The Roman Army
The Roman Army was considered the most advanced of its time. The Roman Army
created the Roman Empire - a huge part of Western Europe – and Rome itself
greatly benefited from the riches that the army brought back from its conquered
The Roman Army developed fighting techniques that were linked to a ferocious
training regime. All new recruits to the army became very fit and disciplined. Training
was harsh, as were punishments for failure. In a battle, new recruits were always
placed at the front of the more experienced soldiers in the army. There were three
reasons for this. The first was to give them confidence as behind them were
experienced soldiers who had fought in battles before. Secondly, it stopped the new
soldiers running away if their courage deserted them. Finally, those who were more
likely to be killed in the initial phase of a battle were at the front. The hardened and
experienced legionnaires were at the rear. The Roman Army could ill afford to lose
experienced legionnaires whereas if a new legionnaire came through a battle alive,
he would be blooded and experienced and a valuable addition to the army. If he was
killed, then the loss of his inexperience would not be too great.
The most important fighting unit of the Roman Army was the legion commanded by a
legatus. This consisted of between 5000 to 6000 legionnaires. 500 to 600
legionnaires made up a cohort while between 80 to 100 soldiers were a century
commanded by a centurion.
The Romans used a tried and tested attacking technique. Legionnaires would run
forward at the enemy and throw their pila at them. While this caused disarray among
the enemy, the legionnaires would move in for close quarter fighting using their
swords (gladius). Each attack was the result of meticulous planning and practice –
hence why they were usually so successful.
To support the legionnaires, the Romans also used cavalry. The primary task of the
cavalry was to support the legionnaires by attacking an enemy line at the flanks.
Cavalry was also used to chase after a retreating enemy.
To assist the legionnaires, who were professional soldiers, part-time soldiers were
used called auxiliaries. These men were often recruited from an area that the
Romans were trying to conquer and occupy. They were not fully trained soldiers and
their usual task was not to fight when the legionnaires attacked, but to assist them by
acting as scouts or archers who would fire at the enemy while the legionnaires
attacked. Those auxiliaries who fought on foot would be used to attack an enemy
position before the legionnaires did – in this way, an enemy position would be
softened up before the main assault.
Fortifications presented other challenges. When confronted with a fort or the like, a
frontal assault by legionnaires would have resulted in large casualties, though the
use of a 'tortoise' would have helped reduce casualties.
The Romans designed weaponry that both gave some protection to their men but
also were designed to smash into fortifications. Battering rams and siege towers
were used for this – the latter allowed the Romans to gain access to a fort by
effectively removing the problem of a high wall. Battering rams had a cover to them
made of wood and animal hide. This combination was enough to stop arrows etc but
was still flammable.
The Romans also developed an early form of large attack catapults called onagers.
These hurled large stone boulders at a wall to smash it down. The Romans also
used catapults to fire iron bolts at the lines of the enemy facing them.
All of this required meticulous training and one of the most important people involved
here were the centurions. Each centurion was required to ensure that his century
was a capable and effective fighting force. Any century that did not perform well in
battle might pay the price and be 'decimated'. The unit would stand in line and every
tenth man would be take out and killed. This was known as 'decimus' by the
Romans. This punishment served as a stark warning to other units and to those who
had survived in the century being punished.