Ancient Roman Military
The evolution of the Roman military involves from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire. Under the leadership of several Roman strongmen, and ultimately emperor Augustus Caesar.
Rome’s military evolution shaped the way we understand history to date. By studying Rome’s history we can perceive the importance of the army. Through many military reforms over the centuries the Roman army became the supreme power of the entire Mediterranean coastal area. From Great Britain to Egypt.
The city of Rome was under Etruscan rule for several hundred years. As a result, many of the cultures and traditions were originally adopted from the Etruscan civilization. For instance, the Etruscan army was originally modeled around the Greek style Phalanx infantry. In contrast, when Romen became independent, their army consisted of Phalanx Infantrymen as well.
The evolution of the Roman Military
Rome modeled many of its political systems from the Etruscans as well. The Etruscans were monarchs ruled by King Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, considered a tyrant by Romans. Romans grew tired of the Etruscan oppression, and humiliation. Therefore, when the King’s son dishonor Lucretia, the wife of a novel Patrician family. They revolted, led by Patrician Lucius Junius Brutus they overthrew King Lucius Tarquinius Superbus and his family.
Although the rape of Lucretia ignited the revolt, this event dishonored Roman Virtues, and traditions. The aristocraty families, called Patricians, were very wealthy, and respected. Therefore, the Patricians families served as a single state of mind for the people to unify behind.
This marked the beginning of the Republic of Rome. Where a Roman government was developed in which dynasties or “Tyrants” were to be avoided and hated at all times. This custom was kept even during the age of the Emperors all the way up to Emperor Diocletian in the 3rd century AD.
The Roman government was not written down as an official constitution but rather a state of mind, cultural values, and patriotism. This dictated laws of behavior by the people of Rome. For instance, the offices of the state had certain duties, which were always followed by the statesmen even though there were not written down.
The Republic of Rome was a government made by three classes. Patrician, Equestrian, and Plebeians. The Patricians normally held the office of Consul, Proconsul, and Censor are the most important. Follow by the Senate made of very influential politicians normally also Pateicians. This system was created to avoid Kings at all costs. Only the Senate could give the title of Dictator, which would last 6 months. If any one man became too powerful, he was labeled a “tyrant” by the Senate and likely executed, or assassinated.
The Republic had two Consuls to avoid having one man with control over the entire army, becoming a threat to the state. In addition, the one Consul had veto power over the other, and they were only allowed to hold office for one year without the possibility of reelection. The most prestigious office was the Senate which represented a counsel of several hundred elders to advise all other statements on how to govern the state. ¹
The word, and the favor of the Senator were crucial to all politicians during the early republic. The government was a form of mostly the wealthiest and most powerful Romans for several centuries.
To become a Roman Senator one had to be a Patrician with a large amount of wealth, and lands. In addition, the Patricians statues were exclusive to only very important families with traces back to the founding of the city, and the revolt against the Etraucans. Such as the Junii family, the family of Brutus the liberator of Rome.
Before the Romans revolted against the Etruscans the Etruscan military already established them as the leading Italian state. In the aftermath of the Etruscan revolt, Rome formed an Italian league, with Rome at the first amongst equals.
Over time the Roman system of government was proved successful numerous times. The office of Dictator was awarded several times, during invasions, for a period of six months to maintain stability and repel any foreign invaders. Dictators had absolute power during the six months period.
A good example of a lawful and successful Dictator was the turn of Marcus Furius Camillus during the 4th century BC. During the 4th century, Rome was sacked by a Gallic leader Brennus after the battle of Allia in 387 BC. ¹
In the aftermath, Camillus was charged with the restoration of Rome’s might in the region.6 Camillus is credited with the first reform of the Roman military. He abandoned the Greek Phalanx in favor of the more flexible Maniple Legion based on Samminite soldiers. This was a great accomplishment for Rome. 5
However, the Roman people demanded reforms. The people realized the importance of the aristocratyfamilies.
Through this sort of situation, many talented commanders proved their indispensability to the state, as well as the vulnerability of the city of Rome.
Furthermore, they also recognized that Rome’s army needed some drastic reforms. However, no one was willing to take the lead due to fear of change, and traditional values that dated to the founding of the city.
Since the founding of the city, the military had very little political value since the Roman military was a citizen militia whose sole purpose was to be loyal to the state, and protect Rome at all cost.
The change was soon coming, and the change came from Gaius Marius a person with a very little political background. Roman Consuls usually came came from the most important families, and the office of Consul was held by members of those families.
Gaius Marius was the first Consul of his family, something rare during the 2nd Century BC. ² Not only was Gaius Marius elected Consul a rarity, he was elected an staggering seven times.
Gaius Marius was credited for revolutionizing the Roman military and making the Roman army the most mobile and effective force on the planet.
Gaius Marius was born in the 2nd century BC in a small settlement in the surrounding areas outside of Rome. Gaius Marius rose up to the ranks of Consul, he was born into a modest Equestrian family with strong influence, and strong ties to the Roman Patrician families.
Marius moved from his settlement in Latium to Rome to pursue a military career. He was eligible to join because he met the land ownership requirements. ²
He joined the ranks of the Roman army fighting in Numidia under Consul Scipio the Younger during the final Roman invasion, and occupation. ² Moreover, back in Rome, Marius ran several times for office with little success, including Tribune of a Legion, and Questorship, be elected Tribune of the Plebs marked the beginning of his assertions.
Nonetheless, become Tribune represented a huge step towards a successful political career for Marius, but he ambitioned for more. In 107BC and with the support of the military class and by successfully taking over the army in Numidia from Roman general Marcellus Marius was elected Consul. ²
One of the most interesting issues regarding Gaius Marius’ personal life is the fact that he was uncle to none other than Gaius Julius Caesar. “At the end of the second century BC, a number of changes in the Roman army occurred that had great military, social, and political, implications, some of which are associated with the consulship of Gaius Marius (157-86BCE)“. 5
The Marian reforms had a powerful effect on the Roman army as well as the Roman system of government. Could Julius Caesar have been successful in becoming a “Dictator for life” without the loyalty of his legions? In order for us to clearly comprehend the Marian reforms, we need to briefly survey the Roman beginnings as well as Marius’ political career.
The city of Rome was founded in legends and traditions. For instance, the city of Rome was ruled by Etruscan’s kinds for centuries and revolted and threw out the kings just because a virtuous Roman woman named Lucretia was raped by an Etruscan leader. In addition, from its founding, the Romans had no native sense of militarism.
They used the Greek Phalanx for their troops and lived a policy of isolationism. Furthermore, for the Romans big changes had to be implemented gradually in order to keep the government intact. In order for the office of Tribune of the Plebs to be created the Roman people had to basically revolt against the Roman movement. ¹
In order to properly comprehend the profound effect of the Marius reforms, we need to understand the Roman army in depth. For instance, during the 4th century, BC Roman Consul Marcus Furius Camillus made the move from Phalanx to Maniple legion.²
The Roman army gradually developed into a powerful force with the use of the very flexible maniple legions, however, the army was still just a citizen militia raised when necessary often very untrained. However, A Roman general named Gaius Marius set in motion a series of reforms that, according to my research, proved to be key to Roman expansion and eventual domination.
Gaius Marius was born in Italy from an influential Equestrian family; nevertheless, he rose through the racks and hold many Roman political offices including the military Tribune, the Questorship, and finally the most important office Consul. ³
In addition, not only was Gaius Marius elected Consul but also he was elected to office seven times gaining much influence and power in the process. Gaius Marius was credited for revolutionizing the Roman army, and making the Roman army the most mobile and effective force on the planet. 4
Furthermore, “At the end of the second century BCE a number of changes in the Roman army occurred that had great military, social, and political, implications, some of which are associated with the consulship of Gaius Marius (157-86BCE)”. 5
- Brian Todd Carey, Warfare in the Ancient World (2006) P. 93
- Plutarch’s Parallel Lives: Gaius Marius, (2005) [ONLINE], available from Internet on September 1st: http://ancienthistory.about.com/library/bl/bl_text_plutarch_cmarius.htm
- Polybius: The Histories
During the founding of Rome up until Marius’ reforms, the Roman army consisted of a simple citizen army recruited during times of wars. The requirements to become a soldier were set by the Senate and strictly obeyed. First, the person had to be at least of the fifth census class, he had to own a large amount of property mostly lands, and lastly, equipment had to be paid for by the soldier. 6 Additionally, “Rome’s army was still essentially a citizen militia, but all the great powers of the Mediterranean world relied almost entirely on professional soldiers“. 7
Armies such as the Macedonian and the Carthaginian were professional standing forces trained and disciplined. During the second century BC, the Roman forces were mostly infantrymen; a Roman army on the field was divided into three lines “Each of the three lines was divided into ten maniples, those of the Hastati and Principes consisting of 120 to 160 me apiece, whereas the less numerous Tiarii formed maniples of sixty men”. 8
The Marius reforms change the numbers and the style of fighting of the Roman legions. First, he eliminated the requirements to become a soldier, now all eligible Roman citizens were able to join, also, he raised the number of soldiers in a single legion to at least 5000 men.
In addition, the legions were very well trained and heavily armored with much strategic value capable to face any Greek and Eastern army. Furthermore, Marius made the Republican Eagle (S.P.Q.R) the standard of all the Legions, and removed the light Velite unit, and filled it with Auxiliaries provided by allied states.
Marius did not only reform the strategic and political value of the Army. He made numerous changes to the strategic details as well. Since most soldiers prior to the reforms had to acquire their own armament all weaponry and armor lacked similarity and could be likened to that of a ragtag, citizen militia.
Commanders, therefore, lacked any knowledge on the specific details of each unit’s strength, consequently resulting in several Roman defeats. Marius offered volunteers state-supplied weapons, mass-produced for each unit. Missile units, Heavy Infantry, and Cavalry units each share similarities in amour and weaponry.
- Brian Todd Carey, Warfare in the Ancient World (2006) P.109
- Adrian Goldsworthy, Roman Warfare (2000) P. 53
- Ibid. 51
After the Marius reforms, the Roman Republic entered a period of expansion that changed Rome substantially. For instance, the state agreed that it was impossible for two Consuls to command all the legions; therefore, the office of Proconsul was created.
A Proconsul was a commander that governed in absence of the Consul and possessed Consular authority over a province for several years. Now the Roman Republic entered a period of political disarray because by the second century BC the loyalty of the army drastically shifted.
The army before the Marius reforms did not stay under the command of a single general for more than a year, but now the army stayed under the command, and protection, of a single commander for years in the process of developing ties.
In addition to military value, the Marius reforms had a very profound political effect on the Republic. As stated above the Marius reforms heralded an age of total loyalty of the soldiers to their commander, which resulted from the elimination of social restrictions. This essentially meant that the commander held a large impact on the soldier’s very survival.
Resulting from the Marius reforms the Roman army was almost completely made up of the poor, the plebeian class. Once they joined a particular military unit they relied almost completely on their Commanding officer for sustenance, both financially and in terms of resources.
After their first few battles, these permanent units began to form an identity. Evidence of this can be seen in the Legion’s numbering and naming. Many of the legions levied by Caesar and Augustus merged into the Byzantine army several centuries later. In addition, “The extreme loyalty to generals rather than the state would lead to open rebellion, civil war, military-political power and eventually the crowning of emperors.” 9
- Gaius Marius (2003) [ONLINE], available from the Internet on August 24th: http://www.unrv.com/empire/gaius-marius.php
The Marian reforms had a lasting impact on Rome. Prior to the Marian reforms, the statesman relied on their prestige and honor for glory, a Tribune, Senator, and Consul were the most important figures in Rome. However, post the Marian reforms the commanders used their troops to impose their will on the state.
The possibility of civil war can be partially blamed on the Marian reforms. For example, as a soldier fighting in Caesars’ legions, at this point legionaries became wealthy from the spoils of the Gallic Wars. Therefore, when Caesar asked his troops to head to Rome and fight Pompeii and the Senate. Caesar’s legionaries would not hesitate to fight, considering the benefits and loyalty towards Julius Caesar… With that said, it was possible for any successful commander to rebel against the state, or against the emperor with the full backup of his legions.
The crisis of the 3rd century is a good example of the effects set in motion several centuries prior by Gaius Marius. Many capable commanders relied on their legions to state a claim of the throne; few were successful but for the most part, the rest failed.
In addition, another result of the Marian reforms was the importance of the army for the politicians rather than for the state. In order for any emperor to be successful, and survive, he needed to have the complete loyalty of his army. 10
- Thomas F. Madden, Rise and Fall of Rome (2007). 5
When we study the Marian reforms we can easily comprehend their effects on Roman military development. In contrast, without the Marian reforms there would not have been a professional army (perhaps it would have taken longer, or Rome would cease to exist), the Roman army would have stayed small in numbers, the political strived that took placed in order to trigger the shift from Republic to Empire would not have been possible.
The shift from Republic to empire can be credited to the commanders’ hold on their troops, and the shift of loyalty from the state to the commanders can be credited to the Marian reforms. 11
- Suetonius: Twelve Caesars, Augustus Caesar 7 http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Suetonius/12 Caesars/home.html
Roman Republic to Empire
During much of Roman history up until Marius’ reforms, the Roman army consisted of a simple citizen army recruited during times of wars. The requirements to become a soldier were set by the Senate and strictly obeyed. First, the persona had to be at least of the fifth census class, he had to own a large amount of property mostly lands, and lastly, equipment had to be paid by the soldier. Additionally, “Rome’s army was still essentially a citizen militia, but all the great powers of the Mediterranean world relied almost entirely on professional soldiers“. 8
Armies such as the Macedonian and the Carthaginian were professional forces. Whereas the Roman army was recruited only when needed. During the Second Century BC, the Roman forces were mostly infantrymen, according to Polybius, the soldiers were two pillars to battle.
A Roman army on the field was divided into three lines “Each of the three lines was divided into ten maniples, those of the Hastati and Principes consisting of 120 to 160 me apiece, whereas the less numerous Tiarii formed maniples of sixty men”. 8
Gaius Marius’ reforms changed the numbers and the style of fighting of the Roman legions. First, he eliminated the requirements to become a soldier, now all eligible Roman citizens were able to join, also, he raised the number of soldiers in a single legion to at least 5000 men.
In addition, now the legions were very well trained and heavily armored with much strategic value. 6
Marius made the Eagle the standard of all the Legions, and removed the light Velite unit, and filled it with Auxiliaries provided by allied states.
After the Gaius reforms, the Roman Republic entered a period of expansion that changed Rome substantially. For instance, the state agreed that it was impossible for two Consuls to command all the legions; therefore, the office of Proconsul was created. A Proconsul was a commander that governed in absence of the Consul and posed Consular authority over a province. This opened the door for civil war and a shift of military loyalty.
The addition of the office Proconsul to the Roman political system proved very complicated. The Proconsul would stay stationed with the troops for a prolonged time, as a result, developing strong tights with the troops. 8 In addition, by the second century BC the Roman military had substantially increased in number, according to Roman Warfare the Roman population numbered close to one million during the 2nd Punic war.
During the 2nd Punic war, Rome faced Hannibal, their most formidable foe of the Republican period. However, they came up successfully against all the odds. In addition, Polybius writes that two factors made Rome the power it was becoming: first, their very balanced political system, and then their capable and balanced military system. 5
When the Romans defeated Hannibal they ruled supreme over the entire Mediterranean Sea. By the 1rst century, BC Rome was established as a military power in the known world; the Maniple Legions proved too much for the Greek powers of the east, including the Macedonian Kingdom, the Seleucid Empire, The Pontic Kingdom, and eventually the Ptolemaic Empire; all relying on the Phalanx based army.
The next most important reform in the Roman military was that of Julius Caesar in the 1srt century BC. Julius Caesar was the nephew of the Legendary Gaius Marius and became an influential Proconsul of the northern provinces. ³
Caesar subdued the Gallic population and subsequently added Gaul to the Roman dominion, In addition, he started the Provincial Legions: Legions levied from the Roman provinces. For instance, Julius Caesar levied the Legio I Germanica personally from the provincials.
Augustus Caesar made the last reform of the late Roman Republic in the late 1rst century BC Augustus reduced the Roman legions from around 60 standing legions to only 28 legions under his straight command. Additionally, he added Egypt to Rome and divided the Republic into regions.
First were the Imperials provinces, where he stationed most of his strong legions, and then the Senatorial provinces. Furthermore, the Imperial provinces were under his straight authority, and then the Senatorial provinces were governed by the state.
Moreover, out of fear of the assassination of Julius Caesar, Augustus levied the famous Praetorian Guard by the end of the 1rst century BC. This personal bodyguard protected, and often assassinated the Roman Emperors up until the 4th century when Constantine dismissed them. 4
By the 1srt century AD, Rome entered a golden age under Augustus that would last for several centuries. The Roman Empire had no serious threats and was unified under the Emperor, and patrolled by the mighty legions.
All this was possible by the great development of the Roman military, from the 4th century BC until the fall in the 5th century AD. From Marcus Furius Camillus, Gaius Marius, Julius Caesar, to Augustus Caesar in the 1rst century AD. The Roman army stayed unchallenged for over several centuries.
2- Plutarch: Parallel Lives (http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Lives/Marius*.html)
3- Plutarch: Parallel Lives (http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Lives/home.html)
4- Suetonius: Twelve Caesars, Augustus Caesar 7
5-Polybius: The Histories (http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Polybius/home.html)
6-Brian Carey: Warfare in the Ancient World 110-111
7- Adrian Goldsworthy: Roman Warfare pg. 39-40
8- Adrian Goldsworthy: Roman Warfare pg. 48-51
9- Thomas F. Madden the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire chapt. 5
Polybius: The Histories
Plutarch: Parallel Lives
Suetonius: Twelve Caesar
Adrian Goldsworthy: Roman Warfare (2000)
Brian Carey: Warfare in the Ancient World (2006)
Thomas F. Madden the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire (2007)
Adrian Goldsworthy: Roman Warfare
Brian Carey: Warfare in the Ancient World
Livy, Ab Urbe Condita
Plutarch: Parallel Lives
Suetonius: Twelve Caesars
Thomas F. Madden the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire
Polybius: The Histories