the recruits would be trained to build camp ovens and platforms for siege engines, as well as the more basic ditches and ramparts. Format Each (imperial) legion was commanded by a legatus and contained almost 6000 men at full strength.
It was divided into 10 cohortes, each of which contained 480 men, with the exception of the First Cohors which had 960. A cohors was usually under the command of the most senior centurio of its centuriae. Cohortes were divided into 6 centuriae. Each centuria held 80 men and was led by the centurio. The centuriae of the First Cohort held 160 men. The centuriae were divided into 10 contubernium. These were groups of 8 men which shared a tent. In addition there was a 120 man cavalry unit attached to the legion and possibly as many as 60 artillery men.
A legion had its own engineers, accountants, carpenters, architects, doctors, clerks, smiths and armourers. These men were placed in the first cohort, along with the veterans. In some cases this was a mistake because the first cohort would be held in reserve until the effects of them being sent in would be the greatest. This would often involve them going into the worst of the fighting where an inexperienced recruit who nevertheless had useful skills could be easily killed. The success of the Roman army was largely due to its discipline, its tactics and above all its versatility.
The Roman legions were based on a clearly defined chain of command and a squad-based system. A lone legionary would be vulnerable and dependant on his immediate surroundings for food. However, each legion (or even cohors) was relatively mobile, heavily protected and able to produce its own food, weapons and armour. A legion was very versatile, being able to build roads, forts, artillery and defences. Tactics and strategy The legions were also very flexible on the battlefield: a group of legionaries could raise their shields into walls and a roof, thus forming the well-known testudo or tortoise.
The testudo was used to protect the legionaries from arrows, javelins, slingshots, artillery fire or thrown rubble (hurled from the tops of walls). However, the testudo was not as effective as is popularly believed against arrows or slingshots fired from short range. The testudo was slow, unwieldy and unable to fight properly: cavalry or melee infantry could easily smash through a testudo. Therefore, this strategy was normally used only when assaulting a heavily defended position, such as a fort. The legionaries had many other tactics which put their shields, swords and javelins to good use.
The testudo (from Trajan’s Column): The legions’ adaptability on the battlefield meant that the only strategy that could be employed against them truly effectively was that of ‘guerrilla tactics’. This was demonstrated by the battle of Teutoberge Forest where three whole legions (45000 men) were slaughtered by a relatively small force of Germanians who ambushed them (led by their leader Arminius who was an ‘ally’ of Rome) in Teutoberge Forest. This was further demonstrated in many of Hannibal’s, leader of the Carthaginians, battles with the Romans.
The legions’ ability at building meant that the legionaries needn’t be ‘laid off’ during peace time as they could be put to good use constructing roads, aqueducts and other public structures. This meant that the highly trained and experienced legionaries could remain in the army without fear of unemployment. Although, occasionally, legions were added or disbanded, most were constant. A legion could also build its own fort, complete with dormitories, granaries and a headquarters. One disadvantage of the roman strategy was that it was only at its most effective whilst the legion occupied a wide open space.
If they entered a dense forest they would be unable to operate as a complete unit, whereas the ‘barbarian’ cultures they were against preferred to act in relatively small bands, with little cooperation so the forest helped them. Furthermore, the legions’ colourful shields and standards were harder to conceal, whereas the barbarians could ‘melt away’ into the trees. Weaponry The Roman legionary was equipped with a unique combination of weapons. Firstly he was armed with a gladius. These were special short swords patterned after those of the Spanish Celts. The gladius was intended to be a thrusting and stabbing weapon.
This was the best way to fight in a close formation, as slashing would leave soldiers’ sides open to attack and could also easily stab an allied soldier. It required much training to be wielded skilfully. Cavalry were armed with an extended version of the gladius, the spatha which was designed for slashing and ease of use. Between 2nd century BC and 2 century AD, legionaries carried a short dagger called the pugio. Each legionary would also carry two pilla. These were unique javelins with a brilliant design. This had a wooden shaft 1. 5m long and a pointed iron head of 60 cm. The head was cleverly constructed.
The first 25cm were finely tempered to give it penetrating power, but the rest was left untempered so that it was fairly soft and liable to bend. Therefore, when it was hurled at an enemy, its point penetrated and stuck into his shield, while the neck of the metal head bent and the shaft hung down. This not only rendered the javelin unusable (so it couldn’t be thrown back) but also made the shield so unwieldy that the enemy might have to abandon it altogether. The head was barbed, to prevent it from being removed from wounds and a lead ball weight was added to increase its range. The Legionary Fortress
If the legion itself was like an army in miniature, the fortress which it occupied while not on campaign may be compared to a fortified town. It covered about 50-60 acres, about one third of the area of Pompeii. The design of the fortress was based on a standard pattern. The main buildings, grouped in the centre, were the headquarters (principis), the living-quarters of the legatus (praetorium), the hospital (valetudinarium) and the granaries (horrea). The fortress was surrounded by a ditch, rampart and battlements with towers at the corners and at regular intervals along the sides.
Each side had a fortified gateway. The principia was the heart of the legionary fortress and was therefore large, complex and impressive. It had a stone-flagged courtyard which was surrounded by a colonnade and storerooms. The basilica was the great hall where the commander worked with his officers, interviewed important locals and administered military justice. It was very large, being about 75m long and 24m wide. Its central nave, bounded by tall columns supporting the vaulted roof, was about 12m wide and the aisles on either side were about 6m wide.
If each man stood shoulder to shoulder, it would have been possible to squeeze the whole legion into it. All this helped to impress the local rulers. In the centre of the far wall of the basilica was the most sacred place in the fortress: the saecellum or chapel. This housed the legion’s standard, the aquila, an image of an eagle perched with outspread wings on the top of the pole. It was made of gold and in its talons it clutched a bundle of golden darts, representing Jupiter’s thunderbolts. The aquila represented the ‘spirit of the legion’ and aroused feelings of intense loyalty and almost religious respect.
Too lose it in battle was the worst possible disgrace and misfortune – it rarely happened. The soldier who looked after the aquila was always from the first cohort and carried it into battle. On either side of the saecellum were the rooms where the clerks kept the payrolls and attended to all the paperwork that was needed to run the legion. Nearby and usually underground was the legion’s strong-room, in which pay and savings were kept under lock and key. The valetudinarium contained many small wards for the sick and injured. There was also an operating theatre with running water.
The horrea were skilfully designed to keep grain dry and cool for long periods. They were mainly built of stone but later on, stone became the more widely used material. A granary was a long and narrow building; the roof had wide overhanging eaves to carry the rainwater away from the walls. To prevent damp rising from the ground, the floor was supported on small piers or low walls which allowed air to circulate freely underneath. There were several of these granaries in a fortress, and they could contain stocks of grain sufficient to last for at least one year.
This was an example of the impressive foresight the Romans had: they tried to plan against every eventuality. Siege Weapons The outcomes of many battles, especially those in which the Romans were either defending or assaulting a heavily fortified position (such as a fort), were decided by the legions’ ability to construct, maintain and operate various types of siege engines. To make one, all a legion needed was a supply of wood, bolts (metal or wooden), leather and ammunition (either stone boulders or metal bolts).
Most of the artillery was based on those originally developed by the Greeks. Typically, they were torsion powered machines, meaning that they were powered by twisted chords. Hand cranks would be used to twist the chords and winch back the ammunition. When triggered, a massive amount of energy was released and directed towards launching the projectile. By this period, the siege engines were generally divided into two categories: ballistae (which propelled large metal bolts of around 70cm in length with great force and accuracy) and onagri (which hurled rocks).
Onagri were large and difficult to move so they were most suited to sieges (or being mounted on triremes). In the 2nd Century AD, carrobalistae were introduced. It improved upon the cumbersome, static ballistae by mounting it on a type of cart or chariot. Ballistae were also used on warships. Left: a carrobalista. Right: remains of an onagri Both the ballistae and the onagri were constructed and operated under the direction of ballistarii. The ballistarii could calculate trajectory, distance and power with surprising accuracy. It is currently unknown exactly how many ballistarii were assigned to each cohors.
This is because sources, even from the same approximate date, vary, reporting each cohors to have any number between 1 and 6. The Romans perfected the design of the originally Greek siege engines so much that the general designs were still being widely used towards the end of the medieval period. a ballista bolt through a vertebra, demonstrating its power: Artillery was a big advantage, but some commanders sacrificed their legion’s speed and manoeuvrability for the added firepower. This was not a good strategy and their enemies soon capitalised on this mistake. Ranks and duties
The Legatus Legionis was the overall commander of the legion and would usually be in his mid-thirties. He would have been of senatorial class and was also picked by the emperor. He usually would have had previous military experience in command as a tribuna laticlavius but he would only be filing the post as a temporary step in his political career. This meant that sometimes legions would be commanded by a legatus who had little interest or ability in military matters yet had good connections. A tribuna laticlavius was normally the son of a senator or equestrian.
Each legion had 6 tribunae who would usually divide themselves into 3 pairs and took turns at commanding in 2 month intervals. Being a tribuna was a way of training to be a legatus. The praefectus castorum practically ran the legion. He was responsible for maintenance of the legionary fortress, supplies, munitions, equipment and general organization. He would usually be in his 50s or 60s and would have been promoted from the rank of primus pilus. When the legatus and senior tribuna were away, he was in command. The primus pilus was the centurio of the first cohors.
He was the most senior centurio of the legion. There was one (sometimes two) centurio for each centuria. An optiones was a centurio’s second in command. The signifier was the centuria’s standard bearer. The aquilifer bore the legion’s aquila into battle. Losing this was a disgrace, so the aquilifer was very important, and was the most important immunes. Standard bearers, with an aquilifer in the center: Any soldiers who were exempt from the less desirable duties (such as sentry duty, digging ditches and latrine duty) were called immunes. They held this special status because they had special duties.