The Military of Rome I

Rome now dominated southern and central Italy, including Etruria and the Greek cities. Northern Italy, of course, remained largely occupied by the Gauls, and the Gauls remained a menace. The process by which Rome had developed from a small military outpost on a river-crossing to become the dominant power of the Italian peninsula had been by no means swift or continuous. It had taken the greater part of five centuries, and during that time Rome itself had twice been occupied by a foreign power.

According to traditional stories, the last of Rome’s kings, Tarquinius Superbus, an Etruscan, had been expelled late in the sixth century BC after his son had villainously raped the wife of a noble kinsman. Etruscan armies under Lars Porsenna had attempted to restore Tarquinius but had been thwarted by the heroism of Horatius who, with two comrades, defended the Tiber crossing against them until the demolition of the bridge was completed. The Latin cities to the south had then combined to replace the exiled monarch on his throne, but had been defeated by the Romans at the battle of Lake Regillus (where the Romans were assisted by the gods according to the legend!).

Illustrated Etruscan tomb inscriptions, taken in conjunction with the existing legends, suggest that the underlying historical facts were very different. It is clear that Porsenna was not the friend but the mortal enemy of Tarquinius, his fellow Etruscan. He probably conspired with aristocratic, partly Etruscan elements in Rome to precipitate Tarquinius’ downfall, and then himself occupied Rome. He certainly advanced south of Rome, to fight the Latins and their Greek allies of Cumae – where according to one story Tarquinius ultimately took refuge. When the Etruscans were defeated by the Latin League at Aricia (as described by Livy), their fugitives were received and protected in Rome. Moreover, Livy stresses the friendship of Porsenna towards the Romans and his chivalrous respect for their way of life. One would guess that Rome had accepted the position of subject ally to Etruria. The Roman population, despite its Etruscan overlordship, was of course Latin; their Etruscan allegiances brought them into conflict with the other Latin cities, who were allied to the Greek maritime states – Etruria’s commercial rivals.

At Rome, Latin patriotic sentiment may have accepted Etruscan kings and welcomed their leadership against Etruria itself, just as English patriotic feeling in the Middle Ages accepted French-speaking Plantagenet kings as leaders against the French. The early Roman historians, however, did not like to contemplate their city as a mere catspaw in Etruscan dynastic politics, let alone a puppet state to be employed against their Latin brothers. Consequently, these chroniclers substituted history of their own invention, assigning fictional roles to historic characters.

As the strength of Etruria diminished, Rome asserted its authority over both the Etruscans and the Latins, but at the beginning of the fourth century BC the city was overwhelmed, after the disastrous battle of the Allia, by a vast horde of Gallic raiders. The Romans retreated into their citadel on the Capitoline Mount; they eventually bought off the Gauls, whose immediate interest was in moveables and not in land. Roman history records that the great Camillus, Rome’s exiled war leader, was recalled to speed the parting Gauls with military action, but this thinly veils the fact that the Gauls departed of their own accord, having obtained what they wanted. Livy blames Roman decadence and impiety for the disaster, but the Romans must in any case have been vanquished by sheer weight of numbers. Apart from that, they were never at their best when dealing with a strange foe whose weapons and methods of warfare were new to them.

Roman military history is chequered by catastrophes. Few great empires can have sustained more major disasters during the period of their growth. Nobody would deny that the Romans were a formidable military nation; yet the genius which enabled them eventually to dominate the ancient world was as much political as military. Their great political instrument was their concept of citizenship. Citizenship was not simply a status which one did or did not possess. It was an aggregate of rights, duties and honours, which could be acquired separately and conferred by instalments. Such were the rights of making legal contracts and marriages. From both of these the right to a political vote was again separable; nor did the right to vote necessarily imply the right to hold office. Conquered enemies were thus often reconciled by a grant of partial citizenship, with the possibility of more to come if behaviour justified it. Some cities enjoyed Roman citizenship without the vote, being autonomous except in matters of foreign policy. Even the citizens of such communities, however, might qualify for full Roman citizenship if they migrated to Rome; where this right was not available, citizenship could be obtained by those who achieved public distinction in their own communities.

■ The Roman Army in Early Times

Citizenship, of course, implied a military as well as a political status. For the duties which it imposed were, above all, military. The Latin and other Italian allies, who enjoyed some intermediate degree of citizenship, were in principle required to supply an aggregate of fighting men equal to that levied by the Romans themselves. In practice, the Romans relied on their Italian allies particularly for cavalry: an arm in which they themselves were notoriously weak. The Greek cities did not normally contribute military contingents, but supplied ships and rowers. They were known as “naval allies” (socii navales) because of this function.

Any army whose technical resources are comprised by hand-arms, armour and horses, will, at all events in the early years of its development, reflect an underlying social order. Combatants who can afford horses and armour will naturally be drawn from the aristocracy. Others will have little armour and less sophisticated, if not fewer, weapons. This was true of Greek armies and also of medieval armies. It was certainly true of the Romans, whose military class differentiation was defined with unusual care and with great attention to detail. The resulting classification is associated with the military and administrative reorganization of Servius Tullius, traditionally sixth and penultimate king of Rome. His name suggests a sixth-century date for the reforms in question, though some scholars think that the so-called Servian organization was introduced later than this.

The “Servian” infantry was divided into five property classes, the wealthiest of which was armed with swords and spears and protected by helmets, round shields, greaves and breastplates. All protective armour was of bronze. In the second class, no breastplate was worn, but a long shield was substituted for the round buckler. The third class was as the second, but wore no greaves. The fourth class was equipped only with spears and javelins; the fifth was composed of slingers. There is no reference to archers. The poorest citizens were not expected to serve except in times of emergency, when they were equipped by the state. However, they normally supplied artisans to maintain siege engines and perform similar duties.

The army was also divided into centuries (i.e., “hundreds”), as the citizens were for voting purposes. However, a century soon came to contain 60, not 100 men. The first property class comprised 80 centuries; the second, third and fourth class had 20 centuries apiece; the fifth class had 30. A distinction was made between junior and senior centuries, the former containing young men for front-line action, the latter older men, more suitable for garrison duty. A single property class was equally divided between the two age groups.

The cavalry was recruited from the wealthiest families to form 18 centuries. A cavalry century received a grant for the purchase of its horses and one-fifth of this amount yearly for their upkeep. The yearly grant was apparently provided by a levy on spinsters! In general, the financial burden of warfare was shifted from the poor on to the rich. For this imposition, the rich were compensated by what amounted to a monopoly of the political suffrage. Inevitably, it was felt in time that they were overcompensated, but that is a matter which must not detain us here.

During the early epochs of Roman history, as archaeological evidence indicates, Greek hoplite armour was widely imitated throughout the Mediterranean area. Italy was no exception to this rule and, as Livy’s description suggests, Rome was no exception in Italy. Greek weapons called for Greek skill in their use, and this in turn assumed Greek tactical methods. The Romans were in contact with Greek practice, both through their Etruscan northern neighbours, who as a maritime people were more susceptible to overseas influences, and through direct contact with Greek cities in Italy, notably Cumae. The Roman army, as recruited on the Servian basis, must have fought as a hoplite phalanx, in a compact mass, several ranks deep, using their weight behind their shields as well as their long thrusting spears. The light troops afforded by the fourth and fifth infantry classes will have provided a skirmishing arm, and the cavalry held the wings on either side of the phalanx. There were also two centuries of artificers (fabri) attached to the centuries of the first class, and two of musicians (made up of hornblowers and trumpeters).

■ The Military Reforms of Camillus

The next great landmark in Roman military organization is associated with the achievements of Camillus. Camillus, credited with having saved Rome from the Gauls and remembered as a “second founder” of Rome, was a revered national hero. His name became a legend, and legends accumulated round it. At the same time, he was unquestionably a historical character. We need not believe that his timely return to Rome during the Gallic occupation deprived the Gauls of their indemnity money, which was at that very moment being weighed out in gold. But his capture of the Etruscan city of Veii is historical, and he may here have made use of mining operations such as Livy describes. Similarly, the military changes attributed to him may in part, if not entirety, be due to his initiative.

Soon after the withdrawal of the Gauls from Rome, the tactical formation adopted by the Roman army underwent a radical change. In the Servian army, the smallest unit had been the century. It was an administrative rather than a tactical unit, based on political and economic rather than military considerations. The largest unit was the legion of about 4,000 infantrymen. There were 60 centuries in a legion and, from the time of Camillus, these centuries were combined in couples, each couple being known as a maniple (manipulus). The maniple was a tactical unit. Under the new system, the Roman army was drawn up for battle in three lines, one behind the other. The maniples of each line were stationed at intervals. If the front line was forced to retreat, or if its maniples were threatened with encirclement, they could fall back into the intervals in the line immediately to their rear. In the same way, the rear lines could easily advance, when necessary, to support those in front. The positions of the middle-line maniples corresponded to intervals in the front and rear lines, thus producing a series of quincunx formations. The two constituent centuries of a maniple were each commanded by a centurion, known respectively as the forward (prior) and rear (posterior) centurion. These titles may have been dictated by later tactical developments, or they may simply have marked a difference of rank between the two officers.

The three battle lines of Camillus’ army were termed, in order from front to rear, hastati, principes and triarii. Hastati meant “spearmen”; principes, “leaders”; and triarii, the only term which was consistent with known practice, meant simply “third-liners”. In historical accounts, the hastati were not armed with spears and the principes were not the leading rank, since the hastati were in front of them. The names obviously reflect the usage of an earlier date. In the fourth century BC the two front ranks carried heavy javelins, which they discharged at the enemy on joining battle. After this, fighting was carried on with swords. The triarii alone retained the old thrusting spear (hasta). The heavy javelin of the hastati and principes was the pilum. It comprised a wooden shaft, about 4.5 feet (1.4m) long, and a lancelike, iron head of about the same length as the shaft; which fitted into the wood so far as to give an overall length of something less than 7 feet (2.1m). The Romans may have copied the pilum from their Etruscan or Samnite enemies; or they may have developed it from a more primitive weapon of their own. The sword used was the gladius, a short cut-and-thrust type, probably forged on Spanish models. A large oval shield (scutum), about 4 feet (1.2m) long, was in general use in the maniple formation. It was made of hide on a wooden base, with iron rim and boss.

It has been suggested that the new tactical formation was closely connected with the introduction of the new weapons. The fact that the front rank was called hastati seems to indicate that the hasta, or thrusting spear, was not abandoned until after the new formation had been adopted. Indeed, cause and effect may have stood in circular relationship. The open formation could have favoured new weapons which, once widely adopted, forbade the use of any other formation. At all events, there must have been more elbow room for aiming a javelin.

Apart from these considerations, open-order fighting was characteristic of Greek fourth-century warfare. Xenophon’s men had opened ranks to let the enemy’s scythe-wheel chariots pass harmlessly through. Agesilaus used similar tactics at Coronea. Camillus was aware of the Greek world – and the Greek world was aware of him. He dedicated a golden bowl to Apollo at Delphi and Greek fourth-century writers refer to him. It is at least possible that the new Roman tactical formation was based on Greek precedents, as the old one had been.

■ Officers and Other Ranks

The epoch of Camillus also saw the first regular payments for military service. The amount of pay, at the time of its introduction, is not recorded. To judge from the enthusiasm to which it gave rise and to the difficulty experienced in levying taxes to provide for it, the sum was substantial. It was a first step towards removing the differences among property classes and standardizing the equipment of the legionary soldier. For tactical purposes, of course, some differences were bound to exist: for instance, in the lighter equipment of the velites. But the removal of the property classes produced an essential change in the Roman army, such as the Greek citizen army had never known. The Athenian hoplites had always remained a social class, and hoplite warfare was their distinctive function. The Spartan hoplites had been an élite of peers, every one of them, as Thucydides remarks, in effect an officer.

At Rome, however, the centuries of which the legions were composed were conspicuously and efficiently led by centurions, men who commanded as a result of their proven merit. The Roman army, in fact, developed a system of leadership such as is familiar today – a system of officers and other ranks. Centurions were comparable to warrant officers, promoted for their performance on the field and in the camp. The military tribunes, like their commanding officers, the consuls and praetors, were at any rate originally appointed to carry out the policies of the Roman state, and they were usually drawn from the upper, politically influential classes.

Six military tribunes were chosen for each legion, and the choice was at first always made by a consul or praetor, who in normal times would have commanded two out of the four legions levied; as colleagues, the consuls shared the army between them. Later, the appointment of 24 military tribunes for the levy of four legions was made not by the consuls but by an assembly of the people. If, however, additional legions were levied, then the tribunes appointed to them were consular nominations. Tribunes appointed by the people held office for one year. Those nominated by a military commander retained their appointment for as long as he did.

Military tribunes were at first senior officers and were required to have several years of military experience prior to appointment. In practice, however, they were often young men, whose very age often precluded them from having had such experience. They were appointed because they came from rich and influential families and they thus had much in common with the subalterns of fashionable regiments in latter-day armies. Originally, an important part of the military tribune’s duties had been in connection with the levy of troops. In normal times, a levy was held once a year. Recruits were required to assemble by tribes (a local as distinct from a class division). The distribution of recruits among the four legions was based on the selection made by the tribunes.

“Praetor” was the title originally conferred on each of the two magistrates who shared supreme authority after the period of the kings. The military functions of the praetor are well attested, and the headquarters in a Roman camp continued to be termed the “praetorium”. In comparatively early times, the title of “consul” replaced that of “praetor”, but partly as a result of political manoeuvre, the office of praetor was later revived to supplement consular power. The authority of a praetor was not equal to that of a consul, but he might still command an army in the field.

The command was not always happily shared between two consuls. In times of emergency – and Rome’s early history consisted largely of emergencies – a single dictator with supreme power was appointed for a maximum term of six months, the length of a campaigning season. The dictator chose his own deputy, who was then known as the Master of the Horse (magister equitum).

The allies, who were called upon to aid Rome in case of war, were commanded by prefects (praefecti), who were Roman officers. The 300 cavalry attached to each legion were, in the third century BC at any rate, divided into ten squadrons (turmae), and subdivided into decuriae, each of which was commanded by a decurio, whose authority corresponded to that of a centurion in the infantry.

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