The Roman Empire is considered by many as the basis of modern civilization. Today we use a form of government that was started by them long before people even knew that the Earth was round. Their reign of power began around 509 BC with the overthrow of the Etruscan dynasty till 1453 with the fall of Constantinople to the Turks. Their land, at its peak, contained such areas as Britain, Spain, Gaul, Mauretania, Egypt, Judea, Syria, Mesopotamia, Armenia, Dacia, Illyria, Macedonia, Greece, Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily, Crete, Cyprus and of course Italy.
The government of Rome had to first conquer these lands then later they would have to protect them. So they formed what is considered the greatest army of ancient times, the Roman Army. This army was a highly organized and efficient fighting force that would strike fear to almost all who opposed them. The size of their army would reach sizes that would rival even those of today. The Roman army brought about more effective tactics and weapons that would forever change warfare.
The Roman Army used a system like todays military to divide their troops. The largest section was called a Legion which consisted from anywhere from 4,000 to about 5,500 combat ready troops. Each Legion was then divided into cohorts which contained about 600 men. The first cohort consisted of men in charge of administrative and supply duty. The cohort was then broken up into a century, this means unit in Latin, which consisted of about 80 to 100. A century was usually lead by a non-commissioned officer called a Centurion. Another unit that was sometimes used was a maniple which consisted of two centuries.
Another division that was used divided the army into two parts which were called Comitatensis, Limtanei and Praetorian guard. The first part, which is a mobile fighting force, had to be ready to go anywhere in the empire at a moments notice. This was a highly mobile field army that could be at a trouble spot within two to three weeks. This group included lightly armed cavalry units, mounted archers (Sagittarii), lancers, and heavily armored cavalry (Cataphractii). Julius Caesar also used skilled slingers from the Balearic Islands who were strong swimmers and who could withstand cold weather.
The second group was a more permanent defensive group. This mainly consisted of troops assigned to the frontier as border guards which was not a very well liked job. In order to get more people to join this part the government decided to give a barbarian land in return for serving in this group. The idea behind this was to relocate the barbarians from one area to another so that they were not defending Rome against their own people. Towards the end of the western empire there was an increasingly growing number of barbarians in this group which would prove to be devastating. These troops were the first line of defense and if attacked by a sizable force could easily be annihilated.
The third group were bodyguards for the emperor. This group was started by emperor Augustus in order to stop assassinations like the one that killed Julius Caesar. The leader of the Praetorian guard was called the Praetorian Prefect. Through the time of the empire the Prefect was sometimes more powerful than the emperors they were protecting. Septimius Severus got rid of his supposed bodyguards calling them unreliable and seditious rebels and he in turn put his own hand-picked men in return. Constatine finally disband this group for good calling them more of a dangerous nuisance than imperial protection. He then started the Scholae Palatinae, or palace guard. The title Praetorian prefect did not disappear however. Instead became a entirely civilian government office without any military powers. The empire was divided into three large regions called prefectures, each under the control of a praetorian prefect.
The Roman army also devised a an ingenues plan for their castras, camps. Their layout was used both for permanent and mobile army camps. A camp for two 5,000 strong legions usually covered 800 square meters. The camp had four exits which were designed to where you cannot just walk in but would have to go around at least one wall. There were always three streets, and two of them lead to the center of the camp where the headquarters was located. These streets were always called the same name no matter where you were in the empire, one was Via Principia and the other was Via Praetoria. There was always a seventy meter distance from the walls to the closest tent in order to stay safe under attack by projectiles such as arrows and catapults. Different parts of the camp were always assigned to same people in order to keep everything organized and efficient.
The jobs to set camp were divided among all the men in order for everything to go fast and smoothly. A tribune would be sent ahead of a marching group to find a suitable site to camp. The site had to be at lease 800 square meters, close to running water, and some where that did not allow cover for an enemy. the spot where the main headquarters would be would then be marked and everything else would go up in their assigned spots around the headquarters. The men would then go to work their assigned jobs for camping. Some men would dig a ditch and use the mud to make an embankment were the would sometimes put sharpened wooden posts to make a wall. Other troops would set up tents, dig latrines, forage for food and wood, or perform any other of the other variety of tasks. The camp was designed for fast set up and easy defense. Through out the empire, from England to Egypt, every camp was made the same.
The weapons and gear of the Roman army were some of the main reasons why they have done so well. Many of the weapons were considered very advanced for that time. The basic legionary, or testudo, would be equipped with steel or Bronze Pot Helmet, a segmented plate cuirass and body armor, a scutum, which is a long curved rectangular shield, leather walking sandals, a long red cloak, this also doubled as a blanket. The weapon that he would carry would depend on the position that he held.
The weapons used by the troops were very advanced compared to most of the countries they fought against. For example The Romans created a new medium length javelin that had a hardened point connected to a neck that was
made of a softer metal so when the point penetrated a shield or any other object the neck would bend and the point would be firmly planted into the object making unsuitable to use in combat. There were two other spear like objects. One the short javelin was a light weight throwing projectile that was widely used by troops as a first strike against an enemy. The other was a long spear like object that was used by the troops. This object would extend past the front lines and would kill or injure any man who got in its way. Another weapon used by the front line soldier was the gladius, or short thrusting sword. This was sword had a sharp pointed tip that was meant to be used up close in a battle. The Romans also have used such weapons as the catapult, the bow and arrow, and a short dagger. Towards the third century it is said that the romans were impressed by the Spanish weapons so much that they copied them.
In the legions their are four different combat positions for a battle. The first two groups were the Hastati and principes. These were young soldiers and they made up the main body of the legions. They made up the first two lines of defense and therefore were heavily armed and armored. They would be fully armored and would carry a thrusting sword a scutum and two javelins. The third group is the Triari. These men were the veteran soldiers of that legion. they wore the same armor as the previous two groups but, they carried a long spear instead of javelins. These men formed the rear ranks but, sometimes they werent even taken into battle. The fourth group was called the Velites. This groups job was mainly set up to be skirmishers. They were armed with a helmet, shield, a sword and short javelins. The Legions would also have an equal amount of allies fighting with them along with 300 cavalry.
The roman military engineers have been considered by far some of the best engineers of their time due to their ability to create enormous fortifications in short time. The Romans during their reign of power mastered many tactics for attacking an enemy and defending from an enemy. One that was used in attacking a city was to surround the city and just sit their and starve them out. The key to this was that they sometimes built huge canals or moats all the way around in order to keep any attacking enemy at a safe distance and unable to sneak out easily. The romans would build enormous earth works around a castra and it is reported that they would build ramparts using as much as 20,000 cubic meters of dirt. They would also put sharpened spikes in the ground in front of the moat along with pits with sharpened spikes in them that were called lilies due to their resemblance to the flower. They were the inovaters of many engineering marvels that even todays combat enginners use.
The roman army will forever be known for their great abilities in creating new tactics and completing great engineering feats. The tactics that they created have been carried on through the ages, with only slight modifications, and are even being used and studied by todays military. There superiority went unmatched for countless years and through many emperors to become one of the greatest military powers of ancient times.
1. Connolly, Peter. The Roman Army, Silver Burdett Company, N.J., 1979
2. Grant, Michael. The Army of the Ceasars, Charles Scribners Sons, New York,1974
3. The Mighty Roman Legions,Online Available http://www.myron.sjsu.edu/ romeweb/ROMARMY/contents.html, April 22, 1999
4. Southern, Pat; Dixon, Karen R. The Late Roman Army, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1996
5. Webster, Graham. The Roman Imperial Army of the First and SecondCenturies A.D., Funk & Wagnalls, New York, 1969