Soldier of the month - The ROMANS
Welcome back. This month we will take a look at what is probably the most
commonly studied group of professional soldiers in existance, the romans. One of the
first points that must be consider when looking at the roman legions is that they went
through two very distinct forms in the life of the empire. The first form was the
manipular legion, the second and later form was the cohort legion. This article will
be broken down accordingly.
To begin with though lets consider what it took to enroll in the legion first.
The first thing that you needed was a letter of introduction from a sponsor to a
recruiting officer. When you were summoned before him you received your preliminary
interview. This included a check to ensure that you were a free citizen, over 5'8" in
height and had not been previously employed in a "woman's trade" such as cooking, or
If the officer accepted you it was time for basic training. In basic you were
taught how to make do without all of the common comforts, how to go without sleep, how
to march (at several speeds). Weapons practice was also held. The shields and weapons
were double weight and were used against a pell for many hours each day. As an
intresting note only kills with the point of the sword were taught, since that was how
a legionary fought. They also trained with an overweight "pilum" or throwing spear
against the same pell. Swimming was also considered to be good training.
At the end of the training you swore an oath to the state (or the emperor) and
were assigned a unit. You then marched off to join your unit. When you arrived your
name, age, father's name, place of origin, height, and the name of the officer who
accepted you were placed on the records scroll.
Several promotions were available to the legionaries. The first was "immune"
which meant that you got out of some of the camp set up jobs. Next was "principalis"
roughly the job of orderly room sgt. Following that was "signiger" who was the bank
officer and standard bearer, and "optio" who was second in command to the centurion.
Then came the centurion himself with a twisted vine stick as a symbol of rank. Then
the tribune who commanded the legion.
There were usually 28-30 legions in service at any time each of about 5500 men
who received their pay, and a pension of land when they retired. Disobedience or
desertion was punished with instant death with no trial.
Since the weapons remained basicly the same over both types of legions I will
cover them now.
The heavy fighters used a scutum (a BIG curved square shield) and a gladius (a 20"
short thrusting sword). They also used a pilum (a 7' throwing spear). As the legion
approached its enemy a call was sounded and every legionary threw his pilum. Sometimes
as many as three were carried and thrown before the units met. Once engaged the legion
simply moved ahead with the swords thrusting out and up from between the shields,
cutting their way through anything they met. The light fighters (velites) carried
darts and javelins with which they harrassed the flanks of the enemy while the legion
was engaged. The third line (triarii) were armed with 10-14' pikes.
Each soldier also carried a pack containing his cloak, helm, axe, spade, shield
and weapons, sythe, cook pot, 2 weeks rations, and 2 palisades for the camp defence.
After each days march (usually of 15-18 miles) a camp was set up with a wooden wall and
a defensive ditch around it. The size of the ditch was dictated by the length of time
the legion was planning on staying. Each legion also had 500 pack animals to help
carry the load. In the camp each maniple was given 100 square feet to camp in. Thsi
space was always in the same place in the camp to make reforming ranks in the middle
of the night easier.
The Manipular legion was formed out of three groups. The Hastati were the
front line and consisted of the new troups. The Principes were the second line, they
were the seasoned troups. Both of these groups were divided into 10 maniples each.
Each maniple was 12 files by 10 ranks of men (60' in front by 45' of depth). The third
group was the Triarii who were the older soldiers nearing retirement. The triarii has
10 light units (velites) of 120 men each and 10 heavy units of 60 men each. These 4200
men made up one legion. Two legions were supported by 900 cavalry and a support group.
The sum of all of these people was an "army". They were officered by 2 consuls who
commanded on alternating days (thus making a revolt difficult). The consuls had 6
tribunes and 60 centurians (2 per maniple) below them.
The cohort legion was a modification of the original. One maniple of each type
was formed together and called a cohort (of 480 men). Each cohort was broken down into
6 centuriae each of 10 contubernia. Each contubernium contained 8 men. The 10th
cohort was the senior cohort and was much larger. It had 800 men formed into 10
centuriae. 10 cohorts and 12 turmae of cavalry made up one legion. Each turmae was
32 soldiers in 8 ranks. 12 Turmae together made up one ala or wing.
Each legion was formed up with 4 cohorts in the front line, 3 cohorts in the
line behind them and 3 more in the final line. A legion was led by a legatus legionis
who was of senatorial rank. He was assisted by a praefectus castrorum (praefect) and
6 tribuni. Each century was commanded by a centurio assisted by an optio. Each
contubernia and turmae was commanded by a decurio. The velites assigned to the legion
were usually auxilieries.
The Sca applications of a legion are wide open. Calontir has based their
armour around the legion although their organization follows another form, as does
their method of tactics. To the best of my knowledge no-one in the SCA is recreating
a legion. It would be an interresting experiment although I doubt that you could get
the level of automatic obeying that is needed. A column of such troups numbering
around 50-75 could do an awful lot of damage to a shieldwall. The experiment of
putting such a unit up against Calontir would also be fun: the old immovablke object
and irresistable force arguement. To deal wuth the attack of such a unit a very fluid
shifting defense is best as history has shown. Do not attempt to stop them but run a
whole pile of hit and run at their flanks.
Enough for now. Here is the biblio for the romans....
- The Armies and Enemies of imperial rome, Barker, c.1972, Reg. Games
(Sussex Ltd), SECONDARY
A VERY simple overview of the roman main battles (designed for
- The Fighting Man, Peter Young, Rutledge Press, NY, NY, c. 1981,
ISBN 0831745037, TIRTIARY
A wonderful overview of the armies of history, no depth.
- The art of war in the middle ages AD378-1515, C.W.C. Oman, c.1953,
Cornell Univ, pub. Cornell Univ. Press, ISBN 081490626, SECONDARY
One of the most thorough treatments of historical warfare ever.
- Arrows against Steel: the history of the bow,Victor Hurley, NY,NY,
Mason/Charter, 1975, ISBN 0884050947, SECONDARY
A very biased book -- uses only the facts that fit the theories.
- War through the ages, Lynn Montross, Harper & Bro. publishers (NY & London)
- Annals, P. Cornelius Tacitus, PRIMARY
- Military Institutions of the romans, Flavius Vegtius Renatus, PRIMARY
- History of Rome, Titus Livius, PRIMARY
- The cutting edge: Military History of Antiquity and Early Feudal times,
Paul F. Gavaghan, NY NY, P. Lang, 1990, ISBN 0820411906
- Roman Military Law, G.E. Brand, Austin, Univ Texas Press, 1968
- Asclepiodotus, Onasander, Aeneas Tacticus
- Strategums and aquaducts of rome, Sextus Julius Fontinus, London, Heinemann,
- Greece and Rome at war to 450AD, Connely, Peter, ISBN 0133649768, Englewood
cliffs, NS, Prentice-Hall, 1981
- Pallas armata- Military essays, Turner, James, reprint of 1683 edition
- De Re Militari, Flavius Vegatus Renatus
- Roman art of war under the republic, Adcock F.E., Barnes & Noble, NY, 1960