REPUBLICAN ROME [500-28 b.c.e.] II

By MSW Add a Comment 10 Min Read


Republican Rome – Triarius and Hastatus


The Roman legion had two significant weaknesses. The first was the lack of a professional senior officer corps. Roman senior officers were civilians, often state officials or politicians, appointed to command the legions during time of war. Worse, this counselor system required that the same army have two appointed senior commanders who rotated command each day. Despite the best military organization in the ancient world, the practice of divided command often made it difficult for the legions to maintain good command direction. Changing senior commanders on a daily basis made it impossible for the army to become the instrument of a single commander’s will. Hannibal frequently chose the time of battle to coincide with the daily command of a specific adversary.

The second weakness of the Roman armies was the poor quality of its cavalry. Like the Greeks, the Romans regarded service in the cavalry as little better than tending animals. The best soldiers from the best families refused to serve in the cavalry, and it was the most poorly trained of the combat arms. Roman cavalry often retained the old habit of using their mounts to arrive at the battlefield only to dismount and join the fray as infantry. Roman cavalry seemed ill suited to maintain the direction of the charge and showed a tendency to break up into small clusters of loose formations and wander all over the battlefield. They used no special armament, preferring instead to carry the weapons of the infantry. The Romans eventually gave up trying to develop cavalry and simply hired it from allied units.

At first Roman units usually did not provide for a fortified field camp on the march. During the wars against Pyrrhus and the Gauls the Romans were often caught in morning or evening surprise attacks while encamped. The solution was to construct the famous Roman fortified camp every evening. A fortified encampment not only prevented surprise attacks but provided the Roman commander with the tactical option of attacking from the base camp or using it as a defensive redoubt. The Romans were slow to learn the need for security on the march, and in the early battles against Hannibal they were often surprised while still in column of march. Hannibal’s penchant for appearing from nowhere eventually led the Romans to stress the value of tactical intelligence. Under the empire, Roman tactical intelligence capabilities reach the state of a high art.


The Roman arm of decision was its heavy infantry, and Roman tactics centered on using the infantry for “simple bludgeon work.” The idea was to commit the infantry to the center of the line and let it hack away until the center of the enemy formation broke. Given adequate room to stab with their swords, and if organizational integrity was maintained, the Roman infantry would eventually hack its way through any infantry formation in the world. Against the open formations of the Gauls, however, it was often man-on-man. But where the Gaul and other tribal soldiers fought as individuals, the Roman soldier could depend on the man to his left or right for help if he was not otherwise engaged. Against the Macedonian phalanx formation with its long spears, the Romans simply hacked off the spear points and moved inside the spear shafts to close with the enemy. Once inside the phalanx, the individual spearman was helpless, and the Roman buzz saw did its deadly work.

The Roman soldier was trained to stab and not to slash with his sword. The legionnaire was also trained to engage the man not directly in front of him, but the opponent to his immediate right. Using the sword as a slashing weapon required the soldier to raise it above his head and away from his body, exposing the entire right side of his body as a target. The shield, held in the left hand, became useless as a protective device. Under these circumstances, training the Roman soldier to strike to his right allowed him to cut down the enemy soldier as he was raising his shield against the opponent directly to his front. More than 1,700 years later, in 1746, at the battle of Culloden Moor in Scotland, the British army rediscovered this technique after being hacked to pieces in two successive battles by the warriors of the highland Scottish clans. Instead of the sword, the British infantry employed the fluted bayonet.

Stabbing to the right provided yet another tactical advantage in close combat. Having struck a target to his right, the Roman infantryman stepped back to pull out the sword. As he did, he moved slightly to his right to get new footing for the next assault. As a result, the Roman line tended to move to the right and slightly to the rear. This forced the enemy line to move to the left and forward, having to step over the bodies of the dead and wounded. The dynamics of the two lines resulted in the Roman soldier always being prepared to meet the next opponent, who had to stumble over the corpses while watching his footing.

A typical Roman battle opened with light infantry skirmishing in front with darts, javelins, and slings. As the lines closed, the skirmishers fell back through the gaps in the checkerboard and were usually never used again. When both lines were within range, about twenty-five yards, the front rank threw its pila and rushed to close the gap quickly, smashing into the enemy front. The Roman lines would fight, retire, and reenter the battle until the enemy center broke and the slaughter could begin. The flanks were anchored by the cavalry. The combat strength of the legion lay in its tactical flexibility and the determination, courage, and training of its heavy infantry.

FURTHER READING Arnold, Thomas. The Second Punic War. London: Macmillan, 1886. Boardman, John. The Oxford Illustrated History of Rome. London: Oxford University Press, 2001. Cornell, Tim. The Beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars. New York: Routledge, 1995. Delbrück, Hans. History of the Art of War within the Framework of Political History. Vol. 1, Antiquity. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1975. Dodge, Theodore A. Hannibal: A History of the Art of War Among the Carthaginians and the Romans Down to the Battle of Pydna, 168 b. c., with a Detailed Account of the Second Punic War. 2 vols. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1891. Fuller, J. F. C. A Military History of the Western World. 3 vols. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1954. Gabba, Emilio. Republican Rome, the Army, and the Allies. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976. Grant, Michael. The Army of the Caesars. New York: Charles Scribner, 1974. Harris, William V. War and Imperialism in Republican Rome: 327-70 b. c. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. Holland, Tom. Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic. New York: Doubleday, 2003. Liddell Hart, Sir Basil Henry. A Greater Than Napoleon: Scipio Africanus. London: Blackwood and Sons, 1926. Livy. The History of Rome. Translated by Henry Bettenson. London: G. Bell and Sons, 1919. O’Connell, Robert. “The Roman Killing Machine.” Quarterly Journal of Military History 8 (1988): 30-41. Polybius. The Histories. Translated by W. R. Paton. London: William Heinemann, 1922. Santosuosso, Antonio. Soldiers, Citizens, and the Symbols of War: From Classical Greece to Republican Rome, 500-167 b. c. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997. Starr, Chester G. The Roman Imperial Navy: 31 b. c. – a. d. 324. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1960. Vegetius Renatus, Flavius. The Military Institutions of the Romans. Harrisburg, PA: Military Service Press, 1944. Watson, George Ronald. The Roman Soldier. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1969. Webster, Graham. The Roman Army: An Illustrated Study. Chester, UK: Grosvenor Museum, 1956. Williams, J. H. C. Beyond the Rubicon: Romans and Gauls in Republican Italy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Wise, Terence. The Armies of the Carthaginian Wars, 265-146 b. c. London: Osprey, 1988.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
Leave a comment

Leave a Reply Cancel reply

Exit mobile version