Vegetius asserts in his Epitome of Military Science that part of the Roman Empire’s strength lay in its legions (31). He writes “proof of this [strength] is the great size of the Roman State, which always fought with legions and conquered as many enemies as either it wished or the nature of the world permitted” (Vegetius 32). This idea is echoed by Josephus who writes that anyone who notices “their military discipline…will be forced to confess that their obtaining so large a dominion hath been the acquisition of their valor, and not the bare gift of fortune”.
Overall, both seem to conclude that Rome’s status in history as a leading empire is connected to the Roman legions. If their statements are to be believed, it leads to the question of what gave these legions such an advantage in the field. This section will investigate the claim Vegetius makes in his Epitome of Military Science that an legion’s strength lies in its “careful selection of recruits, instruction in the rules, so to speak, of war, toughening in daily exercises [and] prior acquaintance in-field practice with all possible eventualities in war and battle” (3). This section will investigate the types of recruitment, weaponry, and overall training implemented in the Roman legions.
However, due to the broad time period in which the Roman legions operated, it is crucial for the sake of clarity to narrow this study down to a smaller range of time. The time period of 1-150 CE was picked because it was a period where imperial power was increasing. I have always understood it to be a time period where the power shifted from the senate more firmly into the hands of the emperors. This shift in power has always interested me, and I was curious as to how it might have impacted the legions.
Overall, this particular section will focus on the recruitment, training, and weaponry associated with the Roman legions during the early Imperial time period of 1-150 CE. As G.R. Watson writes in his book The Roman Soldier, information regarding this topic largely originates from three main types of evidence (25). First is the literary evidence such as “works specifically written on military institutions, legal codes….and general histories” (Watson 26). Second is the epigraphical evidence of which Watson mentions two primary types related to the legionaries: “tombstones and so called diplomata militaria” such as Trajan’s column (28). Third and final is papyrological evidence which consisted of preserved parchment and papyri (Watson 29). This section will use all three types of evidence during its study.
Vegetius asserts that the Roman Empire’s strength depended upon “the initial examination of the levy”, the recruitment process in other words (Epitome of Military Science 8). Most of the original recruits were Italian, but Watson writes that, based upon what he gained from studying Tacitus’s work, by 23 CE “the legions were distributed mainly along or near the frontiers”, information (13-14). Lawrence Keppie observes how this positioning of the legions affected their recruitment. Though legionaries were originally recruited from Rome, “the need to leave troops in distant provinces for long periods” combined with the civil war of BC changed this (Keppie 89). Keppie writes that the earlier recruitment of the legions was done “in anticipation of fresh conquests, and new areas to be garrisoned”, and these past recruits typically hailed from Italy (99). However, based upon the work of other scholars, Keppie notes that there seems to have been a decrease in Italian volunteers (98). An example of this can be seen in Keppie’s reference to Tacitus.
“In AD 23 Tiberius announced before the Senate that he would make a visit to the provinces, a visit prompted by the need to release legionary veterans whose stipendia were complete, and to replace them with recruits, to be obtained by means of formal levies. Volunteers within Italy had been coming forward in insufficient numbers, he said, and in any case were of unacceptably low quality: the old courage and military discipline were lacking” (Keppie 94).
Overall, Keppie concludes that due to a lack of Italian volunteers the legions began recruiting more and more from the provinces where they were posted (97). Adrian Goldsworthy agrees, arguing that the many of the legions would have recruited people from nearby areas (80). Furthermore, this idea of legionary recruits being drawn from the provinces is, according to Keppie, “in itself no longer a novelty for scholars” (Keppie 96). Keppie believes it became a necessity because of the Empire’s sheer size and diversity (Keppie 101).
This enlistment process included the probatio or interview (Goldworthy 78). Its initial concern was to ensure that the applicant was a Roman citizen (Watson 38-39). Philip Matyszak notes that the interviewers also would have been interested in the recruit’s letter of recommendation, preferably written by a veteran soldier (11). There was also a medical examination as shown by a papyrus dating from 52 CE that records a man’s discharge due to the fact that cataracts hindered his eyesight (Goldworthy 78-79). Goldworthy writes that this is not a strict example because it is uncertain if it was the army he was being discharged from, but he asserts that it is likely that the military would have operated in a similar fashion (79). Sometime after successfully passing their probatio, the new recruit would have been sent to training (Goldworthy 80).
Training: Exercises, Weaponry, & Application
The training of a legionary was diverse. According to S.E. Stout, the training would include learning to run, jump, climb and swim (427). Indeed, Vegetius ecstatically urges soldiers to become accustomed “to executing jumps and blow at the same time, rushing at the shield with a leap and crouching down again, now eagerly darting forward with a bound, now giving ground jumping back” (57-58). In addition, they would have been trained to use their weapons. Philip Matyszak makes the humorous observation in his book Legionary: The Roman Soldier’s Unofficial Manual that each stage of training is “arranged so that just as a trainee believes he has just got past the worst, his instructors raise the bar to a whole new level” (70). Indeed, Watson also notes that some aspects of the initial training were carried out in stages. Exercises such as marching “were practiced first without arms and equipment” (Watson 55). Meanwhile the recruit would become familiar with employing their weapons (Watson 55). When the recruit was deemed satisfactorily proficient, the earlier exercises would then be repeated with the addition of weaponry, effectively combining the two (Watson 55).
The legionaries carried a wide range of armor and weaponry. This information about the types of weapons that the legions used is based upon epigraphical sources like Trajan’s column.There is other epigraphical evidence available that reveals some of the nuances of legionary equipment like “1st century tombstones” where “legionaries carry the pilum and curved body shield” (Bishop & Coulston 255). This confirmation from multiple sources adds credibility to the association between this weaponry and the legions. This section will briefly focus on only a few of the pieces that were associated with the legionaries namely the type of the pilum, shield, and armor and how they would have been implemented during training.
Matyszak makes the interesting comparison between legionary training with weapons and gladiator training with weapons (70-71). Goldsworthy also made the connection between the two (81). Recruits often practiced using weapons against a wooden post with weapons that were heavier than the real versions (Matyszak 71). This cumbersome extra weight was intended to strengthen the recruit’s arm (Watson 58). This idea of extra weight was extended to practice pila and practice shields.
Pilum (plural: pila)
The pilum was “a short range, armor-piercing shock weapon” which would have been thrown at the enemy before the two lines meet in close combat on the battlefield (Bishop & Coulston 257). The weapon is comprised of a wood base with an attached iron shaft ending in a “tiny triangular tip” (Matyszak 65). An example can be seen in the image to the right.
Matyszak asserts that this was a tool designed for a specific purpose and was built “to be used once per battle” (65). If thrown correctly, it proves to be a deadly weapon which could be problematic for the enemy considering legionary units were trained to “throw their pila in perfect synchronization” resulting in a shower of impaling objects (Matyszak 66). The art of throwing this weapon at a target would have been practiced during the training phase (Goldworthy 81). The pilum the legions used in the field was heavy in its own right due to its design (Matyszak 65). The distinct training pilum was heavier but with the small mercy of a soft leather end made to cushion blows (Goldworthy 81). Training with this weapon was divided into throwing and receiving the pilum (Matyszak 71).
Vegetius makes the interesting assertion that the shields were painted with signs associated with specific cohorts in an attempt to avoid confusion on the battlefield (Vegetius 50). He also makes the practical suggestion of inscribing the soldier’s name and cohort on the shield (Vegetius 50). The particular shield used by the legions was rectangular and curved (Bishop & Coulston 92). The shields consist of “three layers of wood” (Matyszak 60) which needed regular waxing in order to maintain the quality of the wood and the painted colors (Matyszak 61). Practicing with a shield was usually done alongside the sword during combat with the post (Matyszak 71). Like the pila, the practice shield was usually heavier than the version that would be implemented in battle (Matyszak 71).
Body Armor: The ‘Lorica Segmentata’
The ‘Lorica segmentata’ was the legion’s primary wear (Bishop & Coulston 259). It was made of snug “iron bands mounted on a leather frame” (Matyszak 56). Its production cost less than the production of chain mail and it had the further advantage of being more resilient and weighing less (Matyszak 56). The lorica segmentata also had the advantage of absorbing “the force of the blow” (Bishop & Coulston 98). However, Matyszak notes that a scarf should be worn with the lorica segmentata because during long marches “the heavy chest band [grinded] into the top of the sternum” which could prove to be hazardous to the wearer’s skin (Matyszak 58). The recruits would have had to learn to maneuver with this on (Goldworthy 80-81). They are expected to be able to climb ladders leaping over the vaulting horse (Matyszak 72) Marches, drills, and mock battles would have been done in full armor (Goldworthy 80-81).
Training for the Battlefield
Now, it was crucial that the recruit learn how to apply these new skills and how to conduct themselves on the battlefield. The tactical organizing and maneuvering of the men on the field was naturally one of the greatest advantages in the warfare of this time (Stout 423). As a result, the typical recruit’s training included being trained to conduct themselves properly so they were prepared for the battlefield (Stout 427).
“Each recruit learns his place in the formation, what to do if he ends up in the wrong place, how to change formation from a line to a wedge, or (Jupiter forbid!) if the line is broken, how to fall into a defensive circle, or fall back through lines of relieving troops without disordering them. Then the unit learns how to do all of the above while moving forwards, backwards or sideways at high speed over broken terrain” (Matyszak 72).
A similar statement is made by Vegetius who urges the use of mock-battles in order to teach soldiers to “learn how to keep ranks and follow their ensign through” complex maneuvers (57). The hope is that this practice will familiarize the soldiers with the strategy required on the battlefield and reduce the risk of confusion when the time comes (Vegetius 57).
All in all, by 150 CE the recruitment process had evolved so that the legions would likely have drawn on their provincial areas for soldiers. This recruitment process was intent on selecting physically capable men who would then be rigorously trained. It might seem strange to make the jump between this detailed training and the Roman legions’ success. However, Vegetius writes that “recruits and novice soldiers were trained morning and afternoon in all types of arms, but veterans and trained soldiers also exercise with their arms once a day” indicating that training was not just a phase of a legionary’s life but a constant (57). Indeed, Josephus attributes this daily training to contributing to the Roman soldier’s stamina writing that it was “why they bear the fatigue of battles so easily”. Adrian Goldworthy wrote that the commanders were required “to keep their units well drilled and prepared for actual war” (Goldsworthy 81). It seems that this strenuous and meticulous training gave the Romans the advantage by adequately preparing soldiers for war. As Matyszak asserts, a well-trained army places “the odds comfortably on your side” (74).
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