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Maniple (manipulus) was a tactical unit of the Roman army, consisting of two centuries. This name is derived from the unit’s combat sign (signum) with the hand sign on top. The Latin word manus means “hand”.

The manipulative system was taken over from the Samnites during the Samnite Wars (343-290 BCE), most likely around 315 BCE. during the Second Samnite War. Uneven southern lands of Italy, the so-called the Samnium, where the fighting took place, proved the lack of manoeuvrability of the phalanxes used by the Romans after taking the system from the Etruscans. After suffering a few defeats and losing an entire legion without much resistance Caudine Forks, the Romans decided to move away from the phalanx for a more flexible manipular order.

Manipular formation.

The legionary formation was made up of legionaries arranged in three rows (Camillian reform). This formation was in the shape of a chessboard (it did not form a dense front line, such as a phalanx) and such an arrangement of manipulators made it possible to quickly withdraw soldiers, tired of fighting, beyond the ranks in further lines. It also allowed light-armed forces to escape after completing their task. In the first row stood the weakest, youngest and least experienced soldiers called hastati, armed with short swords and heavy spears called pilums, in the second – older, better-armed principes, and in the last one, the oldest and most experienced triarii, armed with hasta spears for hand-to-hand combat.

First, hastati joined the fight, then – if their attack failed, they attacked principes. If the attacks of the first two ranks failed, the triarii started fighting. The infantry wings were covered by the cavalry. The manipulation was headed by two centurions: the first was called prior and the second was posterior. Prior was nominated by the soldiers of a given maniple, while the posterior was appointed by prior. Although there were two centurions in manipulation during the republic period, there weren’t a single centurions. The lower officers were called optio (better) and tesserarius. Orders were given with the horn. The soldier showing the horns was called cornicen. The soldier carrying the sign on the shaft indicated the direction of the march or attack – signifer. Depending on the category of the soldier, maniples consisted of 60 triarii, and principes and hastati 120–160. The 30 manipulators comprised the legion. The maniple members were called commanipulares, because they considered themselves comrades-in-arms. Usually, the manipulation soldiers during the battle were arranged in three rows of 40 people.

Marius’ reform changed the role of manipulators in the army. The three manipulators began to form cohort, which became the basic tactical unit so far. The division into hastati, principes and triarii ceased to be relevant outside of centurion ranks. The highest position in the cohort was prior manipułu triarii, the lowest – hastati; prior was always superior to posteriora. The highest-ranking centurion in the legion was the so-called primipilus, i.e. prior manipulation of triarii in the first cohort. Maniples were still part of the legion, able to act independently and perform specific tasks at the tactical level, but the more effective and more frequently used formation within its framework was already the cohort.

  • Lawrence Keppie, The Making of the Roman Army: From Republic to Empire, New York, 1994

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