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Roman Soldiers

Roman Soldiers
Ancient Roman Soldiers
  Notably the ancient Roman soldiers, are called “soldiers”, not warriors like their enemies. This is a telling sign of their professionalism. The Roman Empire, the greatest empire the West has known until modern times, was built upon the aggression of the common Roman soldier. The Roman soldiers, or legionaries, became the top dogs in heavy infantry in a time when heavy infantry ruled the battlefield. They were a professional, stubborn institution backed by an unyielding State, however, they also proved to be adaptive. Not just able to modify weapons, tactics and strategy on the battlefield but also able to engineer masterful sieges, build bridges and fortification and conduct naval warfare. They evolved and changed over their long service to both the Roman Republic and Empire, but for some reason overcame all their adversaries for an amazing thousand years. Perhaps it was their tenacity or ruthlessness, but those were necessary ingredients for survival in their rough time and place. There seems to be something more to them, but just what made the Romans so great, for so long, is hard to put a finger on. One thing is certain however, when the Roman military won, they prospered and when it lost they declined and finally fell. In the end it was the Romans who ruled, and they did so with the might of their arms, the Roman soldiers.

Roman Soldier
Creating a great empire
with the sword.

Ancient Roman Soldiers
A martial culture, the ancient Romans trained for warfare from a young age; perhaps, more importantly, politial success was linked to military sucess.

Ancient Roman Soldiers

Early Roman Soldiers

The Roman army was first and for most a heavy infantry army. Strategically they won and lost pitched battles by their center, their heavy infantry. When they lost battles it was often due to being out flanked because of their inferior cavalry. However, when the flanks held the roman soldier was able to wear down almost any enemy. Eventually this caused a rout in the center of the opposing army, a catastrophic battlefield problem. Over the centuries various enemies were able to exploit this but by in large the strategy of the Roman soldiers prevailed to such an extent that the Roman Empire was formed.

Roman legionnaires developed through stages as the decades and centuries progressed, adapting to new enemies and taking from them lessons about what works in the field of battle. They continually borrowed effective weaponry of their enemies. The Roman’s took the strongest Roman weapons, hand, naval or siege, from their enemies and applied them to their military. Additionally, they took the best tactics and strategies used against them and applied them to their playbooks. A valuable lesson was taught to the Romans by Hannibal during the Second Punic War, bloodily demonstrating to the Roman generals that greater forces can be destroyed be greater strategies. Unfortunately for Hannibal, the young Roman General Scipio Africanus learned the lessons all too well. He had lost two uncles and his father to Hannibal’s ruses and was able to turn Hannibal’s tricks against him in the end. All of this, plus an inestimable force of the Roman peoples renown will, gave the roman soldiers a great backing and foundation to achieve victory on the battlefield.

Modern scholars, games and reference books typically like to break the Roman military into phases. This is a good way to deal with the subject quickly but obviously the changes were more fluid than books, games and documentaries may portray. However, for the same reasons they do it, I will too. Below is a summary of the different phases of the typical Roman soldier.

Early Republican Roman Soldiers
As Rome emerged from the shadows of the Etruscans to the North that dominated them they inherited their style of warfare. The Etruscans, and thus the Romans, modeled their soldiers after the Greek Warriors, the hoplites. However, the Etruscans fell to invasions from Celtic Warriors from their North and soon these same warriors were knocking on Rome’s door. Actually, they did more than just knock and sacked the city. The Romans took a lesson from this, and as the Celtic warriors retracted to the formally Etruscan territory to solidify their gains, the ever adaptive Romans took note of their fighting style. It is believed that in this area the Romans soldiers took on their main weapons, a sword and a big body shield. They had forgone the age old spear and round shield in favor of this new weaponry, but history is never that simple. They also engaged in a century long war against the hill peoples that were their neighbors. These Samnites preferred a more gorilla type warfare, and after several humiliating defeats of Roman armies the Roman soldiers once again adapted. They devised a looser formation, like the Samnites, and hence gained a tactical mobility that hoplite lines can’t compete with. It is also believed that they developed their heavy javelins, or pila, at this time due to Samnite influence (See Roman Weapons).

Late Republican and Early Empire Roman Soldiers
The Roman soldiers never got a lot of rest at this time in history and rapidly on the heels of their mastery of central Italy came wars against Pyrrus (a Greek/Macedonian king), Carthage and Macedonia itself, punctuated by Germanic and Celtic invasions from the North. The hard pressed Romans rose to the occasion, it could be called their finest hour if it didn’t last for another century. In order to survive the Romans had to win battles and they did this with their adaptable Roman soldiers. It is at this time that the classic Roman legionary was created. The Roman soldier was equipped with elements of the foes he had defeated. Great generals like Marius and Caesar perfected both Roman strategy and tactics at this time, while greatly expanding the Roman Empire in general. The Roman soldiers became professional soldiers, not allowed even to marry, they were to be the first mass professional army and they performed in the roll admirably.
This is the time that the classic roman weapons took root. Each soldier flung two heavy javelins at their enemy before closing ranks. The common Roman soldier was better armored than their opponents and after the devastating volley of heavy javelins (pila) they got down to the ugly business of killing men one on one. They defended themselves with body shields, like they learned from the Celtic Warriors, and even copied their chainmail and helmets, this enabled them to get in close and finish off their opponents their short swords. These short swords were another borrowed invention, this time from the Celts, Celtiberians and Iberians of what is now modern Spain. The Romans, ever the masters of borrowing whatever worked from their enemies did come up with an original idea however, they crafted excellent plated armor and the Romans being eternally practical fashioned their armor so it could be collapsed for transportation. However, the greater genius of the Roman military was its ability to borrow these weapons, armor and tactics and form them into the most efficient manner. The Romans were above all organized, at least militarily. It was at this time and with these weapons that Rome became the empire that we think of today, conquering Gual, Britain, Egypt, Greece, Macedonia, Pontus, Syria, Palestine and more.

Late Roman Soldiers

The Roman army once again was forced to adapt to new enemies during the third century AD. The once unstoppable Roman soldiers had met their match, been ground down or been internally weekend. It looked as though the Roman Empire would fall, but through momentum and resilience it was able to survive for at least three hundred more years (depending on the date you pick for its demise, the Eastern Roman Empire survived for another 1200 years!). Regardless, the late Roman soldiers were forced to adapt to new enemies and strategic situations, and once again they rose to the challenge.

Strategically the frontiers of the Roman Empire were made to be less static, with weaker border guards backed by large regional field armies. While these border guards can be considered just a step above local militia, the field armies were a different story. More money was put into professional soldiers, both highly skilled cavalry (the beginnings of European knights) and missile troops. These missile troops consisted of archers and some much more exciting soldiers who operated awesome ballista’s like the “scorpion”. These were essentially large, mounted crossbows capable of highly accurate, rapid fire and able to penetrate multiple people. Plus they were transportable enough to make it to the battlefield, making them an early example of battlefield artillery.

The heavy Roman soldier remained as deadly as ever during this period however, perhaps even more deadly. This is despite being from a more fractured political system and even being a smaller proportion of the military than during the imperial period. They continued to employ similar tactics although they developed larger round shields and longer swords, perhaps as a defense against cavalry threats or perhaps due to the influence of the ever increasing number of “barbarians” in the army. One exciting advancement in the area of Roman soldiers was the Plumbata, a weapon that enabled them to act as their own missle troops. This amazing weapon was what can be described as an oversized lawn-dart pushed through an oblong led ball. This weapon was attached to a leather cord and whipped around like a sling to gain range, ancient writers report it had the range of a bow (around 200 yards). The plumbata would then crash down into enemy formations killing the guy unlucky enough to be in its trajectory.

Late Roman military expenditures greatly skewed towards cavalry than previously, due to horrible experiences with peoples like the Huns. Mounted archers became highly valued to counter the threats posed by enemy mounted archers, but the development of the stirrups is often credited with causing more long term changes in military history. With stirrups a lancer is able to lean his wait into a charge, not just the muscles of his arms, and if he is rigid enough he can transfer the force of his mount into a blow. This intern lead to the development of the heavy cavalry, a man and horse fully armored with a lance that would evolve into the knight due to the great expenses of equipping such soldiers and the fracturing of the political system.

At the same time as all of this was happening a destabilizing fact was occurring throughout the period, the Roman army was becoming more and more “barbarian”. By this it is meant that the common Roman soldier less and less owed his allegiance to Rome, but to a tribe the Romans considered to be barbarians. As the Roman armies became filled with Germans, and many other ethnicities, their loyalties to the empire became opportunistic. For many reasons, several hundred creditable ones have been proposed, the Western Roman Empire, and its soldiers, could no longer hold its borders.

In the end the Roman soldiers had been the dominate force in the Western half of Eurasia for 1000 years and they would continue on in the Eastern half of the Mediterranean for another 1000 more. With this record the Roman soldier deserves to be recognized as one of the most successful in history.



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