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Roman Battlefield Tactics

The formation of the army in regal times is not clearly stated in the authorities, who compare it to the Macedonian phalanx, a uniform battalion, although they at the same time say that the different classes had different weapons. Whatever the formation was, it was certainly greatly altered, probably under Camillus. After his time, the legion was drawn up in three lines, the first (of young men) called hastati, the second (of men at their prime) prindpes, the third (of middle aged men) called triarii or pilani. These names are evidently derived from some earlier arrangement, for, in this later region, the hastati had no hasta, the prindpes were not the front line, and pilani had no pilum. On the contrary, the hastati and prindpes (or antepilani) carried pila (javelins), while the triarii carried hastae (lances).

The first line of the army, when in battle-array, consisted of the hastati; next stood the principes ; and last, the triarii. As the bugle sounded the charge, the three lines advanced, keeping proper intervals, sword in sheath, but the first two ranks of the hastati with spears uplifted {pilis infestis) ready to hurl. When within reach of the enemy, the two front ranks of the hastati hurled their heavy spears in a shower; and immediately, with drawn swords, charged upon the disordered mass of the foe, the odd numbers of the front rank springing forward to gain room, the even numbers and the entire second rank following as a support. While a series of single combats thus took place along the whole line, the third, fourth, and fifth ranks pressed close up, to aid their comrades and to take the place of any that fell, and meanwhile threw their spears over the heads of the combatants among the throng of the enemy beyond.

When the whole of the first line, that is, all the hastati, had thus been brought into action, it withdrew, to reform and get breath, while the second, rushing through the intervals, attacked in turn with spear and sword. After the lapse of some ten or fifteen minutes, the hastati, if necessary, returned to the charge, and again made room for the principes, each line being thus successively hurled against the enemy.and giving them no rest till they yielded. The triarii, meanwhile, were held in reserve, being only brought into action in case the liastati and prindpes proved insufficient to overcome the enemy.

In this pliant and successive order of battle lay the superiority of the Roman tactics. Most other nations drew up their whole army in one line, trusting their fortunes to the success of one onset, which, if repulsed, was habitually followed by entire defeat. Their men stood close together, forming a compact body, which depended chiefly lor success on the momentum of its mass. Only those on its outer edges could use their weapons, while the rest were practically imprisoned in the crowd, With the Romans, nearly every man, sooner or later, took part in the contest Hence, although they might be greatly inferior in number, they could bring into action more swords and spears, at a given point, than the enemy could.

During the skirmishing, the maniples were usually arranged in quincunx order, so that the openings of the front were covered by maniples of the rear; but it seems that when the legion went into action, the men 'extended,' so as to have more room for the sword-arm, and thus the openings were filled up and the lines continuous. The cavalry also was drawn up in ten turmae of thirty men, similarly disposed in three lines. Each horseman had a long sword and spear.

Testudo, a tortoise, was the name given to several other objects. In military affairs testudo is used as a generic term for all kinds of movable roofs used to protect men or engines. The name of Testudo was also applied to the covering made by a close body of soldiers : the soldiers of the outside rank placing their long semi-cylindrical shaped shields in front, and the others placing their flat shields (scuta, ivptol) over their heads to secure themselves against the darts of the enemy. The shields fitted so closely together as to present one unbroken surface without any insterstices between them, and were also so firm that men could walk upon them, and even horses and chariots be driven over them (Dio Case. xlix. 30).

A testudo was formed (testutlinem facer) either in battle to ward off the arrows and other missiles of the enemy (cf. Liv. x. 29, 6,12 ; and phalange facia in Caes. Bell. Gall. i. 24), or, which was more frequently the case, to form a protection to the soldiers when they advanced to the walls or gates of a town for the purpose of attacking.

Sometimes the shields were disposed in such a way as to make the testudo slope. The soldiers in the first line stood upright, those in the second stooped a little, and each line successively was a little lower than the preceding down to the last, where the soldiers rested on one knee. Such a disposition of the shields was called a fastigata testudo, on account of their eloping like the roof of a building. The advantage of this plan were obvions : the stones and missile thrown upon the shields rolled off them like water from a roof; besides which, other soldier frequently advanced upon them to attack tbe enemy upon the walls. The Romans were accustomed to form this kind of testudo, as in exercise, in the games of the Circus.

Polybius [Book XVIII, chapter 32] related that ". . . The Macedonian phalanx is difficult, and sometimes impossible to handle, because the men cannot act either in squads or separately. The Roman order on the other hand is flexible ; for every Roman, once armed and on the field, is equally well equipped for every place, time, or appearance of the enemy. He is, moreover, quite ready and needs to make no change, whether he is required to fight in the main body, or in a detachment, or in a single maniple, or even by himself. Therefore, as the individual members of the Roman force are so much more serviceable, their plans are also much more often attended by success than those of others. . . ,"

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 13:28:24 ZULU