Last Updated on November 27, 2023 by Vladimir Vulic
Nowhere does the Roman talent for organization show itself so clearly as in its army. The story of the Roman army is an extensive one, demonstrated in part by the scale of this chapter.
The first part of this chapter considers the history of the Roman army (concentrating on the legions), trying to explain as much background as possible. The later part of the chapter seeks to explain specific points such as various different units, the workings of the army, etc.
The Greek Phalanx
The early Roman army, however, was a different thing altogether than the later imperial army.
At first, under the Etruscan Kings, the massive Greek phalanx was the mode of battle. Early Roman soldiers hence must have looked much like Greek hoplites.
A key moment in Roman history was the introduction of the census (the counting of the people) under Servius Tullius. With this the citizens were graded into five classes, from these classes were in varying degrees recruited the ranks of the army. The most wealthy, the first class, were the most heavily armed, equipped like the Greek hoplite warrior with helmet, round shield, greaves and breastplate, all of bronze, and carrying a spear and sword.
The lesser classes bore lesser armament and weaponry, the fifth class carrying no armour at all, solely armed with slings.
The army officers, as well as the cavalry, were drawn from leading citizens who were enrolled as equestrians (equites).
Hoplite (5th Century BC)
A hoplite of the Greek style.
In earliest Roman history soldiers fought in much the same equipment Greek warriors used.
Of the five classes defined the in the census, the first class was made up of those wealthy citizens who possessed the best armament.
This excellently equipped hoplite would therefore no doubt be of the first class.
All in all the Roman army consisted of 18 centuries of equites, 82 centuries of the first class (of which 2 centuries were engineers), 20 centuries each of the second, third and fourth classes and 32 centuries of the fifth class (of which 2 centuries were trumpeters).
In the early fourth century BC Rome received its greatest humiliation, as the Gauls sacked Rome itself.
If Rome was to reestablish her authority of central Italy, and be prepared to meet any similar disasters in future, some reorganization was needed. These changes were traditionally by the later Romans believed to have been the work of the great hero Fluvius Camillus, but it appears more likely that the reforms were introduced gradually during the second half of the fourth century BC.
Undoubtedly the most important change was the abandonment of the use of the Greek phalanx.
Italy was not governed by city states like Greece, where armies met on large plains, deemed suitable by both sides, to reach a decision. Far more it was a collection of hill tribes using the difficult terrain to their advantage. Something altogether more flexible was needed to combat such foes than the unwieldy, slow-moving phalanx.
The Early Legion (4th century BC)
In abandoning the phalanx, the Romans showed their genius for adaptability.
Though much of the credit might not be due to the Romans alone. For Rome was a founding member of the Latin League, an alliance initially formed against the Etruscans. The development of the early legion therefore might well be seen as a Latin development.
There were now three lines of Roman soldiers, the hastati in the front, the principes forming the second row, and the triarii, rorarii and accensi in the rear.
- At the front stood the hastati, who were most likely the spearmen of the second class in the previous organization of the phalanx. The hastati contained the young fighters and carried body armour and a rectangular shield, the scutum, which should remain the distinctive equipment of the legionary throughout Roman history. As weapons they carried a sword each and javalins. Though attached to the hastati were far more lightly armed skirmishers (leves), carrying a spear and several javelins.
The soldiers of the old first class now appear to have become two types of units, the principes in the second line and the triarii in the third line. Together they formed the heavy infantry.
- The principes were the picked men of experience and maturity. They were similarly, though better equipped than the hastati. In fact the principes were the best equipped men in the early legion.
- The triarii were veterans and still much looked and functioned like the heavily armed hoplites of the old Greek phalanx.
- The other new units, the rorarii, accensi (and leves) represented what once had been the third, fourth and fifth class in the old phalanx system. The rorarii were younger, inexperienced men, and the accensi were the least dependable fighters.
At the front the hastati and principes each formed a maniple of about 60 men, with 20 leves attached to each maniple of hastati.
At the back the triarii rorarii and accensi were organized into a group of three maniples, about 180 men, called an ordo.
As the historian Livy quotes the main fighting force, the principes and the hastati, at a strength of fifteen maniples then the following size could be assumed for a legion:
|15 groups of leves (attached to the hastati)||300|
|15 hastati maniples||900|
|15 principes maniples||900|
|45 maniples (15 ordi) triarii, rorarii, accensi||2700|
|Total fighting force (without horsemen)||4800|
The tactics were thus:
The hastati would engage the enemy. If things got too hot, they could fall back through the lines of the heavy infantry principes and re-emerge for counter attacks.
Behind the principes knelt a few yards back, the triarii who, if the heavy infantry was pushed back, would charge forward with their spears, shocking the enemy with suddenly emerging new troops and enabling the principes to regroup. The triarii were generally understood as the last defence, behind which the hastati and principes could retire, if the battle was lost. Behind the closed ranks of the triarii the army would then try to withdraw.
There was a Roman saying ‘It has come to the triarii.‘ which described a desperate situation.
The famed Fluvius Camillus made some significant changes to the armament of the legion according to traditional Roman view. As the bronze helmets proved to be inadequate protection against the long swords of the barbarians, the Romans credited him with the issue of helmets made of iron with a polished surface to cause the swords to be deflected. (Though bronze helmets were later re-introduced.)
Also the introduction of the scutum, the large rectangular shield was attributable to Camillus, the Romans thought. Though in fact, in is doubtful for both the helmet as well as the rectangular scutum to have been introduced by Camillus alone.
In the early third century BC the Roman legion proved a worthy adversary against King Pyrrhus of Epirus and his well-trained Macedonian phalanx and war elephants.
Pyrrhus was a briliant tactician in the tradition of Alexander and his troops were of good quality.
The Roman legions might have been defeated by Pyrrhus (and only survived due to a near endless resource of fresh troops) but the experience gathered by fighting such an able foe was to prove invaluable for the great contests that lay ahead.
In the same century the first war against Carthage steeled the Roman army yet further, and towards the end of the century the legions defeated a new attempt by the Gauls to launch themselves southward from the Po valley, proving that now the Romans were indeed a match for the Gallic barbarians who had once sacked their capital.
At the outset of the Second Punic War, the historian Polybius tells us in his formula togatorum, Rome possessed the largest and finest army of the Mediterranean. Six legions made up of 32’000 men and 1600 cavalry, together with 30’000 allied infantry and 2’000 allied cavalry. And this was merely the standing army. If Rome called on all her Italian allies she had another 340’000 infantry and 37’000 cavalry.
Scipio’s Reforms of the Army
One man who made a great contribution to the running of the army, and thereby also to the wellfare and survival of Rome, was Scipio Africanus (Publius Cornelius Scipio).
He is believed to have been present at the military disasters of Trebia and Cannae where he learnt the lesson that the Roman army needed a drastic change in tactics. With only 25 years of age he assumed command of the troops in Spain and began training them harder than so far anyone had done. Undoubtedly the Roman legionaries were the best troops of their day. But if tactical movements, as Hannibal performed them on the battlefield, were supposed to be possible then the soldiers needed to be trained for it.
If Scipio was doing the right thing, then his victory over Hannibal at Zama clearly confirmed it.
Young, bright upcoming Roman commanders were quick to see the wisdom of Scipio’s approach and adopted his military style.
Scipio’s revolution changed the way of the legions. Rome was now to use proper tactics on the battlefield, rather than merely relying on the fighting superiority of the legionaries. Henceforth the Roman soldiers would be led by clever men seeking to outmanoeuvre their foe rather than merely being lined up and marched at the enemy.
If Rome had the best soldiers it now should also acquire the best generals.
The Roman Legion (2nd century BC)
For the second century BC we have accounts of a slightly reorganized legion.
The hastati were still up front, carrying bronze breastplates, or the more wealthy ones among them wore chain mail coats. They now also wore purple and black feather plumes on their helmets, 18 inches in height, to increase their apparent height and appear more intimidating to the enemy. They carried a pilum, a well-crafted wooden spear with iron tip. The javelins that were carried now were short ones, only about four feet long, but with a head nine inches long, well hammered, but so fashioned that it bent on impact and could not be returned by the enemy.
The other ranks of the legion were equipped in much the same manner except that they carried a long spear, the hasta, rather than the shorter pilum.
The rorarii and accensii appear by now to have been done away with, having become velites. The velites did not form their own battle line but were divided up equally among all the maniples to compliment their numbers. It emerges that now it was the velites who were the more mobile troops who operated in the front of the army, stinging the enemy with their javelins, before retiring through the ranks of the hastati and principes
The divisions were now of ten maniples. The figures are a bit unclear, but what is known is that the hastati maniple consisted of 120 men.
Subdivisions of all three ranks (hastati, principes, triarii) was one of ten maniples. A maniple is defined as consisting of 160 men. (Although the hastati are supposedly had 120 per maniple. The figures are confusing. I assume that the maniple was brought its full numbers by the addition of velites. i.e. 120 hastati + 40 velites = 160 men = 1 maniple)
The soldier now used the gladius, also known as ‘the Spanish sword’ to the Romans, apparently due to its origin. The iron helmets had now been replaced by bronze ones again, though of thicker metal.
Each maniple was commanded by two centurions, the first centurion commanding the right, the second the left of the maniple.
The cavalry force of 300 men was divided into ten squadrons (turmae), each with three decuriones in command.
As more of the east came under Roman control, it was inevitable that an increasing number of citizens became involved in commercial enterprises and enforced army service would have been a considerable nuisance. Rome could no longer rely on a regular supply of legionaries from the simple sturdy country population. Service in Spain was particularly unpopular. The continuous series of local wars and uprisings, bad Roman leadership and heavy losses all meant hardship, possible death and little loot.
In 152 BC popular pressure in Rome was such that the time-honoured method of enlistment was modified and men were chosen by lot for a period of six years continuous service.
Another effect was an increased use of allied forces. When Scipio Aemilianus took Numantia in 133 BC Iberian auxiliaries accounted for two-thirds of his force. In the east the critical Battle of Pydna which ended the third Macedonian War was probably won by the allies, who with elephants crushed the left wing of Perseus and enabled the legionaries to split and outflank the Macedonian phalanx.
The overseas expansion also had a serious effect on the citizens of the upper classes. New opportunities of enrichment and rising corruption saw to it that competent leadership became more and more difficult to find.
The Gracchi Brothers attempted to halt the decline in the numbers recruitable for the army with land distribution and by extending the franchise to the Italian allies. But as this failed and the two brothers both were killed, the scene was set for the Social War and the arrival of Marius and Sulla.
Marius‘ reforms of the Army
To Marius are attributed some of the major reforms of the Roman Army. Yet his were the final touches to a process begun much earlier. Rome, and Rome’s army in particular, by its very nature tended to resist any radical changes of direction. Far more it moved gradually.
Minor reforms of Gaius Gracchus had been such to make the state responsible for the supply of equipment and clothing to the legionaries and to forbid the enlistment of youths under seventeen.
Also the practice of filling in the ranks of depleted troops by raising extra troops and calling for voluteers from the so-called capite censi (meaning: head count), the Roman poor who owned no property, was common practice.
Marius however took the final step and opened the army to anyone who was poor, but fit and willing to fight. Rather than supplementing his ranks with the poor capite censi, he made an army out of them. These volunteers would sign up as soldiers for much longer periods then than the six years which conscripts had been obliged to serve. To these people drawn largely from the poor from the cities, being a soldier was a profession, a career, rather than a duty performed to Rome. Marius so created the first professional army Rome had ever had.
Marius, too, was careful to enlist experienced soldiers as well, by offering special inducements to veterans.
It was with this new army that Marius saved Italy from massive barbarian invasions by defeating the Germans at Aix-en-Provence and, together with Catulus, against the Cimbri at Vercellae.
Marius is also given credit for changing the construction of the pilum by replacing one of the iron nails with a wooden pin, so that the connection would break under impact and be impossible to return (the pilum had already been fashioned to bend on impact, as mentioned above, but it was notoriously difficult to temper the long metal head so that it was bent on impact, yet was strong enough to actually do damage.)
Also to Marius is attributed the allotment of land to legionaries at their demobilization – giving every legionary a prize to look forward to at the end of his service. A pension, so to speak.
Marius also is given credit for changing the construction of the legion, abolishing the three lines and the velites and instead founding the entire legion of soldiers of equal armour and weaponry.
Already under the great Roman general Scipio Africanus (who defeated Hasdrubal and Hannibal) the cohort had occasionally been the preferred tactical division.
I can not be clearly proven if it truly was Marius who made this change to the legion, or if it once more was not rather a gradual development within the army.
Though the most likely reasoning for the introduction of the cohort system for the legion was the change in recruitment policy under Marius. The previous system was based on the wealth and the experience of the individuals. Now, with the legionaries reduced to complete uniformity in recruitment, the same equal treatment was afforded when forming battle lines.
Under Marius the Roman legion reached a stage in its organization which in strength, resilience and flexibility had no equal.
In the period from Marius to Rome’s first emperor Augustus, there is little change in the organization of the army itself.
Though one or two points of Marius‘ reforms changed the nature of the army in ways, which Marius himself would not have foreseen, nor intended.
Provincial governors could recruit to make up for losses without any reference to the consuls, who so far had enjoyed sole authority in recruitment. Changes such as these allowed for Julius Caesar to raise new troops in Cisalpine Gaul for his campaigns.
Also, and perhaps most importantly, the loyalty of the soldiery was transferred from Rome itself to their commanders. The non-Roman people of Italy had little loyalty to Rome itself and yet they made up greater and greater numbers of the army. Had the previous system of recruitment which drew only from the land-owning classes ensured that the legionaries had responsibilities and loyalties back home, then the urban poor had nothing to lose back home. The soldiers’ loyalties lay with the one man who could provide them with the loot, a victorious commander.
Hence arose a specter to Roman authority which would haunt it for the rest of its history.
The Army of Augustus – the ‘classic’ legion
The army as operated from the time of Augustus can generally be referred to as the ‘classic’ legion, the armed body of men which most imagine in their minds upon hearing the word ‘legion’. And it is this state of the legion which is largely recreated in illustrations or Hollywood movies.
Under Julius Caesar, the army had become a highly efficient and thoroughly professional body, brilliantly led and staffed.
To Augustus fell the difficult task of retaining much that Caesar had created, but on a permanent peace-time footing. He did so by creating a standing army, made up of 28 legions, each one consisting of roughly 6000 men. Additional to these forces there was a similar number of auxiliary troops. Augustus also reformed the length of time a soldier served, increasing it from six to twenty years (16 years full service, 4 years on lighter duties).
Imperial Legionary (1st century AD)
A legionary wearing the famous banded armour, the lorica segmentata, and the typical imperial ‘Gallic’ helmet.
Also he has with him the famous curved, square shield, the gladius (sword) and a throwing spear (pilum).
Notice that by this time the helmet was a sophisticated device, featuring deflection areas and rims designed to crimple on impact and so absorb blows.
The rear neckguard is clearly visible, protecting from blows from behind. The cheek guards feature deflection panels to direct blows away from the neck.
The rim on the forehead would not merely prevent rainwater from running into the soldier’s face, but would also absorb a downward slash of a sword. Even the ear openings are furnished with such rims.
The standard of a legion, the so-called aquila (eagle) was the very symbol of the unit’s honour. The aquilifer who was the man who carried the standard was in rank almost as high as a centurion. It was this elevated and honourable position which also made him the soldiers’ treasurer in charge of the pay chest.
A legion on the march relied completely on its own resources for weeks. To make camp each night every man carried tools for digging as well as two stakes for a palisade.
Apart from this and his weapons and armour, the legionary would also carry a cooking pot, some rations, clothes and any personal possessions.
Weighed down by such burdens it is little wonder that the soldiers were nicknamed ‘Marius’ Mules’.
The soldiers of the Roman army would carry with them a considerable abmount of kit. When on the march they carried over their shoulder a contraption (sometimes described as a forked stick) which would help them to carry some of their equipment. Here is an of an legionary bearing this item over his shoulder together with his pilum.
So weighed down were the soldiers by all their stuff, that they were nicknamed ‘Marius’ mules’ (after the famous Roman general to whom the invention of the very forked stick is ascribed).
There has over time been much debate regarding how much weight a legionary actually had to carry. Now, 30 kg (ca. 66 lbs) is generally considered the upper limit for an infantryman in modern day armies. Calculations have been made which, including the entire equipment and the 16 day’s worth of rations, brings the weight to over 41 kg (ca. 93 lbs). And this estimate is made using the lightest possible weights for each item, it suggest the actual weight would have been even higher. This suggests that the sixteen days rations were not carried by the legionaries. the rations referred to in the old records might well have been a sixteen days ration of hard tack (buccellatum), usually used to supplement the daily corn ration (frumentum). By using it as an iron ration, it might have sustained a soldier for about three days. The weight of the buccellatum is estimated to have been about 3 kg, which, given that the corn rations would add more than 11 kg, means that without the corn, the soldier would have carried around 30 kg (66 lbs), pretty much the same weight as today’s soldiers.
The necessity for a legion to undertake quite specialised tasks such as bridge building or engineering siege machines, required there to be specialists among their numbers. These men were known as the immunes, ‘excused from regular duties’. Among them would be medical staff, surveyors, carpenters, veterinaries, hunters, armourers – even soothsayers and priests.
When the legion was on the march, the chief duty of the suveyors would be to go ahead of the army, perhaps with a cavalry detachment, and to seek out the best place for the night’s camp.
In the forts along the empire’s frontiers other non-combatant men could be found. For an entire bureaucracy was necessary to keep the army running. So scribes and supervisors, in charge of army pay, supplies and customs. Also there would be military police present.
As a unit, a legion was made up of ten cohorts, each of which was further divided into six centuries of eighty men, commanded by a centurion.
The commander of the legion, the legatus, usually held his command four three or four years, usually as a preparation for a later term as provincial governor.
The legatus, also referred to as general in much of modern literature, was surrounded by a staff of six officers. These were the military tribunes, who – if deemed capable by the legatus – might indeed command an entire section of a legion in battle.
The tribunes, too, were political positions rather than purely military, the tribunus laticlavius being destined for the senate.
Another man, who could be deemed part of the general’s staff, was the centurio primus pilus. This was the most senior of all the centurions, commanding the first century of the first cohort, and therefore the man of the legion, when it was in the field, with the vastest experience. And it was also he who oversaw the everyday running of the forces.
|1 Contubernium||–||8 Men|
|10 Contubernia||1 Century||80 Men|
|2 Centuries||1 Maniple||160 Men|
|6 Centuries||1 Cohort||480 Men|
|10 Cohorts + 120 Horsemen||1 Legion||5240 Men *|
*1 Legion = 9 normal cohorts (9 x 480 Men) + 1 “First Cohort” of 5 centuries (but each century at the strength of a maniple, so 5 x 160 Men) + 120 Horsemen = 5240 Men
Together with non-combatants attached to the army, a legion would count around 6000 men.
The 120 horsemen attached to each legion were used as scouts and dispatch riders. They were ranked with staff and other non-combatants and allocated to specific centuries, rather than belonging to a squadron of their own.
The senior professional soldiers in the legion was likely to be the camp prefect, praefectus castrorum. He was usually a man of some thirty years service, and was responsible for organization, training, and equipment.
Centurions, when it came to marching, had one considerable privelege over their men. Whereas the soldiers moved on foot, they rode on horseback. Another significant power they possessed was that of beating their soldiers. For this they would carry a staff, perhaps two or three foot long. Apart from his distinctive armour, this staff was one of the means by which one could recognise a centurion.
One of the remarkable features of centurions is the way in which they were posted from legion to legion and province to province. It appears they were not only highly sought after men, but the army was willing to transport them over considerable distances to reach a new assignment.
The most remarkable aspect of the centurionate though must be that they were not normally discharged but died in service. Thus, to a centurion the army was truly his life.
Each centurion had an optio, so called because originally he was nominated by the centurion. The optiones ranked with the standard bearers as principales receiving double the pay of an ordinary soldier. The title optio ad spem ordinis was given to an optio who had been accepted for promotion to the centurionate, but who was waiting for a vacancy.
Another officer in the century was the tesserarius, who was mainly responsible for small sentry pickets and fatigue parties, and so had to receive and pass on the watchward of the day. Finally there was the custos armorum who was in charge of the weapons and equipment.
|5th Cohort||4th Cohort||3rd Cohort||2nd Cohort||1st Cohort|
|10th Cohort||9th Cohort||8th Cohort||7th Cohort||6th Cohort|
The first cohort of any legion were its elite troops. So too the sixth cohort consisted of “the finest of the young men”, the eighth contained “selected troops”, the tenth cohort “good troops”.
The weakest cohorts were the 2nd, 4th, 7th and the 9th cohorts. It was in the 7th and 9th cohorts one would expect to find recruits in training.
The Roman Army AD 250-378
Between the reigns of Augustus and Trajan, the Roman Army perhaps reached its pinnacle. It is the army of this time which is generally understood as the ‘classical’ Roman army. However, contrary to popular belief, this was not the army which was eventually defeated by the northern barbarians.
The Roman army evolved, changing in time, adapting to new challenges. For a long time it didn’t need to change much as it held supremacy on the battlefield. And so until AD 250 it was still the heavy armed infantry which dominated the Roman army.
But the day of gladius and the pilum were eventually to become a thing of the past.
The main reason for such changes to come about were the demands border warfare was placing on the army.
From the time of Hadrian onwards defensive systems along the Rhine Danube and Euphrates held off the opponents with large permanent camps placed along these boundaries. Any barbarians who crossed the border would need to make his way across the defences and locally stationed auxiliary forces only to eventually face the nearest legion which would march up from its camp and cut off their retreat. For a long time this system worked well enough.
But in the third century it could no longer cope. The old legions became gradually more disorganized, having cohorts detached and sent to various places to fill breeches in the defences.
A whole host of new cavalry and infantry units had been created in desperate times of civil war and barbarian invasions.
One of the most significant differences between the old army system was that Caracalla in AD 212 had bestowed Roman citizenship on all the provinces. With this the ancient distinction between the legionaries and the auxiliary forces had been swept aside, each now being equal in their status.
So provincial inhabitants might have become Romans, but this didn’t mean the end to non-Romans being part of the Roman army.
In their desperation the embattled emperors of the third century had recruited any military forces which came to hand. Germans Sarmatians, Arabs, Armenians, Persians, Moors; all were not subjects of the empire and now stood to the Roman army in the same relation as once the auxiliaries had done.
These new barbarian imperial forces might have grown larger as the third century went on, but their numbers did not pose a threat to the legions of the empire.
Ever from emperor Gallienus onward the tendency of increasing the proportion of cavalry and light infantry and relying less on the heavy infantry legionary grew more apparent.
The legions gradually were ceasing to be the preferred imperial troops.
Emperor Diocletian was largely responsible for the reforms of the army which followed the tumultuous third century.
He addressed the chief weakness of the Roman defence system by creating a central reserve. Had large invasions of barbarians broken through the defences, there never had been anyone in the interior of the empire to stop them, due to the system introduced by Augustus by which all the legions were based at the edges of the empire.
So Diocletian created a central reserve, the comitatenses, who now enjoyed the highest status among the army. They were what the legionaries in their bases along the border, now referred to as the limitanei, had once been.
These new, mobile units were organized into legions of one thousand men, rather than the traditional full-scale size of the old legion.
With the fourth century the shift toward cavalry and away from heavy infantry continued.
The old legionary cavalry completely disappeared in the face of the emerging heavier, largely Germanic cavalry.
And yet throughout the reign of Constantine the Great the infantry still remained the main arm of the Roman army.
Though the rise of the cavalry was manifested in the fact that Constantine abolished the post of praetorian prefect and instead created two positions; Master of Foot (magister peditum) and Master of Horse (magister equitum). Though still the legions held dominance in the empire. Emperor Julian still defeated the Germans at the Rhine with his legionaries in AD 357.
Late Legionary (3rd/4th century AD)
By the late third century the barbarian influence upon the army began to be ever more noticeable. Slowly the army begins to move toward the appearance of their Germanic enemies, from whence many of her recruits are coming.
The very large, almost round shield clears bears little resemblance to anything the prior generations of Roman soldiers used.
If there was still any doubts regarding this soldier’s heritage, one need only look at the trousers on his legs.
The helmet worn here is the subject of some discussion as it isn’t really clear if it was a cavalry helmet or an infantry helmet of the age. Either way it seemed to have severely restricted movement of the head.
The lamellar armour (a type of lorica squamata) borne by this soldier is fairly typical of the age and shows that , prior to the demise of body armour among the ever more mobile soldiery, the legions of the 3rd and fourth century were still largely heavily armoured.
But the cavalry was nevertheless rising in importance. For this rise there were mainly two reasons. Many barbarians resorted simply to raiding for plunder rather than actual invasion. To reach such raiding parties before they retired out of Roman territory, infantry was simply not fast enough.
The other reason was that the superiority of the Roman legion over its opponents was no longer as clear as it had been in the past. The barbarians had been learning much about their Roman foes in past centuries. Thousands of Germans had served as mercenaries and taken their experience of Roman warfare back home with them. With this increased competition, the Roman army found itself forced to adapt new techniques and provide strong cavalry support for its embattled infantry.
If the Roman army had throughout most of the third and fourth century been undergoing a transition, gradually increasing the number of cavalry, then the end of this period of gradual change was brought about by a dreadful disaster.
In AD 378 the Gothic cavalry annihilated the eastern army under emperor Valens at the Battle of Adrianople (Hadrianopolis).
The point had been proven that heavy cavalry could defeat heavy infantry in battle.
The Roman Army AD 378-565
Emperor Theodosius, the immediate successor of Valens, appreciated that after the disaster at the battle of Adrianople drastic changes were necessary.
Not only had the eastern army been wiped out, but the Roman reliance on infantry was now outdated.
After achieving peace with the Goths, he began to enlist every German warlord he could bribe into his services. These Germans with their horsemen were not part of the regular army, but were federates (foederati) for whose services the emperor paid them a fee, the so-called annonae foederaticae.Only six years after the Battle of Adrianople there was already 40’000 German horsemen serving under their chiefs in the army of the east. The Roman army had changed forever. So too had the balance of power in the empire itself.
Late Legionary (5th century AD)
By the fifth century the barbarian nature of the army was barely disguised. Germanic warriors dominated the ranks and looked the part.
Armour has been given up for greater speed and mobility, as the mobile field army needed to move fast to head off any invaders.
Gone are any curved, square shields. Gone is the sophisticated design of the helmet. Gone is the short stabbing sword. Instead the soldiers is armed with a heavy Germanic spatha.
If the west at first did not adapt the same method as the east, then it soon learnt its own lesson, when emperor Theodosius a few years later met the the western usurper Magnus Maximus in battle in AD 387. The western legionaries, widely regarded as the best infantrymen of their day, were ridden down and crushed by Theodosius’ heavy cavalry.
The lesson was not immediately learnt by the western empire and in AD 392 Arbogast and his puppet emperor Eugenius saw their infantry defeated by the Gothic horsemen of Theodosius.
If the west didn’t turn to the use of cavalry as quickly as the east it was because two of their most formidable opponents (and recruiting grounds), the Franks and the Saxons, had themselves also not converted their armies to the horse.
But the west now too began to increasingly employ the services of German heavy cavalrymen.
While in the armies of the east and the west the cavalry reigned supreme the infantry underwent change, too. Much of the heavy infantry survived. But for newly added infantry units the armour got lighter, reducing protection but allowing for swifter movement across the battlefield. And more and more soldiers were trained as archers in contrast to the legionary training of the old army. For one of the chief weapons against the cavalry charges of the barbarians appeared to be showering them with arrows.
Though morale suffered extensively in the infantry with the ascent of cavalry. Seen as second-class soldiers by their commanders, when compared to the Gothic cavalry, the men increasingly saw Germans take command of army at all levels, the natives of the empire gradually being pushed aside by foreigners.
During the fifth century the German federates became the sole military force of real importance in the west and eventually overthrew the state bringing about the fall of Rome. But in the east the emperors Leo I and later Zeno managed to avoid German dominance of the army by recruiting large numbers of soldiers from Asia Minor (Turkey). It was this development which assured the survival of the east against the threat of the German federate warlords.
The east gradually developed its cavalry into a force of horse archers, much like that of the Persians, with their federate German heavy cavalry fighting with lance and sword. Together these two forms of cavalry proved superior to the Gothic cavalry which didn’t use the bow at all.
The historian Procopius describes the eastern horse archer as wearing a helmet, chest and backplate and greaves as armour, being armed with a bow, a sword and, in most cases, also with a lance. Also they had a small shield slung on their left shoulder.
These horse archers were well-trained troops, good riders and capable of firing their bow while galloping at full speed.
What also added to the effectiveness of cavalry was that somewhen in the fifth century, the exact origin is unclear, the stirrup began to be introduced.
Another development of the day was that the individual native Roman units were becoming organised along the lines of the barbarian federates. If the federates operated in a unit called a comitatus then this meant that they were a war band attached to the command of a chief by personal loyalty. This system now became apparent with the native Roman troops, largely due to the system which allowed distinguished officers to raise their own troops for the imperial service.
An example of a late Roman cavalryman, perhaps 5th century AD. His helmet and chainmail already look very much like the armour of later medieval knights. He bears a light, round shield and a lance for stabbing. The sword of the Roman cavalryman was the spatha, a long-bladed weapon, granting the rider a much greater reach than the legionary’s short gladius.
Much of the precise armoury and weaponry of late Roman cavalry is guesswork. In this case, spot the quiver carried behind the saddle, holding arrows for use with the bow.
The prefered mode of battle for the Roman cavalry (ala) was fall into the rear or the flanks of an enemy already deployed against Roman infantry. It proved at its most devastating when it rode down fleeing troops, lancing the fleeing soldiers in their backs. In fact most of the slaughter in ancient battles is thought to have occured, when the opposing army broke and fell into disorder and the cavalry fell upon the panicked and fleeing enemy.
Note that the Roman cavalry rode without stirrups.
The most prestigious of such troops raised by high ranking officers were the oath-bound bodyguards, the buccellarii, who were not part of the army at all. Far more they were seen as a general’s personal bodyguard. The famous commander Belisarius surrounded himself with a large number of such buccellarii.
If Belisarius used his army as described largely above, with light infantry/archers, heavy cavalry and horse archers, then his successor Narses added another option to this array.
In several battles he ordered his heavy cavalrymen to dismount and use their lances in a phalanx against cavalry, creating a form of armoured pikeman. This method appeared very effective, though it is doubtful if Narses did not deploy this tactic to prevent his heavy cavalrymen, whom he deeply distrusted, from fleeing the battlefield, rather than seeking to create a new form of soldier.
The Byzantine Army AD 565-ca.900
Less than thirty years after the death of emperor Justinian, when the emperor Tiberius II Constantinus succeeded to the throne in AD 578, the army was further reorganized.
One of the emperor’s leading generals, who was later to become emperor himself, Maurice, issued the strategicon, a handbook of the workings of the army of the eastern empire.
The Byzantine army possessed not only the Roman traditions of strategy but also a complete system of tactics suited to the conflicts of the age.
Greek expressions, as well as some Germanic terms, are now in some cases beginning to take the place of the former Latin ones. Though Latin still remained the language of the army.
The mailed horse-archer still remained the great power of war, but a completely new system of units and names was introduced.
The forces were now organized in numeri, an expression for some units which appeared to have come into use as early as Diocletian or Constantine. The numeri, or war-bands (bandae), were not necessarily all of the same size. In fact the Byzantine army appeared to take great care not to have all its units of the same size, in order to confuse an opponent in battle as to where its strengths and weaknessses lay. (A system still used by Napoleon.) A numerus which was between three or four hundred men strong and was commanded by a comes or tribunus. If several numeri could form a brigade (drungus) of two to three thousand men, which would be commanded by a dux. These brigades again could unite to form a division (turma) of up six to eight thousand men.
During peacetime these forces were not united into brigades and divisions, far more they were spread across the territories. It was only at the outbreak of war that the commander would weld them into a force.
Also part of the reorganization was the end of the comitatus system by which the soldiers owed their loyalty to their commander. Now the soldiers’ loyalties lay with the emperor. This change was made easy by the fact that the German federates who had brought in such customs were now in the decline within the eastern army. As the amount of money available to the government declined so too did the number of German mercenaries decrease.
The remaining German mercenaries were to be found divided into foederati (federates), optimati (the best men picked from the federates), buccellarii (the emperor’s bodyguard).
The optimati are of particular interest as they appear clearly to resemble the fore-runners of medieval knights. They were chosen bands of German volunteers, who appeared to be of such standing among their own people that they each brought with them one or two armati, who were their personal assistants, just as later squires attendend to their knights.
Around the end of the first war with the Saracens in the seventh century, during the reign of Constans II or his son Constantine IV, a new order was established. The military order was closely linked with the very land it protected.
The old boundaries of the provinces and their administration had been wiped out by the invasions of the Persians and the Saracens. The lands were ruled by the military commanders of the various forces. Hence the emperor (either Constans II or Constantine IV) divided the land into provinces, called themes, which took their names directly from the units that were based there. Themes with names like Buccellarion, Optimaton or Thrakesion (the Thracian units in Asia Minor (Turkey)) clearly revealing who was based there and in charge of the administration.
The names of the themes further reveal that the various units were not all based along the frontiers with the Saracen foe, but far more were spread out all over the Byzantine territories.
The commander of a frontier theme of course had greater forces at his disposal than one of his colleagues in an inland district.
Did the word ‘theme’ come to stand for both the province as well as the garrison within it, then the same was the case for the ‘turma’. The turma, commanded by a turmarch, was merely smaller unit within a theme. Further there was also the clissura, commanded by a clissurarch, which was a small garrison protecting one or more fortified mountain passes.
The strength of the Byzantine army remained its heavy cavalry. The infantry was merely there to man the fortresses and to act as garrisons for important centres. Though some campaigns appear to have been done solely by the cavalry, the infantry did appear still to be a part of most, though it never really played a decisive role.
The heavy cavalryman wore a mail shirt reaching from the neck to the waist or thighs. A small steel helmet protected his head whilst gauntlets and steel shoes protected his hands and feet.
The horses of the officers and of the men in the front rank also were armoured with protection to their heads and chest.
Over their armour the riders would wear a linen cape or tunic to protect themselves against the sun or a heavy woolen cloak to protect against cold weather. These tunics, as well as the tufts on the helmets and any pennants on the lances would be of the same colour in each warband, creating a kind of uniform. The weapons of the rider were a broadsword, a dagger, a bow and quiver, a long lance fitted with a leather strap towards it butt (to help keeping hold of it).
Some would further add to their weaponry by carrying an axe or a mace strapped to the saddle. Some of the young, inexperienced soldiers would still use the shield, but its use was frowned upon as it was seen to hinder the free use of the bow.
These armoury and weaponry can not be precisely gauged as the Byzantine army was by no means as uniform as the old Roman army. Had once every soldier carried the same weapons and armour, the Byzantine army possessed a large mix of individually armed riders.
Like the equestrians of the old Roman republic, the cavalry men of the Byzantine army were of considerable social standing.
The emperor Leo VI pointed out that the men chosen for the cavalry should be robust, courageous and should possess sufficient means to be free from care for their homes and possessions in their absence.
Farms of cavalrymen were exempt from all taxation except land tax during the reign of Leo VI (and most likely under the rule of other emperors) in order to help in the management of the estates when the master was on campaign.
The large proportion of cavalrymen were hence small landowners and their officers were drawn from the Byzantine aristocracy.
As many of the men were of some standing, many brought with them servants boys and attendants who relieved the forces of many of their menial duties. However, these camp followers did indeed slow down the otherwise rapid moving cavalry units considerably.
The infantry in the time of Leo VI still consisted almost entirely of archers, just as it had done in the sixth century under Justinian.
The light archer is largely unprotected, wearing merely boots and tunic and no helmet.
The more heavily armed footsoldier, the so-called scutatus wore a pointed steel helmet and a mail shirt. Some of them may have also worn gauntlets and greaves to protect the hands and shins. The scutatus carried with him a large round shield, a lance, a sword and an axe with a blade at one side and a spike at the other. The shield and the colour of the the tuft on the helmet were of all the same colour for each war band.
Once more, just as with the cavalry, we most imagine the Byzantine infantry as a body varying largely in its equipment from each soldier to the other.
The infantry also went on campaign with a large baggage train, bringing with it, among vital supplies also picks and spades, for the Byzantine army carefully fortified its camps against suprises, just as the ancient Roman army had done. A unit of engineers always marched ahead with the vanguard helped the footsoldiers in the preparation of the camp for the night’s stay.
Decline of the Byzantine Army AD 1071-1203
The great turning point for the Byzantine army was the battle of Manzikert in AD 1071 at which the main body of the army under command of emperor Romanus IV Diogenes was shattered by the Seljuk Turks under their Sultan Alp Arslan.
The disaster of Manzikert was followed by a mass invasion of Asia Minor (Turkey) by the Turks and a time of civil wars within the remaining Byzantine realm.
In this chaos the formidable old Byzantine army practically disappeared. Not only had Constantinople lost its army at Manzikert but with the invasion of Asia Minor it had lost its traditional recruiting grounds where to find the soldiers with whom to replace the lost regiments.
In AD 1078 emperor Michael VII Ducas collected the remaining soldiers from the former provinces of Asia Minor into a new body of cavalry – the so-called ‘Immortals’. And even though he supplemented them with new recruits they numbered only ten thousand. They were the survivors of what had once been 21 themes, a force most likely well above 80’000 men.
In the face of such devastation Constantinople turned to recruiting of foreign mercenaries to help protect itself. Franks, Lombards, Russians, Patzinaks and Seljuk Turks were taken into service in the defence of what little territory remained Byzantine. Most favoured were the westerners as they were found less likely to rebel and because the sheer bravery the Frankish and Lombard warriors displayed in battle.
Though naturally the eastern horse-archers were still sought to provide their skill in ranged combat to the fierce charge of the western heavy cavalry.
Though if the troops were now largely foreign, the old tactics, the sophisticated Byzantine art of war survived in its commanders.
Even when parts of Asia Minor (Turkey) were reconquered, the military organisation of the ‘themes’ was not restored. Asia Minor had been so utterly devastated by the Turks, that the old recruiting grounds of the empire were barren ruins. And so the Byzantine army remained an improvised mix of various mercenary forces.
Under the emperors Alexius, John II and Manuel the Byzantine military though still managed to function quite well, despite these shortcomings. But with the death of Manuel Comnenus (AD 1180) the time of Byzantine military power faded away.
The next emperors possessed neither their predecessors’ strength of leadership nor did they find the means by which to raise the money necessary to maintain an effective army.
Unpaid mercenaries make for a bad army. And so, when the Frankish knights forced their way into the city of Constantinople (AD 1203), most of the garrison – but for the Varangian Guard – refused to fight.
Army Camp Layout
For the famous camp of the Roman army was set up every night, for the troops to sleep in.
Every soldier carried tools for digging as well as two stakes for a palisade.
The army surveyors travelled ahead of the main force to find the site best suited for the night’s camp.
Once the army arrived, the standards were driven into the ground. Then the contruction of the camp began, every soldier having a assigned role to play. A ditch was dug, the earth was used to make a rampart behind it on which the stakes were used to form a palisade.
Following the systematic nature of the legion this camp was slavishly built in the same form every day.
The leather tents, each of which would house eight men, were carried by mules.
Information about tactics can be derived from accounts of battles, but the very military manuals known to have existed and to have been used extensively by commanders, have not survived. Perhaps the greatest loss is the book of Sextus Julius Frontinus. But parts of his work were incorporated into the compilation of Vegetius.
Under the republic the custom was introduced of giving each legion a number, numbers I to IV were reserved specifically for those forces raised by the consuls. Any armies formed by others were given higher numbers.
The system, however simple it seems at first glance, though is very confusing when one considers that at any one time there might be several legions bearing the same number.
One doesn’t really fully understand how such duplications of numbers came about.
However, apart from their number, legions also bore a title. This name would either indicate where the force had originally been raised, or where it had distinguished itself.
So, for example the ‘Legio I Italica’ was the ‘1st Italian’ legion; it had been formed in Italy. Meanwhile the ‘Legio V Macedonica’ was the ‘5th Macedonian’, Macedonia being the place where it won great battle honours. Another possibility is illustrated by the ‘Legio X Gemina’. Gemina (united) here inticated that this legion had been formed out of two. Most likely two forces had suffered heavy losses and were simply turned into one legion.
The Roman Standards
The Roman army’s standards were held in awe. They were symbols of Roman honour. Nothing throughout the world’s military history quite compares to these unique objects, for the recovery of which the empire itself would go to war.
The Mark of the Legion
The historian Vegetius reports that before being entered into the records of the legion a soldier was given the ‘military mark’.
It is unclear if this mark was made by tattooing or branding. It purpose was clearly to prevent desertions, as it would make deserters far easier to identify.
This practice also illustrates the steep decline in the status of the army in the fourth century. For in earlier times such marking of soldiers, apart from being painful, would have insulted the dignity of the men, and hence could have led to mutinies. Though in the changed, harsher setting of the fourth century such things appear to have been deemed necessary.
A decree in AD 398 which ordered the branding of workers in the imperial armament factories, suggests that by that time the practice of branding new soldiers was widespread.
For it states that the ‘national mark’ should be branded onto the arms of these workes, ‘in imitation of the branding of recruits’.
It is most likely that the ‘national mark’ the text refers to would have been the famous letters SPQR which signified the Roman state.
The allies of Rome began very early in Republican history to play an effective part in the annual campaigns of large-scale wars. the citizens of Rome provided first-class heavy infantry in the form of legionaries, but in other types of fighting they were not so adept. In particular, they did not take so easily to the horse and their own cavalry troops were no match against nomadic peoples nurtured in the saddle. there were other notable differences. In some parts of the Mediterranean local conditions had evolved special methods of attack. Among these were the archers of the eastern parts of the Mediterranean an the slingers of the Balearic Isles. Likewise against nimble, light-footed mounted tribes, the legionaries were too slow and clumsy. The need for the Romans to equip themselves with these specialized arms and ways of fighting was felt as early as the third century BC. It was not always possible to obtain the required skills from within the circle of accepted allies and so it became necessary to hire mercenaries. All the non-Roman forces, whatever their status, became known as auxilia, aids to citizen legionaries. As Rome extended her influence over more and more countries, so she was able to make demands on their forces and call an increasing number of different kinds of auxilia into her armies. What may have been unusual in the third century BC, soon became an accepted fact and many garbs and weapons were to be found side by side with the legionaries in most major wars.
In some of these conflicts the Romans came into contact with new forms of warfare and they were able to appraise their value and occasionally adopt them. They were not always quick, however, to appreciate this kind of lesson. In Spain, for example, the Romans put down repeated revolts, but usually judged the Spaniards to be too wild and unpredictable to make good soldiers. The Roman officer Sertorius, using Spain as his base for waging civil war against Rome, demonstrated that – when well led and disciplined – they made first-class troops, and the revolt was only crushed after the death of its leader. Caesar, during his conquest of Gaul, was given many opportunities of seeing the Gallic horsemen in action and it is hardly surprising that he was soon recruiting them, taking a large contingent with him to fight against Pompey. Similarly the wars against Jughurta demonstrated the value of nimble Moorish horsemen whom Trajan later found so useful against the Dacians.
Augustus, upon assuming power had the urgent and difficult task of rationalizing the chaos caused by the divided loyalties of the various armies which survived the civil wars. His practice, whenever possible, was to work to Republican precedent and although one might argue that he created for Rome the first fully professionalized standing army, this was only giving official recognition of what had been the actual state of affairs for many years.
The auxiliary troops were completely reorganized and given regular status. Most auxiliaries were now no longer to be led by their own chiefs, but were brought within the overall chain of command under Roman officers.
Instead of raising levies from the provinces as occasion required, the numbers of units and yearly intake of recruits were worked out according to a fixed annual scale, doubtless organized in close connection with the census of population, the initial purpose of which was the reorganization of taxation.
Not every tribe was treated alike and there does no appear to have been a rigid, standardized system throughout the empire. Conditions of service were also regularized and, most important, roman citizenship was to be given on honourable discharge. this probably did not come into full effect until the time of Claudius. Spanish auxiliaries had received this privilege as early as 89 BC, after the siege of Asculum, although at the time this was regarded as a special case.
Anyhow, the receipt of citizenship gave a real incentive in the first century AD to join the army and serve it well. The cumulative effect of this steady extension of the franchise could hardly have been foreseen with at least 5’000 men ready for discharge each year from the auxilia.
The Numeri and Cunei
Numeri and Cunei were other kinds of infantry and cavalry units which seem to have been raised from the more barbarous provinces on the frontiers in the second century by Trajan and regularized by Hadrian. By the second century AD the process of Romanization had advanced so far that the recruits into the auxilia were reasonably civilized and lacking in the tough, warlike qualities of the tribes beyond the frontiers which they had to face in battle. These irregular formations were thus used in the frontier districts against similar barbarians of hostile intent. By this very practical policy the Romans were able to absorb the potential hostile tribes on the frontiers and use them as a screen between the more distant barbarians and the regular army.
A good example of numeri were units of Britons settled in Upper Germany, on the outer parts of the German frontier. Watchtowers were built at regular intervals. Though there are suggestions that the watchtowers were rather meant as a means of control by which to keep the Britons in, rather than the Germans out.
The numeri were infantry units, each called a vexillatio. The cunei were cavalry. Due to the random nature of these auxilia units, records on them are rather rare and we hence know little of their composition and order of command, except that their commmander was a praepositus.
The main districts from which such numeri and cunei were drawn were Britain, Germany, Syria, Africa and Dacia.
Words of command and battle cries were in the native tongue, not in Latin.
The main differences between these units and the regular auxilia were that they did not receive Roman citizenship on discharge.
The praetorians (cohors praetoria) were the imperial guard to protect Rome and the emperor. They were a crack unit whose members wore a special uniform and received double pay, in addition to the bribes which they came to be offered in the guise of bonuses for their allegiance.
(Traditional teaching is that the praetorians were crack soldiers, chosen for their fighting ability. There are however those who claim that the Praetorian guard, rather than being a body of select men, were merely an army drawn from Italy, rather than from the provinces.)
When the emperor went on campaign, the imperial guard went with him.
The institution of the cohors praetoria had originally been that of a group of men acting as bodyguards to a general, but Augustus – most likely drawing on the experience of Julius Caesar’s murder – created a large personal army.
Initially, the Praetorian guard consisted of nine cohorts of 500 men each. This was increased by emperor Caligula to twelve cohorts. Vitellius again increased their number to sixteen cohorts. Vespasian therafter reduced their number again to nine cohorts and Domitian increased them to ten cohorts of 500 men. A cohort was commmanded by a tribune, together with two equestrians.
The guard itself was commanded by the praetorian prefects, who were equestrians rather than of senatorial rank. A sign of the exclusion of the mighty senate from certain key positions by the emperor.
Soldiers of the praetorian guard served only for sixteen years, a term much shorter that the service of an ordinary legionary. But after their sixteen year term they became so-called evocati, which ment that they were held back from discharge. Their service in the praetorians meant they either went on to perform specialist military duties or it simply qualified them either for service as centurions. These centurionates would usually be taken up in praetorian guard itself or in the city cohorts and the vigiles. Though some also took commands as centurions in the regular legion.
Together with the praetorian infantry unites there was also a small cavalry unit, which by the second century – created either by Domitian or Trajan – had become the imperial horseguard (equites singulares augusti). This cavalry unit, drawn from the best frontier cavalry forces, was in size about that of a ala quingenaria which would amount to roughly five hundred men.
Unlike the praetorians, the imperial horseguard did not necessarily wear special uniforms or insignia. Instead every rider may well have worn his individual provincial equipment, thereby granting the unit a very cosmopolitan appearance, reflecting the variety of people within the empire.
The early emperors tried their best to detract from their reliance on the military, choosing to be seen as political leaders instead. So the praetorians and the imperial horse guards often wore civilian clothes in those early days.
The German Bodyguard
The German bodyguard (germani corporis custodes) was reasonably small unit of up to 300 men, which formed a guard around the emperor, closer still than the praetorians. Being foreigners, almost entirely recruited from the German tribes of the Batavii and Ubii, they were seen as less corruptible by bribes of power or privilege than the praetorians. Though it was exactly their foreign blood which also made them very unpopular.
They existed only under the early emperors, commanded by the emperor himself, until in AD 69 Galba disbanded them.
Among the many reforms introduced by Diocletian one was the creation of a huge imperial guard. He confined the Praetorian Guard (which he saw as corrupt and dangerous) to Rome.
The numbers of the new troops he originally raised, the palatini, are not known. But by the end of the fourth century this new imperial guard mustered twenty four vexillations of cavalry (five hundred each), twenty-five legions (a thousand each) and one hundred and eight auxiliary troops (five hundred each), stationed all around the empire at the major cities.
The Varangian Guard
The Varangian Guard, also known as the Waring Guard or the Barbarian Guard, emerged in the 11th century in Constantinople as the bodyguard to the emperor. The first mention of this guard appears in 1034, and they were re-organized in the mid eleventh century by Romanus IV.
Mostly this bodyguard consisted of Danes and Englishmen, many of the latter joined after the defeat at Hastings in 1066, preferring the service to the emperor to life under Norman rule back home in England.
The Varangians were ferocious fighters, with full beards and using two handed battle-axe as their prefered weapon (which is why they were also known as ‘the axe-bearers’ in Constantinople). They lived under their own laws, prayed at their own church and elected their own officers.
Their leader was known as the ‘Acolyte’ (the follower), which was derived from the fact that he always followed immediately behind the emperor whereever he went. At banquets or audeniences the acolyte was to find found standing right behind the emperor’s throne.
Unlike bodies such as the Praetorian Guard, the Varangians became famed for their loyalty to the emperor, even their willingness to fight to the death to protect him.
Towards the end of his reign emperor Augustus created three more praetorian cohorts, bringing the number to twelve. But these additional cohorts were very soon re-designated as city cohorts (cohortes urbanae). Their duty was to patrol the city of Rome as a police force.
Given their success, further such cohorts were formed and sent to police other important cities of the empire.
A further force, the vigiles, also created by Augustus patrolled Rome itself and served as its fire brigade.
Seven cohorts of 1000 men, all recruited from former slaves, were established. The whole force was commanded by a praefectus, and each cohort in turn was commanded by a tribune.
The vigiles carried quite sophisticated fire fighting equipment, including water pumps and hoses, and even ballista catapults with which to fire hooks attached to climbing ropes or to demolish burning buildings in order to prevent the spread of fire.
It is believed that they wore helmets for protection, but it is unlikely they wore any other kind of armour. Although they were indeed understood to be a military unit.
Centurions for the vigiles appear to have been drawn exclusively from the praetorian guard.
The realms of so-called ‘client kings’ were largely seen as an extended part of the Roman empire. Very often these royal houses owed their position to Rome. As part of the arrangement between Rome and the client kingdoms, the kings had to provide troops for Roman campaigns. It was therefore not uncommon for the troops of such client kings to fight alongside Roman forces in battle against the enemy.
For example Titus’ army in Judaea in AD 70 was accompanied by forces of Agrippa II (Palestine), Sohaemus (Emesa) and Antiochus IV (Commagene).
Some of the troops from these client kingdoms were even trained in a fashion similar to that of Roman legions, in order to be more effective on the battle field when working in union with real Roman forces.
For instance the annexation of Galatia as a Roman province brought the thirty cohorts of King Deiotarus under Roman command and saw them formed into a Roman legion (legio XXII). Though this was clearly an exception. The vast majority of troops from annexed client kingdoms became auxiliary forces.
One of the most difficult aspects of army service to understand is that of the soldiers’ pay.
A soldier’s pay began with the viaticum which recruits received upon joining. Some records still exists for recruits joining the auxiliary forces, who received 3 aurei (75 denarii). There is no definite evidence for the legions, but it is largely assumed that the viaticum for joining the legion was the same amount. At least until the time of emperor Septimius Severus, it is believed that the viaticum remained at the level of 75 denarii.
As for the regular pay of the Roman soldier, it is unknown if any amounts might have been compulsorily deducted for rations, equipment and various purposes.
The situation changed from time to time and with gradual inflation the pay progressively increased.
Basic facts are few and far between. Caesar doubled the daily pay of legionaries from 5 to 10 asses, meaning 225 denarii a year. When Augustus left in his will 300 sestertii (75 denarii) to all legionaries this was a third of the annual amount and most probably indicates that the troops were paid three times a year and Augustus merely added an extra pay-day.
The basic rate remained unchanged until Domitian, who increased it from nine to twelve gold pieces a year (i.e. to 300 denarii) In spite of the steady inflation during the second century, there is no further rise until the time of Severus who increased it to 500 denarii a year.
Occasionally there were bounties or donations. Caligula after his abortive invasion of Britain gave all legionaries four gold pieces (100 denarii). Claudius started an unfortunate precedent in giving a donation to the praetorian guards on his accession, and it can be assumed that equivalent amounts would have been given to the legionaries.
Later emperors simply felt obliged to follow this example to secure the loyalty of the troops. The inevitable result was that it was expected, until Vespasian, having satisfied at least part of his victorious army with booty, quietly dropped the idea.
Although the custom of paying the praetorians on accession did return later.
Apart from the bounties and donations the legionaries could look forward to substantial grants on their discharge either in cash or land (praemia). Augustus fixed the amount in AD 5 at 3000 denarii and by the time of Caracalla it had risen to 5000 denarii. The real difficulty in assessing the soldiers’ pay is that of stoppages (soldier’s food and animal fodder) and deductions. This practice dates back to the origins of the army. Early records show that the soldiers had to purchase their corn and clothes and some of their arms, presumably replacements, at a set price which the quaestor deducted from their pay. Although attempts were made to alleviate this burden, it remained a source of grievance in the early empire.
A small amount was paid into a pool, watched over by the chief signifer which paid for soldiers’ burial expenses.
There is no evidence on the pay of centurions, but it seems likely that it was at least five times the soldiers’ rate and may have been even more. one of the main privileges of the centurion’s position was the practice of levying fees for exemption from certain noncombatant duties. Otho tried to correct this abuse of power at least within the paetorians by making a grant from the treasury of an equivalent amount which would have had the effect of raising centurions’ pay. Later this became an established rule under some emperors, or emperors like Hadrian, enforced stricter discipline in order to suppress such illegitimate practices.
A primus ordo (a centurion of the first cohort) would earn about twice as much as a normal centurion.
A primus pilus (first centurion) would earn an estimated four times the amount of a normal centurion. He would receive enough on discharge to acquire equestrian status, a property qualification of 400’000 sestertii.
The pay of the auxilia poses difficult questions through absence of reliable evidence. There appears to have been basic differentials between units.
The cavalry of the alae were better paid than the men in the cohortes and in the cohortes equitatae mounted men got more than the foot soldiers.
A humble foot soldier in the auxilia is estimated by modern historians to have received about 100 denarii a year.
Length of Service
In the early republican days, there was no army if Rome was at peace. Armies were only raised to fight particular foes and were dispanded once these were defeated. But in practice, as Rome was almost perpetually at war with someone, there always appeared to be men at arms.
By the time of Marius regular army service of the conscripts was already at 6 years.
With Marius’ introduction of mercenaries the length of time they served increased to roughly 16 years. For now military life had become a choice of profession, rather than a duty of the Roman citizen.
Though by the time of Augustus, after the lengthy civil wars which had seen huge numbers of men at arms, the length of service had fallen back to between 6 and 10 years again.
Augustus reset the number of years back to 16, with a further four years served by a veteran with the legion, though for this extended time he was excused from some duties.
Unlike in the late republic there would be no veterans who had served only a few years, experienced fighters within the population who could threaten the peace. Now all ex-soldiers would in effect be old soldiers.
Though the main reason for this was most likely the cost of discharging veterans (grants of land) which was a great a burden to the state.
Later the period of service was extended even further, to 20 years, with propably a further five years service as veterans with lesser duties. The distinction between the ordinary legionary and the veteran eventually began to fade, and a soldier served a full 25 to 26 years, discharges only being made every two years.
Becoming a Soldier
Just how it was that young men joined the army, in both the republican, as well as the imperial period.
The Army Career
Roman society was governed by class and so in effect there was three separate army careers possible, that of the common soldier in the ranks, that of the equestrians and that for those destined for command, the senatorial class.
It comes as no great surprise to most, that the finest army in the world insisted much on training its soldiers.
In a world in which all armies fought with much the same weapons, swords, spears, etc – it was vital that Roman soldiers achieved a high level of skill in use of their weapons to assure the supremacy of Rome. This would be one of the most important Roman achievements.
Every soldier needed to be a skilled fighter in order to shape the army into an efficient killing machine. And if it was simply to achieve the fitness of its recruits or to guarantee their ability in handling the weapons, the Roman army had a training program for it.
The Military Oath
To be placed on the rolls of the legion, a recruit had to swear the military oath.
The oath, the sacramentum, naturally changed in time as the Roman state and the empire evolved.
In republican times, one man would recite the oath out loud (praeiuratio), thereafter each oteh man in turn would say the words, ‘idem in me’ (‘the same in my case’).
It may well have been that new recruits who joined the army all had to speak the full oath, if numbers allowed this. But the renewal of the oath, will have been conducted in the shorter fashion described above.
In early republican times, the historian Dionysius tells us, the oath sounded something like this;
‘to follow the consuls to whatever wars they may be called, and neither desert the colours nor do anything else contrary to law.’
The renewal of the oath was always conducted on New Year’s Day, up until either the reign of Vespasian or Domitian when it was moved to 3 January.
A Christian version of the oath is described by the historian Vegetius,
‘They swear by God, by Christ and by the Holy Spirit; and by the majesty of the emperor, which, next to God, should be loved and worshipped by the human race… The soldiers swear to perform with enthusiasm whatever the emperor commands, never to desert, and not to shrink from death on behalf of the Roman state.’
The discipline of the republican army is legendary. However, it is believed to be somewhat exaggerated by Roman historians keen to show that discipline of earlier generations had been firmer than that of their own.
Though it was indeed the case that a strict system of rewards and punishments was applied the the conscripted soldiers. But discipline was not necessarily so strict as to blunt the citizen-soldier’s individual initiative. Intelligent, independent-minded soldiers who worked together as a unit no doubt posed a significantly greater threat to an enemy, than blindly obedient men who only did what they were told.
But then this is not to say that the discipline of the Roman army wasn’t an iron one. During times of crisis such as the war against Hannibal severe measures were most likely necessary to maintain army discipline against a seemingly invincible opponent.
The historian Polybius reports that the Roman army punished with death not only things such as desertion but also far more minor matters and that order and discipline was largely maintained by fear.
In the days of the empire discipline does appear to have relaxed at least slightly. Perhaps this was due to it by then being a volunteer army which shouldn’t be abused quite as harshly if one wanted to find any new recruits, perhaps it was the emperor’s desperate need to keep the troops happy if he was to survive, or perhaps it was simply the result of changing attitudes of the day.
In any case the changes brought about more self-confident armies, which were more likely to revolt if an old-fashioned disciplinarian took command.
Corporal punishment (castigatio), monetary fine, (pecunaria multa), added duty (munerum indictio), relegation to an inferior service (militiae mutatio), reduction in rank (gradus deiectio) or dishonourable discharge from service (missio ignominiosa) were all forms of minor punishments at the disposal of commanders seeking to maintain discipline. Execution – The death penalty was a deterrent used against desertion, mutiny or insubordination. In practice however, it was rare. Even in cases of desertion, factors such as the soldier’s length of service, his rank, previous conduct, etc. were taken into consideration. Special consideration was also given to young soldiers. After all, trained soldiers didn’t grow on trees. To kill off one’s own ranks was to be avoided as much as possible.
Decimation – Perhaps the most gruesome punishment of all known to the Roman army was that of decimation. It generally was applied to entire cohorts and meant that every tenth man, randomly chosen by a draw of lots, was killed by being clubbed or stoned to death by his own comrades. This form of punishment of the troops was however extremely rare.
Disbandment of an entire legion was also a means by which to punish mutinous troops. This naturally was very rarely done, and if so more for political purposes (ridding oneself of armies who had supported a contender to the throne, etc) then as a purely punitive measure. But the threat of disbandment was sometimes used against troops demanding more pay, or better conditions to bring them to heel.
Like most modern armies, the Roman army did not only have a code for disciplining soldiers, but also one for rewarding them. Decorations were usually worn by the soldiers on parades and were generally awarded at the end of a campaign.
The decorations possible for any soldiers lower than the centurions were torques (necklaces), armillae, (armbands) and phalerae (embossed discs worn on the uniform).
Such minor awards were abandoned during the reign of emperor Severus, but the torques were reintroduced in the later empire.
Centurions could be awarded the corona aurea, a plain gold crown. Aside from this there was also the corona vallaris or corona muralis, for being the first officer over enemy defences or city wall.
(The corona aurea could apparently also be awarded to ranks beneath the centurionate, the little known so-called evocati who ranked between the principales and the centurionate.)
The primus pilus, the highest ranking centurion of a legion, could be awarded the hasta pura (silver spearshaft), which was the award usually handed to any members of the questrian order, – a rank the primus pilus would only strictly speaking have achieved by the end of his service.
Above the rank of primus pilus the awards become, just as the posts were, of more politically symbolic nature. High ranking commanders needed hardly storm any enemy walls in person to gain their awards. And it is to a point questionable if only truly oustanding commanders received awards.
A military tribune of the lowest rank (tribunus angusticlavius) would be awarded with a corona and a hasta pura. But those tribunes senior two him might already receive a vexillum. This award was a little miniature standard mounted on a silver base.
The senior tribune (tribunus laticlavius), a man of senatorial rank no less, would generally receive two coronoae, two hasta purae and two vexilla.
Men of praetorian rank, the legionary legates (the generals of the Roman army), would receive three coronoae, three hastae purae and three vexilla.
If this bestowing of glory in such numbers seems a little ridiculous, then it is still not the highest award. For a general of consular rank, would receive four coronae, four hasta purae and four vexilla.
An award which was open to all ranks, was the corona civica. It was an award granted for saving the life of a fellow Roman. Though it appeared to go out of use after the reign of Claudius. Emperor Severus later reintroduced it as the corona civica aurea, but only for centurions.
There is a wellknown case in the traditional Roman semi-mythical hero L. Siccius Dentatus of awards being quite literally heaped onto war heroes. A veteran of 120 battles he is supposed to have received 18 hastae purae, 25 phalerae, 83 torques, over 160 armillae, 14 coronae civicae, 8 coronae auraea, 3 coronae murales and one corona obsidialis/corona graminae (the highest award for valour).
But not only individuals, also entire units could be awarded. Praetorian cohorts could be awarded the cornona aura, which they could add to their standards. The regular legions could be granted a corona, but their cohorts could only receive phalera.
A Roman legion was a vast body of men who all required food. A soldier’s daily grain ration was the equivalent of 1.5 kg (ca. 3 lb 5 oz), which was generally supplemented with other foodstuff.
However, this meant that the total consumption of grain was around 7500 kg a day. Together with up to 500 kg of fodder for the animals this made a substantial amount of food.
In military bases, units were heavily involved in their own supply. Land was set aside for the use of the military to plant crops and graze their animals. These lands were referred to either as prata (meadow), or simply as territorium (territory).
Herds of cattle were also kept, watched over by soldiers called pecuarii (herdsmen). There are reports, particularly in the later empire of large numbers of limitanei (frontier guardsmen) who acted as soldier-farmers, charged with growing the crops for the troops.
Estimates of yield in Roman-style farming vary from 2000 kg to 500 kg per hectare land. These estimates result in land being required in the region between 7.5 km x 7.5 km and 3.5 km x 3.5 km to produce enough grain to feed the men. Add to this the necessity for additional land to grow grain and forage for the animals and one can only conclude that the military bases on the frontiers of the empire were far more than mere fortified headquarters, but large agricultural estates.
It also gives us an impression of the logistical difficulties of bringing up food when the armies were on campaign.
In some areas though grain could simply not be grown on the scale required and had to be imported.
Merchants would fulfil the function of shipping the grain from its point of origin to the army bases. But so too veterans and even some acting soldiers were involved in the trade.
Further food was brought in by hunting expeditions. Archaeologists have unearthed the remains of deer, foxes, even bears in the scrap heaps of military camps.
And yet an army was not supplied with food alone. Wine beer and olive oil had largely to be imported.
But so too, was there a constant need for other materials. Leather, iron and wood for repairs to equipment as well as for heating and cooking.
Clothing, too, would need to be replaced.
And for the maintenance of any army base, stores of building materials would be needed. A regular legionary fortress would be built of something akin to 15000 cubic metres of stone, alongside other materials.
Romans most certainly did not feel at home on water. For a long time they used foreign ships sailed by foreigners to provide them with ships. But as there empire grew it became inevitable that they needed to take control of the sea.
If there is one thing in which Roman ingenuity and ruthlessness was best displayed, other than by the organization of the legion itself, then it must have been the Roman art of siege warfare. No other ancient civilization’s army ever showed such thoroughness and such single-mindedness when setting about winning no matter what the effort to do so required.
Fighting was not the sole purpose of the Roman army.
But so too was it a body capable of great building work. Such expertise in engineering came quite naturally to the Roman army, as it had to build its own camps and forts, if necessary it had to be able to span bridges across rivers and build siege works. Beautiful architecture like Roman columns, temples and arches needed some lifting and shifting.
But the army also took part in building projects for civilian use. There was sound reasons for the use of the army in building projects.
For one, if they weren’t directly engaged in military campaigns, the legions were largely unproductive, costing the Roman state large sums of money. But the involvement of the soldiers in building works, kept them not only well accustomed to hard physical labour, but also kept them busy ! And it was the widely held belief that busy armies weren’t plotting to mutiny, whereas idle armies were. Also the quality of work delivered by the army tended to be better than that of civilian engineers.
Of both military and civilian use was the construction of roads in which the army was heavily involved. But so too were soldiers put to use in the construction of town walls, the digging of shipping canals, the drainage of land, aquaeducts, harbours, even in the cultivation of vineyards. In some rare cases soldiers were even used in mining work.
After construction of public works, the duty of maintenance fell to the local communities. But these communities often made arrangements to pay the army to maintain them, bringing in helpful sources of income to pay the army’s huge costs.
Several policing duties fell to the army in the provinces of the empire.
Many such duties played a important role in trade. For it was the army which inspected the weights at market and collected customs payments.
Whenever there was a census (the counting of the people of the empire) it fell to the army as the only institution large enough to handle such a huge operation.
With there being no police force and no customs officials, in the provinces everything regarding law enforcement or border controls rested with the army.
Large numbers of soldiers were detached from their armies and, in small units, provided escort protection to traders, guarded provincial governors, patrolled country roads and towns.
Some troops were even used as prison guards, but this was rare, as it was deemed demeaning work and hence was normally given to slaves.
These activities naturally kept the army in close contact with local people and, one may assume, ensured it some degree of popularity, as it was seen enforcing law and order and protecting trade.
Historian Franco Cavazzi dedicated hundreds of hours of his life to creating this website, roman-empire.net as a trove of educational material on this fascinating period of history. His work has been cited in a number of textbooks on the Roman Empire and mentioned on numerous publications such as the New York Times, PBS, The Guardian, and many more.