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 Thine Roman is the Pilum, Roman the sword is thine

The even trench the bristling mound, the legion's ordered line.

Lays of Ancient Rome by Sir Thomas Maculay.


The Roman army was the Mother of All Badass Armies. Quite literally in fact. The classic modern organization with hierarchies of standardized units and subunits was based on organization structures developed by Latinophile sixteenth and seventeeth century commanders who were consciously attempting to make a copycat. Thus, in fact the curious sense of recognition a modern person might get on contemplating the Roman army is by no means accidental.

The Roman army was originally a city-state army roughly on the model of those of Ancient Greece. However different circumstances of Italy, including hilly terrain, caused Rome to develop what is called the Manipular Legion. The legion (originally meaning simply muster) was the basic building block of the Roman army. It was roughly the same as what might be called a reinforced brigade now. It had about four to six thousand soldiers who were citizens and roughly equal number of allied or mercenary troops organized into alae, or wings, some of whom provided specialty skills such as archery and cavalry. The foundation of the army was Rome's citizen soldiers; they wielded the pilum (a short javelin with a heavy iron head designed to punch through an enemy's armor and/or embed itself in his shield and weigh it down) and a shortsword similar to those used by the Greeks (the famous gladius wasn't adopted until the Punic Wars when it was copied from Spanish warriors). The Manipular Legion was divided into a number of centuries (commanded by a centurion naturally). Two centuries made a maniple. The maniples were traditionally arrayed in a checkerboard formation of three lines. This by the way led to a slang term. When a Roman said "It has come down to the Triarii(third wave)" he meant "things are tough" because of course the third line didn't join until the battle was really going.

After the Punic Wars and the conquest of much of the Mediterranean, the Manipular Legion was replaced by the Cohort Legion. A Cohort was several centuries for a total of about 600 men strong and was about the same as a battalion. Its advantage was that it could operate independently and therefore was useful in small actions. The army also changed from a citizen levy to a professional force; being a soldier would be a full-time occupation. The property requirements for joining the army were dropped; soldiers would be paid and provisioned by their commander, or later, the state. The equipment was standardized, with all legionaries issued the gladius sword, a large shield (scutum), body armor made of chainmail, scales, or (later) segmented plate, a helmet, and javelins. Non-citizens were recruited into the army as auxiliaries, being rewarded with Roman citizenship upon discharge. Auxiliaries served as archers, cavalrymen, skirmishers, and light infantry, allowing citizens to specialize as heavy infantry.

The expression goes "all roads lead to Rome"; in fact, the opposite is true. All roads lead from Rome and some people happen to walk on them the wrong way. The roads were built by the army on their way to conquest. Further, their every stop for the night was accompanied by building a fortified camp. In the morning, it was dismantled so that enemies couldn't use it. They had no fear of using earthworks and engineering in combat, and on at least one occasion they literally altered the face of the Earth.

Alexander the Great is known to have turned an island into a peninsula because the inhabitants made him angry. Not be topped by some pansy Greek, the Legion built a mountain. Why? Because on another mountain there were some rebellious Israelites, and Rome doesn't like rebels. More accurately, the rebels hid on top of a mountain, creating for themselves an incredibly secure fortification. In order to root them out, the Legion built a ramp from ground level all the way to the top of the mountain. Then they killed the rebels (or would have, if they didn't all commit suicide). If the mountain came to Mohammed, it may be because Rome brought it to him.

In terms of arms and armament, each legionary carried a gladius, and two pila. The gladius was the Roman short sword, intended more for thrusting than for slashing. The pilum was a short javelin with a wooden haft and a long iron point. The javelin could and did kill, but it was also very useful in disabling enemy shields. After sticking in the shield, the soft iron would bend, making it difficult to remove (the barbed head also helped) meaning that the enemy's shield would be burdened with an extra ten pounds of off-balance iron.

In terms of armor, the movies sometimes get this right; they wore heavy iron cuirasses (breastplates) over wool padding, hardened leather skirts, and heavy boots. The design of the helmet reflected their focus on slashing swordplay, as it protected the top and side of the heads, but not the face. Contrast this with the design of Greek helmets which protected the face from the thrusts of fifteen-foot long spears (and, later, eighteen-foot pikes under Philip and Alexander of Macedon). The plumes and such that you see on TV (and at casinos) were actually reserved for officers as an identifier of rank.

The term "legion" was somewhat similar to the modern term "regiment" or "battalion", denoting a portion of the army of a particular size. During the height of the direct (as opposed to hegemonic) empire, the legions spent their time at the outskirts of the empire maintaining control. The more troublesome a region, the more legions it received. Thus Iberia (modern Spain) only had one legion, but Judea (modern Israel, Jordan, and surrounding countries) had three.

Each legion was divided into ten cohorts named "first cohort", "second cohort" and so on. The first cohort was the most prestigious, the tenth the least. Each cohort was divided into six centuries containing ~80 (not one hundred) men, led by a centurion. In terms of seniority, the centurion of the first century of the first cohort was the most senior officer and that of the sixth century of the tenth cohort the most junior. All told, the legion had a strength of approximately 5400 men, once officers, engineers, and auxiliary cavalry were accounted for.

Speaking of auxiliary, the legion was beloved by Rome and it was truly a fearsome heavy infantry and the backbone of the Roman army. That said, the Romans weren't stupid and knew that victory relies on the ability of the army to meet the enemy regardless, and auxiliary forces were used to supplement the legion. The auxiliary units comprised light and heavy cavalry, archers, and sling-men. They were made up not of Roman citizens, but of citizens of captured, absorbed, or client states. Only Roman citizens could become legionaries. However, serving in the auxiliary was a path to citizenship, so the children of auxiliaries could become legionaries. Over time, this led to difficulty as it meant that there were fewer people available for the auxiliaries, which, despite the fame and esteem of the legions, truly were necessary for a balanced and viable fighting force.

One last note: the term decimation is Latin and literally means "destruction of one in ten". Any demonstration of cowardice or mutiny was punished by decimation. The unit was divided into groups of ten and the men drew lots. Whoever got the short straw was beaten to death by the other nine. Officers tended to be executed separately from the rank and file. Such an extreme measure was only used a handful of times in Rome's history.

The Roman army continued to evolve for a long time. Toward the later days it was almost indistinguishable from a feudal army. The Byzantine forces in the East, however were able to maintain a shadow of the old-school professionalism for a long time.

  • Attack Pattern Alpha: Romans set great store in careful formations.
  • Badass Army
  • Boot Camp Episode : The Romans didn't invent boot camp but they might as well have.
  • Drill Sergeant Nasty : Your typical centurion. In particular, a centurion would carry a stick called a vitis, as a sign of seniority, that he would use to beat his legionaries with regularly. The true Drill Sergeant Nasty, however, was the centurion known only as Cedo Alteram, which means "Give me another," named so because when he'd beaten a soldier so hard his vitis broke, he'd ask for another vitis in order to continue the beating. (And not quite unlike Gunnery Sergeant Hartman's eventual fate, his soldiers partook in a mutiny and killed him.
  • The Engineer : The Roman Army was noted for its skill in engineering. When it wasn't busy fighting it spent a lot of its time as a work crew.
    • The famed Roman road network was, in fact, built expressly by and for the legions.
  • I Like Gladii
  • Lost Roman Legion: For all their glory and prowess, the Roman legions weren't invincible, and their losses tended to be disastrous. The most famous lost legions are probably the three destroyed in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest.
  • Million Mook March
  • Proud Warrior Race
  • Rain of Pila
  • Sergeant Rock : The centurions were largely responsible for the Roman army's effectiveness, being responsible for training and discipline, and also providing leadership in battle.
  • The Spartan Way : Always present in some form, but emphasized after the Marian reforms (c. 107 BC).
  • We Have Reserves : During the republic, the Roman army's advantage was its huge manpower pool due to near-universal service and incorporation of allied troops. While Roman soldiers were the equal of any troops in the Mediterranean, Rome won many of its wars through sheer tenacity. The famous harsh discipline and tough training was more of a feature of the Marian and especially the Imperial army.
    • In battle as well. Legion formations emphasized two things, flexible maneuvering and rotating combat. Cohorts would rotate men to the front as the front-liners got tired, eventually the second line would move up (thus the gaps) and start the whole thing over again. Fighting a Legion was like being attacked by a giant food-processor. Most battles in ancient times were one-sidedly bloody (someone ran, you chased them and killed them), Roman civil war battles were notoriously bloody for both sides.
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