Siege of Massilia, (49 BCE)

Battles of the Great Roman Civil War, 49-45 BC

The prosperous and influential ancient city of Massilia stood against Julius Caesar during his Civil War with Pompey the Great. By way of a prolonged siege, Caesar’s forces reduced the town’s resistance and secured his complete control of Gaul (modern France).

The modern city of Marseilles on the coast of southern France began as the Greek colonial settlement of Massalia (referred to as Massilia in Roman texts) in the late seventh century BCE. Greek merchants had been sailing along that coast for generations and the colonists, sent out by the city-state of Phocaea in Asia Minor (modern Turkey), negotiated with the local Ligurian tribe (the Segobriges) to acquire the site, a promontory surrounded by water on three sides and approached, with difficulty, from the land on the fourth side. The location and situation provided natural protection to the colony from pirates and marauding Gallic warriors, while its proximity to the Rhone River valley opened up access to trade with the Gallic tribes further inland; in exchange for wine, olive oil, and pottery, the Massiliotes received tin, grain, and amber from the Gauls. The harbor of Massilia was ideal for maritime commerce and opened the way for stiff competition with the Carthaginian merchants who were expanding their markets northeast- ward from their bases in Spain; this led to military confrontations as early as the fifth century BCE, which saw the Massiliotes come out on top. As noted earlier in the entry on Gallia Comata, the continued commercial rivalry between Massilia and Carthage was one of the major causes of the Second Punic War between Rome and Carthage, the Romans claiming to defend Massiliote interests in the Western Mediterranean. From then on, the city remained one of Rome’s firmest allies in southern France.

When Civil War began between Pompey and Caesar in 49 BCE, one of Pompey’s firmest allies and Caesar’s inveterate enemies, L. Domitius Ahenobarbus, intended to assume command of the provinces of Gaul; the senators in support of Pompey had agreed to this, while Caesar continued to consider himself the rightful governor. Domitius delayed his departure for Gaul until after his defeat (and despite his release) by Caesar at the Siege of Corfinium. In the meantime, young noblemen from the allied city of Massilia, who had visited with Pompey before his retreat from Rome, arrived home to encourage their fellow townspeople to support Pompey against Caesar. Having chased Pompey out of Italy and taken control of Rome, Caesar did not want to have a hostile Massilia, with great wealth and a powerful fleet, in his rear, perhaps working with Domitius; so, Caesar soon left Rome for southern Gaul, arriving in April 49 BCE.

When he arrived, Caesar discovered the gates of Massilia locked against him and intelligence reports indicated that the Massiliotes had collected large stores of grain and other necessary supplies, were beefing up their fortifications and ships, and had also arranged for the aid of local Gallic tribes- men against Caesar. Massilia possessed a strong oligarchic government, a council of 600 lifetime legislators presided over by a committee of fifteen executives chosen from among them. Caesar demanded a conference with the Fifteen, in which he warned them not to stand against him and instead to take the posture of the towns of Italy, most of which had quickly agreed to avoid hostilities by accepting Caesar’s authority. After conferring with the Council of 600, the Fifteen replied that their government could not decide between Caesar and Pompey; while they acknowledged that during his tenure as governor of Gaul, Caesar’s relations with them had been quite positive, they also insisted that from Pompey as well they had received equal benefits in the past (referring to Gallic territories that had been handed over to Massilia by Pompey). The city offered to remain neutral in the Civil War by cutting itself off from both belligerents.

The duplicity of such statements became clear when Domitius arrived and the Massiliotes admitted him into their city and gave him command of its defense against Caesar. Domitius ordered their ships to scour the area for stores of grain and to confiscate all civilian vessels they came across to bolster Massilia’s fleet and increase its material resources. In response to these actions and the now-hostile posture of the city, Caesar placed it under siege by three of his veteran legions. While Caesar himself proceeded to Spain against Pompey’s legates there, he left the siege operations under the command of Trebonius, with Decimus Brutus in charge of the blockading fleet of twelve warships.

The Massiliotes mustered their vessels under Domitius’s authority, who placed archers, Gallic warriors, and many poor (but desperate) Romans that he brought with him from Italy onboard as marines. Brutus commanded fewer ships but onboard were some of the very best soldiers from Caesar’s legions; they were prepared to fight hard with their weapons, but they also had all the apparatus necessary for seizing and boarding the enemy warships.

When the two fleets engaged, a bitter struggle commenced. The Massiliote ships made great speed and possessed clever helmsmen and skilled oarsmen, who attempted to make use of these advantages by ganging up on individual vessels of Brutus’s or slamming through their banks of oars or keeping their distance to encircle the Caesarians. The latter did not possess such advantages, since their ships were heavier and slower and their crews green, but they sought every chance to grapple the enemy ships and send their marines into hand-to-hand combat with the enemy crews. In the end, this proved good enough, as the Massiliote fleet gave up the fight after having lost nine vessels captured or destroyed.

The Massiliotes, who had not lost heart or courage, turned to repairing damaged ships and preparing further ones from all their supplies. Indeed, the entire population of the city had apparently come to believe that their next naval battle with the Caesarians would mean either decisive victory (and safety) for themselves or total destruction; as a result, every able-bodied man in Massilia had been called up to serve, and especially the members of the aristocracy had “volunteered” to man the fleet as marines. Domitius, meanwhile, received reinforcement warships under Nasidius, sent by Pompey himself all the way from Greece. Women, children, and the elderly prayed to the gods in their temples and watched hopefully and dreadfully from the walls of Massilia as their fleet and that of Nasidius joined up along the coast to the east of the city.

Decimus Brutus hurried his vessels to engage them. As in the first confrontation at sea, this one also was difficult and fierce. Indeed, Brutus’s flagship was almost smashed between two Massiliote vessels; like a scene in a modern movie, his crew managed to make speed just in time to get out of the way, the enemy ships collided with one another, causing severe damage, and other Roman vessels came in for the kill by surrounding and sinking the attackers. In the meantime, Nasidius’s crews proved unreliable; having no true personal or patriotic stake in saving Massilia from capture, they were unwilling to really risk their lives in the battle. They soon withdrew from action on various pretexts and sailed off to Spain. The Massiliotes having fought so bravely and skillfully, nonetheless, suffered sufficient losses to persuade them to retreat into port. The further defense of grief-stricken Massilia would have to rely on resisting the Roman siege.

All the while the naval battles had been in progress, Caesar’s land forces under Trebonius had been constructing their siege works. They had summoned workers and supplies, especially of timber, from all across the Roman province of Narbonensis (roughly Provence today) to accomplish the massive, and slow, task. A siege-ramp sixty feet wide and eighty feet high, made of earth shored up by a considerable amount of timber, was necessary to reach the top of Massilia’s walls on the landward side of the city. As the Romans erected this, the Massiliotes used artillery devices, like their massive tormenta (giant-size crossbows) and catapults, to bombard the workers and soldiers outside. According to Caesar’s own account, such devices hurled large missiles, twelve feet long, with such force that they penetrated the usual protective screens employed by the Caesarians. To counteract this, the latter designed covered passageways of thick timber and a large mobile hut (tortoise) of the same material to shield themselves as they built up the ramp. Of course, the Massiliotes did not let this stop them; they ordered their Gallic allies to rush out of the city from protected spots and regularly harass the Roman troops and disrupt their work with firebrands.

In response, Caesar’s men decided to build, about sixty feet from the ramparts of Massilia, a brick fort, thirty feet square with walls five feet thick, as a place of refuge and regrouping. Over time, they very ingeniously in- creased the height of this fort, turning it into a stationary siege tower, virtually impervious to artillery missiles and fire. From its base, they threw out a covered passageway in the direction of Massilia’s walls, not just made of thick timbers but also covered on top with brick, clay, animal hide, and wet quilts, to protect it from fire, as they had done with the roof of the siege-tower fort.

The defenders of Massilia dropped large chunks of stone and fiery barrels of pitch onto the siege passageway, to no effect, and were attacked themselves by volleys of javelins and other missiles from the Roman siege-tower fort. From inside the protection of the passageway, the Roman sappers had dug under the wall of Massilia and brought a portion of it to collapse. Crowds of civilians rushed out of the opening in the wall, begging for Roman mercy and asking for a cessation of hostilities until the return of Caesar from his victory in Spain. Trebonius agreed to this, knowing that Caesar did not at all wish his enraged troops to take the city by force.

The truce was uneasy. From both sides came raids against the other, especially a night raid in which the Romans were beaten back from their attempt to penetrate the city, and a midday raid by the Massiliotes, who successfully destroyed by fire almost all the siege works of the Romans, including their siege fort. Not surprisingly, Caesar, in his official account, placed all the blame for the violation of the truce on the Massiliotes, whom he accused of the basest treachery.

His men had few timber resources left to them to construct new siege works, so they attempted to build a ramp flanked by thick walls of brick, topped with what wood they had left, and covered over in clay to guard against fire. The Romans advanced this structure toward the walls of Massilia, again with the plan to undermine them and invade the city. The extraordinary efforts of the exhausted, but never-more-determined, forces of Caesar caused the Massiliotes now to pause and critically examine their position. After all, Caesar’s fleet had the city blocked off by sea and his ground troops had cut off any escape by land; they seemed resolute in doing over and over again anything needed to hold and take the city. On their side, the people of Massilia were suffering from illness and dwindling supplies of fresh food after nearly six months of siege. So, the Massiliote government requested another truce and offered to surrender in good faith.

Caesar arrived in late October to accept this surrender. He ordered the Massiliotes to hand over all their weapons and ships, as well as all the money in their treasury; to guarantee their continued cooperation, he stationed two Roman legions in the city. Otherwise, Caesar decided to take no further punitive action against the Massiliotes, out of respect, he said, for their ancient alliance with Rome. With Massilia secure, Caesar had no further need to worry over the Gallic territories for the remainder of the Civil War nor, indeed, for the rest of his lifetime.

Further Reading Carter, J. 1997. Caesar: The Civil War. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. De Angelis, F. 1994. The Archaeology of Greek Colonisation. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Committee for Archaeology. Rivet, A. L. F. 1988. Gallia Narbonensis. London: Batsford.

Military ‘What Ifs’: Another German Campaign after AD9?

Campaigns of Tiberius and Germanicus in the years 10/11-13 CE. In pink the anti-Roman Germanic coalition led by Arminius. In dark green, territories still directly held by the Romans, in yellow the Roman client states.

The Parthian war of 114–117 and Britain apart, the only significant territorial situation that could have been different under the Early Empire was if Northern Germany had been annexed. Tiberius avoided this; but what about his heir (who unexpectedly predeceased him)? Did Germanicus’ sudden death in Syria in 19 (due to poison) damage the Empire in the long term?

Germanicus had fought a difficult war in Germania after 14 and would possibly have been too ready to remember the difficulties he had faced (not least from the troublesome North Sea tides) to launch an attack as Emperor to retake the would-be province that Varus had let slip in 9. But the memory of Northern hordes slavering for Roman blood was a potent one in the capital, having a long pedigree from the Gallic sack of 390/87 BC and the long wars with the Gauls in Northern Italy, and the sources make it clear that there was panic in Rome after the destruction of Varus’ army. Destroying this threat would have been a major propaganda bonus for any Emperor, particularly a new ruler, though Germanicus or his eldest son Nero (a rash, easily-outmanoevured challenger to Sejanus in the late 20s) would have been more vulnerable to this temptation than Tiberius’ cautious son Drusus. When Germanicus campaigned successfully east of the Rhine in 15–16, Tiberius (parsimonious, cautious or jealous?) reined him in. But as Emperor, Germanicus would have had no checks on his ambition. Had he lived to succeed Tiberius in 37, he would have been 52, little older than his brother Claudius was at his real-life accession and physically tougher. His son Nero would have been around 31.

The practicalities of the campaign were such that Rome could not spare the troops for an attack in overwhelming numbers – after the Pannonian revolt of 6–9 made concentration of troops on the Danube essential. The Varus disaster – harassment and ultimately a trap in thick forests – was such that Rome could not overwhelm the enemy through force of numbers and better weaponry without risks, and the further the legions advanced from the Rhine the greater the risks of being cut off. A piecemeal occupation by a network of forts and the creation of a series of roads across the Rhine-Elbe area to speed reinforcements were essential, meaning a systematic campaign over years rather than a ‘quick fix’ of a speedy victory followed by the enemy obligingly surrendering. A long war like Caesar’s in Gaul in the 50s BC or the British campaigns of the 40s and 50sAD would have been needed, though Germanicus had the experience of the Northern frontier that would have given him the ability to decide if this commitment was practicable.

Rome was notably desperately short of men after Varus lost his legions, with Augustus having to raise emergency forces of slaves and gladiators in the capital. The limit of troops available for any Northern war would have been similar to the three legions (plus temporary detachments from others) sent to Britain in 43. Conquered territory taken from the fierce tribes would need to be held down by force for years, with the mixture of forests, mountains, and marshes meaning that even the task of building Roman roads to connect forts would be slow and expensive. It is noticeable that, in a comparable situation, even 120 years after Caesar’s conquest of Gaul parts of the North-Eastern tribes (nearest to potential allies across the Rhine as well as less urbanised) were willing to revolt and join Civilis’ Batavians in 69–70. The Germans would have been equally resistant and in need of longterm garrisons, with their tribal allies across the new frontier (the Elbe?) willing to aid them. The terrain of forests and swamps was conducive to a guerrilla war, though no more so than the Ardennes which Rome had held since Caesar’s time.

If a glory-seeking Emperor had been willing to reverse the ‘disgrace’ of 9, he would have had to raise new legions for a long-term occupation, though the late Republic had been able to sustain a far larger army until Augustus demobilised it and five or so legions could have been sustainable. The political danger of putting such a large force in the hands of one general would have been a drawback, as he would have had to be carefully selected. The new governor (of ‘Germania Ulterior’?) would have had the potential to take advantage of weakness in Rome as Vitellius did from the Rhine and Vespasian from the Jewish war in 69. Ideally, even if one general – preferably an Imperial male – was in charge of the annexation the subsequent province would need to be divided to reduce the number of legions available to a potential rebel. Alternatively, the troop-deployment East of the Rhine could be numerically matched by the force available to the governors of Lower and Upper Germany. That should dissuade the new governor from revolting in the event of a disputed succession in Rome.

The conquest of Germany: useful long-term consequences?

If Varus had defeated Arminius’ coalition in 9 problems would not have arisen to that extent, and the Empire would have avoided the shock of defeat. A better general than Varus would not have allowed himself to be led into a German trap far from the Rhine by supposedly loyal German ‘scouts’, or if he had done so he could have provided more inspiring leadership. A dogged defence of a strong position against wave after wave of Germans was capable of holding the lightly-armed tribesmen at bay until they became exhausted, even in heavy rain. The Romans had large shields, cuirasses, arm- and leg-guards, and a variety of swords and javelins plus some archers; they also had a tradition of discipline and fought in defensive squares. The Germans were lightly-armed and relied on the effect of a terrifying charge, plus individual combat. They were intimidating in the charge, but no good in a long pitched battle; the Romans would have had the advantage if they could hold out for several hours.

The prospect of a charge by thousands of savage Germanic warriors was not unusual to Roman soldiers, though it was always feared. Being outnumbered could be handled by a competent Roman general, as could unfamiliar territory. Marius, six times consul in succeeding years and Rome’s greatest commander around 100BC, had managed to win defensive battles against the equally intimidating Cimbri and Teutones when Roman legions had to tackle comparably daunting hordes. Once the enemy was forced to draw off, at worst the Roman general could have managed to withdraw slowly to the Rhine with his troops marching in fightingformation and reducing the numbers of stragglers who could be isolated and killed. It would be more difficult to win through back to the Rhine if their scouts deserted, as Varus’ did, but not impossible. The army would have been available for future punitive strikes – probably led by Germanicus around 12 – once they had received reinforcements and the temporary coalition of Germanic tribes had broke up, and would not have suffered the trauma of defeat.

But the forests, swamps, and mountains of North-West Germany were more difficult to penetrate and then hold down by a chain of forts than was equally truculent Gaul after Vercingetorix’s defeat. The barren heathlands and thick forests did not give promise of a future of self-sustaining agricultural settlements and growing towns filled with ambitious Roman traders, at least for decades. The archaeological remains indicate a poorer culture of Germanic villages than in Gaul or ‘Celtic’ Britain – and even less wealth East of the Elbe. There would have been the danger of another transtribal leader arising, and the state of military morale in Augustus’ later years and the ease with which mutinies commenced in 14 shows that the morale of the underpaid, overworked frontier troops was low at this crucial point. The situation in 14 shows that Varus’ victory would not have solved Rome’s German problem – indeed, it could have posed a new threat by reassuring Augustus that the German tribes were not that great a threat. Augustus had been using as few troops as he could get away with ever since demobilising the Triumviral armies in the 30s BC, with around thirty not fifty legions, and sought a German victory on the cheap. Varus could have defeated the tribal coalition, ravaged their villages, destroyed stocks of food, and driven the surviving warriors into hiding in the forests – reassuring Augustus that the Germans were manageable. He could then have imposed a temporary submission in 9 or 10, Augustus installed a smaller garrison than was really needed, and an outbreak of mutiny in 14 inspired the Germans to revolt. The conditions for troops in frontier-forts in the German forests would have been as bad a they were on the lower Rhine, causing grumbling veterans who had had to serve longer than their promised time in service to decide that Augustus’ death gave them an opportunity to insist that they were discharged. The mutiny of 14 would have occurred on the Elbe in that case, and probably led to evacuation of the new province.

The permanent acquisition of a new province up to the Elbe would have required a major effort over several decades before the danger of revolt abated, and still not have provided much in the way of local revenue. Timber for the fleet was the only obvious local resource. But if the frontier had been adequately defended and the local Germans not taken advantage of a change of Emperor to revolt, the impressment of tribesmen into the army would have added to Roman military manpower and denied it to potential opponents. The danger from the Rhine frontier became acute during the civil war of 69 due to the departure of many troops for Rome under Vitellius, the poor state of the remaining army, and inspiring and coordinating local rebel leadership under Civilis, but thereafter there was only one major war against the Rhineland tribes until the early third century: the campaigns under Domitian in the 80s. These tribes would have been part of the Empire and their menfolk enrolled in the legions so they would not have been a threat had Rome secured the Elbe frontier in 9 or the late 30s/40sAD, though the tribes beyond the Elbe could still have challenged the Empire at this point (e.g. if there had been a local Roman rebellion equivalent to that of Saturninus at Cologne in 88).

The concentration of legions in the new province would have provided a tempting force for ambitious generals to use against the Emperor, and in that case Vitellius could have been in charge of the troops – on the Elbe rather than the Lower Rhine – and revolted in 69. Would his departure have led to German revolt? But if Rome had come through 69–70 still holding the Elbe, it should have provided a hiatus of military activity until the 200s for Romanisation to develop and the German province to become as fully secure as Belgica and Civilis’ Batavian island were after 70. In that case, Rome would have had to face a smaller challenge from the local Germans in the third century and would have had many of the tribes facing the Rhine (including the Franks and Alemanni?) incorporated in the Empire and added to its legions. Indeed, if the conquest of the Marcomanni in Bohemia by Marcus Aurelius in the late 170s had been followed through (see below) Rome could have been defending a frontier from the Elbe to the Carpathians rather than from the Rhine to the Danube. The Empire would have had fewer opponents, though the tribes beyond the Elbe would still have been pressing against the frontier, and correspondingly less of a distraction from the wars on the lower Danube from the 230s.

Long-term results

The extra, Germanic, manpower available for these wars would have been invaluable besides enabling the Emperors and local generals to campaign more on the lower Danube and less on the Rhine. There would have been no need for Domitian’s distracting Chatti wars in the 80s – though he could have attacked other Germans to gain much-needed (in his mind) glory. Holding ‘Marcomannia’ as far as the Northern mountains of Bohemia too would have provided Rome with a more easily-defensible frontier in the North, with the enemy only able to use the gaps in the mountains – the Elbe valley, the Moravian Beskids, to either side of the Tatra, and Ruthenia – to invade the Empire. Thus there would not have been the need for huge garrisons on the upper Rhine or upper Danube, and more troops could have defended the Elbe and the gaps in the chain of Carpathian ranges. In this case, it is less likely that the Empire would have lost crucial battles such as Abrittus against the Goths in 251 – at least on account of troop-numbers, if not incompetence. The avoidance of the raids into the Empire and political ‘break-up’ of the Roman state in the 250s would have been momentous, though it should be remembered that Rome would still have lost manpower in the plague from 252. Incompetent leadership and/or the bad luck of a civil war were crucial factors that better frontiers would not have affected. There was also, of course, the perennial possibility of conquest in the Augustan/Julio-Claudian period followed by a ‘pull-back’ after 69 to save on men and money.

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.

Rome’s Regal Armies II

CITIZEN-SOLDIER, CLASS III As each citizen was obliged to buy his own equipment, it seems clearly logical to assume that not all hoplites were identically equipped. The less well-off citizen would have had nothing so elaborate as the bronze or linen corselet that wealthier citizens wore, yet doubtless many of those members of this class w h o had the means actually supplied themselves with a small bronze breastplate, the old Italic round or rectangular models being still very much in circulation (1). The importance of armour to those w h o fight at close quarters can hardly be overstated. Apart from the obvious protection it offers, armour lends confidence to the wearer, and confidence in combat is always extremely important. Where metallic armour was not available or affordable, citizens probably made use of cuirbouilli or padded protection, and we can be certain that the individual citizen-soldier sought to protect himself with at least some form of body armour. The private provision of (expensive) war gear could accordingly reflect individual preference for different forms and styles (Greek, Graeco-Etruscan or Italic). For the most part, however, to compensate for any lack of body armour classes II and III used the oval scutum instead of the round clipeus. The scutum offered better protection to the torso and legs, it being the body shield c o m m o n in Italy and already known in Rome as it had been widely employed in its early days by its clan warriors. In shape and form, whatever may have been true of the period of the clan-based warband, the scutum would by this period have been very much like the thureos (‘door-like’) common to the soldiers called thureophoroi in later Hellenistic armies. With the scutum a soldier could be both defensive and offensive, parrying enemy blows with its board or rim and punching with its metallic boss-plate. The scutum, unlike the clipeus, was a relatively cheap piece of equipment.


Although a neat, tidy and internally consistent model, this traditional account, based on the explicit testimony of our two main literary sources, has always faced a bit of criticism – and particularly the Servian reforms of the mid-sixth century BC. From a very early date scholars have wondered whether a system as complex as the Servian Constitution could have been introduced in Rome in the sixth century BC. It was suggested that the political aspects of the reforms, and specifically the creation of two new assemblies, made no sense in a Rome which was still ruled by a rex. Indeed, neither of the Servian Constitution’s two new assemblies, the Tribal Assembly and the Centuriate Assembly, are recorded as performing any functions or duties until at least the fifth century BC. All of Rome’s political power seems to have remained with the rex, the senate and the old curiate assembly which continued to pass the law granting/confirming imperium. Additionally, questions have been raised about whether Rome would have needed (or even would have been able to field) the elaborate military system laid out in the reforms during this period, with the wide variety of troop types described (including engineers and trumpeters). One possible solution to this issue is that the Servian Constitution, as preserved in the accounts of Livy and Dionysius, represents the final version of something which was only started in the sixth century BC. As noted above, given the passages from Cato, Festus and others, it seems likely that only the first class and equites were really thought of as the classis.

Not all of those in the five classes are called the classici, but only the men of the first class whose census rating was 125,000 asses or more. Those who are called infra classem are the men who belonged to the second class as well as all the other classes, whose census ratings were below that of the first.

The term infra classem refers to those whose census rating is less than 120,000 asses.

These references, and others like them, have suggested to scholars that the Servian system of classes actually developed slowly over time, with the first class and equites being introduced first, and the later classes being slowly introduced at later dates – possibly as late as the fourth or third centuries BC. So the Servian constitution of the sixth century BC may have simply been a rationalization and reorganization of the existing tribal army based on economic and geographic criteria.

This still does not, however, explain the entire situation. Perhaps the most damning criticism of the Servian Constitution and the traditional model of Roman military development has come from increasingly careful analyses of the literary narrative itself. Outside of a few ‘structural passages’ in the literary tradition (essentially where the narrative stops and a bit of detailed information is given by the author on various aspects of early Roman military and political development), the literary narrative for early Rome seems to describe the Romans fighting wars and engaging in battles using a system which does not align with the precepts of the Servian model at all. Instead of fighting wars over land and control of territory, which would suit a community-based hoplite phalanx, during the late sixth and fifth centuries BC the Romans and their opponents seem to engage almost entirely in raiding for individual glory and wealth – a style of warfare for which a phalanx is decidedly ill-suited. Additionally, the few direct references to the Romans using a phalanx in an actual battle situation are surprisingly problematic. For instance, Dionysius of Halicarnassus describes the Roman army fighting against the Sabines in a phalanx.

For their foes, despising them because their troops were new recruits, encamped over against them, and placing ambushes on the roads, cut off the provisions that were being brought to them and attacked them when they went out for forage; and whenever cavalry clashed with cavalry, infantry with infantry, and phalanx against phalanx, the Sabines always came off superior to the Romans, not a few of whom voluntarily played the coward in their encounters and not only disobeyed their officers but refused to come to grips with the foe.

However, he also describes the tribal Sabine people as fighting in a phalanx and the entire passage is placed in a context of irregular warfare. As a result, it could be argued that Dionysius is using the word ‘phalanx’ to simply mean a group of infantry. This type of interpretation is supported by passages like this one, from a later battle narrative.

Against the troops who were fighting in the middle of the phalanx, which was widely spaced and lax, those who were stationed here charged in a body and drove them from their position.

Additionally, as noted above, although Roman society was supposedly reformed with military and political power being handed to the Centuriate and Tribal assemblies, neither of these assemblies seems to be active until the middle of the fifth century BC at the earliest. Instead, Rome’s military and political systems seem to be dominated by a collection of powerful clans and individuals who seem to have had a fairly limited connection to the community. During the Regal period, the city of Rome and her citizen population often seems like more of a bystander than a major player in much of the warfare taking place. So, where did this standard model come from? Why did the Romans think they fought in a hoplite phalanx, if they did not? The answer may lie in the historical tradition itself. Intriguingly, the Roman army which the literary sources describe emerging from the Regal period mirrors, almost exactly, the military situation which Greek and Roman historians seem to have envisioned for Greece at the end of the sixth century BC – and particularly the emergence of the classic hoplite phalanx and the reforms of Cleisthenes in Athens. Whether the ancient Greeks were correct in their view of their own history, and particularly their military development, is still quite a contentious issue in modern scholarship – with scholars like Han van Wees challenging the traditional models and suggesting that the classic hoplite phalanx and hoplite warfare which the sources seem to describe may have represented an idealized version of what was fundamentally a more often individual style of combat. However, the emergence of heavily armoured infantry in the sixth century BC, coupled with social and political reforms, would have made sense to someone familiar with this model. And when the Greeks started to write their histories of the Romans in the third century BC (it should be remembered that the first histories to mention Rome and discuss her origins were written by Greeks), after Rome’s emergence onto the Mediterranean stage with the war against Pyrrhus, and when the Romans settled down to write their own histories a couple generations later at the turn of the second century BC, they naturally looked at the strong historical precedent set in Greece and may have, either consciously or unconsciously, modelled their own narratives upon it.

Revised Literary Approach

Unfortunately, when it comes to looking outside the passages that form the basis for the traditional interpretation of the early Roman army, there is little solid evidence with which to work to create an alternative model. As a result, any attempts to assign concrete numbers, divisions or attributes to the early army will always represent guesswork (although perhaps educated guesswork) at best. The ideal complement of 3,300 men which the literary sources give for the curiate army of Romulus undoubtedly represents a rough estimate, based on what must have been a very muddled tradition, and it is clear that Romans did not envisage Rome’s later Regal army, as organized by the Servian Constitution, as ever having a set size. So it is probably best to consider Rome’s armed forces during this period as being flexible and reactionary, mobilized based on need and not necessarily on a set system or quota as in later periods. The rough proportion of infantry to cavalry in both the army of Romulus and Servius Tullius, effectively ten to one, may represent something like reality – as warfare would have been limited to those rich enough to afford their own equipment and the very rich (possibly the top ten per cent of the army) may very well have utilized horses, as we know these were present in the region. However, given the heavily forested nature of Latium during this period, in contrast to modern day Central Italy, it is questionable how effective cavalry would have been in actual combat – at least as anything resembling a unified force. So it is probably best to consider the number of various troop types and the distribution and use of equipment in the army of this period to be haphazard and largely based on personal choice and preference.

When considering how the army behaved in battle, although there are a number of battle descriptions preserved in the narrative, the vast majority are either so general or so mythologized and full of clearly anachronistic detail that it would be unwise to take them at anything resembling face value. Indeed, most scholars writing about the Roman army during the Regal period have, justifiably, often steered clear of using the more narrative passages in their analyses for these sorts of reasons. However, looking a little more closely, some broad themes do emerge which may shed some light on the situation. Perhaps the most obvious and consistent aspects of early Roman warfare seen in the literature are its open character and individual aspect. Warriors are regularly described engaging in duels and individual combat as part of a fluid battle where movement around the battlefield seems to be both possible and easy. This type of individual combat could (and often did) take the form of a formal duel, as seen with the ‘Battle of the Champions’ between the Horatii and Curiatii in the reign of Tullus Hostilius.

There happened to be in each of the armies a triplet of brothers, fairly matched in years and strength. It is generally agreed that they were called Horatii and Curiatii. Few incidents in antiquity have been more widely celebrated, yet in spite of its celebrity there is a discrepancy in the accounts as to which nation each belonged. There are authorities on both sides, but I find that the majority give the name of Horatii to the Romans, and my sympathies lead me to follow them. The kings suggested to them that they should each fight on behalf of their country, and where victory rested, there should be the sovereignty. They raised no objection; so the time and place were fixed. But before they engaged a treaty was concluded between the Romans and the Albans, providing that the nation whose representatives proved victorious should receive the peaceable submission of the other. This is the earliest treaty recorded, and as all treaties, however different the conditions they contain, are concluded with the same forms, I will describe the forms with which this one was concluded as handed down by tradition.

Alternatively, and far more commonly, there are numerous references to heroes confronting each other on the battlefield. Most notably there is Romulus defeating the king of the Caenina and winning the spolia opima for the first time.

Whilst they were scattered far and wide, pillaging and destroying, Romulus came upon them with an army, and after a brief encounter taught them that anger is futile without strength. He put them to a hasty flight, and following them up, killed their king and despoiled his body; then after slaying their leader took their city at the first assault.

Additionally, there are countless other instances where key figures in the narrative find themselves engaged in combat, as with Mettius Curtius and Hostius Hostilius in the war against the Sabines, or the combat between Brutus and Arruns Tarquin following the removal of Tarquinius Superbus.

Similarly the enemy’s cavalry was in front of his main body, Arruns Tarquin, the king’s son, in command; the king himself followed with the legionaries. Whilst still at a distance Arruns distinguished the consul by his escort of lictors; as they drew nearer he clearly recognised Brutus by his features, and in a transport of rage exclaimed, ‘That is the man who drove us from our country; see him proudly advancing, adorned with our insignia! Ye gods, avengers of kings, aid me!’ With these words, he dug spurs into his horse and rode straight at the consul. Brutus saw that he was making for him. It was a point of honour in those days for the leaders to engage in single combat, so he eagerly accepted the challenge, and they charged with such fury, neither of them thinking of protecting himself, if only he could wound his foe, that each drove his spear at the same moment through the other’s shield, and they fell dying from their horses, with the spears sticking in them.

Although these types of duels likely contain a strong mythic element, scholars (most notably Stephen Oakley) have convincingly argued, based on continued evidence for duelling throughout the Republic, that this type of single combat represented a regular aspect of war within the Roman military system and should not be discounted so quickly. The long tradition of the spolia opima in particular, which involves the Roman commander successfully defeating the enemy commander in single combat, hints that this type of interaction was not unheard of.

Another intriguing aspect which emerges is the importance of families and clans in warfare. This is something which will be discussed in the next chapter in detail, but it is important to recognize here that families and clans seem to play a much larger role in warfare than the state during this period. On the battlefield, family members are often depicted fighting alongside one another and family structures seem to have formed a viable mechanism for military recruitment, even after the traditional date for the Servian Constitution, as seen through Brutus’ recruitment of clan-based forces following the rape of Lucretia or, of course, the famous instance of the private war between the Fabii and Veii in the early Republic and various other similar instances.

Arguably the most interesting and noteworthy difference between the more structural descriptions of the army and the evidence which can be gleaned from the rest of the narrative, is that the bulk of Roman military activity during the Regal period was evidently not centred on state goals or conquest of land, but rather seems to have been largely concerned with raiding for portable wealth. Although all of Rome’s reges are described as expanding Roman territory militarily and conquering numerous settlements, and indeed the sources suggest that this type of activity was the usual goal of Roman military action, there is no evidence to suggest that any of these ‘conquests’ resulted in control of settlements or their territory. For instance, Rome’s famous victory over Alba Longa under Tullus Hostilius did not result in long-term Roman control over the region, or indeed the land in between the settlements. This ‘conquest’, like other victories after it during the Regal period, clearly had an immediate impact on the community in terms of loss of life and property but did not seem to result in the attestable creation of an extensive Roman ‘kingdom’ or ‘dominion’ over Latium.

This changing understanding of Roman warfare and the increasing absence of a grand strategic vision behind Roman military activity has also led scholars to challenge the literary sources’ interpretation of colonization. E.T. Salmon in his great work on the subject, Roman Colonization Under the Republic, published in 1970, followed the line of reasoning presented in Livy that Roman colonies planted during the Regal and early Republican periods were strategic in nature, used to secure territorial gains by the state. This approach has increasingly come under fire, however, in recent years as scholars have noted that Rome’s Regal colonies were actually never founded following victories and did not seem to maintain a strong political or military link to Rome – and indeed they often went into ‘revolt’. All this suggests that Regal colonization should probably not be interpreted as ‘Roman expansion’, as with the creation of citizen and veteran colonies in later periods, but rather as independent elite initiatives established for a range of other reasons.

Overall then, the narrative for early Roman warfare outside of the various authorial asides, which were likely added during the second and first centuries BC during the expansion of the historical narrative, paints a slightly different picture. Instead of having a grand strategy during this early period, Roman warfare seems to have been directed for shortterm gains by powerful warlords who relied heavily on the city’s (and region’s) clans for manpower. Battles themselves seem to have been a mixture of ambushes, raids and the occasional large scale engagements, but were generally open affairs with a significant amount of duelling and individual combat between aristocrats. The nature of warfare is therefore still extremely tribal and heroic where the state and community concerns seem to play a minimal role.

In many ways this situation actually mirrors what Livy and Dionysius suggest existed with Rome’s tribal army under Romulus, although they naturally seem to have envisaged a bit more state control following their expectations based on Rome’s late Republican system. Intriguingly though, there is no evidence in the narrative for any changes which might have resulted from the introduction of the Servian Constitution. During the reign of Servius Tullius and the final Tarquin we do not find the expected shift towards large group engagements or formations, state-centred military goals, the emergence of a hoplite ethos in battle, etc. The sources, despite the fact that they clearly envisaged Rome as a conquest-driven city-state, still describe a mode of warfare which was decidedly aristocratic in nature and driven by raiding/booty. Tarquinius Superbus, for instance, is reported as engaging in raiding against Ardea explicitly in order to acquire booty. The same can also be said of the actions of the young Sextus Tarquinius at Gabii and the vast majority of military actions in the early Republic.

Archaeology of Warfare in Archaic Rome

The archaeology for warfare in Latium during the Regal period is unfortunately limited and subject to a range of interpretations, but still provides an interesting parallel to the revised interpretation of the literature. The military equipment discovered in Central Italy dating to the period, largely from Etruria but also found near rich Latin communities like Praeneste, often seems to corroborate the picture of military development presented by Livy and Dionysius. Initial finds of swords, spears, axes and the occasional bits of bronze armour slowly seem to have given way to more complete bronze panoplies in the seventh and sixth centuries BC, often including large circular bronze shields and what appear to be hoplons. This sequence was clearly visible in Etruria, where identifiable hoplons – complete with the central porpax and antilabe grips, and in some instances with the wooden backing preserved – have been found. Despite the absence of similar evidence from Rome, it was often thought something similar must have been present there, given the strong Etruscan influence on the city during the sixth century BC under the Tarquins.

The key factor in the use of the archaeology to support the literary model was the interpretation of the hoplon and, albeit to a lesser extent, the heavy bronze armour. The mere presence of the Greek-style hoplon was often thought to necessitate densely-packed formations of heavy infantry, simply by virtue of its design. The large circular shield was believed to be too unwieldy for individual combat, while the use of the central porpax (a central metal band meant to carry the weight of the shield on the forearm) would have supposedly created an overlap to the left of the bearer which would have been ideally suited to a dense formation. Additionally, the heavy bronze armour which usually accompanied the shields, and particularly the ‘closed’ bronze helmet, was thought to have limited the sight and movement of a warrior to such a degree that the only practical means of fighting was as part of a dense formation where one only needed to see straight ahead and where movement was limited to a shoving match.

This interpretation of the hoplon and the associated heavy bronze armour has, however, undergone a massive revision in recent years. Led by Hans van Wees and his seminal work, Greek Warfare: Myths and Realities, a growing number of scholars have challenged the traditional view and pointed out that in Greece the hoplon and heavy bronze equipment actually grew out of a very individual form of combat prevalent in the Greek ‘Dark Ages’ (c. 1100–800 BC). Indeed, the closed helmet and full body armour would have arguably been redundant in a dense formation, where the formation itself would have provided the vast majority of the protection. This is something which can be seen during the Classical period of Greek warfare as various pieces of equipment are slowly dropped from the standard panoply until only the shield, spear and helmet are deemed essential in the Athenian phalanx by the mid-fourth century BC, with the minimal armour worn by the soldiers of the sarissa phalanx of Philip II and Alexander of Macedon possibly representing the culmination of development. This argument, although by no means universally accepted, would actually turn the interpretation of hoplon and bronze armour finds on its head, as it might suggest the presence of this equipment in fact indicates an individual approach to combat. It naturally does not rule out the use of a phalanx formation as well, but it suggests that the formation may have developed despite the heavy equipment instead of because of it, likely driven by social forces and not technological determinism.

The development of these models for early Greek warfare has naturally muddied the water quite a bit for early Roman warfare, as it has removed the most obvious reading of the limited finds we have and opened up an entire range of alternative interpretations. Thankfully though, it has also stopped the glossing-over of finds and evidence which did not fit neatly into a mode of warfare which utilized hoplite phalanxes. Most notably this included evidence for a range of different weapons, and particularly the widespread use of axes in military contexts, as axe heads have been found in the vast majority of graves containing other identifiable military equipment and reliefs featuring warriors from Central Italy. There are also a number of bronze shields which were interpreted as hoplons because of their circular shape, but which were clearly never meant to be used in combat as they lacked the wooden backing which provides the ultimate strength – instead the small central handle was attached directly to the bronze sheet which formed the front, creating a beautiful, but ultimately entirely decorative, piece of equipment.

Added to this diverse range of equipment finds are a series of artistic depictions of warriors, again (and unfortunately) almost always found in either burial or explicitly religious contexts, which may shed some additional light on the matter. These include the ubiquitous warrior figurines found in graves throughout Central Italy, tomb and sarcophagus paintings (largely found in Etruria), temple sculptures and vase paintings. All of these types of art defy a clear and detailed interpretation for a number of reasons. First, the artist who created the item may not have been attempting to depict local practice, or indeed anything practical, when creating the work. Archaeologists must assume that the finished piece had some sort of cultural resonance with the local community which ultimately incorporated it into their funerary or religious practice, but what that resonance was is uncertain. For instance, a figurine or vase painting may have depicted a local warrior, a mythic or heroic figure, a god, a Greek warrior, an interpretation of what a Greek warrior looked like, etc. Or it may have merely represented ‘wealth’. There are a few constants running through the artistic and iconographic corpus for Central Italy, however, which are consistent enough, and also align with the more concrete military equipment finds, which may be indicative of local norms. These include the regular use of heavy armour on the torso, including both bronze and linen cuirasses, an overall preference for more open helmets and the use of a wide range of weapons, including swords, spears and axes.

There also seems to have been a very strong connection between both military equipment and warrior depictions and elite status. This represents a very early trend in Archaic Central Italy, as seen in the finds from Osteria dell’Osa where weapon deposits in particular have been shown to align with high-status male graves. Although initially the depositions could be argued to represent merely ‘wealth’, based on the amount of metal and craftsmanship which went into each object (this may help to explain the military equipment found in a few female graves), the increasingly miniaturized and symbolic nature of the finds does suggest that warfare and military equipment had a direct connection to social and political authority. This correlation can also be seen in other graves from around Central Italy, most notably from Castel di Decima and Praeneste in Latium, and many sites, like Tarquinia, in southern Etruria. Warrior figurines and military equipment finds drop off substantially in Latium during the sixth century BC, but the few finds which have been excavated from the sixth and fifth centuries BC – for instance the famous Lanuvium warrior burial, dated to c. 500 BC – suggest a general continuation of practice.

Finally, when looking at the physical remains for warfare in Central Italy, one must also consider fortifications and city defences. For Central Italy, this evidence is puzzling as many communities, including Rome, did invest in fortifications during the seventh and sixth centuries BC, but they were usually simple affairs which only protected the easiest access routes. In Rome, some scholars have suggested that stone blocks found near the Palatine may represent the Archaic ‘Wall of Romulus’, although this is anything but certain. The first clearly identifiable fortifications at Rome are the agger and fossa (rampart and ditch) which cut across the Esquiline plateau, often dated to the sixth century BC based on pottery finds within the fill. Very similar to contemporary fortifications at other Latin sites, this agger and fossa took advantage of the natural topography of the community and protected the easiest route into the area from the east. The fortifications were extremely limited though and left large areas unprotected. This has led many scholars to suggest that these defences were designed to guard against raids and not as protection from sieges or major assaults. The first walls which were built at Rome which seem to have completely surrounded the city, the so-called ‘Servian Walls’, were only built in the fourth century BC.

So the final picture we have from the archaeological and artistic evidence for warfare during the Regal period seems to be one of aristocratic dominance. Military equipment and warrior iconography are only found associated with high status graves and adorn temples and tombs which were built by the aristocracy. This does not rule out participation in warfare by members of the lower class as well – but there is no evidence for it either. Additionally, there seemed to be something about military equipment and warrior iconography which resonated with the region’s elite as they, or in the case of a burial their family, chose these items and images to identify themselves with.

Conclusions and the power of the rex

The evidence for the Roman army during the Regal period is, ultimately then, contradictory. On the one hand we have the explicit testimony of the ancient sources which present a clear and coherent sequence of military development in a series of detailed asides, which envisaged a state-centred tribal army being created under Romulus and transformed into something resembling a civic militia, possibly based on a Greek-style hoplite phalanx, during the reign of Servius Tullius in the sixth century BC. Despite the change in the army’s structure and equipment during the sixth century BC, both armies seem to have functioned as an extension of the state’s (and rex’s) will, in much the same way as the Roman armies of the later Republic. Indeed, Rome’s Regal army, at least in these passages, is very clearly depicted as the point of origin and obvious ancestor for the later army and was seen to exhibit many of its key characteristics.

Outside of these few explanatory asides however, the literary evidence paints a picture of an army and a style of warfare that was much more aristocratic and heroic in nature. Far from being based on state-centred aims, warfare was conducted for booty and glory and short-term goals. Armies functioned not as an extension of the state and state policy, but as an extension of a powerful leader’s will. Military equipment was, and would remain, personal property and the type of equipment used in Archaic Central Italy is increasingly interpreted as being best suited for individual, and not group, action. Even the construction of fortifications is unlikely to have involved and included the full community.

The key issue, then, is the connection between the powerful clan leader, the army and the community – a power that the Roman’s associated with the grant of imperium.

The power of imperium is what bound a powerful clan leader, or warlord, to the community of Rome and to the army. Although we naturally have extremely limited and problematic information for this power in the Archaic period, as all of our evidence comes from later periods when imperium may have changed and evolved, it seems to have given an external leader the power to control, command and effectively integrate the members of the community into his own clan-based military model. A rex, via imperium, represented a powerful father figure to those in his army, with all of the power that a Roman paterfamilias would have wielded – including the power of life or death and the ability to judge those under his control.

This relationship clearly had power both ways, as the inclusion of community members in the army and retinue of a warlord would have changed the character of the power dynamic within. Additionally, the fact that imperium was granted by the community, with the comitia curiata effectively putting themselves under the warlord’s command and power, also suggests that they retained a certain amount of power and control in the relationship and could possibly remove themselves from it if needed. Fundamentally though, Rome’s army in the Regal period seems to have represented the result of an integration with a previously existing mode of aristocratic, clan-based warfare and military model, which actually continued to exist alongside the city’s armies well into the Republican period.

The Roman Army of the 5th Century BC

The Roman army of the fifth century BC obviously reflected the social and political changes occurring in Rome, although the development was evidently subtle. From an outsider’s perspective, very little would have changed in how the Roman army looked or was equipped from the Regal armies of the sixth century BC to the armies of the early Republic. Although military equipment disappears almost entirely from the archaeological record for the fifth century BC in Latium, what little evidence we do have (most notably the Lanuvium warrior burial, dated to c. 500 BC, some problematic sculptures from temple pediments and possible comparative evidence from Etruria) all suggests continuity rather than change. Roman and Latin warriors still seem to have equipped themselves in heavy bronze armour when they could, although there is some evidence for increased use of cheaper variations like the linen cuirass (linothorax). There are also gradual developments in helmet type, generally favouring cheaper options, although largely maintaining the previously existing style and function. This continuity makes sense as, for the most part, the soldiers making up the army seem to have been coming from the same groups as before and were likely using inherited equipment – although there are some hints that the pool for soldiers was gradually expanding during this period to include new members of the ‘upper middle class’ within the community (it is probably these new additions which favoured the cheaper options). The core of the army, however, remained the traditional forces of the gentes and they seem to have continued to use predominantly thrusting spears and the occasional sword in combat, which still seems to have been focused largely on individual duelling in close combat.

The real differences in the army, as discussed above, were in organization – although this would ultimately have a significant impact on how the army would have behaved in the field. The gradual transition from a fundamentally gentilicial or clan-based military structure, to one based on the community, seems to have resulted in a certain level of disorder in the ranks – as in the second half of the fifth century BC there are suddenly references to armies acting in a mutinous or disobedient fashion. Although this may represent a later literary embellishment, this type of behaviour does make some sense if the command structure, power dynamic and indeed the ultimate goals and aims of the army were changing – not to mention the inclusion of an increasing number of ‘new’ troops from the urban community of Rome. No longer were the goals and command structure necessarily aligned along long-standing and traditional clan-based lines, where the word and power of a paterfamilias reigned supreme – and again, this seems to have been the case even in Rome’s previous armies controlled via imperium – but instead everything was passing through the new (and still quite fluid) matrix of the community. Although this new system seems to have resulted in the possibility of slightly larger armies, it did not always result in more effective armies – and particularly not for the powerful, clan-based elite.

Battle of the Colline Gate (82 BC)

(82 BC, November 1) – First Civil War

Carrinas, Censorinus and Damasippus made a last effort to relieve Praeneste from the north, in conjunction with the Samnites who were trying once more to break through from the south. This attempt too failed, and so it was decided to try a diversion by marching on Rome itself, which now lay almost empty of both men and supplies, in the hope of drawing Sulla out of his impregnable position. By the early morning of 1 November the Italian force had reached a point just over a Roman mile from the Colline Gate. But although Telesinus may have made a speech urging his men to destroy the wolf in its lair, he made no attempt to take the city. No doubt, whatever his ultimate intentions may have been, he realized that it would be not only pointless but dangerous to allow his men to be distracted by the delights of sacking Rome while Sulla was still in the field. So the Samnites and their allies waited for Sulla to appear.

Sulla had sent a squadron of cavalry ahead while he himself hurried in full force down the Via Praenestina. About noon he encamped near the temple of Venus Erycina. The battle began in late afternoon, against the advice of some of Sulla’s officers, who thought that the men were too tired. The right wing, commanded by Crassus, won an easy victory, but the left, under Sulla’s own command, broke. Sulla risked his life in trying to rally his forces but they fled, despite his despairing prayers to Apollo, towards the city. Sulla was forced to take refuge in his camp, and some of his men rode for Praeneste to tell Afella to abandon the siege, though Afella refused to panic. But when Sulla’s fleeing troops reached the gates of Rome the veterans dropped the portcullis, compelling them to stand and fight. The battle continued well into the night, as slowly but surely Sulla’s men gained the upper hand, until finally they captured the Samnite camp. Telesinus himself was found among the dead, but Lamponius, Censorinus and Carrinas escaped. Later still messengers came from Crassus, who had pursued the enemy as far as Antemnae, and Sulla learned for the first time of his success.

The generals of Carbo’s faction fled after their army had been destroyed. It was estimated that in all about 50,000 men were slain. In the aftermath of Sulla’s narrow victory his enemies were rooted out one by one and eliminated, leaving him with the absolute power of a dictator.

Its aftermath was marked by yet more bloodshed. The Samnites who fought with the Marians were systematically massacred. A full attack was launched against Praeneste; Marius committed suicide, and all his associates who happened to be in the city were massacred. It was the opening act of the organised massacre known as the first `proscription’, which was accompanied by a law (the lex Cornelia de proscriptione) that legalised the confiscation of the patrimonies of the victims and gave impunity to their killer. Proscriptions were to become a trademark of late Republican history.

The success of Sulla’s campaign, with major efforts being concentrated on two fronts-Campania and Praeneste-was made possible only by the contemporaneous parallel victories of the Sullan generals on other fronts. In northern Etruria and in Aemilia Metellus countered the attacks of Carbo, while Pompey and Crassus obtained crucial victories against Carbo himself and C. Carrinas. Sulla’s direct involvement on this front appears to be limited to a single military confrontation with Carbo, near Clusium.

This city was certainly loyal to the Marians, who used it as a pivotal point for the movements of their troops. The allegiance of the Etruscan cities to the anti-Sullan coalition is widely accepted, and con? rmed by the available evidence, which however fails to be satisfactory in many respects. It has been argued that Cinna managed to obtain the support of the elites, while the lower classes had wholeheartedly supported Marius, perhaps being attracted by the prospect of serving in his army. The evidence, however, is almost non-existent, and we also lack any information about the dissensions that may have arisen within the Etruscan elites about their attitude towards Sulla. It is beyond dispute, nonetheless, that some groups of the aristocracy managed to reach an agreement with the winner as soon as the outcome of the war became clear.

What was left of the army of the Mariani after the Colline Gate battle was disbanded in Etruria. The war, however, continued on several fronts, as the literary sources on one hand, and the archaeological evidence from a number of sites on the other show. From the literary accounts of the war, it is apparent that Clusium and Arretium had an important role in the development of the operations. Populonia was besieged and sacked, almost certainly by Sulla. The Acropolis, which had gone through an impressive renovation in the last decades of the second century BC, was abandoned from then on. The site still looked almost depopulated in the early fifth century. Telamon, although not a municipium, was ravaged, and traces of a sack, followed by a prompt reconstruction, have been recently detected at Saturnia. The extent of violence and human losses finds further confirmation in the four coin hoards datable to the late 80s that have been discovered in Etruria.

Volaterrae came into play at a late stage of the war, as the last stronghold of the diehard enemies of Sulla, both Etruscans and Roman victims of the proscriptions. It was, along with Nola, one of the last fronts Sulla had to deal with before concentrating all his energies on the institutional reforms. From a passage of the pro Roscio Amerino we know that he was still besieging the city in the first months of 81BC, soon after the beginning of the proscriptions. A passage of Licinianus, whose importance was rightly stressed by A. Krawczuk, dates the final conquest to 79BC, during the consulship of Appius Claudius Pulcher and Servilius Vatia. A number of proscribed were still in the city, and left just before the besiegers arrived. However, they were promptly caught and eliminated. The siege of Volaterrae is therefore a significant exception in Italy, which was mostly pacified after 82BC. For three years, possibly until Sulla’s abdication from dictatorship, an important Etruscan city was still held by a contingent of rebels; there is no reason to disbelieve Licinianus.  That the situation at Volaterrae was unparalleled in Italy is apparent from several pieces of evidence. Nola, the other main anti-Sullan city, was conquered about two years before, in 81, and its ager was promptly assigned to the Sullan veterans. On the contrary Volaterrae attracted all sorts of anti-Sullan partisans because of its strategically invaluable position, and it remained a critical front for a longer period.

Battle of Colline Gate 82 BC – Command & Colors Ancients

Sulla Marches on Rome

Sulla Marches on Rome

However, during that year a tribune and former associate of Drusus, Publius Sulpicius Rufus, clashed with Sulla and his colleague Quintus Pompeius Rufus over Italian voting rights. The new Romans had found their brand-new citizenship a rather dilute thing as they had been allotted to ten tribes (and hence ten votes). As their champion Sulpicius proposed to reform the tribal system and enrol the new citizens in the thirty-five old tribes so that their right to vote would not be utterly vitiated.

Up against stiff senatorial opposition and needing further support for his reforms, Sulpicius adopted a more radical stance and allied himself with Marius, who in turn wanted the tribune’s help to obtain the lucrative command against the Pontic king. Violence erupted on the streets of Rome and Pompeius Rufus’ son, who was related to Sulla by marriage, was one of the victims. During the rioting Sulla himself was forced to seek refuge in Marius’ house, later managing to flee the city. Sulpicius was now in power and his programme of measures, including the bill transferring the eastern command to Marius, was passed by vote of the people. The septuagenarian general had stepped down from command during the later stages of the Social War pleading age and fatigue, but the glory and booty that would result from a successful campaign in the richest area of the Graeco-Roman world were undoubtedly great inducements for a second comeback.

When a tribune had done something similar in 107 BC, taking the command against Iugurtha from Metellus and handing it to Marius, Metellus had acquiesced in the decision of the people, whatever sense of outrage he may have felt. The response of Sulla, now at Nola preparing to depart for the east, was to be entirely different and revolutionary.

With his soldiers behind him, Sulla marched on Rome and after a few hours of street-fighting imposed martial law for the first time in Roman history; Sulpicius and Marius were declared hostes, or public enemies. Sulpicius was hunted down and killed, but Marius, after a series of hair-raising adventures that saw him outfacing contract killers, made a spectacular escape to Africa where he was persona grata among the settlements of his own veteran soldiers.

Sulla had earned the dubious distinction of being the first man to march his legions against Rome, and Appian recalls his justification for doing so:

When Sulla discovered this [i.e. the transfer of the eastern command to Marius], he decided to settle the matter by force and summoned his army to a meeting, an army that was eagerly anticipating a profitable war against Mithridates and thought that Marius would enlist other men in their place… . [Sulla] immediately placed himself at the head of six legions. Except for one quaestor, the officers of his army made off to Rome because they could not stomach leading an army against their own country. On the way, Sulla was met by a deputation who asked him why he was marching under arms against his native land, and he replied, ‘To free her from tyrants’.

Appian, Bellum civilia, 1.57

Appian waxes lyrical here, but it is clear that the event was traumatic as all Sulla’s officers bar one refused to march with him, the rest resigning their commands and hurrying to the defence of the city. What had changed was not the attitude of the army and its officers, but that of their general. Sulla had dared to do what others scarcely dared to dream.

First Civil War

The following year Lucius Cornelius Cinna, a popularis, and Cnaeus Octavius, an optimate, were returned as consuls. Octavius was a tractable man, but Cinna attempted to re-enact Sulpicius’ legislation on the voting rights of the new citizens. He also recalled Marius, but was driven out of Rome along with six of the tribunes by his colleague, who supported the status quo – namely not allowing the new citizens to be fairly distributed among the voting tribes.

Washing up outside Nola, where the Social War still flickered, Cinna appealed to the one legion Sulla had left to continue the siege, and also to the rebel Italians within. In the meantime, after long months brooding in Africa, Marius had landed at Telamon in Etruria. Recruiting a personal army of slaves, he joined forces with Cinna, and then turned on Rome. There Marius quickly introduced tribal reform, and even granted the unbending Samnites full citizen rights. Psychotic with rage and bitterness, he then ordered Rome to be systematically purged of anti-Marians, including Octavius, along with six consulares, Marius’ old campaigning colleague Catulus among them. But the main opponent, his erstwhile protégé Sulla, had already gone east with five legions to fight Mithridates.

The capstone of this orchestrated bloodbath was that Cinna and Marius made themselves, without the formality of an election, consuls for the coming year. Marius had held the consulship an unprecedented six times. He liked to claim that a fortune-teller in Utica had promised him a seventh. Early in 86 BC Cinna (cos. II) and Marius (cos. VII) tightened their grip on Rome. However, Marius quickly abandoned himself to alcohol abuse and nightmares. A fortnight later he was dead.

The following year Cinna chose Cnaeus Papirius Carbo, who had been a praetor during the Social War, as his colleague, and the two would remain self-appointed consuls until 84 BC, a period known as dominatio Cinnae. They appointed censors so as to begin a full registration of new citizens, and a detailed reorganisation of local government in Italy now commenced, and would continue for decades.

Sulla Marches on Rome, Again

Out east in the meantime Sulla had won a number of spectacular successes against Mithridates and against the Marian commander Caius Flavius Fimbria, sent by Cinna to replace him. Fimbria had fought well against Mithridates too, but in 85 BC lost his army to Sulla and committed suicide. In 84 BC Sulla held a summit with Mithridates himself. Both men had good reason to come to an agreement. Mithridates, knowing the game was up, was desperate to keep hold of his kingdom. Sulla, nervous of his enemies back in Italy, was eager to head home. The hurried result was the Peace of Dardanus, which not only allowed Mithridates to remain on the throne of Pontus but also to retain some of his territorial gains. The cold-blooded murder of 80,000 Italians was conveniently forgotten. Yet the time would come when Rome would regret that Mithridates had not been finished off for good.

Sulla’s troops spent a luxurious winter in the fleshpots of Athens, binding them more closely to him. The relationship between political and military power was abundantly clear to the successful and ruthless Sulla, and it was now that the victorious proconsul dispatched an ominous letter to the Senate. The government he had established before his hurried departure had collapsed and Sulla himself had been declared a hostis at the behest of Marius and Cinna, his property razed, his family forced to flee. ‘However’, as Appian says about Sulla and his outlaw status, ‘in spite of this he did not relax his authority in the least, since he had a zealous and devoted army’. Now that Mithridates had been tamed, Sulla prepared to embark his loyal troops and turn his vengeance back on his native city.

At Rome events moved on apace. While Sulla was talking peace with Mithridates, Cinna (cos. IIII) had been stoned to death by his own troops during a mutiny, thus leaving Carbo (cos. II) as the sole consul for the rest of the year. Carbo, struggling with a moderate majority in the Senate and despite having pandered to the newly enfranchised communities, was eventually forced to take hostages from many towns and colonies in Italy to ensure their loyalty in the coming showdown with Sulla. As the acceptable face of the Cinnan régime, Lucius Cornelius Scipio Asiagenus and Caius Norbanus were returned as consuls for the coming year.

Early in 83 BC Sulla landed at Brundisium (Brindisi), and large numbers of senators and sons of senators flocked to his side, including the young Pompey. Unlike his first march on Rome, when only a single officer had accompanied him, Sulla’s entourage was now thronged with members of the nobilitas. By changing the rules of the political game, civil wars encouraged even more exceptional careers among those who supported the winning side and, as we shall later discover, that of Pompey was to break all records. Alas for the losers there was no such luck: Scipio Asiagenus’ soldiers judged they would do better to serve under the lucky Sulla.

In 82 BC Caius Marius minor, not yet 27 years old, was consul alongside the veteran Carbo (cos. III), and they attempted, through a Marian–Cinnan coalition, to reassert control after a string of defeats. Despite many of his father’s veterans coming to his standard, Marius was eventually holed up in the hill town of Praeneste, some 40 kilometres east of Rome. Once again the Samnites, for the last time in history, marched down from their mountains and entered the war. They joined a Marian cause already on the point of collapse, but failed to lift the siege, and then, with the sudden realisation that Rome lay unprotected to their rear, abruptly turned and marched on the capital. Abandoned by his new allies, Marius minor committed suicide, while Sulla, surprised by the Samnites’ action, pursued them at frantic speed. Throwing his exhausted army into battle outside the city walls, by dawn on 2 November he emerged unbeaten from the bloodbath of Porta Collina. It had been a close call. The Samnites had marched on Rome not from loyalty to old Marius’ memory, but ‘to pull down and destroy the tyrant city’.

Marius in the Political Wilderness

With six consulships and two triumphs, Marius had created an extraordinary precedent. He was now a man above the system, a forerunner of Pompey and Caesar. However, at the time Marius’ unconstitutional position did have a certain amount of logic to it as he was no revolutionary and the system had worked to his advantage. The other extraordinary aspect was the temporary nature of Marius’ influence.

There is an old Latin expression gladius cedet togae, ‘the sword gives way to the toga’. If a man would be great, he must be great at home too. After his defeat of the northern tribes, Marius was hailed by the people as the third founder of Rome, a worthy successor to Romulus himself and Camillus – the old saviour from the war with Brennos the Gaul, the sacker of Rome. However, the year 100 BC, the year of his sixth and penultimate consulship, saw the great general fail disastrously as a politician. Marius would desert the tribune who had aided him, Saturninus, and stand by as an angry mob lynched him and his supporters.

The firebrand Saturninus had been re-elected as one of the tribunes for the coming year, proposing yet more radical bills, but the Senate, who saw the spectre of tribunician government raise its ugly head again, called on Marius to protect the state. Having restored public order under the terms of a senatus consultum ultimum, both literally and efficaciously ‘the ultimate decree of the Senate’, the veteran general subsequently saw his popular support slip away. The nineties BC were to be a decade of political infighting of the most extreme sort, and one of its first victims, according to Plutarch, was Marius. Yet his actions in 100 BC can be seen as a bungling attempt to announce his arrival to the nobility of Rome. Of interest here are Sallust’s remarks concerning the monopoly of the nobilitas on the consulship:

For at that time, although citizens of low birth had access to other magistracies, the consulship was still reserved by custom for the nobilitas, who contrived to pass it from one to another of their number. A novus homo, however distinguished he might be or however admirable his achievements, was invariably considered unworthy of that honour, almost as if he were unclean.

Sadly for Marius, to the nobilitas he would always be, despite his unprecedented six consulships and two triumphs, a novus homo. Despised by the inner élite and shunned by the equestrians and the people, Marius was now cast into the political wilderness. In early 98 BC Metellus Numidicus was recalled from exile – Saturninus had orchestrated this for Marius two years previously – and Marius, having tried to delay the return of his one-time patronus, admitted defeat and scuttled off to Asia ‘ostensibly to make sacrifices, which he promised to the Mother of the Gods’. The following year he did not stand, as was expected, for the censorship, a clear sign that he was not in the political spotlight.

Marius wanted to beat the nobilitas at their own political game, substituting self-made support for their inherited connections. Showing little flair for politics, it did not occur to him – as it would have done to Sulla and Caesar – that the rules of the game could not be changed. Though connected to the equestrians by birth and interests, and favouring the welfare of soldiers (including Italians, whom he truly valued as allies), he had no positive policies or solutions for the social problems of the day. As an individual he was superstitious and overwhelmingly ambitious, but, because he failed to force the aristocracy to accept him, despite his great military success, he suffered from an inferiority complex that may help explain his jealousy and, later, his vindictive cruelty. Yet he marks an important stage in the decline of the Republic: creating a client army, which Sulla would teach his old commander how to use, he was the first to show the possibilities of an alliance between a war leader, demagogues and a noble faction. His noble opponents, on the other hand, in their die-hard attitude both to him and later Sulla, revealed their lack of political principle and loss of power and cohesion.


Gaius Crastinus moved among his men, checking their equipment. He was no longer chief centurion of the 10th. That role had gone to a younger centurion the previous year, on Crastinus’s retirement. But on his recall, Caesar had welcomed Crastinus back to his legion with the rank of first-rank centurion, and for this operation had placed him in charge of 120 volunteers of the 1st Cohort of the 10th Legion, putting them in the front line. Caesar had once more placed the 10th Legion on his extreme right wing, the attacking wing. Much would depend on the 10th today.

Crastinus assured his comrades that they had just this one last battle to face as he moved along the line. He would have noticed a change of attitude among the men of the 10th since his return to its ranks. A lot of them had probably complained that Caesar no longer valued the 10th, that he treated it no better than the new Italian units with their raw, weak-kneed recruits. He’d broken his promise, and used the Germans as his bodyguard, not the 10th.

Now aged between thirty-four and thirty-seven, Crastinus had served Caesar for twelve of his seventeen years with the legions and was fanatically loyal to his general. He would have been quick to remind his comrades that Caesar had chosen the 10th to accompany him in the invasion’s first wave and now given them place of honor on the right wing. But there were apparently many in the 10th who sympathized with their countrymen in the 7th, 8th, and 9th, who were now eighteen months past their due discharge date and yet, as they complained, Caesar had not said a word about when they could go home.

“Remember what Caesar told us at Brindisi before we embarked,” Crastinus would have been telling his men. “One last campaign, one last battle.” Caesar himself records Crastinus saying: “After today, Caesar will regain his position, and we our freedom.”

It was midmorning on August 9, 48 B.C. As Centurion Crastinus took up his position on the extreme left of his front-line detachment, he faced across the field of swaying, ripening wheat to the army of Pompey the Great formed up some 450 yards away. Ever since the two sides had arrived on the plain of Farsala several weeks earlier, each had felt the other out, with cavalry skirmishes bringing a handful of fatalities on both sides, including one of the Allobroges brothers who’d defected to Pompey. More than once, Caesar had formed up his army in battle order in the wheat field, encouraging Pompey to come down off his hilltop and enter into a contest. Each time, Pompey stayed put. And each time, Caesar edged a little closer to the hills.

Then, early this morning, Caesar had broken camp. According to Plutarch, he was planning to march to Scotussa. Caesar himself says he’d decided to keep constantly on the move, seeking supplies for his army and leading Pompey a merry dance until the ideal opportunity for a battle presented itself. Even as his legions’ tents were being folded away and packed onto the baggage train, cavalry scouts came to Caesar to tell him that there was movement at Pompey’s camp. And as the lead elements of Caesar’s column marched out the front gate of his camp, more scouts arrived with the news that Pompey’s troops were beginning to come down from their hill and line up in battle formation—on the plain, giving up the advantage of higher ground. This was an obvious invitation to Caesar, and he accepted it.

“Our spirits are ready for battle,” Caesar says he declared. “We shall not easily find another chance.” He quickly issued orders for his red ensign to be raised as the signal for battle, and for the army to wheel about and form up on the plain opposite Pompey’s troops. According to both Appian and Plutarch, Caesar called out to his men, “The wished-for day has come at last, when you shall fight with men, not with famine and hunger.”

Summoning his senior officers to a brief conference, he’d ordered the same dispositions as the last time the army formed up for battle. Then, turning to General Publius Sulla, who would command the division on the right wing of the battle line, he told him to call for volunteers from the 10th to form the front line and lead the charge, knowing the untried legions in the center would be inspired by the performance of the famous 10th.

Some 120 men had quickly volunteered, among them Centurion Crastinus, which was why they now stood at the front of the 10th Legion’s formation on the extreme right of Caesar’s army, the cohorts stretching back in a total of three battle lines. Beside the 10th, making up the rest of the right division, stood the men of the 11th and 12th Legions. General Sulla had already taken up his position on the right with his staff.

Caesar’s center was commanded by General Domitius Calvinus, who had previously led the screening force in eastern Greece. As was the custom, the weakest troops took the center. In this case the central division was made up of three of the new legions raised in Italy the previous year, the 25th, 26th, and 29th.

The left wing was commanded by Mark Antony, once again holding the post of second-in-command of the army. With him stood the experienced Spanish legions he’d brought over from Brindisi and commanded at Durrës. The 9th was on the extreme outside, with auxiliaries and slingers filling the gap between them and the Enipeus River. The 8th was stationed next to the 9th. Both legions had been so depleted by the flu epidemic and then the casualties at Durrës that Caesar had ordered them to work together during this action and operate as one legion. Next to them stood the men of the 7th Legion, adjacent to the central division. All told, leaving just two cohorts guarding his camp and the baggage, with his 27th and 28th Legions absent in southern Greece, now under General Fufius, and eight assorted cohorts garrisoning three towns on the west coast, he was able to field nine legions in eighty understrength cohorts, totaling twenty-one thousand foot soldiers.

To counter Pompey’s cavalry massing on his right, Caesar deployed his own thousand-man cavalry, Germans and Gauls, supported by auxiliaries, extending from the 10th Legion’s position. His mounted troops and the auxiliaries had cooperated well in skirmishes against Pompey’s cavalry in the week or so leading up to the battle, and Caesar was hoping they would do the same again today to counteract Pompey’s significant superiority in cavalry.

Facing him, at Caesar’s estimation, Pompey had forty thousand infantry and seven thousand cavalry. As he came down onto the plain that morning, Pompey left seven cohorts drawn from a number of his least experienced legions to guard his camp, supported by auxiliaries from Thrace and Thessaly. General Afranius, who’d escaped from Spain to join Pompey, had come under severe criticism from Pompey’s other generals for losing seven legions to Caesar in Spain, despite the fact that he’d managed to bring thirty-five hundred men of the 4th and the 6th with him to Greece, and he’d been given the humble job of commanding the defenders of the camp, accompanied by Pompey’s eldest son, Gnaeus, who was probably in his midtwenties at this point.

Young Gnaeus would have been hugely frustrated at being left in the comparative safety of the camp, with the second-rate troops and thousands of noncombatants. He’d proven his bravery and military skill when he’d commanded the fleet from Egypt that had destroyed Caesar’s shipping along the Adriatic coast during the winter. But his father was obviously anxious to protect his son and heir. This act is indicative of the negative mind-set of Pompey on the day of the battle. Forced to agree to the battle by his impatient supporters at the meeting two days before, he still had little confidence in most of his infantry.

According to both Plutarch and Appian, Pompey had been awakened by a disturbance in his camp in the early hours of that morning: just before the last change of watch, excited sentries had witnessed a fiery-tailed meteor race across the sky from the direction of Caesar’s camp and disappear beyond the hills behind their own. Once awake, Pompey confided to his staff that he’d been dreaming he was adorning the temple of Venus the Victorious at Rome. Julius Caesar’s family claimed descent from the goddess Venus, and Pompey’s supporters were delighted by the dream, seeing it as an omen that Pompey soon would be celebrating the defeat of Caesar. Pompey wasn’t so sure; the dream could also be interpreted that he was saluting Caesar as victor.

Unbeknownst to Pompey, the previous evening Caesar had issued as his army’s watchword, or password, for August 9, “Venus, Bringer of Victory,” quite unaware that Pompey planned to bring on a battle next day.

A new watchword was issued every day in Roman military camps. Polybius tells us the watchword was issued for the next twenty-four hours by the commanding officer just before sunset. The tribune of the watch then distributed it on wax sheets to his legion’s guard sergeants, who in turn passed it on to the duty sentries in a strictly regulated process that required the prompt return of the wax sheets. Anyone trying to enter a Roman camp without knowing the watchword for the day was in trouble.

In battle, especially at times of civil war like this, with both sides similarly equipped, as well as in night fights, a watchword was often the only way to identify men from your own side. There are several instances of watchwords being hurriedly changed just before a battle in case deserters had passed on the latest watchword to the enemy overnight.

Watchwords could be a single word or a phrase. In imperial times, the emperor always issued the watchword to the Praetorian Guard if he was at Rome or to the army if he was in camp with them. Claudius frequently gave lines from epic poems. Nero famously issued “The Best of Mothers” in honor of the mother he later murdered. Dio and Seutonius say Caligula teased a particularly macho Praetorian tribune who came to dread the days when it fell to him to ask the emperor for the watchword; Caligula would call him a girl and give him watchwords such as “Love” and “Venus”— goddess of love. Dio also says that the night before Emperor Marcus Aurelius died in A.D. 180 he gave as the next day’s watchword “Go to the Rising Sun, I Am Already Setting.”

On August 8, 48 B.C., Pompey the Great, knowing the new day would bring the battle he’d been avoiding for a year and a half, had issued “Hercules, the Unconquered” as his watchword for August 9. Like mighty Hercules, Pompey had never been defeated in battle, and he was hoping it would stay that way.

Now that the day had arrived, despite his misgivings, Pompey made his troop dispositions with care. Marshaled by their centurions, the men of his elite 1st Legion confidently took up their assigned positions as the first heavy infantry unit on his left wing. Like Napoleon’s Imperial Guard 1,860 years later, the men of the 1st considered themselves the crème de la crème of their general’s army. Yet, as Pompey knew, despite the 1st’s proud record, most of the men of this enlistment of the legion had never been involved in a major engagement.

Beside the 1st stood Caesar’s former 15th Legion. The men of the 15th had six years’ experience behind them, four of those fighting for Caesar in Gaul, and were probably Pompey’s best troops in terms of experience. Since being given to Pompey by the Senate two years back, the legion had served him without question. Caesar now refused to call it the 15th. Instead, being rather petty, he would refer to it as the 3rd—because, it seems, the 15th came from the same recruiting ground in Cisalpine Gaul as the 3rd, which was one of Pompey’s legions that Caesar had captured in Spain and disbanded. But, deep in his heart, Pompey must have wondered whether, when it came to the crunch, the 15th could be trusted, whether the legion’s old association with Caesar would impact on its reliability in the heat of battle.

Next to the 15th stood two of the newly recruited legions that Pompey had brought out of Italy the previous year, made up mostly of youths in their late teens. This left-hand division of four legions came under the command of General Domitius Ahenobarbus. This was the same General Domitius who had lost Corfinium and Marseilles, but Pompey was a great respecter of rank, and Domitius outranked just about everyone else in his party, so he’d been given this command despite his past failings.

Pompey’s father-in-law, Scipio, held the middle of the line with his two Italian legions, raised five years earlier, survivors of Carrhae who had subsequently been stationed in Syria, plus the third of the new legions made up of untried Italian recruits which had escaped from Brindisi with the 1st and the 15th.

Commanding the division on Pompey’s right wing, General Lucius Lentulus, a consul the previous year, had long been a violent opponent of Caesar and was a dependable commander. Pompey had stationed auxiliaries and 600 slingers all the way to the Enipeus River. The riverbanks dropped down sharply to the Enipeus, like small cliffs, and couldn’t be scaled by either infantry or cavalry, so Pompey knew that he couldn’t be outflanked on his right, allowing him the luxury of leaving this wing without cavalry cover. The veteran soldiers of the seven Spanish cohorts of the 4th Legion and the 6th Legion that had escaped from Spain to join Pompey now held his right wing, behind their own eagles but working together, facing their countrymen of Mark Antony’s 8th and 9th across the wheat field, units that had been similarly combined because of their lack of numbers.

Beside these Spanish cohorts stood the Gemina Legion, the “twin,” so called by Pompey after he’d made up a single legion from two raised in Italy by Cicero in 51 B.C., and taken by him to Cilicia when he was governor there for a year, then left behind on garrison duty after he returned to Rome in 50 B.C. The remaining cohorts of those two original legions were still stationed in Cilicia. Between the Gemina Legion and Scipio’s troops, the seventy-five hundred men of the 24th and 28th, the former Italian legions of Gaius Antony that had come over to Pompey with Centurion Puleio and performed well at Durrës, formed up behind two eagles. Caesar, stung by their defection, would never refer to these two legions by name, simply calling them “some of Gaius Antony’s old troops.”

Pompey had called up another two thousand men, retired veterans who’d settled in Macedonia and on the island of Crete, originally thinking of forming them into a separate legion; but they were no longer young men and were out of practice, so he split them into cohorts and spread them among his other units.

On paper, Pompey had 12 legions made up of 110 cohorts. Caesar would have only considered several of these any threat—the 1st, 15th, the Spanish cohorts of the 4th and 6th, perhaps the Gemina, and probably the two battle-hardened Italian legions Scipio had brought from Syria. Pompey had even less faith in these units than his opponent, and was pinning his hopes of victory solely on his cavalry. He had told his supporters that the cavalry would bring them victory before the infantry could even come to grips. This was wishful thinking. Pompey dreaded the prospect of pitting his infantry against Caesar’s, as he was certain his were not up to the task. So now all seven thousand of his cavalry formed up on his left wing, ready to undertake the tactical strike he had planned for them.

As Pompey and his staff prepared to take their position on the left, behind the 1st and 15th Legions, he and General Labienus parted company. Labienus rode to where his massed cavalry waited on Pompey’s far left wing. He would not have been surprised to see the 10th Legion allocated to Caesar’s right, facing him. He may have even thought that Caesar was becoming predictable. But he would not have taken the 10th lightly. The 10th Legion was by now universally considered, in the words of Plutarch, the stoutest of Caesar’s legions. Labienus had personally led the 10th in Gaul, and he knew what the Spanish legion was made of. Who could forget the day Labienus had sent the 10th splashing back across the Sambre to save Caesar from the Nervii? Overcome the 10th, he knew, and the rest of Caesar’s legions would be likely to buckle. In fact, Plutarch tells us that Pompey’s cavalry were given the explicit task of cutting off the 10th Legion from the rest of Caesar’s army and destroying it.

Behind General Labienus spread his massive mounted force. The twenty-seven hundred long-haired German and Gallic cavalrymen Labienus had brought over to Pompey from Caesar’s army formed the core of his cavalry. Five hundred Italian troopers had been brought up to Greece by sea by Gnaeus Pompey from where they’d been stationed in Egypt as a part of the bodyguard of young King Ptolemy XIII and his sister Cleopatra. King Deiotarus of Galatia had brought Pompey six hundred cavalry. The remaining cavalrymen had been supplied by various rulers from throughout the East, and both their quality and their loyalty were questionable. The main responsibility for the success of the operation lay with Labienus’s own men.

As had become his usual practice, Caesar had decided to station himself on his right wing, usually the hottest place in any battle, the place where victory and defeat were most decided. As he was moving to his position, he saw Pompey’s cavalry spreading directly opposite, saw Pompey himself on that wing, with six hundred slingers and three thousand auxiliary archers from eastern states forming up behind him. Colonel Pollio and other staff officers would have warned their commander that Pompey was aiming to outflank him on the right, but Caesar had already seen the danger for himself. He immediately devised a counter.

“Have one cohort taken from each of the legions in the third line,” he instructed. “Form them into a fourth line, behind the Tenth, where they are to await the order to charge the enemy’s cavalry.” He passed on a particular tactic he wanted this fourth line to employ, then added that the day’s victory would depend on their valor.

The exact number of men taken out of the third line for this special reserve is debatable. The implication, from Caesar himself, is that nine understrength cohorts were involved, one from each of his legions. Plutarch says there were six cohorts, and both he and Appian say they totaled 3,000 men; but in their day six full-strength cohorts numbered close to 3,000 men—2,880, to be precise—and none of Caesar’s units was anywhere near approaching full strength. It’s probable that about 2,000 men were actually involved. From what Appian says, it’s likely that these men were ordered to lie down to conceal their presence, in the same way the Duke of Wellington would, at the 1815 Battle of Waterloo, order his Foot Guards to lie down behind a ridge and await his signal to rise to the charge, a tactic that turned the battle against Napoleon’s advancing Old Guard.

Now, as Centurion Crastinus stood with his men of the 10th Legion in the front line, a familiar voice away to his right called him by name.

“What hopes for victory, Gaius Crastinus? What grounds for encouragement?”

This incident is recorded by several different classical sources, including Caesar himself. The centurion’s head whipped around, to see Caesar riding along the front line toward him accompanied by his staff officers. “Victory will be yours, Caesar,” said Crastinus. According to Plutarch, he reached out his right hand toward his general in a form of salute, adding, “You will conquer gloriously today.”

Caesar would have smiled in response to the centurion’s confident prediction and wished the men under Crastinus’s command good luck, then spurred his horse on. In his memoirs he relates how several times he stopped along the front line to give a short speech, moving on to repeat the same sentiment several times, making separate reference to the glorious record in his service of the individual legions in front of him, then adding, “My soldiers, I call on you, every man, to witness the earnestness with which I have sought peace up till now.” He went on to list the missions of various peace envoys and his failed attempts to negotiate a settlement with Pompey, then said, “It has never been my wish to expose my troops to bloodshed, nor to deprive the state of this army or of that which stands across the field from us today. But I have been given no choice.”

Then he issued his battle orders. The first two lines were to charge on his signal. The third line was to wait for his flag to drop a second time. Men of the front line were to let fly with their javelins as soon as the enemy was within range, then quickly draw their swords and close with the other side. Each time he gave his speech, it was met by a roar from the legionaries within earshot.

Across the wheat field, Pompey the Great was doing the same, pumping up his troops as he rode along their front line, with a speech he likewise would repeat several times. At their council of war two days earlier he’d told his officers that the battle they had all urged on him was at hand and it was up to them to bring the victory they so eagerly sought. According to Appian, he now told his troops, “We fight for freedom and for homeland, backed by the constitution, our glorious reputation, and so many men of senatorial and equestrian rank, against one man who would pirate supreme power.” He urged them to picture their success at Durrës as they advanced to the battle they had been demanding, with high hopes for a final victory. And here, too, the roar of thousands of soldiers rent the air of the summer’s morning in response to their general’s harangue.

As he returned to his position on the right wing, Caesar passed Centurion Crastinus once again. “General,” Crastinus called out as he went by, “today I shall earn your gratitude, either dead or alive.”

Caesar acknowledged him with a wave and cantered on. In Caesar’s mind was probably the morning’s sacrifice to the gods, prior to ordering his army to march, prior to Pompey inviting him to do battle, when the priest conducting the ceremony had informed him that the entrails of the first sacrificial goat indicated that within three days he would come to a decisive action. A little later, the augur had added that if Caesar thought himself well off now, he should expect worse, while if unhappy, he could hope for better.

With the departure to the rear of his commander in chief, Crastinus would have fixed his gaze on the soldiers immediately opposite—men of the 1st Legion, men from Cisalpine Gaul. He would have been glad of that, glad the 10th wasn’t facing the 4th or the 6th. He would not have enjoyed killing fellow Spaniards. But he’d killed plenty of Gauls in his time. He could kill these fellows quite happily, even if they were Roman citizens.


Never before had so many Roman troops faced each other on a single battlefield. Never before had two of Rome’s greatest generals fought it out like this. Pompey, conqueror of the East, fifty-seven, a former young achiever who had made history in his twenties, a multimillionaire, an excellent military organizer, a master strategist, coming off a victory, with the larger army. Caesar, conqueror of the West, who had celebrated his fifty-second birthday only three weeks before in the month that would eventually bear his name, who had been nearly forty before he made his first military mark, an original tactician and engineering genius with a mastery of detail, a commander with dash, the common touch, luck, and the smaller but more experienced army.

Plutarch was to lament that, combined, two such famous, talented Roman generals and their seventy thousand men could have conquered the old enemy Parthia for Rome, could have marched unassailed all the way to India. Instead, here they were, bent on destroying each other.

It probably occurred to Centurion Crastinus that he might know some of the 1st Legion centurions across the field, might have served with them, might have drunk with them and played dice with them somewhere on his legionary travels. He would have watched them talking to their men, animatedly passing on instructions. They were easy enough to spot; like him, they wore a transverse crest on their helmets. It made them easy to identify for their own men, and marked them as targets for the opposition. Centurions were the key to an army’s success in battle. Crastinus knew it, and Caesar knew it. The 10th Legion’s six tribunes were back between the lines. Young, rich, spoiled members of the Equestrian Order, few had the respect of the enlisted men. From later events it is likely that one of the 10th’s tribunes, Gaius Avienus, had done nothing but complain since they set sail from Brindisi that Caesar had forced him to leave all his servants behind.

This day would be decided by the centurions and their legionaries, the rank and file, and as Crastinus had told Caesar, he was determined to acquit himself honorably. Four hundred fifty yards away, men of the first rank of the 1st Legion would have been looking at Crastinus and setting their sights on making a trophy of his crested helmet. The man who took that to his tribune after the battle, preferably with Crastinus’s severed head still in it, could expect a handsome reward. Without doubt they looked confident, these legionaries of the 1st. Crastinus may have imagined they thought they were something special, Pompey’s pets. Crastinus would see how confident they looked in an hour or so.

Around the centurion, his men would have been becoming impatient, knowing in their bones that this day would not be like the others when they’d stood and stared at their opponents for hours on end before marching back to camp at sunset. This day the air was electric, and the tension would have been getting to some of them, wanting to move, to get started.

As if in answer, trumpets sounded behind the ranks across the field. Many of Pompey’s men were more than nervous; the centurions of the newer units were having trouble maintaining their formations, so Pompey decided not to waste any time. Moments before, the thousands of cavalry horses banked up on the extreme left of Pompey’s line had been waiting restlessly, some neighing, some pawing the ground, some fidgeting and hard to control. Now, with a cacophony of war cries, their riders were urging them forward. Within seconds, seven thousand horses and riders were charging across the wheat field.

Behind Crastinus, trumpets of his own side sounded. In response, Caesar’s German and Gallic cavalry lurched forward to meet the Pompeian charge, with their auxiliary light infantry companions running after them. The Battle of Pharsalus had begun.

On Pompey’s side, his thirty-six hundred archers and slingers dashed out from behind the lines and formed up in the open to the rear of their charging cavalry. On command, the bowmen let loose volleys of arrows that flew over the heads of their galloping troopers and dropped among Caesar’s charging cavalry.

The infantry of both sides remained where they were in their battle lines, and watched with morbid fascination as their cavalry came together on the eastern side of the battlefield. General Labienus would have been at the head of his German and Gallic cavalry, cutting down any Caesarian trooper who ventured near him, and issuing a stream of orders.

For a short while Caesar’s cavalry held its ground, but with their men falling in increasing numbers, they began to give way. At least two hundred of Caesar’s cavalrymen were soon dead or seriously wounded, and Labienus saw the time had come to execute the maneuver that Pompey had planned. Leaving the allied cavalry to deal with Caesar’s troopers, probably under the direction of his colleague General Marcus Petreius, he led his German and Gallic cavalry around the perimeter of the fighting and charged toward the exposed flank and rear of the 10th Legion.

Caesarian auxiliaries scattered from the path of the cavalry, and the men of the 10th Legion on the extreme right were forced to swing around and defend themselves as Labienus’s troopers surged up to them. As Labienus urged more squadrons to ride around behind the 10th and as they came to the legion’s third line, Caesar, not many yards away, barked an order.

Trumpets sounded, and the reserve cohorts of the fourth line suddenly jumped to their feet and dashed forward behind their standards, slamming into the unsuspecting cavalrymen before they even saw them. The men of the reserve cohorts had been given explicit instructions not to throw their javelins but to use them instead like spears, thrusting them overarm up into the faces of the cavalrymen. According to Plutarch, Caesar said, when issuing the order for the tactic, “Those fine young dancers won’t endure the steel shining in their eyes. They’ll fly to save their handsome faces.”

Now Caesar’s shock troops mingled with the surprised Germans and Gauls at close quarters, pumping their javelins as instructed, taking out eyes, causing horrific facial injuries and fatalities with every strike. The congested cavalry had come to a dead stop, compressed between the rear ranks of the 10th and the reserve cohorts. There were so many of them there was nowhere for the riders to go; they merely provided sitting targets for the men of the reserve cohorts as they swarmed among them.

As many as a thousand of Labienus’s best cavalrymen were killed in this counterstroke. The panic that was created quickly spread to the allied cavalrymen behind them. Seeing the carnage, with Labienus’s big, longhaired riders falling like ninepins or reeling back and trying to protect their faces from the javelin thrusts instead of pressing home the now stalled attack, the allied riders disengaged from Caesar’s cavalry, turned, and galloped from the battlefield, heading in terror for the hills.

This allowed Caesar’s cavalry to join the reserve cohorts against Labienus’s men, and despite the general’s best efforts to rally his troopers, the combination of infantry and cavalry was too much for them and they broke and followed the allied cavalry toward the high country. Labienus had no choice but to pursue his own men, with hopes of trying to regroup.

As Caesar’s cavalry chased Labienus and his troopers all the way to the hills, Pompey’s left flank was exposed. With a cheer, Caesar’s reserve cohorts spontaneously rushed forward to the attack in the wake of their victory over the cavalry. All that stood in their way were Pompey’s archers and slingers. These men of Caesar’s strategic reserve, high on their bloody success against the mounted troops, quickly crossed the ground separating the two groups, neutralizing the effectiveness of the archers’ arrows and the slingers’ lead shot. The slingers were armed merely with their slingshots. The archers, men from Crete, Pontus, Syria, and other eastern states, were armed, apart from their bows and arrows, only with swords. In close-quarters combat they were no competition for legionaries whose specialty was infighting. As the slingers ran, the archers bravely stood their ground and tried to put up a fight, but they were soon mowed down like hay before the scythe.

Now Caesar issued another order. His red banner dropped. The trumpets of the first and second infantry lines sounded “Charge.”

In the very front rank, on the right of Caesar’s line, Centurion Crastinus raised his right hand, clutching a javelin now. Caesar would later be told of his words. “Come on, men of my cohort, follow me!” he bellowed. “And give your general the service you have promised!”

With that, he dashed forward. All around him, the men of Caesar’s front line roared a battle cry and leaped forward, javelins raised in their right hands for an overarm throw when the order came to let fly.

Ahead, to the surprise of Crastinus and his comrades, Pompey’s front line didn’t budge. Pompey’s men were under orders to stand still and receive Caesar’s infantry charge, instead of themselves charging at Caesar’s running men, as was the norm in battles of the day. According to Caesar, this tactic had been suggested to Pompey by Gaius Triarius, one of his naval commanders. Pompey, lacking confidence in his infantry and anxious to give them an edge in the contest, had grabbed at the idea, which was intended to make Caesar’s troops run twice as far as usual and so arrive out of breath at the Pompeian line.

Caesar was later scathing of the tactic. He was to write that the running charge fired men’s enthusiasm for battle, and that generals ought to encourage this, not repress it. In fact, Pompey’s tactic did have something going for it, as his troops would present a solid barrier of interlocked shields against Caesar’s puffing, disorderly men, who had to break formation to run to the attack. It may have been effective against inexperienced troops, but in the middle of the battlefield Centurion Crastinus and his fellow centurions of the first rank drew their charging cohorts to a halt. The entire charge came to a stop. For perhaps a minute the Caesarian troops paused in the middle of the wheat field, catching their breath; then, led by Crastinus, they resumed the charge with a mighty roar.

On the run, the front line let fly with their javelins. At the same time, in Pompey’s front line, centurions called an order: “Loose!” The men of Pompey’s front line launched their own javelins with all their might, then raised their shields high to receive the Caesarian volley. Then, with javelins hanging from many a shield, they brought them down again, locking them together just in time to receive the charge. With an almighty crash Caesar’s front line washed onto the wall of Pompeian shields. Despite the impact of the charge, Pompey’s line held firm.

Now, standing toe to toe with their adversaries, Caesar’s men tried to hack a way through the shield line. On Caesar’s right wing, Centurion Crastinus, repulsed in his initial charge, was moving from cohort to cohort as his men tried to break through the immovable 1st Legion line, urging on his legionaries at the top of his voice above the din of battle. Crastinus threw himself at the shield line, aiming to show his men how to reach over the top of an enemy shield and strike at the face of the soldier on the other side with the point of his sword. As he did, he felt a blow to the side of the head. He never even saw it coming. The strength suddenly drained from his legs. He sagged to his knees. His head was spinning. Dazed, he continued to call out to his men to spur them on.

As he spoke, a legionary of the 1st Legion directly opposite him in the shield line moved his shield six inches to the left, opening a small gap. In a flash he had shoved his sword through the gap with a powerful forward thrust that entered the yelling Gaius Crastinus’s open mouth. According to Plutarch, the tip of the blade emerged from the back of Crastinus’s neck. The soldier of the 1st withdrew his bloodied sword and swiftly resealed the gap in the shield line. His action had lasted just seconds. No doubt with a crude cheer from the nearby men of the 1st Legion, Centurion Crastinus toppled forward into the shield in front of him, then slid to the ground.

It was a stalemate at the front line. Neither side was making any forward progress. But on Caesar’s right, the reserve cohorts, fresh from the massacre of Pompey’s archers and slingers, were swinging onto the flank and rear of the 1st Legion.

Pompey had seen his cavalry stroke destroyed in minutes, had seen the cavalry he’d been depending on for victory flee the field. And now his ever-dependable 1st Legion was in difficulty. If the 1st couldn’t hold, no one could. Without a word, he turned his horse around and galloped back toward the camp on the hill. A handful of startled staff rode after him.

Plutarch says that as Pompey reached the camp’s praetorian gate, looking pale and dazed, he called to the centurions in charge, “Defend the camp strenuously if there should be any reverse in the battle. I’m going to check the guard on the other gates.”

Instead of going around the other three gates of the camp as he’d said, he went straight to his headquarters tent, and there he remained. He hadn’t wanted this battle, he had known the likely outcome, especially if it came down to a pure infantry engagement. But expecting something and then actually experiencing it are two different things. In a military career spanning thirty-four years Pompey the Great had never once experienced a defeat. And never once, in all probability, had he put himself in the shoes of men he’d defeated, and imagined what defeat might feel like. It would have made the emptiness of failure all the more difficult to comprehend.

The men of the 1st, fighting now on three sides and outnumbered, were in danger of being surrounded and cut to pieces. No orders came from Pompey—he’d disappeared. None came from their divisional commander, the useless General Domitius. Pompey had failed to maintain a reserve, which might have been thrown into support the 1st now in its time of need. With no hope of reinforcement, and with self-preservation in mind, the officers of the 1st decided to make a gradual withdrawal, in battle order, in an attempt to overcome the threat to their rear. Orders rang out, trumpets sang, and standards inclined toward the rear. Their pride and their discipline intact, the 1st Legion began to pull back in perfect order, step by step, harried all the way by the 10th Legion and the reserve cohorts.

Beside the 1st, the 15th Legion did likewise. Away over on Pompey’s right, General Lentulus, seeing the left wing withdrawing, and with his own auxiliaries and slingers already in full flight, ordered his legionaries to emulate the 1st Legion and make an ordered withdrawal, for if they attempted to hold their ground, the center would give way and the right wing would be pressed against the Enipeus and surrounded. Like their comrades of the 1st, the Spanish veterans of the 4th and 6th Legions maintained their formation as they slowly edged back, pressed by their countrymen of the 8th and 9th. But in the center, the inexperienced youths of the three new Italian legions began to waver. They tried to follow the example of the legions on the flanks, but their formations, like their discipline, began to break down.

Now Caesar issued another order. Again his red banner dropped. Again trumpets sounded “Charge.” Now the men of his third line, who had been standing, waiting impatiently to join the fray, rushed forward with a cheer. As the fresh troops of the third line arrived on the scene, the men of the first and second lines gave way and let them through. The impact of this second charge shattered what cohesion remained in Pompey’s center. Raw recruits threw down their shields, turned, and fled toward the camp on the hill they’d left that morning. Auxiliaries did the same, and the entire center dissolved. It was barely midday, and the battle was already lost to Pompey’s side. It was now just a matter of who lived, and who died, before the last blows were struck.

The 1st Legion stubbornly refused to break, continuing to fight as it backpedaled across the plain pursued by the men of the 10th Legion and reserve cohorts. The 15th Legion appears to have broken at this point, with its men turning and heading for the hills. Over by the Enipeus, General Lentulus deserted his men and galloped for the camp on the hill. The 4th and 6th Legions, cut off from the rest of the army, withdrew in good order, fighting all the way, following the riverbank, which ensured they couldn’t be outflanked on their right. Mark Antony pursued them with the 7th, 8th, and 9th, and, apparently, with a charge was able to separate two cohorts of the 6th from their comrades. Surrounded, these men of the 6th, a little under a thousand of them, resisted for a time, then accepted Antony’s offer of surrender terms.

Meanwhile, two cohorts of the 6th and three of the 4th continued to escape upriver, with their eagles intact. Antony would later break off the pursuit and link up with Caesar at Pompey’s camp. These five cohorts of Pompey’s Spanish troops later found a ford in the river, slid down the bank, crossed the waterway, then struggled up the far bank. That night they would occupy a village full of terrified Greeks west of the river before continuing their flight west the next day.

At the camp on the hill, several thousand more experienced legionaries of the 15th, the Gemina, and the two legions from Syria had been regrouped by their tribunes and centurions to make a stand outside the walls. But as tens of thousands of Pompey’s newer troops and auxiliaries swamped around them, a number without arms, their standard-bearers having cast away their standards, and with Caesar’s legions on their heels, they abandoned their position and withdrew to make a stand on more favorable ground in the hills. Behind them, many of the men flooding through the gates began looting their own camp. It seems that the camp’s commander, General Afranius, had already escaped by this time, spiriting away Pompey’s son Gnaeus, probably as prearranged with Pompey.

While Pompey’s guard cohorts and their auxiliary supporters from Thrace and Thessaly put up a spirited defense of the camp, the overwhelming numbers of the attackers forced them to gradually withdraw from the walls. With fighting going on inside the camp, young General Marcus Favonius found Pompey in his headquarters tent. A friend of Marcus Brutus and an admirer of Cato the Younger, Favonius, who’d been serving on Scipio’s staff and just been made a major general, was a fervent supporter of Pompey. Now, horrified by the state in which he found his hero, the young general tried to rouse his commander from his stupor. “General, the enemy are in the camp! You must fly!”

Pompey looked at him oddly. All authorities agree on Pompey’s words at the news: “What! Into the very camp?”

Favonius and Pompey’s chief secretary, Philip, a Greek freedman, helped their commander to his feet, removed their general’s identifying scarlet cloak, replacing it with a plain one, then ushered him to the door. Five horses were waiting outside the tent. According to Plutarch, three of the four men who accompanied Pompey as he galloped from a rear gate before Caesar’s troops could reach it were General Favonius; General Lentulus, commander of the right-wing division; and General Publius Lentulus Spinther. The fourth man would have been Pompey’s secretary, Philip.

The five riders galloped north toward the town of Larisa, whose people were sympathetic toward Pompey. On the road, they encountered a group of thirty cavalrymen. As Pompey’s generals drew their swords to defend their leader they recognized the cavalry as one of Labienus’s squadrons, intact, unscathed, and lost. With the troopers gladly joining their commander to provide a meager bodyguard, the thirty-five riders hurried on.

Many of the men who had found a temporary haven in the camp now burst out and fled toward Mount Dogandzis, where a number of their colleagues were already digging in. The 1st Legion, in the meantime, appears to have withdrawn east. With Caesar summoning the 10th Legion to help him in the last stages of the battle at the camp, the 1st was able to continue to make its escape. It appears to have swung around to the south in the night and then, substantially intact and complete with most of its standards, including its eagle, marched west to the coast and Pompey’s anchored fleet.

Leaving General Sulla in charge of the continuing fight at the camp, Caesar regrouped four legions, his veteran 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th, and set off after Pompey’s men who had fled to the mountain. Upward of twenty thousand in number, mostly armed, and well officered still, these Pompeians continued to pose a threat. As scouts reported that these survivors had now left the mountain and were withdrawing across the foothills toward Larisa, Caesar determined to cut them off before they reached the town and its supplies.

Caesar took a shortcut that after a march of six miles brought his four legions around into the path of the escaping troops in the late afternoon. He formed up his men into a battle line. Seeing this, the Pompeians halted on a hill. There was a river running along the bottom of the hill, and Caesar had his weary troops build a long entrenchment line on the hillside above the river, to deprive the other side of water. Observing this, the men on the hill, all exhausted, hungry, and thirsty, and not a few wounded, sent down a deputation to discuss surrender terms. Caesar sent the deputation back up the hill with the message that he was willing to accept only an unconditional surrender. He then prepared to spend the night in the open.