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How well did the Roman Legions cope with Guerrilla Warfare?

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On this basis I can't agree with the argument that they never found some means of successfully fighting 'guerilla' forces.

 

If we adjust the question and ask what armies have been successful fighting guerrilla warfare or COIN (counter-insurgency to use the new phrase) the answer shows just how difficult a fight it is. The list of successful COIN operations in modern times is pretty thin. Off the top of my head there's the Brits during the Boer War and Malayan Emergency, the US during the Philippine-American War and nominally in Iraq under "the Surge".

 

I think there's a strong argument that the Roman attempts at COIN were historically more successful than most armies.

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But that's my point - they did fight guerilla forces. However, they always tried to force the conduct of the campaign to suit themselves. Bear in mind the Romans had suffered helplessness during the Punic Wars and that left a deep imprint on the Roman psyche. After that they assumed a very relentless attitude toward those they wasnted conquered. The Romans were psychologically unwilling to conider 'weakness' by assuming a defensive posture.

 

The problem for the Roman legions was that they were primarily designed for 'conventional' battle until they adapted toward low level warfare in the late empire. They simply weren't equipped, formed, or trained to deal with informal warfare. Therefore their overall strategy, which we see repeated again and again in the historical record, was to hunt down their hidden enemy and force him into a situation where the legions could tackle them on their own terms, such as a set piece battle or more preferably a siege.

 

The means by which they forced this situation were no different to any other power seeking to weed out hostile elements intheir territory - it doesn't take much imagination. The risk for the Romans was that the enemy would mount an ambush or other insurgent methods that would circumvent (or even defeat) their attempts at a succesful campaign.

 

In terms of units the differences really wouldn't impact greatly unless we consider whether they were mounted or not. Since the legions were a 'one horse show', it was only allies and auxillaries that created any diversity in the Roman order of battle, but in terms of patrols, security crackdowns on settlements, or other means of finding and forcing retreat of hostile elements, there was no functional difference in the objectives or the methods used to achieve them.

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Like Caldrail has mentioned, I believe the Romans were best suited to fighting formal battles on a plain open area. There are certainly examples of some Roman generals successfully defeating guerillas. One example would be Ostorius Scapula's campaigns against British guerrillas led by Caratacus during the AD 40s.

One thing the Romans needed to do was to harass the enemy so that they gathered to fight the Roman army on the Roman's terms. That way they could easily defeat them. This is what Scapula did against the Britons when he had the guerrillas holed up at a hillfort - their base of operations.

When the Romans couldn't achieve this goal they usually became stuck. One example would have to be Septimius Severus's campaign against the Picts. This campaign ground to a halt because the Picts refused to face the Romans in open battle, instead they ambushed the marching columns then retreated. Despite Severus having a much larger and superior force he had no choice but to retreat out of Caledonia. I think like most professional armies through history, the Romans struggled to deal with guerrillas.

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...the Romans were best suited to fighting formal battles on a plain open area...

 

I can't imagine anyone on UNRV disagreeing with that.

 

One thing the Romans needed to do was to harass the enemy so that they gathered to fight the Roman army on the Roman's terms. That way they could easily defeat them. This is what Scapula did against the Britons when he had the guerrillas holed up at a hillfort - their base of operations.

 

Scapula believed he was in a poor tactical position vis-a-vis the Britons and was only driven to that particular battle by his own men agitating to push the issue. The description in Tacitus shows the terrain largely hilly and the barriers set up by the Britons.

 

...he (Caratacus) resorted to the ultimate hazard, adopting a place for battle so that entry, exit, everything would be unfavorable to us and for the better to his own men, with steep mountains all around, + and, wherever a gentle access was possible, he strewed rocks in front in the manner of a rampart.And in front too there flowed a stream with an unsure ford, and companies of armed men had taken up position along the defenses...

 

Tac 12.35

 

...Their eagerness stunned the Roman leader; at the same time he was terrified

by the stream barrier, the additional rampart, the looming ridges, the fact that

there was nothing which was not frightening and replete with defenders. But his

soldiery demanded battle, shouted repeatedly that everything was assailable with

courage;and the prefects and tribunes,by saying similar things,intensified the ar-

dor of the army...

 

Tac 12.31

 

Nothing beats good morale and self-confidence among your infantry and junior leadership. There are times you just throw the playbook out.

 

When the Romans couldn't achieve this goal they usually became stuck.

 

The example you gave on the Picts is a good one of a failed campaign due to guerrilla warfare.

 

The following are just thoughts coming to mind for discussion based on prior posts:

 

1. Formal battles were a Roman strength. [Anyone on UNRV who doesn't think this?]

 

2. Romans weren't shy about being "offensively proactive".

 

3. If the Roman incursion is temporary then a guerrilla campaign is going to be a no-win for them, (vs Picts, arguably Germanicus incursion vs Germans post-Teutoberg)

 

4. If the insurgency takes place during long-term ongoing occupation--w/time on their side--the Romans are generally able to find an approach outside of their normal strengths (see 1) on the battlefield to whittle you down (Bar Kochba in Judea, Tacfarinas raids in N Africa, JC stamping out small insurgencies in Belgium/N Gaul)

 

On #3 the Romans are like most armies in history but on #4 they might arguably be better suited than most.

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I think the basic problem with this thread is the phrase 'guerilla', which is technically being used out of context. The ancients didn't have the same definitions and categories as we do, and for that reason we tend to assign the Romans as a regular army against, say, a barbarian guerilla force, which is not the differentiation the Romans would have made. The term 'guerilla' warfare refers to harrasement of conventional forces by irregulars. This involves not only direct action such as ambush, but indirect attacks on supply lines and facilities. Here the Roman world is somewhat different from our own.

 

Although the legions were very strong on logistics, these supply lines were for the most part between fixed sites such as forts, whilst legions on the march either made do with rations or foraged for what they needed, because logistics in Roman times wasn't up to the job of tracking and supllying mobile forces. In any case, the legions were more self sufficient than that. One of their strengths was the hiring of tradesmen and artisans among their number, a deliberate policy aimed at reducing dependence on supply and civilian labour, or if you prefer, to improve the flexibility of Roman campaigning.

 

Therefore guerilla warfare is already deprived of a major strength before we even begin, because it's that much more difficult to inderdict Roman logistics, especially since the caravans would be guarded by assigned vexillations or even cavalry screens if necessary.

 

Also, another advantage of guerilla warfare is the relative anonymity of of irregular soldiers. But we aren't dealing with an era of military tradesmanship, even with the apparently more organised efforts of the Romans, and we should realise that since most opponents of the Romans were simply tribesmen with weapons, there is very little diffwerentiation between guerilla fighter and civilian anyway, something the Romans would not have bothered worrying about. They were simply fighting enemies who were sneakier than they were expecting. But to dilute the concept of guerilla fighting even further, it must be clearly understood that although the Romans preferred a formal confrontation, all factions in the ancient world depended on ruse and subterfuge for success to a greater or lesser degree.

 

The Romans themselves often defused aggression among frontier factions by a policy of divisive bribery and reward. One faction gets Roman support, their neighbour doesn't, and the system was used to manipulate the factions of potential enemies to avoid having to fight them all - a policy still used by modern politics behind the scenes. In fact, it might be claimed that if the Romans suffered guerilla warfare, they had already failed.

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I believe the Romans, like most contemporary armies, have a weak spot when it comes to guerrilla warfare. The Romans were indeed very formidable when faced in open combat, but throughout Roman history we see that guerrilla warfare was quite successful against the Romans, and that they had a difficult time defeating guerrillas. An example from memory would be the Silures tribe in Southern Wales, which fought for decades against the Romans using such tactics, and they mauled a legion and killed many Romans before they were defeated.

 

The best example I can think of was the subjugation of Britain, where legionaries were frequently ambushed in foraging parties and on the march by the Celtic warriors, and denied to fight in open battles (but when they did fight in open battles they lost).

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But that's just it - they weren't guerillas - the phrase is anachronistic when discussing the Roman period because it refers to a style of warfare at odds with conventional warfare. In Roman times, the legions were unconventional in that they were organised in a formal manner and their supposedly 'guerilla' opponents were doing no more than mounting raids as everyone else did, and even the Romans did that in their earliest days. The whole idea of ancient 'guerilla' warfare is no more than foisting modern terms and conditions upon the ancient world.

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