UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


Imperial Roman Army

The Romans were a nation of warriors. All within a certain age (17 to 45-47), were obliged to go forth to war at the call of their country. When an army was wanted for any purpose, a levy was made among the people, of the number required. These were then arranged, officered, and equipped for service.

The army consisted in theory of the whole body of citizens whose resources were sufficient for providing the necessary equipment. In practice, however, only so many were summoned under arms at the annual enrollment as were required for the operations at hand, and these were dismissed as soon as the campaign was completed. But under the empire the standing army, composed of professional soldiers, was the essential basis of the military organization. Between these two systems there was a transition stage.

At the time of the Second Punic War it had been necessary to maintain armies constantly in the field for many years, and after the termination of the great struggle large garrisons had to be kept in the new provinces beyond the seas. The traditional system of universal service required that the military burden be apportioned equably. But the geographical and other conditions that now prevailed made it very difficult to release the soldiers frequently by substituting fresh recruits. Circumstances gave rise inevitably to the custom of retaining in the field a comparatively small fraction of the entire body of citizens for a long period and thereby relieving the others altogether from military service.

The number of soldiers in a legion was elastic, and varied at different times. It is generally reckoned at six thousand foot, and one hundred and twenty horsemen (four turmae). The legion when full consisted of 6000 men, but varied from that to 4000. The number of foot-soldiers who composed a legion, and their style of equipment, varied at different times. The legion contained ten cohorts; and the cohort, which had its own standard (signum), each cohort, into three maniples; and each maniple, into two centuries.

The legion had no standard prior to the Consulship of Marius. Each maniple had a signum: each turma of cavalry a vexillum. The standards, signa, gave the signals for the movements of the army; each maniple had one, the ancient signal of which was a handful of hay on a pole. The standard of the legio was a spear, hasta, with the figure of an animal upon it: from the consulship of Marius, BC 104, a silver eagle with extended wings became the standard of the legio.

Hastati10 maniplesof 1201200
Principes10 maniplesof 1201200
Triarii10 maniplesof 60600
Velites40 maniplesof 301200
The description from Polybius, applies to the period of the great contest with Carthage. The legion, at this time, usually contained 1000 veliles, 1200 hastati, 1200 principes, and 600 triarii, all of whom served on foot, besides 300 equites supplied by the centuries of knights. The 300 horse were divided into 10 troops (turmae), over each of which were placed three officers named decurions. The infantry, or legion proper, was divided into sixty small companies called centuries, commanded by a centurion. A centuria was usually sixty men. Each line consisted of ten maniples, commanded by two centurions (prior and posterior), but the maniples of triarii were only half as large as those of the other lines.

The legion lost its contingent of cavalry since the Social War. Augustus restored to it a small cavalry force of 120 men. Following the example of Caesar, he appointed to each legion a legatus Augusti of senatorial rank, who acted as brigadier, between the general and the tribuni militum. As the legions were now stationed for many years together in one district, they were also provided with permanent depots (castra stativa), each superintended by a stationary officer, praefectus castrorum.

The use of "artillery" on a large scale was due to Greek influence. It played an important part in the Macedonian army. The fixed number of engines mentioned in the text (ten onagri and fifty-five carroballistat) was perhaps introduced in the time of Vespasian. The engines used in storming towns, &c., were: 1. Aries, a battering ram, consisting of a beam, to one end of which was fixed a mass of iron, in the form of a ram's head ; 2. Ballista, an engine for projecting stones, &c.; 3. Catapulta, used for throwing darts; 4. Vinea, a shed (pushed forward on wheels), under which generally hung the aries; 5. Turris, a wooden tower, lofty enough to overtop the walls of the city, against which it was usually wheeled upon an artificial mound (agger). It was faced with iron or wet hides, to protect it from fire, and consisted of several stories (labulala), on which slingers, catapults, &c., were placed.

The cohortes urbanae had their headquarters in the Forum Suarium (Pig-market) at Rome. They were at first four in number, of one thousand men each until the time of Claudius, who seems to have increased the number to six: Vespasian perhaps added another. Some of these regiments were sometimes stationed elsewhere ; for example, at Lyons, Ostia, Puteoli.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list

Page last modified: 11-07-2011 15:51:01 ZULU