Ancient History

Roman Military Tactics



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The Egyptian Empire lasted thousands of years, but never spread as far as the Romans. The Persians and Greeks conquered much of the known world, but never held it for as long as the Romans. To control so much territory, so many people, for so very long required an efficiency the Roman Empire had in abundance, not least in its military.

The structure of their army shows the degree of their meticulous planning, but it wasn't just battlefield tactics that made the difference. Whereas most conquering powers of the ancient period would set up makeshift camps to house their soldiers, the professionalism of the Roman military enabled them to build entire forts in enemy territory – complete with palisades and intersecting roads. They provided stable bases of operation and protection for supply lines.

During the Punic Wars of the 2nd Century B.C – though the legions had not yet reached the levels of professionalism they later would – the Roman Empire was able to persevere due to the careful thought they had put into their imperialistic policy. The territories gained through conquest were not ruled with an iron-fist, and the Romans imposed no heavy taxation – they allowed them a large degree of autonomy in return for military aid in times of war. So they had a wealth of manpower to draw on – never running out no matter how many defeats were inflicted on them by Carthaginian commander Hannibal. They were able to buy time until their own exceptional general Scipio could save the day.

This was an early example of their forward thinking. In 107 B.C, the reforms of powerful Roman general and statesman Gaius Marius would set in motion an unstoppable military machine.

• The Marian Reforms

The increasing length of military campaigns meant the Roman state had to pay soldiers to ensure longer terms of service. Throughout history up to that point, armies were raised by drafting able-bodied men who would have to supply their own equipment; but ten years prior to the Marian reforms state funding of the military had increased to the extent they were now supplying the weapons and armour. The progression towards the first professional army had begun.

Since all now possessed the same equipment - the army was no longer divided according to wealth, and the stage was set for Marius to instigate a complete restructuring. He abolished all land ownership requirements; whereas before recruits were drafted mostly from land owners who could afford to equip themselves, Marius now offered enrolment to men of all social classes. Landowners were happy not to be taken from their homes while the poor were eager to improve their wealth and social standing through military service.

And he made another highly significant change. Prior to the Marian reforms, a Roman legion was composed of 'maniples', and in each maniple the men were divided into 'Velites' (poorly equipped lower-class recruits who formed the front line), 'Hastati' (green recruits who formed the second line), 'Principes' (more accomplished, forming the third line) and the 'Triarii (the final line, made up of the experienced veterans). Behind the lines of infantry were the 'Equites', Roman cavalry consisting of those wealthy enough to own a horse.

The benefit of the Maniple was soldiers constantly being kept in reserve. When the Velites and Hastati tired, they would fall back to be replaced by the more experienced Principes, who in turn could be replaced by the Triarii. The enemy was beset by one layer of troops after another, each fresher and more experienced then the last.

Such a system had served the Roman military well in previous campaigns, and Marius would only improve on it. He abolished the Velites, and replaced the Maniple with the 'Cohort', the new unit that would make up the Roman legion. Each cohort consisted of six 'centuries' composed of 80 men (later 100) led by a Centurion, and was a mix of Hastati, Principes and Triarii.

One of the key differences between the former Maniplular legion and the 'Cohort' legion of Marius was how they lined up on field. The Manipular legion had formed four lines – Velites, Hastati, Principes and Triarii. Under Marius, the legion would form up as ten cohorts, each its own mini-Maniple of Hastati, Principes and Triarii. Ten mini-versions of the previous Roman army, allowing much greater depth and versatility on the battlefield.

Support troops such as light cavalry and archers were provided by the 'Auxilia' - units made up of non-Roman citizens - though Marius would extend Roman citizenship to inhabitants of the Italian peninsula, allowing them to become legionaries.

• Battlefield Tactics

Soldiers of the Roman legion carried a short sword (gladius), a large shield (scuta) and two throwing javelins (pilum), and used this combination to deal devastating damage to their enemies while taking little themselves.

Before battle they would hurl the javelins – the cloud of falling spears serving as an effective shock tactic and designed to bend as they made impact so the enemy could not return them or even remove them from their shields.

Meanwhile Roman shields allowed them to adopt the famous 'Testudo' (tortoise) formation - useful when laying siege to cities as they could approach the gate with strong cover against arrows - but it was also utilized as a weapon in combination with the gladius. The legionaries employed a “stab and thrust” method – thrust the shield in the opponents face, stab with the sword, Repeat. One or the other was likely to hit, if not both, and as they advanced the wall of shields might force the enemy down where they were trampled by the soldiers hobnailed caligae (military boots). A violent end, but Roman efficiency went hand-in-hand with their brutality.

• Conclusion

Combining impeccable discipline and strategy with engineering prowess  – the Roman army was a force destined to conquer the known world. Raw efficiency or brutal pragmatism – call it what you like, it worked, and in their military success we see an example of just how well it worked.

More about this author: Matthew Flax

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