The Roman Empire conquered the entirety of the Mediterranean, the Illyrian Peninsula, Asia Minor, Greece, the Iberian Peninsula, North Africa, the greater portion of Europe, Mesopotamia, Armenia, Thrace, Egypt, the Holy Land, and half of Britain at its height in the early second century AD. Entire civilizations were eradicated: Carthage was leveled, its culture extinguished; the Macedonian and Seleucid empires crumbled before Roman legions; the world bowed to the Caesars.
Behind the grandeur and splendor of the Roman Empire, countless legions lay ready to fight for Senatus Populusque Romanus, the Senate and the Roman People. Overcoming Etruscans and Samnites in the early days of Rome, punishing Carthage at the height of the Republic, and subduing Gaul, the legions lay ever-ready to conquer on their city’s whim.
This journey’s aim has been to explain the aforementioned glory of Rome via expansion on what made the Roman military great. Review the strong points of the legions and the methods with which they waged war:
The Roman legionnaire was nothing if not disciplined. Countless hundreds of hours spent sparring, marching, and campaigning with his brother soldiers made a legionnaire a hard man, yet brought him together with the men to his left and right and adapted his mind to the environment of receiving and quickly responding to orders. This discipline was harnessed with deadly effectiveness at Zama, Cynoscephalae, and Magnesia, where Roman command reminded a collapsed flank of their soldierly obligations and sent them charging back into the fight.
Roman legions relied on immaculately arranged formations that were well-organized and able to adapt on the battlefield. In the era of the Republic, when Rome established itself as the strongest power in the known world (read, Mediterranean), the manipular legion proved on the field of battle, the ultimate testing ground, its superiority as a formation over the phalanx, massed auxiliary infantry, and even equally well-equipped Carthaginian infantry. Leadership in a legion operated via chain of command from consul to military tribunes to centurions, each level having its own specific duties and authorities. Roman military officers demonstrated in battle their capacity for individual decision-making, such as the flanking action at Cynoscephalae in which the Macedonians were completely crushed by the maneuver of a military tribune.
Arguably the greatest strength of the Roman legion was its ability to adapt and overcome; flexibility of formation gained Scipio Africanus his ultimate victory over Hannibal at Zama and thus eliminated Rome’s greatest rival in the Mediterranean. Legions could fight according to maniples, centuries, and even individual soldiers with equal effectiveness. While the phalanx, predominant military doctrine until the Roman conquests, remained invincible from the front, this invincibility could only be achieved if the phalanx retained its unique tight formation and the enemy proved dumb enough to attack from the front, into the wall of pikes. Fair enough, Roman conquest west of Italy was primarily against disorganized barbarian hordes, the phalanx was not to be taken so lightly. The legion, however, proved ultimately more flexible without sacrificing weight or combat effectiveness; the ability of the Roman legionnaire to turn and fight in any direction anchored the legion in formation even when pressed on the flank. In addition to its ability to turn in any direction to confront its enemies, the legion, a body of heavy infantry, was capable of missile attacks on charging enemies; the genius adoption of pila into the ranks of heavy infantry allowed Roman legions to soften their enemies, mentally and physically, before the two lines of infantry even closed. This missile capability was perhaps best put to use in at Watling Street, in the age of the Roman Empire.
In addition to the flexibility of the legion itself, Rome as a military power proved flexible: the city adopted several economic classes into its military as skirmishers, light and heavy infantry, and cavalry, while the navy adopted the corvus, a device used to board enemy ships, to defeat the previously dominant Carthaginian navy in the Mediterranean. Even the heavy use of subdued “allies” as auxiliaries demonstrated a flexibility in Roman war fighting, as legions bolstered by their own weight in auxiliary infantry could even the playing field, so to speak, with regards to numbers.
From the unique durability of the gladius to the large field of protection afforded by the scutum, Roman warfighting technology was simply a cut above the rest. When Hannibal marched his army through Europe and confronted the Romans on their own ground, he armed his men with Roman arms and armor wherever possible. The most worthy match for the Roman legionnaires in the Punic Wars, the Carthaginian heavy infantry, armed themselves and fought according to Roman military doctrine. This was no coincidence; everything about Roman equipment boasted refinement and efficiency. Roman legionnaires could hurl their pila and disrupt the enemy formation while claiming kills before two masses of infantry even met. The scutum provided unrivaled protection from enemy blows, and granted the legionnaire shelter behind which he could marshal his emotions and summon his courage to continue forward in the midst of battle. The gladius proved the perfect weapon for close-quarters fighting, easy to use in tight places, and durable to the point of still being sharp long after an enemy’s weapon had gone blunt.
Rome proved its determination to stay on the map early in its history as it survived constant warfare with its neighbors. As the Roman military grew and conquered, the army evolved into the legion that would march from Italy to Britain, from Gibraltar to the Fertile Crescent, and everywhere in between. Rome proved that with proper amounts of discipline, organization, flexibility, and technological superiority, it could create a near invincible military, capable of conquering any enemy in any environment. Thank you for visiting our website, and here’s to learning about ancient warfare!