Astounding animation presents the evolution of early Roman legions


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, technological progressions and ultimately military supremacy was not ‘built in a day’. Rather most scholars believe that the ancient Roman scope entailed a continuing trend of evolution and reforms (throughout the many centuries) that transformed the renowned Roman army (and its legions) into a veritable killing machine. To that end, YouTuber extraordinaire THFE Productions has made a fascinating animated video (based on Total War: Rome 2 game engine) that presents the earliest ambit of the Roman legions (circa 8th-7th century BC) when the Latins were just one among many who vied for the supremacy in all of the Italian peninsula.


1) Humble Beginnings and ‘Tribes’ –


Rome during the ‘Regal Period’, before 6th century BC.

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.

As the video makes it clear, 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) The Levy –


The earliest Roman warriors, circa 7th century BC. Illustration by Richard Hook.

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. And interesting enough, this ‘inculcated’ framework of protecting one’s own properties, and thus requiring to serve in the army, even continued on to the times of the Roman Republic of 3rd century BC.

3) Inspired by Greeks –


Roman hoplites.

While the video doesn’t cover the time period, but by 6th century BC, 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 Legacy of the Roman Kingdom –


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

While we have very little evidence pertaining to the ‘legendary’ period of the Roman Kingdom, as per 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’.

The article was composed from excerpts of our previous article – 10 Amazing Facts About The Roman Army Of The Early Republic.

Video Source / Featured Image Credit: THFE Productions (YouTube)

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

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

About the Author

Dattatreya Mandal
Dattatreya Mandal has a bachelor's degree in Architecture (and associated History of Architecture) and a fervent interest in History. Formerly, one of the co-owners of an online architectural digest, he is currently the founder/editor of The latter is envisaged as an online compendium that mirrors his enthusiasm for ancient history, military, mythology, and historical evolution of architecture.
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