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Rome used military force to wage war against foreign enemies; to maintain law and order within the boundaries of the Republic and Empire; and, to execute sophisticated engineering and administrative tasks.1 The “Roman Way of War” encompassed specific strategic, operational, and tactical characteristics that were refined over time. This essay will briefly describe the principle characteristics of the roman military paradigm from these three points of view. Romans were cognizant of, and repelled by, the costs of war in blood and treasure; which led Rome to prefer a non-violent, commercially-agreeable, bound-by-treaty, defensive strategy but, was not always consistent in pursuing this course. Rome experienced periods of aggressiveness when legions were created and deployed in the conduct of belligerent policies. Also, Roman respect for law and treaty did not stop their close observation of neighbors and their executing preventive operations and reprisals to protect their interests. Rebellions were especially disdained and were ruthlessly suppressed. 2 In spite of their costs, once Rome began military operations, warfare was characterized by ferocity and unrelenting pursuit of victory; and continued as long as the enemy possessed the capability to threaten Rome. Nevertheless, the Romans did not normally fight wars to utterly destroy but to achieve subjugation. The only acceptable status for a former enemy was that of clearly subordinate ally. The destruction of Carthage after Rome’s repeated experience in the Punic wars was the ultimate example of this strategic objective. This attitude, founded upon a strong sense of righteousness, stemmed from Rome’s reluctance to fight without a legitimate cause, though legitimacy was sometimes manufactured.
Adrian Goldsworthy, Roman Warfare, (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2000), 24. Yann Le Bohec, The Imperial Roman Army, (New York: Routledge, 2001), 14-15. 2 Le Bohec, 149-50. M. Cary, and H H Scullard, A History of Rome Down to the Reign of Constantine, (3rd Edition. New York: Palgrave, 1975), 88. Marcel Le Glay, Jean-Louis Vosin, and Yann Le Bohec, A History of Rome, (Chichester, West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, 2009), 92. Goldsworthy, Roman Warfare, 24.
2 Terrell, David G Regardless of the cause, Roman warfare was always pursued to practical ends—even if those ends were less than altruistic by modern standards (i.e. self-interest, profit, and glory)—and, in that spirit of practicality, defeated enemies were usually assimilated into the citizenry. 3 Once Rome’s military requirements rendered the unorganized raiding force inadequate, probably in the 6th century BCE, the Romans adopted the phalanx-based, infantry-centric organization and operational art of the dominant military power in their world, the Macedonian Greeks. They continued using the phalanx until realizing the principle flaws of the formation; a vulnerability to flanking attacks and an inability to fight effectively across uneven ground. They began to move away from the phalanx after their defeat at the Battle at the Alia River. 4 The Roman Army evolved into a hierarchical organization of smaller units subordinate to larger ones (legions); within which were found elite troops, and first-, second- and third-line soldiers. Legions, by the mid-Republic, were combined-arms forces consisting of three types of heavy infantry, light infantry and cavalry. Later years saw the raising of auxila, units of foreign troops organized and trained to legionary standards. As forces became more professional, they developed Cavalry and Siegecraft capabilities pioneered by the Macedonians to a high proficiency, but never used cavalry as decisively as the Macedonians. In its ultimate manifestation, each legion consisted of about 5,000 fighting men, plus about 1,000 men in auxiliary, combat support units. 5
Goldsworthy, Roman Warfare, 24, 26, 71, 81, 85, 93. Le Glay, 73-4 Goldsworthy, Roman Warfare, 33. Cary, 84. 5 Le Bohec, 19, 25. Goldsworthy, Roman Warfare, 49, 108, 126. Cary, 104. F.E. Adcock, The Greek and Macedonian Art of War, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957), Ch 4. Adrian Goldsworthy, The Complete Roman Army, (London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2003), 186-197.
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Maneuver was simple, with Roman commanders trying to achieve the most favorable opportunity for tactical victory. In support of maneuver, the Romans developed a sophisticated infrastructure of roads that facilitated the rapid movement of men and materials within Roman territory. 6 The Roman operational art emphasized detailed planning to reduce the chance of accident or coincidence ruining a military plan of action. Principle considerations included implementing operational security measures to deny information to an enemy; gathering accurate geographic knowledge about the battlespace; and having accurate information about the logistic capabilities of available transport and infrastructure.7 The Roman Army was an infantry-centric fighting force designed for fighting pitched battles. Cavalry played a secondary, harassing role. There was no attempt to attack an enemy asymmetrically and both sides in a battle often used the same operational doctrines. The results were often uncertain and indecisive battles characterized by tentative fighting. 8 Discipline was the most significant force multiplier for the Roman Army. Units moved and acted with an order and cohesion that served well. Collaboration between officers and men, based on attention to strict recruiting standards and difficult but thorough training, produced a harmony of action that conquered the known world.9 The tactical doctrine evolved in the face of changing threats. Unorganized bands of fighters were supplanted by the hoplite phalanx, which later were divided and spread apart into more maneuverable and flexible maniples assembled into the legion. The legion had no effective tactical units for separate operations. Later, changing threats resulted in maniples being enlarged several times over into cohorts
Goldsworthy, Roman Warfare, 71, 28. Polybius. The Rise of the Roman Empire, (New York: Penguin Books, 1979), 395-6. 8 Goldsworthy, Roman Warfare, 55, 71. Le Bohec, 143. Cary, 84-5. 9 Le Bohec, 146. Cary, 99-100.
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having an integral command structure and capable of independent action. While there was no explicit counter-insurgency doctrine, skirmishes and small actions occurred among deployed cohorts and between cavalry and light infantry units on the periphery of pitched battles.10 Once abandoning the phalanx, Roman forces came to rely on the short sword and shield as its principal weapon system. The spear (pilum) was retained, but was thrown before battle was engaged; being designed to penetrate an opponent’s shield and, if not wounding the target, to increase his vulnerability by rendering his shield useless through the heavy weight of the attached spear.11 Roman infantry doctrine was optimized to defeat another infantry force or stationary cavalry force with an advancing charge, encouraging the aggression of the legionnaires. Cavalry on the move was to be met with a stationary, prepared square with spears braced to the ground. Roman infantry, preparing for battle, would not engage until the best formation had been determined and established. The commander would then give a speech to encourage the forces. The legion would them move towards the enemy. Final approaches to pitched battle were characterized by a disciplined, linear approach. As the legion approached enemy lines, an initial salvo by archers and slingers would attempt to create some demoralization and disorder in enemy ranks. Once the enemy was within range, thrown javelins and spears might be added to the initial barrage. Then a huge shout from the Roman ranks was issued, both to encourage the Romans and put fear into the enemy.12 After the initial shout of battle, three maneuvering scenarios could develop, according to Le Bohec. The enemy might run away at once, in which case, Roman cavalry would pass through the Roman infantry to pursue the fleeing enemy, keeping up pressure while the infantry advanced in good order. Secondly, the enemy might begin a flanking maneuver, attempting to turn the flanks of the Roman infantry lines. Rather than move the infantry to respond, the Roman commander would use cavalry to
Goldsworthy, Roman Warfare, 108, 71. Goldsworthy, Roman Warfare, 50. 12 Le Bohec, 137,142-3.
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refuse the flank. Or, the infantry lines would advance on each other. Auxiliary infantryman might be sent to a point of apparent weakness. Once the lines closed to contact, the Roman soldier would use his shield to punch an opponent, attempting to distract an enemy or throw him off balance while attacking underhand using his short thrusting sword.13 Roman forces achieved their tactical prowess through training. Physical training developed stamina for long marches and extended close-quarters battle. Drill in movement and preparations for battle ensured that soldiers and leaders could act reliably in the face of the fear, noise and chaos characteristic of the battlefield. The construction of marching camps at day’s end and the army’s regimented appearance were often intended to overawe a potential enemy before combat was joined. 14 The Romans learned in the early republican era how to defeat their neighbors by direct action. In actions against Carthage, they learned to master large-scale military campaigning. Over all, the Romans learned that the best strategic use of military force is the attainment of political goals. Roman tactics were sound but not superior. Roman soldiers were not elite glory seekers but rather long-service professionals. Roman weapons were not inherently superior to those of their enemies. Roman generals were not always military geniuses. Roman military strength derived from its methods… the complex of ideas and traditions that subjugated military power to political purposes. Rarely was the military power of Rome misused for purely tactical gains or purposeless victory. Romans understood the value of conserved force and the indirect use of military power to gain political ends. 15 The Roman way of war was the conservation and application of measured amounts of violence to gain a desired political end. The legions advanced deliberately, building supply roads, fortified camps and
Goldsworthy, Roman Warfare, 143, 134. Le Bohec, 106-7, 109-119, 131-3. Cary, 102. Goldsworthy, Roman Warfare, 28. 15 Edward N Luttwak, The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire From the First Century A.D. to the Third, (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), 1-3. Cary, 113-121. Livy, The Early History of Rome, (New York: Penguin Books, 1960), 293 (4:5), 309 (4:18).
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other infrastructure as they advanced. Generals allowed enemies to retreat into fortified positions, fixing their position and mobility, rather than risk the uncertainties of open battle. This caution, when combined with their reliance on the military engineer, gave the Roman armies a resilience with which they won victories slowly, but definitely.16 David G. Terrell Herndon, VA
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Works Cited Adcock, F.E. The Greek and Macedonian Art of War. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957. Cary, M, and H H Scullard. A History of Rome Down to the Reign of Constantine. 3rd Edition. New York: Palgrave, 1975. Goldsworthy, Adrian. Roman Warfare. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2000. —. The Complete Roman Army. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2003. Le Bohec, Yann. The Imperial Roman Army. Translated by Raphael Bate. New York: Routledge, 2001. Le Glay, Marcel, Jean-Louis Vosin, and Yann Le Bohec. A History of Rome. Translated by Antonia Nevill. Chichester, West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, 2009. Livy. The Early History of Rome. Translated by Aubrey De Selincourt. New York: Penguin Books, 1960. Luttwak, Edward N. The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire From the First Century A.D. to the Third. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976. Polybius. The Rise of the Roman Empire. Translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert. New York: Penguin Books, 1979.
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