Short animation demonstrates the superb organization of the ancient Roman Army


The ancient Roman army was known for its sheer discipline and incredible organizational depth. Pertaining to the latter ‘quality’, an animated short video by Blair Harrower aptly demonstrates how the Romans organized their army down to the last details when it came to troop-types, corresponding officers and their formations, thus alluding to an impressive tactical scope that was matched by very few ancient armies. Now it should be noted that the animation showcases the scope of post Marian reforms – a military system overhaul that only took place after 107 BC (thus corresponding to the late Roman Republic and the subsequent Roman Empire).


Length of service and discord –


Now while the video does provide some solid, unwavering numbers when it came to Roman legionaries, in actual scenarios the situations faced by the Roman army were often more chaotic. During the latter part of 1st century BC, Augustus followed the guidelines of the preceding centuries, and officially formalized the length of service of a legionary to 16 years (in 13 BC). But it should be noted that even after 16 years of service, he was expected to join the vexillum veteranorum or unit of veterans for four more years. However, by 6 AD, the initial length of service was increased to 20 years, and it was complemented by the praemia militare (or discharge bonus), a lump sum that was increased to 12,000 sesterces (or 3,000 denarii). And by the middle of 1st century AD, the service was further extended to 25 years. Now beyond official service lengths, the protocols were rarely followed in times marked by wars. This resulted in retaining of the legionaries well beyond their service periods, with some men fighting under their legions for over three to four decades. Suffice it to say, such chaotic measures frequently resulted in mutinies.

As for pay, other than the lump sum of praemia militare, a basic legionary was paid 900 sesterces per year (paid in three installments). This pay scale remained the same till at least 80 AD, in spite of presumed inflation. However the pay differed for the various units in a legion, with under-officers and specialists being paid one-and-a-half or twice the basic pay grade. And furthermore, this pay figure was only a nominal value from which various deductions were made in accordance to the goods (like food, equipment, attires and even burial fees) consumed by the legionary. Still there were cases when the legionary was paid less than he deserved, and sometimes the ‘swindling’ measures were initiated by giving the soldiers worthless parcels of land instead of the praemia militare.

Bonding beyond numbers –


The video clearly mentions how a contubernium was the smallest division in a Roman army. Now beyond discipline and training, one of the crucial reasons for the effectiveness of a legionary was directly related to his sense of fraternity within a century (made of 80 men). So on a deeper level, a century (centuria) was further divided into ten contubernium (a ‘tent group’, each consisting of eight members). Such classifications basically led to an behavioral aspect of comradeship among the tent group who fought, dined and rested together in their military careers spanning over decades. This sense of identification often translated to high morale and protectiveness on the part of the legionaries when fighting in an actual battleground.

Interestingly, the contubernium was not just limited to the bonding exercises. The Roman army also pushed forth the tent group as a mess ‘team’. These grouped soldiers were expected to cook their own meals and eat them together (while the cost of food was deducted from their salaries). Simply put, the absence of mess halls and catering services rather solidified the bond between the legionaries who had to depend on each other even for peaceful meals.

Other specialized units –


As we mentioned before, a legionary was only considered as a veteran after he had served for 16 years in the army. In the 1st century AD, even after such a long period of service, the soldier was not expected to ‘retire’ from his legion. Instead the veteran was reinstated to a special unit of vexillum veteranorum for four more years of service. Typically consisting of 500 to 600 men, the Roman army unit had its own administrative branch with different officers. It was however attached to the original legion, but at times were deployed independently. The latter case is evident from their separate garrison at the town of Thala, with this particular vexillum veteranorum being derived from legio III Augusta in 20 AD. Unsurprisingly, the veterans with their years of experience were highly successful against the onslaught of Tacfarinas and his Numidian forces.

Other than vexillum veteranorum, there were also slaves (or calones) that could be attached to a legion. Though unlike the veterans, they were governed as a part of the legion, with 120 men attached to each cohort of 480 soldiers. So basically, a single legion (generally comprising ten cohorts) could be accompanied by around 1,200 slaves; and these men were trained for specific tasks. During times of emergency, they were even armed with weapons to defend their camps.

And finally, the soldiers who truly made a Roman military unit self-sufficient were the immunes, a group of highly trained specialists attached to each legion. Ranging from doctors, engineers to architects, these men were exempt from the hard labor duties of the rank-and-file soldiers, while also earning more than them.

Animated Video: Designed and Produced by Blair Harrower at ISO / Featured Image Credit: Turner Mohan

Other Book References (for the article): Roman Legionary 58 BC – AD 69 (By Ross Cowan) / The Roman Army from Caesar to Trajan (By Michael Simkins)

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7 Comments on "Short animation demonstrates the superb organization of the ancient Roman Army"

  1. Andres Fernandez | September 13, 2017 at 7:19 pm |

    This is so great! Thanks 🙂

  2. Wow … I served in the army only for a year … Can’t imagine serving for 25 years! 🙂

  3. Dattatreya Mandal | April 1, 2016 at 2:52 am |

    Close your browser and then try again. The video is showing, but at times Vimeo (or some site plug-in) messes it up.

  4. The video link is broken!!!! 🙁 🙁

  5. very good video, but i’m just don’t understand why must use vimeo instead of youtube

  6. Dattatreya Mandal | March 29, 2016 at 2:57 am |

    Yes, you are right.

  7. Bruno Kopte | March 28, 2016 at 7:29 pm |

    Great video, but there is a mistake at the beginning. After the Marian Reforms, the equipment was actually supplied by the state, because one of the changes enabled those that couldn’t afford the necessary equipment to fight as well.

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