When Rome was a military superpower

(To David Rossi)
25/10/19

From this month we begin a collaboration, we hope will last, with the founder of the YouTube channel "The Bar of Ancient Rome", Roberto Trizio: we will have the opportunity to hear about interesting topics on the armed forces, the armaments and the geopolitics of monarchic, republican and imperial Rome.

You are about to hear about the most powerful war machine in history: the Roman soldier!

When was the Roman army born?

The Roman army was born with Rome itself. The Roman citizen is at the same time a soldier, who is always ready to take up arms to defend his homeland and his land. Obviously this condition, especially after Mario's reform and the birth of the professional soldier, undergoes evolutions, but the military aspect is in the very DNA of the Romans.

When does it become the most formidable force of antiquity and perhaps of all times?

I would say that there are important milestones, fundamental turning points. The first is certainly the clash with the Samnites, which forces the Romans to invent handpieces, a new and extremely flexible formation that gives a plasticity like no one had ever seen on the battlefield. The most evident demonstration is then the clash with the phalanx of Philip V in Cinocefale, a clash that marks the sunset of the old formations in favor of the handpiece.

Another decisive step: Mario's reform. With him the soldier becomes a professional and the legionary is a figure and military entity at the forefront of his time. Not just as a single man's management, but also as equipment, from gladius to lorica, which is really science fiction compared to the period.

If we want to find a common element of all the periods, the ability to learn from the adversary, to absorb the competences of the enemy and to improve them, and to learn like no other ancient people from their mistakes. It is not so obvious: Antiochus III, the great Seleucid ruler, loses the battle of Raphia against Egypt and years later makes the same mistake in Magnesia. The Romans instead demonstrate an ability to "learn" the lessons that have no equal, and contributed decisively to make them unbeatable opponents

Unbeatable and ready to learn ... Hannibal defeats them however three times in Italy before with Scipione the Romans prove to have understood. And even in that case the Punic general gives proof of his unreachable genius.

Sure. But this is a special case. Hannibal is a "transformist", capable, from battle to battle, of changing and radically innovating his tactics, as if he were a different person each time. The Romans are facing a star. And yet, to return to what I explained earlier, the Romans learn as never before. Scipione the African understands the Canne pincer maneuver and improves it, making it active and faster, like the Campi Magni. And also the disposition of Caio Mario against the Cimbri may have drawn inspiration.

In general, Hannibal forces the Romans to take their tactical culture to another level. As a "vaccine" that strengthens the immune system.

Do they only learn in tactics or even in armaments?

Even in armaments absolutely. Just to give two quick examples: it is from the Celtic world that they take the helmet and it is from the Samnite and Iberian world that they take inspiration for the sword.

At one point, Rome is in crisis. Is the Roman soldier a cause, even for demographic reasons?

Yes and no. Rome goes through several crises and each has a different nature. In general, however, Rome is in crisis when there are problems in managing power. When the "pact" between State and Citizen fails, and the citizen becomes less and less part of a structure and becomes more and more a subject.

When this occurs, the Roman system clings to itself. And in that situation the Roman soldier dramatically replaces politics (as in the year of the four emperors or as in the case of military anarchy during the third century).

Even worse when, and here we are at the fall of the Western empire, the Roman soldier is no longer an Italic or a "barbarian" who is Romanized and assimilated by society, but a non-Romanized element in a completely corrupt society and flaked.

What happens to the soldier in case of defeat, like after Canne?

Depends on defeat. Canne in particular was a terrible shame for the defeated soldiers. Since they had not won, but had not died either, they were regarded as cowards. The Cannen legions lost all privileges, could no longer enter the cities and had to live in the countryside, covered with dishonor. At Zama they were led by Scipione and drew a courage out of the ordinary not only because they had to beat Hannibal, but because it was the only chance of "redemption" for their lives.

Beyond Canne the defeated soldiers may suffer different fates. If the legion lost with honor, it tended, however, to reintegrate the army or they could move on to flesh out other legions. In the most bitter defeats, however, the legion was dissolved forever, as after Teutoburgo when the XVII, XVIII and XIX were declared cursed and never reconstituted.

In civil wars, how do they decide to take sides?

Each of the three civil wars (Mario / Silla - Cesare / Pompeo - Ottaviano / Marco Antonio) has different characteristics. The Roman soldier can be deployed on one side or the other for many reasons. With very little poetry, I can say that the soldier takes sides with the commander who can guarantee him money and land. However, to be fair, there is also loyalty to the commander or the political cause. For example, Tito Labieno, Caesar's right-hand man in Gaul, then passes with Pompey because he was his client but also for a Republican ideal. Or again, during the clashes between Ottaviano and Marco Antonio, soldiers often refuse to fight against their former comrades.

Do we know how the baggage was handled, the nursing medical assistance before, during and after the battle and, last but not least, the loot?

We have information. To give an idea: the baggage, especially after Mario's reform, was carried by the legionary. The concept is that the individual soldier was as autonomous as possible. And actually in the backpack you could find everything: wooden poles for the camp, a bucket, a shovel, the need to prepare lunch and to sleep. A real arsenal for every soldier.

There was medical assistance. The doctors obviously based all their expertise on the experience, with very little scientific "evidence", but it was extremely trained and educated. There was a real medical staff in every legion, with hierarchies and skills. The doctors were on the battlefield: since there were no antibiotics or anything else that could fight microbes, survival derived (in addition to injury) from the speed of intervention. So the legionaries were treated immediately, on the spot. Then later they were transferred to small, dedicated medical "villages".

For the loot, contrary to what one might think, he was not at all snatched from the first one who passed by. It was collected, positioned in the center of the camp and distributed by the superiors according to merit and rank. The booty was part of the "contract" between the legionary and the Roman state, for which his division was treated in detail.

Finally, let's try to imagine the Roman soldier in the flesh. Physically, how was it structured? Can we imagine it more like Messi than Cristiano Ronaldo? And the different enemies?

More like Messi or Gattuso I would say. The Roman was low, from 1.65 to maximum 1.70, robust, a bit stocky, typically Mediterranean. The various enemies could be like them, like the Iberians or the Carthaginians, but also much larger and taller like the Celts or even the Germans, who seemed gigantic.

Indeed it must have been "frustrating" for the Nordic warriors who were fearfully big to have the worst against a myriad of "dwarfs" in their eyes, but extraordinarily strong and above all enormously disciplined.

PS If you wish to propose topics on Roman antiquity to be explored, you can do so by writing to: geopolitica@difesaonline.it

Images: Michele Marsan