Jump to content
UNRV Ancient Roman Empire Forums

Recommended Posts

Ah, I see what you are getting at here. But even with a big legion, there would be centuries would there not? And chances are the whole legion would not be employed in one battle, so would it not have been better to keep in a bigger group of legionaries instead of a smaller lot?


I have probably forgot some vital factor here, but I will ask these questions anyway.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

That depends on various factors. The legions of the classic period evolved to meet tactical requirements. It was a descendant of their earliest warbands rather than than a formal grouping of disparate units as the late empire was (or indeed, modern armies) thus the century, as a fundamental tactical unit, was actually no different in concept than the barbarian horde it faced, except that it was better organised. In other words, the centurion was the 'tough guy', the leader of the pack, the alpha warrior. The Romans depended on the centurionate to maintain tradition and good order in the ranks.


However, the Romans also encountered a need to fight large set-piece battles when confronting organised nations in the course of their expansion. Therefore their 'warband' legions expanded in size to become what they considered the most convenient for that purpose. Although the legion of around 6000 men was ostensibly loyal to Rome, it was in fact organised as a semi-independent warband of larger size, despite the categories and ranks ordained by the Romans to make sure it all functioned well.


This is where the comparison with modern armies fall down. Modern forces are groupings of specialist units of varying size that require an overall command structure. For much of their history, the Romans had no need of this 'pyramid' style structure, though one might be forgiven for believing that the independent nature of the legions was one reason why they were so prone to rebellion. The soldiers were after all more often loyal to their generals than the Roman state.


Please realise that the Romans had no telecommunications. This was an era when battle strategy was decided before the fighting began. If you needed to change your plan in mid-flow, you had a real problem on your hands. We know they developed signalling to a high degree, yet that was tailored for communication between fixed sites, not mobile elements. From accounts left by the Romans themselves, there's little real communication between commander and his various units. Of course sometimes they sent couriers or runners, but there was nothing like the network of communication we see in the 'horse and musket' period. Far from it. By grouping more men under one commander, you may well find your communications the worst obstacle to overcome.


Roman elements were expected to act on their own, even when part of a larger legion, and actually the defeat at Cannae was partially down to this methodology - when the Roman centuries along the edges of the quincunx formation realised they were passing the enemy on their flank, they turned and halted, thus disrupting the overall formation before the trap was closed.


The legion was after all an army in its own right, not a regiment as it we often see it today. There was no national Roman army in the classic period, but instead, a whole gang of them. It was only in the late empire, with larger numbers of smaller specialist legions, and a more widespread security problem strategically, that we see the Romans developing a regimental system to cope.


In terms of use on the field of battle, centurions were expected to use their intiative in defeating the enemy. We see accounts of this factor here and there. That said, since centurions invariably 'led from the front' and were often among the dead in battle, we see potential weaknesses in this 'alpha male' setup. These commanders might well be be too busy to observe and react (that's why senior officers tended to range behind the line, keeping men from retreating or ordering reactions to enemy movements as required, acting as the eyes and ears of centurions otherwise occupied)


It's also noteworthy that Roman soldiers show little capacity for initiative in battle, almost dull-witted. Josephus records how careless the men were at the siege of Jerusalem, and how Titus became furious at the lack of security. There's also a nice tale of a jewish boy who pleaded to be allowed to use a well. The Roman soldiers okayed that, then saw him running off with a bucket toward the city.


Now as to your question - is it better to keep centuries together? Sometimes, yes. It depends on how much tactical flexibility you need or how large the enemy forces were. There's also a need to practice drill in large formations. One reason for the defeat at Adrianople in 378 was the lack of experience in large battles - the Romans had forgotten this expertise long before. Then again, large units are unwieldy and lack the mobility of smaller groups. In the faster paced campaigning of the late empire smaller groupings were better suited overall, and battles like Adrianople something of an exception.


There are strategic considerations too. If all your centuries are in one place, how do you stop small bands of raiders in more than one location? If all your centuries belong to one commander, can he keep track of his units and use them effectively over a smaller or wider area?

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Ah I see. But was not the Optio and Standard Bearer to take command if a centurion was killed? I understand that the order in battle could be nasty, and centurions needed to be in the front, but I always assumed that the legate would be watching the battle and sending out orders with cavalry runners. It would not be that great, but people well into the 18th century conducted battles with that tactic.


So with a smaller number of centuries, order could be kept easier? I agree with that, but I always believed that every cohort acted as its own regimental type unit, and that there would always be spare men for battle. So if you make the legion smaller, you will be decreasing available reserves, yes?


~Also, do you know of the First Spear centurions and centurions of higher rank fought in the front?

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

There's little or no historical evidence that legates conducted themselves in this way. Roman commanders were more proactive. Julius Caesar sometimes fought in the front line during a battle, which means he could hardly direct his troops. It's a mistake to assume that the Romans were relying on a system of messengers to adapt to circumstance - the sources make little mention of such things and the events during battles indicates that battlefield command really wasn't that sophisticated in this era.


Remember that the Romans believed in personal virtue. A commander might not always live up to that image, but in general, he should at least make the attempt. If your troops are wavering at one point and other officers are busy, what use is sending a messenger asking them to stay in the line? That commander would need to get down there and show leadership. It was a matter of urgency that required initiative, not a secretary. Also you realise that with predominantly infantry armies the Romans preferred a relatively compact deployment for mutual support, whereas in later eras larger armies might be spread out for some distance.


That said, the role of the optio in battle was a supportive one. Yes, he was there to back up the centutrion and replace him as commander if necessary. I have read that he was usually stationed at the rear of the century to provide the moral support. But that's no guarantee he wouldn't be injured by missiles, nor that his presence would be enough to stop a rout when morale faltered.


We're talking about troops belonging to a culture that relied on brute force and despite the sword training soldiers received, there's very little in the way of 'martial arts' about their fighting. It was blood and guts melee, although the Roman style was closer to bayonet fighting than the wilder swings of their barbarian opponents.


Decreasing reserves? That's only true if you're fighting opponents of the same size as before. The tactical situation of the late empire was usually different. Although the barbarians were becoming more co-ordinated in their efforts to grab what they could from the Romans, we don't read of their raiding parties becoming appreciably larger in size.


'First spear' and senior centurions fought in the front rank? I imagine they would have. The whole point of their status was to provide leadership in battle. As Julius Caesar knew well, Roman soldiers respond better to leaders who share in their labour (Plutarch tells us that too) and since the role of centurion was less like a modern sergeant-major and more like a tribal chief, leading by example was a primary method of motivating the men in combat. It does work too. Even the experience of recent conflicts demonstrates that leaders right at the sharp end generally get better performance from their men.


Now as to cohorts being a regimental type of unit - no. It was a subdivision of the legion intended both for administration and convenience of size on the field of battle. The Romans were very keen on organisation and thus it's inevitable they divided their troops with some formality.


Many people will dismiss what I say about the nature of Roman legions. There's a number of reasons for that. What I say might seem outlandish, unexpected. It opposes conventional wisdom or the popular image of Roman legions as an unstoppable military machine. The problem as I see it is our own experience. We observe the world around us and up to a point understand it. It's familiar to us. If you look back at historians of former times, when they discuss the Roman legions they invariably do so in the light of their understanding of how warfare was conducted in their day.


What happens is that we 'pattern recognise'. It's a perceptual feature of human beings. It's how we interpret the information from our senses. We recognise certain aspects of the Roman military and immediately latch on to them. It certainly is true they did some things that were similar or parallel to modern methods - there are methodologies that will always work with human physchology and social behaviour, whatever the cultural trappings - yet this recognition is blinding us to some of the important differences.


I spoke to a re-enactor a couple of years ago. We had a fascinating conversation about legionary stuff, but try as I might, his answer to my criticism was that he still thought the Roman legions were pretty much the same as a modern army. He says that because he understands how modern armies work and has focused on the similarities with the Romans in order to understand them.


Despite his informed opinion, we cannot dismiss the fact the Romans lived around two thousand years ago with a culture that emerged from primitive origins in situ, as opposed to the polyglot basis of our own. They developed their levies of armed men on a principle of tribal warfare dating back to their iron-age origins. Even the legions of the Principate bear the hallmarks of it. The Romans of that period have no national army. There is no umbrella organisation linking the various legions together or co-ordinating their efforts. Instead of a pyramid structure, they adopt an almost modular, feudal, and very direct 'warband' philosophy.


Now that doesn't mean the behaviour of officers, or even centurions, was especially primitive. Many of the centurionate went on to political success in later life. What I mean is that the centurions role was not as a layer of authority within a pyramid of status and responsibility, but rather as a minor warlord indentured into military service with perks attached. It was the centurion, not his senior offficers, who decided on a day to day basis whether his men were guilty of infractions. He decided whether to punish his men accordingly. They were 'his' lads. He was the boss of his century. So polarised was their authority that legionaries are recorded as refusing the orders of centurions from other formations.


That doesn't exclude senior officer status. With Roman social order and passion for organisation, naturally the centurion has no choice but to defer to his superiors when commanded to do so. At the same time, the senior officers rely on the centurions. That's one reason why, as a class of junior officer, centurions were under no compulsion to retire. They could serve as long as they wanted and some did indeed serve all their active lives.

Edited by caldrail

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now

  • Map of the Roman Empire