THE PRE IMPERIAL ROMAN ARMY by J.
This is a very brief account of the early development of the Roman Army,
from its formation to its adoption by Augustus as an instrument of the
Roman State. It is by no means exhaustive, and is intended merely
as an introduction for those who have not yet studied this early period,
and perhaps as an encouragement to do just that.
During the early centuries, the army of Rome was heavily
influenced by the Etruscan Army, which in turn had learned and borrowed
much from the Greek City States of Italy. The weapons and equipment
were predominantly of Greek type and origin, and most battles were fought
on foot, using the well tried and tested Greek 'phalanx'.
Recruitment was strictly based on citizenship and wealth.
The assumption being that only a man with property to lose could be
expected to defend it effectively, not to mention arming and equipping
himself at his own expense. These citizens were in turn classified
by their wealth into 5 classes of soldier. The wealthiest class
formed the basis of the Legion, armed and equipped in the manner of
a Greek hoplite. The remaining four classes made up the rest of
the army in descending order of quality of arms and armour. Officers
were selected from leading citizens, and enrolled into the Order of
Knights, or Equites. Again at their own expense, but they
were provided with a horse from the public purse. At this stage,
the army was very much a defensive formation, called up as and when
In about 390BC, a massive Celtic invasion of Italy resulted
in the sack and burning of Rome. The Roman Army proved totally
unable to defend its city, and was easily swept aside. After the
Celts departed with their spoils, it was obvious that a serious reorganisation
was essential to prevent any such disaster in the future.
After some experimentation and evolution the Legion
emerged as a battle formation of three individual but flexible and interactive
lines of soldiers. Individually these were known as the Hastati,
the Principes, and the Triarii.. The Hastati of the
front line were the pick of the army. Young men, well trained
and well armed with sword, javelin and large shield or scutum.
The Principes behind them were older men, selected for their
experience and maturity. Possibly the best equipped, they were
armed and armoured similarly to the Hastati.
so friendly hastatus
so hasty hastatus
During the 1st century BC, Roman influence was
to expand rapidly, initially eastwards, and finally culminating in Caesar's
Gallic conquests. Naturally, this new 'empire' would demand
more and more troops to maintain it, and to enable further expansion.
Ironically, fresh levies of troops became available as a result of the
extremely bloody 'Social' wars between Rome and the disenchanted
Italian tribes. Though Rome prevailed, the result was a general
extension of Roman citizenship to the other tribes. These new
citizens became instantly eligible to serve in the Legions, and not
just as 'Allied' irregulars or auxiliaries.
However, there being no funds to establish these new
legions, it fell upon wealthy citizens to provide the necessaries.
This resulted in many 'private' armies, dependent on their founder
and not on the Roman State. The Dictator Sulla, is reputed to
have been the first to instigate an oath of loyalty to himself by his
soldiers. Perhaps for this reason the 1st. century BC produced
some remarkable military figures. Marius, Sulla, Pompey and Caesar,
to name but the most famous. Their personal ambitions inevitably
led to conflict, and the resulting civil wars occupied much of this
century. But the empire continued to expand as one or other of
them pursued their ambitions overseas.
During this turbulent period, further fundamental
changes occurred in the army. Most of these have been attributed
to the great soldier and statesman, Gaius Marius, although many of these
may already have been gradually evolving. What is undisputed is
that Marius opened up his legions to the very lowest citizen class.
Without property and wealth, these slum dwellers had always been excluded
from a military career. As civil and other wars took their toll,
Marius recruited the 'sweepings of the gutters of Rome'.
He armed and equipped them at his own expense, and provided them with
a thorough military training. Though derided by most of Roman society,
Marius nevertheless had set a precedent, and thus established the very
first professional army. Totally loyal to himself, of course.
The composition of the army also experienced another
thorough revision during this period. The weapons and equipment
of the legionary soldier were standardised, and the old distinctions
between Hastati, Principes and Triarii were abolished.
All legionary soldiers became the same, and were trained in a more flexible
way of fighting. The main tactical formation became the Cohort,
consisting of 6 Centuries of 80 men. There were 10 Cohorts to
each Legion, giving a nominal strength of 4800 soldiers. The Legion
became the focus of a soldiers' loyalty, under the sacred Eagle
standard, also reputedly established by Marius.
After the battle of Actium, the victorious Octavian
seized control of all Roman forces. He disbanded all surplus legions,
retaining about 28, which he considered adequate for the defence of
the Empire. Under the title of Augustus, he received a personal
oath of loyalty from every unit of the Roman Army, thus ending a long
period of strife and bloodshed.
Juris Trede, 1998