The Roman army was one of the longest surviving and effective fighting forces of all time. It survived centuries of combat as it first expanded the Roman Empire and then defended it from rampaging barbarian hordes. Its survival depended on constant innovation as its soldiers faced death for the glory of Rome.
For many soldiers, years were spent marching with the army, and most of their work involved digging trenches and waiting for the fighting to begin. Although it seems as if the Romans were constantly at war, only a small percentage of any soldier’s career involved actual battlefield experience.
Technically speaking, the history of the Roman army spans 2,000 years from the early formation of armed forces in the 6th century BC to the Palaiologan Byzantine Army which was formed in 1261 and finally defeated in 1453. In this article, however, I will focus on the battlefield experience of the Imperial Roman Army which was formed by Augustus in 30 BC and lasted until 284 AD when it became classified as the Late Roman Army. First of all, I will briefly look at the history of the Roman army up until the Republic became an Empire.
Early History of the Roman Army
The first iteration of the Roman army was developed in the 6th century BC by King Servius Tullius. He created five classes of soldiers based on their individual wealth. The more money you had, the better equipment you could afford and the higher ranking you would attain. Fighting ability wasn’t relevant.
It developed into the army of the Mid-Republic by the 4th century BC. It was also known as the Manipular Army, and according to Livy, it consisted of two legions in 362 BC and four legions in 311 BC. It was still a citizen army at that stage, and while it suffered some horrendous defeats, it was able to defeat Hannibal in the Second Punic War. During the 2nd century BC, Rome’s territory had expanded following victories at Cynoscephalae in 197 BC and Pydna in 168 BC. As a result, Rome was forced to develop permanent bases overseas, and this led to a shortage of manpower.
The final phase of the Roman Army of the Republic was marked by an enormous overhaul which began towards the end of the 2nd century BC. Gaius Marius often receives credit for the innovations, and while he was heavily involved, he probably finalized the changes rather than implementing them in the first place.
Volunteers were enlisted from Roman citizens without property, and they received armor and weapons paid for by the state. In a stroke, the Roman army’s might was significantly increased. The reform also ensured that Rome had a large standing army, and military men who completed a certain term of service received a ‘pension’ in the form of land grants and cash. By now, the army was better disciplined, followed more detailed tactics and was overall, more formidable than ever.