- Structural history of the Roman military
The structural history of the Roman military describes the major chronological transformations in the organization and constitution of
ancient Rome's armed forces, "the most effective and long-lived military institution known to history"."Encyclopedia Britannica", Eleventh Edition (1911), "The Roman Army"] From its origins around 800 BC to its final dissolution in 476 AD with the demise of the Western Roman Empire, Rome's military underwent substantial structural change. At the highest level of structure, Rome's forces were split into the Roman armyand the Roman navy, although these two branches were less distinct than in a modern national defence force. Within the top-level branches of army and navy, structural changes occurred both as a result of positive military reform and through organic structural evolution.
Rome's military structure passed through four distinct phases. Initially, Rome's military consisted of an annual citizen levy performing military service as part of their duty to the state. During this period, the Roman army would prosecute seasonal campaigns against largely local adversaries. As the extent of the territories falling under Roman
suzeraintyexpanded, and the size of the city's forces increased, the soldiery of ancient Rome became increasingly professional and salaried. As a consequence, military service at the lower (non-staff) levels became progressively longer-term. Roman military units of the period were largely homogeneous and highly regulated. The army consisted of units of citizen infantry known as legions (Latin: "legiones") as well as non-legionary allied troops known as " auxilia". The latter were most commonly called upon to provide light infantry or cavalry support.
In the third phase of the city's military development, Rome's forces were tasked with manning and securing the borders of the provinces brought under Roman control, as well as Italy itself. Strategic-scale threats were generally less serious in this period, and strategic emphasis was placed on preserving gained territory. The army underwent changes in response to these new needs and became more dependent on fixed garrisons than on march-camps and continuous field operations.
In the final phase of Rome's military, military service continued to be salaried and professional for Rome's regular troops. However, the trend of employing allied or mercenary troops was expanded such that these troops came to represent a substantial proportion of Rome's forces. At the same time, the uniformity of structure found in Rome's earlier military forces disappeared. Soldiery of the era ranged from lightly-armed mounted archers to heavy infantry, in regiments of varying size and quality. This was accompanied by a trend in the late empire of an increasing predominance of cavalry rather than infantry troops, as well as a requital of more mobile operations.
Tribal forces (c. 800 BC – c. 578 BC)
The earliest Roman army mentioned in writing is ascribed by our much later sources,
Livyand Dionysius of Halicarnassus, to the 8th century BC; and is often referred to as Rome's "curiate" army, named for the subdivisions of the army based upon the three founding tribes (Latin: " curiae") of Rome. This army was a relatively small force, and its activities were limited "mainly [to] raiding and cattle rustling with the occasional skirmish-like battle".Goldsworthy, "In the Name of Rome", p. 18] It lacked much of the professionalism and organisation of later Roman armies, with individual units or regiments probably being formed upon divisions by tribe, or " gens". During this period Rome was probably fortified as a hill-top village and its army of the time can be compared loosely to a typical Bronze-Age warrior band led by a warrior chieftain. Much of the arms and armour of this period was very similar to the rest of the Villanovan culture[Cary & Scullard, "A History of Rome", p. 9] that was predominant in the region. Sword patterns, for example, were very similar to the bronze antennae hilted weapons in use by other peoples of the age. [Cary & Scullard, "A History of Rome", p. 11]
The army (Latin: "legio") consisted, according to Livy, of exactly 3,000 infantry and 300 cavalry (or possibly
mounted infantry) during this period, one third from each of Rome's three founding tribes.Grant, "The History of Rome", p. 22 * Boak, "A History of Rome to 565 AD", p. 69] The numbers are a little too exact and Livy's historical remove of 500 years too great for these figures to be taken literally.hcref|α| However, Livy is almost certainly correct that the greater mass of the army at this time consisted of footsoldiers (Latin: " pedites"), probably homogeneous infantry armed with javelins. The cavalry (consisting either of " celeres", "equites", or both) was far smaller in number and probably consisted solely of the city's richest citizens.Boak, "A History of Rome to 565 AD", p. 69] The army may also have contained a number of chariots in its very earliest incarnation. [Boak, "A History of Rome to 565 AD", p. 86]
By the turn of the 7th century BC, the Iron-Age Etruscan civilization (Latin: "Etrusci") was dominant in the region. [Livy, "The Rise of Rome", Book 5, chapter 33 * Pallottino,"The Etruscans", p. 68] As with most of the other peoples in the region, the Romans warred against the Etruscans. By the close of the century the Romans had lost their struggle for independence, and the Etruscans had conquered Rome, establishing a military dictatorship, or kingdom, in the city.
Etruscan-model hoplites (578 BC – 510 BC)
Although several Roman sources talk extensively about the Roman army of the
Roman Kingdomperiod that followed the Etruscan capture of the city, including Livy and Polybius, none of them are contemporary sources. Polybius, for example, was writing some 300 years after the events in question, and Livy some 500 years later. Additionally, what records were kept by the Romans at this time were later destroyed when the city was sacked. The sources cannot therefore be seen as being reliable for this period as they are on later military history from the First Punic Waronwards, and much of the history of this period is considered to be apocryphal.
According to our surviving narratives, the three kings of Rome during the Etruscan occupation were
Tarquinius Priscus, Servius Tullius, and Tarquinius Superbus. During this period the army underwent a reformation into a "centurial" army based on socio-economic class.Livy, "The Rise of Rome", Book 1, chapter 42] This reformation is traditionally attributed to Servius Tullius, the second of the Etruscan kings. Tullius had earlier carried out the first Roman census of all citizens.Livy, "The Rise of Rome", Book 1, chapter 43] Livy tells us that Tullius reformed the army by transplanting onto it the structure derived originally for civil life as a result of this census. At all levels, the military was, at this time, considered to be a civic responsibility and a way of advancing one's status within Roman society.Smith, "Service in the Post-Marian Roman Army", p. 10]
However, Rome's social classes were qualified rather than created by the census. It is perhaps more accurate to say therefore that the army's structure was slightly refined during this period rather than radically reformed. Prior to these reforms, the infantry was divided into the "classis" of rich citizens and the "infra classem" of poorer citizens. The latter were excluded from the regular line of battle on the basis that their equipment was of poor quality. [Boak, "A History of Rome to 565 AD". p. 69] During the reforms, this crude division of poorer and richer citizens was further stratified. The army thereafter consisted of a number of troop types based upon the social class of propertied citizens, collectively known as "
assidui". From the poorest in the "fifth class" to the richest in the "first class" and the equestriansabove them, military service was compulsory for all.Gabba, "Republican Rome, The Army And the Allies", p. 2] However, Roman citizens at this time generally viewed military service as a proper undertaking of duty to the state in any case, in contrast to later Roman views of military service as an unwelcome and unpleasant burden.Grant, "The History of Rome", p. 334 * Boak, "A History of Rome", p. 454] Whereas there are accounts of Romans in the late empire mutilating their own bodies in order to exempt themselves from military service, [Campbell, "The Crisis of Empire", p. 126 * Boak, "A History of Rome", p. 454] there seems to have been no such reluctance to serve in the military of early Rome. This may, in part, be due to the generally lower intensity of conflict in this era, to the fact that men were fighting close to and often in protection of their own homes, or due to—as posited by later Roman writers—a greater martial spirit of antiquity.Vogt, "The Decline of Rome", p. 158] hcref|β
The equestrians, the highest social class of all, served in mounted units known as "
equites". The first class of the richest citizens served as heavy infantry with swords and long spears (resembling hoplites), and provided the first line of the battle formation. The second class were armed similarly to the first class, but without a breastplatefor protection, and with an oblong rather than a round shield. The second class stood immediately behind the first class when the army was drawn up in battle formation. The third and fourth classes were more lightly armed than their richer contemporaries, and carried a thrusting spear and throwing javelins. The third class stood behind the second class in battle formation, normally providing javelin support. The poorest of the propertied men of the city comprised the fifth class. They were generally too poor to afford much equipment at all and were armed as skirmishers with slings and stones. They were deployed in a screen in front of the main army, covering its approach and masking its manoeuvres.
Men without property, who were thereby excluded from the qualifying social classes of the "assidui", were exempted from military service on the grounds that they were too poor to provide themselves with any arms whatsoever. [Livy, "The Rise of Rome", Book 1, chapter 42] However, in the most pressing circumstances, even these "
proletarii" were pressed into service, [Gabba, "Republican Rome, The Army And the Allies", p. 5] though their military worth was probably questionable. Troops in all of these classes would fight together on the battlefield, with the exception of the most senior troops, who were expected to guard the city.
The army is said to have increased from 3,000 to 4,000 men in the fifth century, and then again from 4,000 to 6,000 men sometime before 400 BC. This later army of 6,000 men were then divided into 60 "centuries" of 100 men each.Grant, "The History of Rome", p. 24]
Manipular legion (509 BC – 107 BC)
The army of the early Republic continued to evolve, and although there was a tendency among Romans to attribute such changes to great reformers, it is likelier that changes were the product of slow evolution rather than singular and deliberate policy of reform.Grant, "The History of Rome", Faber and Faber, 1979 p. 54]
During this period, an army formation of around 5000 men was known as a legion (Latin: "legio"). However, in contrast to later legionary formations of exclusively heavy infantry, the legions of the early and middle Republic consisted of both light and heavy infantry. The term "manipular army" (an army based on units called "maniples") is therefore used to contrast the later "legionary" army of the Empire that was based around a system of "cohort" units. The manipular army was based partially upon social class and partially upon age and military experience. [Boak, " A History of Rome to 565 A.D.", p. 87] It therefore represents a theoretical compromise between the earlier class-based army and the class-free armies of later years. In practice, even slaves were at one time pressed into the army of the Republic out of necessity.Santosuosso, "Storming the Heavens", p. 10] Normally a single legion was raised each year, but in 366 BC two legions were raised in a single year for the first time.
The manipular army got its name from the manner in which its heavy infantry was deployed. "Maniples" were units of 120 men each drawn from a single infantry class. The maniples were small enough to permit tactical movement of individual infantry units on the battlefield within the framework of the greater army. The maniples were typically deployed into three discrete lines (Latin: "triplex acies") based on the three heavy infantry types of "
hastati", " principes" and " triarii".Santosuosso, "Storming the Heavens", p. 18] The first type, the "hastati", typically formed the first rank in battle formation. Each hastati maniple was formed 40 men across by 3 men deep. [http://www.strategypage.com/articles/default.asp?target=marius/manipletocohort From Maniple to Cohort] , Strategy Page] They were leather-armoured infantry soldiers who wore a brass cuirassand brass helmet adorned with 3 feathers approximately 30 cm (12 in) in height and carried an iron-clad wooden shield, 120 cm (4 ft) tall and a convex rectangle in shape. They were armed with a sword known as a " gladius" and two throwing spearsknown as "pila": one the heavy "pilum" of popular imagination and one a slender javelin.Polybius, "History", Book 6]
As Roman troops were spread increasingly thin over its long border, the Empire's territory continued to dwindle in size. Barbarian war bands increasingly began to penetrate the Empire's vulnerable borders, both as settlers and invaders. In 451, the Romans defeated
Attila the Hun, but only with assistance from a confederation of "foederatii" troops, which included Visigothsand Alans. As barbarian incursions continued, some advancing as far as the heart of Italy, Rome's borders began to collapse, with frontier forces swiftly finding themselves cut off deep in the enemy's rear.Luttwak, "The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire", p. 188]
Simultaneously, barbarian troops in Rome's pay came to be "in a condition of almost perpetual turbulence and revolt"Grant, "A History of Rome", p. 344] from 409 onwards. In 476 these troops finally unseated the last emperor of the Western Roman Empire.Vogt, "The Decline of Rome", p. 250] The Eastern Roman military (known as the
Byzantine armyand Byzantine navy) continued to defend the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire until its fall in 1453. [Runciman, "The Fall of Constantinople: 1453."]
Roman military confederation
Livy, on Wikisource(print: "Book 1 as The Rise of Rome, Oxford University Press, 1998, ISBN 0-19-282296-9")
Ammianus Marcellinus, " [http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/ammianus.html Res Gestae a Fine Corneli Taciti] " on The Latin Library.
*" [http://www.fh-augsburg.de/~harsch/Chronologia/Lspost05/Notitia/not_intr.html Notitia Dignitatum] ".
Polybius: [http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Polybius/home.html The Rise of the Roman Empire] at LacusCurtius(print: Harvard University Press, 1927. (Translation by W. R. Paton).
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