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
  • 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
  • Proud Warrior Race
  • Rain of Pila
  • 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. 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.