Rome’s naked blade, the Legion, was honed and sharpened during the years of the Roman Republic (509 B.C. – 27 B.C.). And during the Imperial era (27 B.C.– 476 A.D.), it was perfected and systemized. It is the Legions dominance of land warfare for a thousand years that interest me.
While Legions lost battles over the years, they learned, adapted, and adjusted. On the next engagement with the triumphant enemy, the improved Legion usually defeated the foe. They accomplished this by adapting technologies, revising tactics, and using a less visible advantage – one that went unchanged for over a thousand years.
An example of emerging technology was the arcuballista. This weapon resembled a large crossbow that, with improvements over the years, became the ballista. A later version developed into the portable and devastating Roman Scorpion.
All were torsion-powered field artillery pieces using horsehair and animal sinew. All launched stones or arrow-shaped missiles of various sizes. From a bulky rudimentary thrower to an elegantly engineered field piece that could be broken down and reassembled quickly, the Legion adapted the weapon.
Every generation of the Legion invented or assimilated equipment and improved it, giving them technical advantages over centuries of enemies.
Beyond the machines, the Legion evolved their tactical formations. Starting with the Republic’s shield wall, they implemented a radically new formation, the tightly packed phalanx used by the Greeks. As the fighting carried the Legions into the mountains and hill country of the Italian peninsula, they abandoned the tight configuration and interlocking shields of the phalanx. In its place, they incorporated the flexible maniple formation.
With the change to the maniple came an acknowledgment of the uneven experience of the Roman soldier. To strengthen the three lines of the maniple, they sorted the Legionaries: on the front line were the unbloodied recruits; the experienced fighters created the center line; and the rear rank of the maniple consisted of hardened veterans.
Greek historian Polybius (200 B.C. – 117 B.C.), “The order of battle used by the Roman army (Legion) is very difficult to break through – since it allows every man to fight both individually and collectively. The effect is to offer a formation that can present a front in any direction. The maniples that are nearest to the point where danger threatens can wheel (pivot) in order to meet the threat.”
In 107 B.C., General Gaius Marius reformed the Legion. One change replaced the three-line maniple formation with cohorts (large blocks of Legionaries). Cohort battle lines allowed tactical units to shift and counter larger enemy forces. Over the decades, the Legion successfully developed many other tactics to remain masters of land warfare.
The evolving equipment and unique distribution of the infantry gave the Legions technical and tactical superiority. But the constant was discipline, pride, and devotion to total victory. For a thousand years, these elements were combined to form the Way of the Legion. And ‘the way’ was accepted and taken to heart by eons of Centurions and their Legionaries.
Greek historian Polybius (200 B.C. – 117 B.C.), “They wanted the Centurions (infantry officers) not so much to be venturesome and daredevils, but to be natural leaders of a steady and reliable spirit…At the same time, they did not want soldiers who initiated attacks and opened battles. They wanted men (Legionaries) who would hold their ground when beaten and hard-pressed. Warriors who were ready to die at their posts.”
For almost a thousand years, developing technologies and changing tactics supplied visible advantages. However, from the Republic’s inception to the fall of the Empire, from pacifying the Italian peninsula to conquering a million square miles, the secret to victory was the generations of men who embraced ‘The Way of the Legion’.
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.