How Did the Army of the Roman Empire Evolve?

This article is an edited transcript from Roman Legionaries with Simon Elliott, available on Our Site TV.

Dan has his regular catch-up with Simon Elliott on all things Roman. Why were the legionaries so successful, and how did they maintain that success for several centuries?

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For centuries, the army of the Romans dominated the Mediterranean and we remember it today as one of the most effective forces the world has ever seen.

Yet to ensure the Roman army was able to compete against various enemies – from the swift Parthians in the east to the menacing Celts in northern Britain – evolution was necessary.

So how did this army change tactically and operationally from Augustus onwards? Was there any rapid development in battlefield technology and tactics? Or was there a cradle of continuity?


If you look at the legionaries from the end of the reign of Augustus (14 AD) through to the legionaries at the beginning of the reign of Septimius Severus (193 AD), there was not a huge amount of change. The Roman soldiers we grow up reading books about, wearing lorica segmentata and having the scutum shields, pila, the gladius and the pugio, did not dramatically change in that time period. The military formations did not really change in that time period either.

You therefore tend to start looking at the evolution of Roman military tactics and technology from the time of the emperor Septimius Severus, and if you look at some of the arches and monuments in Rome – for instance the arch of Septimius Severus – you can still see there on that arch the Roman auxiliaries and their lorica hamata chainmail and the legionaries in segmentata.

Similarly on the Arch of Constantine, created towards the end of the fourth century, then you’re looking again at the changing technology. But even there on this much later arch you still get legionaries wearing lorica segmentata. Still, if you want a clear pathway of this change of technology and tactics you can see it beginning with Septimius Severus.

The Severan reforms

When Severus became the emperor in the Year of the Five Emperors in AD 193 he immediately began his military reforms. The first thing he did was abolish the Praetorian Guard as it had functioned so poorly in the recent past (even contributing to the demise of some of the emperors who did not last very long during the Year of Five Emperors).

The Praetorian Guard proclaim Claudius emperor.

So he abolished it and he replaced it with a new Praetorian Guard which he formed from his own veteran soldiers from the legions he’d commanded when governor on the Danube.

Suddenly the Praetorian Guard transformed from being a fighting force based in Rome, to one composed of elite soldiers. This provided the emperor a core body of men in Rome, and let’s remember throughout the Principate the legions tended to be based around the borders not within the Roman Empire. It was therefore very unusual to actually have a proper military force in Rome itself.

Alongside creating the fighting Praetorian Guard, Severus created three legions, one, two, and three Parthica. He based Legio II Parthica just 30 kilometres from Rome which was a clear message to the political elites in Rome to behave or else as this was the first time a full, fat legion had actually been based in close proximity to the heart of the empire.

The reformed Praetorian Guard and his new legions therefore provided Severus two big units around which he could build a mobile army if he wished. When Severus then increased the size of the horse guards in Rome, he then had what is effectively this embryonic mobile army which was the core of the force which he took with him when he campaigned to try and conquer Scotland in AD 209 and 210 before he died in York in AD 211.

Dan talks to Simon Elliott about Septimius Severus, about his Northern Campaigns and the true story of this savage 3rd century invasion of Scotland.

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Later transition

Severus was the beginning of the change. You can then run through to the time of Diocletian when there occurred a transition to having mobile units within the empire and fewer smaller units along the borders. By the time you get to Constantine, you have a full transition where the core of the Roman military was not the classic division of legionaries and Auxilia but was much more focused on these mobile armies – including larger cavalry contingencies based deep within the empire.

Ultimately you had this split between Comitatenses, the field army troops, and Limitanei, which were effectively gendarmerie who were along the borders acting as a trigger for any penetrations into the empire.

So there was a clear arc of change in developments, in tactics, in technology in the Roman army, but it did not begin until around the time of Septimius Severus. For the majority of the Roman Imperial Period the iconic Roman legionary, equipped with their lorica segmentata and scutum shields, remained a constant.

The Roman Army – The Development Of One Of The Most Powerful Military Forces In The Ancient World

The Roman army is often remembered as a highly professional force, with legionaries in segmented armor organized into centuries for close order combat. In reality, the Roman army changed a lot over the many years it dominated Europe and the Middle East. Their evolution can be divided into three broad phases – the Republican army, the reformed professional army that served the late republic and early emperors, and the army of the later empire.


Tribal forces (c. 752 BC – c. 578 BC) Edit

According to the historians Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus, writing at a far later date, the earliest Roman army existed in the 8th century BC. During this period Rome itself was probably little more than a fortified hilltop settlement and its army a relatively small force, whose activities were limited "mainly [to] raiding and cattle rustling with the occasional skirmish-like battle". [2] Historian Theodor Mommsen referred to it as Rome's curiate army, named for its presumed subdivision along the boundaries of Rome's three founding tribes (Latin: curiae), the Ramnians, Tities and Luceres. [3] This army's exact structure is not known, but it is probable that it loosely resembled a warrior band or group of bodyguards led by a chieftain or king. [4] Mommsen believes that Roman military organization of this period was regimented by the "Laws of [the apocryphal] King [V]Italus" [5] but these laws, though referred to by Aristotle, have been lost. [ citation needed ]

The army (Latin: legio) consisted, according to Livy, of exactly 3,000 infantry and 300 horsemen, one third from each of Rome's three founding tribes. [a] [6] Warriors served under six "leaders of division" (Latin: tribuni) who in turn served under a general, usually in the person of the reigning King. Mommsen uses philological arguments and references from Livy and others to suggest that the greater mass of foot-soldiers probably consisted of pilumni (javelin-throwers), with a smaller number possibly serving as arquites (archers). [7] The cavalry was far smaller in number and probably consisted solely of the town's richest citizens. [8] The army may also have contained the earliest form of chariots, [9] hinted at by references to the flexuntes ("the wheelers"). [10]

By the beginning of the 7th century BC, the Iron-Age Etruscan civilization (Latin: Etrusci) was dominant in the region. [11] [12] Like most of the other peoples in the region, the Romans warred against the Etruscans. By the close of the century, the Romans had lost their struggle for independence, and the Etruscans had conquered Rome, establishing a military dictatorship, or kingdom, in the city. [13]

Etruscan-model hoplites (578 BC – c. 315 BC) Edit

Although several Roman sources including Livy and Polybius talk extensively about the Roman army of the Roman Kingdom period that followed the Etruscan capture of the city, no contemporary accounts survive. Polybius, for example, wrote some 300 years after the events in question, and Livy some 500 years later. Additionally, what records were kept by the Romans at this time were later destroyed when the city was sacked. The sources for this period cannot therefore be seen as reliable, as they can be for later military history, e.g. from the First Punic War onwards. [13]

According to our surviving narratives, the three kings of Rome during the Etruscan occupation were Tarquinius Priscus, Servius Tullius, and Tarquinius Superbus. During this period the army underwent a reformation into a centurial army based on socio-economic class. [14] This reformation is traditionally attributed to Servius Tullius, the second of the Etruscan kings. Tullius had earlier carried out the first Roman census of all citizens. [15] Livy tells us that Tullius reformed the army by transplanting onto it the structure derived originally for civil life as a result of this census. [14] At all levels, military service was, at this time, considered to be a civic responsibility and a way of advancing one's status within society. [16]

However, Rome's social classes were qualified rather than created by the census. It is perhaps more accurate to say therefore that the army's structure was slightly refined during this period rather than radically reformed. Prior to these reforms, the infantry was divided into the classis of rich citizens and the infra classem of poorer citizens. The latter were excluded from the regular line of battle on the basis that their equipment was of poor quality. [8] During the reforms, this crude division of poorer and richer citizens was further stratified. The army thereafter consisted of a number of troop types based upon the social class of propertied citizens, collectively known as adsidui. From the poorest in the "fifth class" to the richest in the "first class" and the equestrians above them, military service was compulsory for all. [17] However, Roman citizens at this time generally viewed military service as a proper undertaking of duty to the state, in contrast to later views of military service as an unwelcome and unpleasant burden. [18] Whereas there are accounts of Romans in the late empire mutilating their own bodies in order to exempt themselves from military service, [19] there seems to have been no such reluctance to serve in the military of early Rome. This may in part be due to the generally lower intensity of conflict in this era to the fact that men were fighting close to and often in protection of their own homes, or due to—as posited by later Roman writers—a greater martial spirit in antiquity. [b] [20]

The equestrians, the highest social class of all, served in mounted units known as equites. The first class of the richest citizens served as heavy infantry with swords and long spears (resembling hoplites), and provided the first line of the battle formation. The second class were armed similarly to the first class, but without a breastplate for protection, and with an oblong rather than a round shield. The second class stood immediately behind the first class when the army was drawn up in battle formation. The third and fourth classes were more lightly armed and carried a thrusting-spear and javelins. The third class stood behind the second class in battle formation, normally providing javelin support. The poorest of the propertied men of the city comprised the fifth class. They were generally too poor to afford much equipment at all and were armed as skirmishers with slings and stones. They were deployed in a screen in front of the main army, covering its approach and masking its manoeuvres. [21]

Men without property, who were thereby excluded from the qualifying social classes of the adsidui, were exempted from military service on the grounds that they were too poor to provide themselves with any arms whatsoever. [14] However, in the most pressing circumstances, even these proletarii were pressed into service, [22] though their military worth was probably questionable. Troops in all of these classes would fight together on the battlefield, with the exception of the most senior troops, who were expected to guard the city. [15]

The army is said to have increased from 3,000 to 4,000 men in the 5th century BC, and then again from 4,000 to 6,000 men sometime before 400 BC. [8] This later army of 6,000 men were then divided into 60 centuries of 100 men each. [23]

Manipular legion (315–107 BC) Edit

The army of the early Republic continued to evolve, and although there was a tendency among Romans to attribute such changes to great reformers, it is more likely that changes were the product of slow evolution rather than singular and deliberate policy of reform. [24] The manipular formation was probably copied from Rome's Samnite enemies to the south, perhaps as a result of Roman defeats in the Second Samnite War. [25] [26]

During this period, a military formation of around 5,000 men was known as a legion (Latin: legio). However, in contrast to later legionary formations of exclusively heavy infantry, the legions of the early and middle Republic consisted of both light and heavy infantry. The term manipular legion, a legion based on units called maniples, is therefore used to contrast the later cohortal legion of the Empire that was based around a system of cohort units. The manipular legion was based partially upon social class and partially upon age and military experience. [27] It therefore represents a theoretical compromise between the earlier class-based army and the class-free armies of later years. In practice, even slaves were at one time pressed into the army of the Republic out of necessity. [28] Normally a single legion was raised each year, but in 366 BC two legions were raised in a single year for the first time. [8]

Maniples were units of 120 men each drawn from a single infantry class. The maniples were small enough to permit tactical movement of individual infantry units on the battlefield within the framework of the greater army. The maniples were typically deployed into three discrete lines (Latin: triplex acies) based on the three heavy infantry types of hastati, principes and triarii. [29] The first type, the hastati, typically formed the first rank in battle formation. They typically wore a brass chest plate (though some could afford mail), a helmet called a galea, and occasionally, greaves (shin guards). They carried an iron bossed wooden shield, 120 cm (4 ft) tall and rectangular in shape with a curved front to partially protect the sides. Traditionally they were armed with a sword known as a gladius and two throwing spears known as pila: one the heavy pilum of popular imagination and one a slender javelin. [30] However the exact introduction of the gladius and the replacement of the spear with the sword as the primary weapon of the Roman legions is uncertain, and it's possible that the early manipular legions still fought with the hastati and principes wielding the hasta or spear. [31]

"the Romans . habitually enroll four legions each year, each consisting of about four thousand foot and two hundred horse and when any unusual necessity arises, they raise the number of foot to five thousand and of the horse to three hundred. Of allies, the number in each legion is the same as that of the citizens, but of the horse three times as great"
Polybius, The Histories, 3.107

The second type, the principes, typically formed the second rank of soldiers back from the front of a battle line. They were heavy infantry soldiers armed and armoured as per the hastati. The triarii, who typically formed the third rank when the army was arrayed for battle, were the last remnant of hoplite-style troops in the Roman army. They were armed and armoured as per the principes, with the exception that they carried a pike rather than two pila. [30] A triarii maniple was divided into two formations each six men across by 10 men deep. [32] A manipular legion typically contained between 1,200 hastati, 1,200 principes and 600 triarii. [33] The three classes of unit may have retained some slight parallel to social divisions within Roman society, but at least officially the three lines were based upon age and experience rather than social class. Young, unproven men would serve as hastati, older men with some military experience as principes, and veteran troops of advanced age and experience as triarii. [34] [35]

The heavy infantry of the maniples were supported by a number of light infantry (Latin: velites) and cavalry (Latin: equites) troops, typically 300 horsemen per manipular legion. [29] The cavalry was drawn primarily from the richest class of equestrians, but additional cavalry and light infantry were drawn at times from the socii and Latini of the Italian mainland. The equites were still drawn from the wealthier classes in Roman society. There was an additional class of troops (Latin: accensi, also adscripticii and later supernumerarii) who followed the army without specific martial roles and were deployed to the rear of the triarii. Their role in accompanying the army was primarily to supply any vacancies that might occur in the maniples, but they also seem to have acted occasionally as orderlies to the officers. [ citation needed ]

The light infantry of 1,200 velites [29] consisted of unarmoured skirmishing troops drawn from the youngest and lower social classes. [35] They were armed with a sword and shield (90 cm (3 ft) diameter), as well as several light javelins, each with a 90 cm (3 ft) wooden shaft the diameter of a finger, with a c. 25 cm (10 in) narrow metal point. [30] Their numbers were swollen by the addition of allied light infantry and irregular rorarii. [ citation needed ]

The Roman levy of 403 BC was the first to be requested to campaign for longer than a single season, [36] and from this point on such a practice became gradually more common, if still not typical. [ citation needed ]

A small navy had operated at a fairly low level after the Second Samnite War, but it was massively upgraded during this period, expanding from a few primarily river- and coastal-based patrol craft to a full maritime unit. After a period of frenetic construction, the navy mushroomed to a size of more than 400 ships on the Carthaginian pattern. Once completed, it could accommodate up to 100,000 sailors and embarked troops for battle. The navy thereafter declined in size. This was partially because a pacified Roman Mediterranean called for little naval policing, and partially because the Romans chose to rely during this period on ships provided by Greek cities, whose peoples had greater maritime experience. [37]

Proletarianisation of the infantry (217–107 BC) Edit

The extraordinary demands of the Punic Wars, in addition to a shortage of manpower, exposed the tactical weaknesses of the manipular legion, at least in the short term. [38] In 217 BC, Rome was forced to effectively ignore its long-standing principle that its soldiers must be both citizens and property owners when slaves were pressed into naval service [28] around 213 BC, the property requirement was reduced from 11,000 to 4,000 asses. [28] Since the Romans are unlikely to have preferred to employ slaves over poor citizens in their armies, [22] it must be assumed that, at this point, the proletarii of the poorest citizens must also have been pressed into service despite their lack of legal qualification. By 123 BC, the financial requirement for military service was slashed again from 4,000 asses to just 1,500 asses. [39] By this time, therefore, it is clear that many of the property-less former proletarii had been nominally admitted into the adsidui. [39]

During the 2nd century BC, Roman territory saw an overall decline in population, [40] partially due to the huge losses incurred during various wars. This was accompanied by severe social stresses and the greater collapse of the middle classes into lower classes of the census and the proletarii. [40] As a result, both the Roman society and its military became increasingly proletarianised. The Roman state was forced to arm its soldiers at the expense of the state, since many of the soldiers who made up its lower classes were now impoverished proletarii in all but name, and were too poor to afford their own equipment. [40]

The distinction between the heavy infantry types of hastati, principes and triarii began to blur, perhaps because the state was now assuming the responsibility of providing standard-issue equipment to all but the first class of troops, who alone were able to afford their own equipment. [40] By the time of Polybius, the triarii or their successors still represented a distinct heavy infantry type armed with a unique style of cuirass, but the hastati and principes had become indistinguishable. [40]

In addition, the shortage of available manpower led to a greater burden being placed upon its allies (socii) for the provision of allied troops. [41] Where accepted allies could not provide the required force types, the Romans were not averse during this period to hiring mercenaries to fight alongside the legions. [42]

Marian legion (107–27 BC) Edit

In a process known as the Marian reforms, Roman consul Gaius Marius carried out a programme of reform of the Roman military. [28] In 107 BC, all citizens, regardless of their wealth or social class, were made eligible for entry into the Roman army. [43] This move formalised and concluded a gradual process that had been growing for centuries, of removing property requirements for military service. [44] The distinction between hastati, principes and triarii, which had already become blurred, was officially removed, [29] [45] and the legionary infantry of popular imagination was created. Legionary infantry formed a homogeneous force of heavy infantry. These legionaries were drawn from citizen stock by this time, Roman or Latin citizenship had been regionally expanded over much of ancient Italy and Cisalpine Gaul. [46] Lighter citizen infantry, such as the velites and equites, were replaced by non-citizen auxiliaries (auxilia) that could consist of foreign mercenaries. [47] Due to the concentration of the citizen legions into a force of heavy infantry [33] Rome's armies depended on auxiliary cavalry attachments for support. As a tactical necessity, legions were almost always accompanied by an equal or greater number of lighter auxiliary troops, [48] which were drawn from the non-citizens of the Empire's territories. One known exception of legions being formed from non-citizen provinces during this period was the legion that was raised in the province of Galatia. [46]

After Marius, the legions were drawn largely from volunteer citizens rather than citizens conscripted for duty. [49] Volunteers came forward and were accepted not from citizens of the city of Rome itself but from the surrounding countryside and smaller towns falling under Roman control. [50] Whereas some long-term military professionals were classed as veterans, they were outnumbered by civilians with limited military experience who were in active service perhaps only for a few campaigns. [51] The legions of the late Republic remained, unlike the legions of the later Empire, predominantly Roman in origin, although some small number of ex-auxiliary troops were probably incorporated. [52] The army's higher-level officers and commanders were still drawn exclusively from the Roman aristocracy. [50]

Unlike earlier in the Republic, legionaries were no longer fighting on a seasonal basis to protect their land. [c] Instead, they received standard pay, and were employed by the state on a fixed-term basis. As a consequence, military duty began to appeal most to the poorest sections of society, to whom a guaranteed salary was attractive. [53] The army, therefore, consisted of a far higher proportion of the poor—particularly the rural poor—than it had previously. [54] A destabilising consequence of this development was that the proletariat "acquired a stronger and more elevated position" [53] within the state. This professionalisation of the military was necessary to provide permanent garrisons for newly acquired and distant territories such as Hispania, something not possible under an army of seasonal citizen militia. [ citation needed ]

Historian R. E. Smith notes that there was a need to raise additional legions in an emergency to repel specific strategic threats. He argues that this may have resulted in two types of legion. [55] Long-standing legions deployed overseas were probably professional troops forming a standing army. Quickly-formed new legions, in contrast, consisted of younger men, perhaps with little or no military experience, who hoped for adventure and plunder. [55] However, no distinction in basic pay, discipline or armour is known of between the two types of legion. The practice of veteran troops signing up again voluntarily into newly raised legions must have meant that no one army conformed exactly to one or other of these theoretical archetypes. [ citation needed ]

The legions of the late Republic were, structurally, almost entirely heavy infantry. The legion's main sub-unit was called a cohort and consisted of approximately 480 infantrymen. The cohort was therefore a much larger unit than the earlier maniple sub-unit, and was divided into six centuriae of 80 men each. [56] Each centuria was separated further into 10 "tent groups" (Latin: contubernia) of 8 men each. Legions additionally consisted of a small body, typically 120 men, of Roman legionary cavalry (Latin: equites legionis). The equites were used as scouts and dispatch riders rather than battlefield cavalry. [57] Legions also contained a dedicated artillery crew of perhaps 60 men, who would operate devices such as ballistae. [56]

Each legion was normally partnered with an approximately equal number of allied (non-Roman) auxiliae troops. [58] The addition of allied troops to the Roman army was a formalisation of the earlier arrangement of using light troops from the Socii and Latini, who had received Roman citizenship after the Social War. [59] Auxiliary troops could be formed from either auxiliary light cavalry known as alae, auxiliary light infantry known as cohors auxiliae, or a flexible mixture of the two known as cohors equitata. [58] Cavalry types included mounted archers (Latin: sagittarii) and heavy shock cavalry (Latin: cataphracti or clibanarii). Infantry could be armed with bows, slings, throwing spears, long swords, or thrusting spears. Auxiliary units were originally led by their own chiefs, and, in this period, their internal organisation was left to their commanders. [60]

However, "the most obvious deficiency" of the Roman army remained its shortage of cavalry, especially heavy cavalry [61] even auxiliary troops were predominantly infantry. Luttwak argues that auxiliary forces largely consisted of Cretan archers, Balearic slingers and Numidian infantry, all of whom fought on foot. [62] As Rome's borders expanded and its adversaries changed from largely infantry-based to largely cavalry-based troops, the infantry-based Roman army began to find itself at a tactical disadvantage, particularly in the East. [ citation needed ]

After having declined in size following the subjugation of the Mediterranean, the Roman navy underwent short-term upgrading and revitalisation in the late Republic to meet several new demands. Under Caesar, an invasion fleet was assembled in the English Channel to allow the invasion of Britain under Pompey, a large fleet was raised in the Mediterranean Sea to clear the sea of Cilician pirates. During the civil war that followed, as many as a thousand ships were either constructed or pressed into service from Greek cities. [37]

Non-citizen recruitment (49–27 BC) Edit

By the time of Julius Caesar in 54 BC, regular legionary units were supplemented by exploratores, a body of scouts, and speculatores, spies who infiltrated enemy camps. [63] Due to the demands of the civil war, the extraordinary measure of recruiting legions from non-citizens was taken by Caesar in Transalpine Gaul (Latin: Gallia Transalpina), by Brutus in Macedonia, and by Pompey in Pharsalus. [64] This irregular and extraordinary recruitment was not, however, typical of recruitment during this period, and Roman law still officially required that legions were recruited from Roman citizens only. [65]

Imperial legions and reformation of the auxilia (27 BC – 117 AD) Edit

By the turn of the millennium, Emperor Augustus' primary military concern was to prevent Roman generals from further usurping the imperial throne. [66] The experience of Caesar and, earlier, Marius and Sulla, had demonstrated the willingness of "emergency" (re-activated previously decommissioned) legions containing troops keen for plunder to follow their generals against the state. Augustus therefore removed the need for such emergency armies by increasing the size of the standing armies to a size sufficient to provide territorial defence on their own. [67] Perhaps due to similar concerns, the legions and auxiliaries of the army were supplemented under the Emperor Augustus by an elite formation of guards dedicated to the protection of the Emperor. The first such unit was based in Rome and were known as the Praetorian Guard, and a second similar formation were known as the Cohortes urbanae. [68] [69]

The legions, which had been a mix of life professionals and civilian campaigners, was altered into a standing army of professionals only. [70] The actual structure of the cohort army remained much the same as in the late Republic, although around the 1st century AD the first cohort of each legion was increased in size to a total of 800 soldiers. [71] [72] However, while the structure of the legions remained much the same, their make-up gradually changed. Whereas early Republican legions had been raised by a draft from eligible Roman citizens, imperial legions were recruited solely on a voluntary basis and from a much wider base of manpower. Likewise, whereas Republican legions had been recruited almost exclusively in Italy, early Imperial legions drew most of their recruits from Roman colonies in the provinces from 68 AD onwards. One estimate places the proportion of Italian troops at 65% under Augustus in c. 1 AD, falling to around 49% by the end of Nero's reign. [73]

Since the legions were officially open only to Roman citizens, Max Cary and Howard Hayes Scullard argue that at least in some provinces at this time "many provincials must have been recruited who lacked any genuine claim to Roman citizenship but received it unofficially on enlistment," [74] a practice that was to increase in the 2nd century. [75] This is most likely in those provinces where the pool of Roman citizens was not large enough to fulfill the provincial army's recruitment needs. One possible example is Britain, where one estimate puts the citizen pool in the 1st century at only 50,000 out of a total provincial population of around two million. [76]

At the same time as the legions underwent these transformations, the auxilia were reorganized and a number of allied troops were formalised into standing units similar to legions. Rather than being raised re-actively when required, the process of raising auxiliary troops was carried out in advance of conflicts according to annual targets. [77] Whereas the internal organisation of the auxilia had previously been left up to their commanders, in the early empire they were organised into standardised units known as turmae (for cavalry alae) and centuriae (for infantry cohortes). [60] Although never becoming as standardised in their equipment as the legions, [78] and often retaining some national flavour, the size of the units at least was standardised to some degree. Cavalry were formed into either an ala quingenaria of 512 horsemen, or an ala millaria of 1,000 horsemen. Likewise, infantry auxilia could be formed into a cohors quingenaria of 500 men or a cohors millaria of 1,000 men. Mixed cavalry/infantry auxiliaries were typically formed with a larger proportion of foot than horse troops: the cohors equitata quingenaria consisted of 380 foot and 120 horsemen, and the cohors equitata millaria consisted of 760 foot and 240 horsemen. [58]

The vitality of the empire at this point was such that the use of native auxilia in the Roman army did not apparently barbarise the military as some scholars claim was to happen in the late empire. [79] On the contrary, those serving in the auxilia during this period frequently strove to Romanise themselves. They were granted Roman citizenship on retirement, granting them several social advantages, and their sons became eligible for service in the legions. [80]

As with the army, many non-Italians were recruited into the Roman Navy, partly because the Romans had never readily taken to the sea. It appears that the navy was considered to be slightly less prestigious than the auxilia but, like the auxilia, troops could gain citizenship on discharge upon retirement. In terms of structure, each ship was staffed by a group of men approximately equivalent to a century, with ten ships forming a naval squadron. [81]

Introduction of vexillationes (76–117 AD) Edit

Through the final years of the 1st century AD, the legions remained the backbone of the Roman army, although the auxilia in fact outnumbered them by up to half as much again. [82] Within the legions, the proportion of troops recruited from within Italy fell gradually after 70 AD. [83] By the close of the 1st century, this proportion had fallen to as low as 22 percent, with the remainder drawn from conquered provinces. [73] Since technically only citizens were allowed to enlist in the legions, where recruits did not possess citizenship then, at least in some instances, citizenship "was simply given [to] them on enlistment". [83] [84] During this time, the borders of the Empire had remained relatively fixed to the extent originally reached under the Emperor Trajan. Because of this, the army was increasingly responsible for protecting existing frontiers rather than expanding into foreign territory, the latter of which had characterised the army's earlier existence. [85] As a result, legions became stationed in largely fixed locations. Although entire legions were occasionally transferred into theatres of war, they remained largely rooted in one or more legionary bases in a province, detaching into smaller bodies of troops (Latin: vexillationes) on demand. [86] This policy eventually led to a split of the military's land-based forces into mobile and fixed troops in the later Empire. In general, the best troops were dispatched as vexillationes, and the remainder left to guard border defenses were of lower quality, perhaps those with injuries or near retirement. [87]

Barbarisation of the army (117–253 AD) Edit

By the time of the emperor Hadrian the proportion of Italians in the legions had fallen to just ten percent [73] and provincial citizens now dominated. This low figure is probably a direct result of the changing needs of military staffing: a system of fixed border defences (Latin: limes) were established around the Empire's periphery under Hadrian, consolidating Trajan's territorial gains. These called for troops to be stationed permanently in the provinces, a prospect more attractive to locally raised rather than Italian troops. [73] The higher prestige and pay to be found in the Italian dominated Praetorian Guard must also have played a role. The majority of the troops in the legions at the start of the 3rd century AD were from the more Romanised (though non-Italian) provinces, especially Illyria. [88] As the century progressed, more and more barbarians (Latin: barbari) were permitted to settle inside of, and tasked with aiding in the defence of, Rome's borders. [89] As a result, greater numbers of barbarous and semi-barbarous peoples were gradually admitted to the army. [88]

However, whether this regionalisation of the legions was partnered by a drop in the professionalism of the troops is contested. Antonio Santosuosso argues that the strict discipline and high motivation of the days of Marius had lapsed, [90] but Andrew Alfoldi states that the Illyrian troops were both valiant and warlike, [88] and Tacitus described German recruits as being natural mercenaries (Latin: vivi ad arma nati). [91] It seems that discipline in the legions did slacken, with soldiers granted permission to live with wives outside of military lodgings and permitted to adopt a more lavish and comfortable lifestyle, in contrast to the strict military regimen of earlier years. [90] However, it is by no means certain that this led to any reduction in the effectiveness of the legions, due to the greater ferocity and stature of the barbari recruits. The flavour of the Roman military, however, was now dictated by the increasing number of regional recruits, leading to a partial barbarisation of Rome's military forces beginning in this period. [92] The barbarisation of the lower ranks was paralleled by a concurrent barbarisation of its command structure, with the Roman senators who had traditionally provided its commanders becoming entirely excluded from the army. By 235 AD the Emperor himself, the figurehead of the entire military, was a man born outside of Italy to non-Italian parents. [93]

"A young nobleman, strong of hand and quick of mind and far more intelligent than your average barbarian . the ardour of his face and eyes showed the burning spirit within. He had fought on our side in previous campaigns and earned the right to become a Roman citizen indeed, he was even elevated to the rank of Equestrian."
Velleius Paterculus, Roman History, 2.108

The gradual inclusion of greater numbers of non-citizen troops into the military was taken a further step by the creation under Hadrian of a new type of force in addition to the legions and auxilia, known as numeri. [85] Formed in bodies of around 300 irregular troops, [58] the numeri were drawn from subjugate provinces and peoples of client-states or even from beyond the borders of the empire. They were both less regimented and less Romanised than auxiliary troops, with a "pronounced national character," [94] including native dress and native war cries. [79] The introduction of the numeri was a response to the need for cheap troops, who were nevertheless fierce and provided a force balance of light infantry and cavalry. [95] They were therefore largely less well armed and less well trained than auxilia or legions, [85] although more prestigious elite irregular native troops were also utilised. [96] However, the legions still made up around one half of the Roman army at this point. [88]

Successive crises (238–359 AD) Edit

By the late Empire, enemy forces in both the East and West were "sufficiently mobile and sufficiently strong to pierce [the Roman] defensive perimeter on any selected axis of penetration" [97] from the 3rd century onwards, both Germanic tribes and Persian armies pierced the frontiers of the Roman Empire. [85] In response, the Roman army underwent a series of changes, more organic and evolutionary than the deliberate military reforms of the Republic and early Empire. A stronger emphasis was placed upon ranged combat ability of all types, such as field artillery, hand-held ballistae, archery and darts. Roman forces also gradually became more mobile, with one cavalryman for every three infantrymen, compared to one in forty in the early Empire. [98] Additionally, the Emperor Gallienus took the revolutionary step of forming an entirely cavalry field army, which was kept as a mobile reserve at the city of Milan in northern Italy. It is believed that Gallienus facilitated this concentration of cavalry by stripping the legions of their integral mounted element. [99] A diverse range of cavalry regiments existed, including catafractarii or clibanarii, scutarii, and legionary cavalry known as promoti. Collectively, these regiments were known as equites. [96] Around 275 AD, the proportion of catafractarii was also increased. [96] There is some disagreement over exactly when the relative proportion of cavalry increased, whether Gallienus' reforms occurred contemporaneously with an increased reliance on cavalry, or whether these are two distinct events. Alfoldi appears to believe that Gallienus' reforms were contemporaneous with an increase in cavalry numbers. He argues that, by 258, Gallienus had made cavalry the predominant troop type in the Roman army in place of heavy infantry, which dominated earlier armies. [96] According to Warren Treadgold, however, the proportion of cavalry did not change between the early 3rd and early 4th centuries. [100]

Larger groups of barbari began to settle in Rome's territories around this time, and the troops they were contracted to provide to the Roman army were no longer organised as numeri but rather were the forerunners of the later rented native armies known as federated troops (Latin: foederati). [101] [d] Though they served under Roman officers, the troops of these units were far more barbarised than the numeri, lacked Romanisation of either military structure or personal ideology, and were ineligible for Roman citizenship upon discharge. [101] These native troops were not permitted to fight in native war bands under their own leaders, unlike the later foederati instead, these troops were split into small groups attached to other Roman units. [102] They existed therefore as a halfway house between numeri, who were encouraged to be Romanised, and the foederati, who raised officers from their own ranks and were almost entirely self-dependent. [ citation needed ]

Comitatenses and limitanei (284–395 AD) Edit

A distinction between frontier guard troops and more mobile reserve forces had emerged with the use of certain troops to permanently man frontiers such as Hadrian's Wall in Britannia in the 2nd century AD. The competing demands of manned frontiers and strategic reserve forces had led to the division of the military into four types of troops by the early 4th century:

  • The limitanei or riparienses patrolled the border and defended the border fortifications. According to some older theories, the limitanei were "settled and hereditary" [88] militia that were "tied to their posts." [103] But according to most recent research, the limitanei were originally regular soldiers, including infantry, cavalry, and river flotillas, [104][105][106] although they eventually became settled militia. [107][108] According to Luttwak, by the time of Constantine I, the cunei of cavalry, and auxilia of infantry, both usually around 500 men strong, were local provincial units under sector commanders. [109] According to Pat Southern and Karen Dixon, the legiones, auxilia, and cunei of the border armies were part of the limitanei, but higher-status than the older cohortes and alae which they had replaced. [110][108]
  • The comitatenses and the palatini were central field armies, usually stationed in the interior or rear areas of the empire as a strategic reserve. [111] The permanent field armies of the palatini and comitatenses were expansions of the field escort of the emperors, which were larger than bodyguard units, becoming temporary field armies known as the sacer comitatus.[112] The palatini were "praesental" armies, central field armies under the direct command of the emperors, while the comitatenses, were usually the regional field armies, although units could be moved between the two forces. [113] The initial expansion of the emperor's escort units, although substantial, still did not form a large enough force to campaign independently until further expanded by Diocletian and Constantine I. [112]
  • The emperor Constantine I created the scholae to replace the old praetorian guard. The scholae were his personal guard, and were mainly equipped as cavalry. Vogt suggests that the scholae formed two small central reserves (Latin: scholae) held to the strategic rear even of the comitatenses, one each in the presence of the emperors of West and East respectively. [110]

Of the four troop types, the limitanei (border guards) were once considered to have been of the lowest quality, [114] consisting largely of peasant-soldiers that were both "grossly inferior" to the earlier legions and inferior also to their counterparts in the mobile field armies. [115] However, more recent work establishes that the limitanei were regular soldiers. [104] [105] [106]

While the limitanei were supposed to deal with policing actions and low-intensity incursions, the duty of responding to more serious incidents fell upon the regional or provincial troops of the reduced field reserves of the comitatenses. The countering of the very largest scale incursions on a strategic scale was the task of the mobile field troops, the palatini and comitatenses diverted to strengthen the field armies, and possibly accompanied by the emperor's scholae. [116] Both border and field armies consisted of a mix of infantry and cavalry units [117] although the weight of cavalry was, according to some authorities, greater in the mobile field armies. [110] Overall, approximately one quarter of the army consisted of cavalry troops [118] but their importance is uncertain. Older works such as the Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica (1911) state that the Roman military of the late Empire was "marked by that predominance of the horseman which characterised the earlier centuries of the Middle Ages," [1] but many more recent authors believe that the infantry remained predominant. [119]

There is some dispute about whether this new military structure was put into place under the Emperor Diocletian or Constantine since both reorganised the Roman Army in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries to some degree. [120] Both Diocletian and even his predecessor of thirty years Gallienus may already have controlled mobile strategic reserves to assist the empire's border forces [121] either Diocletian or Constantine expanded this nascent force into permanent field armies. [122]

Recruitment from amongst Roman citizens had become greatly curtailed as a consequence of a declining population, [123] [124] "cripplingly numerous" categories of those exempted from military service and the spread of Christianity with its pacifist message. [e] [125] Together, these factors culminated in "the withdrawal of the urban class from all forms of military activity." [126] In their place, much of Rome's military were now recruited from non-Italian peoples living within the empire's borders. Many of these people were barbarians or semi-barbarians recently settled from lands beyond the empire, [88] [103] [127] including several colonies of Carpi, Bastarnae and Sarmatians. [128]

Although units described as legiones existed as late as the 5th century in both the border and field armies, [129] the legionary system was very different from that of the principate and early empire. Since the term legion continued to be used, it is unclear exactly when the structure and role of the legions changed. In the 3rd or 4th century, however, the legions' role as elite heavy infantry was substantially reduced [126] [130] and may have evaporated entirely. [131] Instead, those "legions" that remained were no longer drawn exclusively (and perhaps hardly at all) from Roman citizens. [117] Either Diocletian [132] or Constantine reorganised the legions into smaller infantry units [117] who, according to some sources, were more lightly armoured than their forebears. [130] Their lighter armament may have been either because they "would not consent to wear the same weight of body armour as the legionaries of old" [133] or, as in at least one documented instance, because they were prohibited from wearing heavy armour by their general in order to increase their mobility. [134] 4th-century legions were at times only one sixth the size of early imperial legions, and they were armed with some combination of spears, bows, slings, darts and swords, reflecting a greater contemporary emphasis on ranged fighting. [134] [131] The auxilia and numeri had also largely disappeared. [135] Constantine further increased the proportion of German troops in the regular army [136] their cultural impact was so great that even legionaries began wearing German dress. [126] At the start of Diocletian's reign, the Roman army numbered about 390,000 men, but by the end of his reign he successfully increased the number to 581,000 men. [137]

Adoption of barbarian allies (358–395 AD) Edit

By the late 4th century, the Empire had become chronically deficient in raising sufficient troops from amongst its own population. [138] As an alternative, taxation raised internally was increasingly used to subsidise growing numbers of barbarian recruits. The Romans had, for some time, recruited individual non-Roman soldiers into regular military units. In 358 AD, this practice was accelerated by the wholescale adoption of the entire Salian Franks people into the Empire, providing a ready pool of such recruits. In return for being allowed to settle as foederatii in northern Gallia on the near side of the Rhine, the Franks were expected to defend the Empire's borders in their territory and provide troops to serve in Roman units. [ citation needed ]

In 376, a large band of Goths asked Emperor Valens for permission to settle on the southern bank of the Danube River on terms similar to the Franks. The Goths were also accepted into the empire as foederati however, they rebelled later that year and defeated the Romans at the Battle of Adrianople. The heavy losses that the Roman military suffered during this defeat ironically forced the Roman Empire to rely still further on such foederati troops to supplement its forces. [139] In 382, the practice was radically extended when federated troops were signed up en masse as allied contingents of laeti and foederatii troops separate from existing Roman units. [138] Near-constant civil wars during the period 408 and 433 between various Roman usurpers, emperors and their supposed deputies such as Constantine III, Constantius III, Aetius and Bonifacius resulted in further losses, necessitating the handing over of more taxable land to foederati. [ citation needed ]

The size and composition of these allied forces remains in dispute. Santosuosso argues that foederati regiments consisted mostly of cavalry [140] that were raised both as a temporary levy for a specific campaign need and, in some cases, as a permanent addition to the army. Hugh Elton believes that the importance of foederati has been overstated in traditional accounts by historians such as A.H.M. Jones. Elton argues that the majority of soldiers were probably non-Italian Roman citizens, [f] [141] while Santosuosso believes that the majority of troops were almost certainly non-citizen barbari. [142]

Collapse in the West and survival in the East (395–476 AD) Edit

The non-federated mobile field army, known as the comitatenses, was eventually split into a number of smaller field armies: a central field army under the emperor's direct control, known as the comitatensis palatina or praesentalis, and several regional field armies. [29] Historians Santosuosso and Vogt agree that the latter gradually degraded into low-quality garrison units similar to the limitanei that they either supplemented or replaced. [103] By the 5th century, a significant portion of Western Rome's main military strength lay in rented barbarian mercenaries known as foederati. [143]

As the 5th century progressed, many of the Empire's original borders had been either wholly or partially denuded of troops to support the central field army. [143] [144] In 395, the Western Roman Empire had several regional field armies in Italy, Illyricum, Gallia, Britannia and Africa, and about twelve border armies. By about 430, two more field armies were established in Hispania and Tingitania but the central government had lost control of Britannia [144] as well as much of Gaul, Hispania, and Africa. In the same period, the Eastern Roman Empire had two palatine field armies (at Constantinople), three regional field armies (in the East, in Thrace, and in Illyricum) and fifteen frontier armies. [145]

"We received a terrible rumour about events in the West. They told us that Rome was under siege, and the only safety for its citizens was that which they could buy with gold, and when that had been stripped from them, they were besieged again, so that they lost not only their possessions, but also their lives. Our messenger gave the news in a faltering voice, and could hardly speak for sobbing. The city which had captured the world was now itself captured"
Jerome, Letters, 127

As Roman troops were spread increasingly thin over its long border, the Empire's territory continued to dwindle in size as the population of the empire declined. [146] Barbarian war bands increasingly began to penetrate the Empire's vulnerable borders, both as settlers and invaders. In 451, the Romans defeated Attila the Hun, but only with assistance from a confederation of foederatii troops, which included Visigoths, Franks and Alans. As barbarian incursions continued, some advancing as far as the heart of Italy, Rome's borders began to collapse, with frontier forces swiftly finding themselves cut off deep in the enemy's rear. [143]

Simultaneously, barbarian troops in Rome's pay came to be "in a condition of almost perpetual turbulence and revolt" [147] from 409 onwards. In 476 these troops finally unseated the last emperor of the Western Roman Empire. [148] The Eastern Roman forces continued to defend the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire until its fall in 1453. [149]

How did ancient Professional Armies develop?

Warfare has been a constant throughout human history and conflict can certainly be traced back to our hominid ancestors in our evolutionary past. While technology today is often used as the distinguishing characteristic of warfare, the development of the professional army, that is fulltime soldiers and formations of a standing army, was also an important factor in making warfare an affair conducted throughout the year and allowed the establishment of large-scale states and empires to be possible. [1] This also paved the way for early states and empires to compete more with each other, helping to develop a variety of other social and technical innovations, including shaping our own world.

Early Origins of Professional Armies

In early warfare, from what we can tell when textual sources first become available to us at around the 3rd millennium BC, men would be conscripted for specific campaigns or years when kings were fighting neighboring kingdoms, where the conscripted soldiers would not be required to serve for very long periods and would simply return to their previous employment/professions after the campaign would finish. [2] By the mid 3rd millennium BC, there were attempts to create standing armies of professional soldiers. [3]

Nevertheless, the presence of war helped to solidify the importance of kingship, while also giving kings greater authority in governing and at time economic affairs. The Akkadian army was one of the first empires and its constant state of warfare in the early period of its first king, Sargon, required soldiers to be constantly campaigning rather than fighting on only a temporary basis (Figure 1). [4] This demonstrated the need to create a system of soldiers who could at least be contracted or employed for a period of time longer than the typical agricultural cycle, or rather when their farm labor was not required.

Another early king we know who attempted to make a professional army was Shulgi (c. 2094-2047 BC), a king who ruled the empire of Ur (the so-called Ur III Empire). [5] While it is not clear what he did exactly, he did make the army more professional, full-time, permanent, and was a force that could easily called upon as needed. This suggests that the army now consisted of soldiers who were strictly employed as professional soldiers rather than having other occupations, although the details of how this was done and the extent of this are not very clear.

In the Late Bronze Age (1600-1200 BC), as empires became larger and increasingly encountered foreign populations, the use of vassal states and the troops they could raise to augment the main army became a new development. This type of development allowed foreigners now to be a part of the army, although their full integration was likely still sometime away, as these foreign units likely served under their own leaders and units. [6] Other developments include the use of elite troops, such as the chariotry by ancient Egypt (Figure 2), as shock troops who were better trained and equipped.

Early development of iron, present in the Hittite Empire, also gave that kingdom an advantage in tools. These differences in equipment and training may have created incentives to provide more resources to at least some of the soldiers of the state, developing a potential officer and professional core that would be complemented with conscripted regulars. [7] These types of early, perhaps semi-professional armies, Egypt and the Hittites, fought each other in a famous battle at Kadesh. In both cases, it is clear that the armies were divided into elite units where supplemented by other, regular units. [8] What was beginning to change in warfare in the Near East and the military, in general, was war not only began to be professional but it also occurred in new and different places. This included the high seas, such as the Mediterranean, where navies developed and specialized troops who were trained to fight on ships developed, perhaps for the first time. [9]

Key Reforms

While these early armies may be considered professional and represent transformations in how warfare was conducted with standing armies, it was not until key reforms under the Neo-Assyrian Empire (911-612 BC) do we now see consistent use of professional armies that becomes prominent in the Near East from this period onwards. This begins to spreads to Europe and eventually influence the Roman Empire. [10]

However, what preceded the professionalization of the military was the professionalization of the provincial and administrative system. In other words, running an empire became a more professional task. Beginning in the 9th century BC, we begin to see a new pattern, where kings appear to depend more on trained high officials who are eunuchs and a host of other bureaucratic officials began to be associated with the royal court and provinces. The empire appears to depend on officials, or “Great Ones,” who obtained their position, in part, based on merit and not simply through family or lineage connections to the royal family. [11] Thus, it was the realization that professional administration was needed that likely suggested that other aspects of empire needed to become professional (Figure 3).

In the reign of Tiglath-pileser III (744-727 BC), new military reforms took place within the Neo-Assyrian state that saw a standing professional army develop, similar to what had been done in the third millennium BC, but now with more specialized soldiers along with auxiliary soldiers from various parts of the empire being incorporated into the military. These army units began to have distinct ranks and be part of specialized units within the military (Figure 4). [12]

This included the chariotry, cavalry, and infantry units specialized units also included naval units consisting of Phoenicians. Other specialized soldiers include engineering units used for siege warfare. In addition, the army’s command structure became more sophisticated with developed ranks, similar to modern militaries. Several different large and independent armies were created within the state, as this helped to ensure that no single military unit would have unrestrained power and threaten the king’s authority. While kings still often led battles, generals now also began to have greater authority to lead armies without the presence of the king. The armies were now always able to fight in any time of the year, giving them a major advantage over enemies who were still constrained by labor shortages during the agriculture season, when men would have been needed to work the fields.

Although this facilitated the Neo-Assyrian Empire’s ability to conduct warfare and expand in many areas, and sometimes simultaneously, generals could still potentially be threats to the throne. Foreigners were also given opportunities to be involved in the military, which gave them a way to socially rise and benefit from the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Auxiliary and support troops, but also foreign-born officers, began to be evident in the Assyrian state. [13] Furthermore, the Neo-Assyrians maintained the traditional conscription of its citizens as needed, which helped it attain reserve soldiers that were sometimes needed in times of crises or men shortages.

Key to military reforms were reforms to the infrastructure of empire. Rapid transport along long-distance roads, intelligence provided by fast riding horseman and scout teams, and armories provided a way for armies to be mobilized quickly, respond to new and emergent threats where needed, and be properly equipped. Satellite imagery, in fact, shows that these road systems, amazingly still visible, emerged from the great Assyrian capitals and connected to far-away regions. [14]

In essence, the development of the concept of military logistics was also critical for making military forces professionals. Officials and military officers were charged with maintaining this infrastructure and ensuring it can be used for authorized and appropriate purposes. These officials also had a large degree of independence in decision-making, further removing the king from key military decisions. This process contributed to making the military another center of gravity for power in addition to the royal authorities, while also creating more diverse ranks and increasingly larger military bureaucracy. [15]

Later Adoptions

The key development of the Neo-Assyrian Empire now became adopted by later armies, as new states began to realize the advantages of having a full-time army able to march as needed. The Achaemenid Empire (550-330 BC) in particular utilized many innovations by the Neo-Assyrians and even more greatly utilized different ethnic groups into its formations as the empire expanded. [16]

The Roman Empire in the Late Republic and Imperial phases began to also adopt a professional army composed of many units that were able to fight at any given time of year. [17] Initially, both ancient Greece and Rome armies consisted of soldiers that were conscripted for short periods, similar to ancient Mesopotamia however, this was not sustainable for the Romans as they expanded their realm. The Roman army of the Imperial period heavily relied on volunteers and eventually created a much larger military bureaucracy and system where many legions or units simultaneously existed and composed of many nationalities.

Many more units and specialized roles developed in the Roman army, where non-Romans found the army as one potential way to work up the Roman social ladder. For example, many emperors were of non-Roman origin and had advanced using the military. [18] A key development in this period was basing, on a permanent basis, legions in distant provinces and creating an elaborate system of forts and infrastructure that facilitated the presence of the army for long periods in distant areas. The presence of foreigners within Roman armies may have mitigated the presence of the army in places, helping to make their presence more tolerable. [19] Nevertheless, the key basic structure utilized by the Neo-Assyrians, which made soldiers full-time and developing a true officer core, was largely maintained and was essentially continued by the Romans.


Although the first professional armies were likely founded in the 3rd millennium BC, what we can see is that by the 2nd millennium BC the use of foreigners, elite soldiers, and officers were used within military units. By the 2nd millennium BC, warfare was also happening in increasingly diverse places, including war conducted by navies as they battles to control important sea lanes and trade or communication routes. By the first half of the 1st millennium BC, armies became more consistently professional with full time soldiers and specialized troops. This professionalization facilitated warfare by not making it bound by the agricultural cycles that would have limited when armies could fight.

Another important development was the infrastructural developments that facilitated the movement and equipping armies, including roads and armories. This also enabled far larger empires to now emerge in the Old World, starting first with the Neo-Assyrian Empire and continuing to the Roman and even later empires. The success of creating professional armies, consisting of foreign volunteers and mercenary forces, and having specialized units of officers was first developed by the Assyrians with later states building upon the Neo-Assyrian system. The Roman system perhaps represents an apogee of the developed ancient armies, where armies were now permanently based in distant provinces. However, this system built on the critical foundations laid down from the 3rd to early 1st millennium BC.

The Roman Army: Tactics, Organization, and Command Structure

Artist Jason Juta / Copyright : Karwansary Publishers

Posted By: Dattatreya Mandal December 19, 2019

History is witness to the triumph of the ancient Roman army, as evidenced from the Roman empire in its apical scope – which held sway over a major chunk of the known world, ranging from Spain to Syria (and Iraq), and from North African coasts and Egypt to most of Britain. Suffice it to say, this ancient military was known for its sheer discipline, incredible organizational depth, and the ability to adapt. Some of these qualities were demonstrated through logistics during the Second Punic War, where the Romans ultimately emerged victorious, in spite of (possibly) losing one-tenth to one-twentieth of their male population in a single battle (at Cannae). And complementing their unflinching capacity to bounce back from disastrous situations, was the evolution of the Roman military over the centuries. To that end, a plethora of Roman military developments was actually ‘instigated’ by their foes, and as such many of the successes of the ancient Roman military system can be attributed to their inherent capacity to simply ‘react’.

Evolution of Tactics of the Roman Army –

This fascinating graphical video concocted by YouTuber Historia Civilis aptly showcases the ‘reactionary’ evolution of Roman battle tactics. And while the content treads a simplistic (though nifty) overview, we can get the core idea behind the Roman military system and how its adaptability set it apart from some of the other militaries of the ancient world.

The Early Roman Levy –

Early Roman soldiers, circa 7th century BC. Illustration by Richard Hook.

While the video doesn’t really cover the scope of the Romans during their initial days, the earliest Roman army equipment’s archaeological evidence ranges far back to 9th century BC, mostly from the warrior tombs on the Capitoline Hill. As for the literary evidence, they mention how the earliest Roman armies were recruited from the three main ‘tribes’ of Rome. This shouldn’t come as too much of a shock (for those who are used to reading about the ‘civilized’ nature of Rome) since the settlement of Rome itself started out as a backwater which was inhabited by cattle rustlers who made their camps and rudimentary dwellings among the hills and the swamplands.

As for the evolutionary part, the transition of the Roman army from ‘tribal’ warriors to citizen militia was achieved in part due to the Roman society and its intrinsic representation (with voting rights) in the Roman assembly. To that end, the early Romans were almost entirely depended on their citizen militia for the protection and extension of the burgeoning faction’s borders. These militiamen were simply raised as levy or legio – which in turn gives way to the term ‘legion’. In essence, the so-called legions of early Rome were ‘poor’ predecessors to the uniformly-equipped and disciplined soldiers of the ensuing centuries (which we have discussed later).

The Roman Phalanx –

Roman hoplite (on right) fighting against the Etruscan warriors. Source: WeaponsandWarfare

The video starts off with what can be termed as the first solid formation of the Roman army (when Rome was still a city-state kingdom). And quite unsurprisingly, the Roman military system of this time was inspired by its more-advanced neighbor (and enemy) – the Etruscans. In fact, the mass formation of hoplites fighting with their shield and spear – known as a phalanx, was already adopted by the Greeks by 675 BC and reached the Italy-based Etruscans by early 7th century BC. The Romans, in turn, were influenced by their Etruscan foes, and thus managed to enact many of the rigid Greek-inspired formations along with arms in real-time battle scenarios.

Many ancient authors conform to this Roman army adoption of ‘foreign’ tactics. For example, Diodorus Siculus (In his The Library of History) mentions how the Romans ditched their light rectangular shields and endorsed the heavier bronze shields of the Etruscans. This military replication, in turn, allowed the Romans to triumph over the Etruscans. Anon (in his Ineditum Vaticanum) also supports this view by saying how the Etruscans were given a taste of their own medicine when the Roman army embraced the very same tight hoplite formations to counter its enemies.

As per historical tradition, the adoption of the hoplite tactics was fueled by the sweeping military reforms undertaken by the penultimate Roman ruler Servius Tullius, who probably ruled in 6th century BC. He made a departure from the ‘tribal’ institutions of curia and gentes, and instead divided the military based on the individual soldier’s possession of the property. In that regard, the Roman army and its mirroring peace-time society were segregated into classes (classis).

According to Livy, there were six such classes – all based on their possession of wealth (that was defined by asses or small copper coins). The first three classes fought as the traditional hoplites, armed with spears and shields – although the armaments decreased based on their economic statuses. The fourth class was only armed with spears and javelins, while the fifth class was scantily armed with slings. Finally, the six (and poorest) class was totally exempt from military service. This system once again alludes to how the early Roman army was formed on truly nationalistic values. Simply put, these men left their homes and went to war to protect (or increase) their own lands and wealth, as opposed to opting for just a military ‘career’.

The Roman Maniple –

But the greatest strength of the Roman army had always been its adaptability and capability to evolve. Like we mentioned before how the early Romans from their kingdom era adopted the hoplite tactics of their foes and defeated them in turn. However, by the time of the First Samnite War (in around 343 BC), the Roman army seemed to have endorsed newer formations that were more flexible in nature. This change in battle-oriented stratagem was probably in response to the hardy Samnite armies – and as a result, the maniple formations came into existence (instead of the earlier rigid phalanx).

The very term manipulus means ‘a handful’, and thus its early standard incorporated a pole with a handful of hay placed around it. According to most literary pieces of evidence, the Roman army was now divided up into three separate battle-lines, with first-line comprising the young hastati in ten maniples (each of 120 men) the second line comprising the hardened principes in ten maniples and the third and last line consisting of the veteran triarii in ten maniples – who probably fought as heavy hoplites (but their maniples had only 60 men). Additionally, these battle-lines were also possibly screened by the light-armed velites, who mostly belonged to the poorer class of Roman civilians.

Suffice it to say, a maniple was a far more flexible formation than the ‘solid’ yet (occasionally) unwieldy phalanx. More importantly, these formations, collectively called the triplex acies, allowed for a battlefield system of reserves being deployed for better tactical advantage. For example, when the front-lining hastati was drained of his strength during the heat of the battle, he could fall back upon the reserve lines of the elite triarii. The well-armored veterans were then deployed forward in a cyclic manner – thus resulting in a fresh batch of troops countering the exhausted (and usually less-organized) enemy. This simple yet effective tactic changed the outcome of many a smaller battle in 4th century BC – as represented by the above video (reconstructed by Invictus, in the Rome 2 game engine).

The Roman Cohort –

Illustration by Peter Dennis. Credit: Warlord Games Ltd.

As the Roman realm continued to expand at a rapid rate, especially during and after the conclusion of the Second Punic War, the Romans encountered larger armies of the more organized military powers of the contemporary times. By the 2nd century BC, the maniples were simply not ‘big’ enough to be deployed in mass scale in battles. So again, as a reactionary measure, the Romans (gradually) moved away from a pseudo-class based system, to induct a collective solution for their armies. The result was the cohort – a flexible group of around 480 men who were armed and armored in a similar fashion. Ten such cohorts made a legion, and thus the later Roman soldiers are simply known as the legionaries, as opposed to individualistic categorization like hastati and triarii.

For all-intents-and-purposes, the Roman legionary was a professional soldier of the ancient times – recruited (and sometimes conscripted) from different parts of the Roman Republic (and later Empire). And befitting a professional soldier, the green recruits who were successfully enlisted as legionaries had to go through a stringent training period of 4 months. During this training ambit, each soldier was given the unenviable task of marching 29 km (18 miles) in five hours with regular steps, and then 35 km (21.7 miles) in five hours with faster steps – all the while carrying a backpack that weighed 45 lbs (20.5 kg).

This weight was intentionally allotted for increasing the endurance level of a legionary and thus added to the overall weight of the panoply worn by the soldiers in their full gear (the weight of the lorica segmentata armor alone might have gone beyond 20 lbs). As expected, the ‘slowpokes’ were severely beaten by centurions and officers with their staffs. Interestingly enough, many of the similar ‘regimens’ are preserved through our modern military culture – with elite forces of some countries trained via such rigorous boot camp methods.

The Organization of the Roman Army –

The ancient Roman army was known for its sheer discipline and incredible organizational depth. Pertaining to the latter ‘quality’, an animated short video by Blair Harrower aptly demonstrates how the Romans organized their army down to the last details when it came to troop-types, corresponding officers and their formations, thus alluding to an impressive tactical scope that was matched by very few ancient armies. Now it should be noted that the animation showcases the scope of post-Marian reforms – a military system overhaul that only took place after 107 BC (thus corresponding to the late Roman Republic and the subsequent Roman Empire).

Length of Service –

Now while the video does provide some solid, unwavering numbers when it came to Roman legionaries, in actual scenarios the situations faced by the Roman army were often more chaotic. During the latter part of 1st century BC, Augustus followed the guidelines of the preceding centuries and officially formalized the length of service of a legionary to 16 years (in 13 BC). But it should be noted that even after 16 years of service, he was expected to join the vexillum veteranorum or unit of veterans for four more years.

However, by 6 AD, the initial length of service was increased to 20 years, and it was complemented by the praemia militare (or discharge bonus), a lump sum that was increased to 12,000 sesterces (or 3,000 denarii). And by the middle of 1st century AD, the service was further extended to 25 years. Now beyond official service lengths, the protocols were rarely followed in times marked by wars. This resulted in retaining the legionaries well beyond their service periods, with some men fighting under their legions for over three to four decades. Suffice it to say, such chaotic measures frequently resulted in mutinies.

As for pay, other than the lump sum of praemia militare, a basic legionary was paid 900 sesterces per year (paid in three installments). This pay scale remained the same until at least 80 AD, in spite of presumed inflation. However, the pay differed for the various units in a legion, with under-officers and specialists being paid one-and-a-half or twice the basic pay grade. And furthermore, this pay figure was only a nominal value from which various deductions were made in accordance with the goods (like food, equipment, attires, and even burial fees) consumed by the legionary. Still, there were cases when the legionary was paid less than he deserved, and sometimes the ‘swindling’ measures were initiated by giving the soldiers worthless parcels of land instead of the praemia militare.

Bonding Beyond Numbers –

The video clearly mentions how a contubernium was the smallest division in a Roman army. Now beyond discipline and training, one of the crucial reasons for the effectiveness of a legionary was directly related to his sense of fraternity within a century (made of 80 men). So on a deeper level, a century (centuria) was further divided into ten contubernium (a ‘tent group’, each consisting of eight members). Such classifications basically led to a behavioral aspect of comradeship among the tent group who fought, dined and rested together in their military careers spanning over decades. This sense of identification often translated to high morale and protectiveness on the part of the legionaries when fighting in an actual battleground.

Interestingly, the contubernium was not just limited to the bonding exercises. The Roman army also pushed forth the tent group as a mess ‘team’. These grouped soldiers were expected to cook their own meals and eat them together (while the cost of food was deducted from their salaries). Simply put, the absence of mess halls and catering services rather solidified the bond between the legionaries who had to depend on each other even for peaceful meals.

Other Specialized Units –

As we mentioned before, a legionary was only considered as a veteran after he had served for 16 years in the army. In the 1st century AD, even after such a long period of service, the soldier was not expected to ‘retire’ from his legion. Instead, the veteran was reinstated to a special unit of vexillum veteranorum for four more years of service. Typically consisting of 500 to 600 men, the Roman army unit had its own administrative branch with different officers. It was however attached to the original legion, but at times were deployed independently. The latter case is evident from their separate garrison at the town of Thala, with this particular vexillum veteranorum being derived from Legio III Augusta in 20 AD. Unsurprisingly, the veterans with their years of experience were highly successful against the onslaught of Tacfarinas and his Numidian forces.

Other than vexillum veteranorum, there were also slaves (or calones) that could be attached to a legion. Though unlike the veterans, they were governed as a part of the legion, with 120 men attached to each cohort of 480 soldiers. So basically, a single legion (generally comprising ten cohorts) could be accompanied by around 1,200 slaves and these men were trained for specific tasks. During times of emergency, they were even armed with weapons to defend their camps.

And finally, the soldiers who truly made a Roman military unit self-sufficient were the immunes, a group of highly trained specialists attached to each legion. Ranging from doctors, engineers to architects, these men were exempt from the hard labor duties of the rank-and-file soldiers, while also earning more than them.

The Command Structure of the Roman Army –

We already talked about the fascinating organization of the Roman army. However, the strength of the Roman legion was also complemented by its incredibly deep yet sufficiently straightforward command structure. In other words, the hierarchical system of command was tailored to suit both ways, with overlapping representations that mirrored the interests of the senate, the aristocracy and most importantly – the rank-and-file soldiers (legionaries). In essence, it was a collective scope of leadership that fueled the tactical maneuvers (and even strategic deployment) of a legion – and this complex ambit is presented in a comprehensible manner by Historia Civilis’ amazing short animation on the command structure of the Roman legion.

Note* – The animation showcases the scope of post-Marian reforms – a military system overhaul that only took place after 107 BC (thus corresponding to the late Roman Republic and the subsequent Roman Empire).

The Vexillationes –

Artist: Jason Juta / Credit: Karwansary Publishers

While Roman legions fighting with their full capacity was a regular occurrence during early 2nd century AD, by the middle of the 3rd century the conflicts faced by the Roman empire (and the changing emperors) were pretty volatile from both the geographical and logistical scope. And so it was uncommon and rather impractical for the entire legion to leave its provincial base to fight a ‘distant’ war on the shifting frontiers of 3rd century AD. As a solution, the Roman military commanders sanctioned the use of vexillationes – detachments from individual legions that could be easily transferred without compromising the core strength of a legion (which was needed for fortifying and policing its ‘native’ province).

These mobile combat ‘divisions’, comprising one or two cohorts, were usually tasked with handling the smaller enemy forces while being also used for garrisoning duties along with strategic points like roads, bridges, and forts. And on rare occasions when the Romans were faced by a large number of opposing troops, many of these different vexillationes were combined to form a bigger field army.

The Comitatus –

Comitatus from the late 3rd Century. Art by Johnny Shumate.

The later Roman empire and its volatile political scope also brought forth newer Roman units separate from the Roman legion. For example, Emperor Gallienus (who ruled alone from 260 to 268 AD) created his own mobile field army consisting of special detachments from the praetorians, Legio II Parthica, and other guard units. Hailed as the comitatus (retinue), this central reserve force functioned under the emperor’s direct command, thus hinting at the ambit of insecurities faced by the Roman rulers and elites during the ‘Crisis of the Third Century’. Interestingly enough, many of ‘extra’ equites (cavalry) that were assigned to each conventional legion, were also inducted as the elite promoti cavalry in the already opulent (and the militarily capable) scope of the comitatus.

Visually Reconstructed Evolution of the Ancient Roman Soldier from 8th century BC to 3rd Century AD

Roman soldier at the Battle of Dyrrhachium, circa 48 BC. Source: Radu Oltean (

Starting out as a backwater inhabited by cattle rustlers who made their camps and rudimentary dwellings among the hills and the swamplands, Rome emerged as the eternal city that was the focal point of an ancient superpower marshaling its influence from the mines of Spain to the sands of Iraq. And while the incredible feat wasn’t ‘achieved in a day’, the sheer scope of Roman ascendancy was fueled by the ancient juggernaut of a military establishment. In a space of less than a millennium, the Romans eclipsed their powerful Italic neighbors survived the sacking of Rome itself possibly lost one-twentieth of their male population in a single battle, fought numerous economy-shattering civil wars – and yet managed to carve out an empire that has been termed as the ‘supreme carnivore of the ancient world’ (by historian Tom Holland). In all of these, the singular factor that played its crucial role was the Roman military, an institution driven by the exploits of the determined and trained ancient Roman soldier.

Now our popular culture tends to identify the Roman soldier as the quintessential Roman legionary of the first centuries of the common era. And while part of this scope holds true, since the Roman Empire did reach its greatest extent in the early phases of 2nd century AD, the notion of a Roman soldier is obviously not a static entity that remained unchanged over the centuries – in terms of both his social status and the arms he bore. Keeping that in mind, let us take a gander at the evolving nature of the ancient Roman soldier over a period of almost a millennium, from circa 8th century BC to 3rd century AD.

The Ancient Roman Soldier, circa late 8th century BC – early 6th century BC

Roman soldiers, circa 8th century BC. Illustration by Peter Connolly

While it may come as a surprise to many, but the Roman army equipment’s archaeological evidence ranges far back to even 9th century BC, mostly from the warrior tombs on the Capitoline Hill. As for the literary evidence, they mention how the earliest Roman armies were recruited from the three main ‘tribes’ of Rome. In any case, the transition of the Roman army from ‘tribal’ warriors to citizen soldiers was achieved in part due to the Roman society and its intrinsic representation (with voting rights) in the Roman assembly.

Early Roman soldiers, circa 7th century BC. Illustration by Richard Hook.

To that end, the early Romans were almost entirely depended on their citizen militia for the protection and extension of the burgeoning faction’s borders. These militiamen were simply raised as levy or legio – which in turn gives way to the term ‘legion’. In essence, the so-called legions of early Rome were ‘poor’ predecessors to the uniformly-equipped and disciplined soldiers of the later centuries.

Early Roman soldier and Italic allies, circa 8th -6th century BC. Source: Pinterest

In fact, the legions of early Rome were conscripted only as part-time soldiers and had their main occupation as farmers and herders. This stringent economic system prevented them from taking part in extended campaigns (that hardly went beyond a month), thus keeping military actions short and decisive. Moreover, these legions had to pay for their own arms and armaments – which at times was compensated only by a small payment from the state.

The Ancient Roman Soldier, circa late 6th century BC – early 4th century BC

Roman hoplite (on right) fighting against the Etruscan warriors. Source: WeaponsandWarfare

The popular notion of the Roman army fighting in maniples is a correct one if only perceived during the later years after 4th century BC. However, in the preceding centuries, the Roman military system was inspired by its more-advanced neighbor (and enemy) – the Etruscans. In fact, the hoplite tactics of mass formation of men fighting with their shield and spear were already adopted by the Greeks by 675 BC and reached the Italy-based Etruscans by early 7th century BC. The Romans, in turn, were influenced by their Etruscan foes, and thus managed to adopt many of the rigid Greek-inspired formations along with their arms.

The Roman hoplites formed the first three classes under the Servian reforms of 6th century BC.

As per historical tradition, the very adoption of the hoplite tactics was fueled by the sweeping military reforms undertaken by the penultimate Roman ruler Servius Tullius, who probably reigned in 6th century BC. He made a departure from the ‘tribal’ institutions of curia and gentes, and instead divided the military based on the individual soldier’s possession of the property. In that regard, the Roman army and its mirroring peace-time society were segregated into classes (classis). Celts attacking the Roman hoplites, early 4th century BC. Illustration by Richard Hook.

According to Livy, there were six such classes – all based on their possession of wealth (that was defined by asses or small copper coins). The first three classes fought as the traditional hoplites, armed with spears and shields – although the armaments decreased based on their economic statuses. The fourth class was only armed with spears and javelins, while the fifth class was scantily armed with slings. Finally, the six (and poorest) class was totally exempt from military service. This system once again alludes to how the early Roman army was formed on truly nationalistic values. Simply put, these men left their homes and went to war to protect (or increase) their own lands and wealth, as opposed to opting for just a ‘career’.

The Ancient Roman Soldier, circa late 4th century BC –

Republican Roman Army, circa late 4th century – illustration by Johnny Shumate.

The greatest strength of the Roman army had always been its adaptability and penchant for evolution. Like we mentioned before how the early Romans from their kingdom era adopted the hoplite tactics of their foes and defeated them in turn. However, by the time of the First Samnite War (in around 343 BC), the Roman army seemed to have endorsed newer formations that were more flexible in nature. This change in battlefield stratagem was probably in response to the Samnite armies – and as a result, the maniple formations came into existence (instead of the earlier rigid phalanx). The Samnite Warriors, circa 4th century. The Romans were probably equipped in a similar Italic fashion. Illustration by Richard Hook.

The very term manipulus means ‘a handful’, and thus its early standard pertained to a pole with a handful of hay placed around it. According to most literary pieces of evidence, the Roman army was now divided up into three separate battle-lines, with the first-line comprising the young hastati in ten maniples (each of 120 men) the second line comprising the hardened principes in ten maniples and the third and last line consisting of the veteran triarii in ten maniples – who probably fought as heavy hoplites (but their maniples had only 60 men). Additionally, these battle-lines were also possibly screened by the light-armed velites, who mostly belonged to the poorer class of Roman civilians.

Triarius and Hastatus, circa late 4th century- early 3rd century BC. Source: Pinterest

Now if we go back to Livy’s description of the classis, we can certainly draw similarities between the economic classes and their corresponding statuses within the manipular system. For example, the primary three classes were now divided into the main fighting arm – and they comprised the hastati (the young and relatively poor) the principes (the experienced and belonging to the middle class) and the triarii (the veterans and relatively well-off citizens). They were complemented by the equites (cavalrymen who belonged to the richest sections of the Roman society) and the contrasting velites (the lightly armed skirmishers who were the poorest).

The Ancient Roman Soldier, circa 3rd century BC – late 2nd century BC

Roman hastati, circa 3rd century BC – lllustration by Johnny Shumate

The military overhaul, indicating the transition from phalanx formations to manipular ones, is sometimes referred to as the Polybian reform (especially in the post 290 BC period). By this time, the citizen militia (or soldiers) of Republican Rome were levied and then assembled in the Capitol on the day that was proclaimed by the Consuls in their edictum. This process was known as dilectus, and interestingly the men volunteers were arranged in terms of their similar heights and age. This brought orderliness in terms of physical appearance, while similar equipment (if not uniform) made the organized soldiers look even more ‘homogeneous’. Starting from left – Hastati, Velites, Triarii, and Principes. The soldiers represent the Polybian reforms, after 275 BC.

The Roman army recruits also had to swear an oath of obedience, which was known as sacramentum dicere. This symbolically bound them with the Roman state, their commander, and more importantly to their fellow comrade-in-arms. In terms of historical tradition, this oath was only formalized before the commencement of the Battle of Cannae, to uphold the faltering morale of the Hannibal-afflicted Roman army. According to Livy, the oath went somewhat like this – “Never to leave the ranks because of fear or to run away, but only to retrieve or grab a weapon, to kill an enemy or to rescue a comrade.” Roman soldiers fighting against Macedon, at the Battle of Pydna, circa 168 BC. Illustration by Angus McBride.

However in spite of oaths and morale-drumming exercises, the bloody day of the Battle of Cannae accounted for over 40,000 Roman deaths (the figure is put at 55,000 by Livy, and 70,000 by Polybius), which equated to over 80 percent of the Roman army fielded in the battle. Now, according to modern estimation, the male population of Rome circa 216 BC was around 400,000. So, considering the number of casualties at the Battle of Cannae, the baleful figures pertained to 5 to 10 percent of the total number of Roman males in the Republic (considering there were also Italic allies present in the battle) – with all the casualties occurring in a single day!

The Ancient Roman Soldier, circa 1st century BC –

Caesar’s legionaries advancing into Gaul. Note the similarity of arms and armaments. Source: Pinterest

The last phase of the Roman Republic was marked by yet another military overhaul, better known as the Marian reforms (circa 107 BC). Alluding to a far more influential course of action than the previous centuries of military reorganizations, these reforms resulted in the military inclusion of the capite censi, the landless Romans who were now assessed in the census and counted as potential recruits that could bolster the army. Consequently, the state was responsible for providing the arms and equipment to these previously disfranchised masses, thus allowing many of the poorer men to be employed as professional soldiers of the burgeoning Roman realm.

Pompey’s guards attacked at the Battle of Pharsalus, circa 48 BC. Source: Pinterest

The reforms also focused on the formation of a standing army, as opposed to conscripted militias who were available seasonally within the timeframe of a year. Furthermore, the amends also touched upon the provision of retirement pensions and land grants to military men who had completed their terms of service. Suffice it to say, the series of reforms credibly improved the prowess of the Roman military machine, especially with the adoption of standardized equipment and training of most ranks of soldiers. Simply put, by the end of this epoch, the Roman legions were far more uniform in their appearance, while adopting systematic policies, orderly discipline, and reliable battlefield tactics. The armies of the ‘very’ Late Roman Republic before the turn of the century. Illustration by Angus McBride.

On the flip side, the Marian reforms indirectly paved the way for the fall of the Roman Republic. The legions, by virtue of their intrinsic organization and habitual fraternity, were more loyal to their ambitious generals than the state and senate. In essence, this was the very same epoch that was witness to the ‘alarming’ triumphs of the soldiers of Julius Caesar, Pompey and Marc Antony (as opposed to the ‘collective’ armies of Rome).

The Ancient Roman Soldier, circa 1st century AD – 2nd century AD

Roman legionary, armored in lorica segmentata, circa mid 1st century AD. Illustration by Angus McBride.

By 6 AD, the initial length of service for a Roman soldier (legionary) was increased to 20 years from 16 years, and it was complemented by the praemia militare (or discharge bonus), a lump sum that was increased to 12,000 sesterces (or 3,000 denarii). And by the middle of 1st century AD, the service was further extended to 25 years. Now beyond official service lengths, the protocols were rarely followed in times marked by wars. This resulted in retaining the legionaries well beyond their service periods, with some men fighting under their legions for over three to four decades. Suffice it to say, such chaotic measures frequently resulted in mutinies.

Roman soldiers during the Second Roman–Dacian War, circa early 2nd century AD. Illustration by Nikolay Zubkov

Many potential recruits were still drawn to the prospect of joining a legion because of the ‘booty factor’. In essence, many charismatic commanders touted the apparent prevalence of loot (and its ‘fair’ distribution), especially when conducting wars against the richer and powerful neighbors. According to Cicero, this might have been the prime factor that motivated the disparate troops under Marc Antony. The popular practice also alludes to the penchant for plundering – with the soldiers tending to strip the dead as the very first act after achieving victory over their foes. Roman-Celtic auxiliaries during the Marcomanni Wars, circa late 2nd century AD. Illustration by Angus McBride.

However, the life of a legionary was not all about triumphs, mutinies, and plundering. There were definitely some progressive measures put forth by the Romans when it came to bravery. For example, if the soldier was severely injured and couldn’t continue further with his military tenure, he was given a missio causaria or medical discharge that was equivalent to honorable discharge or honesta missio. This, in turn, equated to a societal status that was higher than ordinary civilians, which made the discharged legionary exempt from taxes and other civic duties.

The Ancient Roman Soldier, circa 3rd century AD –

Roman soldiers, circa 3rd century AD. Illustration by Nikolay Zubkov

While Roman legions fighting with their full capacity was a regular occurrence during the early 2nd century AD, by the middle of the 3rd century the conflicts faced by the Roman Empire (and the changing emperors) were volatile from both the geographical and logistical scope. And so it was uncommon and rather impractical for the entire legion to leave its provincial base to fight a ‘distant’ war on the shifting frontiers of 3rd century AD.

Phalangarii of emperor Caracalla. Illustration by Johnny Shumate

As a solution, the Roman military commanders sanctioned the use of vexillationes – detachments from individual legions that could be easily transferred without compromising the core strength of a legion (which was needed for fortifying and policing its ‘native’ province). These mobile combat ‘divisions’, comprising one or two cohorts, were usually tasked with handling the smaller enemy forces while being also used for garrisoning duties by strategic points like roads, bridges, and forts. And on rare occasions when the Romans were faced by a large number of opposing troops, many of these different vexillationes were combined to form a bigger field army.

Roman officers, circa late 3rd century AD. Source: Pinterest

Moreover, the importance of detachments was not only limited to the combat-duty bound vexillationes. Emperor Gallienus (who ruled alone from 260 to 268 AD) created his own mobile field army consisting of special detachments from the praetorians, legio II Parthica, and other guard units. Hailed as the comitatus (retinue), this central reserve force functioned under the emperor’s direct command, thus hinting at the ambit of insecurities faced by the Roman rulers and elites during the ‘Crisis of the Third Century’. Interestingly enough, many of ‘extra’ equites (cavalry) that were assigned to each conventional legion, were also inducted as the elite promoti cavalry in the already opulent (and the militarily capable) scope of the comitatus.

Timelapse Showcases The Evolution of a Roman Soldier from circa 9th century BC to 6th century AD –

In the creator’s own words –

The evolution of the Roman heavy infantryman from the dawn of Rome right down to the coming of the Arabs. I’ve deliberately (and to save time) not included light infantry and officers. And while I’ve tried to keep the gear as authentic as I could, my focus was style rather than accuracy.

Book References: The Roman Army: The Greatest War Machine of the Ancient World (Editor Chris McNab) / Roman Legionary 58 BC – AD 69 (By Ross Cowan) / The Roman Army from Caesar to Trajan (By Michael Simkins) / Arms and Armour of the Imperial Roman Soldier: From Marius to Commodus, 112 BC-AD 192 (By Raffaele D’Amato)

And in case we have not attributed or mis-attributed any image, artwork or photograph, we apologize in advance. Please let us know via the ‘Contact Us’ link, provided both above the top bar and at the bottom bar of the page.


Octavian, the grandnephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar, had made himself a central military figure during the chaotic period following Caesar's assassination. In 43 BC at the age of twenty he became one of the three members of the Second Triumvirate, a political alliance with Marcus Lepidus and Mark Antony. [17] Octavian and Antony defeated the last of Caesar's assassins in 42 BC at the Battle of Philippi, although after this point, tensions began to rise between the two. The triumvirate ended in 32 BC, torn apart by the competing ambitions of its members: Lepidus was forced into exile and Antony, who had allied himself with his lover Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt, committed suicide in 30 BC following his defeat at the Battle of Actium (31 BC) by the fleet of Octavian. Octavian subsequently annexed Egypt to the empire. [18]

Now sole ruler of Rome, Octavian began a full-scale reformation of military, fiscal and political matters. The Senate granted him power over appointing its membership and several successive consulships, allowing Augustus to operate within the existing constitutional machinery and thus reject titles that Romans associated with monarchy, such as rex ("king"). The dictatorship, a military office in the early Republic typically lasting only for the six-month military campaigning season, had been resurrected first by Sulla in the late 80s BC and then by Julius Caesar in the mid-40s the title dictator was never again used. As the adopted heir of Julius Caesar, Augustus had taken Caesar as a component of his name, and handed down the name to his heirs of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. With Vespasian, one of the first emperors outside the dynasty, Caesar evolved from a family name to the imperial title caesar.

Augustus created his novel and historically unique position by consolidating the constitutional powers of several Republican offices. He renounced his consulship in 23 BC, but retained his consular imperium, leading to a second compromise between Augustus and the Senate known as the Second Settlement. Augustus was granted the authority of a tribune (tribunicia potestas), though not the title, which allowed him to call together the Senate and people at will and lay business before it, veto the actions of either the Assembly or the Senate, preside over elections, and it gave him the right to speak first at any meeting. Also included in Augustus's tribunician authority were powers usually reserved for the Roman censor these included the right to supervise public morals and scrutinize laws to ensure they were in the public interest, as well as the ability to hold a census and determine the membership of the Senate. No tribune of Rome ever had these powers, and there was no precedent within the Roman system for consolidating the powers of the tribune and the censor into a single position, nor was Augustus ever elected to the office of Censor. Whether censorial powers were granted to Augustus as part of his tribunician authority, or he simply assumed those, is a matter of debate.

In addition to those powers, Augustus was granted sole imperium within the city of Rome itself all armed forces in the city, formerly under the control of the prefects, were now under the sole authority of Augustus. Additionally, Augustus was granted imperium proconsulare maius (power over all proconsuls), the right to interfere in any province and override the decisions of any governor. With imperium maius, Augustus was the only individual able to grant a triumph to a successful general as he was ostensibly the leader of the entire Roman army.

The Senate re-classified the provinces at the frontiers (where the vast majority of the legions were stationed) as imperial provinces, and gave control of those to Augustus. The peaceful provinces were re-classified as senatorial provinces, governed as they had been during the Republic by members of the Senate sent out annually by the central government. [19] Senators were prohibited from so much as visiting Roman Egypt, given its great wealth and history as a base of power for opposition to the new emperor. Taxes from the Imperial provinces went into the fiscus, the fund administrated by persons chosen by and answerable to Augustus. The revenue from senatorial provinces continued to be sent to the state treasury (aerarium), under the supervision of the Senate.

The Roman legions, which had reached an unprecedented 50 in number because of the civil wars, were reduced to 28. Several legions, particularly those with members of doubtful loyalties, were simply disbanded. Other legions were united, a fact hinted by the title Gemina (Twin). [20] Augustus also created nine special cohorts to maintain peace in Italia, with three, the Praetorian Guard, kept in Rome. Control of the fiscus enabled Augustus to ensure the loyalty of the legions through their pay.

Augustus completed the conquest of Hispania, while subordinate generals expanded Roman possessions in Africa and Asia Minor. Augustus' final task was to ensure an orderly succession of his powers. His stepson Tiberius had conquered Pannonia, Dalmatia, Raetia, and temporarily Germania for the Empire, and was thus a prime candidate. In 6 BC, Augustus granted some of his powers to his stepson, [21] and soon after he recognized Tiberius as his heir. In AD 13, a law was passed which extended Augustus' powers over the provinces to Tiberius, [22] so that Tiberius' legal powers were equivalent to, and independent from, those of Augustus. [22]

Attempting to secure the borders of the empire upon the rivers Danube and Elbe, Augustus ordered the invasions of Illyria, Moesia, and Pannonia (south of the Danube), and Germania (west of the Elbe). At first everything went as planned, but then disaster struck. The Illyrian tribes revolted and had to be crushed, and three full legions under the command of Publius Quinctilius Varus were ambushed and destroyed at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in AD 9 by Germanic tribes led by Arminius. Being cautious, Augustus secured all territories west of Rhine and contented himself with retaliatory raids. The rivers Rhine and Danube became the permanent borders of the Roman empire in the North.

In AD 14 Augustus died at the age of seventy-five, having ruled the empire for forty years, and was succeeded as emperor by Tiberius.

The Transformation (a.k.a. “Fall”) of the Roman Empire

The transformation of the Roman Empire – I use the somewhat neutral and undramatic word “transformation”. It can be “fall of the Roman Empire,” “collapse of the Roman Empire. . .” It’s clear that we’re talking about the fall of the Western Empire.

From 410 to 480, the Western Roman Empire disintegrated. It was dismembered by barbarian groups who were, except for the Huns, not really very barbarian. That is, they were not intent on mayhem and destruction. All they really wanted to do was to be part of the Empire, to share in its wealth and accomplishments, rather than to destroy it.

It was on this day in 476 AD (according to some sources anyway) that Odoacer was proclaimed by his soldiers as the first “King of Italy”. /

Nevertheless, 476 is the conventional date for the end of the Western Empire, because in that year, a barbarian chieftain deposed a Roman emperor. Nothing very new about this for the fifth century. What was new is that this chieftain, whose name is spelled all sorts of different ways, but in Wickham, it’s Odovacer. [It is also spelled] Odacaer, Odovacar, or Odovacer. We aren’t even sure what so-called tribe he belonged to. A barbarian general deposed the child emperor Romulus Augustulus, who by an interesting coincidence, has the names of both the founder of the city of Rome and the founder of the Roman emperor [correction: Empire]. The

“-us” on the end is little. It’s a diminutive. So a man with this grandiose name, a child, deposed in 476.

And instead of imposing another emperor, Odovacer simply wrote to Constantinople and said, “We’re going to be loyal to you. We will recognize you as the sole emperor.” Constantinople, however, was far away. And while of symbolic significance, this pledge of loyalty by Odovacer had no practical significance. For all intents and purposes, the Western Empire had, in 476, become a collection of barbarian kingdoms.

A kingdom is smaller than an empire. We use the term empire to mean a multi-national, very large state ruled from one center, but consisting of many different kinds of pieces. Kings, and the term and title “king”, is of German origin. Kings are very powerful, but over a more limited territory. So there was a king of Italy now. There would be a king of the Franks, or Francia, the former Roman Gaul. There would be a king of the Lombards later in northern Italy. A king of the Visigoths, first in southern France and Spain. And we’ll go over who is where at the beginning of next class.

For now, we’re going to talk about this collapse and its consequences. And we’re going to orient ourselves around three big questions. One– why did the west fall apart? And as a corollary to that question, was this because of the external pressure of invasions or the internal problems of institutional decline. Did it fall of its own accord or was it pushed, in other words?

Question number two. Or big question number two. Who were these barbarians? And how Romanised or how different from Rome were they? And that’s what we’re going to talk about more on Wednesday, next class.

And three, does this transformation mark a gradual shift to another civilization, or is it the cataclysmic end of the prevailing form of civilization, ushering in a prolonged period of what used to be called The Dark Ages? The Dark Ages– roughly the sixth to eleventh century. This is a term we don’t like to use. It implies a value judgment that is not only not necessarily accurate, but also expresses a certain kind of point of view of what are good periods in history and what are bad periods in history.


Mosaic of the Arian Baptistry, Ravenna, 5th-6th century CE / José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro , Wikimedia Commons

But I’d like to just probe this third question first. That is, how severe a catastrophe was this? So is it the end of civilization à la Planet of the Apes or Blade Runner or any of those apocalyptic image we have? Or is it merely a shift in power and the survival of Roman institutions such as the Church, while Roman political infrastructure– the emperor, the consoles, the praetorian prefects, and so forth– while that collapses?

A medieval historian named Roger Collins in a book called The Early Middle Ages writes, “The fall of the Roman Empire in the west was not the disappearance of a civilization. It was merely the breakdown of a governmental apparatus that could no longer be sustained.” The key word here is “merely”. The destruction of the Roman political apparatus may simply mean that the Roman state ceased to function, but that everything else continued.

But really, the question is, could everything else continue in the absence of a state and of a political order? The destruction of the political order also means, after all, the destruction of the military system. When we opened this class, we talked about a civilization built on such things as the rule of law and the maintenance of peace. These are no longer possible if there is no military governmental structure.

As we’ll say a little later, to some extent people didn’t know that it was the end. Because for a while, things seemed to go on as before. People were speaking Latin, they were living in cities, the cities were much less populated, but nevertheless, they were still there there were still rich people there were still poor people. In retrospect, though, we can see that things really did change. How much they changed is the subject of a lot of historical controversy.

The world of the late Roman historians is divided, roughly speaking, between catastrophists and continuists. As you may guess, the catastrophists think the fall of the Roman Empire — whether we date it 476 or there’s some reasons to date it, really, 550 for reasons we’ll learn in next week. Between 450 and 550, a catastrophe happened. A civilization was wiped out. And really, if not literally a Dark Ages, a more primitive, more war-like, more illiterate, and more rural period was ushered in.

The disappearance of ancient texts, things that the Romans knew from that lost Hortensius dialogue of Cicero that Augustine was so fond of to many other kinds of works that had been known to the Roman world, right? I can’t remember exactly how many plays Aeschylus wrote, but it’s something on the order of 60, and we have three. So the disappearance of text. The end of literacy, except for a very small portion of the Christian clergy.

A more primitive architecture. The end of grand civic projects like aqueducts, coliseums, theaters, baths. A more isolated society without these urban centers. A diminished population spread across the countryside, mostly engaged in subsistence. Hence, the, if not end of trade, the radical diminution of trade.

The continuists, people like Collins whom I just quoted, see the political changes as dramatic all right, but as essentially surface phenomena based partly on archaeology and partly on a more sympathetic understanding of Christian practices. In other words, they don’t think that the proliferation of churches, saints, cults, is necessarily a sign of primitiveness. So based on both archaeology and an understanding of Christianity, these continuists point to the survival of trade, the role of bishops and other church officials, as replacing the Roman governors.

The Roman political order may have collapsed in terms of staffing by lay people and military people, but the bishops were now the rulers of the city. The bishops would now do things like ensure the food supply, rally the local population against barbarian invasions, educate the populace. And the barbarian kings themselves try, with some success, to perpetuate the Roman order. They collect taxes, for example– that may or may not be a good thing. They engage in some kind of public works, some kind of maintenance of order.

The civilization of the sixth and seventh centuries in what comes to be considered Western Europe, rather than the Western Roman Empire, is not radically more barbarized or primitive than the late Roman Empire. Thus, the continuists.

My own position, but I don’t hold to it dogmatically, is that of a moderate catastrophist. I think something really happened I think it’s pretty radical and it didn’t happen all at once, however. 476 is not the year of collapse. It is a process. I’m fascinated by the degree to which people were and were not aware of the cataclysm, but I believe there is a cataclysm.

Wickham, the author of this book that we’re starting now The Inheritance of Rome, Chris Wickham, straddles the fence, as you’ve seen. His chapter that you were to read for today is entitled, “Crisis and Continuity: 400 to 550”. I would never use a chapter title like that, because it’s really frustrating. Which is it, dude?

He’s the leading medieval historian in the English-speaking world. He is Chichele Professor at All Souls, Oxford. And if that doesn’t sound impressive, well, it takes a lot to impress you. He’s a very great historian, but I don’t like that chapter title. As I said, I would emphasize crisis or change or cataclysm.

Well, let’s ask what happened, beginning with the gradual involvement of the barbarians in the military and their entrance into the empire. We’re using the term “barbarians”, which goes back to the Greek term applied to outsiders. People outside but threatening. The Greeks defined barbarians as uncivilized by reason of their speech, which sounded to them incoherent, and by reason of the fact that they’re nomads.

People who lead settled lives don’t trust nomads. Nomads, almost extinct in our world, once dominated many geographical regions and were frightening, because they moved to around to people who liked order and familiarity. They didn’t live in cities, whether they were nomadic or not. Barbarians were illiterate. This is the Greek idea of barbarians.

In the case of Rome, there is no single definition of barbarian society. We can say that Rome was overthrown by a war-like, but not very fierce, group of enemies. And I use enemies in a very mild sense. The Romans perceived them as enemies the barbarians perceived Rome as simply a nicer place to live.

But there is no Mongol horde kind of event here. They’re not that frightening. The Romans had known them for centuries. Most of them were even Christians. Heretical Christians. They’re Arians, I remind you, but they’re not unfamiliar, again, even in their religion. They’ve been at the borders of the Roman empire forever.

Like most empires, Rome was at the one hand, very aggressive, and on the other hand thought of itself is peace-loving. It maintained the Danube-Rhine frontier as a kind of natural frontier, every so often crossing those rivers to punish German tribes who were probing the frontiers of the empire. But generally speaking, the Romans were not interested in what they perceived, somewhat inaccurately, as endless forests inhabited by primitive people.

The continuists argue, with some justice, that between 250 and 600 what changed was not that primitive warriors conquered a civilized state, in the way that say, the Mongols conquered China in the thirteenth century but that the ancient world became the medieval world. That is, an urban culture became more rural. A Latin culture became amalgamated to a German one. Pagan society became Christian.

Having said this, it’s nevertheless true that the most dramatic event to the fifth century is that people who had been outside the empire were now in it. If we ask why the Western Empire collapsed, the simple, most immediate answer is it was taken over by German confederations, tribes. They came not so much as conquerors as military recruits, or as allies, or as refugees.

So rather than as guys with knives in their teeth hacking and slashing and burning, they came as pathetic refugees, maybe doing some hacking, slashing, and burning as military recruits and as military allies. Again, not without a certain amount of H. S. B.: (hacking and slashing and burning). But not a cataclysmic amount. They admired Rome. They wanted to continue its institutions. They regarded Rome as a rich and as civilized. The last thing they wanted was to still live in little huts in the forest.

They were not the bringers of a revolution. They were not even that numerous, amounting to some tens of thousands. Nevertheless, they ended Roman government, accelerated the changes we’ve already described towards depopulation, decentralization, ruralization– a less cultivated, less literate, less Mediterranean-centered society.

The Roman Army and the Visigoths

Alaric enters Athens in 395, by A. Stewart, 1915, oil on canvas / Public Domain

So I want to begin the description of this process by the changes in the Roman army. We saw that Diocletian, around 300 AD, militarizes Roman government, pays for the, perhaps, doubling of the military presence of the Roman army by changing the taxation system. So the twin pillars of the empire in the fourth century are army and taxation, the latter requiring a civilian governmental apparatus.

The army was a problem in terms of the recruiting of soldiers. This may have to do with the population it may have to do with the unattractive nature of military life, but nevertheless there was already, in the fourth century, a tendency to get the more familiar barbarians into the army as Roman soldiers. Because they were available, they were near the frontiers– this may seem odd. Why hire your potential enemy to be soldiers? But there’s a lot of precedent.

Very often, empires don’t really want to supply their own manpower. And the people who are the best soldiers are also the people who may, in the future, be most threatening. I don’t want to pursue this simile, but the Afghan Mujahideen were trained by Americans, because at one time they were opposed to the Russian occupation of Afghanistan. As it happened, in retrospect, that had some bad consequences. But at the time, it seemed like a good idea.

So in the 370s a group called the Visigoths asks to be admitted to the Roman Empire as an allied army. In other words, the whole group will be federated with the Romans. And federati is the term given for barbarian troops serving under the Roman Empire.

Why were they on the move? These are not really nomadic people. They don’t live in yurts or travel across Central Asia. They tend to be settled in villages. They have dairy cattle rather than have some kind of nomadic sheep, or something like. They’re pretty settled. Nevertheless, in 378, they were on the move. And we don’t know why. Some enemy pushing them across the Danube into what’s now Romania? It may be the weakness of the Empire. They may have seen that the empire was not so strong and made a proposition, kind of like a takeover. You don’t seem to be doing so well in your stock or your finances, so we’re going to infuse some capital into you, i.e., our soldiers.

They also may have been hungry. Certainly, once they crossed the frontier, the Romans were rather inept in feeding them, in supplying them, and the Visigoths rebelled. Thus far, nothing incredibly new. What really was new was that the emperor came with an army to suppress them. And rather to his surprise and everybody else’s, the emperor Valens was defeated at the battle of Adrianopole. Defeated by the barbarians.

The defeat at Valens was not immediately cataclysmic, because, even though he was killed at this battle, even though it sent shock waves throughout the empire, in fact, it would not be this area that succumbed to the barbarians– the East. Romania, or the Balkans would be part of the Eastern Empire. And indeed, both Adrianople the city, and Constantinople, the even greater city, would withstand Visigothic attempts to take them.

In 382, the Visigoths were officially recognized, and they were allowed to settle in the Balkans as federati. And, in fact, they were reasonably useful troops to the Roman Empire in the 380s and 390s. What this does show, however, is the barbarization of the army. And another aspect of that is that the army tended to be commanded now more and more by barbarian generals.

These barbarian generals, at the top, bore the title magister militum – master of the soldiers. So I’m using the term “general” as an anachronistic one, since that’s what we’re familiar with. These magistri were powerful leaders, charismatic leaders, of German or other tribal groups, who then ruled in the name of, or behind the throne of the emperor. They couldn’t be emperors themselves, at least in these years, it was impossible to envisage a barbarian emperor. But they held more power than the emperors.

Two of these generals, war leaders, magistri, Stilicho and Alaric. Stilicho was a Vandal. Alaric was a Visigoth. Alaric wanted territory, food, treasure from Rome. The Visigoths were moving from the Balkans into Greece, eventually into Italy. Stilicho played a kind of game with Alaric, trying to keep him in check in the name of the Western emperor, but also negotiating with him. The emperors moved from Milan in the north to Ravenna, a little bit to the east. Ravenna, then, was in the marshes and impossible for a barbarian army to take. This is the last capital of the Western Roman Empire. Kind of romantic and mysterious, but strange as a place to end up.

These are the Visigoths then, who are on the move in the 390s and the 400s. Eventually, Stilicho would be executed by the Roman emperor of the West, and Alaric would invade and plunder Rome in 410. It was the Visigoths who engineered the so-called Sack of Rome that so shocked Augustine and his contemporaries.

Where, you might be asking in all of this, was the Roman army? Alaric was wandering around the Balkans and Italy for two decades before he sacked Rome. The army, which had consumed so much of the resources of the Roman Empire, is curiously absent in the history of the fifth century. This is not the Eastern Front in World War II. This is something altogether different: the collapse of an empire that expended huge amounts of treasure on its army. Its army seems to be invisible and supports, to some extent — or that fact supports to some extent, the argument that the Roman Empire collapsed of its own internal disorders, since we don’t see it losing pitched battles to outside barbarians.

Or maybe the army doesn’t disappear, it becomes indistinguishable from the invaders. The army is the invaders. Creepier.

Another Kind of Barbarian: The Huns

Attila the Hun by Eugene Ferdinand Victor Delacroix , 1843-1847, oil on canvas / Web Gallery of Art, Wikimedia Commons

Now within this, there are some real barbarians– the Huns. The Huns are kind of nomadic. OK, they didn’t actually cook their meat by holding it between their thigh and the horse hide, and the sweat and heat of the horse heated up the meat. This is a widespread myth of nomadic peoples. The Chinese say this about the Mongols, the Romans about Huns. But they were pretty mean.

They were interested in the Roman Empire mostly for plunder. And they didn’t care if that destroyed the economic base, because they weren’t thinking in such terms. And indeed, they may have frightened the rather nice German tribes that stood between them and the Roman Empire.

In the 450s the Huns were united under the leadership of Attila. And Attila certainly threatened the Eastern Empire first, but the Eastern emperor defeated the Huns, discontinued tribute to them, and in a pattern that we’ll see repeated again and again, the Huns decided that Constantinople was too tough. That the Eastern Empire as a whole, access to which was more or less controlled by Constantinople, was too well-guarded.

And they turned to the west instead. Not as rich maybe, but much easier pickings. They show up in Gaul in 450. They were defeated by an army of Visigoths allied with Romans. They then went to Italy. They went into the heart of the Empire, sacked cities in the northeast of Italy, and there’s no army. The emperor is holed up in Ravenna. basically shuts the door, gets under the bed, and waits for it to go away.

The one power of Italy willing to try to deal with Attila is the Bishop of Rome, whom we haven’t heard of yet, but we’re going to be hearing about him a lot. And indeed, in the course that follows this, even more. The Bishop of Rome – the pope. Pope Leo I, along with two senators from the Roman senate, goes up to northern Italy to remonstrate with Attila, to visit the leader of this barbarian tribe in 453 to try to get him to stop plundering Italy.

Whether they were successful or not doesn’t much matter, because Attila died shortly thereafter of a brain hemorrhage. And with his charismatic leadership, the Huns came to an end as a military force. That is, with the end of his leadership, the Huns no longer had as imposing a military force and quickly disintegrated.

What’s significant is that it’s the pope who is taking over what we would think of as the Roman imperial responsibilities. And this will be a pattern, not only in the assertion of papal power, but in the way in which the Church starts to take over many of the roles abandoned by the empire.

After this, the barbarian generals, in effect, take charge. The Huns are defeated, but the other groups now pour into the empire. The Vandals have taken over North Africa by this time, by 430, cutting off the grain supply to Rome. They are unusual among the barbarian groups in that they have a navy. They know how to use boats, and indeed, they plunder the city of Rome in 455 in a sack that might have been worse than that of 410.

By 470, the Visigoths control southern Gaul, what’s now southern France a group called the Suevi are in Spain the Vandals in North Africa a group called the Ostrogoths in what’s now Hungary the Angles and the Saxons in Britain. All that effectively remained of the Western empire when Odovacer overthrew Romulus Augustulus was Italy. And in 476, that’s it.

A little coda, however. In 493, the Eastern emperor in Constantinople convinced the Ostrogoths to get out of Hungary, stop threatening the Eastern Empire, and take Italy from Odovacer. Once again, the Eastern Empire is capable of deflecting barbarians into the west, because they’re too strong. So in 493, our friend Odovacer was overthrown by the Ostrogoths and their leader Theoderic.


St. Severinus of Noricum / Wikimedia Commons

So what’s the impact of all of this? On the ground, if you were looking around in 480s, 490s, you would see a kind of accommodation. The Roman elite accommodated themselves to, compromised with, negotiated with, their new rulers. So, for example, a member of a very wealthy Roman family, a man named Sidonius Apollinaris in southern France, was a bishop and a great landowner. And we have a lot of letters of his that tell us about his negotiations with the Visigothic king Euric. He found the Visigoths uncouth, hard to deal with, not knowledgeable of the Latin classics, but not very frightening, either. Not particularly formidable.

So accommodation, improvisation. We have a saint’s life that is a biography of a saint, a man named Severinus of Noricum. You know, “Stop scratching the furniture, Severinus.” That kind of thing. A saint in what’s now, more or less, Austria. His life tells us that he learned of the end of the Roman Empire this way:

“At the time when the Roman Empire was still in existence, the soldiers of many towns were supported by public money to guard the frontier. When this arrangement ceased, the military formations were dissolved, and the frontier vanished. The garrison of Passau, which is still a town in modern Bavaria, the garrison of Passau, however, still held out. Some of the men had gone to Italy to fetch for their comrades their last payment.”

This resembles a corporation– somebody, actually, was telling me yesterday they worked for Eastern Airlines, a company that went out of business in 1990. And so sudden was the collapse of Eastern, even though it had been predicted, that she was a flight attendant and had to get on another airline in order to get home. She lived in New York she was in Florida Eastern ceased to exist. So these soldiers are in the same position. They want to get their last paycheck.

They were never heard from again. Nobody knew that they, in fact, were killed by barbarians on the way. “One day, when Saint Severinus was reading in his cell, he suddenly closed the book and began to sigh. The river, he said, was now red with human blood. At that moment the news arrived that the soldiers had been washed ashore by the current.”

Interestingly enough, he doesn’t just stay in his cell and pray. He starts to organize this society. He is active, although some of it involves some miracles, in poor relief. He deals with the local barbarian king, the king of the Alamanni, remonstrates with him.

He helps in diverting Odovacer into Italy. Again, like Pope Leo, we have a member of the church, and in this case somebody that you would think was a recluse, indeed had been living like a recluse, nevertheless taking over the responsibilities for a population abandoned by its civilian government. That is then one of the forms of accommodation.

Remains of statue of Constantine / Wikimedia Commons

Another aspect of this era, however, is decline. The urban population declines. The society and economy experienced what Wickham euphemistically calls, “a radical material simplification”. The term he uses, I believe, on page 95 and 105. “Radical material simplification” means that your standard of living plummets.

Cruder ceramics. Instead of that nice, north African red slip ware, you’ve got mud that you baked at home. Fewer imports, no pepper. More homemade, crude building materials. Fewer luxury goods.

The Vandal control of North Africa meant the end of the Roman wheat supply. The countryside of Rome had not grown enough wheat to feed the city since 200 BCE. So for 600 years, minimum, Rome was dependent on other sources of supply. Southern Italy, Sicily, North Africa. The moment the Vandals cut the supply, the city could no longer support its massive population, could not feed everybody. When you multiply this phenomenon, it’s not a surprise that the city’s decline in population, and that the society becomes more rural, more agricultural, more subsistent.

And here’s where I think Collins is naive to speak of merely a political decline. Without a government and military structure, trade could not take place on the scale it had before. And without that trade, cities could not survive. There is no denying a decline in culture, economy, and population. Let’s just look at Roman population figures, based on things like pork supply figures, public– well, I mean, nobody took a census in Rome. We don’t really know exactly how many people lived there at any given time.

But historians and archaeologists looking at things like food supply, public welfare payments, water delivery figures, for aqueducts, and the abandonment of houses and of building sites. Probably in 5 BCE, the Roman population was 800,000. That would be a fairly conservative estimate. Maybe as much as a million, but definitely 800,000. 5 BCE.

At the time of Constantine, in the early fourth century, the population had declined probably to 600,000. After the sack of Rome in 419, probably 300,000 to 500,000. Obviously, these are very rough figures.

But after the sack of Rome, more than half of the population that had existed in 5 BCE is gone. With the end of grain shipments from North Africa, we don’t really know immediately. We can estimate that by 590, there could not have been more than 150,000 people in Rome. This is after not only the Vandals, but after a catastrophic war in Italy launched by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, who we’ll be talking about next week.

In 800, on Christmas Day, Charlemagne was crowned in Saint Peter’s in Rome as Roman Emperor by the pope, an act whose implications we will be exploring towards the end of the class. On that day, Rome must’ve had maximum, maximum, most optimistic estimate, 30,000 people. This does not necessarily mean that they were primitive, but they were living in the Coliseum, for example. People built houses in there. They used the walls of the Coliseum as a fort. There is a certain Planet of the Apes quality, in fact. Rome, still to this day, is filled with picturesque ruins, even though it is a city of two and a half, three million people.

As I said, people were not necessarily aware of this change. For example, lots of churches were built at this time, and some of them have mosaic pavements that have mottos about the grandeur of the Roman name, and the usual classical kind of mottos. But then again, people often aren’t aware of what’s happening to them. I mean, what if somebody in the future points to the fact that New Haven, in 1920, had far more people living in it than it does now? New Haven lost a third of its population between 1950 and 1980.

What if some future historian is scandalized at the fact that in order to get into Yale a hundred years ago you had to know Greek and Latin. If you look at what those gentlemen C students had to study, or were responsible for, in say, 1925, it’s extraordinary. It’s not very impressive in the sciences, but the decline of the humanities, if by decline we mean things like knowledge of classical literature, is stunning.

Somebody may decide in a few hundred years that the Dark Ages began in about 1950. And that those pathetic people in, say, 2011 impressed with their little technological toys, nonetheless didn’t know anything. Now I don’t actually believe that. There are some people who do. There’s a philosopher at Notre Dame named Alasdair MacIntyre who really believes that the Dark Ages began a long time ago, and we simply don’t know. We simply refuse to recognize this.

I was impressed by an obituary for a man named Patrick Leigh Fermor, who died at the age of 96 earlier this year. This is the last of the great British characters of the twentieth century. He not only was classically trained, wrote a lot about Greece, lived in Greece, he, in World World II, disguised himself as a Greek shepherd in Crete, engineered the capture of a German general, and the delivery of that general after three weeks of hiking through the mountains of Crete to a British destroyer. It’s in a movie called Ill Met By Moonlight, if you ever want to check this out. Not a great movie, but—

Patrick Leigh Fermor also wrote two books out of a projected three about walking from Holland to Constantinople or, Baghdad actually, I think, in the 1930s. But the obituary describes a conversation he had with this German general, whom he is trying to get across Crete. And the general at one point, over some fire in the wilderness, quotes a line from Horace, the Roman poet, that then Patrick Leigh Fermor finishes is for him, and indeed, quotes the next two stanzas.

Well, that world is over. That world is over. I don’t pretend to be part of that world, either. And that’s a world that would have existed in the time of Horace, or the years after Horace, who lives at the time of Augustus. This would have existed in 300 CE. It would have existed, at least, in a few monasteries in 800 CE. It would have flourished in the Britain of the eighteenth and nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

So again, I don’t think that civilization came to an end. What came to an end was a civilization, a certain kind of society. It has some heirs, however, like all dead entities. There are four heirs to the Roman Empire. One is the Byzantine Empire, the Eastern Roman Empire, which calls itself the Roman Empire. It doesn’t call itself the Eastern, doesn’t call itself the Byzantine, it calls itself the Roman Empire, even though it does so in Greek.

The second heir are the barbarian kings. We’ll be talking about them on Wednesday. They are attempting to prop up the remnants of Roman culture, civilization, and material society.

The third heir in some ways, is Islam, which we meet in the seventh century, the century of its invention. And the fourth heir is the Church. Even though the Church grew up in opposition to the Roman Empire, it will preserve Latin, cities, learning, classical civilization.

The Roman Army AD 250-378

Between the reigns of Augustus and Trajan the Roman Army perhaps reached its pinnacle. It is the army of this time which is generally understood as the ‘classical’ Roman army. However, contrary to popular belief, this was not the army which was eventually defeated by the northern barbarians.

The Roman army evolved, changing in time, adapting to new challenges. For a long time it didn’t need to change much as it held supremacy on the battlefield. And so until AD 250 it was still the heavy armed infantry which dominated the Roman army.

But the day of gladius and the pilum were eventually to become a thing of the past. The main reason for such changes to come about were the demands border warfare was placing on the army.

From the time of Hadrian onwards defensive systems along the Rhine Danube and Euphrates held off the opponents with large permanent camps placed along these boundaries. Any barbarians who crossed the border would need to make his way across the defences and locally stationed auxiliary forces only to eventually face the nearest legion which would march up from its camp and cut off their retreat. For a long time this system worked well enough.

But in the third century it could no longer cope. The old legions became gradually more disorganized, having cohorts detached and sent to various places to fill breeches in the defences.

A whole host of new cavalry and infantry units had been created in desperate times of civil war and barbarian invasions. One of the most significant differences between the old army system was that Caracalla in AD 212 had bestowed Roman citizenship on all the provinces.

With this the ancient distinction between the legionaries and the auxiliary forces had been swept aside, each now being equal in their status. So provincial inhabitants might have become Romans, but this didn’t mean the end to non-Romans being part of the Roman army.

In their desperation the embattled emperors of the third century had recruited any military forces which came to hand. Germans Sarmatians, Arabs, Armenians, Persians, Moors all were not subjects of the empire and now stood to the Roman army in the same relation as once the auxiliaries had done.

These new barbarian imperial forces might have grown larger as the third century went on, but their numbers did not pose a threat to the legions of the empire.

Ever from emperor Gallienus onward the tendency of increasing the proportion of cavalry and light infantry and relying less on the heavy infantry legionary grew more apparent. The legions gradually were ceasing to be the preferred imperial troops.

Emperor Diocletian was largely responsible for the reforms of the army which followed the tumultuous third century. He addressed the chief weakness of the Roman defence system by creating a central reserve.

Had large invasions of barbarians broken through the defences, there never had been anyone in the interior of the empire to stop them, due to the system introduced by Augustus by which all the legions were based at the edges of the empire.

So Diocletian created a central reserve, the comitatenses, who now enjoyed the highest status among the army. They were what the legionaries in their bases along the border, now referred to as the limitanei, had once been.
These new, mobile units were organized into legions of one thousand men, rather than the traditional full-scale size of the old legion.

With the fourth century the shift toward cavalry and away from heavy infantry continued. The old legionary cavalry completely disappeared in the face of the emerging heavier, largely Germanic cavalry.

And yet throughout the reign of Constantine the Great the infantry still remained the main arm of the Roman army. Though the rise of the cavalry was manifested in the fact that Constantine abolished the post of praetorian prefect and instead created two positions Master of Foot (magister peditum) and Master of Horse (magister equitum).

Though still the legions held dominance in the empire. Emperor Julian still defeated the Germans at the Rhine with his legionaries in AD 357.
But the cavalry was nevertheless rising in importance. For this rise there were mainly two reasons.

Many barbarians resorted simply to raiding for plunder rather than actual invasion. To reach such raiding parties before they retired out of Roman territory, infantry was simply not fast enough.

The other reason was that the superiority of the Roman legion over its opponents was no longer as clear as it had been in the past. The barbarians had been learning much about their Roman foes in past centuries.

Thousands of Germans had served as mercenaries and taken their experience of Roman warfare back home with them. With this increased competition, the Roman army found itself forced to adapt new techniques and provide strong cavalry support for its embattled infantry.

If the Roman army had throughout most of the third and fourth century been undergoing a transition, gradually increasing the number of cavalry, then the end of this period of gradual change was brought about by a dreadful disaster.

In AD 378 the Gothic cavalry annihilated the eastern army under emperor Valens at the Battle of Adrianople (Hadrianopolis). The point had been proven that heavy cavalry could defeat heavy infantry in battle.

The Roman Empire and Trade

Trade was an essential part of life for the Romans - the empire was worth a great deal and trade managed to bring in a lot of that money. Rome’s population was one million and this amount required many different things which were brought back through trading. By importing goods from other countries they could raise their living standards and have more luxuries.

Trade routes covered the Roman Empire along with sea routes covering the Mediterranean and Black Seas, and many different land routes which used the roads that the Romans Trade had built. The two main motives for building roads was trade and moving of the Roman Army.

Roman Commerce

Ostia was the most significant port since it was the closest main one to Rome it sat at the River Tiber’s mouth and was just 15 miles away from Rome. A lot of ships sailed between Ostia and Carthage, a major city in North Africa, and this journey took a total of three to five days. Ostia also had ships arrive there from France and Spain. The entire goods could be transferred to Rome very quickly since they were carried in barges to the city and up to the River Tiber once the slaves moved the items across from the merchant ships over to the barges. Ostia did in fact become very involved in Rome’s downfall when it was captured in AD 409 by Alaric the Goth, which cut off Rome’s important food supply.

The Romans did as much as possible to ensure the safety of sea journeys, for instance by building lighthouses as safe harbours and docks, and the Roman Navy made attempts for the safety of the Mediterranean Sea from pirates.

Rome made trading as simple as could be - only a single currency was used and no complicating customer dues. An additional welcome proved to be trade due to the Empire’s peaceful years. It was fundamental to the Empire’s success - when it collapsed, the trade throughout lands which previously made up the Roman Empire also collapsed. Merchants also found the Mediterranean became a danger zone as there no authorities were available to control pirate activity as far north as the English channel.

They used their road network to transport from one country to another:

  • Silver with Britain which was used to make jewellery and coins, and wool to make clothes
  • Clothing dyes from the south-eastern area of the empire and spices for flavouring food
  • Silk from the Far East (China) to produce fine clothes
  • Cotton from Egypt
  • Wild animals to be used in gladiator fights from Africa

Spain, France, the Middle East and north Africa were the main trading partners. The Romans also imported beef, corn, glass, iron, lead, leather, marble, olive oil, perfumes, timber, tin and wine.

Britain sent out lead, woollen products, and tin - in return they imported wine, olive oil, pottery and papyrus. The British traders depended on the Romans for the Empire’s security - when it collapsed and Europe seemed to be taken over by Barbarians, traders didn’t have the guarantee that their goods would get through. Without the added power of Rome, no one would be eager to buy produce from Britain and other areas in Europe.

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