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Terrell October 22, 2009
The evolution of the organized Roman Army, from its “royal” incarnation in the late 6th century B.C.1 into the 2nd century Army of the Republic, was predominately reflected in its battle order (formation, organization and tactics) and its equipment. This essay will briefly describe the Roman Army of both periods, focusing on these two aspects, and examine the forces and/or events that stimulated the changes. Although reliable historical evidence for Rome’s early military history is sparse, at some point during the rule of the Roman kings, the Romans adopted the heavy-infantry, hoplite phalanx as its primary battle element, supported by cavalry and light infantry screening forces. The phalanx replaced an earlier military structure based upon loosely-organized, tribal-sourced fighting bands more suited to shortrange, brief-duration, skirmishing and raiding than fighting pitched battles. While the Romans may have practiced a less dense variant of the Greek phalanx, with a bit more spacing between men to allow better uses of axe, sword and spear; phalanx warfare, in its ideal form, was fought between two disciplined , deep formations (8 to 40 ranks) of men (“hoplites”) fighting in very close order on flat, open ground. The hoplite’s primary offensive weapon was an 8-foot long thrusting spear supplemented by a thrusting sword. Personal protection was provided by circular shields of bronze covered wood; bronze helmets; and, greaves and cuirasses of bronze or leather. Equipment was expensive, and each man provided his own. Therefore, hoplites tended to be landowners wealthy enough to afford the required panoply. The formations required a large number of men, and Rome’s use of phalanxes implicitly indicates Rome’s population had grown large enough to staff them.2 3
All dates are B.C. Adrian Goldsworthy, The Complete Roman Army (London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2003), 20-25. 3 Richard A Gabriel, The Great Armies of Antiquity (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002), 223.
2 David G. Terrell
The phalanx was an innovation probably introduced to Italy by Greek colonists, and was perhaps observed by the Romans in use by the Etruscans. Before adopting the phalanx, the “marauder” style of warfare practiced by the Romans provided opportunities for warriors to distinguish themselves and earn social stature through exhibiting obvious courage and élan on the battlefield; each tribe and family having contributed its share of soldiers.4 The phalanx, on the other hand, with its faceless massing of individuals, left little room for such pursuit of individual glory in battle; and the change likely faced some resistance until the superiority of the system in pitched battle was made manifest to all. Staffing the phalanx-based army required more organization and division of labor than did the earlier system. No longer could a warrior simply respond to a call to arms as he saw fit. He had to conform to the demands of the Army’s organizational needs, weapons specifications, and subordinate his individual initiative to the instant obedience necessary for the success of massed men in close-order drill. A formal system for drafting military-aged males was allegedly imposed by Servius Tullius (578-534), Rome’s sixth king. Both Livy and Dionysius describe the system almost identically. Rome conducted a regular census of military-aged males, who formed the basis of a militia, and divided them into classes based upon their net wealth. The wealthiest class members were appointed to the cavalry and tasked to provide their own horse in addition to personal weapons and equipment. Other classes, those of average means, were assigned to equip themselves as hoplites, and the relatively poor as light infantry.5 The mid-2nd century Army of the Roman Republic was a different—better understood—animal. The extant descriptions of its battle order and equipment provide much more descriptive information. Polybius, in his account of the Second Punic War, provides the best description of the army of the 2nd century, in terms of detail and accuracy.6
Gabriel, 223 Goldsworthy, TCRA, 20-25. 6 Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire (Translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert. New York: Penguin Books, 1979), Book IV, 318-338.
3 David G. Terrell
The Romans, by this time, had abandoned the phalanx. This had probably resulted, at least in part, from after-action analysis of the Roman’s defeat on the Alia River, when the phalanx was stretched wide and thin to match the front of an invading Gallic army. The thin line, lacking both depth and reserves, was penetrated and the Romans routed, leading to the sack of the city. Afterward, seeking to develop a battle order that had greater defensive depth, standoff weapons and better mobility, the Romans replaced the phalanx with three distinct lines of heavy infantry, supported on their flanks by horse cavalry (later including elephants) and screened by lightly-armed scouting and harassing forces. Nevertheless, the army remained a militia and wealth still determined assignment to the various branches. Examining the lines of heavy infantry, from the forward edge of the battle area to the rear, one finds they were organized by age; being respectively called the hastati (men of prime military age), principes (slightly older men) and the triarii (the oldest and most experienced). This age- and experiencebased organization put those with the most strength and stamina, but possibly the least courage and experience, in the front to absorb the initial impact of battle, before the blood and horror became real. This arrangement created an experienced reserve using the remaining lines of troops, holding those better suited to reinforcing a continuing and possibly desperate situation for later need. The individual lines consisted of small units (maniples), each numbering about 120 troops. Within the maniples, men were more openly spaced than within a phalanx, to allow ample room for throwing a spear or engaging in swordplay. The maniples and lines were usually positioned in a quincunx, a “checkerboard” formation, with a varying amount of space between them. This spacing depended on the length of battle front needed to prevent an enemy from easily flanking the Roman line. Each line, being offset from the one before it, ensured that the spaces in one line were filled by the maniples of the line behind it. 7 The thrusting spears of the phalanx were abandoned in response to Gallic long-swords and tactics, in which they charged chaotically into Roman lines in large numbers. Roman troops of the first
Goldsworthy, TCRA, 25-30.
4 David G. Terrell two lines were armed with heavy throwing spears (pila) designed to make an enemy’s shield unusable, being difficult to remove once piercing it, if it did not incapacitate or kill him. After launching their spears, the Roman front lines closed and engaged the enemy using their short, thrusting swords and heavy oblong shields to attack. The third line soldiers, effectively held in reserve, were armed with lighter javelins, in addition to the sword and shield. The javelins, being lighter, could provide either a thrusting weapon or longer-ranged standoff weapon at need. All three lines of heavy infantry were protected by improved body armor such as iron ring mail and iron helmets, giving better visibility and protection to the face through well-designed cheek-pieces. While the individual soldier was still responsible for his own equipment, he could now use his regular pay to offset the cost of purchasing standardized weapons, manufactured by the state. 8 Over the four centuries between the two archetypical armies examined here, the Romans faced opposing forces of large Gallic mobs, Greek- and Macedonian-style phalanxes, and Carthaginian combined-arms forces using elements of both. The maniple-based battle order that evolved by the 2nd century proved capable of overcoming all three, when other aspects of battle such as morale, terrain, and relative strength favored neither side to an obvious degree. Roman equipment changed to support the battle order, sometimes after exposure to technical innovations in an enemy’s inventory, particularly during the First Punic War. These two aspects, the order in which the Roman Army responded to their enemies, and the weapons they carried into battle, proved to be the principal difference between the two timeframes.
David G Terrell Herndon, Virginia
Goldsworthy, TCRA, 25-30. Gabriel, 226-7. Polybius, Book II.33-4, 144. Adrian Goldsworthy, Roman Warfare (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2000), 212-219.
5 David G. Terrell
Works Cited Gabriel, Richard A. The Great Armies of Antiquity. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002. Goldsworthy, Adrian. Roman Warfare. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2000. —. The Complete Roman Army. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2003. Polybius. The Rise of the Roman Empire. Translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert. New York: Penguin Books, 1979.
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