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Velites in the Battle of Zama
Velites in the Battle of Zama

Velites, in Latin veles, literally “light soldier”. In the Roman republican legion, light infantry, conducting operations in front of the manipulative line. In the early legion, velites numbered 1,000 soldiers.


Velites were the youngest, the busiest and least experienced of the soldiers in the legion. This formation was derived from earlier leves. Their armament consisted of several short 90 cm javelins1 (iaculum, also called hastae velitares or eretum) about 1.2 meters long, short swords (sometimes gladius). Sometimes they had round shields (parma) with a diameter less than 1 meter.

Velites often wore predator skins (e.g. wolves, bears), which were supposed to be a source of power and courage. They also rarely used light leather helmets; however, most often they did not have any armor. This was largely due to the fact that they were poor (they belonged to a layer with a property of 400-2500 denarii) and young citizens. Often there was also a slingshot that had a range of up to 180 meters. A group close to them in age and combat training, but with significant differences in armament, were hastati.

During the battle of velites, put forward in front of the first line of heavy armed infantry, they fought and harassed the enemy with bullets. When the entire legion was ready to fight, they retreated to the rear through gaps between manipulations.

More about the acies triplex

Velites took on the burden of fighting war elephants or chariots – such as the battle of Zama. Here is how Vegetius describes the clash of the vellites with elephants:

But among the ancients, the velites usually engaged them. They were young soldiers, lightly armed, active and very expert in throwing their missile weapons on horseback. These troops kept hovering round the elephants continually and killed them with large lances and javelins. Afterwards, the soldiers, as their apprehensions decreased, attacked them in a body and, throwing their javelins together, destroyed them by the multitude of wounds.

Vegetius, De re militari

Researchers say that velites occurred in the years 211 – 107 BCE. (replacing the so-called leves) and disappeared with the introduction of Marius’ reform, which was a consequence of gradual unification of armaments and departure from the civil army.

  1. Livy reports that each veles had 7 javelins; Lucilius, in turn, talks about 5.
  • Rodgers Nigel, Rzymska armia. Legiony, wojny, kampanie, Warszawa 2009

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