The Army of the Principate, a
brief guide. Suavis(Mark Olejnik)
To most people, this is the 'classic'
era of the Roman army, when legionaries equipped with
the famous lorica segmentata used javelin and short sword
to subdue the barbarians and bring the Pax Romana to the
known world. These were tough, well trained, superbly equipped and
disciplined soldiers who collectively constituted the most formidable
fighting machine that the Ancient World had ever seen. Nor is this
popular view far removed from the truth.
- The Achievements of the Divine Augustus.
It was the first Emperor of the Roman world,
Augustus (-AD14) who transformed the politically divisive and somewhat
ad hoc military forces of the Republic into a fully professional
army with a consistent policy towards the security of the Empire.
However much he may have tried to hide the fact
from an adoring public, Augustus was never under any illusions as
to the military basis of his authority, making very sure that the
first and only loyalty of Rome's troops was to him alone and, through
him, to the Roman state. It was Augustus who made sure that they
were paid regularly ( three times a year at this time), generally
out of his own resources, it was Augustus who organised their retirement
handouts of cash or land, and it was to Augustus that the troops
swore their oaths of allegiance every January 1st. The
Republic had failed to do any of these essential tasks and had paid
the ultimate price for its neglect of the military
Equally, it was Augustus who regularised their
length of service, appointed all military commanders and organised
the campaigns (though seldom in person) which brought them glory,
booty and popular acclaim as the conquerors of more territory than
at any other time in the history of the Roman state. It need not
surprise us that they were devoted to Augustus and his family; indeed,
the first Emperor did his job so well that the army remained conspicuously
loyal to any Emperor who possessed the Julian name, even 'difficult'
ones like Caligula and Nero.
Indeed, for most of the first two centuries of Roman rule the army,
with the possible exception of the Praetorian guard, seemed to have
abandoned its political pretensions, though it was a foolish princeps
who did not pay close attention to his soldiers' welfare.
Augustus actually inherited some 60 legions
after the battle of Actium (31BC ) but soon reduced this to 28 (c.150,000men)
in the interests of political security and his bank balance, ensuring
that they were carefully distributed throughout the Roman world
in accordance with military imperatives and his own political security-
too many legions in one place might tempt unscrupulous governors
to emulate his rise to power.
The main concentrations were on the Rhine (8 legions), the Danube
(7 legions) and Syria (4 Legions), though
Egypt, Africa and Spain also possessed permanent legionary garrisons.
Of course, the Roman army was not simply comprised
of citizen heavy infantry - other troops were vital to perform those
tasks that disdainful legionaries would not countenance, such as
providing cavalry, or firing arrows or scouting and it was again
Augustus who created a new professional force, the auxilia
(literally 'help troops') out of the irregular units of allies who
had helped Rome conquer most of her Empire in Republican times.
These auxiliaries also numbered over 150,000
men in total, organised into units 500 or, less frequently,
1,000 strong, and were raised from the non-citizen inhabitants of
the provinces and newly conquered lands. With their keen fighting
edge and specialised weapons and tactics, they soon became an indispensable
part of the Roman army, generally going into battle first, and sometimes
showing themselves capable of winning significant victories
without involving the legions at all.
Although total numbers of legions varied in this
period, there were few changes in structure. At this time each legion
comprised approximately 5,000 fighting men, all of whom were Roman
citizens, organised into 10 Cohorts of c.480 men each. These
cohorts were themselves subdivided into centuries which, despite
their name, by this period contained only 80 men. The smallest subdivision
was the contubernium, the Roman equivalent of a modern section,
which consisted of 8 legionaries who shared a tent whilst on campaign
and a pair of barrack rooms in their legionary fortress. Each legion
also possessed a small number of cavalrymen (about 120) to act a scouts
- Legionary organisation - citizen troops
This represented the fighting strength
of the legion and it is possible that on paper the legions
may actually have been 6,000 strong, with the numbers being made up
by men on secondment, working at headquarters, providing the governor
with intelligence officers or administrative staff or performing
other related functions. If these men are taken into consideration,
then it is possible that for administrative purposes, the century
was composed of 100 men - 80 front line soldiers and 20 who were on
permanent or semi-permanent detachment from their parent legion.
To make matters more difficult for the historian, at some time during
the first century, the tactical utility of the First Cohort was enhanced
by increasing it in size to 800 men, arranged as five double centuries.
This change is often associated with the Flavians and can be archaeologically
attested through the remains of fortress accommodation, but its exact
date is unknown.
The commander of a legion in our period was
invariably a Senator of some standing - a man who had already had
a varied military and administrative career, and who had probably
reached the rank of praetor at Rome. His official title
was legatus legionis because, while theoretically the Emperor
held all military power, in practice he delegated
it to trusted Senators. Such legionary legates were, on the whole,
tough, experienced and highly competent officers, though there
were some notable exceptions, and all must, at some time, have served
as junior officers or tribuni.
These young tribunes were known as
tribuni ticlavii -'broad stripe men' ( after the broad purple
band found on the Senatorial toga) doing a short stint as part of
the Senatorial career structure and acting as staff officers and
aides-de-camp to the legate. More useful, however, were the tribuni
angusticlavii , the 'narrow stripe men' of Equestrian rank.,
professional soldiers who had made the army their career and who
could be expected to know their business somewhat better.
Undoubtedly the most important officers in the legion, however,
were the centurions of which there were 60, one to each century,
tough, seasoned soldiers who were generally promoted from the ranks
and whose quality was assured by the fierce competition which existed,
first to enter the centurionate and then to gain promotion through
the various centurial grades to the exalted rank of Chief Centurion
or Primus Pilus.
Centurions were distinguished by their equipment, ( including
a vitis or vine staff used to beat recalcitrant legionaries),
their more spacious barrack room accommodation, their relatively
high levels of pay and their privileges which included taking bribes
to exempt soldiers from unpleasant duties. The downside of life
as a centurion was that he was expected to lead his men from
the front, so presumably casualties in battle must have been
disproportionately high amongst this particular rank.
N.C.O's within the century included the
Signifer who bore the signum or standard of the century,
(which was, of course, the embodiment of the honour and spirit
of the unit) and who also acted as its banker; the< Optio,
so called because he had been chosen by the centurion with a view
to promotion tothecenturionate himself; and the Tesserarius
who was in charge of passing on the watchword.of the day. Other
NCO's were to be found at legionary headquarters dealing with the
vast amount of paperwork generated by this highly bureaucratic army.
The majority of soldiers were, of course, ordinary footslogging
milites, although even these had gradations, with soldiers
who had earned exemption from unpleasant duties being known as immmunes
and those who had served their time gaining the status of veteranus
along with appropriate privileges.
The citizens of Rome provided excellent heavy infantry,
but did not easily adapt to other modes of fighting. For this, they relied
on non-citizens recruited from the newly won provinces whose national mode
of fighting and raw, aggressive edge provided varied and valuable assistance
first in conquering, and then in preserving Rome's Empire. Cavalry, slingers,
mountain warfare troops, bargemen, archers - Rome relied heavily on all
- Auxiliary organisation - non citizen troops.
It was Augustus who reorganised the ramshackle allied
units of the Republic and gave them regular status, conditions of service,
pay and discharge. From his time the auxilia became a permanent and
professional part of the military establishment, serving for 25 years and
receiving Roman citizenship and a diploma to prove it . Their pay and equipment
may have been inferior to those of the legions, but they offered a good
career to many a semi-barbarian provincial and the lure of citizenship with
is many benefits often proved irresistible. In this way Rome not only gained
specialised troops, but also an excellent means of developing Romanitas
in the far flung provinces of the Empire.
Initially, units were often raised from local tribesmen
who were allowed to serve under their tribal leaders, but a number of problems
caused by collusion with the local populace in time of crisis meant that
from mid-first century they were not permitted to serve in their own areas
and were always officered by Romans. To start with, wherever they were serving,
numbers were maintained by regular recruitment in their original home areas,
though this practice seems generally to have lapsed and been replaced by
local recruitment by the mid-second century. Peculiarities of weaponry could,
Most auxiliary units were 500 strong (at least on paper) ,though towards
the end of the first century we do encounter milliary units, 1000 strong.
There were three basic types of auxiliary unit :
- Alae (literally 'wings'),
crack, high status cavalry regiments, commanded by a Praefectus
and divided into squadrons known as turmae, some 30 or 40 strong
- Cohortes Peditatae , units of footsoldiers,
divided into 6 centuries of 80 men each, also commanded by a praefectus.
The legionary cohort is the obvious model.
- Cohortes Equitatae these
are part-mounted units , often regarded as low status, but their flexible
combination of 380 infantry and 120 cavalry made them ideal for frontier
duties in areas such as Northern Britain.
As the first century progressed command of an auxiliary
unit was incorporated into the normal career structure of the Equestrian
class, with professional soldiers first commanding an auxiliary cohort,
transferring to the legions for a few years as a military tribune, commanding
an ala and then possibly moving on into civilian administration as a procurator.
There are also examples of legionary centurions transferring over to the
auxiliaries as away of furthering their careers.
One of the problems inherent in the very success of
the auxilia as an organ of Romanisation was that as provincials became
more civilised, so their warlike qualities became somewhat blunted. and
during the second century we find Rome recruiting irregular units from
amongst the barbarians across the frontier, the so-called numeri
and cunei, literally 'wedges' and 'units', with a view to utilising
their warlike qualities against fellow barbarians . This was a policy
that would develop considerably as recruitment within the Empire became
Useful Books :
Brian Campbell : The Roman Army- A Sourcebook
Peter Connolly : The Roman Army
Peter Connolly : Greece and Rome at War
John Warry : Warfare in the Classical
Graham Webster The Roman Imperial Army
Copyright M. Olejnik 1998