The Success of the Roman Army

Published 20 Feb 2017

At its height, the Roman Empire has been considered as one of the greatest empires of the Old World. In a span of two centuries, it had stretched its borders to gain control of the Italian peninsula (Manas 24). The driving force behind the success of the Roman Empire was its army.

The Roman army was considered to be the ultimate fighting machine of the Old World. At full strength, one Roman legion can be made up of over 10,000 men with 4,200 infantry, 4,200 footmen, 600 horsemen and 300 calvary men called the Eques Legionis. Over time, the soldiers serving in the army were composed of Romans and auxiliaries who are soldiers from the allied provinces of the empire (MacMullen 228; Santosuosso 18). The success of the Roman army in conquering the modern world could be attributed to three prime factors: the weaponry used in combat, their military tactics and the frame of mind of the soldiers. This paper will discuss in detail these three factors.

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All Roman soldiers were equipped with three basic weapons: a shield, a sword and two javelins with one lighter than the other. The shield used by a Roman soldier is called a scutum. It is a curved, oblong shield that measures 1.2 meters in height, 75 centimeters in width and weighs about 10 kilograms. It is made up of two wooden sheets joined together and then wrapped with canvass and calf skin. The top and bottom and center parts are made up of iron. The Roman utilizes the scutum both as a defensive tool as well as an offensive weapon. The weight of the scutum allows the Roman soldier to force down an enemy to the ground. As a defense tool, the Roman soldier would anchor the scutum on the ground to protect him while attacking his adversaries. The metal boss in the middle of the scutum protects the soldier from the onslaught of stones, missiles and spears from the opponent (Burns 64,75; Santosuosso 16-17).

The primary weapon used by the Romans in battle is a short, double-edge sword called a gladius. The entire sword has a length of 76 centimeters with the blade measuring between 50 and 55 centimeters. The construction of the gladius not only makes it easy for a soldier to maneuver it during close range combat, but it is also more likely to strike an enemy’s vital organs when it is used in a thrusting motion. This makes the gladius an efficient and lethal weapon (Santosuosso 17).

Every Roman soldier is also equipped with two javelins called pila (plural form of pilum). Each pilum is composed of two parts: an iron topped that measures about 135 centimeters long with a flat and polygonal barbed blade at its tip and a long wooden shaft. The iron section is fastened using two rivets in order from preventing the iron section to break off during battle. The rivets also helps the pila in lodging either onto the ground or on the bodies of the enemies firmly that it prevents the soldiers adversaries from using it against them (Santosuosso 17-18).

The Romans protected their bodies with bronze breast and back plates fastened with the use of hinges which they have adopted from the Greeks. Eventually, the more affluent members of the Roman army began to use mail armor and Montefortino type helmets. By the middle of the third century, all members of the Roman army began to equip themselves with open-faced helmets made from a single piece of bronze that had a close-fitting bowl to protect the skull and a neck guard slopping down under the ears. This new helmet, adopted from the Samno-Attics, were more effective since it was less tiring to wear and less likely to be knocked askew while the soldier is in transit or in battle. It was also cheaper and easier to make, making mass production possible (Burns 71-74).

During a battle, the Roman army was divided into four lines: one line of light infantry called the velites and three lines of heavy infantry. Except for the third heavy infantry line, each line is composed of ten maniples ad two centuries, which is the smallest unit of the Roman army. Each maniple is then deployed in a manner resembling that of a check board. The third infantry line were further equipped with a thrusting spear and were arranged in a close-ordered formation, similar to that of the phalanx formation used by the Macedonians (Burns 65; Santosuosso 18-20).

The tactics employed by the Romans in battle is one that provided them as much room for them to maneuver around their enemies as possible. The light infantry was tasked to disorganize the enemy, reveal its vulnerable areas and cause damage from a distance. Only when the light infantry has been successful with this would the heavy infantry bring the battle to the enemy and engage in close quarter combat (Burns 65, 75; Santosuosso 19-20).

As the war campaigns lasted longer in more remote areas involving more superior adversaries, modifications were made to make their military tactics more efficient. One of the modifications that they made was the utilization of a larger basic military unit called the cohort which is composed of 600 men. The Romans also studied their enemies’ military tactics and would use those that they have found effective in later conquests. One such incident was the modification of how the commanders govern their armies after the battle in the Allia where they have discovered that insufficient leadership in the battlefield on the part of the Roman commanders caused the soldiers to be overwhelmed by the Gallic army which resulted in them breaking their ranks during battle (Burns 63-64; Santosuosso 20-21).

Perhaps the biggest change to the Roman army was seen in the political will of Emperor Augustus. In it, the emperor had considered the Roman army not as the army of Rome as many have viewed it, but as the army of the Empire. Not only did this change the role of the Roman army as the guardian of the state, but it had also meant that the reigning emperor is also the commander-in-chief of the army as well (Patterson 99; Santosuosso 90).
However, what made the Roman army an extremely powerful force were the soldiers themselves. The Roman Empire had a very strong military culture. The Romans revered military achievement above everything else. They were more than willing to give their consent to the Roman army to engage in combat with their adversaries since a successful battle would mean that Rome would gain a new province as well as its wealth and the victory would be a message to their adversaries of their superiority. Moreover, they viewed serving in the Roman army is the greatest service a Roman man can do (Rich 41, 56, 65; Patterson 93, 97).

Prior to 107 BC, only the affluent men of Rome are allowed to enlist in the Roman army since their wealth would determine their rank in the army. Eventually, the Roman army was opened to all male Romans citizens – except for slaves, adulterers and criminals – who were physically healthy, muscular, and alert. As a result, majority of the male citizens of the Empire were involved in military service, making it easy for the army to call on reserves from both Roman citizens and its allies (Patterson 93; Rich 53; Santosuosso 10, 46, 91-92).

Once enlisted, a Roman would need to undergo four months training as a recruit. Upon completion of the recruitment period, he would then take his oath in the presence of the gods and the emperor as a full fledge solider of the Roman army. However, the training did not stop after the individual was welcomed into the army. Roman soldiers would practice battle drills continuously to increase the stamina of the soldiers which is crucial in battles. This has made the Roman army into a professional standing army (Patterson 96; Santosuosso 91-92).

Since enlistment to the army is voluntary, the empire rewards the soldiers with a number of benefits. These benefits include donations upon retirement as well as their sons being able to enter the Senate once they are of age (Patterson 97).

Although the Roman army had always been seen as a symbol of honor, bravery and the army of Rome itself, not the army of the emperor, this had not always been the case. For a time, they had become corrupted and no longer became the guardians of Rome. It was only when Julius Caesar came into power that the Roman army once again regained its good name among the citizens of Rome (Santosuosso 28).
Although the Roman army had its shares of defeats and failures, it would be remembered for its discipline and superior military tactics (Santosuosso 21). They were able to conquer their enemies not only by assimilating their tactics and weaponry, but they also began to think like their enemies. It was composed of men who were well-trained in battle and firmly believed that in spite of the bloodshed and loss of life, each battle was for the glory of the empire and for the glory of Rome. In the end, the Roman army entered the pages of history as a symbol of honor, bravery and patriotism, and perhaps the greatest army history has ever seen.

Works Cited

  • Burns, Michael T. The Homogenisation Military Equipment Under the Roman Republic. 2003. 04 February 2008.
  • Manas, J. Lessons from the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire: An Ancient Guide to Modern Project Management.
  • Patterson, John. “Military organization and social change in the later Roman Republic.” War and Society in the Roman Word Leicester-Nottingham Studies in Ancienty Society.
  • Ed. John Rich and Graham Shipley Vol. 5. New York: Routledge, 1993. pp. 92-109.
  • NetLibrary. Pellissippi State Tech. Coll. Lib., Knoxville, TN. 04 February 2008.
  • Rich, John. “Fear, greed and glory: the causes of Roman war-making in the middle Republic.” War and Society in the Roman Word Leicester-Nottingham Studies in Ancient Society. Ed. John Rich and Graham Shipley Vol. 5. New York: Routledge, 1993. pp. 38-66. NetLibrary. Pellissippi State Tech. Coll. Lib., Knoxville, TN.
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