<<The Germanics differ a lot in their customs from the Gauls. They do not have druids that preside the cult of the gods, nor they have sacrifices but rarely. They have only as divinities the things they see and that from them they receive manifest help: the Sun, Vulcan and the Moon; of the other gods have not even heard. All their life consists of hunting and surrendering to the militia. (…) The cities have as their greatest glory that around them there are the largest uninhabited areas. They consider this as their own value, that their neighbors, being rejected from their fields, retire and none of them dare to stay near them>>
The Gallic War
If the greatness and glory of Rome were supported in anything, it was in his extraordinary warlike superiority. When we speak about the legions, we refer to the best army in history, surpassing the brilliant Macedonian phalanxes of Alexander the Great composed of impenetrable syntagma, true hedgehogs of spears several meters long.
Their mobility, their speed, their insuperable physical preparation, their versatility in the changes of formation, their discipline, their strategic and tactical potential, their armament and artillery (masterpieces of classical engineering), and their patriotism materialized in their sacred banners, objects of religious veneration and protection at all costs, turned the legion into the best offensive and defensive tool in history until the appearance of firearms.
Completely invincible on equal terms, they were able to defeat enemies that multiplied their forces several times in number, and did so countless times, on unfavorable terrain, in barbarous territories and against ruthless enemies before whom it was unthinkable to consider the surrender, therefore, the battles in which they were involved were generally fights to the death in which a defeat supposed to lose the life, and to fall in enemy hands a frightful ordeal. This gives us an idea of the strength of spirit that these men should radiate, a team and combative spirit that would leave in evidence to any army of today.
We can observe an evolution from their archaic origins, going through different stages of splendor, until we reach the final decadence, which we can roughly relate to the political stages.
In its beginnings the city was divided in three tribes, Latins, Sabines and Etruscans. Each tribe was composed of ten curias or neighborhoods. And each curia was divided into ten peoples or blocks of houses that in turn were subdivided into families.
The curias met twice a year to celebrate the curiate assembly, which when necessary chose the king. It can be considered that this elective monarchy was an absolute democracy, which worked for years while the city was small and did not require great organizational complexities.
The same thing happened in the army. It was based on the division into thirty curias, each of which contributed a centuria and a decuria, that is, one hundred infantry soldiers and ten cavalry with their respective mounts.
It can be said, then, that the primitive army of Rome was composed of a single legion of 3,300 men. Etymologically this word meant “levy”. The king directs the troops but with the advice of the centuriate assembly of the legion, whose officers are called praetors.
The army was not mandatory at the beginning, since the campaigns were carried out when the weather was good and the troops were licensed in winter.
King Servius Tullius (578-534 BC) made a reform following an economic scheme: the richest integrated the cavalry, while the less rich formed the infantry, and the proletarii (literally those who raise children, who were the poorest and landless) were excluded from the army.
The form of primitive combat followed the classical model of the Greek phalanges: compact formations with pikes. Efficient in flat terrain as in Latium, but not very flexible in rough terrain, which evolved the concept of the legion with territorial expansions.
With the change of political regime after two hundred and forty years of history, a great centuriate assembly established the election of two annual and collegiate consuls. They had broad political powers and were the generals in chief of the armies. In the Archaic Republic two legions were established, one under the control of each consul. The first of them, nicknamed Publicola, the friend of the people, established the tradition of being accompanied by the lictors with their fasces as symbols of the power of their magistracy over life and death emanating from the people. The symbol of the fasces was a type of axe, coming out of a beam of sticks of elm or birch tied with red tape. The rods were used to punish the condemned and the axe to decapitate them.
Throughout the 5th century BC the army was extended to four legions, commanding two each consul: legio I, II, III, and IIII (IV was not used for the fourth). Being the Legion I the most prestigious. Over time they were accompanied by allied legions of other Italic tribes.
The illustrious Marcus Furius Camillus (405 BC) established the stipendium or pay and improved the conditions of the legionaries.
During the three Samnite wars (343-290 BC) the legions had to evolve substantially, as they were forced to fight in mountainous terrain unsuitable for the Greek-style phalanges that gave such good results on flat terrain. Thus during these centuries the maniple
(160-200 men, two centuria) was constituted as the basic unit. The legions commanded by Scipio in the Punic wars consisted of 5,200 infantry and 300 equites, with a similar size to the legions of the Early Empire.
Distributed the maniples in the following way: the hastati with the youngest, the principes, more expert and better equipped, and the triarii, the more veterans. The combat formation consisted of three staggered lines, that is, one covered the gaps it was leaving and vice versa. They left space between them to be able to retreat in case of necessity and with the following line to protect the retreat, or even in cases of tactical necessity, to advance and strengthen the line of battle. At the time of fighting, the first line closed ranks to leave no fissures where the enemy could enter. In combat every centuria was usually a square with 10 men in front by 8 in the background. This grid formation is known as quincux.
On the other hand, the use of auxiliary troops, formed by: velites (light infantry) and auxilia (foreign troop) rapidly spread. Among the latter were the Balearic slingers, experts in the use of slings that effectively wore the enemy before entering the close combat against the legions, and they had previously served the Carthaginians well, as occurred in the invasion of Italy by Hannibal. The Cretan archers were also highly valued, and in the days of the Empire the Batavian German cavalry.
As for the cavalry, the equites formed on the sides and followed a particular distribution: the largest unit was the ala that consisted of 300 horsemen, and that was divided into 10 squadrons. Each squadron had 3 decurias of 10 riders each one. At the command of each decuria was the decurion.
The biggest reform was carried out in the consulate of 104 BC with Publius Rutilius Rufus and Gaius Marius. The first introduced the training exercises and changed the system of election of officers.
But who revolutionized the legions was Marius, allowing the entry of volunteers, thus turning the army into professional, getting to improve the mobility and independence of the legions by having soldiers carry up to 45 kilos of baggage (“Marius’ mules”) without need to be accompanied by long columns of carts. And finally he established the cohort of 600 men as the basic tactical unit of the legion, endowing it with 10.
From this reform a legion consists theoretically of 6,000 men. Each cohort had 3 maniples of 200 men each, and each maniple of 2 centuria, each of which had 100 soldiers. In combat, a centurion was placed in command, leading by example, and as second in command, an optio in the last, monitoring the fulfillment of orders and the correct execution of maneuvers. The centurions could be identified by the horizontal plume, the metal greaves, the frequent decorations and the sword located on the left side unlike the legionaries who carried it on the right.
The smallest unit was the contubernium, equivalent to a modern platoon, and they used to share tent in the camp, cook, eat, and fight together.
Along with the army, the use of administrative assistants, and of fabri, some expert engineers in charge of solving problems on the ground such as wading rivers, siege fortifications or organization of the camp. Their task was very useful, as demonstrated in the construction of a wooden bridge over the mighty Rhine, in record time, which allowed a raid of punishment on the part of Julius Caesar in the lands of the Suebi, the most powerful Germanics of that time, looters and border threat.
It was precisely Julius Caesar who knew how to get the most out of the evolution of the army and led the legions to one of their most splendid stages, probably being those who fought under his command the toughest of all the history of Rome. His typical combat formation was the triplex acies, in reference to the triple line of cohorts, with four in the first and three in the next two and that would be used frequently until the Late Empire.
A variant of the triplex acies was the acies duplex, composed of two lines of five cohorts, used against very numerous enemies.
When Augustus came to power, he controlled 60 legions, although shortly afterwards he dissolved some and others merged, giving rise to the Gemina legions that mean “twins”. Eventually he made an army of 150,000 legionaries spread over 28 legions, reinforced by 180,000 auxiliary soldiers. He also established two main fleets and several minors.
Augustus modified the structure of the legion slightly, giving it nine cohorts of 480 men and a first of 800, called “double force” that protected the commander and the standard. Along with the infantry added a cavalry squad of 128 men. Theoretically, the legions of the Early Empire consisted of 5,248 men. As they used to be accompanied by a similar contingent of auxiliaries, it can be considered that in this period when a legion was mobilized, a total of 10,000 soldiers used to be launched.
Regularly the legions were able to travel in one day more than thirty kilometers carrying the baggage, and in case of need came to perform marches of up to fifty kilometers.
Among many other reforms that could be carried out by the first emperor, highlights the establishment of the ius iurandum, an oath of fidelity or sacramentum, derived from an existing one from the year 216 BC that, in turn, had unified two that existed previously: of obedience to the Consul and of fidelity to the centuria. The ceremony was established for January 1 (later the 3) and all legionaries renewed their vows of loyalty. The literal translation of Latin read: «The soldiers swear that they will obey the emperor willingly and implicitly in all his orders, that they will never desert and that they will always be willing to sacrifice their lives for the Roman Empire». From this tradition come the flag swears.
At the head of the imperial legions was the emperor himself, or a general or generals appointed to the army or armies, usually consuls or praetors, who were superior magistrates.
In charge of a full legion was a legatus legionis or legate, the second in command was a tribunus laticlavius or broadband tribune (later military tribune), and the third was the praefectus castrorium or prefect of the camp. A prestige charge in the legion was that of a first class centurion, the primi pili, and among them one was the primus pilus or first spear. Having them next to you in front row combat gave courage even to the most cowardly.
The quaestors also participated in the General Staff, who were inferior magistrates who entered directly into the Senate at the end of their service, and had to have previously been broadband tribunes. This was a good path in the cursus honorum.
Below the prefects, commanded an auxiliary cohort (the cavalry had more prestige than the infantry), the different levels of centurions (cohort, centuria, etc.), or decurions (for the case of the units of chivalry) and optios.
In the General Staff the five tribunus angusticlavius or narrow-band tribunes also had the right to be, they were cadet officers who made their debut in combat and learned while they began their first steps in the cursus honorum for six months, the semestri tribunata. From 23 AD young people belonging to wealthy families of the equestrian order had to serve as narrow-band tribunes. There were those who took it as a vacation and others who learned and contributed from the first day as was the case of the great general Agricola who among other honors has given Rome its northernmost victory, in the current Scotland.
At the end of the third century in the time of Diocletian as co-emperor with Maximian, the Empire was divided into more than a hundred smaller provinces than the original ones. Each of them was assigned a governor and a military commander. Constantine the Great continued to reorganize the Empire.
The legions were commanded by a prefect, with the broadband tribunes as second and chosen by the emperor. The prefect of the camp was replaced by a second tribune as third in command, a position obtained by merits of military service.
The narrow-band tribunes disappeared and military candidates or candidati militares arise. In Constantine’s time they formed two cohorts and wore tunics and white capes, being chosen for their good presence and height. They belonged to the personal guard of the emperor as independent units and on several occasions entered combat with him.
The military commanders of each province were the leaders or dux, from which the later dukes derive. They could direct more than one province and in some cases all the East or West of the Empire with the rank of companion of the emperor or comes, from which the later counts derive.
As it has been commented in other sections, static armies existed, limitanei legions in the borders and several mobile armies in diverse points of the territory, composed by legions of elite, comitatenses and palatines with better armament that the static ones.
In the last century, the legions used to consist of about 1,000 men, being largely composed of soldiers of barbarian origin, especially after the disaster of Adrianople in the year 378. Among all highlighted Flavius Stilicho, son of a vandal cavalry officer and a provincial woman of Roman birth, the comes Silvanus and Lutto who were franks, Magnentius and Ursicinus germanics, or the tribune Maloubades, pertaining to a contingent of imperial escort of heavy cavalry, the armaturae, and that got to be king of the Franks.
Although the barbarization of the army has been blamed as one of the causes of the fall of Rome, the truth is that they fought well for the Empire, and the prestige of the imperial institution and what Rome meant instilled respect for a long time. The fall was due much more to bad governance and civil conflicts that blew the Empire than to the human components of the troops.
The Notitia Dignitatum
We must make a special mention and apart from this great work of the Late Empire that has come to us thanks to copies in Carolingian codices. It illustrates the administrative organization of the two Empires, the Eastern and the Western, the emblems and equipment of the legions, etc. It is a unique jewel that gives a very valuable information of this unrepeatable period that precedes, as Petrarca defined them, the Dark Years of the Early Middle Ages.
It is also worth noting the importance of the camps or castra, which were perfectly organized and well protected.
Campaign camps or marching camps, known as castra aestiva, used to be built in border areas or in hostile territory, supporting the constant threat of possible attacks. The soldiers must be able to build it in a few hours after a day of forced marches, to ensure defense during the rest.
If possible, an outpost of the legion composed of 10 men per centuria, used to start working before the bulk of the troop arrived. The legionaries had to be as skilled with the beak or dolabra and the shovel as in the use of weapons. Preferably a hill or elevation was chosen, then the land was leveled, the praetorium was begun, marked with a white flag and from there a perfect grid was marked with streets and tents with lances and purple flags.
Basically they followed a rectangular scheme, surrounded by a pit or fossa. With the extracted earth an embankment or agger was raised, on top of which a wooden wall or vallum was built if the camp was provisional, or of stone and wood if it was of long duration. The walls of the temporary camps should be 3 to 4 meters high and the pit 4 meters deep and 1 wide. The exact measurements depended on the controls. In parallel, sixty meters were left between the walls and the shops, to avoid incendiary arrows or any device that could spread the fire through the camp. Part of this space was occupied by cattle, booty, prisoners, etc.
Each camp was divided by two main streets: the via principalis from north to south, and the via decumana from west to east. A forum was located at the intersection of these roads. There were also four doors: decumana, praetoria, principalis dextra, and principalis sinistra. The main entrance, the decumana, was placed back to the enemy, and the praetoria near the praetorium facing him. There was a very strict and efficient system of guards and passwords that kept any Roman camp completely alert.
The stable camps could be of two types:
–Castra hiberna: used to spend the winter, were the most frequent. Augustus established that they could house a maximum of two legions. The troops were heading to these camps when the official campaign season closed, which since the origins of Rome was established on October 19, coinciding with the October Horse Festival. In the archaic Rome the soldiers took advantage to make the harvest. In the capital there was still a ceremony in the Temple of Mars.
–Castra stativa: permanent. From these last ones evolved urban centres, because in many cases relatives of the legionaries and all type of retailers were installed, as it has happened in the case of the city of Leon.
As an anecdote it should be noted that not even a general dared to ride inside the camp. So great was the superstition of the soldiers, who considered that act attracted bad luck.
Weapons, Banners and Trumpets
The weapons used by the soldiers could be of two types: tela or offensive, and arma or defensive. In the offensive we have the gladius or sword, pilum or javelin, hasta or spear, arcus or bow, and sagita or arrow. In the defensive the lorica or armor, galea or leather helmet, scutum or square leather shield, and parma or small round shield.
On the other hand there were also pieces of artillery, some evolved from those used by the Greeks and others of new creation, highlighting: the ballista, which launched projectiles of up to 50 kg at a distance greater than 150 m, and the scorpio, which launched great darts with extreme precision up to a distance of 400 m.
The use of artillery was widespread in the time of Julius Caesar, including around 50 pieces between ballista and scorpio in each legion, onagers and catapults apart. Later, the four legions besieged Jerusalem in 70 AD punished the Jews with 200 catapults.
It is necessary to mention in this chapter the transcendence of the banners. In imperial times they were of such importance that they were considered sacred objects, the symbol of the strength and spirit of Rome. Its loss was a great misfortune and many times were the subject of great efforts for its recovery, as happened with the eagles of the three legions of Varus annihilated in Germania in the time of the Emperor Augustus.
In their more primitive origin they consisted of mere sticks wrapped with a bundle of hay with the mission to gather the troops in battle. A little later the banners had different designs, such as wolf heads, horses, bears, minotaurs, eagles and even skulls. With the reformer Gaius Marius, the eagle, the sacred bird of Jupiter, was established as the sole symbol of the legion. It came to be revered as a small altar.
Thus, with the successive reforms a standardization was reached that was summarized in three types: Signum, the standard of the centuria and point of reference of the legionaries, Aquila, the banner of the legion and object of religious cult, its design was the imperial eagle, and Vexillum, the standard of the forces that were of service far from the legion, and that used to represent some protective deity.
Be the carrier of the standard was a great honor, and the one who carried the Aquila, the aquilifer had a lot of influence in the troop. Sometimes the standard bearers, who enjoyed a higher rank than the legionaries, participated in the councils of war with the high officials.
After the Dacian wars (101-106 AD) the cavalry units were influenced by the enemy and began to use the signum draconis or draco, which was a dragon’s head made of wood or bronze, from which hung a long body of cloth. In half a century all the Roman cavalry used this symbol.
The commanders of the legions also used banners, which in the Early Empire consisted of square flags with purple embroidery identifying the legion and the command, but in the last centuries, during the Late Empire, the usual was that the units of the generals in Chief will use the draco as a standard. It is easy to imagine the impression that mounted elite units with mesh armor would carry at gallop with their dragons up, swelling their fabrics and activating a device they had in their mouth that made them howl when the wind circulated.
The day to day of a legion was ruled by trumpets. There was a group of unarmed musicians playing the lituus, a wooden trumpet covered with skin, and horns with a “C” shape, the cornu and the buccina. They were dressed in leather vests and bearskin hats that were placed on their helmets.
The guard relays, the awakening, the going to sleep, the preparation for the march and the start-up of the legion had their specific trumpet touches, as well as the battle signals that were vital to transmit orders promptly: march forward, turn left or right, raise spears, lower spears, return to formation, form in a straight line, double the number of soldiers in the background, etc. The legionaries used to be well trained and if they had competent commands they could do wonders on the battlefield.
About the navy, it is known that the Romans did not have a war fleet until 260 BC when they seized a Carthaginian ship on the Italian coast, and decided to imitate the model ship that dominated the Mediterranean Sea from end to end. That same year the consul Duilius gave the first naval victory to Rome at the battle of Mylae. The prows of the captured ships adorned the famous “rostral column” of the Forum.
Over time, the Roman fleet began to dominate the seas, reaching splendor with Pompey who built a large fleet and exterminated the Cilician pirates, who so damaged the maritime trade, in the Battle of Coracaesium. Other great naval battles were those of Cape Ecnomus and Actium, framed in a Roman civil war.
The two main fleets of the navy were located in Miseno, near Naples, and in Ravenna, on the northeast coast in the Adriatic Sea.
The warships, known as naves longae, could have from one to three lines of rowers, used the reinforced keel as a weapon of attack, and bridges with hooks to approach with legionnaires the enemy covers. In the end the use of some artillery weapons was also extended, many of which used fire to multiply the damage in the enemy.
A libernium or liburna, which was the smallest warship in the roman fleet, contained 160 sailors and 40 miles classicus or marines. All were trained to fight.
Author: Eduardo Ortiz Pardina