The Roman Army


The Roman Army Essay, Research Paper

The Success of the

Roman Army

Brendan Walsh

Ms. Kraljevic



The ancient world was a dangerous place. An upstart nation always ran the risk of destruction, either by barbarian nations or strongly armed neighbors. How is it that the small nation of Rome managed to survive and conquer for so long, in such a hostile environment? Rome’s success can be attributed to the skill of its legions. The Roman Army was able to expand and maintain the borders of Rome, due to its ability to adopt foreign technology and tactics, its superb organization and its use of the career soldier.

The first strength of the Roman Army was their ability to assimilate foreign technologies and tactics. Much of the weapons and armor that helped make the Roman Army as great as it was, were taken from Rome’s neighbors. The Gauls, a semi-civilized tribe from a northern region in present day France1, and the Greeks, were the main influence for most of the legionaries armor. The Etruscan helmet used by the tribes of Italy was heavily influenced by Greek design, to form the Etrusco-Corinthian model that was used by Roman legionaries from the beginning of Rome until the reign of Julius Caesar2. Odd as it seems, the Gauls were the main contributor to Roman armor. The Gauls developed the ring mail that was used for two hundred and forty years (200BCE-40CE). Before the advent of Gallic ring mail, the only protection a legionary had was a small, ineffective chest plate. The “cross-bun” model helmet, used after the Etrusco-Corinthian model was retired in 40CE, was also of Gallic design3. This new helmet curved to fit the back of the neck and had ear protectors that covered more of the face, providing better protection for both face and neck. It was designs like these that made Roman armor the best.

The Romans also adopted many weapons from their neighbors and provinces. The most significant of these were contributed by the Greeks and the Spanish. The “scorpion”, a mid-size ballista and the Romans’ most widely used siege weapon, was first used by Greek Hoplites4. The scorpion was an effective siege weapon and was light enough to be used on the battlefield as well as in sieges. The Romans also borrowed the Spanish short-sword from the warriors of Spain5. The short-sword allowed for more maneuverability for stabbing and did not weigh down the legionary’s already heavy load.

The scorpion and the Spanish short-sword are good examples of the importance of foreign design on the success of the Roman Army.

Though foreign technology was important, the most significant contribution of Rome’s neighbors and provinces to its army, was their tactics. Since the Roman expertise lay solely in the field of close-combat infantry, the Roman Army hired auxiliaries to compensate for what they lacked6. Each province of Rome had a different style of combat to offer. The most important were the mounted units provided by the Gauls, Germans and Spaniards. These made up the Roman Cavalry that protected the flanks of the legionaries on marches in hostile territory as well as fighting in some battles. Archers, slingers, mixed cavalry and pikemen, provided by Crete, Balearia, Germania and Spain, respectively, were also used to a lesser extent7. Although their numbers were fewer than that of the legionaries, the use of foreign tactics through auxiliary units made the Roman Army well-rounded and thus, combined with foreign technologies, contributed to its success.

The second factor essential to the success of the Roman Army was its superior organization. Organization proved key in defeating numerically and physically superior barbarian armies. In Roman campaigns against the Gauls and Germans, the organization of the formations used by the legionaries protected them against the barbarians, who fought as individuals8. The organization of the Roman legions allowed for strong defensive formations such as the “tortoise” and the acies triplex9. The tortoise formation is the best known of the two. When a centurion gave the horn call for the tortoise formation, the legionaries quickly formed a defensive, interlocking wall and roof with their shields. The formation was extremely effective against missile weapons and thus essential in siege combat. The acies triplex was used on the battlefield rather than in siege combat10. The formation was on a much larger scale, involving the positioning and movement of cohorts on the battlefield. Each legion was divided into ten cohorts of four hundred and eighty men. In the acies triplex formation the ten cohorts were divided into three lines. Cohorts I through to IV formed the front line, cohorts V through VII formed the second line and cohorts VIII through X formed the rear line11. The cohorts of the second and rear lines were prepared to replace those of the lines in front of them, at any time. This allowed the Romans to maintain a solid line of fresh soldiers at all times. Both the tortoise and the acies triplex were significant to the defensive strength of the Roman legions.

Although the legionaries’ formations were exceptional examples of Roman organization, the organization of the Roman Army off of the battlefield was even more impressive. It was the logistics of the Roman Army that was the best example of Roman organization. A Roman army consisted not only of legionaries, but also of engineers, surgeons, and pack animals12. Engineers helped by building roads, bridges and camps for the use of the legions, as well as, during sieges, constructing defenses and siege weapons.

The surgeons tended to those wounded in battle and, along with frequent bathing on the part of the legionaries, prevented the spread of disease. Pack animals also carried food and supplies for long marches and each baggage train was heavily defended against raiders and wild animals. Though these units provided vital services, none of Rome’s enemies could organize them13. The presence of these non-combat units is the best show of superior Roman organization. Thus Romans’ superior logistics and well-organized formations were key to the Roman Army’s might.

The final, and probably most significant, factor necessary for the success of the Roman Army, was its use of the career soldier. The common practice of armies at the time was either to conscript the members of society who could afford to buy their own weapons, or to hire mercenaries14. A conscript or mercenary would not be expect to serve any longer than the duration of the conflict, whereas a career soldier would serve to the end of his term, regardless of whether or not any battle was taking place. A career soldier in the Roman Army served a large portion of their lives in the Army. The long term of service allowed for a more experienced and well-trained army. After twenty-five years the soldier was a battle-hardened veteran and had far more mental, physical and emotional experience than conscripts of other nations.

However, the greatest advantage of the career soldier was their permanence. Many of Rome’s enemies would raise an army as soon as war broke out, but the Romans always had legions prepared for battle, making it much harder to catch them off guard. These permanent soldiers also made an excellent workforce in times of peace. The armies were expected to work just as hard during peacetime, doing anything from building aqueducts to draining marshes to policing15. In this way the career soldier was also extremely cost effective as a legionary would expect less than half of what a civilian would for manual labor, and of this an auxiliary would expect even less16. Using this cheap labor pool, the Romans constructed much of their infrastructure and improved the defensive capabilities of the Army, with forts, walls and trenches. Thus, as a result of the career soldier, the Roman Army was better prepared, as well as, more experienced.

In conclusion, the success of the Roman Army can be attributed to its ability to adopt foreign technologies and tactics, its superior organization and its use of the career soldier. It was these three factors that allowed the Romans to conquer and control most of the known world and it is for these reasons, that the Roman Army was the greatest military force of all time.

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