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How poor were Roman Legions as Individual Fighters and Swordsmen

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It would seem unlikely that Otho would raise troops as 'regular' auxillaries from the ranks of gladiators but rather as allies under Roman control. Although the effect is more or less the same in the context of an emergency measure to find troops for defense, the Roman class system was not to be ignored, and I'm not aware of any mention of gladiators being sworn in for a term of service with the phrase 'regular' would require.

 

I used the word "regular" to distinct it from bodyguards because you've said in your post that gladiators were used as bodyguards only and I just wanted to point out to you that they were indeed used as "real" soldiers and NOT bodyguards.

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You misunderstood what I meant. Gladiators were employed as soldiers now and then, never successfully (not just because of battle performance, but also because of social issues), but the phrase 'regular' applies to soldiers signed on as professionals for a fixed term of service as opposed to troops hurriedly raised as an emergency measure as 'allies'. I realise our sources don't actually differentiate when discussin the events of ad64, but neither do they suggest the employment of gladiators as soldiers was a permanent situation, and indeed the only reason the story is detailed is because of the folly of employing slave lowlifes in an honourable capacity. To us, it's a historical oddity. To the Romans, it was more scandalous.

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In case anyone is still confused, just to clarify for the non-native English speakers amongst us, I would suggest amending one sentence in Caldrails reply above as follows:

 

...but the phrase 'regular' normally, in written and spoken English, applies to soldiers signed on as professionals for a fixed term of service as opposed to troops hurriedly raised as an emergency measure as 'allies'....

 

NB I possibly would also drop the final reference to 'allies' since I don't think a group of slaves and/or an assorted 'street sweepings' of the less fit, even if some were trained gladiators, quite fits the 'ideal' that the term 'allies' normally conjurs up of willing volunteers or at least foreign supplied and often also to some extent 'professionally' trained troops .

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The phrase 'allies' is used because gladiators were not accorded warrior status among legionaries, were not trained for military service (despite skills at arms they performed badly as soldiers), and there's no indication of whether the gladiators were volunteers or indentured into military service. It's worth remembering that gladiators were slaves and as such, not technically human and thus not accorded what passed for human rights in Roman culture. It would seem perfectly reasonable from that point of view to describe them as allies as they aren't regulars nor mercenaries in any accepted sense. At some point definitions become.. What's the word?... But I'm sure you don't to get into that argument again.

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The phrase 'allies' is used because gladiators were not accorded warrior status among legionaries, .... At some point definitions become.. What's the word?... But I'm sure you don't to get into that argument again.

 

It may be a minor point of semantics but I would only respond that rather than 'allies' I thought that your earlier suggestion of 'informal troops' was a much better choice of how to describe the use of slave/ gladiators. Particularly since for most of the Roman Imperial period, even if not so regulated during most of the Republican period, there were rigorously enforced penalties for any 'slave' who dared enroll in the military.

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Since it was part of the Roman culture to know how to use a sword and that the sucess of the Roman Legions depended on the individual skill of a Roman Soldier in hand to hand combat, I think its both ludicrous and highly inprobable Romans are as bad as they are made out to be individual fighting!

 

OK, I came into this thread late and it's hard to catch up with all of the discussion.

 

Polybius stated it best when he said that the Roman soldier was adaptable to function effectively any time, any place, and for any purpose. They actually functioned better as individuals when compared to the hellenistic phalangites who were totally ineffective when out of their formation. I believe it was their exposure to a variety of opponents (Gauls, Samnites, Carthaginians) and their willingness to adapt that made them effective. So yes, they did function well as individuals, although

not at the same level as a Samurai or Western Medieval Knight.

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The possibilty of slaves running away to find freedom in the legions was the reason that penalties existed for slaves who got caught trying it. There was of course the problem that although admired as fighters, slaves were not the same status as citizens, and therefore to fight alongside as equals in what was regarded as an admirable profession meant not only that these slaves were somehow as good as citizens, but also that the citizens were no better than slaves.

 

As it happens I'm really not that bothered what you call the slave militias of Otho's defence other than we note that regarding them in the same way as legionaries, or even auxillaries, would have been scandalous and insulting to Roman sensibilities. That was after all the most likely motivation for the absence of their commanders before the crossing of the river took place.

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This is an interest topic, I've recently begun reading Rome and the Sword by Simon James. He talks about how the Latin City-States (Rome included) as having a warrior culture. The Romans, and Latins in General, were raised to be fighters and were actually excellent fighters.

 

The book also talks about the fact that the Gladius was an excellent weapon for thrusting and cutting, but that thrusting was typically preferred, especially against Gauls who used large swinging swords, as they could duck under the swing and thrust at the groin, chest, and/or neck.

 

More evidence of the Romans being good individual fighters can be gleemed from Caesar's Gallic Wars when two centurions rushed out to try and "outdo" the other. They broke from the ranks (Roman soldiers could be very disorderly :) ) in order to show off their fighting prowess.

 

Just some thoughts.

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More evidence of the Romans being good individual fighters can be gleemed from Caesar's Gallic Wars when two centurions rushed out to try and "outdo" the other. They broke from the ranks (Roman soldiers could be very disorderly :) ) in order to show off their fighting prowess.

 

These were none other than our friends Lucius Voreno and Titus Pullo of HBO Rome fame. Find out more here, and here.

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The book also talks about the fact that the Gladius was an excellent weapon for thrusting and cutting, but that thrusting was typically preferred, especially against Gauls who used large swinging swords, as they could duck under the swing and thrust at the groin, chest, and/or neck.

The Roman style of swordplay changed over time. When the gladius was adopted it had a slightly leaf shaped blade and a very pronounced point. Legionaries were taught to use this gladius in a rigid frontal thrust style, since in republican days a close formation was essential. In this form the gladius was perfect for that style.

 

Over time however the point becomes shorter, and in imperial times, we see a straight bladed type emerge, and as the Romans themselves confirm there was incresingly fluid style of swordplay that involved as much cutting as thrusting, obviously suggesting less reliance on close formation (along with the arrival of the banded breastplate as well).

 

During the mid empire the gladius shrinks in length, evolving in step with gladiatorial swords, until the 4th century when the gladius is dropped from use wholesale and the longer cavalry spatha adopted instead, at the same time the pilum gives way to a number of spear type weapons. The longer sword suggests a failure to train recruits sufficiently for the shorter up-close reach of the older gladius and therefore by that time the standard of fighting in Roman legions isn't likely to be much better than anyone elses - a fact observed by Vegetius and commented on by Zosimus.

 

 

More evidence of the Romans being good individual fighters can be gleemed from Caesar's Gallic Wars when two centurions rushed out to try and "outdo" the other. They broke from the ranks (Roman soldiers could be very disorderly :) ) in order to show off their fighting prowess.

Be wary of taking these examples as illustrations of the Roman standard. Ordinary legionaries who did that might well be laughed at. Furthermore, a close study of Caesars Gallic War account reveals evidence of poor quality troops too. Caesar himself has to force men back into the fighting line when their courage breaks and he mentions failing to to persuade at least two standard bearers to stay on the field.

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