Useful Notes: The Glory That Was Rome

Ave Caesar! Roma Victor!

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 seventeenth 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—the famous Masada—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 Roman forces in the Eastern Empire, however were able to maintain a shadow of the old-school professionalism for a long time, having survived the destruction of the Western Empire by nearly 1,000 years.

In Exercitu Romano Troporum:

  • Attack Pattern Alpha: Romans set great store in careful formations.
  • Badass Army
    • Double Subverted by the citizen cavalry (the units of cavalry raised among Roman citizens): while Roman cavalry is overshadowed by the fame of the infantry and often thought it was done away with because it wasn't up to task, back in the day it was the most prestigious branch because it was just that dangerous. Its true moments of glory came with the Pyrrhic Wars, where they caught Pyrrhus (possibly the best commander of its time) by surprise and forced him in his Pyrrhic Victories by regularly crushing his Thessalian cavalry (considered the best non-cataphract heavy cavalry in the world until then), and in the Roman-Syrian War, where they faced cataphracts (heavy cavalrymen equipped with lances and scale armour that covers the whole knight and the horse, with a clear advantage on non-cataphract heavy cavalry) and won. The only one who could consistently defeat the Roman cavalry, and in fact was the cause for its decline and eventual disappearance, was Hannibal Barca, who had the habit of facing it with larger numbers of Numidian cavalry (extremely skilled light cavalry equipped with javelins and long-running horses), that would avoid meelee while throwing javelins, thus causing so much losses to the equites (the social class Roman cavalry units were raised from) that eventually they were unable to replenish their numbers.
    • Triple Subverted with late Roman cavalry (as the Late Roman Empire was eventually forced to raise cavalry units of its own). On one side, it has the fame of being the main arm of the Late Roman Army, and capable it was. On the other it has the fame of being formidable only in comparison to infantry that is (allegedly) inferior to its predecessor. On the third, the cavalry of the late Roman army, divided between light cavalry equipped with javelins and/or bows and arrows and heavy cataphracts (because it was a good idea, after all: medieval knights are nothing more that cataphracts made more effective by stirrups), was as dangerous to their opponents as the original citizen cavalry was to theirs, and the main trouble of the barbarians when facing the Romans was to find a way to not be simply trampled by a cavalry charge. On the fourth, more than once Roman cavalry was defeated due the barbarians finding an effective counter or just they themselves pulled something stupid, making the eventual victory more difficult than it should have been (as at Argentoratum, where the Romans had to fight a relatively difficult battle before ultimately triumphing instead of bitchslapping the Alamanni) or even causing crushing defeats.
    • Badass Decay: Subverted: while there's a widely-held belief the Late Roman Army was inferior to its predecessor due having been transformed into multiple bands of barbarians with no loyalty to Rome, the truth is that the Germanic soldiers in the army never went over the 21-23% of the total and, unless they were fighting against the specific clan of a soldier, loyal as any Roman if not more, and even the army of the Western Roman Empire, that had grown much weaker than its Eastern counterpart, remained a force to reckon with even just twenty years before the fall of the Western Empire. The only reason the Germanic peoples broke through was that a combination of economic crisis, civil wars, and emperors sabotaging potential rivals depleted the numbers of the army (already stretched thin by the wars against the Parthians first and the Sasanid Persians later), allowing some of them to break through (mostly for brief incursions, but near the end actually settling in Roman lands) forcing the Romans to allow them to cross the border, settle in and serve alongside the imperial army until a civil war too much only left the Germans to fight for the Western Empire.
  • Boot Camp Episode : The Romans didn't invent boot camp but they might as well have.
  • Determinator: The entire point of the Cohort Legion was that it just 'kept going'. You could throw elephants, chariots, raging berserkers at it, but the front line would keep shoving forward, no matter what happened.
  • 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.
    • A number of towns and cities in Italy and around the Mediterranean were originally built by and for the legions: when conquering a particularly rebellious area, the Romans would choose a site, kick out any previous inhabitant still alive, burn their homes and build a fortress on the model of the fortified camps they built and dismantled once per day during marches, replace the wooden palisade and tents with stone walls and homes as soon as possible, and use the place as base until pacification ensued, at which point they'd leave the place to civilians (or the legionaires themselves once discharged). Among the cities with this origin we have Belgrade (built as Singidunum on the site of a previous Celtic settlement), London (originally the Roman-built civilian settlement of Londinium, but still by the legions twice, the second time after the original was burned down in Boudica's uprising) and Jerusalem (the Romans had razed the city in 70 AD during the repression of the Great Revolt, and emperor Hadrian had the city rebuilt as the fortress of Aelia Capitolina, banned to all Jews after the Bar Kokhba Revolt).
    • They also built a mountain to serve as a ramp to reach an enemy fortress.
  • Genre-Killer: Confrontation with Rome brought to an end the use of War Elephants (after the first two encounters the Romans became very good at slaughtering them) and combat chariots (scythed or otherwise) in the Western world. The scythed chariot had it particularly bad, as one battle saw them bounce away upon impact on the Roman shield wall (the Romans had advanced so close to the chariots' rallying point they couldn't build up speed) and the legionaires slaughter their drivers before asking for more.
  • Glory Hound: Command in the Roman Army grew to become very politicized. Many Generals used military service as a way to secure steps towards leadership in the Senate (both during the Republic and the Empire); to that end, there was often an emphasis put on making grandiose military achievements. Typically after a great military success a 'Triumph' (a big parade for the commanding general) was held in the capitol to celebrate it. Politicization of the military was eventually one of the major factors that led to the Empire's downfall as civil wars between generals wrestling for power weakened the Roman Legion.
  • 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.
  • Luckily My Shield Will Protect Me: Roman Legions emphasized the use of shields with its infantry to form shield walls that could easily hold off poorly equip barbarian hordes. They're particularly famous for the 'Testudo' (latin for Tortoise) formation, where legionnaires would form a roof of shields over the formation to protect it from arrows.
  • Million Mook March: The Roman love flaunting their armies across the empire. Which is their way of showing off that their strength and to make citizens feel safe knowing that the army is there to protect them.
  • Power Copying: The Romans had an habit of adopting everything useful they encountered, even (and especially) if originally used by the enemy. Some of the things they copied from outside sources are the Manipular Legion (originally employed by the Samnites and adopted specifically to fight them on their own lands), the pilum (originally invented either by the Etruscans or the Gauls), the gladius (a modification of Celtic swords), the spatha (originally a Celtic cavalry sword, only made with the superior Roman steel), most types of torso armours except for the 'classic' lorica segmentata (various sources), the Imperial Gallic helmet (derived from Gallic helmets), the late ridge helmet (originally Persian), the ricurve composite bow (found in the Middle East), mounted archers and cataphract cavalry (first met with the Seleucids but not adopted until the wars with Parthians and Sasanid Persians).
  • Proud Warrior Race
  • Rain of Projectiles: Since the adoption of the Manipular Legion, the Romans loved raining pointy and blunt death on their enemies, in multiple ways depending on the period:
    • The most famous implement is the pilum, a shield-piercing javelin originally invented by the Gauls or the Etruscans and perfected by the Romans to bend on impact, thus making it impossible to extract in the heat of the battle and leaving the enemy with an unbalanced shield (assuming he wasn't killed outright or had a wounded arm when the javelin pierced the shield). In the early days it was used only by skirmishers, but with time was adopted also by the regular legions, who would throw a short but incredibly intense barrage of two pila on the enemy right before meelee, disorganizing the victims' formation, causing sudden losses and weakening the survivors mere seconds before the Romans entered shortsword distance. In spite of it lethality it wasn't that decisive, as the enemy first had to survive long enough to enter range and, as you'll see, that was a difficult proposition at best;
    • Allied skirmishers were also equipped with bows and slings. Particularly prized were the Baleares, slingers from the Balearic Islands so capable their name effectively became synonimous with funditores (the proper Latin term for slingers), and archers from Crete (especially between 218 BC to the late Republic), Anatolia, Thrace and, above all, Syria, all equipped with powerful composite recurve bows;
    • In the late period the pila had been abandoned by the legion in favor of spears, but the Roman heavy infantry had not renounced to throw projectiles on the enemy. Instead, they would carry a number of plumbatae, lead-weighted darts to throw in the enemy's face before meelee;
    • The Late Roman Army also employed skirmishers. They kept the pilum in service before replacing it with the spiculum (a similar javelin with a shorter head) and the more traditional lancea, but their main weapon was the recurve composite bow;
    • Reserved for sieges, the Romans had the manuballista, a hand-held version of the ballista (see below). That is, a large siege crossbow;
    • Throwing arrows and javelins at the enemy was not exclusive to the infantry: light auxiliary cavalry (based on the Numidian model) was rightly famous for their ability to overcome heavy cavalry with well-aimed javelins (as long as they remembered to keep distance: when not under Hannibal or Roman commanders, they had the bad habit of letting heavy cavalry close into meelee), and the Late Roman Army adopted mounted archers on the Parthian and Persian model;
    • Finally (because Romans really loved lobbing things at the enemy, they also had the ballista (a catapult similar to a giant crossbow, capable of lobbying stones against the walls of enemy cities and giant arrows against enemy troops), the onager (a small but powerful catapult for sieges only) and the extremely feared scorpio (a smaller arrow-only ballista, capable of either a faster rate of fire of 4 arrows per minute to a distance of up to 400 meters or devastating sniping shots to up to 100 meters). The latter was the main reason coming into pilum range was such a difficult proposition: during the Roman Republic and the early Empire, a legion had 60 of them (one per centuria), and not many enemies had the courage (or insanity) necessary to not break and run when the Romans started shooting so many giant arrows or suddenly impaled their leaders...
  • Rape, Pillage, and Burn: The Romans were usually generous for the standards of their time, but if your city was a former ally or in rebellion then they became positively genocidal, with Julius Caesar earning himsel fame of graceful winner when he cut the right hand of any and all able-bodied men of a Gaulish town before letting them go with their families and sacking the place. To put that in perspective, Roman standard procedure was to: if the city surrendered, leave it intact save for a number of hostages and a fine, with amounts of hostages and fine increasing for how much it took them to surrender from the start of the siege; if the city was stormed, the city was sacked and most elders killed, while the rest of the population was enslaved; if the city was a former ally or in rebellion, the elders and all able-bodied men were put to death and their women and children sold as slaves and the city was sacked and completely destroyed (this was the fate of Jerusalem, with the Romans leaving a single wall standing because they were feeling generous and wanted to leave the Jews at least a piece of their only temple where they could pray), and, if they felt particularly spiteful, they would consacrate the place to the Infernal Gods and sow salt on the site to signal that nobody was to rebuild the place. Then there was Marcus Claudius Marcellus, who, in the Second Punic War, went so overboard with the Sicilians that when he was named military governor of Sicily the locals sent envoys and begged the Senate to send him somewhere else, and the Senate admitted they had a point and posted him in Apulia.
  • 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 Roman Way: Always present in some form, but emphasized after the Marian reforms (c. 107 BC). One particular example is that the gear Roman soldiers trained with was actually heavier than what they would use in combat so that their reaction times would be much quicker in the heat of battle.
  • 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.
    • Case in point: after the Battle of Cannae, the entire Roman field army was wiped out and the Carthaginians under Hannibal were approaching the city. The Romans not only raised another army two or three times its size from the civilian population to fight on all the possible fronts at the same time (the newly-raised army was divided in six forces, one to defend Rome, one to harass Hannibal, one sent to Spain to open a second front and cut Hannibal's only way to receive reinforcements, one sent to Northern Italy to fight Hannibal's Gaulish allies, one sent to Southern Italy to bring back in the fold the Samnites and the Greek cities that had rebelled and joined Hannibal and one to Greece to fight the Macedons who had declared war when Rome was apparently about to collapse), and sent the survivors of Cannae into Sicily with orders to bring the rebellious cities of the island back into fold and to not return to Italy until Hannibal had left. And when the Carthaginians of Spain destroyed the forces deployed against them the survivors of Cannae (that had completed their job, as the Sicilians had surrendered after the destruction of Siracuse) were reinforced and sent to finish the job in Spain.
    • In battle as well. Legion formations emphasized two things, flexible maneuvering and rotating combat. Maniples and 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 (and that's without [[Rain of Arrows all the pointy death they would rain on the victim as they came close). 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.
  • You Don't Look Like You: When thinking to Roman soldiers, most people invariably imagine them like these reenactors, no matter the period. In truth, Roman soldiers had different gear depending on the era, and, for a while, depending on how rich the soldier was (until the Marian reform, the soldiers were supposed to buy their own gear):
    • Early Roman soldiers fought in an hoplitic phalanx, mutuated from the Etruscans. As such they were originally equipped like Greek hoplites, the only variations being the helmets (richer soldiers favored Greek models, but most would use this Etruscan model, more often than not without the expensive crest) and the poorer soldiers using the traditional Italian chestplates as the ones in this image, supported by mostly unarmored skirmishers equipped with bows and javelins;
    • The first variation, going to the richest soldiers, was the introduction of alternative armors like the Gaulish chainmail (aquired through the Etruscans) and the Greek linothorax;
    • With the Sannitic Wars and the abandonement of the traditional phalanx, the legionaries replaced most of their spears with the famed pilae and adopted early models of the scutum-except the scutum was originally oval. In the meantime, the Greek models of helmet had been mostly replaced by the Italic Montefortino-type helmet, and earlier swords had been replaced by the Greek kopis;
    • the Punic Wars saw two changes: first, Scipio's legions aquired the falcata (met in their Spain expedition), and later the Romans aquired their famed gladius;
    • With the Marian reform, the equipment is standardized: skirmishers disappear from the legion (the remaining ones are auxiliaries provided by allies and vassals), and all soldiers wear chainmail and the Montefortino helmet, and carry the oval scutum, two pilae and the gladius (with the model depending on the period). This is Caesar's legionary;
    • Late in the first century BC, the legionaries start adopting the tower scutum, segmented armour and the Imperial Gallic helmet. This is the 'classic' legionary, with the segmented armour coexisting with mail (mostly used by centurions and those auxiliaries who fought the Roman way) and scale (centurions and officers) and the scutum with the round (or oval) clipeus (used by auxiliaries);
    • In the third century, the segmented armour has disappeared due the high fabrication cost, the constant maintenance the soldiers had to provide and the great fatigue caused by wearing it not matching the benefits of increased arrow protection;
    • By the fourth century the Romans have changed their tactics for a return to a phalanx-like formation, and the equipment has changed with them: scale armour has disappeared from infantry, javelins have returned to specialized skirmishers (who also carry a composite recurve bow) while standard infantry has resumed carrying spears, the gladius has been replaced by the longer spatha previously exclusive to the cavalry, the scutum has been replaced by the clipeus, and the Imperial Gallic helmet has been phased out in favor of ridge helmets;
    • Officers were mostly constant, wearing the muscle cuirass (flanked by the scale armour from the first century CE) and the best helmet they could buy or the standard model depending on the period. They would either carry the standard infantry sword or the spatha depending on their branch;
    • Cavalry too became constant from the introduction of chainmail, as they would wear it and the standard cavalry helmet and carry a spatha. In the late period (and the Byzantine army), light cavalry would also be equipped with bow and arrows or javelins, while heavy cavalry would be equipped as cataphracts.