Rome’s Regal Armies I

CITIZEN-SOLDIER, CLASS I Servian class I citizen-soldiers fought essentially with hoplite panoply, each citizen equipping himself with helmet, two-piece corselet and greaves, all of bronze (though later linen and composite corselets would be usual). He also carried the clipeus, a bowl-shaped shield, approximately 90cm in diameter and clamped to the left arm. There is a superb example of a clipeus in the Museo Gregoriano at the Vatican. This shield, which probably comes from an Etruscan t o m b of the 4th century BC, has survived sufficiently intact to permit a complete reconstruction with a good deal of confidence (Connolly 1998: p. 53). Built on a wooden core, this shield was faced with an extremely thin layer of stressed bronze and backed by a leather lining. The core was usually crafted from flexible wood such as poplar or willow. Because of its great weight the shield was carried by an arrangement of t w o handles, with an armband in the centre, through which the left arm was passed up to the elbow and the handgrip at the rim (1). The rim itself was offset, which could rest on the shoulder to help with the weight, especially when at rest. Held across the chest, it covered the citizen from chin to knee. However, being clamped to the left arm, it only offered protection to his left-hand side, though it did protect the exposed right-hand side of the comrade to his immediate left. As in all military history, technology responded to the conflicts of the day and dictated what forms future battle would take, and with this new style of spear-and-shield warfare the weapon par excellence of our wealthy citizen was the long thrusting spear (Greek doru, Latin hasta). Our citizen also packs a sword. The introduction of the phalanx undermined the previous prestige of this weapon. Besides, in the crush and squeeze of a phalanx, a shorter weapon was preferable as it could be more easily handled. It may have required special skills to handle an antennae-type sword, but with a slashing-type sword it was almost impossible to miss in the cut and thrust of the tightly packed phalanx. One type was the Greek kopis (2), a strong, curved one-edged blade designed for slashing with an overhand stroke, not thrusting. The cutting edge was on the inside, like a Gurkha kukri, while the broad back of the blade curved forward in such a way to weight the weapon towards its tip, making it ‘point-heavy’. Whatever the pattern, Greek or Italic, the sword was now very much a secondary arm – a far cry from its former predominance in the epoch of clan warfare – to be used only when a warrior’s spear has failed him. It is worn suspended from a long baldric from right shoulder to left hip, the scabbard being fashioned of wood covered with leather, with the tip strengthened by a small metal cap, a chape, usually moulded to the scabbard.

The study of the Roman army during the Regal period is largely an exercise in frustration. This is not because of a lack of evidence or ancient literature on the subject, as is the case with the Greek ‘Dark Ages’, as we have a number of detailed explanations of Rome’s early military development preserved in the works of Livy, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Plutarch and others. Nor is this frustration due to conflicts between these sources; indeed far from it as they are all generally in agreement on almost all of the major points. The primary issue which one faces when looking at the Roman army during this early period is that the ancient authors, who worked so laboriously to explain the structure of the early army, most likely had very little idea what they were talking about. This all relates back to the nature of Rome’s historical tradition.

Rome was traditionally thought to have been founded in the middle of the eighth century BC and seems to have grown gradually during its early years until, benefiting from its key location on the major trade routes running through Central Italy (and particularly those between Etruria in the north and the Greek colonies in Magna Graecia in the south), it blossomed in the late seventh and sixth centuries BC into a major trading hub and urban centre. Despite its burgeoning wealth and population, the city seems to have maintained a local focus and outlook and it was not until the middle of the fourth century BC that the city had come to dominate all of Central Italy. From this point on, however, a ‘critical mass’ seems to have been reached and Rome’s expansion picked up speed rapidly. By the early third century BC the city had defeated the army of Pyrrhus, showing that it was a major player in Mediterranean politics and warfare, and controlled almost the entire Italian peninsula. By the end of the third century BC Rome had defeated her greatest rival, Carthage, in the Second Punic War and found herself as the only real power left in the western Mediterranean. It was only at this point that the Romans decided to sit down and write the history of their city – more than 500 years after Rome’s traditional founding and after the city had become one of the most dominant powers in the known world – and this very late start for Roman historiography created quite a few problems.

The first Roman historians seem to have been driven by a desire, very similar to that expressed by the great Greek historian Polybius a generation or two later, to explain Rome’s rise to power – both to themselves and to their new subjects. As a result, when they looked back on the history of their city they did so with a reasonable amount of hindsight bias. They knew how the story ended, they knew what Rome would become, but they wanted to explain the journey – the keys to the city’s success. The main problem which these historians seem to have faced, however, is that the information and evidence with which they had to work was wholly inadequate for the task. The most important sources available to these first historians seem to have been a series of annalistic accounts, the most famous of which was that kept by the Pontifex Maximums or chief priest in Rome, which recorded important events in the life of the city each year. These annales were composed of entries which were initially written on tablets posted outside the house of the pontifex and, in the case of the records kept by the pontifex maximus, were later stored and traditionally compiled into a single volume by P. Mucius Scaevola in the late second century BC. However, the information which was contained in the Annales Maximi (as these particular records were known), and the other yearly records (for instance those kept by other priesthoods and sources like the consular and triumphal fasti) was not written down with a grand history in mind. Leaving aside basic issues of accuracy (and scholars still debate these rigorously), these annalistic sources would have provided at best a basic skeleton of events – including who held office, eclipses, famines, wars, etc. – but would not have included any narrative elements or the structural details of Rome’s early development. The bulk of this material must have come from Rome’s enigmatic and problematic oral tradition.

Rome’s oral tradition can best be described as ‘multifaceted’. Cato, writing in the second century BC, said that some aspects of early Roman history had been preserved in songs sung at banquets, although these seem to have fallen out of fashion by the late Republic. We also know that there were plays being performed from at least the fourth century BC which were set in early Rome, called fabulae, and likely focused on early Roman myths. Additionally, there were the oft-maligned family histories (which Cicero and other writers claimed were largely fabricated), which became most strongly associated with Roman funerary orations, where the deeds of ancestors were recalled each time a member of the family passed away. And there were likely a range of stories and myths which had been passed down through the generations through simple storytelling and ‘collective memory’. The reliability of this oral information, however, is highly suspect. As modern research on oral traditions has shown, while a surprising amount of information can be transmitted through the generations, it is usually adapted for each audience. As a result, while certain overarching themes and narratives from Rome’s early history were likely preserved, the oral tradition is not the best mechanism for preserving the detailed structural information which historians of early Rome (and particularly the early Roman army) crave. So when Rome’s first historians sat down to write histories of their city, working in a genre which had, by that point, a very long history in the Greek-speaking world with well-established rules, they were decidedly ill-equipped in terms of evidence. Rome’s first native historian, the aristocrat Fabius Pictor writing c. 200 BC, is likely to have had access to his own family history and those of a few other families, probably knew the main myths/stories about Rome’s early history (Romulus, Remus and the she-wolf, the Battle of the Champions, Brutus and Tarquin, etc.), and may have been able to go through some of the priestly records. But it is also likely he had to flesh the narrative out quite a bit using some common-sense and his own understanding of Roman society – and even so, his history of the early periods seems to have been rather short. Unfortunately Fabius Pictor’s history does not survive today, nor do the attempts of his contemporaries, although we can say that they all seemed to have been brief accounts. Cato the Elder’s history of Rome, for instance, consisted of seven books in total with the first three devoted to the origins and early history of Rome and the cities of Italy.

Once Fabius Pictor wrote his history, however, historical writing picked up very quickly in Rome and he was followed by a line of other writers who all wanted to add their own spin to the story. During the course of the second century BC, historical writing flourished in Rome and a number of new histories were written by authors who are now known as the Latin annalists, because of their progression through Roman history in a year-by-year fashion. Perhaps surprisingly though, despite the fact that these historians did not seem to have access to any more original evidence from early Rome than Fabius Pictor or the other early writers did, these new histories often included much more material for the earlier periods than those written before. The historian Cn. Gellius for instance, writing in the second half of the second century BC, did not reach the year 386 BC until book fifteen of his history, and he did not get to the year 216 BC until either book thirty or thirty-three. Although Cn. Gellius likely represents an extreme example, it has been argued that there was an overall ‘expansion’ in the history of early Rome during this period as each writer added his own details and explanations to the cryptic core of evidence. Indeed, it is likely that historians stopped consulting the original evidence altogether and often worked simply from the works of previous historians, adding their own extrapolations and interpretations to the inventions of those who came before.

The annalistic tradition came to an end in the late first century BC with Livy and his great work Ab Urbe Condita (‘From the Foundation of the City’), a 142-volume history of Rome from its earliest days down to the reign of Augustus – of which the first ten books are devoted to Rome’s history up to the year 292 BC. Livy’s work was so successful, and accomplished its goals so conclusively, that he effectively ended the annalistic movement and the creation of grand histories of Rome – although part of this may have also related to the change in political climate under Augustus and the later emperors. Writers like Tacitus continued to write histories under the Empire, but no one attempted the same all-encompassing history of Rome that Livy had written and indeed his work was so popular that it supplanted, and resulted in the loss of, those histories which came before. However, Livy’s account of early Rome, despite its success and the ten books he devoted to the subject, was still limited by the nature of the evidence which had been transmitted to the late Republic from the Archaic period – the authentic material in his history could not exceed that which was passed down from the Archaic period. As a result, although obviously engaging, well-written and very likely well-researched, there seems to have been no way for Livy to have known for sure many of the details he included. Unless there existed another resource or depository of information available to Livy or his predecessors which we know nothing about, much of Livy’s history must represent an historical invention/elaboration on his part, or on the part of one of his predecessors, which would place it’s origin at the earliest in the late third century BC. This is not to say that Livy, Fabius Pictor or the later Latin annalists were being deceitful and ‘fabricating history’ – something which a modern historian would likely be accused of if they tried something similar. Rather, it must be understood that ‘history’, as it existed in antiquity, was not so much about the ‘facts’ as it was about ‘teaching a lesson’. Recording true details, although seen as important, came second to the pedagogical and rhetorical aim of a work. As a result, while ancient historians clearly attempted to record, as accurately as possible, events from the past if they were known, where there were gaps or lacuna in the evidence, or where the evidence was mythic or a bit malleable, they had no qualms about adding to the narrative to make their point. This is a practice perhaps best seen in historical speeches which, apart from a few exceptions where we know they were written down and preserved, often represented an opportunity for the historian to present what he felt would have been said in a given situation.

When one looks at the history of early Rome then, if the reader will forgive an indulgent analogy, the situation resembles interpreting the night sky. Looking up on a clear night we are confronted with a few bright stars, which we can understand as the evidence from the annales and perhaps aspects of the oral tradition which were likely transmitted, one way or another, from the Archaic period. These bold, bright structural points have then been interpreted by ancient writers into constellations, or the sweeping and detailed narratives presented in their histories. Often these histories have but a passing relationship to the evidence, just as constellations often do to their constituent stars, but they link them together in a fashion which makes sense to the observer and helps to give order to the cosmos. However, different people looking at a collection of stars will often come up with different constellations – and the same is true with early Rome. As modern historians, we must see through the preconstructed constellations, the detailed narratives presented by Livy and others based on their view of how events occurred, and go back to the basic evidence which was likely transmitted and analyse it ourselves. We must identify the key bits of evidence used by the ancient authors in constructing their narratives, look a bit more closely and perhaps identify some other structural aspects which they included in the narrative but did not recognize the importance of, and ultimately construct our own interpretation based on our modern understanding of how societies work and develop. This is, perhaps, one of the great advantages which modern historians have over their ancient counterparts. Although Livy and Fabius Pictor may have had a better understanding of their own culture as it existed in the late Republic, they lacked the myriad comparative societies which we have at our disposal today to help fill in the gaps in the evidence.

But first, we must begin with what the Romans thought things looked like in the Regal period.

The Traditional Model

The traditional model of Roman military development (which can be found in the ‘standard textbooks’ on Roman history, available in most bookstores) is largely based on a few asides within the larger narratives of our surviving sources, where the author stops his story to explain a detailed structure or development. It begins, of course, with Rome’s founder – the quasi-mythical figure of Romulus – and his organization of Roman society into three tribes (the Ramnes, Tities and Luceres) and thirty curiae. The story goes, as relayed by Livy and Dionysius, that Romulus founded the city with a mixed group of followers which ranged from powerful clans to runaway slaves and asylum-seekers. In order to bring these disparate groups together into a single state and, perhaps more importantly, a single army, he created the two sets of divisions – the tribes and the curiae – which both seem to have had social, political, religious and military aspects. The relationship between the tribes and curiae, and indeed their fundamental character and make-up, are still a matter of some debate in modern scholarship (as will be discussed later). The ancient sources, however, are generally consistent on the matter, with Dionysius of Halicarnassus offering the most explicit account of their creation where he describes the curiae as mere subdivisions of the tribes, following the Greek model.

He [Romulus] divided all the people into three groups, and set over each as leader its most distinguished man. Then he subdivided each of these three groups into ten others, and appointed as many of the bravest men to be the leaders of these also. The larger divisions he called tribes and the smaller curiae, as they are still termed even in our day…. These curiae were again divided by him into ten parts, each commanded by its own leader, who was called decurio in the native language.

This system of tribes and curiae formed the basis for at least one political body, the curiate assembly, and offered a rough hierarchy for the army, although there are only vague hints given in either Livy or Dionysius regarding the details of the army during this period.

The standard size of the Roman legion (or levy, from whence the word is derived) during this period is often assumed to have been 3,000 infantry and 300 cavalry, based on both the structure of the tribes and curiae and assertions by both Livy and Dionysius about the initial contribution of each of the curiae (given as 100 infantry and ten cavalry). This figure is corroborated by the late Republican antiquarian Varro, who claimed that the early legion contained 3,000 men, with 1,000 coming from each tribe, and the historian Plutarch, who gives the same number in his life of Romulus, although he adds 300 cavalry. However, both Livy and Dionysius also seem to imply that this figure represented a minimum or a starting point, as opposed to a standard legion size, as Dionysius noted that when Romulus died Rome’s forces far outnumbered this – although it is possible that the thousands mentioned by Dionysius merely reflected Rome’s manpower reserves.

By these and other like measures he [Romulus] made the colony great from a small beginning, as the actual results showed; for the number of those who joined with him in founding Rome did not amount to more than three thousand foot nor quite to three hundred horse, whereas he left behind him when he disappeared from among men forty-six thousand foot and about a thousand horse.

As far as equipment and tactics are concerned, the literary sources offer us very little until the sixth century BC and the reforms of Rome’s sixth king Servius Tullius. The battle descriptions from the life of Romulus and the other early reges, if they can be considered even remotely factual, suggest that both massed combat and duels were common and support the idea that Rome’s army contained both infantry and cavalry. Unfortunately, military equipment finds from Rome itself are incredibly scarce for the Regal and early Republican periods, but what does exist for the eighth and seventh centuries BC – largely from graves in the forum Romanum – shows a mixture of swords and spears, along with a few pieces of bronze armour, which is generally supportive of this picture of mixed combat. This limited archaeological evidence is often bolstered with contemporary finds from elsewhere in Central Italy. Graves from other Latin sites dating to the eighth and seventh centuries BC have contained very similar finds to the graves in Rome, with swords, axes and spear points predominating, along with the occasional bronze helmet or breastplate. Graves from Etruria in the north, along with finds from Umbria and the Ager Faliscus, have contributed to the archaeological picture for this period as well with quite a few more helmets and elaborate circular shields – although whether these should be considered indicative of Roman equipment is still uncertain. Generally though, a very heroic and arguably Homeric style of combat comes through quite strongly in the available evidence.

After the army’s creation in the eighth century BC, the traditional narrative holds that the sixth century BC was the next real period of change – a period which also coincides with significant growth and urbanization within the community and the emergence of the so-called ‘Grand Rome of the Tarquins’. At the beginning of the sixth century BC, Rome’s cavalry was expanded by the Roman rex Tarquinius Priscus (trad. c. 615–580 BC), but the most significant change occurred under Servius Tullius (trad. c. 580–530 BC) who transformed the army, and indeed all of Roman society, via a wide-ranging series of reforms often dubbed ‘The Servian Constitution’ or the ‘Centuriate Reforms’. According to the narrative, Servius Tullius conducted Rome’s first official census and reformed Rome’s Archaic system of tribes by separating them from the curiae and basing them entirely on geography. These new tribes included four urban tribes and seventeen rural tribes – a number which was gradually expanded during the Republic to reach a total of thirty-one by 241 BC. This new tribal structure formed the basis of Rome’s new Tribal Assembly, which represented Rome’s burgeoning population and included both the urban inhabitants and an increasing number of powerful rural clans. Rome’s army, however, was separated from this structure and was recruited instead from a new set of socio-economic divisions based on the census. The entirety of Rome’s population was subdivided into seven socio-economic classes, each with a minimum level of wealth required for entry. At the top of this new system were the equites, which required 100,000 bronze asses (bronze coins weighing one Roman pound) along with a certain social position for entry, followed by the first class which required only the 100,000 asses, the second class 75,000 assess, etc. down though the fifth class and finally the capite censi, or ‘head count’ which was made up of the poor and did not contribute to the army. Each class was then further subdivided into centuries, with the equites containing eighteen, the first class eighty-two, the second class twenty, the third class twenty, the fourth class twenty, the fifth class thirty-two and the capite censi one.

The centuries of the Servian Constitution are incredibly problematic and have often been misinterpreted. One of the most glaring misunderstandings is that each century contained 100 men or was responsible for contributing 100 men to the army – neither of which seems to be the case. Dionysius in particular explicitly states that the centuries were merely administrative/recruiting units and did not contain 100 men each.

For instance, whenever [Servius Tullius] had occasion to raise ten thousand men, or, if it should so happen, twenty thousand, he would divide that number among the hundred and ninety-three centuries and then order each century to furnish the number of men that fell to its share.

Instead the name ‘century’ may have been derived from the number of divisions in the original census (the eighteen centuries of the equites plus the eighty-two of the first class together equalling 100), with the later classes/centuries being added later. Indeed, according to a passage attributed to Cato the Elder, as late as the second century BC the first class of the Servian system along with the equites were together known simply as the classis, with the lower classes carrying the designation infra classem. The centuries themselves seem to have had no tactical function and were largely administrative in nature as they formed the basis for Rome’s new Centuriate Assembly as well as representing the means by which Rome’s army was levied. Each class was also associated with a particular military panoply or set of equipment, which members would have been expected to supply themselves as part of being in the civic militia. The equites naturally constituted the cavalry while the first class was equipped with a helmet, round shield, greaves, mail, sword and spear. The second class was equipped with a helmet, oblong shield, greaves, sword and spear. The third class was equipped with only a helmet, oblong shield, sword and spear. The fourth class, according to Livy, was composed of light infantry equipped with a spear and javelin, while Dionysius suggests that this group also carried oblong shields and swords. The fifth class carried nothing but missile weapons, and the capite censi did not contribute to the army at all, presumably as they did not have enough wealth to equip themselves with the appropriate weaponry.

The standard interpretation of the Servian Constitution is that it represented a shift from an old family-based, tribal system of government to a new state-centred democratic/oligarchic system similar to that present in Greece at this time. On the military side of things, this shift is typically seen to represent the transition from a highly individual, heroic style of warfare to something resembling a community-based hoplite phalanx. And indeed the Romans themselves seem to have thought that they once fought in a hoplite phalanx, a tactic which they claimed that they acquired from the Etruscans at some point during the Archaic period. Although this can be seen in both Livy and Dionysius’ account, the best evidence can be found in the so-called Ineditum Vaticanum, which purports to give a speech by a Roman named Caeso (probably Caeso Fabius) to a Carthaginian envoy before the First Punic War, detailing Roman military development to that point and showing why they would be victorious in a war despite being woefully inexperienced at naval combat.

This is what we Romans are like … with those who make war on us we agree to fight on their terms, and when it comes to foreign practices we surpass those who have long used them. For the Tyrrhenians used to make war on us with bronze shields and fighting in phalanx formation, not in maniples; and we, changing our armament and replacing it with theirs, organized our forces against them, and contending thus against men who had long been accustomed to phalanx battles we were victorious. Similarly, the Samnite shield was not part of our national equipment, nor did we have javelins, but fought with round shields and spears; nor were we strong in cavalry, but all or nearly all of Rome’s strength lay in infantry. But when we found ourselves at war with the Samnites we armed ourselves with their oblong shields and javelins, and fought against them on horseback, and by copying foreign arms we became masters of those who thought so highly of themselves. Nor were we familiar, Carthaginians, with the art of siege craft; but we learned from the Greeks who were highly experienced in the field, and proved superior in siege craft to that accomplished race, and indeed to all mankind. Do not force the Romans to engage in affairs of the sea; for if we have need of naval forces we shall, in short time, equip more and better ships than you, and shall prove more effective in naval battles than people who have long practised seafaring.

More importantly than the question of whether or not the Servian reforms ushered in an era of hoplite warfare in Rome, the new constitution very clearly represented the shift to an entirely state-centred military force. While the previous tribal army seems to have been controlled by the state and was led by the Roman rex, the basic units and recruitment of the army were still based on a series of pre-existing family and clan-based connections, which presumably gave those entities a fair amount of power. The new Servian tribes and system of classes broke down these old connections and created new ones dictated entirely by the relationship to the community. According to the literary narrative then, the army which emerged from the Regal period was very different from the one created by Romulus. The army of Servius Tullius arguably represented the first truly ‘Roman’ army and could be viewed as the ancestor of Rome’s late Republican legions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.