One mantra of modern Special Forces states ‘Slow is Smooth, Smooth is Fast’. In essence, it dictates that thoughtful actions are more effective than rash decisions. Conversely, the refrain seems in opposition to ‘He Who Hesitates is Lost’ where swift and resolute action brings victory. The two ideals are the core of the debate about the strategy of ending each day constructing a marching camp. It’s this battlefield tactic of the Roman Legion that interests me.
Originally, a Legion in the field didn’t spend energy constructing a fixed position for only one night. During the conquest of the Italian peninsula, Rome’s military simply positioned themselves around campfires at the end of the day. Security came in the form of strategically posted sentries. Then, in 280 B.C., a harsh lesson changed the tactics of the Republic’s army.
King Pyrrhus of Epirus, his Macedonian phalanxes, 4,000 Greek cavalrymen, and 20 war elephants attacked the Republic. Defeated at the Battle of Heraclea, the Legions withdrew across the Siris River. As night fell, the memory of the quick and deadly mounted Greeks and the frightening and unfamiliar war elephants lingered. Realizing a sanctuary was advisable, they dug a trench and installed wooden stakes around their camp. It was the start of the temporary marching camps that marked the passage of Legions until the fall of the Roman Empire.
Over time, the marching camp developed into a carefully planned and constructed compound. A survey unit went ahead of the main body of the Legion to locate a suitable site. Minimum requirements were a source of fresh water and open ground, enabling them to see an approaching enemy. Once found, the surveyors marked the perimeter, indicated areas for tents, and laid out streets. Plus, they allowed space for civilians, craftsmen, and tradesmen who serviced the Legion.
When the infantry arrived, they excavated a defensive ditch, 5-feet-wide by 3-feet-deep. The dirt and rocks were thrown inward to form a mound. On the raised earthwork, they set palisades to build walls. Constructed in a square with rounded corners, the Legion marching camp became familiar to people throughout the ancient world.
But were the Legions’ fortified bivouacs a hindrance or helpful in subduing enemies of the Republic?
The camps certainly interrupted the daily progress of the Legions. Stopping their movement early to build temporary structures caused delays in the campaigns. It wasted the infantrymen’s energy when the fighting men needed rest after carrying their equipment all day. And operating from fixed bases prevented surprise attacks and unseen maneuvers. All of this supports the idea that marching camps were a hindrance to the armies of Rome.
On the other hand, displaying a large solid position to the enemy exhibited the might of the Republic. Marching camps were a physical representation of the discipline and conditioning of the Legionaries. Plus, the wilderness fortifications gave the army a protected place to rest for the night.
In the end, we’ve only to look at the success of the armies of Rome and their conquests to validate the assertion that marching camps were beneficial. For the Roman Legions then, Slow was Smooth and Smooth was Fast.
J. Clifton Slater
I am J. Clifton Slater and I write Military Adventure both Future and Ancient.
The question of how the Legionaries heard commands while in combat came to me while doing research for my historical adventure series. The Clay Warrior Stories are books set in the framework of the First Punic War. They are epic tales designed to make you want to strap on a shield, grab a gladius, and join a Century’s battle line.
Available on Amazon.com in paperback, Kindle, and Kindle Unlimited.
Clay Warrior Stories
Set in the backdrop of the 1st Punic War, the books tell the tales of a hot-headed young swordsman in the growing Republic.
The Clay Warrior Stories are Available at Amazon.com in paperback, on Kindle, and Kindle Unlimited.