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Power of Roman military

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Battle of Alesia
Battle of Alesia | Author: Mark Churms

The military phenomenon, brilliant organization, innovative approach, perfect war machine. Most people define the Roman army with such epithets. Few, however, wonder about the reasons for it incredible successes. So how did the small city-state create an army that remained without a doubt the most dangerous armed force for over 400 years? It could not be the genius of one commander, as was the case with Alexander of Macedon, or the effectiveness of a single formation as in the case of Greek hoplites. The Romans managed to create a system based on the interaction of all elements of socio-economic life and only this gave rise to the construction of a great army. To understand this, however, we must start from the beginning…

The first line of the Roman army
On Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.

During the sixth century BCE, Rome is one of the many cities of the Latin Coalition while remaining under the authority of the Etruscan kings. Servius Tullius sits on the throne. One could venture to say that the reforms carried out during his reign have contributed to the creation of the Roman war machine. Tullius came up with the idea to divide society into 5 property classes. Members of each class were obliged to military service and purchase their own equipment (it looked slightly different for each class). Of course, we are talking here about mature men. In Rome, the duty of military service lasted from 17 to 46 years of age. In this way, a legion was created – a basic Roman formation based above all on heavy-armed infantry. The ride was small (out of 4,500 soldiers in the legion, the riders occupied only 300 places), and it included members of the richest class of equites who could afford to buy a horse. The legion thus formed began to pose an increasing threat on the battlefields, although as a unit it was not yet fully refined, because it lacked flexibility.

Clash of Roman troops with barbarians. Front princeps; at the back hastati.

It significantly improved as a result of Camillus military reform in the 5th century BCE. He divided the legion into 30 maniples, each of them into 2 centuries. At the same time, heavy infantry units were divided into three groups: the least experienced, standing in the first rows hastati (10 maniples, each of 120 people), more experienced, located inside principes (also 10 maniples, each of 120 people)) and the most experienced veterans in the third rank, triarii (10 maniples, each of 60 people). A group of 40 light soldiers was assigned to each maniple. Yes, a Roman manipular system was created. Accurate organization of the formation, combined with the high discipline of legionaries, allowed Rome to win more and more often. At first, Rome took control of the Latin Union and gradually extended it to the entire Apennine Peninsula.

However, as I mentioned at the beginning, Rome is not only a great army but a whole social system, whose action should be brought closer to the reader. From the beginning of the republic (509 BCE), Rome struggled with the problem of social divisions. As in every ancient society, there was also a family breakdown here. Patricians belonging to aristocratic families refused to let the poorer and noble plebeians take power. However, they constituted a large part of society, so their subsequent revolts (so-called people’s secession) were a threat to the unity of the state. Gradually, however, through various forms of pressure, plebeians were granted access to further offices and the possibility of marriages between states, until finally in 287 BCE the Hortensius Act obliged patricians to comply with approved resolutions on plebeian commissions without the Senate having to confirm their validity, leading to full equality in the rights of both these social groups. This is one of the few cases in antiquity (apart from the Athenian democracy) where all citizens of a given state were equated in political rights, and the only differences were their property. A homogeneous and reconciled society functioned more efficiently without having to worry about internal conflicts over the background of origin. It is also interesting and noteworthy that the Romans managed to give up the family division as early as the 3rd century BCE, while European societies from the Middle Ages struggled with this problem until the French Revolution.

According to Livy, the first Roman colonies were founded in about 752 BCE. They were Antemnae and Crustumerium. In the 5th century BCE Velitrae (today’s Velletri) was established, and in the late 4th century Ostia, Antium and Terracina.

Let us now look at the system of organization of Italy that Rome introduced after the conquest of the Peninsula. To ensure protection for the conquered territories, the Romans founded colonies on them, i.e. cities for their citizens, which also served as military bases and a way of satisfying the famine of the peasants. Another form of the organization were municipalities, i.e. cities whose population received the so-called limited Roman law (i.e. without the ability to vote and run for office). These cities maintained a certain amount of autonomy, although they paid tribute to Rome. The last form of organization was the alliance. The allies (socii) were required to provide Rome with military contingents, at the same time they did not have Roman or Latin rights, nor could they form alliances with a city other than Rome. Thanks to this organization, Rome was one of the few ancient states to have unimaginable military reserves. In the event of the defeat of one army, it was immediately possible to call another. In the period of the early republic, two consular armies were established at once, each of which numbered about 20,000 soldiers. Meanwhile, military reserves states in the 3rd century BCE amounted to 500,000. people, which means that, theoretically, during one war, the Romans could have suffered a failure in which they would lose both consular armies up to 12 times, which was obviously impossible given the legion’s effectiveness. Eminent commanders such as Pyrrhus and Hannibal found out about the mobilization possibilities of Rome. The former once said that the Roman army is like a hydra, because when its head is cut off, two more rise into its place.

At the same time, we come to another feature of the Roman social system, which was the universal sense of responsibility for the homeland, the ability to cooperate and mobilize all forces, and, if necessary, to give up our own benefits and privileges for the good of the state. As an example, the year 216 BCE can be cited, when the Romans suffered a defeat at losing most of the nearly seventy thousand army. The victorious Hannibal did not decide to besiege Rome, because by the time he got there, defenders were already standing on the mighty city walls. Despite the lack of money in the state treasury, the loss of a mass of experienced commanders and soldiers, the Romans massively reported that they were ready for military service and were able to spend money out of their own pocket for arming and training a new army, which in 202 BCE defeated Hannibal veterans at Zama. There are few similar examples in any of the societies known to us in world history.

Death of Aemilius Paulus, John Trumbull.
Lucius Aemilius Paulus together with Gaius Terentius Varro received an order from the Senate to finally eliminate Hannibal’s army. The battle through Hannibal’s clever manoeuvre turned into a slaughter that consul Paulus did not avoid. Despite the huge defeat suffered by the Roman army, Rome managed to create new troops, and thus overwhelm Carthage with its advantage in the number of recruits and wrestling.

Another feature of the Romans was the incredible ability to adapt to new conditions, as well as seeing their own mistakes and preventing them from appearing in the future. Thinking extremely innovative was of course a feature of individuals, but their ideas influenced the lasting improvement of the entire system. As an example, I will cite here the military reform carried out by Gaius Marius, which changed the face of the Roman army. At the end of the second century BCE, Rome faced the problem of a large number of proletarians (i.e. people below the 5th class of property, and therefore the most qualified for service in the fleet). Marius came up with the idea to allow them to join the army voluntarily and to guarantee uniform weapons. Each of the legionaries wore a helmet, plate armour, shin guards, sandals (shoes were not every day at that time), was armed with a short sword, a dagger and two javelins, and was obliged to wear tools and equipment needed for siege work. All recruits were subjected to military training and fitness training. The basic operational unit became a cohort of 480 soldiers and divided into 3 maniples of 160 militaries, each with 2 centres of 80 people (the first cohort had twice the number of soldiers). Only 10 cohorts merged into a legion. In this way, the citizen army recruited on the basis of property classes was abandoned, and the professional army unified in terms of equipment was created, receiving constant pay and being well-trained. The army ceased to be a duty and became a profession. Because the pay and spoils were guaranteed by the leader, the army became more attached to the commander than to the senate, which gave outstanding individuals a chance to prove their skills, while leaving almost a free hand in command of what the most ambitious used to bring the republic down, but that’s another story…

During the reign of Marcus Aurelius Roman legions for the last time played the role of the strongest formation in the world.
On Creative Commons Attribution license - On these same conditions 3.0.

So we know that the Roman army was dangerous as a formation in itself. Manipular array, division into smaller units increasing the legion’s flexibility, armament combining good examples taken from various parts of Europe. Legion turned out to be easier to command than e.g. greek phalanx (deserving to be called an equally powerful unit). Even an average qualified commander could effectively use the strength of the army, while outstanding leaders such as Scipio Africanus, or Julius Caesar were able thanks to legionaries to perform maneuvers unthinkable for another unit. However, it wasn’t just that that made the Romans so dangerous. Their strength was also represented by enormous military reserves, a brilliant organization of subordinate lands, a society aware of their duties, and an unusual determination of many generations. The Romans were not invincible, but for a long time, they were able to rise after their defeat and draw conclusions from it. All of these factors meant that since the war with Pyrrhus (early 3rd century BCE), until the end of the reign of Marcus Aurelius (end of the 2nd century CE) the Roman legion had no real competitor in this part of the world.

Author: Explore (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)

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