Why were the Romans so brilliant at everything?

Fighting machine: the Roman army

Hard training, ruthless discipline, superior equipment and an indomitable combat ethic - Rome's army was an efficient machine and the backbone of the empire.

Reenactors re-enact the line-up of legionnaires, Rome 2014 | © istockphoto.com / marialba.italia

In the first two centuries of the Empire, Rome did not need walls, Italy did not need an army. Of course there were always skirmishes, uprisings or wars, but they took place somewhere in the primeval forests of Germania or the deserts of the Orient, so that one could have slept soundly on the Tiber if Rome had ever come to rest.

Rome's security was in the hands of its army. Around 400,000 men formed the seemingly invincible armed forces of the empire: 170,000 were Roman legionaries, the other 230,000 auxiliary troops (auxilia) from all the peoples of the empire.

Popular occupation

Anyone who wanted to serve in the ranks of the Roman legion had to have both physical fitness and Roman citizenship. Although the life of a legionnaire was tough and at times extremely risky, there seems to have been no shortage of volunteers. Quite a few applicants brought a letter of recommendation from a veteran or influential politician to increase their chances of being accepted into the Legion.

The period of service was 20 years and the annual salary was around 100 AD for a simple legionnaire at 1200 sesterces, for a centurion at a proud 18,000 sesterces. (A price overview with the issues that are really relevant for a legionnaire: tunic 15 sesterces, bottle of wine 0.25 sesterces, visit to a cheap prostitute 0.5 sesterces).

Roman citizenship as pay

The second pillar of Roman defense was the auxilia. They recruited primarily from non-Romans who had to commit themselves for 25 years and whose pay was lower than the income of the regular legionnaires. Those who survived the service received Roman citizenship in addition to a severance payment upon honorable discharge.

Almost all of the Roman cavalry was provided by auxiliaries, as were archers and light infantry. Service with the Auxilia was particularly risky, as these men were the first line of Roman defense, while the legions lay in the security of the hinterland and were only deployed when threatened.

After the admission, the legionnaire was sworn in and received his "dog tag", a small tablet with lead. The recruits were then transferred to their "home units", either accompanied by an officer or on their own.

"Marchers or Krepiers"

The brutal motto of the Foreign Legion “Marchers or Krepiers” also applied to the ancient forerunners. The first thing the recruit learned from the Legion was to march: first 30 kilometers without equipment, then 60 kilometers a day without equipment, and then again 30 kilometers, but this time in full equipment weighing 30 kilograms.

Even after the basic training, Roman military manuals recommend regular forced marches so that the legionnaire can keep up with practice. On campaigns, the average marching performance of a legion was 25 kilometers a day, but could of course be increased if necessary.

Practice creates masters

The second thing the legionnaire learned after marching was how to use his weapons. As an offensive weapon, he carried a short sword (Gladius Hispaniensis) and a spear (Pilum).

The training on the gladius had been taken over by the gladiators: for hours the legionnaire hit a massive wooden pale with a wooden sword, followed by sword fights with blunt weapons. How deadly the gladius was in skilled hands is what Livius testifies in his Roman history when he describes the battles between the Romans and the Macedonians:

“But now they saw bodies that the gladius had mutilated, arms hacked off with shoulders, heads smoothly separated from the torso by the whole neck, exposed entrails and other repulsive wounds - they all panicked with what kind of people and weapons they were with had to do it. "

Dangerous special weapon

No less dangerous was the legionnaire's other offensive weapon: the pilum. This Roman special weapon was an ingenious further development of the classic spear, the last third of which consisted of a shaft made of soft iron.

The weapon not only had a murderous penetrative power, it was dangerous in itself if the enemy could repel it with the shield: the iron bent so that the pilum could no longer be designed from the shield. It became unusable and the enemy had to give up cover. Then the gladius came into play ...

Army career

A fully trained legionnaire could become an immunis, a soldier who served as a craftsman or scribe and was freed from many unpleasant tasks. The service as bearer of the standard (Signifer) was particularly honorable and lucrative, because this man received double wages.

Not only because of his standard was the signifier in the battle protected by the legionnaires with sacrifice - he was also the "banker" of his unit and who wanted to risk the loss of the administrator of his savings?

At the head of the Legion was the Legate, a high official from the senatorial nobility. His staff consisted of six military tribunes, also aristocratic. All these aristocrats were not purely professional soldiers, but men who only served in the army for a certain period of time, only to then take on civilian tasks again within the framework of the Roman official career.

Obedience instead of discussion

The most important men in a legion were therefore the 60 centurions, die-hard men with combat experience who had served up from the ranks of the ordinary legionaries. The Roman military theorist Vegetius says:

"A centurion must be chosen who is vigilant, cool-headed, energetic, more inclined to obey orders than to discuss, who urges his comrades to discipline, forces them to practice weapons, makes sure that they are well dressed and shod everyone's guns are polished and shiny. "

The centurion did not carry his heavy club made of vine wood for fun. He liked to throw out punches with it. Famous and notorious was a brutal centurion nicknamed "Another one" who regularly smashed his club on the backs of the legionnaires until he was killed by his own men and thrown into the Rhine.

Draconic punishments

Much more painful than the blows with the stick, however, for most legionaries the cut in pay was likely to have been. Another popular punishment was extra duty in the latrines or mucking out the stables.

These light penalties were for minor offenses such as dirty dishes or poorly maintained equipment. Anyone who fell asleep in the field while guarding was stoned. As a rule, deserters were also subject to the death penalty.

The draconian harshness of the military jurisdiction could affect not just individual persons, but entire units up to the strength of a legion: There were cases in which an entire legion was dissolved by the emperor because of its rebellious nature. For men, a life without honor, a life without pay and a life without the prospect of severance pay.

Tight daily routine

The daily routine in a legionary fort should be familiar to everyone who had the "pleasure" of serving in an army:

Wake up before sunrise, hasty breakfast, then the morning roll call. Guard duty, cleaning work and of course drill, drill and more drill followed. The day ended with an early dinner, which gave time to clean arms and armor or to take care of one's own body.

"Wine, woman and tub"

“Wine, woman and tub” were the legionnaires' most popular leisure activities. He found wine and a thermal bath in his camp, but for the company of women he had to leave his fort and go to the pubs in the suburbs, where the innkeepers and women like to relieve him of his wages.

A particularly pleasant change in the everyday life of the Legion was the "troop support" through theater performances - lascivious, crude comedies entirely to the plain taste of soldiers - and gladiator fights.

Forward legionnaires!

The relatively comfortable life of a soldier ended abruptly when the emperor issued a marching order for the legionaries. Now the legionnaire really had to earn his pay. The Roman army showed its unique discipline as soon as it advanced.

“Those who know the military system thoroughly assure that there are usually more dangers lurking on the march than in the battle itself” - not least the catastrophe in the Teutoburg Forest had shown that Vegetius was right with this thesis.

The marching column of a legion, including auxiliary troops and supply lines, quickly grew to five kilometers and was therefore extremely vulnerable. For this reason, cavalry units usually formed the front and rear to keep searching the terrain for ambushes.

Camp life

After 25 kilometers of march with full equipment, it was time to set up a camp. This not only meant setting up the tents - a Roman marching camp was a makeshift fort, secured by trenches and palisades. Three hours of work with a hoe, spade and ax and the camp was set up.

Sometimes “lilies burst”, small holes with iron tips - camouflaged malicious traps for the enemy. The food in the field was meager, mostly a cereal porridge or flatbread, if you were lucky, bacon or dried meat.

Calculus and cold bloodedness

As professional soldiers, the Romans did not take unnecessary risks. The principle was: "Good officers never engage in combat operations unless there is a favorable opportunity for it or if the necessity requires it."

In addition to hard training and excellent equipment, it was this cold-bloodedness that allowed the Roman army to defeat enemies that were equal to the legionnaires in courage and contempt for death. When the troops were deployed, all advantages of the area were used.

Originally the legionnaires formed the center of the battle line, while the relief troops were positioned on the flanks. But why shed Roman blood when you had foreign auxiliary troops at your disposal?

Off to battle

So the auxiliaries soon formed the first lines of battle, while the legionaries only came afterwards. The cavalry secured the flanks. If, rarely enough, the enemy succeeded in breaking through the ranks of the auxilars, the iron phalanx of the legionaries awaited them.

Now the months-long drill paid off: The men work with the precision of a machine, even if the attackers managed to wound one of the legionnaires despite the wall of shields, he was immediately replaced by a fresh man without leaving a gap in the battle line originated.

The Romans used "the gladius not to strike from above, but to strike, for which the point is excellently suited, thrusting the enemy in the chest and face and killing most of their opponents blow by blow," like Livy wrote.

After the battle is before the battle

In the end, the barbaric anger was broken and the screams of the wounded mingled with the roar of victory of the Romans. Those who managed to flee from the enemy had the swords of the auxiliary cavalry on their necks.

The dead - of course only the men of the Roman army - received an honorable burial, the wounded - of course only the men of the Roman army - received medical care, and the bravest received decorations and were promoted for their bravery.

Anyone who was no longer fit for duty due to their injury was released early and received part of their severance pay. After 20 or 25 years of service, his comrades were ready: the honorable discharge with severance pay was waiting for them.

After decades of organized life in the Legion, not everyone could cope with the frightening freedom of civilian life. But if you failed as a farmer, craftsman or innkeeper, you could always find yourself again
commit ...

Klaus Hillingmeier

The article first appeared in G / HISTORY 09/2011 "World Power Rome"

Last changed: 08/01/2018


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