Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak. — John Adams

Peeps at Ancient Rome - Jamse Baikie

The Roman Army

"Go," said Romulus, when he appeared as a god to the trembling Roman Senator, Proculus Julius—"go, tell the Romans that it is the will of heaven that my Rome should be the head of the world. Let them henceforth cultivate the arts of war, and let them know assuredly, and hand down the knowledge to posterity, that no human might can withstand the arms of Rome." Never did a prophecy more thoroughly bring about its own fulfillment than this, if it were ever made. For centuries the Romans obeyed their founder, and cultivated the arts of war, till they were heads of the world, as Romulus predicted; and for centuries they cultivated no other arts but those of war, which was not so well either for them or for the world. In fact, it brought about Rome's ruin in the end, for the conquest of the Eastern world brought all the opportunities of luxury to men who had never been trained to appreciate beauty and splendour at their true value, and the rough, ignorant Roman ran riot in luxury till he was thoroughly corrupted by it, instead of using his new treasures with moderation and understanding, as a better instructed man would have done.

However, there can be no doubt of the success with which the arts of war were cultivated. Rome lived by and for her army; she made it the most perfect instrument of war that the world had ever seen, and, while she sometimes used it with brutal cruelty, it proved also, many a time, the school of all those virtues of steadfastness, and devotion to duty, and impregnable courage, which we have learned to associate with the Roman name. Her army, nine times out of ten, showed all that was best in Rome; only very rarely did it show the worst.

Further, we must realize that it was really the army that did the work. For, though Rome was so great a military power, her generals were very rarely of the first class. Julius Caesar, of course, will always stand beside Alexander and Hannibal and Napoleon as one of the world's supreme captains, but no other Roman can be named as worthy to hold place beside him. The successful Roman general was usually a competent soldier, and little more; given competency, his magnificent infantry attended to the rest. The unsuccessful Roman general was very often a miracle of incompetency—indeed, he must have been, to make so miserable a use of his splendid material. Nor was the incompetent general by any means a rarity, as the many bloody defeats sustained by the legions, in spite of their steady valour, clearly show. In fact, Rome, like Britain, generally began her wars badly. By-and-by, muddling through by that stubborn determination of hers, she weeded out the incompetents and trained the likely men; and the legions, once they got a fair chance, turned the scale. But never in all her long wars of the Republic did Rome produce a captain to be named in the same breath with such a man as her great Carthaginian enemy Hannibal, until, at the very last gasp of the Republic, Julius Caesar began to make war at an age when most men are thinking of laying aside the sword.

So if we want to know how Rome made herself mistress of the world, we have not to think so much of a few great captains with a heaven-sent genius for war, but rather of a great silent army, the most steadfast, the most enduring, the most adaptable tool of warfare that perhaps the world has ever seen, handled, on the whole, by merely average men, with here and there an unusually competent commander, and, not uncommonly, an unusually incompetent one. And in this chapter we want to take a peep at this great army which stood for all that was real and strong in Rome, which made Rome's Empire, and which saved it again and again.

Let us suppose, then, that we are to have the privilege of paying a visit to the camp of the two Consuls, Marius and Catulus, at Vercelli, in the Northern Plain of Italy, just before the great battle in which they are to meet the invading hosts of the Cimbri. You could not have a finer chance of seeing a Roman army at its best, for the 32,000 men who are under the command of Marius (Catulus has 22,300) have been trained to the very highest point by the most patient and careful of commanders, and are, indeed, the first professional army that Rome has ever had. In all her great wars hitherto her army was really just a citizen militia, the infantry made up of the men who could afford a suit of armour, and the cavalry of the wealthier citizens who could maintain one of the horses which the State supplied. Each Consul levied his own army for the spring campaign, and the legions were disbanded whenever the campaign was over.

Now, however, Marius has changed all that. He promises pay to his men on discharge, and so he has got recruits who could never have afforded to serve in the old days; and he never seems to have any difficulty in getting as many more as he wants. His legions are never disbanded. The whole establishment of each legion, with its name, its number, and its traditions, is handed on year after year, and when the legion has to fill up the ranks to war strength, the whole framework is there ready. Moreover, he has done away with all the variety of weapons that used to be seen in the days when each citizen soldier brought his own equipment. Now the State provides the soldier's kit and weapons, and all the men of each particular unit of the service are equipped alike. Here, then, is Marius's force of 32,000 men drawn up in battle array, ready to be inspected by the famous Consul himself, to whose staff we shall take the liberty of joining ourselves. As we ride up to the iron ranks we see that the habit of having regimental mascots is at least as old as the time of Marius, and that the goats and bears and monkeys that our soldiers love to take with their regiments could be matched in the Roman army. High over the legions two great vultures circle in the air, and many a legionary gives an upward glance of recognition and satisfaction, when his centurion is not looking, to the big birds wheeling and screaming overhead. For the soldiers caught these two last year, just before they fought and beat the Teutones; and when they had made friends with them by feeding them well, they put brass collars round their necks and let them go. Ever since, the great birds have followed the legions, and the men have grown to look upon them as the luck of the army and the sign of victory.

The light-armed troops and the cavalry are stationed on either wing, and, as we ride along, we pass them first, though we need not pay so much attention to them. Instead of the little troop of inefficient native Roman cavalry that used to go with each legion, and be invariably beaten off the field in each battle, we have now a very different force. Wide on the wing are drawn up the light Numidian Horse, fierce sun-burnt lancers and bowmen from North Africa, on light, wiry Moorish horses—the most dangerous light cavalry in the world, as the Romans have often found to their cost. Next to them come the heavy Ligurian Horse, lancers and swordsmen, with helmets, breast and back plates, and shields; heavy men and heavy horses to charge other cavalry, or break up shaken infantry. Between them and the infantry of the line are the ranks of Balearic slingers, with their leathern slings, whose bullet, either of lead or of clay mixed with blood and goat's hair, can crush in helmet or corselet and shatter the bone behind. Beside them are the famous Cretan bowmen, who have a perpetual feud with the other islanders over the question whether the sling or the bow is the more efficient weapon. To-morrow they will have a good chance of settling it against the ranks of the Cimbri.

Now we have passed the wing of light armed troops, and here, in the centre, are the grim iron ranks that have so often trampled to victory through rivers of blood and over piles of dead. You may get rather a shock as you look at them at first. You expected—did you not?—to see a wall of iron, shield to shield right along the line. Here is something very different. The close-ranked, shoulder-to-shoulder way of fighting was never the Roman way, and is now less so than ever before. It was the Macedonian, with his long twenty-one-foot sarissa, or pike, who stood jammed tight against his next man, with pike after pike from the files behind sticking out in front of him, till his phalanx looked like a great steel-clad porcupine. The Roman fighter always liked open order, with a fair space round about him to swing his arm for the cast of the pilum, or javelin, with which he began the fight, and the cut and thrust of the deadly thirty-inch sword, short but heavy, with which he hewed his way to victory.

Each legion is now composed of 6,000 men, of whom 3,600 are heavy infantry, instead of the various smaller numbers that were once in use. The legion is divided into ten cohorts, which take the place of our battalions, and each cohort is subdivided into three maniples, corresponding to our companies. A maniple is made up of two platoons—centuries, they are called, though they only muster 120 men between them. The legion is commanded by a legate, who has under him six tribunes, whose subalterns are the centurions.

Now see how the men are arranged. They stand in three lines, eight file deep, which go by the names of the Hastati, the Principes, and the Triarii. The last are veteran soldiers, older and perhaps not so agile as the ranks in front, but steady men who can be relied on to stop a rush when the barbarians have broken through by sheer weight. When you hear a Roman commander say, "Ventum est ad Triarios" (It has come to the Triarii), you know that the legion has its back to the wall, and you will see some fighting that is worth talking about. The three lines are not ranged exactly behind one another, but in a kind of chess-board fashion—between each two maniples of the front line there is a space, and in the second line a maniple is stationed so as to cover each of these spaces, while the maniples of the third line, again, are placed like those of the first. Each soldier in the ranks stands in a six-foot square of space, so that he has plenty of room to use his weapons freely.

As we pass along the line, you had better take a good look at the standards, for Marius has been making a change there, too. It was Romulus who gave the Roman army its first standard, and it was as simple as the army by which it was carried. For it was only a bundle of hay on the end of a pole, and because a bundle of hay was called a "manipulus," each company which marched under the manipulus was called a maniple. In the early Republican days each legion had five different kinds of standard—the eagle, the wolf, the minotaur, the horse, and the bear—but Marius has done away with all this confusion, and now there is just the one kind of standard for the legions. At the top of a pole, grasping an ornamental capital, a silver or golden eagle flaps his broad wings, while a silver thunderbolt is clutched in his talons. Hence-forward the world will learn to know and dread the eagles, from farthest Britain to the Caucasus.

The new standards are regarded with the greatest reverence. In camp, the eagle rests in a special shrine. On the march it is carried by a picked soldier of the legion, the "aquilifer," but the senior centurion of the legion is responsible for its safety, and the legion which should lose its eagle would count itself, and be counted by others, forever disgraced.

And now we shall have the chance of seeing, close at hand, the equipment of a legionary soldier. In an encounter with the Cimbri a day or two ago, Sextius Baculus, a private soldier, saved the life of a centurion and another private with the greatest gallantry. Now the wreath of oak-leaves, called the civic crown, which is the highest reward a general can give for such an action, is very seldom given to a private; on this occasion, however, perhaps to give a fillip to his soldiers' valour in view of the coming battle, Marius has decided to bestow it upon the brave legionary before the assembled army. The grim, heavy-faced, rough old general halts with his staff, and at the summons of a staff-officer, handed on by his centurion, Sextius Baculus steps forward from the ranks. We had better take a good look at him, for in person, equipment, and spirit this is the type of the men who made Rome queen of the world.

He is by no means a big man; you will see far bigger in the ranks of the Cimbri; but he is burly, square-shouldered, and deep-chested, standing solid on his feet, and with bare, muscular arms. The clean-shaven face is as hard and grim as if it were cut out of old oak, and altogether you would prefer to have this sunburnt son of Rome on your side rather than against you. His equipment is as plain and workmanlike as it can well be, for the Roman army is meant not for show, but for business. His head is covered with a perfectly plain round helmet, topped by a metal boss or button, kept firm on the head by cheek-pieces which almost meet under the lower jaw, and bearing a band of metal of double thickness round the forehead, and a projection behind to cover the neck. This, like all the metal-work of his equipment, is browned to a serviceable and inconspicuous tone. His body is guarded by a number of strips of iron which pass round the trunk, forming a kind of jointed breast-plate, and these are attached to the shoulder-pieces, similar strips of metal which pass over either shoulder and hang down in front and behind for several inches. His thighs are protected by strips of leather which hang from his waist, and his feet are shod with heavy sandals studded with nails, and bound on, well up the leg, with broad leathern thongs.

In his right hand the soldier carries a short, stout throwing-spear, the famous "pilum," which the Roman hurled against the enemy's ranks as he came to close quarters. It measures about six feet nine inches in length, and has a long, heavy iron point, whose socket comes about half-way down the shaft. This point used to be fixed to the shaft by two iron rivets, but Marius has replaced one of them by a wooden peg, which breaks when the pilum sticks in an opponent's shield, so that the shaft bends over and drags on the ground, hampering his movements. On his left arm Sextius bears the great oblong shield of the Roman legionary, four feet from top to bottom and two and a half feet from side to side, curved round at the edges to the shape of a half cylinder, so that it covers the whole of one side of his body. In their early days the Romans used a smaller round shield, but they have long given it up in favour of this oblong one. Though the shield is so large, it is not nearly so cumbrous as you might think, for it is made of cloth and calf-skin built up on a wooden framework, and is really wonderfully light, The boss in the centre of it has brazen thunderbolts shooting out from it, the only ornament in the whole equipment.


Last of all comes the Roman's great weapon, the short sword which won so many battles. A leathern baldric passes over the soldier's left shoulder, and across his chest to his right hip, and there in its sheath hangs a straight, heavy sword, thirty inches long, with a sharp point and two keen edges. Its hilt is perfectly plain, with a simple cross-bar, not so much to guard the hand as to keep the fingers from slipping as the swordsman thrusts. Why do the Romans wear their swords on the right side, instead of on the left, as all modern soldiers do? Well, if you had to carry a shield four feet by two and a half on your left arm, you would soon find out the reason. The sword is carried where you can get at it most readily. It is only since the time of the terrible war against Hannibal that the Romans have universally taken to this short Spanish sword, which made such dreadful havoc in their own ranks at Thrasymene and Cannae. Now they know there is no weapon to match it, and no soldiers can use it so well as they. For Marius, in the new drill which he has introduced, insists on his men being taught fencing by the masters of the gladiatorial schools. They are all taught that, though their sword has two sharp edges, they are never to use the edge if they can help it, but always to thrust with the point; for the thrust is both more deadly and exposes the swordsman less. To-morrow will see the test between the Roman style of the short sword and the thrust and the Cimbrian method of the long claymore and the swinging cut, and before the end of the day 120,000 Cimbrian dead, piled on the Raudine Plain—more than two for every Roman sword at work—will show the superiority of the legionary method.

We have kept poor Sextius Baculus standing for quite a long time before the ranks, while we have been taking stock of his equipment; but now Marius, in his long red general's mantle, comes forward to where the brave soldier stands like an iron statue. A centurion beside him, distinguished by a low crest to his helmet, crowned with a tuft of red feathers, and bearing in his hand the vine-stock which is his mark of office, hands the general the simple crown of oak-leaves which the Romans prized as we do the Victoria Cross. Marius, holding it in his hand, speaks a few plain words of praise, and bids the soldiers in the ranks emulate the valour of their comrade; then, as Sextius bows his head, the general places the wreath around the battered iron helmet. The legionary straightens himself up again, salutes, and takes his place in the ranks once more. Not much of a ceremony, but the men will fight the better for it to-morrow. Incidentally it has given us the chance of seeing and studying the kind of man who won Rome's battles for her. "Had I such men," said Pyrrhus, the Red King of Epirus, the day after he had beaten the legions at Heraclea, "I would conquer the world." Very likely; but they were bred nowhere but on Roman soil, though his own phalangites were brave and steady men too.

Marius and his army, of course, are out for a battle in the open, and do not expect any siege-work, so we shall not see any of the really heavy siege-artillery which went with a Roman army when towns had to be captured. He has not with him the ram, with its huge wooden beam, tipped with a bronze or iron head, and swinging from a framework which moves up to the walls on wheels, covered by a "tortoise," whose shell is made of wood and raw hides—the dreaded weapon, irresistible as fate, before which so many proud cities have bowed and fallen. But inside the wall of the great camp to which the legions will presently return there are some of the lighter engines; for you never know what may happen, and it is best to be prepared. Here, for instance, is a light catapulta, not designed, like the boys' catapult that has taken over its name, for throwing stones, but a kind of giant crossbow, for shooting heavy arrows. It will fling, to a distance of four hundred yards or so, a thick arrow four and a half feet long, that will smash through half a dozen men in rank behind one another.

There are no ballistas in the camp, but the ballista works on exactly the same principle as the catapulta, only it fires big stones, fifty-three pounds in weight sometimes, and it lies back on its frame like a modern howitzer, to get high-angle fire, and heave its missiles over the walls upon the garrison within. Here, however, is the next thing to a ballista—a machine which carries a big sling, with a heavy stone in it, at the end of a long wooden arm that turns on an axle, and is weighted heavily at the other end. You wind back the long arm, as far as it will go, by a windlass, and pin it by a bolt. Then suddenly you draw the bolt, and the long arm flies up till it is checked by a thick leather pad on the frame of the machine. The sudden check sends the stone from the sling whirling away with all the force of the swing of the long arm. The recoil of this instrument is terrific, and the legionaries, who have their own grim jests among themselves, call it the "Onager," the "Wild Ass," because it kicks so hard.

And now, what is this thing coming along on a little travelling carriage drawn by two mules, and attended to by a couple of soldiers? Can it be a galloping maxim? Not exactly that, but the nearest thing the Romans possessed to such a gun. It is a galloping catapult, a light weapon which can be run about from point to point either for attack or for defence, as the case may be—a very useful and workmanlike little tool, which any two legionaries from the ranks can handle. Its arrows, of course, are not so heavy as those of its big brother, nor is its range so great; but, on the other hand, it can be worked much more quickly, and might almost be looked upon as a quick-firer.

Altogether, you see, the Roman army is a wonderfully efficient organization, though I have only given you the merest glance at a few of the details of its equipment. The Romans went upon the principle of leaving nothing to chance if they could help it. They never camped, not even for a single night, without throwing up a fortified camp that would stand anything short of a regular siege, and everything else was attended to in the same solid, methodical way. Tools, weapons, everything that the soldiers used, might be plain and unpretentious indeed, but were all of the best and strongest. And it was this thoroughness of preparation, joined to the stubborn bravery of the Roman private, that so often turned the scale when the legions were engaged against heavy odds.

But meanwhile Marius has finished his inspection, and the troops are coming back to camp; so we must wish them a good night's rest before the battle, and good luck when they measure the short gladius to-morrow against the long claymores of the Cimbri.