Warfare- The Romans

Throughout the history of Ancient Rome, the army was one of the most important parts taken seriously. Rome’s conquest depended on their large and effective pushing their territory to the farthest reaches of the world. The Roman army had changed over time in their history beginning as regular citizens fighting as soldiers but not highly trained. Later on, Rome’s army evolved to professional soldiers forming legions, which were all in all 28 units. The Roman army was made of not just legionnaires but different military units recruited from Rome or the provinces. The different types of soldiers included legionnaires, auxiliaries, and some from the early parts of Roman history. The Roman army was very obvious to recognize as they had uniform armor and colors, as well as the same standards they bring to battle.

The Roman army standard
The Roman army standard
Roman legions in battle

Rome all began in 753 BC as a small city state in Italy, but overtime the army developed in Rome’s campaigns around Italy to grow their territory as a way to defend themselves from their enemies found around Italy, which included the Sabines, Volscians, Lucanians, Etruscans, and Aequians, which were from all over Italy. First of all, Rome had an army made up citizens and mostly landowners but not highly trained, armored, or equipped. When Rome began fighting wars with foreigners like the Carthaginians and Greeks, the army improved with more units and armor too. Rome’s professional army called the legions was started by Roman general Gaius Marius at the end of the 2nd century BC. The legions began to conquer far away lands like Gaul, Syria, Germany, and Britain at the time of Julius Caesar at the 1st century BC and when the empire began with Augustus, the legions were assigned all over at the empire guarding the frontiers, most were placed at the empire’s borders. The army of Rome continued to stay for the next centuries of the empire.

Roman weapons part 1
Roman weapons part 1
Roman weapons part 2

First of all to begin with is the weapons the Romans used. In battle, the Romans relied more on using swords for melee combat but more importantly shields as they fought more defensively and organized. At the early days of Rome the army was not too organized, but instead fought loosely and in one formation carrying only swords and sometimes javelins and spears. When the legions were created, these new units fought in a more organized way with their javelins, swords, and shields. The old units, the auxiliaries were still used then as archers, spear men, or horsemen to support the legions. The weapons shown above are mostly the swords, which was standard weapon for all types of Roman soldiers, these Roman swords were called Gladius, a short straight-bladed sword with a rounded edge, it has either a flat or curved hilt. Most Roman soldiers carried a dagger along with them as a secondary weapon, called Pugio, shown above having a short and wide or narrow blade. Shown above here too include the Roman javelins, the earlier ones were shorter and more similar to those the Greeks and everyone else used, though the later javelins were only used by the Romans, it was longer and thinner with a sharp narrow edge which cracks when it hits the ground, it was called Pilum. Another type of Roman weapon shown here is the spear, called Hasta, which was mainly used by auxiliary troops, it was longer and wider than a javelin. The additional Roman weapons shown here include the bow and arrows used by the archers and the sling. And of course the shields, almost all Roman troops used them, some were large and wide, the rest were round a small, and all had a color code between red, green, and blue. The Romans too carried standards or flags with the Roman symbol, SPQR and the eagle in battle which symbolize the legion, if it were taken by the enemy in battle, the legion would break apart and flee.

early Roman units- triarii and auxilia
Early Roman units- triarii and auxilia

Above here in this panel is an early form of a Roman soldier (left) from the early days of the Republic and a Roman auxiliary (right), the supporting Roman army unit. The Roman army unit on the right, is called triarii or hastati, which were Rome’s earliest units, part of the citizen army. These early units were not really trained or armored but instead had a light bronze helmet with a 2-stranded feather sticking out; they did not wear much armor but a metal chest pad over their red tunic, a pair of gauntlets and greaves. For weapons, these early units carried the hasta spear or javelins, a small oval shield colored red or blue, and the gladius sword. On the right is an auxilia or auxiliary unit, this auxiliary unit was one of those not recruited from Rome but from the provinces, this one shown here is an auxilia infantry. This auxiliary unit has a green color-coded tunic, a bronze helmwt with feathers sticking out, a gladius sword, a basic Roman javelin called pilum, and a smaller legionnaire’s shield as these units were not fighting full combat but only as infantry support. The auxiliaries were more armored with a chain-mail cuirass almost looking like the Carthaginian soldiers, these units were also created later on when Rome fought wars with Greece and Carthage, they were more trained and skilled, though came earlier than the legionnaires. When the legions were invented, the auxiliaries were still used and part of the legions supporting the main units of soldier, called cohorts, and served as back-up troops.

Roman archer auxilia and velites unit
Roman archer auxilia and velites unit

Above here are 2 other Roman army units, an auxiliary archer (left) and a skirmisher (right), both did not fight in close-combat battle but fought in range combat. The Roman archer on the right served as another form of auxiliary units with the bow as its basic weapon and a set of arrows and also carries a gladius sword in case the enemy comes close. The Roman archers wear a heavier bronze helmet for headgear and a long chain-mail suit or cuirass with a tunic under; the units however were not basically Romans but outsiders recruited in the Roman legions. On the left is a Roman skirmisher called velites, these units however were used in the early part of Roman history, and were not often used later on. These velites, were more of skirmishers holding a small round shield for defense and in battle threw sets of javelins, and used a dagger for defense. The velites fought more lightly and were mostly disguised with a wolf, bear, or jaguar headpiece; they were not really armored but instead had a metal chest pad over the tunic.The velites however were never really used unless in skirmishes.

Roman cavalry auxilia
Roman cavalry auxilia

Another part of the auxiliaries was the Roman cavalry. The Roman legionnaires were not made to be cavalrymen though the different units from different provinces especially those from Gaul or Germany were used as cavalrymen to fight supporting the Roman legions. The Roman cavalry such as the one shown above wears a different type of helmet, a heavy iron helmet, called the Gallic helmet, the chain-mail cuirass suit, a tunic (colored green shown here) with different color codes and a cape matching the tunic’s color. The cavalrymen use a spear (hasta) as their main weapon used for lancing, also a small hexagonal shield, a a sword for secondary weapon. The Roman cavalrymen were mostly used when it came to flanking and charging at the enemy but also to protect the main forces.

Roman legionnaires; regular cohort and praetorian cohort
Roman legionnaires; regular cohort and praetorian cohort

Shown above here is Rome’s special forces, the legionnaires, the main units in the legion, called cohorts. These were the special forces of the Roman army and the main units of a legion. These units made up the cohorts in the legion, which were broken down into 6 centuries, each century has 80 soldiers with a commander; this new invention and formation in the Roman army was invented later on by General Gaius Marius. The one on the left is a basic Roman legionnaire, a soldier part of the centuries and cohorts, in a uniform outfit together with the rest of the soldiers, which was the basic look for the Roman special forces. This legionnaire on the left has the standard iron plated armor made of large iron plates linked with leather strands, a belt and a leg protection which also makes a noise in battle, a red tunic under, and an cape which is optional, also shown with the standard advanced Roman helmet, a later invention, this was the Gallic helmet worn by most Roman troops. The soldier on the left carries the standard legionnaire’s weapons, the Gladius sword, the large rectangular shield called Scutum, a dagger sheathed for defense, and the javelin used as its first weapon to throw at the enemy. Each unit in a century uses the javelin first throwing it at the enemy, then afterwards it is once used and cannot be used anymore so the sword is its main weapon with the shield forming the shield wall formation called Testudo to charge at the enemy. the one on the right shows a different type of legionnaire, also part of the cohorts but a more elite force. These units were the Praetorian infantrymen, they served as bodyguards supporting the general’s units in battle; they were not heavily armed but had great strength compared to other army units. The praetorian legionnaire units had the same iron plated armor and a tunic under, the one here has a blue tunic; although they had a different helmet, this was only rare to these unit which was fully Roman based, having a short back and a round shape, and a crest above, and of course a cape at the back, which is shown here as blue. These units used the same weapons except for the javelin, instead just the gladius, though this one here has the rounded hilt gladius and the same scutum shield but with rounded edges and a dagger sheathed. The praetorian infantrymen however were not mainly used in full combat but as elite defense troops.

Roman standard bearer and Centurion
Roman standard bearer and Centurion

The legions had additional units too, though these units were rare as they had only one in each group. Each century had one centurion, an officer and the century’s commander and a standard bearer, assigned to carrying the Roman war flag, also in a century was the horn blower, though has the exact same look as the standard bearer, except holding the battle horn instead of the flag.The standard bearer (left) has a different look from the rest of the army, as it is not basically Roman but from other provinces, seen wearing animal pelts covering the helmet (either a wolf, bear, or leopard, depending from which part of the empire). The standard bearer has a distinct armor from the rest, instead of being chain mail or iron plated armor, it uses gold scale armor; as for weapons, the standard bearer does not carry much but a common Gladius sword, a dagger, and of course the war flag or standard. On the right is a centurion, the group’s commander seen wearing a different set of armor too; the centurion wears a chain mail outfit with leather strands for protection int he arms and legs. A centurion has the same Gallic helmet (called Galea) though instead of the the crest facing forward, it is sidewards signifying its office in the army; for weapons, it does not hold much but  the same sword, though a heavier and decorated one, together with a dagger but barely holds a sheild or a standard unless needed to; it also wears a tunic underneath and a cape over the armor. The centurions were one of the most important units in the army making them have many requirements which is that they have to be Roman, above 30, experienced in military skills, served in the army for years, and has to have connections with the generals. In fact there are actually notable centurions from the Roman army such as Lucius Vorenus, Titus Pullo, Cassius Chaerea, and St. Longinus, each were from different time sin Rome’s history.

sample Roman Praetoorian guard
Sample Roman Praetorian guard

One last unit in the Roman army, which has not been mentioned yet but definitely should is the Praetorian Guard. These units were one of the rarest but most powerful, their role was to protect Rome and were the only forces allowed in Rome and the major cities. The praetorian guards were established only when the empire began under Augustus Caesar and began to serve as the imperial guards though the emperors had their own personal foreign bodyguards from Germany or Spain. The praetorian guards became powerful and part of Rome’s politics at the time of emperor Tiberius from the ambitions of the praetorian captain Sejanus. The Praetorian guards played a significant role in Rome’s history when assassinating emperor Caligula and proclaiming Claudius emperor in 41AD. Later on the guards played a few important roles in proclaiming Domitian and Pertinax emperor though they also killed them. The guards were then reduced overtime and finally disbanded by emperor Constantine the Great in 312AD. These units had a signature body armor either made of leather or metal with a signature purple as the color for their cape and dark blue for their tunic, they had a distinct helmet only worn by the praetorians with a thick purple crest. For weapons, they carried the same sword, a dagger, and a hexagonal shield and sometimes a spear. The praetorian guards were best known for protecting Rome and the emperor though they were the most powerful and power-hungry and mostly involved in the plots to overthrow the emperors and make a new one.

Roman siege weapons
Roman siege weapons

Another thing about the Romans in warfare was siege craft, they were one of the best at it in history. The Romans came up with all sorts of siege weapons for their conquests especially when it came to besieging walls and cities. One of the siege weapons they invented was the balista, though it was not clearly their but the Greeks first made it; it was made to blow out heavy bolts or incendiary arrows to wipe out a number of enemies. The Roman developed siege weapon was the scorpion, an elevated balista which was narrower; it was faster and more effective shooting out a number of arrows at the same time. Another of their siege weapons was the battering ram, though others may have used it earlier, though the Romans made it movable and faster to break through gates. The Romans too highly used the onager, another siege weapon as a sort of catapult, though smaller but catapults either rocks, flaming hay stacks, or molten rocks to destroy walls. One of their greatest siege weapons was the siege tower, which was designed to carry soldiers to attack the walls of a fortified place by climbing up the series of steps it has. The Romans were famous for using their siege weapons when besieging forts and cities, one of the most known ones was the Siege of Masada where the Roman army attacked the Jewish fortress and captured it with their skill in siege craft and the engineering behind it.

th-3When the Romans expanded their territories to as far north as Britain, to Egypt in the south, to the Atlantic in the west, and to Mesopotamia in the east, they have succeeded and conquered with their military strength. At the same time as having their powerful army, the Romans had an effective navy too protecting the seas as the army protected the land. Behind Rome’s conquests and victories were the brilliance and braveness of the great Roman generals like Fabius Maximus, Marcellus, Scipio Africanus, Pompey Magnus, Julius Caesar, Marcus Agrippa, Germanicus, Domitius Corbulo, and Flavius Aetius. These generals had expanded Rome’s lands and also defended Rome and helped save it to be at its greatest in history. Part of the Roman warfare world was engineering, which is what made their troops, weapons, and armor effective. Throughout its history, Rome continued to have its peace kept within the empire with the army protecting it from any threat to come…. that’s all for now, thank you for reading about the fascinating Roman world!!


Published by The Byzantium Blogger

Powee Celdran, currently majors in Entrepreneurial Management, a Byzantine scholar and enthusiast, historical military sketch and bathroom mural artist, aspiring historical art restorer, Lego filmmaker creating Byzantine era films and videos, and a possible Renaissance man living in modern times but Byzantine at heart. Currently manages the Instagram account byzantine_time_traveller posting Byzantine history related content.

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