The name Roman army mostly refers to the armed forces used by the Roman Kingdom, the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire. The composition and the tactics of this force were also utilized by the successor - the Byzantine Empire. This force was majorly deployed to fight on land. This term spans for over 2000 years over which there have been massive changes in terms of structure, organization, equipment and the tactics employed. The Roman Army is considered one of the greatest armies of all times. Its success and greatness is believed to have been achieved due to their inventive organization, utmost discipline, and continuous innovation in weaponry and tactics. These invaluable resources enabled the Romans to conquer and control the largest empire in history covering the Rhine parts of Europe, Asia and the Northern part of Africa. The Roman Army, even though considered the longest surviving and the most efficient one in fighting military history, had humble beginnings. It might have begun as seasonal campaigns with Romans fighting alongside the Greek Phalanxes as a form civil militia. This paper will look into the reasons of the Roman Army becoming the best one in history. Strengths of this army in terms of its success in battle fields as well as its techniques and war plans will be discussed. Additionally, various weapons that were used will also be addressed, including the evolution of the army that allowed it to attain its refined status.
Romulus, the founder of Rome, is credited with the formation of the first Roman Army Legion. The recruitment into the army legion was largely based on the social classes which King Tullius Servius categorized into six groups in 580-530 BCE after the census. According to the hierarchy of these classes, the lowest strata had no property and could not be recruited into the army. The highest hierarchical group consisted of the richest Romans that formed cavalry.
In the mid-4th century BC, the Manipular Legion that consisted of 120-160 men was formed and fought the Roman enemies by outmaneuvering their formations. The Manipular Legions consisted of purely Roman citizen at the time of their formation. The success of these legions in such battles as Pydna in 168 BCE and the emergence of provincial empires led to the evolution of the army from seasonal campaigns to permanent military service. The election of Marius Gaius as consul in 107 BCE saw the change in army recruitment where those without property were given arms and armor under the government’s sponsorship. Marius also completed the creation of the army cohorts from the maniples. At the onset of the Imperial Rome under the leadership of Augustus, the army underwent tremendous changes. The military term of service was lengthened and military treasury was also created. The army underwent improvements in tactics and formations which were more effective in countering new enemies. Throughout the evolution of the army, various experiences occurred. The army encountered both defeat and victory all of which were used to develop better techniques, formations and weapons to enhance their chances of winning other battles. Subsequent success and continued survival of the army can be attributed to the following four aspects.
One of the crucial aspects of any army that determines its victory is the armor. One characteristic of the Roman Army, including both the earlier and the imperial armies, that was very decisive for their victory was the advanced armor borrowed from the Greek Empire. During the time of Etruscan kings in 400 BC, the Greek mode of fighting was adopted. Roman soldiers used attire, armor and weapons used by the Greek warriors (hoplite) which included an oval shield, a helmet, breast plate and greaves. All these have been made of bronze, as it is very strong and relatively light in weight. Additionally, the Romans also adopted the phalanx formation for their battles. However, in the early 4th century BC, Rome was invaded by Celtic Gauls who conquered it. This made the Romans reconsider their battle formations and tactics. In the process, the Greek battle formation was dropped and other superior formations were developed. However, the armor and the shield borrowed from the Greeks were maintained and considered very useful. They were used even in the latter days of the Roman Empire with less variations, especially in terms of materials used.
The second aspect that made the Roman army very effective and prosperous was the invention or many flexible battle formations. Phalanx required large states like Greece where battlefields were large planes. However, Rome was a collection of hill tribes. Soldiers needed to be the first to use their terrain to their advantage. Some of such formations were introduced by the Roman hero Fluvius Camillus in the 4th century. The Roman army developed great discipline so that it could arrange and rearrange itself into various formations according to the needs. From the battle with the Celtic Gauls, the Romans shifted from a wall and shield position to a formation that had three lines of soldiers, starting with the inexperienced, the more experienced, and the veteran fighters. The inexperienced front line was tasked with throwing the pilum (a javelin) to the opponent infantry, which forced them to reorganize their strategy. In the midst of confusion, Roman soldiers could close in and pull off specialized techniques of close quarter fighting. This formation could be reorganized into a wedge, tortoise formation or a circle, mostly for defense. However, the wedge formation enabled them to penetrate deep into the enemy’s legions and put them in awkward fighting position where opponents’ heavy swords from Germanic peoples became ineffective. The Romans drew their gladius, which was a small, light and razor-sharp sword, which was used to stub the opponents. In the second Punic war that ended in 201 BC, the Romans won under Publius Cornelius (236–183 BC), also called Scipio Africanus, who was a war hero. This defeat of Carthage happened due to the advancement in Roman formations that were very dynamic with fast-moving legionaries. Romans also used the strategy of striking Carthage’s elephants with pila which occasioned them to tramp on their own legionaries. Roman army had won other battles such as the one at Cynoscephalae, which ended in 364 BC, using similar techniques.
The third aspect that made the Romans army prosperous was their inventive weapons. They constantly reviewed their weapons to counter their enemies according to their future projections. From the Greek spear that was mainly made up of bronze, Romans developed a pila, which was made of very light wood and a bronze or steel spearhead. It was very light and could be thrown like a javelin by frontline legionaries to disorient the opponents. The light weight made it easier for legionaries to carry several of them. From the battle with the Celtic Gauls, Roman army adopted the use of sword as the main weapon for close quarter combat. However, their sword the Gladius was made to be shorter and lighter and more suitable for stubbing. The use of Gladius brought victory for many years beginning with the Punic battle until the barbarian battle towards the end of the Roman Empire. The army also had a smaller dagger called Pugio that was used as a last resort. All of them were very light and easy to wield helping the legionaries in the infantry and the cavalry to outmaneuver their opponents. The Scutum - the shield - was made from toughened animal hide making it very effective and easy to carry around. It was curved around the body, which made it more effective and allowed it to easily interlock forming a solid cover in the tortoise war formation. Moreover, Cheiroballistra was one of the most dreaded Roman siege weapons. It was composed of a heavy metal frame and springs. It was used to propel bolts at the opponents and could effectively kill a soldier in 100 meters in straight shooting. In parabolic shooting, it was able to fire up to 400 meters and could still penetrate the enemy’s armor and cause injury. It was a simplification of a scorpio, or scorpion, which fired heavy metallic darts. The scorpio would be used even in the middle ages by the Byzantine Empire in the ‘second crusade’. Julius Caesar talked about the use of scorpio in a battle against Celts in the siege of Avaricum saying that the weapon had terrifying power and precision, which gave Romans an upper hand.
The forth aspect that made the Ancient Roman Army very effective in battles was their advanced strategy and motivation. In literature, Roman soldiers under Scorpio Africanus, the Roman war hero, were very observant of the environmental factors in battlefields. In the siege of Avaricum, the legionaries and cavalry situated themselves in high grounds firing bolts using scorpio at their opponents. The Romans ensured that they got a position in which the sun was behind them in the Carthaginian battle, which enhanced their vision and blurred their opponent’s vision. In all the battles with Carthaginians and even the barbarians, they ensured that the wind was moving towards their enemy, which increased their precision and the range of their weapons. Roman army was highly motivated, as there were good returns for soldiers who would also share war spoils. Finally, they believed that they were from Mars and children of the War God. This boosted their motivation, and brutality in war was also highly regarded.
In conclusion, the Roman army is among the greatest armies of all times. It combined various factors to outmaneuver and destroy the enemies. Its great success is directly attributable to continuous innovation of weapons and tactics according to various needs. It also mastered the terrain and other environmental factors, which were used to carefully plan the battles. Its main aim was to put opponents in awkward positions so that their weapons and their fighting styles would be less effective. Romans were also very effective in responding to new battle equipment and techniques, as seen in mid-200 BC, where they took only one year to make naval vessels to effectively defend Sicily from Carthage. They were also improving their weapons throughout the Roman Kingdom, Roman Republic and the later Roman Empire.