Ten Things You Did Not Know About The Roman Legions
Ten Things You Did Not Know About The Roman Legions

Ten Things You Did Not Know About The Roman Legions

Stephanie Schoppert - July 28, 2016

The Roman Legion was one of the most feared armies of the ancient world. Through the might of the Roman Legion, the Roman empire’s influence spread from Scotland to Northern Irag and to the borders of Ethiopia. For centuries they were considered to be almost invincible on the battlefield, defeating fierce enemies such as the Celts and the Persians. If the Roman Legion was ever defeated they would quickly retaliate and their revenge would brutal.

One of the reasons why the Roman Legion was so feared was that it was always changing. The Legion was never stuck in past traditions. If they were defeated by an enemy they would quickly reorganize and learn from the defeat in order to come back tenfold. The strategies of the Roman Legion changed to match changing technology and the needs to each battle. They were successful in a wide range of battlefields no matter the terrain or climate. Even today many military commanders and historians look to the Roman Legion as one of the most superior fighting forces in history with much that can still be learned from them. Some of the greatest military minds have given credit to studying the tactics of the Roman Legion as part of their successes.

Here are ten little-known facts about the Roman Legions.

The Roman Legion was Not Just for Romans

Ten Things You Did Not Know About The Roman Legions

In the beginning, the Roman legion was something that only Roman citizens who owned property were able to join. There were two groups, the wealthy who joined the Cavalry and the poor who served in the infantry. It was a conscription force that served short terms. That changed in 218 B.C. with the 2nd Punic War. Since the Romans now had an overseas empire to defend, the restrictions on the legion were relaxed. Conscripts continued to serve 6 year-terms but they were supported by volunteers. The amount of property that was required was reduced so that more conscripts could be pulled from the populace. In 107 BC the property requirement was eliminated completely. Volunteers did not have to own property and were often members of the poorest social class. They did not have land at home to care for and they saw the modest pay and prospect of war booty worth signing up for a 16-year volunteer term. At this time the Roman Legion was often accompanied by non-Roman mercenaries.

During the period of the Imperial Roman Army (30 B.C. – 284 AD) conscription was done away with almost completely and replaced with a force that was entirely volunteers. Now the volunteers served a mandatory 20 years but many would stay in the army for 30 to 40 years. The number of volunteers meant that conscription was only needed in times of emergency. During this period the legion was flanked by an auxilia, troops that were drawn from imperial subjects who did not have Roman citizenship. They volunteered for a 25 year term. This continued until 212 when all imperial subjects were granted citizenship. By 284 AD things changed yet again and regular conscription was once again enforced to populate the legion. Barbarian volunteers were accepted once again and now soldiers became 25 year professionals which kept the army well supplied. Now there were not even separate units for citizens and non-citizens all the units were intermixed.

Ten Things You Did Not Know About The Roman Legions

Training for the Legion was Very Demanding

Even though the Legion was a conscript and volunteer force they demanded the same level of performance from everyone in the Legion and would continue to train recruits until they met those standards. Training was considered to be so important that instructors were given double rations and large training halls were built so that the men could continue training even through the winter. The first thing a recruit was taught was how to march at pace in any weather. The historian Vegetius remarked that the most important thing for the Roman army was that it could march at speed. An army with stragglers or in a spread out formation would be more vulnerable to attack. Beyond marching, soldiers were required to be fit, they not only had to march 20 miles in 5 hours, they had to run, long and high jump and even swim. Most of it had to be done while carrying heavy packs.
Once the army learned how to march they would then be taught to fight. They trained with training weapons which were created to be twice as heavy as the weapons the soldiers would use in battle. If a soldier could effectively fight with the heavy weapons then it was reasoned they would be twice as good with the regular weapons. Weapons training was so important that soldiers who did not meet the standards were given inferior rations until they could meet the standards. Once a soldier mastered the sword they would then be trained on the spear. Like the sword training the training spear was twice the weight of a normal spear.

Ten Things You Did Not Know About The Roman Legions

They Used Tunneling to Surprise Their Enemies

During the time of the Roman Legion siege warfare happened often and there were few armies better at it than the Romans. One of their most successful strategies, for a time, was tunneling. Instead of just waiting out the siege and hoping the city or building eventually surrendered, they would just tunnel underground. By tunneling they could easily get under the defensive walls that were keeping them out. For awhile this was a very effective tactic and led to a number of successes for the Romans. But eventually Rome’s enemies learned of this strategy and began defending against it.

One such defense by the people of the city of Themiscyra in the early first century BC was to find the tunnel and drive wild animals into it. They filled the tunnel with bears and bees which made quick work of the Romans who were stuck together in cramped quarters. Rome’s enemies even began using tunnels themselves and in the 3rd century AD it was the Romans who had to defend against tunneling Sassanian Persians. The Romans built their own tunnels to get to the attackers and stop them. Evidence has been found of this massive underground battle and the amount of fighting done in the tunnels is astonishing.

But the underground aspect of the battle is not the most intriguing part. This battle was the first known use of chemical warfare. The Persians burned bitumen and sulfur crystals in order to create a gas cloud which suffocated the Romans.

Ten Things You Did Not Know About The Roman Legions

Men Joined the Roman Legion for Booty

Part of the reason why the poor were so eager to sign up for the legion was the chance of collecting booty. The Romans were known for being particularly brutal when they invaded a city. They would start by killing every living thing they came across, killing all the people and animals of the town. Some suggest that this might have been a form of intimidation for anyone that saw the village afterward would see nothing but corpses and dismembered animals. Once the order was given to stop the massacre, the looting would begin.
Half the force would be allowed to loot the town freely while the other half stood guard or carried out other duties. The men would be allowed to loot the corpses, the buildings and even the art, anything of value was free to take. Once all the booty was collected it would be gathered together and then divided between the different legions that had been on the attack. Then the loot divided among the legions is divided among the individuals within each legion. It was divided among everyone, even those who were not part of the orders to loot the city. This meant that everyone had a chance to get some of the spoils of war. This effective method of insuring that everyone got their share was how the Roman legion kept down dissension in the ranks. When every man knew that they would get their share they would not have a reason to disobey orders or feel like they were not treated as important as other men in the legion.

Ten Things You Did Not Know About The Roman Legions

The Donativum

The Roman Legion and particularly the Generals of the Roman Legion became very popular in Rome and they were in close consort with the Emperor. The Praetorian Guard, the bodyguards of the Emperor were also rising in power during the 2nd and 3rd centuries. They even became part of the process for appointing new emperors. Therefore it became imperative for any Emperor to get on the good side of the Generals and the Praetorian Guard. To do this it was decided that a sum of money or lavish gifts would be given to these prominent men whenever a new emperor came into power. It would be a bribe of sorts to ensure the loyalty of the army.
However it also placed substantial incentive for the Praetorian Guard and the Roman Legion to see to it that a new Emperor was put in place. The existence of the donativum led to the Praetorian Guard becoming corrupt. As the personal guards of the emperor they were in an easy position to murder him if they decided they wanted another donativum. The Praetorian Guard and some of the generals of the Roman Legion became very corrupt and even plotted the murders of several emperors in order to get the donativum. The Guard even helped to decide who would replace a slain emperor by picking the candidate that offered the largest donativum. After the death of Caligula in 41 the Guard supported Claudius and the Senate eventually learned that the Guard had installed Claudius on the throne. His promised donativum was one of the largest in recorded history. By the late history of the Western Roman empire the succession of the emperor had become very chaotic and the Emperor would often be more in fear of his guard than feel protected by them.

Ten Things You Did Not Know About The Roman Legions

The Roman Legion Had a Large Entourage

When it comes to the Roman Legion they were not on their own on the battlefield. Even once the requirements had been loosened and all members of the legion (citizen and non-citizen) were merged together in the same units, there were still auxiliary troops that accompanied the Romans to ensure that the army did not want for anything. In the beginning when conscription and volunteer requirements were strict, the auxiliary troops would be pulled from tribes and put into troops that would fight beside the legion. Men pulled from mounted tribes would become part of an auxiliary that would fight beside the Cavalry. Other tribe members would be put into auxiliaries that would fight beside the infantry. Eventually both these groups were merged into singular legions but there were still others that traveled with the Legion to ensure that the army could continue on in battle.

There were surveyors that would travel ahead of the main army in order to find a main site for the army to find the best place to camp that night. The surveyors were part of a group of men that traveled with the Roman Legion that were known as immunes. These men included those who were excused from fighting because they were pivotal to the war effort in other ways. The immunes included medics, carpenters, veterinarians, armorers, priests and soothsaysers and even hunters. These men were necessary for keeping the army fed, well supplied, in good health and they helped build the weapons that were needed in siege warfare, like catapults.

Ten Things You Did Not Know About The Roman Legions

The Aquila Was Believed Necessary to the Success of a Legion

From 104 BC onward, each legion used an aquila (eagle) as the symbol of the unit. A gold eagle would be the standard of each unit and would be carried by an officer known as the Aquilifer. The symbol was the embodiment of the honor of the legion. If the aquila was lost in battle it was devastating to the legion that lost it. It was so devastating to the legion that quite often the legion would be disbanded afterward and would never fight together again. This was based on the belief that if the legion lost its eagle then it would never recover its old fighting spirit. The eagle was used to motivate the men.

Caesar describes an incident during the first invasion of Britain in 55 BC. The soldiers became very afraid when they came in sight of Britain. This was largely because it was an unknown territory and they did not know what to expect. Caesar saw the problem and he had a great idea. His ordered the aquilifier with the eagle onto the beach. His comrades, fearing disgrace, ‘with one accord, leapt down from the ship’ and the invasion force was soon assembled on the beach, ready to take on the Britons.

The Romans would also go to great lengths to recover aquila that were lost in battle. In the Battle of Teutoburg, three legions were completely defeated and their aquila taken. Emperor Augustus waged war in retaliation against the Germanic tribes and to recover lost territory. Numerous raids of tribes, even against the coming of winter, ended with the recovery of two of the missing aquila. The battle continued for the territory and the remaining aquila but it was never recovered and the Romans never recovered their Germanic territories.

Ten Things You Did Not Know About The Roman Legions

The Roman Strategy

What made the Roman Legion one of the most feared forces in the world was their ability to employ different types of fighting in a single battle and maintain a tight formation when necessary. During the height of the Roman Legion each Legion contained 4,800 men. These men were then divided into 10 cohorts of 480 men each. Each cohort contained 6 Centuries of 80 men each and each Century was commanded by a Centurion. This highly structured military was far more advanced that the loose configuration of troops used by many of Rome’s enemies.

The Roman Legion would begin their attack with long range catapults. This would bombard the enemy with boulders and iron bolts. The Legion would throw their spears or Pilum. These were specially designed to bend on impact so that the enemy would not be able to throw them back at the Romans. Then the worst part of the Roman attack would begin. They would march in formation with their swords drawn and their large shields covering from the bottom of their chin to their knees or lower. The moving wall was unstoppable to disorganized tribes and the Roman Legion became known for their destruction and their ability to completely eliminate their enemies.

The Romans even had defensive positions that were nearly impossible to overcome. If they were under projectile fire the Roman Legion would assume the Tortoise Formation. The front line of soldiers would lock their shields outward and connect with the soldiers on the sides. The soldiers in the middle would raise their shields over their heads in order to limit any death or injuries from the flying volleys. They could also employ a wedge formation by forming a triangle which would then allow them to divide up large armies.

Ten Things You Did Not Know About The Roman Legions

Decimation as Discipline

The discipline of the Roman Legionaries was legendary. Men who infringed even the most minor rule could face severe punishments. The ordinary soldier was often beaten for not doing their duty. Punishments and beatings were severe enough that men would obey orders even in fear of battle or harsh conditions. However, the severe form of discipline often resulted in mutinies and they were a common occurrence especially after the 3rd-century crisis. The most extreme form of punishment was the decimation and this was a collective punishment. It was often used by senior commanders to punish troops that had attempted or threatened mutiny.

The word decimation is derived from Latin for tenth and it can be loosely translated as ‘taking a tenth’. If a unit was found guilty of mutiny then they were sentenced to decimation. The legion was lined up without arms and their standards. Some reports say that they also had to remove their armor. Then one out of every ten men would be stoned to death. Some reports say that commanders would choose the men and others say their colleagues would choose. Some say the men were chosen individually and others state it was by lot. Whatever the method it made soldiers think twice about mutiny and was so brutal that even those who administered it saw it’s faults. They knew that often innocent men were punished by decimation but the fear that was generated by the punishment was considered worth this necessary evil.

The punishment was very rare. The remaining soldiers were often punished by giving a poor diet and by being obliged to reside outside of the camp for a given period.

Ten Things You Did Not Know About The Roman Legions
Bust of Flamen

Rituals For War

When it came to declaring war there were a number of rituals that were traditionally performed. A specialized body of priests known as fetials had a number of different rituals that they needed to perform in order for war to be declared by the Senate. The final part of the ritual was to throw a spear into enemy territory. This worked well enough for a time but eventually the territory of Rome grew to be far too big for this to be practical. Rome often did not even share borders with their enemy or the enemy was much too far away from the fetials for them to throw the spear.

Most were ready to do away with this part of the tradition but the fetials were too superstitious to let it go. They found a rather ingenious way to keep up the tradition without actually having to travel long distances or through enemy territory. They found a spot of land near the temple of Bellona (the goddess of war) and declared that spot of land to be non-Roman. When the Romans decided they wanted to go to war against King Pyrrhus of Epirus in 280 BC they needed to throw a spear into his territory. So the Roman Legion captured one of King Pyrrhus’ soldiers and forced him to buy the piece of land near the Bellona temple. Then the fetials were able to throw the spear onto this land that now belonged to the enemy they wished to fight.