Military Tactics of the Roman Army

Military Tactics of the Roman Army

In the early days of the Roman Republic, military tactics were influenced by the methods used by the successful Greek Army. The combat formation used by the Greeks and Romans was called the phalanx. This involved the soldiers standing side by side in ranks. Just before contact with the enemy, the soldiers moved in very close together so that each man's shield helped to protect the man on his left.

With only about three feet between the rows of soldiers, the Romans would move towards the enemy. The phalanx was a very difficult barrier to break through. If a man in the front was killed, he was replaced by the man behind. The shields would not only be used to protect the soldiers, but to push the enemy soldiers to the ground or to make them break ranks.

The phalanx formation was used for hundreds of years. However it proved inadequate against lightly-armed, fast-moving cavalry. The Roman Army therefore introduced a new system that involved the infantry being organised into four groups: velites, hastati, principes and triarii.

The velites were young and inexperienced soldiers. They were at the front and their main task was to make the early attacks on the enemy. When they were recalled, the velites passed through the open ranks and went to the back. The front rank was now made up of the hastati. When they were about 35 metres from the enemy they threw their javelins (pill). Drawing their swords, they now charged the enemy. Behind them, the rest of the Roman Army threw their javelins over the heads of the advancing hastati.

If the charge proved unsuccessful, the hastati withdrew and re-formed behind the rest of the army. It was now the turn of the principes to attack. The principes were the best soldiers that the Roman army had available. The enemy, exhausted by the previous attacks, now had to face fresh and experienced soldiers and, it was usually at this point that they broke formation and ran away. However, if the principes were unsuccessful, the last group, the triarii, would be brought forward.

When the enemy retreated, the Roman cavalry would be called into action. Up until this point the main function of the cavalry was to make sure the infantry were not outflanked by the enemy. When the enemy fled from the battlefield, the cavalry hunted them down. The Romans were never very good on horseback and the cavalry was often made up of meroenaries from Gaul and Africa.

The Romans always gave careful consideration to where battles should be fought. They preferred to be in a higher position than the enemy. If the enemy relied heavily on their cavalry, the Romans tried to arrange it that the battle took place on rough ground. The Roman commanders also liked to ensure that the sun and the wind were behind their soldiers.

The Romans were extremely good at siege tactics. Roman engineers developed several different devices that could throw stones and javelins long distances. The most important of these were the catapulta, ballista and onager.

If the enemy refused to surrender, the Romans also had a wide variety of weapons to break through the walls of a town. Working parties would be sent in to fill in the defensive ditches that usually surrounded the walls. The men used mantlets (wooden sheds, about 5 metres long and 3 metres wide, mounted on wheels) to protect them while doing this work. To draw the fire away from these men, large timber towers on wheels were pushed towards the walls, from which archers would fire on the enemy soldiers.

Once the ditch had been filled in, the Romans would use a ram to try and break down the wall. This weapon was a large wooden beam with a heavy iron head. The end of the beam, which was in the shape of a ram's head, would be constantly hammered against the wall until a hole appeared. Then the Romans would use another beam, this time with a iron hook at the end, to drag out the stones from the breached wall.

The soldiers would now attempt to get through the wall. To protect themselves against attack from above, the men sometimes advanced in a tightly formed group with their heads covered by their shields. Understandably, this method of attack became known as the tortoise.

Siege towers would also be used to get men inside the walls. These towers would have fixed bridges at the top to enable the men to climb onto the walls. The Romans also had a type of crane that could swing small groups of men over enemy defences.

Our ancestors, gentleman, never lacked wisdom or courage, and they were never too proud to take over a good idea from another country. They borrowed most of their armour and weapons from Samnites.... In short, if they thought anything that an ally or an enemy had was likely to suit them, they enthusiastically adopted it; for they would rather copy a good thing than be consumed with envy because they had not got it.

Those who perished in the long siege totalled 1,000,000... Some killed by their own hand... but most by starvation. So foul a stench of human flesh greeted those who charged in that many turned back at once. Others were so greedy that they pushed on, climbing over the piles of corpses; for many valuables were found in the passages... Every man who showed himself was either killed or captured by the Romans, and then those in the sewers were ferreted out... Simon (the leader of the Jewish army) was kept for the triumphal procession and ultimate execution. The Romans now fired the outlying districts of the town and demolished the walls. So fell Jerusalem... captured five times before and now for the second time laid utterly waste.

1. Select a passage from one of the sources that shows that the armour and weapons of the Romans changed over a period of time.

2. Explain why the Romans changed the tactics they used in battle.

3. Study source 2 and then read about Josephus. Describe the strengths and weaknesses of Josephus' account of the destruction of Jerusalem.


The Roman Army – The Development Of One Of The Most Powerful Military Forces In The Ancient World

The Roman army is often remembered as a highly professional force, with legionaries in segmented armor organized into centuries for close order combat. In reality, the Roman army changed a lot over the many years it dominated Europe and the Middle East. Their evolution can be divided into three broad phases – the Republican army, the reformed professional army that served the late republic and early emperors, and the army of the later empire.


Contents

Much of what is described as typically Roman technology, as opposed to that of the Greeks, comes directly from the Etruscan civilization, which was thriving to the North when Rome was just a small kingdom. The Etruscans had invented the stone arch, and used it in bridges as well as buildings. Some later Roman technologies were taken directly from Greek civilization.

After the absorption of the ancient Greek city states into the Roman Republic in 146 BC, the highly advanced Greek technology began to spread across many areas of Roman influence and supplement the Empire. This included the military advances that the Greeks had made, as well as all the scientific, mathematical, political and artistic developments.

New materials Edit

However, the Romans made many significant technological advances, such as the invention of hydraulic cement and concrete. They used such new materials to great advantage in their structures, many of which survive to this day, like their masonry aqueducts, such as the Pont du Gard, and buildings, such as the Pantheon and Baths of Diocletian in Rome. Their methods were recorded by historical figures Vitruvius and Frontinus for example, who wrote handbooks to advise fellow engineers and architects. Romans knew enough history to be aware that widespread technological change had occurred in the past and brought benefits, as shown for example by Pliny the Elder's Naturalis Historia. That tradition continued as the empire grew in size and absorbed new ideas. Romans thought of themselves as practical, so small-scale innovation was common (such as the development of the ballista into the polybolos or repeating ballista). The traditional view is that their reliance on a plentiful slave labour force and a lack of a patent or copyright system have both been cited as reasons that there was little social or financial pressure to automate or reduce manual tasks. However, this view is being challenged by new research that shows they did indeed innovate, and on a wide scale. Thus the watermill had been known to the Greeks, but it was the Romans who developed their efficient utilisation. The set of mills at Barbegal in southern France were worked by a single aqueduct, which drove no fewer than 16 overshot mills built into the side of a hill. They probably were built by the army and supplied flour to a wide region. Floating mills were also used to exploit fast flowing rivers.

Mining Edit

The Romans also used water power in an unexpected way during mining operations. It's known from the writings of Pliny the Elder that they exploited the alluvial gold deposits of north-west Spain soon after the conquest of the region in 25 BC using large-scale hydraulic mining methods. The spectacular gold mine at Las Medulas was worked by no fewer than seven long aqueducts cut into the surrounding mountains, the water being played directly onto the soft auriferous ore.

The outflow was channelled into sluice boxes, and the heavier gold collected on rough pavements. They also developed many deep mines, such as those for copper at Rio Tinto, where Victorian mining developments exposed the much earlier workings. Dewatering machines, such as Archimedean screws and reverse overshot water wheels, were found in situ, one of which is on show at the British Museum. Another fragmentary example was recovered from the Roman gold mine at Dolaucothi in west Wales, and is preserved at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff. The army were at the forefront of development of gold mines, since the metal was imperial property, and developed the Dolaucothi mines from the outset by establishing a fort there that was known as Luentinum. They had the expertise to build the infrastructure of aqueducts and reservoirs, as well as control production.

The period in which technological progress was fastest and greatest was during the 2nd century and 1st century BC, which was the period in which Roman political and economic power greatly increased. By the 2nd century, Roman technology appears to have peaked.

The Romans advanced military technology significantly, and implemented it on a massive scale. From a few early models of ballista from Greek city-states the Romans adopted and improved the design, eventually issuing one to every century in the legions.

To facilitate this organization, an engineering corps was developed. An officer of engineers, or praefectus fabrum, is referenced in armies of the Late Republic, but this post is not verifiable in all accounts and may have simply been a military advisor on the personal staff of a commanding officer. [2] There were legion architects (whose rank is yet unknown), who were responsible for the construction of war machines. Ensuring that constructions were level was the job of the libratores, who would also launch missiles and other projectiles (on occasion) during battle. [3] The engineering corps was in charge of massive production, frequently prefabricating artillery and siege equipment to facilitate its transportation [4]


With a huge reserve of resources in men and equipment and a culture geared for warfare, the Romans were relentless in expanding their borders and putting their neighbours to the sword. The Roman army, with its well-trained, well-equipped, and highly disciplined professional legions, was both feared and hated across the ancient world. Technological innovations in weaponry and superb logistics meant that strategies in warfare became ever more varied and certainly more deadly. The Romans did sometimes suffer setbacks such as against Carthage during the Punic Wars, against the Parthians in Asia and, most ignominious of all, against the Germanic tribes. Nevertheless, it would not be until a millennium after its fall that warfare would return to the scale and professionalism that the Roman Empire had brought to the field of combat.

In this collection, we examine some of the unique features of Roman warfare on land and sea. We look at the organisation of the Roman army, its weapons and tactics. And we look at that great spectacle of victory and the dream of every commander: the Roman Triumph.

Julius Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic War describes the great commander's attention to logistics, decisiveness, and appearance of confidence and their positive effect on the morale of the troops. He also records the importance of innovation, patriotism, discipline, and fortune. In addition, a commander could greatly strengthen his chances of success before the battle by gathering military intelligence of the enemy from captives, dissenters, and deserters.


Resilience and grit

A number of examples all prove the one simple case that the Romans didn’t know how to lose in the long run. You can look at the defeats at a tactical level of battles such as Cannae against Hannibal, you can look at various engagements in the eastern Mediterranean, or examples like Teutoburg Forest where Varus lost his three legions – but the Romans always came back.

What most opponents of Rome, particularly the Principate of Rome (from the age of Augustus through to the Diocletian reformation in the late 3rd century), didn’t tend to realise was that even if they won a tactical victory, the Romans themselves had one objective in these engagements and they pursued it relentlessly until they won.

It’s no better illustrated than if you look at the late Republican engagements against the Hellenistic world. There, you have these Hellenistic armies of Macedon and the Seleucid Empire fighting the Romans and realising at certain stages during battles that they may have lost and trying to surrender.

But the Romans kept on killing them because they had this relentless obsession with achieving their goals. So basically, the bottom line is the Romans always came back. If you beat them once they still came back.

Pyrrhus achieved two victories against the Romans and at one time was very close to making Rome submit. But the Romans came back and in the end emerged victorious in the war.


Judging from his earlier comments, Ammianus Marcellinus had a low opinion of the beauty of Hunnic horses—being “illshaped”— although he seems to have held their abilities in higher esteem—calling them “hardy.” It is certainly clear from his statement that their owners greatly valued their horses, better known as “steppe ponies.” Apart from the horses the Huns had extreme beauty standards for themselves.

While little is known about the horses that were ridden by other barbarian tribes who fought in these early medieval wars, much more is known about Hunnic horses, especially that they were light, short, and fast. They could also go for long distances without tiring, although Ammianus remarks elsewhere in his narrative that most Hun cavalry soldiers traveled with several horses during times of war, changing mounts frequently to preserve their horses’ strength. Moreover, the Huns’ horses were most often mares, as their milk could sustain the life of the warrior on campaign if needed. Mares are also easier to control than stallions. These may in fact have been the ancestors of the modern Mongolian horse, the mares standing an average of 50 inches (127 centimeters) high and being able to be milked four to five times a day, providing 0.11 pounds (50 grams) of milk each time.


5. The Onager

While ballistae, or bolt throwers, were commonly used as weapons by the Romans, they also used heavier mounted gun frameworks that could use rocks as missiles to bring down walls and small fortresses. The onager (named after the wild ass because of its kick) was a kind of sling. It consisted of a large frame with a sling attached to the front end. The sling was used to hold projectiles that could be fired by forcing the arm of the sling down against the tension of twisted ropes or springs. The speed and distance of the projectile depended on the wind and the terrain.

Ammianus Marcellinus, a fourth-century Roman officer and historian said of the onager:

“The scorpion, which is currently called the wild ass, has the accompanying structure. These are attached like a saw and drilled through on the two sides with large gaps. Before the arm is set, a pad of material is weighted down, bound with strings, and placed on a pile of turf or a heap of sun-dried blocks. This machine is so effective that it can destroy everything in its path.”


Being a Soldier in the Roman Army

The length of a Roman soldier’s military service would on average be about six years. Military service defined men as a Roman citizen. (Image: Serhii Bobyk/Shutterstock)

As Jean-Michel Carrié has noted, it was the Romans who invented many of the features of modern military life. They include “barracks life, promotion rolls, bugle calls, the camp infirmary, the personnel office, tours of duty, morning reports, permissions and leaves, ‘the army offers you a career’ advertisements, the discharge review board, and even theatrical performances for the troops.” So, how did one become a member of the most formidable army the world had ever seen?

This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, Wondrium.

Conscription in the Roman Army

Imagine you are a Roman citizen in the earlier period of Roman history. If you met the minimum property qualification, that is to say you own a farm of a certain size, you’d be conscripted on an annual basis for the duration of a whole campaign—just like Greek hoplites. The word “conscript” comes from the Latin conscribo, meaning “to write your name along with lots of other names.”

As Rome expanded and its wars lengthened, a soldier stood a good chance of facing economic hardship as a result of military service, once they returned home. That’s because they would have been a peasant farmer, so when they would have returned at the end of a campaign, perhaps one that lasted several years, they would have found their farm completely ruined.

Things got worse and worse as Rome’s wars became lengthier and further afield, so in 107 B.C. a Roman general called Gaius Marius abolished the property qualification altogether and permitted those who had previously been excluded to enlist—in other words, those without any property, those who were very poor.

Now, for a moment suppose that you’re one of them. Previously soldiers had to provide their own armor. You had no money, however, so Marius provided you with armor at the state’s expense. He also provided you with pay. All this temporarily relieved a manpower crisis. The problem was that when you were discharged you were as poor as you had been when you’d enlisted. This meant that you were dependent for your retirement package, so to speak, on the general whom you’d served under.

Roman General and his Roman Soldier

In time, the Roman generals became very powerful—Pompey the Great, Cn. Pompeius Magnus, and Julius Caesar—who commanded large armies for several years. Slowly, a Roman soldier would have identified more with his general than he did with Rome itself.

Julius Caesar’s army in Gaul, for instance, served with him for eight years. Not only would the soldier have developed a deep attachment to Caesar over that length of time, but he would also have looked to Caesar to provide him with his retirement package.

Caesar fraternized with his men when they were off duty, not like his enemy Pompey, who was very standoffish. It was hardly surprising, therefore, that after serving with him for eight years, a soldier didn’t ask any questions when he crossed the little river in the north of Italy called the Rubicon and marched on Rome. So, as a result of this trend, Roman soldiers came in effect to resemble mercenaries.

Julius Caesar fraternized with his men when they were off duty. His army in Gaul served him for eight years. (Image: Jule_Berlin/Shutterstock)

Octavian’s Reforms in the Roman Army

This trend created a huge problem for the Roman state. It was a primary cause of the civil wars in the final decades of the Republic—and one that involved literally hundreds of thousands of citizens. It’s estimated that in the last two centuries of the Republic the proportion of soldiers who were conscripted into the army sometimes reached as high as 20 percent of the entire citizen body. Another way to put this is that the length of a soldier’s military service would on average be about six years. Military service, in other words, very much defined a man as a Roman citizen.

When Octavian, the future Emperor Augustus, defeated Mark Antony at Actium in 31 B.C., he pensioned off perhaps as many as half a million veterans and settled them as colonists in Italy and elsewhere. Octavian, who was very forward thinking in so many ways, understood that this was not the most efficient way to run an army or a country. So he introduced the concept of the voluntary professional soldier. He didn’t abolish conscription, but by the end of the 1 st century A.D. volunteers had become more numerous than conscripts.

The Other Facets of the Roman Army

The non-citizens were allowed to enlist in the Roman army as auxiliaries. (Image: Sammy33/Shutterstock)

Later, non-citizens were permitted to enlist as auxiliaries, including the peregrini, i.e., free subjects who were allied to Rome. Rome’s army, in other words, was what we would call today truly multicultural. As the historian Tacitus states, “It was an army of many languages and many customs, in which citizens, allies and foreigners, mingled together.”

Men of different races defended the Roman ideal, even though they weren’t Roman themselves and perhaps didn’t have much idea of what being Roman actually meant. It was a great way to integrate peoples into the empire and to give them a sense of unity.

When a Roman soldier wasn’t fighting, he and his fellow legionaries would have taken on the role of engineers, road-makers, surveyors, bridge-builders, carpenters, masons, and so on. The Roman road system, which extended the length and breadth of the Empire, was largely the creation of the legionary force, although native workers would also be conscripted. It’s been rightly said that Roman soldiers spent more time digging than they did fighting.

So, the Roman soldiers played an important role in the making of the glorious Roman Empire.

Common Questions about the Life of a Roman Soldier

Gaius Marius introduced some reforms in the Roman army . He permitted those who had previously been excluded to enlist—those without any property, those who were very poor. Marius also provided the soldiers with armor at the state’s expense.

The auxiliaries were the non-citizens in the Roman army .

Octavian, the future Emperor Augustus, introduced the concept of the voluntary professional soldier in the Roman army .


Few weapons in world history have had such great tactical importance as the Roman gladius. To understand the importance this short sword had on the battlefields of antiquity, it is best to start with the Roman historian Livy. In describing the war between the Romans and the Macedonians in 200 BC, Livy wrote of the devastating practical and psychological impact the gladius had on the military forces of King Philip V of Macedon, who were accustomed to fighting with spears, javelins, and arrows. “When they had seen bodies chopped to pieces by the gladius Hispaniensis, arms torn away, shoulders and all, or heads separated from the bodies, with the necks completely severed, or vitals laid open, and other fearful wounds, realized in a general panic with what weapons and what men they had to fight,” wrote Livy in the History of Rome.

The Macedonians for the first time were facing the Roman military machine and its awesome military technology. The Greek and Macedonian armies’ primary tactical formation was the phalanx, whereas the Romans were organized in legions divided into units called centuries. Unlike the Macedonians, the Romans did not use long lances, such as the Macedonian sarissa. The short and sturdy Romans preferred to fight hand to hand to maximize the effect of their general superiority in training and weaponry. The Roman legion was a large formation of heavy infantry. Each of its components was equipped with extremely efficient but flexible defensive equipment, including a helmet, a lorica hamata (mail cuirass), and scutum (large shield) however, the real strength of the Roman army lay in the offensive weapons used by its soldiers. These weapons were the pilum, gladius, and pugio (dagger).

A legionnaire stabbing with his gladius.

The first weapon the Romans used in a battle was the pilum, a javelin specifically designed to kill enemies from long distances or to limit them in the use of their shields. The pilum was extremely difficult to remove after hitting the external part of a shield or of a cuirass. Once the enemy ranks had been shattered by the initial shower of javelins, the legionaries drew their short swords and charged their opponents. According to Roman tactical doctrine, emphasis was on using the scutum to provide maximum body coverage, while the gladius was used to attack with devastating thrusts and short cuts. Using these tactics, the Romans were able to defeat different types of enemy infantry. The Roman soldiers became efficient with their weapons through intensive and continuous training.

The Roman method of fighting limited the number of casualties suffered by their troops. Using their swords to thrust in the few spaces created between the shields of their close for- mations, the legionaries were rarely exposed to the offensive weapons of their enemies, who had few chances to manuever. The pugio also was a short stabbing weapon. It was used as a secondary arm during intense hand-to-hand fighting, especially when space for movement became extremely limited or when the gladius could not be used for somr reason.

Stabbing wounds produced by the gladius almost always were fatal, especially when the enemy was struck in the abdomen, the main target for thrusts. But the gladius also proved to be effective when used for cutting or slashing. Each Roman infantryman was trained to adapt to any combat situation that might develop. Each one of his weapons could be used in different ways, and he had to be ready to exploit at full any enemy mistake or any favorable momentum. For example, Roman legionaries advancing in close formation were trained to slash kneecaps beneath the shield wall or to cut the throat of the enemies while charging in the testudo (tortoise) formation. The legionaries carried the gladius in a scabbard mounted on a belt or on a shoulder strap. It was worn on the left side of the soldier’s body, and the legionary had to reach across his body to draw it. Centurions, to differentiate themselves from their soldiers, wore the gladius on the right side of the body.

The majority of the weapons used by the Romans did not originate with them. Roman superiority on the battlefield was derived from their ability to adopt foreign military technologies and employ them in the most effective way. The pilum and the lorica hamata were invented and employed for the first time by warrior peoples such as the Celts and Etruscans, who had fought against the Romans. After defeating their enemies, the Romans adopted the best elements of their enemies’ weapon systems.

The Mainz gladius of the 1st century AD is representative of the swords of the early Imperial period.

The gladius, which in some respects is the most iconic and important weapon of the Roman Army, was not Roman at all. The origin of the gladius is much clearer if we call it by its complete and proper name, which was the gladius Hispaniensis. The gladius originated in Iberia, in the territories of modern Spain and Portugal.

The Souda, a 10th-century Byzantine encyclopedia, offers interesting insight into the geographical and historical origins of the Roman short sword. The Souda confirms the traditional view of the Romans about the history of their favorite weapon. The gladius was invented by the Celtiberians, one of the many warrior peoples who inhabited Iberia during the Iron Age, according to the Souda. Unlike other Iberian tribes, the Celtiberians were of mixed descent. They were the product of Celtic migrations across the Iberian Peninsula. Because of their Celtic heritage, the Celtiberians had a completely different array of weapons from neighboring tribes and constructed weapons with innovative techniques. Their swords were short and had extremely sharp points. In addition, they could deliver powerful downward strokes from both hands.

The Romans abandoned their traditional swords in the Greek fashion after the Second Punic War as a result of their many encounters on the battlefield with Hannibal’s Celtiberian allies. This chronological reconstruction is confirmed by archaeological evidence and by the Greek historian Polybius. It is estimated that the Roman legions adopted the gladius as their main weapon around 200 BC. The Romans adopted this weapon quickly. Until the appearance of the gladius Hispaniensis, the Romans had been equipped with the Greek xiphos, a double-edged, single-handed blade employed by the hoplites. This weapon was archaic when compared to the gladius but had many basic features in common with the new short sword. The same could be said of the seax, a weapon employed by the Germanic tribes of northern Europe. But none of these similar weapons was employed to the same degree of efficiency as the Roman short sword. After a few years of use, the Romans realized the superior potential of their weapon. They assimilated it into their arsenal and established a new tactical doctrine designed to fully exploit the gladius Hispaniensis.

A Roman stabs while using his scutum.

By the time of the Roman Republic, the classical world was well acquainted with steel and the steel-making process. Weapons technology had developed to the point that it was a good technological environment for the rapid development of an innovative steel weapon like the gladius. Recent metallurgical studies conducted on surviving Roman short swords reveal that the gladius could be forged either from a single piece of steel or as a composite blade. Swords produced with the first process were created from a single bloom of 1,237 degrees Centigrade, whereas those created from the second process required five blooms each at 1,163 degrees Centigrade. Five strips of varying carbon content were created. The central core of the sword contained the highest concentration of carbon, ranging from 0.15 to 0.25 percent. On its edges were placed four strips of low-carbon steel with a concentration of 0.05 to 0. 07 percent. At that point, the strips were welded together by hammer blows. Each blow increased the temperature enough to create a friction weld at that spot.

The forging operation, the most important part of the process, continued until the steel was cold. When produced by welding different strips together, the gladius had a channel down the center of the blade, and when produced from a single piece of steel, the blade had a rhomboidal cross-section. The blades of the gladius, as anticipated by the description of their tactical uses, were double-edged for cutting and had tapered points for stabbing during thrusting.

Craftsmen gave the gladius a solid grip by adding a knobbed wooden hilt to the blade, which usually came with ridges for the user’s fingers. Despite its nature as a standardized weapon, the gladius might be decorated according to the owner’s personal taste. The hilt, known as the capulus, could be made ornate in many different ways. For example, the swords of high officers and the Praetorian guards usually had hilts sculpted to resemble the head of an eagle. This shape was popular also because it created an additional grip when using the weapon. Indeed, the blade might even have the owner’s name engraved or punched on it.

The Romans produced several different designs. According to the traditional categorization used by military historians and archaeologists, the various kinds of gladii can be grouped into three main types. In chronological order these types were Mainz, Fulham, and Pompeii. They derive their respective names from where the canonical prototype of each group was found.

The differences between the three categories and the original gladius Hispaniensis are not significant from a practical point of view but are quite important to understanding the evolution of this weapon across many decades of combat use. The original Iberian sword, used from approximately 200 BC until 20 BC, had a slight wasp-waist, or leaf-blade, curvature. This made it stand out from the subsequent models. It was the largest and the heaviest model of gladius ever produced, with a blade length of 60 to 68 centimeters and a sword length of 75 to 85 centimeters. The blade was five centimeters wide, with the overall weight of the weapon being 900 grams. This earliest form of short sword, still heavily influenced by the original Iberian weapon, was used for a long period of time if compared with its successors.

The Roman city of Mainz was founded as a permanent military camp named Moguntiacum in approximately 13 BC. The original military camp soon became an important center for the production of swords and other military equipment. With the transformation of the camp into a proper city, the manufacture of swords became even more significant, leading to the creation of a new kind of gladius, commonly known as the Mainz gladius. The Mainz gladius retained the curvature of the previous model but shortened and widened the blade. In addition, it modified the original point into a triangular one specifically designed to thrust.

The geographical diffusion of the Mainz model was limited to the border garrisons serv- ing on the northern frontiers in contrast to the less effective Pompeii version that came into use in other areas of the empire. The short swords produced at Mainz during the early imperial period were employed by legions serving in the north. Large numbers of these weapons were exported and sold extensively outside the boundaries of the Roman Empire. Various ex-legionaries who had served on the frontier used their discharge bonus to set up businesses as manufacturers and dealers of arms. The Mainz variety of the gladius was characterized by a slight waist running the length of the blade. The average Mainz gladius had a blade length of 50 to 55 centimeters and a sword length of 65 to 70 centimeters. The blade was seven centimeters wide, with an overall weight of 800 grams.

The Fulham gladius derived its name from a gladius that was dredged from the River Thames around Fulham. The model dates back to the years following the Roman invasion of Britain. Experts in Roman history have varying opinions about the effectiveness of the Fulham model. Some consider it as the conjunction point between the Mainz and Pompeii models, while others consider it a later type evolving from the Mainz gladius and being exported to Britain. The Fulham gladius generally has a slightly narrower blade than the Mainz variety, but the main distinction of this type is its triangular tip. The Fulham gladius had a blade length of 50 to 55 centimeters and a sword length of 65 to 70 centimeters. The blade was six centimeters wide, with an overall weight of 700 grams.

A Praetorian guard wears his glades.

The Pompeii gladius was the most popular among the three kinds that the Romans began to produce after the Hispaniensis. It had parallel cutting edges and a triangular tip. From a structural point of view, the Pompeii model, which was the shortest model used by the Romans, eliminated the curvature, lengthened the blade, and diminished the point. The Romans shortened the gladius based on their experience in the Roman civil wars of the Late Republic. Because Romans fought each other during this period, the traditional Roman military superiority had lost its advantage. Having to fight against enemies equipped exactly like themselves, with heavy cuirasses and shields, the Romans had to develop a lighter and shorter version of their sword. They needed one designed to thrust with the point and in very strict spaces. The average Pompeii gladius had a blade length of 45 to 50 centimeters and a sword length of 60 to 65 centimeters. The blade was five centimeters wide, with an overall weight of 700 grams.

By the end of the Roman civil wars, the Romans introduced a longer model of the Pompeii gladius, which was known as the semispatha. The Romans used the term spatha to indicate a completely different kind of weapon. The Romans essentially designed a long sword for use by their cavalry. The spatha gradually took the place of the gladius as the standard weapon of the heavy infantry, thus continuing the general trend toward increasing the gladius’s dimensions.

In addition to the legionaries, the Roman gladius was also used by gladiators in the arena. Gladiators used many different sets of weapons. The pairing of gladiators for duels was important to the Romans, who desired to see gladiatorial combats conducted with precise rules and a balanced confrontation between opponents. A matched pair of gladiators typically consisted of one fighter having heavy armor and the other having little or no armor. For example, the former might have heavy armor and a large shield, which hampered his freedom of movement. His opponent, lacking heavy armor, had greater mobility, although if his more heavily armored opponent landed a blow it might prove fatal.

The Romans established approximately 30 different types of gladiators. Each type had a different type of offensive weapon, armor, and shield. Generally speaking, the gladius was given as the main weapon to the heavily armored gladiators, who carried shields similar to those of the legionaries.

Between the end of the 2nd century AD and the beginning of the 3rd century, the gladius gradually disappeared from the weaponry of the Roman infantryman. Roman tactics were slowly changing as a result of the new military threats they faced. Toward the end of the empire, the Roman Army gradually transformed into an elite cavalry force composed of heavily armored cavalrymen and mounted archers. The heavily armored cavalry was copied from the Sarmatians of the steppes, and the mounted archers were the product of the wars against the Parthians and Sassanids in the Middle East.

As a result of the new cavalry’s predominance on the battlefield, the Romans abandoned infantry formations that fought at close quarters and began using the long slashing swords of the cavalry. This marked the end of the invincible Roman legionary and his deadly gladius.


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This is a wonderfully researched, written and assembled reference book covering various aspects of the Roman Army over several centuries. The author did a careful and scholarly job of putting together and referencing important historical information which provides substance and accuracy. It is full of beautful photographs and illustrations that are of great benefit to understanding.

Everyone interested in the Roman Army must own and read this book.

However, I am still looking for something more. maybe a bit different. which takes nothing away from the brilliance of this book.

As a challenge to authors, the one subject that intrigues me after reading so many books on Roman history, has to do with the soldiers who made up the legions, in particular the soldiers who served during the time of Julius Caesar when there were no permanent garrisons..when daily life for 16 years consisted of hand to hand combat with sword and pilum or travelling great distances by foot and life was in a tent. i.e. what sort of people were these? What were the centurion like to organize, lead and motivate these troops ? How exactly did they win in combat ? How did troop formations change so quickly during battle . we know that they did but exactly how was this possible given the nature of the combat at hand? Many battles lasted for many hours, some for days, where initial formations could not have been sustained. what happened then? In such difficult and lengthy battles was it a role of the reserve to reestablish the formation or did centurions take over with success dependent upon individual initiatives at the "squad, platoon and company" level as is taught in the American Army today.

and how did the personal charisma of the great Roman leaders such as Julius and Germanicus personally affect these troops? Clearly the famous disasters of the Roman Army are linked to disastrous and less famous leaders. But to me the real mystery of the Roman Army is how the elements of military leadership, discipline, motivation and technology all somehow came together to produce results, both good and bad, across the span of Republic and Empire with my special interest in Julius Caesar who must have been one of the most remarkable and effective military leaders in all of human history. In repeated examples his mere presence changed the behavior of thousands of troops. what kind of man was this ? How did such leaders view themselves and how did they view others ?

(By the way, Goldsworthy takes on the subject of Julius Caesar in another wonderful book that he wrote "Caesar" which I also highly recommend.)

So I am still looking not for the chronology or facts of history but rather more about the people who actually produced the results that we read about.


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