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

Ten Things You Did Not Know About The Roman Legions
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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
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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
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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
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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.

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