The Ingenuity of the Roman Style of Combat

Ingenuity is not one of the first words that come to mind when considering the Romans. Stolid and practical, they were far more adept at applying and perfecting the lessons of their own experience and those taken from other civilizations. Their experience was extensive, however, and the civilizations from which they drew further knowledge nearly encompassed the known world. Military accomplishment was highly prized by the Romans, and much effort was expended to perfect their martial skills. These facts, aided by occasional visionaries like Gaius Marius and Julius Caesar, helped to make the Roman system the most flexible, resilient and powerful military establishment in the world from the death of Hannibal to the age of Attila.

The reasons for this military greatness range from the soundness of long-term strategic planning to the endurance of the individual legionary. The core of Roman strength lay in its legions, however, and it is here that Roman ingenuity can most readily be grasped.

Hand-to-hand combat

Originally, the Romans emulated the phalanx system of the Hellenistic world. It was a fairly static system based on the use of three weapons: the spear, the shield, and the sword. The spear was the primary weapon of the phalangite, but the shield was more than just a tool of personal defense. As the phalanx fought in close order, it served to aid in the protection of one’s neighbor to the left, and in the front line, it became a true weapon when the opposing forces closed in to a crushing brawl. The sword was mainly a weapon of last resort.

The Roman legion used variants of the same weapons, but radically changed their priority. The primary weapon of the legionary was his short sword, the gladius, used mainly in rapid stabbing motions designed to get around shields. The shield, or scutum, was large enough for active personal defense, but could also be used as a secondary form of attack. His tertiary weapon was the pilum, a heavy javelin that took the place of the phalangite spear.

Generally, the Romans let fly their pila when the opponent was nearing direct contact, freeing the legionary’s hand to wield his gladius. Ideally, the hail of javelins might kill or injure numerous enemies in a given formation, but the slow speed of the javelin and the general availability of shields reduced this to a chance event. The real value of the pilum was not in bypassing the shield, but in rendering it useless for the ensuing melee. Unlike most spears, the pilum had a short wooden shaft and a very long, tapered metal fitting. The pilum was heavy enough to penetrate the shield, and the metal portion of its shaft was soft enough to bend with the impact. Extracting a bent pilum from a shield was too time-consuming to be practical at that phase of the combat; the most rational thing for the opponent to do would be to discard the shield. Needless to say, he was already beginning his fight at a disadvantage.

When the legionary met his opponent’s line, he had his sword in hand and his shield was ready for an active defense. It was larger than a phalangite shield, and curved around the body in a way that deflected glancing blows. The legion fought in open order, in contrast to the phalanx, so the shield only served to protect its user under most circumstances, but that also freed it up to be used for a heavy blow when the opponent was trying to fend off a stab with the sword. At this phase of the battle, the legionary had a definite advantage over the spearman and the user of long, slashing swords alike.

The use of open order carried with it certain risks, but also fine opportunities. Open order prevented the overlapping defense of the phalanx, and it required far more discipline to prevent breakthroughs and rout, but the Romans did a fine job of instilling discipline. This discipline, combined with open order, made possible the use of a tactic that might be likened to an assembly line in manufacturing. The soldier at the front of the line would fight for a certain amount of time, and then, if he were still alive, he could disengage, retreating to the rear of his line while the man behind him stepped forward to take his place. He would, therefore, be somewhat rested before it fell to him to fight again. In a lengthy battle, exhaustion would eventually set in anyway, but the Romans would still be far more fit for battle on average than their opponents who received no such respite.

While the core of the Roman system lay in the strength of its legions, the Romans did not neglect the use of other kinds of units, such as cavalry or archers. Instead, they took advantage of the growing diversity of the Roman Empire to supplement their solid infantrymen with the specialist forces offered by each subject people, from the horsemen of Spain and Numidia to the archers of Gaul. In doing so, they saw to it that each soldier played to his strength and required a minimum of additional training. Until Roman forces began to stretch too thinly by the fourth century, this provided the Roman army with all of the flexibility it needed.

Offensive Operations

Years of experience in the pacification of Italy and the defeat of Carthage gave the Romans an excellent grasp of logistics by the reforms of Marius. Each legionary was capable of carrying all that he would need for the next few days on his back and still maintaining an average marching speed of four and a half miles per hour. At the end of the day, each legionary helped in setting up the camp, and the wide dispersal of engineering skills meant that even a hasty camp had the defensive value of a lesser fort.

The legions did not merely build walls, however. Perhaps more importantly in the long run, they also built roads. The construction of the road sped up future communications and deployment. If the Romans chose to hold on to the land they won in this given action, the existence of the roads enabled the rapid reinforcement of the border in the event of an enemy counterattack. Sometimes, however, the action was merely a punitive strike or a demonstration of power to a new neighbor. In these situations, the road remained behind, silently reminding this neighbor of the speed with which overwhelming Roman strength might descend upon its territory.

The threat posed by the legion was often enough. Between the fall of Carthage and the barbarian invasions that began with the arrival of the Huns, no force could take on the legions in open battle and win; the only strategy that worked was that of fast attacks on weak points, such as the fighting style of Parthian horse archers. For these threats, the Romans preferred to employ their specialist auxiliaries. Indeed, the gravest threat faced by the legions was the circumstance of the Civil Wars, in which legions fought other legions trained and equipped in the same manner.

It is also worth observing that during the late Republic and early Empire, the Romans enjoyed a far greater skill in the techniques of siege warfare than most of their enemies. The Romans were able to force cities and fortifications, as at Jerusalem and Masada, where many of their enemies could only employ a lengthy siege and hope to starve the opponent out.

Defensive Operations

In general, the Romans preferred to defend themselves through the judicious use of offensive actions. At the same time, however, they were also adept at making use of the advantages of the defender in advancing an offensive campaign. Nothing shows this better than the conduct of Julius Caesar at the battle of Alesia.

Caesar had managed to lay siege to Vercingetorix, the leader of the Gaulish forces, at Alesia. His approach was to starve out the Gauls within, while the Gauls held out hope that relief forces could open up a route for fresh supplies. Caesar’s siegeworks were unusually extensive: he had two complete wall systems, one between his men and the town, and one between his men and the outer countryside. In this way, he managed to prevent a breakout by Vercingetorix and a relief effort by allied Gaulish forces. It was a splendid example of the principle that one can dig in in order to carry the fight to the enemy.

In summary, Roman organization, equipment, logistics and training combined to offer Roman commanders all they needed to prevail against nearly all foes for more than five centuries. The Roman military was proud of its traditions, and change was usually gradual, but for the most part, the system already contained all the ingenuity it needed to win.


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