Militaria Romana Fighting, Warrior Culture, and Military Affairs in Ancient Rome

Militaria Romana

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Page 1: Militaria Romana

Militaria RomanaFighting, Warrior Culture,

and Military Affairs in Ancient Rome

Page 2: Militaria Romana

Importance to Roman Culture

Military service was at the center of Roman culture. All male Roman citizens with the means to do so, especially in the upper classes, was expected to serve their time in the army. Children ‘played’ by practicing running, swimming, fencing, and javelin-throwing at the Campus Martius – dedicated to the War God.Rome had a special group of priests (the fetiales) whose purpose was to declare just war against enemies by visiting the enemy and performing rituals. When wars began to take place too far from Rome, these priests set aside a patch of ground at the temple of Bellona to be considered enemy territory to save time when they had to declare their wars.The Temple of Janus in Rome had huge gates that were only closed when Rome was at war with no other state. Before Augustus had them closed again, this had only happened twice in Rome’s 700 year history.

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Roman Military Discipline

Discipline and obedience were at the heart of Roman society. Children were raised to obey their fathers without question. In the military, this same behaviour was expected. Fast and fluid response to orders and unwillingness to disobey were key to Roman victory against overwhelming odds.Deserting a post or sleeping on watch earned a soldier the punishment of death by beating (fustuarium) – his fellow soldiers used clubs and stones to kill him. Committing lesser crimes in camp three times earned the same punishment.

If an entire unit of the army needed to be punished, generally for cowardice or failure to follow orders, the Romans practiced decimatio – in which all of the guilty soldiers would be gathered and a tenth of them selected by lot. Those picked by lot were clubbed to death by their companions; the survivors were reduced to barley rations and had to camp outside the walls of their fort.

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Eras of ancient Roman warfare – The Early Army

Romulan period – King Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome, supposedly organized the first Roman army called the legio, or ‘draft,’ from which we get ‘legion.’ His army was based on a phalanx of volunteer militia who were armed with the equipment they could afford, and a cavalry force drawn from the wealthiest. Roman culture kept relics of these divisions – the comitia centuriata and the equites.

Republic (Camillan legions) – Later, under the Republic, this system was reformed. Roman citizens were divided into three types of heavy troops (hastati, principes, and triarii) by their equipment, and fought in three lines of maniples, supported by the levites, or troops to poor to afford full equipment. Republican armies were supported by Latin and Italian allied troops, or socii, arranged in the same manner.

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Marian reforms – Gaius Marius implemented vast reforms of the military system. Because of manpower shortages and economic problems, Marius hired professional troops from the lower classes. Their equipment was provided by the state (the cost deducted from their pay), so that all the legionaries had essentially the same equipment. The maniples were mostly discarded in favour of the larger cohorts. These troops were extremely effective but politically unreliable.

Some changes were made during the Empire. The lorica segmentata replaced the lorica hamata, and the huge area of the Empire made it possible to draw upon a wide variety of hired auxilii. Late in the Empire, the infantry legions were used more as frontier garrisons, while the ‘field armies’ were composed more of heavy bodyguard troops and cavalry.

Eras II – Later Adaptations


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The Military as a Way of Life

Adult Roman men were expected to serve in the military, and could not advance politically without doing so. Even Cicero served his campaigns during the Social War. The money and reputation gained by a successful commander was a tremendous political boost, and Roman senators fought over the leadership of potentially lucrative wars. Some wars were started with little just cause by governors greedy to prove themselves. The highlight of the military career was the ‘triumph,’ in which a victorious general got to ‘be’ Jupiter for a day.

Roman children trained for a future military career by playing at the Campus Martius – the Field of Mars, god of war. Roman boys practiced running, fencing, javelin-throwing, wrestling, and swimming to use during their time in the legions. The widespread literacy of Romans would also be an invaluable aid to their armies, as troops could all read and write instructions and orders. Children also learned to obey orders from their superiors without question, and heard heroic tales of warriors like Romulus, Horatius, Scaevola, and others.

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Equipment of the Marian legionary

Protective gear – Staying alive on the battlefield was very important. Romans depended on effective drill and expensive equipment to do so. The biggest piece of equipment was the lorica (hamata or segmentata), followed by the all-important scutum. In addition, a Roman legionary wore his caligae, galea, and cingulum. Greaves, called ocreae, were also sometimes worn.

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Just as important as staying alive was the ability to kill your enemy.The chief weapons of legionaries from this period were the pila, or throwing-spears, and the gladius, or short, stabbing sword. Roman troops also were generally equipped with a small dagger called a pugio. Students used to medieval history may be confused to find that the gladius was generally worn on the right hip for quick access (Roman soldiers needed to be right-handed).Other weapons which might be used included the spatha – a long sword for cavalry fighting; a heavy hasta – a spear, especially useful when fighting sieges or cavalry; and the plumbatae – lead-weighted javelins used by legionaries in the Late Empire.

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Auxilii, or auxiliaries, were non-Roman troops who were hired to accompany the Roman army and perform the tasks for which it was less suited. Roman cavalry were almost exclusively auxiliary by the time of Marius, as well as ranged troops (slingers and archers) . Claudius even hired elephant troops to invade Britain. Auxiliaries who performed well would be paid a salary and a share of spoils, and could gain citizenship.

Romans relied heavily on battlefield engineering for many of their victories. Architecti designed and maintained the construction works the Roman army used, from the daily camp and permanent walls and forts to roads, and fantastic siegeworks such as those used in Caesar’s conquest of Gaul. They also designed and manned artillery, such as catapults, ballistae, and scorpions, to attack the enemy at range and destroy their morale.

Other Troops

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Roman combat style – triplex acies and quincunx

There is some debate over precisely how the Romans fought in the field, but they appear to have marched and fought in an open quincunx pattern, with open spaces covered by units behind. In three lines (the triplex acies) this offered strategic depth, flexibility, cover, and ease of reinforcement while allowing Romans to cover more length of line and maintain reserves. Legionaries threw their javelins (each man carried two), fought with their swords while using shields for defense, and then fell back behind the cover of the next line to rest. Auxiliaries were usually deployed on the wings for support while the Romans did the most fighting.

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A Roman army, or exercitus, was composed of divisions called legiones. These were futher broken down, with approximate ‘paper’ numbers of soldiers: • Legion Approximately 5,000 troops• Cohort 480 (or 800)• (Maniple) 160• Century 80• Contubernium 8

Less than 5,000 actual troops per legion was more realistic. Caesar preferred fighting with smaller 3,600 man legions for increased flexibility and speed.

The commander of an army was a dux, or imperator after winning a battle. A legion would be commanded by a legatus, and elected officers called tribuni militum would assist these commanders. Subunits of the legion were commanded by career officers called centuriones, each of whom was assisted for administrative purposes by an optio, who was also responsible for troop morale in combat.

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The Romans were, as a general rule, outnumbered by their opponents but able to defeat them. This is probably due to a combination of the individual skill of soldiers and commanders and the style that they used. In contrast to the Hellenistic style of warfare, with longer solid units of phalanx troops, the smaller Roman units could adapt to a changing situation, work around terrain, and provide opportunities for tired troops to fall back under cover, or to bring reserves to bear.

Against disorganized forces, the Roman style of fighting provided support, discipline, a chain of command, and cover. The ability of Caesar’s troops to out-march Gallic armies while maintaining lines of supply, scouting properly, and even constructing proper fortifications for every night of the march was devastating to the Gallic rebellion under Vercingetorix.

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Model Battles

Cannae: Paullus and Varro, Romans, vs. Hannibal, Carthage

(note reversed colours)




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Zama – Scipio (Roman) against Hannibal (Carthaginian).

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Battle of Alesia – Caesar against Vercingetorix

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Pharsalus – Caesar’s Roman army against Pompey’s Romans