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It's a fascinating subject. I don't agree that we can't compare the Roman army to later armies, in fact through experience and my own knowledge of military history the Roman experience in mutiny, discipline, etc., is often comparable to other armies (Army of Flanders, French Army in 1917, etc.).

 

We can't because the forum rules say so :D

 

As it happens, people do that routinely. In fact, by making direct comparisons, the temptation to paint the Romans in modern colours is distorting the picture. It is true there are parallels, for no other reason that the Romans were human beings too, and despite differences in culture some elements of behaviour are bound to be similar.

 

However, there is an assumption about the Roman legions that isn't supported by archaeological or anecdotal evidence. In Life In Roman Britain, Joan Alcock describes the legion as "An efficient fighting machine". That's a common statement and one based on reputation and the idea that a persistent and detailed organisation implies certain kinds of behaviour.

 

I won't contest the Romans were organised. They obviously were, at least in terms of organisation, but apart from unit affiliation and provision of duty, how organised were they? Note this extract...

 

Certain soldiers are gramted by their conditions of service some exemption from the heavier fatigues. These are men such as surveyors, the medical officer, medical orderlies and dressers, ditchers, farriers, the architects, pilots, shipwrights, artillerymen, glassfitters, smiths, arrowsmiths, coppersmiths, helmet-makers, wagon-makers, roof-tile-makers, swordcutlers, water engineers, trumpet-makers, horn-makers, bow-makers, plumbers, blacksmiths, stone-cutters, lime-burners, woodcutters, and charcoal-burners. In the same category are usually included butchers, huntsmen, keepers of sacrificial animals, workshop officers, attendants, clerks who give instruction, clerks responsible for monies left on deposit, clerks responsible for monies left with no heis, orderly room staffs, grooms, horse trainers, armoury officers, the herald and the trumpeter.

Digest (Tarentus Pateernus)

 

At first glance this seems like an astonishing depth and breadth to legiomnary life. However, notice that in most cases, these are civilian trades already known to the individual. The legions did not train people in all of these tasks, and for many, the jobs listed are little more than specific but menial duties that aren't actually required on a day to day basis. Instead, they are listed as Immunes, trades or posts for which the lucky holder can avoid onerous labour.

 

The point is that many of these are of exaggerated importance. Excuses to sit on their backsides in some cases. Also notice that the treatment of these individuals mirrors that of the villa system. Skilled slaves are given specific duties and kept from hard labour.

 

Did this attitude of skiving and bribing really produce an efficient military machine? We have letters like one recovered from Vindolanda, asking for underpants and demanding to know why their beer ration hasn't arrived. We have accounts, like those of Tacitus recounted earlier, or the insights provided by Josephus.

 

Josephus is mostly quoted for the famous line that "Their drills were bloody battles, and their battle were bloody drills". It does suggest an aggressive and grim determination in conflict, which was exactly what the Romans wanted from their legions. However, Josephus also tells us how dull witted and clumsy Roman soldiers could be in their business. Whilst engaged on siegeworks, Roman soldiers leave their weapons too far away, and an ambush by zealots results in chaos, one instance nearly causing the death of Titus himself. For all their 'traditional military discipline' as Drusus described it, it was quickly thrown off. Note also how Josephus gives an account of Roman looting, when legionaries are let off the leash deliberately by their commanders, effectively out of control for three days. Notice how quickly discipline evaporates in Pannonia and Germania.

 

We aren't dealing with people raised and educated in the modern world. Roman soldiers were largely superstitious and ignorant people for whom a life of soldiering was a good alternative. It is true they had a great many artisans and trades in their number, which they exploited as much as the trader exploited to ensure an easier life. We cannot discount the endemic corruption, the fleeting nature of their uncompromising discipline in both peace and war, nor that evidence the Romans have left us that condradicts the image of an efficient Roman military.

Edited by caldrail

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It's a fascinating subject. I don't agree that we can't compare the Roman army to later armies, in fact through experience and my own knowledge of military history the Roman experience in mutiny, discipline, etc., is often comparable to other armies (Army of Flanders, French Army in 1917, etc.).

 

We can't because the forum rules say so :D

 

As it happens, people do that routinely. In fact, by making direct comparisons, the temptation to paint the Romans in modern colours is distorting the picture. It is true there are parallels, for no other reason that the Romans were human beings too, and despite differences in culture some elements of behaviour are bound to be similar.

 

The skill is to draw the correct comparisons and not to take it to far. The Romans weren't aliens but nor were they 21st century Royal Marines.

 

However, there is an assumption about the Roman legions that isn't supported by archaeological or anecdotal evidence. In Life In Roman Britain, Joan Alcock describes the legion as "An efficient fighting machine". That's a common statement and one based on reputation and the idea that a persistent and detailed organisation implies certain kinds of behaviour.

 

I won't contest the Romans were organised. They obviously were, at least in terms of organisation, but apart from unit affiliation and provision of duty, how organised were they? Note this extract...

 

Certain soldiers are gramted by their conditions of service some exemption from the heavier fatigues. These are men such as surveyors, the medical officer, medical orderlies and dressers, ditchers, farriers, the architects, pilots, shipwrights, artillerymen, glassfitters, smiths, arrowsmiths, coppersmiths, helmet-makers, wagon-makers, roof-tile-makers, swordcutlers, water engineers, trumpet-makers, horn-makers, bow-makers, plumbers, blacksmiths, stone-cutters, lime-burners, woodcutters, and charcoal-burners. In the same category are usually included butchers, huntsmen, keepers of sacrificial animals, workshop officers, attendants, clerks who give instruction, clerks responsible for monies left on deposit, clerks responsible for monies left with no heis, orderly room staffs, grooms, horse trainers, armoury officers, the herald and the trumpeter.

Digest (Tarentus Pateernus)

 

At first glance this seems like an astonishing depth and breadth to legiomnary life. However, notice that in most cases, these are civilian trades already known to the individual. The legions did not train people in all of these tasks, and for many, the jobs listed are little more than specific but menial duties that aren't actually required on a day to day basis. Instead, they are listed as Immunes, trades or posts for which the lucky holder can avoid onerous labour.

 

The point is that many of these are of exaggerated importance. Excuses to sit on their backsides in some cases. Also notice that the treatment of these individuals mirrors that of the villa system. Skilled slaves are given specific duties and kept from hard labour.

 

The positions are excuses to sit on their backside, but that is one of the benefits that no doubt the individual was happy about. The system somewhat mirrors practice common in most organized armies. For example, currently trained doctors, nurses and other skilled medical personnel are given accelerated rank and additional pay in the U.S. Army.

 

The system looks like an incentive to keep skilled labor. It also recognizes the fact that for an army to operate efficiently it does not put skilled positions into the front-line ranks.

 

Did this attitude of skiving and bribing really produce an efficient military machine?

 

I don't know, most armies as you say "bribe" skilled positions though I'd use the word incentive. And yes, I'd say it does contribute to efficiency to some degree. Soon no skilled personnel would want to join the legions to make bows, helmets, shields, give medical treatment to the wounded and sick and so on. A small inefficiency contributes to a larger efficiency I think.

 

We have letters like one recovered from Vindolanda, asking for underpants and demanding to know why their beer ration hasn't arrived. We have accounts, like those of Tacitus recounted earlier, or the insights provided by Josephus.

 

Indeed, the letter is striking in how it looks so much like letters home from a soldier in any era asking mom for socks or complaining that the rations are short of edible items.

 

Josephus is mostly quoted for the famous line that "Their drills were bloody battles, and their battle were bloody drills".

 

Yes, remember I quoted that to you once to emphasize training on another thread (that got pulled).

 

It does suggest an aggressive and grim determination in conflict, which was exactly what the Romans wanted from their legions. However, Josephus also tells us how dull witted and clumsy Roman soldiers could be in their business. Whilst engaged on siegeworks, Roman soldiers leave their weapons too far away, and an ambush by zealots results in chaos, one instance nearly causing the death of Titus himself. For all their 'traditional military discipline' as Drusus described it, it was quickly thrown off. Note also how Josephus gives an account of Roman looting, when legionaries are let off the leash deliberately by their commanders, effectively out of control for three days. Notice how quickly discipline evaporates in Pannonia and Germania.

 

It's all very true. Yet none of it means the Romans weren't disciplined or professional, it means they were an army composed of--generally--younger men and of leaders who sometimes make mistakes.

 

Discipline, as I wrote previously, is often notoriously absent from the most elite units be they a Roman Legion, the Army of Flanders looting Antwerp or US Army Rangers returned from Afghanistan robbing a bank in Tacoma, Washington (!).

 

We cannot discount the endemic corruption, the fleeting nature of their uncompromising discipline in both peace and war, nor that evidence the Romans have left us that condradicts the image of an efficient Roman military.

 

Of course there was corruption but there's no evidence it was endemic to the army as a whole at all times. Good Roman leaders understood leadership principles (pay your troops, firm but fair discipline, listen to them, have good junior leaders, etc). Bad ones--sometimes--paid for it.

 

The trick is, I think, to walk the line between thinking the Roman legions can't be understood in any modern context and thinking they are some sort of example of uber-efficiency.

 

The Roman Army--in any era--was neither completely exclusive in its experiences and organization or an uber-efficient machine. What they did have was a superior system and culture of producing soldiers and army organization, warts and all.

Edited by Virgil61

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If the article is correct, then IMHO the Roman Army from the Marian to the Diocletian reform could be compared to the WW2 Soviet Army: superpowerful and unstoppable thanks to its enormous numbers and fierce stubborness but of mediocre quality, kept running through brutal discipline and ready to turn in a horde of looters once discipline was relaxed by commanders in occupied territories.

Edited by Late Emperor

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The skill is to draw the correct comparisons and not to take it to far. The Romans weren't aliens but nor were they 21st century Royal Marines.

That's exactly the point. There is no skill in drawing comparisons between ancient and modern because inevitably it distorts the ancient world in modern colours. You may well understand the modern military implicitly, but so what? The Romans belonged to a different world. They had a different culture, different backgrounds, different methods, entirely different mindset. What you need to do is understand the Romans from source - and they have left us a suprisingly insightful catalogue of anecdotes. The problem is most people don't want to know. They focus on this image of the 'efficient military machine'. The Romans weren't entirely efficient and certainly not the machine we often portray them as. They were well organised, but often badly led, badly behaved, and only succesful when they were able to control events to their advantage.

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The skill is to draw the correct comparisons and not to take it to far. The Romans weren't aliens but nor were they 21st century Royal Marines.

That's exactly the point. There is no skill in drawing comparisons between ancient and modern because inevitably it distorts the ancient world in modern colours.

 

You believe there is no skill in drawing comparisons between the ancients and modern (or any) society? Hundreds of PhDs in the classics and history have been awarded on the basis of 'skill' in comparative analysis of historical eras.

 

Avoiding historical distortions are partially why history departments teach historiography and there is a discipline called history in universities.

 

Chapter 4 of Victor Hanson's

Edited by Virgil61

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I would remind posters on this thread that there is a Code of Conduct on this forum, so can we keep this civil please or do you really wish several portions of this thread consigned to the outer darkness? :hammer:

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Guest ParatrooperLirelou

One thing I would really like to point out is that by as early as the Gunpowder Age and you can even say as early as the Medieval Ages, Roman discipline was already being surpassed by later armies.

 

To put as an example is the Officer Jean Martinet, who instituted a standardized system that eliminated mercenaries from the French army in 16th Century standards.From my understanding, his standards of discipline was so harsh it made the Roman Legions look like Militia.In fact the modern English Word "Martinet" was taken from this officer's name.

 

mar

Edited by ParatrooperLirelou

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They were well organised, but often badly led, badly behaved, and only succesful when they were able to control events to their advantage.

 

Isn't this true also for modern armies?

 

It's true of every army ever put together more or less. However, the Roman legions attract a lot of 'military machine' and 'utterly disciplined' descriptions which are based on a romantic, if somewhat modern, vision of what the legions were. Roman writers are less prone to this glorification, but then, they experienced legionaries in everyday life. In fact, the Romans do praise the successes of their soldiers. It's just that they weren't blind to their faults.

 

Josephus presents an interesting insight into the legions of his day. On the one hand he's responsible for the famous quote "Drills were bloody battles, and battles were bloody drills". Don't get carried away by the apparent glorification because elsewhere he highlights his impressions of 1st century legions with anecdotes that show a military force that is far from the perfection we sometimes want the Romans to have been.

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Guest ParatrooperLirelou

Hey Caldrail, what other sources do you suggest for this topic(Primary sources preferably)?I'm currently writing an article about the distortion of history due to imposement of modern concepts on the past and I intend to use the Roman Legion mutinies as an example of modern imposement of the past in my article.

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generally speaking the Romans didn't like to discuss rebellions other than they happened and the perpertrators got some harsh justice for their trouble. The only detailed rebellion is from Taxcitus (that I know of) thus I chose it as an example of a mutiny that bad enough to deserve a write up.

 

The impression I get is that in peace time the legions of that period were prone to labour relations problems. Caesar himself does record how easily a Roman legion could crumble in the face of determined aggression.

 

however, this book http://www.jstor.org/pss/263434 might be of ineterst and at least the page lists serious rebellions in the available text if you don't want to purchase the whole thing. It's a starting point.

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Guest ParatrooperLirelou

Please delete.

Edited by ParatrooperLirelou

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Guest ParatrooperLirelou

generally speaking the Romans didn't like to discuss rebellions other than they happened and the perpertrators got some harsh justice for their trouble. The only detailed rebellion is from Taxcitus (that I know of) thus I chose it as an example of a mutiny that bad enough to deserve a write up.

 

The impression I get is that in peace time the legions of that period were prone to labour relations problems. Caesar himself does record how easily a Roman legion could crumble in the face of determined aggression.

 

however, this book http://www.jstor.org/pss/263434 might be of ineterst and at least the page lists serious rebellions in the available text if you don't want to purchase the whole thing. It's a starting point.

Thanks Caidrail!

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