Rome began as a collection of villages on several hills near the river Tiber. Life there was neither comfortable, nor safe. War was always looming. Neighbouring tribes and cultures envied Rome for its favourable position on the Tiber, from which it controlled the salt trade in Central Italy. Rome itself also sought to expand its influence and fought and conquered other peoples from her earliest days. In these days, Rome was ruled by kings and we traditionally count seven of them. After the last king, Tarquinius Superbus, was ousted, a Republic was founded. The Roman Republic needed a good army. This army was not composed of mercenaries, nor originally of professional soldiers. It was made up of ordinary citizens, Roman men who owned a farm and could be turned into legionaries to fight Rome’s offensive and defensive wars. The legions were – and we should never forget this – supported by soldiers provided by allied nations, who supplied roughly half of the infantry in the Roman armies and the majority of the cavalry. This essay aims to reconstruct the Republican army. A previous essay discussed the Imperial army.
The early days
Burial gifts can give us some information about the earliest Roman soldiers, the men who fought for Rome’s kings. From these gifts, Belgian archaeologist Bernard van Daele has deduced that these soldiers were heavily influenced by the Etruscan civilisation, and perhaps even by the so-called Villanovan culture, the first Iron Age culture of Italy that preceded it. Roman warriors fought with spears, javelins, swords, axes and daggers. Swords were usually of the antenna type, which means that they had long (around 70 cm), yet very narrow blades. Wooden shields, both round and oval, were used, but the early Roman soldiers appear to have worn little armour. If they did, they usually donned bronze breastplates known as the pectorale or cardiophylax (“heart-protector”). The richest citizens could also afford round or pointed helmets.
Most of the material found appears to be Etruscan in origin. The names of the three Roman tribes (tribus) that are mentioned in Livius 1.13 – Ramnes, Tities and Luceres – are probably also Etruscan. The Etruscan heartland was in present-day Tuscany, which is named after them. The Estruscans had expanded their territories to the north, into the fertile Po Valley, where they clashed with Celts and Ligurians, and to the south, where they came into conflict with Italian tribes and the Greek colonists of Magna Graecia. Rome was at the most a local power at that time. It was subjugated and ruled by Etruscan kings – or perhaps rather: warlords – from the late seventh to the late sixth century.
It is not clear when the hoplite style of warfare was introduced in ancient Rome, but the introduction of the hoplite and the phalanx are traditionally attributed to the military reforms of king Servius Tullius (578-534 BCE), who is often equated with the Etruscan warlord Mastarna. Of the five classes of Roman citizens he is said to have created, only the first class, the wealthiest citizens, fought as hoplites. They were completely equipped in the Greek style, with a long thrusting spear, a sword, a bronze or linen cuirass, bronze greaves, a helmet and a large, round shield known as the clipeus. The hoplites were supported by centuries of lightly armoured spearmen, light infantry, skirmishers and slingers. These were recruited from the classes II to V, while the Roman elite provided the cavalry (equites).
Most of the military equipment used was Greek in origin, although there have been finds of swords from this period which are Italo-Etruscan in design. Some helmets found are also thought to be more Etruscan than Greek. Although it is not a good idea to take literary sources like Livius – who discusses the introduction of the census and Servius’ reforms in 1.42-1.43 – at face value, it is safe to accept that the Romans adopted the phalanx and hoplite methods of warfare in the sixth century BCE and continued to use them until the early fourth century BCE.
The manipular army
Hoplite tactics proved not so successful against the very mobile armies of the Celts (“Gauls”) and the Samnites. It is quite possible that as a result of the ignominious Roman defeat at the Allia in 390 or 387 BCE, the Romans decided to reform their military. Phalanx tactics were gradually phased out and it is not impossible that the Roman army of the fourth century BCE looked much like the army that Livius describes in the eighth book of his Ab urbe condita. Livy tells us that the single line phalanx formation has been abandoned in favour of the manipular system with three battle lines (acies triplex). In his narrative, there are five types of soldiers: hastati, principes, triarii, rorarii and accensi.
The hastati were the youngest and least experienced soldiers and, according to Livius, carried long thrusting spears (hastae, hence their name) or shorter javelins. It is not impossible that some of them already carried the famous pilum. Apparently, not all of them carried shields and some may have only fought as skirmishers (leves). Of the principes, the older, more reliable soldiers who formed the second line, Livius tells us that they had better weapons and all of them carried shields. The round shields appear to have disappeared completely, being replaced by the scutum, the large oval body shield possibly taken from the Samnites. The third and final line is formed by the veteran triarii, who are supported by the rorarii and accensi. The precise role of the latter two units is unknown, but the rorarii may have acted as skirmishers. Both units may have been composed of the least experienced citizen-soldiers, who were only committed to the fray in moments of dire need.
Rorarii and accensi silently disappeared from the legions. The Greek historian Polybius (203-120 BCE) has left us a detailed description of the Roman legions of around 150 BCE. In this descriptions, the rorarii, accensi and leves are gone. The hastati, principes and triarii are still there and they are still fighting in the acies triplex battle order. There are 1.200 hastati, 1.200 principes and 600 triarii in every legion. They are supported by velites (skirmishers) of which there are about 1.200.
Hastati, principes and triarii were split into ten maniples each, so there were thirty maniples in total (the Latin word manipulus literally means ‘a handful’). Each maniple consisted of two centuries of roughly 60 soldiers (30 for the triarii). The velites did not form their own maniples. Instead, they were divided among the maniples of hastati, principes and triarii. The velites were armed with a bundle of six light javelins (verruta) which they could clutch behind their round shields (parmae). They also carried a sidearm, either a long dagger or a short sword. Many of them would have worn wolf skin headdresses (see the picture below), to be more scary and conspicuous in battle. Velites did not wear any armour, and could therefore not be expected to hold the line.
The Greek historian Dionysios of Halikarnassos, writing in the first century BCE about the wars with Pyrrhus (280-275 BCE), informs us that the principes still fought with spears. It is likely that from that time onwards, both the hastati and the principes began to be equipped with the pilum, the famous Roman javelin. The triarii probably kept their lances (hastae) a little longer, before they too traded them in for pila. This may have happened somewhere after 150 BCE, as Polybius still writes that “οι τριάριοι δόρατα φορουσιν”, the triarii carry lances.
Towards a professional army
At that time, the Roman army was probably already highly standardised, most soldiers being equipped with pila, a Spanish short sword (gladius hispaniensis or ibericus), a scutum and chainmail armour (lorica hamata; the famous segmented armour is a later invention). It became even more standardised after the Marian reforms of 107 BCE, which created a semi-professional force chiefly drawn from the poorest elements of society, the proletarii. The Marian reforms did not come out of the blue, nor can they be considered a true revolution. The reformation of the Republican Roman army from a citizen militia to a conscript army and finally a semi-professional fighting force was always a gradual process.
By 150 BCE, the Romans already ruled huge swathes of lands on three continents. Although there was no emperor, there certainly was a Roman Empire. This is discussed elsewhere. Roman expansion meant that armies had to be sent from Italy to the provinces to perform garrison duties and quell rebellions if these occurred. Roman legionaries were still only part-time soldiers. They originally served from March to October – the traditional war season – and then had to return to their farms for the harvest. Serving in remote provinces for longer periods and having to fight against savage tribes who used guerrilla tactics and hit-and-run actions became ever more unpopular. It was difficult for the commanders to find enough new recruits for the legions, as young men were increasingly loath to serve. It should not come as a surprise that Roman armies in this period sometimes performed dismally and suffered serious defeats, such as during the war in Spain (151-133 BCE).
One solution for the lack of manpower was to lower the property requirements so that men from the lower classes became eligible to serve in the legions. Another solution was to abandon the practice that soldiers had to bring their own weapons and armour. Instead, army equipment was now provided by the Roman state and mass produced in state factories (fabricae). Yet another solution was to redistribute Roman public land (ager publicus) among Rome’s poor, so that these became part of the propertied classes agains and could serve in the legions. In fact, this was one of the main reasons behind Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus’ huge land reform programme of 133 BCE. But there was a problem: this public land had already been taken by wealthy and influential landowners, both Roman and native Italian, and these were not willing to abandon it. Gracchus’ programme was very unpopular and was one of the main reasons behind his murder.
So the Roman army was already developing from a citizen force drawn from the middle classes to a career army for poor citizens who were equipped by the State. But this was not enough. More soldiers were needed to conquer new territories, protect vulnerable borders and police and pacify newly created provinces. The ultimate solution came from a New Man (homo novus) by the name of Gaius Marius. For the first time in Roman history, he recruited soldiers from the poorest elements of society: the proletarii, or ‘those who only have their children’. A new army was born. The Marian reforms would become legendary and changed the conscript army of the early Republic into a semi-professional and semi-permanent fighting force drawn chiefly from the socially and politically insignificant, the capite censi. Augustus, the first true emperor, turned this fighting force unto a full-fledged professional and standing army, which is the topic of a previous essay.
After Marius, the smallest unit in a legion was the contubernium, which consisted of eight soldiers sharing a tent. Ten of these squads formed a century and six centuries formed a cohort of 480 men, which replaced the maniple as the primary tactical unit of a legion. There were ten cohorts in a legion and during the Late Republic, the first cohort was enlarged to some 800 men, which meant he paper strength of a legion was 5120 men, probably excluding NCOs (like optiones) and officers (like centuriones, tribuni and legati).
Roman army formations
The Roman formation with three lines was known as the acies triplex. In the ‘Polybian’ legion, the maniples of soldiers – there were ten maniples in each line – would be separated from each other by intervals and these intervals would be covered by the maniples in the line directly behind, thus creating a checkerboard pattern (called the quincunx, after the five eyes on a pair of dice). The advantage of this system was that the Roman commander could send in fresh troops where they were most needed. Commanders did not immediately commit all their available infantry, but kept more than half of it in reserve. It is clear that the big advantage of the acies triplex formation was flexibility.
Several scenarios were possible. In some cases, the hastati in the first line would be able to break through and cause the enemy to rout. In that case the principes and triarii were not committed at all. A more likely scenario was however that the hastati managed to fight the enemy to a standstill, but could not push him back. In that case the commander could send in reinforcements where the hastati were hard-pressed and tired. Fresh principes could turn the battle in Rome’s favour. If even the principes could not make a decisive blow, the commander could commit his triarii, who spent most of the battle kneeling behind their large shields. Of course it was also possible that the hastati were themselves pushed back and that the principes had to be committed to save them. If even these could not turn the tide, all surviving hastati and principes would rally behind the triarii. Then there were two options: one last desperate attack or a safe retreat behind the spear wall that the triarii presented to the enemy. Or, as Livius puts it:
“When the triarii had admitted the hastati and principes through the intervals separating their companies they rose from their kneeling posture and instantly closing their companies up they blocked all passage through them and in one compact mass fell on the enemy as the last hope of the army.” (AUC 8.8)
The post-Marius armies were mainly composed of heavy infantry, with soldiers who all wore the same equipment. The legions still usually deployed in the acies triplex formation, but if it was necessary they could also form up into four lines or two. Hastati, principes and triarii were all confined to a fixed position on the battlefield, while the post-Marius legionary could be deployed in any of the available lines. So the post-Marius formation was in a way even more flexible. What did change in the new legions was the light troops and the cavalry. Pre-Marius legions still had a large force of skirmishers/light infantry, the velites discussed above. In post-Marius legions the skirmishing role was taken up by allied troops or mercenaries, such as Balearic and Rhodian slingers and archers from Crete and Syria. Originally, the elite of Roman society provided the horsemen of the legions (equites), but by around 100 BCE that role had been completely delegated to the allies and mercenaries. When Julius Caesar campaigned in Gaul, practically all of his cavalry was provided by Gauls and Germans.
Keep in mind that both before and after the Marian reforms, Roman legions were supported by a large number of auxiliary troops. Before Marius, a consular army of two legions was usually supported by two alae of allied troops (socii). Most of these were Rome’s Italian allies. We know little about their organisation, but we can assume that they did not differ that much from the Roman troops with regard to weapons and equipment. The socii were also deployed in three lines, were formed into cohorts and commanded by their own officers, although overall command was in the hands of Roman prefects (the so-called praefecti sociorum).
The number of soldiers in an ala was roughly equal to that in a legion, although the allies did supply significantly more cavalry. The pick of the infantry and cavalry (extraordinarii) was always from the allied troops. After Marius, support troops continued to play a significant role, but since most of Rome’s Italian allies had been given Roman citizenship by then (making them eligible for service in the legions), they were usually from the provinces. From the early Empire onward they were known as auxilia.
The Romans were usually eager to incorporate defeated adversaries into their own armies, turning today’s enemies into tomorrow’s soldiers. It is likely that the allied contingents, being positioned on the flanks of the army, suffered disproportionate casualties compared to the legions. It is therefore worth remembering that the men who won the Roman Empire were not necessarily Romans themselves.
- Bernard van Daele, Het Romeinse leger;
- Adrian Goldsworthy, The Complete Roman Army;
- Adrian Goldsworthy, In the Name of Rome.