10 amazing facts about the Roman army of the Early Republic

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In the introduction of Rome and Her Enemies, historian Tom Holland starts out by saying “Rome was the supreme carnivore of the ancient world.” However, it should be noted that this intriguing process of conquering, plundering and ultimately supremacy wasn’t ‘achieved in a day’. Rather historians believe that the scope entailed a continuing trend of evolution and reforms (throughout the centuries) that transformed the Roman army into a veritable killing machine. So, without further ado, let us take a gander ten such facts about the Roman army of the Early Republic (753 -146 BC) that might establish this ‘pattern’ of world domination.

1) The earliest Roman armies were conscripted from ‘tribes’

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While it may come as a surprise to many, but the Roman army equipment’s archaeological evidence ranges far back to even 9th century BC, mostly from the warrior tombs on the Capitoline Hill. As for the literary evidence, they mention how the earliest Roman armies were recruited from the three main ‘tribes’ of Rome. This shouldn’t come as too much of a shock (for those who are used to reading about the ‘civilized’ nature of Rome), since the settlement of Rome itself started out as a backwater which was inhabited by cattle rustlers who made their camps and rudimentary dwellings among the hills and the swamp lands.

The so-called early Roman society also mirrored this tribal arrangement, with its composition of the three main tribes and thirty curiae. The very word ‘curia‘ is etymologically derived from co-viria, and its meaning basically entailed a ‘band of armed warriors’. These curiae also became the ‘republican’ backbone of the emerging Roman kingdom, as is evident from their voting rights in the earliest Roman assembly – known as comitia curiata. And as for their societal ambit, each curia was composed of ten families (gentes), and ten such curiae formed a tribe (tribus).

2) Beyond grand notions, the term legion literally only meant ‘levy’

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The transition of the Roman army from ‘tribal’ warriors to citizen militia was achieved in part due to the Roman society and its intrinsic representation (with voting rights) in the Roman assembly. To that end, the early Romans were almost entirely depended on their citizen militia for the protection and extension of the burgeoning faction’s borders. These militiamen were simply raised as levy or ‘legio’ – which in turn gives way to the term ‘legion’. In essence, the so-called legions of early Rome were ‘poor’ predecessors to the uniformly-equipped and disciplined soldiers of the later centuries.

In fact, the legions of early Rome were conscripted only as part-time soldiers, and had their main occupation as farmers and herders. This stringent economic system prevented them from taking part in extended campaigns (that hardly went beyond a month), thus keeping military actions short and decisive. Moreover, these legions had to pay for their own arms and armaments – which at times was compensated only by a small pay from the state. In other words, the early legions of the Roman army were expected to take part in battles to safeguard their own interests and lands, as opposed to viewing military as a well-paying career.

3) The early Romans fought as hoplites, inspired by Etruscans and Greeks –

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The popular notion of the Roman army fighting in maniples is a correct one if only perceived during the later years after 4th century BC. However, in the preceding centuries, the Roman military system was inspired by its more-advanced neighbor (and enemy) – the Etruscans. In fact, the hoplite tactics of mass formation of men fighting with their shield and spear, were already adopted by the Greeks by 675 BC, and reached the Italy-based Etruscans by early 7th century BC. The Romans in turn were influenced by their Etruscan foes, and thus managed to adopt many of the rigid Greek-inspired formations along with arms.

Many ancient authors conform to this Roman army adoption of ‘foreign’ tactics. For example, Diodorus Siculus (In his The Library of History) mentions how the Romans ditched their light rectangular shields, and endorsed the heavier bronze shields of the Etruscans. This military replication in turn allowed the Romans to triumph over the Etruscans. Anon (in his Ineditum Vaticanum) also mirrors this view by saying how the Etruscans were given a taste of their own medicine, when the Roman army adopted the very same tight hoplite formations to counter its enemies.

4) The Servian reforms divided the Roman army into classes – based on the individual’s wealth –

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The Murder of Servius Tullius: Painted by Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée.

As per historical tradition, the very adoption of the hoplite tactics was fueled by the sweeping military reforms undertaken by the penultimate Roman ruler Servius Tullius, who probably reigned in 6th century BC. He made a departure from the ‘tribal’ institutions of curia and gentes, and instead divided the military based on the individual soldier’s possession of property. In that regard, the Roman army and its mirroring peace-time society, was segregated into classes (classis).

According to Livy, there were six such classes – all based on their possession of wealth (that was defined by asses or small copper coins). The first three classes fought as the traditional hoplites, armed with spears and shields – though the armaments decreased based on their economic statuses. The fourth class was only armed with spears and javelins, while the fifth class was scantily armed with slings. Finally, the six (and poorest) class was totally exempt from military service. This system once again alludes to how the early Roman army was formed on truly nationalistic values. Simply put, these men left their homes and went to war to protect (or increase) their own lands and wealth, as opposed to opting for just a ‘career’.

5) The Romans only adopted their manipular tactics after being possibly inspired by the Samnites –

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The greatest strength of the Roman army had always been its adaptability and sense of evolution. Like we mentioned before how the early Romans from their kingdom era adopted the hoplite tactics of their foes, and defeated them in turn. However, by the time of the first Samnite War (in around 343 BC), the Roman army seemed to have endorsed newer formations that were more flexible in nature. This change in battlefield stratagem was probably in response to the Samnite armies – and as a result, the maniple formations came into existence (instead of the earlier rigid phalanx).

The very term manipulus means ‘a handful’, and thus its early standard pertained to a pole with a handful of hay placed around it. According to most literary evidences, the Roman army was now divided up into three separate battle-lines, with first line comprising the young hastati in ten maniples (each of 120 men); the second line comprising the hardened principes in ten maniples; and the third and last line consisting of the veteran triarii in ten maniples – who probably fought as heavy hoplites (but their maniples had only 60 men). Additionally, these battle-lines were also possibly screened by the light-armed velites, who mostly belonged to the poorer class of Roman civilians.

6) The Roman pilum spear was engineered ‘only’ for Roman advantage –

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According to Polybius, every Roman soldier carried two types of pila into the battlefield, with one being ‘thick’ and another being ‘thin’. Archaeological evidences (mainly from site of the Roman siege of Numantia, in Spain) conforms to this assessment. To that end, both types of the pila were made from around 1.4 m (4.6 ft) long wooden shafts, and these shafts in turn were connected to narrow soft-iron shanks through pyramid-shaped points. However, the ‘thin’ variety differed in the sense that it had its shank socketed, while the ‘thicker’ variety had a flat (and wide) iron piece riveted to a fatter section of the wood.

Anyhow, beyond their shape and thickness, the pilum was engineered as a potent javelin-like throwing weapon that would mostly only favor the Romans. How so? Well, the design in itself was furnished so that it carried most of the weight behind the aforementioned pyramid-point. This endowed the weapon with incredible penetrating power that could go through enemy shields and even injure the shield bearer. And, then came the ingenious part – once the pilum got stuck into the shield, it became very difficult to remove the pointed javelin (mostly due to its varying cross-sectional thickness). This forced the enemy to let go of his shield during the thick of battle. Moreover, the narrow-shanked varieties would twist upon impact, thus making them useless for the enemy – in case they wanted to throw these pila back towards the advancing Roman army.

7) Romans also engineered the corvus for naval supremacy –

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During the time-line of the First Punic War fought between Rome and Carthage (264 – 241 BC), the Carthaginians were known for their prowess in the naval field, partly due their maritime experience in trading and overseas colonies that stretched beyond centuries. On the other hand, the Romans were considered as relative newcomers to the Mediterranean sphere of influence. In spite of this, it was the sheer ingenuity of the Roman army engineers that brought victory to the Romans in what might have been the largest naval battle in the history of mankind. We are talking about the Battle of Cape Ecnomus (in 256 BC) – that pitted around 350 Carthaginian ships (with more than 150,000 rowers and marines) against 330 Roman vessels (with around 140,000 rowers and soldiers); all the figures being according to the account of Polybius (in World History).

In a bid to nullify the enemy’s numerical advantage, the Roman army devised a mechanism known as corvus (meaning “crow” or “raven” in Latin) or harpago. This was a sort of a boarding bridge that could be raised from a 12-ft high sturdy wooden pillar, and then rotated in any required direction. The tip of this bridge had a heavy spike (the ‘corvus‘ itself) that clung on to the deck of the enemy ship, thus locking the two ships together. The Roman soldiers crossed across this makeshift bridge, and directly boarded the enemy ship. This naval tactic gave the Romans the upper-hand, since they were known for their expertise in close-quarter combat, as opposed to the Carthaginians who mainly relied on mercenaries. Unfortunately, the corvus was seemingly abandoned in the post 255 BC era, perhaps because of its destructive effect even on Roman warships.

8) The Roman army ‘institutionalized’ brutality –

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Hard times make hardy folk – the Romans pretty much epitomized this dictum, given their aptitude for surviving an almost constant state of conflict throughout the early centuries. But rather than inculcating a defensive culture (like the Greeks), the Roman leaders took advantage of the proclivity towards violence and survival, and initiated social counterparts. One of the examples of this ‘managed’ form of violence can be seen in the case of the bloody gladiatorial games that were enjoyed by almost every strata of the Roman society. Likewise, the Roman army was also encouraged to take part in brutal strategies and even massacres, especially to prove their strategic point of Roman supremacy in warfare.

There was also a political side to this equation, with the leaders giving ‘freedom’ and even supporting their soldiers to commit crimes of rape and massacre on foreign soils. Such inhumane measures certainly diverted attention from their abuse of power and how badly poor people (including some soldiers) in general were treated in Rome. Furthermore, the Roman army itself wasn’t exempt from vicious scenarios – as is evident from savage punishments like ‘decimation’ (decimatio). This entailed choosing every tenth random man from a cohort (approximately 480 men) to be put to death. And, the really ruthless part was – this unlucky man was ordered to be stoned or clubbed to death by his remaining comrades-in-arms, in a bloody practice known as the fustuarium. And in case you are wondering, the punishment was usually reserved for the cohorts which had displayed insubordination, cowardice, will to conspire, murderous intent on fellow soldiers, participation in espionage activities, desertion or in few cases when the soldiers had faked illness so as not to participate in upcoming battles.

9) Uniformity in physical appearance, if not equipment –

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The citizen militia (or soldiers) of Republican Rome were levied and then assembled in the Capitol on the day that was proclaimed by the Consuls in their edictum. This process was known as dilectus, and interestingly the men volunteers were arranged in terms of their similar heights and age. This brought orderliness in terms of physical appearance, while similar equipment (if not uniform) made the organized soldiers look even more ‘homogeneous’.

The Roman army recruits also had to swear an oath of obedience, which was known as sacramentum dicere. This symbolically bound them with the Roman state, their commander, and more importantly to their fellow comrade-in-arms. In terms of historical tradition, this oath was only formalized before the commencement of the Battle of Cannae, to uphold the faltering morale of the Hannibal-afflicted Roman army. According to Livy, the oath went somewhat like this – “Never to leave the ranks because of fear or to run away, but only to retrieve or grab a weapon, to kill an enemy or to rescue a comrade.”

10) The Republican Roman army suffered over 40,000 deaths in a single day at the Battle of Cannae –

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Much has been said and discussed about the Battle of Cannae (216 BC). But beyond the brilliant tactical maneuvering of Hannibal, it was the utter destruction of the Roman army that played its crucial role in the history of the world to come. To put things into perspective, that bloody day accounted for over 40,000 Roman deaths (the figure is put at 55,000 by Livy; and 70,000 by Polybius), which equated to over 80 percent of the Roman army fielded in the battle. Now, according to modern estimation, the male population of Rome circa 216 BC was around 400,000. So, considering the number of casualties at the Battle of Cannae, the baleful figures pertained to over 10 percent of the total number of Roman males in the Republic – with all the casualties occurring in a single day!

Moreover, if we go into cold-hard statistics, the Battle of the Somme (1916) is generally considered as the bloodiest day in the British Empire’s history, where Britain and its allies lost around 20,000 men in a single day. Once again, reverting to population census, the British male population at the turn of the 20th century was around 20 million. In other words, Battle of the Somme resulted in 0.001 percent fatalities, which seems insignificant (objectively) when compared to the Roman numbers. But in spite of such a devastating setback, the Romans continued to fight, and ultimately emerged victorious in the Second Punic War – thus signifying Rome’s unflinching capacity to bounce back from severe military circumstances.

Sources: Britannica / UNRV / Livius / MilitaryHistoryNow / Classics.UPenn / LiveScience

Book References: Rome and Her Enemies (Editor Jane Penrose) / The Roman Army: The Greatest War Machine of the Ancient World (Editor Chris McNab)

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