The Early Roman Army
Prior to the reforms of Marius in the late 2nd and early first century BC, the Republican Roman Legion had a completely different organization than that which is commonly illustrated for the Imperial period. The earliest Roman army was based originally on the Greek Phalanx system, and the legion continued to evolve from that origin, and from elements of Latin tribes in Italy.
By the time the Romans began to resist the yoke of Etruscan rule, the unique legionary system was firmly rooted. The Romans abandoned the use of the hoplite spear as its primary weapon of war and instead moved onto the large shield (scutum) and short sword (gladius) as their weapons, and corresponding tactics of choice.
The most significant difference between the Republican and Imperial legions dealt with its makeup of social and financial qualifications. Except for extenuating circumstances where the very survival of Rome depended on using anyone available for defense, the Republican legion maintained a strict social hierarchy. Only landowning citizens were allowed to serve under optimal circumstances, and the status of one's total wealth along with military experience determined their place in the infantry. As each citizen prior to Marius provided weapons and equipment from their own estates, gear could vary, but there was a basic uniform code to be followed within reason. This system was devised out of necessity, but perhaps incorporating the concept of loyalty to the city and morale of the men. Since the army was made up of citizens who could afford their own armor, they were the obvious choice for service. However, in the earliest days, the common concept that only the land owners had a real stake in the outcome of the battle likely played a key role in the development of the early Roman Legion.
Each rung of the ladder on the status of a soldier was based on his ability to equip himself. There is some debate, however on the social mobility of the legionary ranks. Beyond the lowest orders, its quite likely that status of wealth may have allowed a citizen to move into a different rank class within the army. In favor of general cohesiveness, however, upward mobility once an initial rank was established was probably limited until a legion was disbanded. It's far more likely that experience was the more determining factor in deciding a soldier's promotional within a legion after the initial status was determined. Once a veteran was 're-enlisted' his class within the army was based again upon his wealth, but also age and experience.
A soldier within the Republican Legion served much the same as those within the Imperial one. They were eligible for service for a 20 year period and were retired or exempted from further service after that point. Unlike the Imperial army, however, the earlier Republic didn't maintain a standing army so to speak, and soldiers may or may not be entirely active during this time period. In some cases, such as during the Punic Wars, a single soldier may have seen nearly continual service throughout his 20 year eligibility, but at others, he may have had give only periodic service based on the need for the army. Though the Romans rarely had a time of complete peace throughout their history, there were times when it was conceivable that these citizen soldiers could spend a great deal of time working their own lands.
Organization of the Roman Republican Legion
There were 3 principal infantry classes within the Republican system, augmented with the basic skirmishing class, and a small detachment of cavalry. The Republican legion was generally comprised of between 4,000 and 6,000 men, in various levels of infantry, with 4,200 apparently being the optimal number. Unfortunately, Polybius, who provides one of the best accounts from an ancient perspective, is terribly inconsistent, but the basic concept can be determined from his contributions. Additionally, the cavalry consisted of between 200 and 300 troopers in total. The fighting strength and even the organization of units within the Republican legion evolved in various forms over the years, but in this example, the common legion from the Punic Wars through the time of Marius will be illustrated.
Under this system the Legion was made of the Maniple formation, which generally consisted of 2 centuries of men. The centuries were organized as a base unit of 60 men, but these numbers fluctuated depending upon the type of infantry. Hastati had 60 men augmented by 20 skirmishing Velites, bringing the total to 80 per century. The Principes seem to have used 60 men centuries, and the Triarii Maniples were made up of single centuries of 60, rather than two separate centuries. Under this system the basic formation was as follows:
- 10 Maniples of Hastati - 20 centuries of 60 Hastati, with an additional 20 Velites.
- 10 Maniples of Principes - 20 centuries of 60 men.
- 10 Maniples of Triarii - 10 centuries of 60 men.
In formation the Hastati with their Velite attachments occupied the front of the formation, with the Principes and Triarii following behind. Therefore:
1,200 Velites, attached to Hastati centuries for organization purposes but occupying their own line on the battlefield.
- Hastati - 1,200 men in 10 Maniples, comprised of two centuries of 60 men each.
- Principes - 1,200 men in 10 Maniples, comprised of two centuries of 60 men each.
- Triarii - 600 men in 10 Maniples, comprised of single centuries of 60 men each.
Each Century of the Maniple was under the command of a centurion (with the unit on the right under the command of the senior centurion) who was assisted by an optio, and other 'enlisted officers' as detailed in the Imperial system. The Maniple allowed greater flexibility than the older phalanx in that these separate units of men within the entire formation could be split off from one another to meet various battlefield challenges.
The cavalry of the Republican legion was limited to a rather small force by comparison to the infantry. The 200 to 300 man cavalry wings were organized in decuriae of 10 men each under the command of a decurion.
Three units of decuriae were organized together as a turma consisting of 30 men, and the senior decurion of the three had total command.
Equipment and Tactics of the Roman Republican Legion
Velites - The poorest citizen class allowed to serve was known by several names throughout Roman history, yet each played a similar part. The Velites (Ferentarii, Procubitores, or Leves in earlier times) were not organized as their own particular units but were attached to the Hastati Maniples.
These units were lightly armed skirmishers who were deployed en masse on the battlefield in front of the heavier infantry lines, but moved back beyond the Hastati after discharging their javelins as the enemy approached. The Velites were also an important part of defense against war elephants. Using their greater mobility, due to lighter armament, Velites could avoid elephant charges and flank them. Spearing the elephants in the sides as they passed was a proven tactic.
The Velites were armed with the light javelin, or hasta velitaris, hence the name, and a gladius similar to that of their heavier infantry counterparts. Much like the Pilum, or the heavier javelin used by the main infantry, the velitaris was equipped with a finely sharpened and thin point making it bend upon impact, thereby reducing its ability to be re-issued in retaliation by the enemy. Their armor consisted of a light headpiece, generally covered by a wolf hide or similar animal. For body armor, they wore what they could afford, likely simple bronze chest plates or similar materials if anything at all. Additionally, the Velites were equipped with a small buckler or parma, for use in melee combat, though it was preferred that the Velites leave such action to their heavier armed counterparts.
Hastati - These were the first line of the Roman heavy infantry and were made up of the relatively young (inexperienced), but wealthier citizens. They wore a complete suit of defensive armor, consisting of the Legionary classic shield, or scutum, a simple bronze helmet (galea), a bronze breastplate or cuirass, and possibly leg greaves (ocrea). Those Hastati at the highest scale of wealth might have afforded better protection offered by chain breast mail, but it was likely uncommon for this class. Their weapons consisted of the classic legionary gear, including the pilum and gladius. Their helmets were adorned with purple and black feather plumes, ranging up to 18 inches in height. This was added to increase their apparent physical size and possibly appear more intimidating to the enemy.
The Hastati were the primary engaging force of the Republican legion and always met the enemy first in melee combat. If things went badly, or they simply needed to rest and regroup, the Hastati would roll behind the Princeps, and do so interchangeably until they were ready to re-engage.
Princeps - These were simply considered the elite of the Republican legion. They were in the prime of their careers for age and experience, and constituted the wealthier class of the citizen soldier. They were therefore the best equipped, though in a similar fashion to that of the Hastati. Aside from the likelihood of using scaled armor, or chain, rather than simple bronze breastplates, both weaponry and other armor was the same. It was simply the obligation of the Princeps to win the battle. First they would act in relief of the Hastati, but then would carry the fight in earnest. It was an interesting and successful tactic, wearing down the enemy with good, but not your best forces, than hitting with your best men right in the middle of the fight.
Triarii - Though the triarii were similarly armored as the Hastatii and Princeps, they played a much different role and were more akin to the Greek hoplites than Roman heavy infantry. The Triarii were usually the oldest and very experienced of the Roman army, and their job was to defend against disaster as a last resort, or to shock the enemy with a different look at the right moment. The Triarii were armed with the Roman equivalent of the phalanx style spear, the Hastae. If the heavy infantry were pushed back, the Triarii would charge forward with their spears, hopefully with the effect of shocking the enemy and allowing the Princeps and Hastati time to regroup. They were used as a last resort, and the Latin expression 'ad triarios redisse', or it has come to the triarii, became a general phrase meaning that something was in a desperate situation.
Cavalry - The Republican cavalry was designed for speed of movement, and were similarly equipped to the Hastati. Their general duty was to provide scouting and potential fast moving support to weakening parts of a battle line. At times the cavalry could be used to turn a flank or deliver a shock at the right moment, but their limited number generally made their capabilities limited. As the Romans were not considered great natural horsemen, the great effectiveness of cavalry in the Roman army didn't come until the inclusion of various auxilia cavalry like that of the Gauls and Germanics.
Prior to the great wars against Carthage, Roman strategy, and their enemy counterparts, was relatively simple. Most battles consisted of a straight march against one another, with little though of complicating matters. As most armies were levied and used on a need basis, initial and continued training was limited. Until the Punic Wars, Rome rarely maintained any semblance of a continual standing army, and it was just too risky to attempt many complex maneuvers with inadequately trained or experienced troops.
The wars with Pyrrhus of Epirus, and of course those with Carthage changed everything entirely, and the Roman battle strategies were forced to adapt. Years of brutal losses to Hannibal can be partially attributed to this fact, and of course to Hannibal's own brilliance on the battlefield. Until the rise of Scipio Africanus, there were few Roman commanders who implemented a great deal of strategy other than a straight frontal assault on an enemy position.
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Did you know...?
The life of Julius Caesar was deeply influenced by one of Rome's most famous generals and politicians - and Caesar's uncle by marriage - Gaius Marius.
Below is a book which you may find of interest:
Legions of Rome: The Definitive History of Every Imperial Roman Legion
by Stephen Dando-Collins
In this landmark publication, Stephen Dando-Collins does what no other author has ever attempted to do: provide a complete history of every Imperial Roman legion. Based on thirty years of meticulous research, he covers every legion of Rome in rich detail.
Featuring more than 150 maps, photographs, diagrams and battle plans, Legions of Rome is an essential read for ancient history enthusiasts, military history experts and general readers alike.