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Roman army during empire

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Battle of Tapae with the Dacians in 101 CE
Battle of Tapae with the Dacians in 101 CE

Roman army was modernized as a result of Marius’ military reform, carried out by Gaius Marius in 102 BCE practically during the empire it was not modernized to a greater extent. However, efforts were made to make Rome’s combat forces even more flexible than before, and above all, to be able to react in different regions of the huge Roman Empire.

After the victory at Action (battle of Actium), Octavian Augustus proceeded to reorganize the Roman army, planning to secure himself the exclusive right to dispose of it. Dating back to 30 BCE nearly 500,000 the army was partially dissolved and the veterans settled in colonies established in Italy and provinces. Initially, after the reduction in numbers, the Roman army consisted of 18 legions, and at the end of his reign, it was increased to 25. The army was divided into legions and auxiliary formations (auxilia). The legions served mainly Roman citizens, which was observed, while the auxiliary units were mostly residents of not fully Romanized provinces. The army was placed in fortified frontier camps in Spain, Africa, Syria, the Danube and the Rhine. So we can say that Octavian Augustus turned the Roman army into a standing army.

The average Roman legionary was only about 162 cm tall, which was their great weakness. For comparison, we can mention, for example, the Germans or Gauls, who were 170 to 185 cm tall.

It took a lot of capital to maintain a huge army of 250,000 people. In 6 CE Augustus established a special military treasure – Aerarium Militare – which received taxes for the maintenance of the army. In order to increase the treasury, Augustus resigned from the frequent giving of bonuses to soldiers, which was often used in the 1st century BCE. However, the gradual inhibition of expansion, while reducing the amount of loot from the conquests, made it difficult to keep the treasury at a constant level. Over time, the coverage of military expenses became the state’s chief financial task.

A Roman soldier in the army had to serve from 20 to 25 years. He received regular pay, and after completing his service he was given a farm in the province (usually in the one where he was stationed). If we take into account that the military service began at the age of 18, and lasted 20-25 years, then around the age of 40, a person received land from which he could make a living and could start a career as a clerk. He could start such a career in his city.

As I mentioned before, the soldiers lived in permanent camps located at the state borders. The long period of service forced them to marry and start families in the vicinity of their camp. As a result, the Roman legionaries mingled with the conquered people. In addition, non-citizens, inhabitants of conquered peoples who obtained citizenship through service, passed on to their descendants, flocked to serve in the legions. To solve the problem, numbers were established, i.e. special units recruited from non-Romanized inhabitants, constituting cavalry.

Scutum, the Roman shield was large enough to cover the entire legionary’s torso.

The huge Roman state, which in a sense ended its expansion, switched to a defensive system. In order to protect long borders, the construction of border fortifications was started on a large scale. Fortified camps were built, connected by roads, lines of defensive walls, reinforced with towers, ditches (fossatum) and palisades (limes). It is from the palisades that the Roman fortifications were called limes. The first structures of this type began to be built in Britain, on an island partially subordinated to Roman rule. Two lines of fortifications were built to protect Roman territory. The first was under Emperor Hadrian (Hadrian’s wall), and the second was under Antoninus Pius (Antoninus’ wall). Other belts of fortifications were created: between the Rhine and the upper Danube, and between the Danube and the Tisa. Further constructions moved to the east, where lines of fortifications were built to protect Syria from attacks by nomadic tribes in the Syrian Desert.

The crisis that followed the death of the last member of the Severus family, Alexander Severus in 235 CE, forced the state authorities to carry out military reforms. The infantry, which until then constituted the main core of the army, lost its importance. Constant attacks on limes forced the army to react quickly and move to the endangered regions. For this purpose, the number of drivers was significantly increased, which could support the attacked section in a short period of time.

Roman tower

During the rule of Constantine the Great, the army was divided into limitanei, the group responsible for defence borders and accepting attacks and comitatenses, which was a movable reserve ready to intervene. Two new positions were established: magister peditium, infantry commander and magister equitum, cavalry commander. In a situation of high risk, the control of the infantry and the cavalry was taken over by magister utriusque militiae. In addition, Constantine reduced the troops that were able to respond more effectively at the border.

The Roman army changed a lot during this period. The former legions and auxilia have now become secondary frontier troops, whose numbers have been severely diminished. An elite, mobile field army was established. It consisted of cavalry troops (vexillationes palatinae) and 5 infantry legions (legiones palatinae), each with 1000-1500 soldiers, and auxilia palatina (10 divisions of 500 soldiers each).

Despite the reform of the army and the strengthening of the mobility of the Roman army, the increasing attacks of the barbarians forced the state to increase its army, which at the end of Constantine’s reign amounted to 500,000 soldiers. This, in turn, entailed an increase in military spending, and as a result, budget “holes” and inflation began to appear. There were attempts to save the economy with reforms under Diocletian and Constantine, which in part allowed the country to stabilize. The fall of the Western Roman Empire, however, is largely not due to the weakness of the army, but rather to the collapse of the centre of power, frequent usurpations and the loss of state integrity.

Light Horseman
Light horseman (right) played a more important role in the Roman army at that time. He belongs to the “bold Moors” (Mauri feroces) troops. Other light horsemen had larger oval shields, such as the infantry, and were called scutarii. Former legion scouts now formed separate light cavalry units, using helmets and small shields. All troops had javelins and spathae as their main weapons, but there were also mounted archers.
The figure on the left shows a walking archer of Gallic or Belgian troops. In addition, like additional weapons, he has an axe and a shield.

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