Romans on the Battlefield
The Romans were involved in innumerable open field battles with their enemies over the centuries and by the time the imperial army had been formed, they had battlefield fighting down to a fine art. As a common soldier, you would be part of a cohort, a unit of approximately 500 men which consisted of six centuriae. Your centurion would issue a command and, along with the rest of your centuriae, you would form into four ranks and face your enemy across the battlefield.
In most cases, you would be better equipped than the enemy. As a Roman soldier, you wore specific armor and a helmet and were armed with a throwing spear called a pilum and a short sword for stabbing called a gladius which was strapped to your waist. Along with the rest of your brothers, you would wait for the command to attack and when it arrived, the entire cohort would march forward as one.
A key aspect of the Roman attack plan was to keep the formation as tight as possible although there were gaps between cohorts to allow men to move if necessary. When you are one of thousands of men, it is difficult to determine where you were going. Each centuriae of the Roman Imperial army had a standard bearer to help keep the men in place. At one point, you may have taken a step out of place but never fear, the centurion’s second-in-command, the optio, would keep a close eye on proceedings and shout at you to get back in line.
Messengers on horseback rode across the Roman battle lines to provide officers with updates on the enemy’s movement. On this day, you faced enemies with archers. There is nothing you could do except stay in formation, raise your shields and keep their deadly arrows at bay. If one of your brothers got hit with an arrow, he fell back, and another man took his place to keep the shield tight.
In between the volleys of arrows, your cohort marched onward and soon; the enemy was only 20-30 yard away; now is the time for hand-to-hand combat and fortunately, your training has covered this brutal eventuality all too well. Your first fighting act was to launch your pilum at the same time as your fellow soldiers. While the enemy was trying to defend against the flying javelins, you were ordered to charge.
When fighting at close quarters, you used your knife to cut down an enemy. Your goal was to kill an enemy, step into the gap and force a break in their formation. If the first sortie didn’t work, you were ordered to charge again and again until the enemy finally broke and ran. Once chaos reigned through the enemy ranks, you knew it is time to finish them off, and this is where most of the killing occurred as you butchered fleeing barbarians. Obviously, the above is only one description of what might have happened on a battlefield.
All too often, the enemies of Rome would be defeated, and Roman soldiers would enjoy the spoils of victory. Other times, however, the soldiers would lie dead on the battlefield. The so-called Principate period of the Imperial Roman army was probably its peak. As its borders were threatened by barbarians, and the hunger and skill associated with Romans in the past dwindled, the great army enjoyed fewer and fewer victories until it all ended in the West in 476 AD.