History Podcasts

The Roman Army: The Force That Built an Empire

The Roman Army: The Force That Built an Empire

Rome was almost a city built around an army. In the legend of the city’s founding father Romulus, one of his first acts is the creation of regiments called legions.

Romans weren’t any braver than their foes, and while their equipment was good, much of it was adapted from their enemies. If their military had one decisive edge it was its discipline, built on a rigid structure that meant every man knew his place and his duty, even in the chaos of hand-to-hand fighting.

Dan has his regular catch-up with Simon Elliott on all things Roman. Why were the legionaries so successful, and how did they maintain that success for several centuries?

Listen Now

The origins of the Imperial Army

The foundations of the Imperial Army of 100 AD were laid by the first emperor, Augustus (ruled 30 BC – 14 AD).

He first reduced the army from its unsustainable civil war high of 50 legions to around 25.

Augustus wanted professional soldiers, not the armed civilians of the Republican era. Volunteers replaced conscripts, but with longer terms of service. To serve in a legion a man still had to be a Roman citizen.

He also reformed the chain of command, introducing the rank of legatus, a single, long-term commander for each legion. The traditional aristocratic commanders were reduced in status, and a praefectur castrorum (prefect of the camp) was appointed to oversee logistics.

An army of citizens and subjects

When the Roman legions marched, these elite citizen units were usually accompanied by an equal number of auxilia, as subject rather than citizen soldiers were called. The 25-year auxilia term was a route into citizenship that could be shortened by conspicuous bravery.

Auxilia were organised into cohorts of 500 men in infantry, cavalry and mixed formations. The men usually came from the same region or tribe, and for a while may have carried their own weapons. They were paid far less than the legionaries and less attention was paid to their organisation.

The anatomy of a legion

Credit: Luc Viatour / Commons.

Many of the Marian Reforms of Gaius Marius in the 2nd century BC remained in place until the third century AD, including the legion structure defined by the man who saved Rome from invading German tribes.

A legion consisted of around 5,200 fighting men, sub-divided into a succession of smaller units.

Eight legionaries formed a contuberium, led by a decanus. They shared a tent, mule, grinding stone and cooking pot.

Ten of these units formed a centuria, led by a centurion and his chosen second-in-command, an optio.

Six centuria made up a cohort and the most senior centurion led the unit.

A first cohort was made up of five double-sized centuria. The most senior centurion in the legion led the unit as Primus Pilus. This was the legion’s elite unit.

Centuria or groups of them could be detached for a special purpose, when they became a vexillatio with their own commanding office.

By horse and by sea

Neil Oliver visits the Wall - a massive statement of the power of the Roman Empire. Neil looks at recent discoveries which uncover the lives of the people who built and lived along the wall.

Watch Now

The Roman army of 100 AD was primarily an infantry force.

Officers would have ridden, and Augustus probably established a 120-strong mounted force with each legion, largely used for reconnaissance. Cavalry fighting was largely left to auxilia, whose mounted troops may have been paid more than standard legionaries, according to Arrian (86 – 160 AD), a soldier and writer.

No natural sea farers, the Romans were pushed into naval warfare, becoming proficient out of necessity and often with stolen ships.

Augustus considered the 700-ship navy he inherited from the civil wars his private property and sent slaves and freedmen to pull its oars and raise its sails. Further squadrons of ships were formed as the Empire expanded overseas and along great rivers like the Danube. Rome also relied on grain imported from Africa and needed to keep the Mediterranean free for trade.

Commanding a fleet as a praefecti was only open to Roman equestrians (one of the three ranks of the Roman nobility). Beneath them were navarchs in charge of squadrons of (probably) 10 ships, each captained by a trierarch. The ship’s crew were also led by a centurion and optio team – the Romans never really thought of their ships as more than floating platforms for infantry.


The Roman Empire Achieved Its Conquests Through Brutality and Death

Key Point: Glory is built on horror.

“Augustus found Rome brick and left it marble” is an expression pegged to the first of the Roman emperors. And indeed Rome flourished around the time of Christ, erecting magnificent arches and columns, palaces and public buildings, temples and baths, coliseums and aqueducts. The world had never seen such a place.

Rome was a winner. It was the rest of the Mediterranean world that paid the price. The minerals of Spain and the farms of Sicily and North Africa produced the wealth that found its way into the grand architecture of the Italian city.

Conquest Always the Goal

Mainly, what is recalled of Rome is this contribution of astonishing construction, along with its administration of a vast empire. Less remembered is how it got there: Brutally.

To rise to the level of masters of the Mediterranean the Romans wielded their legions with astonishing ruthlessness. Conquest was the goal, and never mind the means. By about 150 bc, Rome had twice humbled Carthage in the first two Punic Wars.

Carthage was then attacked by Masinissa of nearby Numidia and, disobeying the treaty that ended the Second Punic War, Carthage warred back. Rome, troubled by the economic rebound of its rival during the peace following the Second Punic War in 202 bc, and lustful of North African fields to be tilled by new slaves, declared war on Carthage.

Ships, Arms, and 300 Children

By this time Rome controlled Spain, Sicily, Sardinia, and the sea lanes, which gave it the upper hand in any contest. Blocked from the interior by Masinissa and from the sea by Roman fleets, Carthage understood this, too. So when Rome promised Carthage that if it sent 300 children of its noblest families to Rome as hostages, the African city’s freedom would be assured, Carthage complied, to the great lamentation of its first families.

Then Rome demanded that Carthage surrender its ships, arms, and weapons of war, again that the city might save itself. This the Carthaginians also did, leaving themselves defenseless. But to the Romans this was all a ruse. They sent a fleet and army to the vicinity and demanded that the Carthaginians evacuate their city to a spot 10 miles away, the city itself to be leveled.

Here the Carthaginians balked. They decided to fight and to defend their city. They melted down statues of their gods to make new swords and demolished public buildings to construct catapults. The women cut their hair in order to make ropes. For three years the Carthaginians held out against the Roman siege. Starvation killed off most of the estimated quarter- or half-million inhabitants.

The Death of Carthage

Roman legions finally won a toehold in the city proper, but the Carthaginians fought tenaciously street by street. The Romans torched any city block within reach to rout out individual defenders.

Most Carthaginians chose death rather than capitulate to the Romans. The Queen threw her sons and herself into the flames. Ultimately, the remaining 50,000 Carthaginians surrendered. The Romans sold them into slavery. Then the Senate in Rome instructed the local commander to destroy the city and to sow its soil with salt. Indeed, the city burned for 17 days until nothing was left. The Carthaginian race and glory was erased.

Its Horrors And Its Glories

In his eulogy of Neville Chamberlain in November 1940, Winston Churchill said, “History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes.…” Indeed, the history each person knows is imperfect, a mere glimpse, a refraction of the whole truth.

It is easy to see only the glories of Rome. But it is just as important to bear in mind the horrors committed for their sake. History’s flickering lamp also needs to illuminate the rot beneath the gloss. This would remind us that military might should be exercised only in the defense of just

This article originally appeared on the Warfare History Network. This piece was originally featured in February 2019 and is being republished due to reader's interest.


Roman Army Effectiveness

The reasons why the army was particularly effective in bringing foreign lands under the Roman yoke are elucidated below:

Discipline

Strict and uniform discipline was maintained in the army . New recruits went through rigorous training and lessons in discipline. There were strict punishments for any wrongdoings with respect to order in the army.

Organization and Structure

A lot of money and effort was spent in command and control of the troops. Replacement of exiting troops and recruitment were also given special attention. Efficient leaders proven in battle were chosen to command men. These leaders were war heroes, and hence, they won their troop’s respect by example, not just by title.

Conquests

A thirst for conquests was popular with the republic and the empire. The emperor would order conquests for personal glory, and the consuls with the help of the senate would order conquests for bringing wealth to Rome . Persistence in long drawn conquests and ambition to still bring more land played a part in the army’s upgrades and war preparedness.

Constant Learning and Upgrades

The Roman army learned constantly. They borrowed tactics from better armies and implemented them, thus, making their own army much more efficient. Also, Roman engineering was second to none in the whole of Europe. Armors, siege weapons, blades, and even the way the wooden shaft of a pilum would break during thrusts and on contact were efficiently researched and designed.


The Roman Army: The Force That Built an Empire - History

The Roman army was the backbone of the Roman Empire and one of the most successful armies in world history. It was well-trained, well-equipped, and well-organized. In order to guard such a large empire, the army took advantage of well built Roman roads to move about the empire quickly.

Who were the soldiers?

The soldiers in the Roman Legionary were all Roman citizens. They signed up to fight for 20 years. At the end of the 20 years they were generally awarded land and/or a large sum of money. This way the army was made up of trained and experienced soldiers. It also put land in the hands of loyal soldiers.

There were also non-citizen soldiers called auxiliaries. They joined for 25 years and were awarded Roman citizenship at the end of the 25 years. Roman citizenship was a big deal and came with lots of privileges.

How was the Roman Army organized?

The army was divided up into Legions of around 5400 soldiers. Legions were led by a Legate who was usually a Senator or a Governor. Legions were made up of ten groups of soldiers called cohorts. Cohorts were then further divided into groups of 80 men called centuries. The officers, or leaders, of each century were called centurions.

The government knew the importance of the Roman army and provided them with good armor and weapons. Roman soldiers had armor made of strips of strong iron. The iron made the armor strong and the strips made it flexible. They also had iron helmets which protected their heads and neck, but still let them have good vision for fighting. All of this iron armor was heavy, so they needed to be strong and in good shape. They also carried tall shields in some cases.


Roman Gladius by Juan Cabre Aguilo
  • Officers, such as centurions, wore large crests on their helmets. This allowed the soldiers to see them better in battle.
  • The average legionary carried at least 90 pounds of weight and often had to march 20 miles a day.
  • At its largest, the Roman army was made up of 30 legions, or over 150,000 soldiers. Counting the auxiliary soldiers, some estimate there were well over 1 million soldiers in the Roman army.
  • Gaius Marius, Roman consul and general, is largely credited with transforming the Roman army into the powerful group that conquered much of the civilized world.
  • The Romans used catapults to throw huge rocks which could knock down walls. They also used large crossbows called ballistas to fire arrows that were more the size of spears.

Roman ballista catapult by Unknown

Contubernium of Soldiers in the Roman Army

There was one leather sleeping tent to cover a group of eight legionaries. This smallest military group was referred to as a contubernium and the eight men were contubernales. Each contubernium had a mule to carry the tent and two support troops. Ten such groups made up a century. Every soldier carried two stakes and digging tools so they could set up camp each night. There would also be enslaved people associated with each cohort. Military historian Jonathan Roth estimated there were two calones or enslaved people associated with each contubernium.


Roman Army

The Roman army, famed for its discipline, organisation, and innovation in both weapons and tactics, allowed Rome to build and defend a huge empire which for centuries would dominate the Mediterranean world and beyond.

Overview

The Roman army, arguably one of the longest surviving and most effective fighting forces in military history, has a rather obscure beginning. The Greek biographer Plutarch credits the fabled founder of Rome, Romulus, with creating the legionary forces (as they would be known in the Republic and Imperial periods), yet the Roman historian Livy says that the early Roman army fought more along the lines of Greek hoplites in a phalanx, most likely as a form of civil militia, with recruitment dependant on a citizen's social standing. King Servius Tullius (c. 580- 530 BCE) introduced six classes of wealth upon Rome's citizens the lowest group had no property and were excluded from the military, whilst the highest group, the equites, formed the cavalry.

Advertisement

The earliest contemporary account of a Roman legion is by Polybius, and it dates to around 150-120 BCE this is referred to as the manipular legion, although the manipular legion probably developed around the middle of the 4th century BCE. It is thought that the manipular legion, which was based around smaller units of 120-160 men called maniples (Latin for 'handfuls'), was developed to match the looser formations that Rome's enemies fought in and would be able to outmanoeuvre phalanx formations. The advantage of such a change can be seen when Rome came to fight Macedonia's phalanxes Polybius 18.29-30 describes the merits of the Roman maniples in being able to outmanoeuvre their enemy.

Livy dates this progression by saying that from 362 BCE Rome had two legions and four legions from 311 BCE. The manipular army was purely citizen at this time, and it would have been the force that saw off Hannibal in the Second Punic War (218- 202 BCE) however, there were more than four legions by then. As the nature of Rome's army changed from limited, seasonal campaigns, and a provincial empire began to come into existence due to the success of such battles as Cynoscephalae (197 BCE) and Pydna (168 BCE), the legions began to develop more permanent bases, in turn creating a manpower shortage.

Advertisement

When Gaius Marius was elected consul in 107 BCE he began to enlist volunteers from citizens without property and equipped them with arms and armour at the expense of the state. The development from the maniple to the cohort is also credited to Marius, though this change may have been finalised by Marius, rather than wholly implemented by him. The Social War of 91- 87 BCE (from the Latin socii allies) highlights that manpower was still a problem for the Roman army, as citizenship was granted to the allied Italians at the end of the war, granting a greater pool of men for the army.

Come the turn of the Republic, and the beginning of Imperial Rome, Augustus reorganised the Roman army, increasing the length of service and creating a military treasury, amongst other things. The army continued to develop, including different tactics and formations that were more effective against Rome's new enemies. By the 2nd century CE Rome was deploying armoured cavalry units, and whilst it had used siege weapons previously, employing arrow and stone-throwing siege-engines, it was in the 3rd century CE that Rome started to notice the use of artillery, with the addition of the onager, a large stone-thrower.

Sign up for our free weekly email newsletter!

Sources

There are many classical writers who are useful to consult when looking at the Roman army, both Greek and Roman. Polybius is very useful at assessing the Roman Army, providing information on their weapons (6.23), discipline (6.38) and rewards for courage (6.39.1-3 5-11), as well as describing them in battle. The Jewish historian Josephus (c. 34-100 CE), whilst possibly reusing Polybius, covers the training and discipline of the Roman army (3.71-6 85-8 102-7). Frontius (c. 40- 103 CE) wrote a work entitled Stratagems covered in it is the discipline of Scipio, Corbulo, Piso, and M. Antonius (4.1.1 4.1.21 4.1.26 4.1.37) amongst other issues. Vegetius (c. 5th century CE) wrote an Epitome of Military Science that covers the choosing of suitable recruits, weapons training, training in battle manoeuvres, and other practical issues that relate to the Roman Army.

Recruitment

The citizen soldiers of the manipular army would be enrolled for a specific amount of time, rather than signing up for years of service as they would do in the Imperial period. This meant that the legions of the Roman Republic had no long continual existences because they were disbanded after the campaign they had been serving on was finished. The result of the Marian reforms was a professional standing army for the Roman State, or in the coming years, individual generals who gained the loyalty of their legions.

Advertisement

The majority of Roman soldiers would have been recruited around the age of 18-20 years, and in the 1st century CE, there is a decrease in Italian recruits as recruits from the provinces increased. Conscription into the army probably happened through the cities, since volunteers were not always forthcoming. By this time, whether or not you were a Roman citizen did not matter so much, as long as you were freeborn. This was taken seriously, and as such, a state oath was made as to your freedom:

Trajan to Pliny: "[An officer had discovered two newly enrolled soldiers were slaves]. it needs to be investigated whether they deserve capital punishment. It depends whether they were volunteers or conscripts or given as substitutes. If they are conscripts, the recruiting officer was at fault if substitutes, those who gave them are to blame if they presented themselves in full awareness of their own status, that is to be held against them. It is hardly relevant that they have not yet been assigned to units. The day on which they were first approved and took the oath required the truth of their origin from them." Pliny's Letters, (10.30), c. 112 CE.

The army provided little social mobility, and it took a very long time to complete your service further, you would probably serve abroad, and whilst the pay was not bad, it was nothing special, and many deductions were made from it for food and clothing (RMR, 68, papyrus, Egypt, CE 81 shows so) and there were very harsh disciplinary orders. However, at the same time, the army provided a guaranteed supply of food, doctors, and pay, and it also provided stability. Whilst the pay was not brilliant, it could be supplemented by personal war booty, pay from emperors (normally in their will), also, there was the possibility to progress through the ranks which had clear monetary benefits.

The average centurion got 18 times the pay of the standard soldier, 13,500 denarii, and centurions of the first cohort got 27,000, whilst the primi ordines got 54,000. By the 2nd century CE, there would not have been much active service either, and hence less threat of death, since this was a fairly peaceful time in Rome's history. Because of this later stability and settlement, many army bases incorporated baths and amphitheatres, so the army clearly did have its advantages. However, it was not until Septimius Severus that standard soldiers could legally marry during service (not that this had stopped unofficial marriages beforehand, and furthermore, centurions were allowed to marry beforehand). Likewise, soldiers could also own slaves. Tacitus (Hist. 2.80.5) gives a good example of army living conditions.

Advertisement

Organisation

Whilst Dionysus and Plutarch do not mention the introduction of maniples per se, they do talk of tactical and equipment changes that would be in line with changes that a change to maniples would require. Livy describes how a manipular formation was presented in battle:

…what had before been a phalanx, like the Macedonian phalanxes, came afterwards to be a line of battle formed by maniples, with the rearmost troops drawn up in a number of companies. The first line, or hastati, comprised fifteen maniples, stationed a short distance apart the maniple had twenty light-armed soldiers, the rest of their number carried oblong shields moreover those were called “light-armed” who carried only a spear and javelins. This front line in the battle contained the flower of the young men who were growing ripe for service. Behind these came a line of the same number of maniples, made up of men of a more stalwart age these were called the principes they carried oblong shields and were the most showily armed of all. This body of thirty maniples they called antepilani, because behind the standards there were again stationed other fifteen companies, each of which had three sections, the first section in every company being known as pilus. The company consisted of three vexilla or “banners” a single vexillum had sixty soldiers, two centurions, one vexillarius, or colourbearer the company numbered a hundred and eighty —six men. The first banner led the triarii, veteran soldiers of proven valour the second banner the rorarii, younger and less distinguished men the third banner the accensi, who were the least dependable, and were, for that reason, assigned to the rear most line…

(Livy, Ab urbe condita, 8.8)

The standard force of the Roman imperial army was the legions, a heavy infantry, initially composed of Roman citizens, but it was organised very differently to the manipular army. The number of legions in existence at one time often varied, but a rough average is 28. The make-up of each Legion was as follows:

Advertisement

  • 10 cohorts to one legion
  • six centuries to one cohort
  • 10 tents to one cohort
  • eight soldiers to one tent
  • 120 cavalry - not really a fighting force, but messengers and scouts.

The Legions were later supplemented by the auxiliaries, who were normally non-citizens, and combined cavalry and infantry. There were four main forms of auxiliary force:

1. Alae quingenariae one ala of 16 turma one turma of 30 men 480 men

2. Infantry cohort one cohort of six centuries one century of 80 men 480 men

3. Cohorts equitates mixed infantry and cavalry. The auxiliaries were commanded by prefects of the equestrian rank. However, as the auxiliaries developed, a fourth kind of troop was introduced, this reflected the fact the auxiliaries had developed into a status very similar to that of the legionaries.

4. Numeri from the 2nd century CE onwards, formed from local tribes, around 500 men, they did not have to speak Latin, and often fought in keeping with their local tradition.

When a soldier of the auxiliaries was discharged, he received a military diploma, which granted him and his children Roman citizenship and gave legal acceptance of any marriage for many, this was a very attractive reward for joining (and surviving) service in the auxiliaries.

The Praetorian Guard was in effect the Roman Emperor's personal bodyguard and consisted of nine cohorts. They were commanded by two Praetorian Prefects of equestrian rank these men were very powerful. Since they were close to the emperor, they had a unique position for assassination attempts. The Praetorians were primarily recruited from Italy, and it seems likely that they were never conscripted due to the many benefits that they had over regular legionaries. Their service was only for 16 years, and they had better pay than the standard legionary soldier, which, at the end of Augustus' rule, was 225 denarii per year (Tac. Annals, 1.17), Domitian then increased this to 300, Septimus Severus to 450, and Caracalla to 675.

In addition to this, there was the Roman Fleet (classis), the Urban Cohort (3-4 cohorts stationed in Rome that acted as a police force to maintain civil order, under the command of the Urban Prefect), and the Equites Singulares, the cavalry for the Praetorian Guard, which varied in strength from 500-1000 men. In total, for most of the Imperial period, Rome had a military force of around 350,000, taking into consideration there were 28 legions of around 5,500, and then 160,00 divided amongst the auxilia, the troops in Rome, and the fleet.

Ranks

There were various levels of command within the legion. The foremost commander was the Legatus legionis, who was often an ex-praetor. Underneath him came the six military tribunes, made up of one tribunus laticlavius who aided the legate and was second in command and would have been of senatorial rank, and five tribuni augusticlavii of equestrian rank. Then came the praefectus castorum, who dealt with camp logistics and took control if the Legatus legionis and tribunus laticlavius were absent. And then there were the 60 centurions. The centurions had their own rankings, the titles of which are probably based on the organisation of the manipular army. For the 2nd-10th cohorts of a legion, the centurions were ranked, highest to lowest: pilus prior, princeps prior, hastatus prior, pilus posterior, princeps posterior, and the hastatus posterior. For the first cohort, there were five centurions, called the primi ordines, and they were ranked (again, highest to lowest), primus pilus, princeps prior, hastatus prior, princeps posterior, and hastatus posterior.

Equipment, Arms, Armour & Siege Weapons

Our main sources on Roman military equipment come from artistic depictions, military documents, other literature, and surviving archaeological artefacts. The Imperial period presents us with the largest amount of surviving material. The standard weapons of the Roman imperial army were quite similar to those used in the Republic.

The pilum was a heavy spear that was thrown before hand-to-hand combat. Caesar, Gallic War, 1.25 shows how they were employed, and Polybius 6.23. 9-11 how they were constructed. The pilum was thrown in order to kill the enemy but was designed so that if it became stuck in an enemy's shield, it would be a maximum nuisance.

The Republican gladius hispaniensis (Spanish sword) was the other standard weapon of the Roman infantry and was worn on the right hip, being designed for stabbing and thrusting. However, it could also cut, having sharp edges. Livy (31.34.4.) describes the terror of the Macedonian army after seeing the damage that the sword could wreak. The Imperial sword is referred to as the Mainz-type sword (after the location where examples have been found) and is similar. The sword would have been mainly used for stabbing. The Mainz-type then developed into the Pompeii type (examples found at Pompeii and Herculaneum), which had a shorter tip and which may have made it easier to use as a cutting weapon, as well as a stabbing weapon. Both of these swords would have been carried on the right side of the body.

Polybius gives a comprehensive overview of the Republic scutum shield (6.23.2-5), which was circular. Vegetius 2.18 suggests that each cohort had different emblems on their shields and that each soldier would inscribe his name, cohort, and century on the back (much like a modern-day 'dog tag'). However, there does not seem to be any non-contentious material to support Vegetius, and considering his later date, he may be transferring contemporary practises to earlier times. The Imperial scutum differed from the Republican one in that it was rectangular when seen from the front, (this is the stereotypical 'Roman shield'), with a boss in the centre, made of iron or a bronze alloy that was probably used to bash the opponent. Polybius 6.23.14 describes the various types of breast-plate or cuirass that the Replubic troops could equip themselves with.

There were three main types of armour employed by the Imperial army the lorica hamate, iron mail tunics scale armour, which was made up of metal scales woven onto a cloth base and the well-known lorica segmentata, which consisted of strips of iron joined by leather straps.

The other major part of a legionary's equipment was his helmet, of which there were many variants, especially early on in Rome's history when soldiers had to provide their own arms. The most typical were made from a single sheet of iron in a bowl shape with a neck guard at the back, a pronounced brow and hinged check guards all designed to minimise damage and reflect blows made at the wearer's face. The Monterfortino style helmet (named after the grave of Montefortino in Ancona where a number of examples were found) was the standard helmet of the 2nd century BCE. Polybius 6.23.12 describes the famous feathered crest of this helmet.

Roman siege weapons tended to be variations or copies of Hellenistic versions they came in a variety of sizes, shapes, and functions. Most of them are described by Vitruvius X. There were catapults and ballistae (both variations of stone throwers) the smaller Scorpiones, (similar in shape if not design to ballistae) which was an artillery piece, firing bolts further to this the Romans would employ battering rams and siege towers. Vitruvius passes over the more obvious-to-construct siege ladders. Also, whilst not an actual 'weapon' per se, walls could be undermined by sappers. Josephus, The Jewish War 3. 245-6- describes in quite gory detail the effectiveness of stone throwers. However, siege weapons were also sometimes (but rarely) deployed in open warfare: Tacitus, (Histories 3.23) relates how at the second battle of Bedriacum in 69 CE, where “an exceptionally large catapult… would have inflicted carnage far and wide…” if it were not for two soldiers who snuck up to it and cut its ropes and gears.

Army Camps

It is important to remember what the army would be doing when not fighting in the field mostly it was training. Route marches might take place three times a month and sometimes manoeuvres would be practised in the field. However, there were civilian duties too. Infrastructures were improved with bridge and road building. Hospitals had to be manned, kilns worked, fuel fetched, and bread baked, to name just a few camp activities. The Vindolanda writing tablets act as a brilliant insight into life at a Roman camp and contain personal letters and camp accounts. Likewise, Josephus, Jewish War, 3. 76- 93, whilst possibly based on Polybius (and therefore not reflecting an overly accurate account for the time in which he was writing), shows the very ordered nature of the Roman army at camp. However, the whole legion need not be based in camp at the same time. Vindolanda Inventory No. 154, of the 1st Tungrian Cohort, shows how the troops were divided across the province, acting as provincial policemen or guards to the governor, to name just two duties outside of the Roman fort that soldiers might be sent to do. The army was a key part of the Roman Empire, and the emperors relied on the army's allegiance this can be seen by the coin of Vitellus which reads, that he is in power in “agreement with the army”, and by the fact that the emperor was seen as a soldier, and how this was one of the reasons for Nero's failings Dio Cassius, 69.9, tells of the vital role of the Praetorian guard in Claudius' ascension to power.

Tactics & Formations

Of the maniples, the standard formation of the maniples was triplex acies, with troops drawn up three lines deep, the hastati at the front, the principes in the middle, and the triarii at the back. Each soldier would take up a space around 6 foot square, enabling him to throw his pilum and effectively wield his sword (Pol.18.30.8). The multiple maniples were often spaced a distance equal to their own width away from the next maniple, in a staggered chess board like formation, which has been termed quincunx. Once battles had started it was often up to junior commanders, rather than the general himself, to oversee the motivation of the troops Plutarch records a unique situation:

The Romans, when they attacked the Macedonian phalanx, were unable to force a passage, and Salvius, the commander of the Pelignians, snatched the standard of his company and hurled it in among the enemy. Then the Pelignians, since among the Italians it is an unnatural and flagrant thing to abandon a standard, rushed on towards the place where it was, and dreadful losses were inflicted and suffered on both sides.

(Plut.Vit.Aem. Paul.1.20)

The Romans also developed many military tactics and methods which would be used for centuries to come, as well as tactics unique to a given situation. When Brutus was besieged by Mark Antony in Mutina, in 43 BCE, the siege was lifted when word got to Brutus about the enemy's plans and actions. Letters were attached to pigeons' necks and they, “longing for light and food, made for the highest buildings and were caught by Brutus.” (Frontinus, Stratagems, 3.13.8). When Quintus Sertorius, an eques of notable military distinction, was outmatched by the enemy cavalry, so “during the night he dug trenches and drew up his forces in front of them. When the cavalry squadrons arrived… he withdrew his line of battle. The cavalry pursued him closely, fell into the ditches, and in this way were defeated.” (Frontinus, 2.12.2). There were also formations against cavalry, Cassius Dio (Roman History, 71.7) describes a defensive formation particularly useful against cavalry: “The Romans… formed into a compact mass so that they faced the enemy at once, and most of them placed their shields on the ground and put one foot on them so that they did not slip so much.” If completely surrounded, this would form a hollow square.

Glorious Victories

Lake Regillus, c. 496 BCE

This semi-legendary battle took place at Lake Regillius between Tusculum and Rome and happened at the very beginning of the Roman Republic. It was fought between Rome and the Latins. The Latins were led by Rome's last and exiled king, Tarquinius Superbus. and this was the king's last attempt to regain power in Rome. The Romans were led by the Dictator Postumius. After much uncertainty on the battlefield, there were three measures which Postumius had to put in place to ensure his victory. Firstly, he ordered his own cohort to treat any fleeing Romans as they would the enemy in order to rally them then he had to order the cavalry to fight on foot since the infantry were so exhausted thirdly he provided further incentive to his troops by promising rewards to those who entered the enemy camp first and second. This resulted in such a rush of Roman troops that Tarquinius and the Latins fled the field of battle, and Postumius returned to Rome to celebrate a triumph. Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 2.19-20, provides a full account of the battle.

Zama, 202 BCE

Zama was the last battle in the Second Punic War and ended 17 years of war between the two states of Rome and Carthage. The Roman legionaries and Italian cavalry (with a supporting body of Numidian cavalry) were led by Publius Cornelius Scipio. The Carthaginians were led by Hannibal, who fielded an army of mercenaries, local citizens, veterans from his battles in Italy, and war elephants. The Roman victory saw an end to Carthaginian resistance, with the Carthaginian senate pressing for peace again. The Romans granted peace, but only at a high price for Carthage.

Infamous Defeats

Lake Trasimine & Cannae, 217 and 216 BCE

The battles of Lake Trasimine and Cannae were two shocking defeats in the Second Punic War at the beginning of Hannibal's entry to Italian lands. Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 22.4-7 deals with Trasimine and 22.47-8 with Cannae. Cannae was the greatest defeat that the Roman army ever suffered, despite the Romans greatly outnumbering Hannibal's forces (by what exact figure is debated), and the Romans were eventually overcome by what was a pincer movement that entrapped the Romans in the surrounding Carthaginian assembly. Both of these battles saw incredibly fierce fighting. At Lake Trasimene the Romans had been ambushed by Hannibal, and this led to such fierce fighting:

…that an earthquake, violent enough to overthrow large portions of many of the towns of Italy, turn swift streams from their courses, carry the sea up into rivers, and bring down mountains with great landslides, was not even felt by any of the combatants.

(Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 22.5)

Teutoburg, 9 CE

At the battle of Teutoburg Forest three legions were ambushed and slaughtered by a gathering of Germanic tribes, commanded by Arminius, chief of the Cherusci. The Romans were led by Publius Quinctilius Varus. Tacitus (Annals,1.55-71) describes the scenario and battle in detail but Suetonius, best sums up the effect of this defeat:

“[the defeat] of Varus threatened the security of the empire itself three legions, with the commander, his lieutenants, and all the auxiliaries, being cut off. Upon receiving intelligence of this disaster, he gave orders for keeping a strict watch over the city, to prevent any public disturbance, and prolonged the appointments of the prefects in the provinces, that the allies might be kept in order by experience of persons to whom they were used. He made a vow to celebrate the great games in honour of Jupiter, Optimus, Maximus, "if he would be pleased to restore the state to more prosperous circumstances." This had formerly been resorted to in the Cimbrian and Marsian wars. In short, we are informed that he was in such consternation at this event, that he let the hair of his head and beard grow for several months, and sometimes knocked his head against the door-post, crying out, " Varus! Give me back my legions!" And ever after he observed the anniversary of this calamity, as a day of sorrow and mourning.

(Suetonius, Augustus, 2)

For the best part of half a millennium, the Roman army acted as the long arm of Roman imperialism over an area of land that encompassed the lands touched and influenced by the Mediterranean. It united Italy, divided Roman allegiances, acting both as the State's enforcer and the enforcer of individuals of power it was able to subdue German tribes, Carthaginians, Greeks, Macedonians, and many other peoples. It was a force to be reckoned with, and it still is because to understand how the Roman army operated is no easy task, and this definition has only brushed the topsoil off the vast wealth of details on the Roman army that has been buried in time.


Byzantine Army: Organization, Units, and Evolution

Popular notions tend to group the later Eastern Roman realm, or more specifically the Byzantine Empire, as a strictly medieval entity that encompassed Greece, the surrounding Balkans, and the Anatolian landmass. But if we take the impartial route that is ‘bereft’ of prejudiced medieval European politics and chronicling, the Byzantine Empire was the continuation (and even represented endurance) of the Roman legacy, so much so that most of its citizens called their realm Basileia tôn Rhōmaiōn – the Roman Empire.

To that end, the very term ‘Byzantine’ in spite of its popularity, is a misleading word. So without further ado, let us delve into the history, organization, and evolution of the early medieval (Eastern Roman) Byzantine army, from circa 7th to 11th century.

Note* – In spite of its slightly fallacious nature, we will continue to use the term ‘Byzantine’ instead of ‘Eastern Roman’ in the following article, for the sake of clarity (for most readers).

Introduction – The Overshadowing of Military by Politics

Leo Phokas defeats Sayf ud-Dawla at Adrassos. Source: Wikimedia Commons

As we mentioned before, the term ‘Byzantine’, as opposed to Eastern Roman, is rather a medieval invention that sort of takes an uncomplimentary route – partially based on the prejudices of medieval chroniclers. In fact, to that end, the word ‘Byzantine’ is rather deprecatory even in our modern world, with its association often made to “deviousness or underhand procedure” (Oxford Dictionary). In essence, such biased views were often concocted by the contemporaries of the Eastern Roman Empire, who perceived the political scope and ploys favored by the Romans as being overly complicated and labyrinthine.

However, as historian Ian Heath wrote (in Byzantine Armies 886-1118 AD) – in spite of such misunderstood labeling and anachronistic slanders, the Byzantine army of 10th century AD was possibly the “best-organized, best-trained, best-equipped and highest-paid in the known world”. Simply put, the Byzantine army from this particular epoch was the closest to a professional force that served any known medieval realm. And this scope of professionalism was rather reinforced by the favorable economic might of the empire, strengthened by an organized military system (that was different from their ancient Roman predecessors) and well-defined logistical support.

Organization of the Byzantine Army –

Bandon – The Basic Unit of the Eastern Roman Army

Byzantine Themata cavalry, circa 7th-8th century AD. Source: Pinterest

The military manual of Strategicon (Greek: Στρατηγικόν) written by Eastern Roman Emperor Maurice in the late 6th century dealt with the general military strategies, and the renowned Tactica military treatise written by or on behalf of Byzantine Emperor Leo VI the Wise (circa early 10th century AD), drew heavily from this handbook. And both of these manuals talked about the basic military unit of bandon (or tagmata as mentioned in Strategicon), a word itself derived from the Germanic ‘banner’, thus alluding to the foreign influence in Byzantine army during the early medieval period.

Now it should be noted that the number of troops within each bandon varied in accordance with the available manpower, which took into account the injured and the invalidated. In any case, on the theoretical level, by Emperor Leo’s time, a bandon possibly accounted for 256 men for infantrymen (comprising sixteen lochaghiai) and 300 men for cavalry (comprising six allaghia of 50 men each) – and each one was commanded by a komes or count.

Interestingly enough, the Byzantine army did make use of ‘mixed’ divisions of soldiers within each bandon, with ratios of 3:1 to 7:3 when it came to spearmen (skutatoi) and archers, thus suggesting advanced tactical deployments on the battlefields. The banda (plural of bandon) was also used as the standard for determining bigger divisions, like moirai and turmai. To that end, a moira often contained variable numbers of banda, oscillating between 2 to 5 – possibly accounting for around 1,000 troops in the 10th century AD (as opposed to the norm of 2,000 men for each moirai in the 6th century AD). The turma, on the hand, comprised around three moirai, thus amounting to around 3,000 men.

The Themata or Provincial Armies –

Source: Short History

The Byzantine military from the 7th century to early 11th century AD was dependent on the Themata (or Themes) system, an administrative network of provincial armies that ironically preserved the Eastern Roman realm (more-or-less across Anatolia) and yet mirrored ‘on the defensive’ state of affairs. Partly inspired by the provincial system set in place by Constantine the Great, the Themata – as we know today, was possibly established during the reign of Constans II, as opposed to the popular notion associated with Emperor Heraclius. In any case, the rise of this defensive force, initially based on the provinces of Anatolia, was probably fueled by the incursions of the Arabs on the eastern frontiers of the Empire.

Now each of these theme armies was commanded by a military governor known as the strategos (or general), who also boasted his personal retinue of heavily armed swordsmen known as the spatharioi (spatha or sword ‘bearers’). And on occasions, some of these retinues rose to hundreds of men, as was in the case of the Thema Thrakēsiōn, whose strategos had a retinue of two banda – approximately 600 men.

The military governor was additionally assisted by other high-ranking officials who took the responsibilities of the province’s revenues, taxations, and most importantly payments for the provincial army. However, the core member of the Themata pertained to the regular provincial troop, who usually belonged to the farmer-soldier background. These freemen were offered plots of agricultural land (often hereditary) in return for their mounted (in theory) military service, which sort of mirrored the feudal system followed in contemporary Europe.

But the size of such plots tended to be smaller than the knightly holdings of western Europe – thus resulting in a greater number of Themata troops albeit with relatively lower quality equipment and training. At the same time, it should be noted that not all such provincial troops of the Byzantine army were uniformly ‘poor’. In fact, as mentioned in Tactica, some of the Thema armies comprised rich landowners who could afford superior armor and weapons – and as such, they were considered as the first line of defense by the Emperor himself.

Furthermore, in spite of the non-uniformity of equipment showcased by different provincial troops, there was a minimum threshold of requirement expected from each farmer-soldier who held land. For example, in the 9th century AD, the Byzantine administration passed a law that allowed poor Themata soldiers to band together to pay for a properly equipped mounted warrior. In rare cases (as legislated by Emperor Nikephoros II), some of the richer troops were obligated to furnish better equipment for their poorer military brethren. And during extreme situations, if the soldier couldn’t afford his arms and armaments – even after being offered aid from others, his land was promptly taken away. Consequently, he was drafted into the irregular divisions who were derogatorily called the ‘cattle-lifters’.

So in essence, as opposed to 10th century feudal Europe’s wide gap between the early knightly class and the ‘rag-tag’ peasant infantry, the Byzantine army boasted a fairly consistent provincial military institution that was inclusive of variant soldier types – and the entire system was rather strengthened by an administrative network (though the scenario took a downturn by the second half of the 11th century).

Strength of the Provincial Army –

Akritai frontier soldiers on the left and center, accompanied by a heavy ‘Cataphract’ style cavalryman on the right. Illustration by Angus McBride.

The basic unit of each Thema army possibly harked back to the aforementioned banda (each bandon ranging from 200 to 400 men), though in terms of practicality the provincial soldiers were occasionally organized into the bigger turmai. Suffice it to say, the strength of each provincial army varied, dictated by the population of the said province. For example, the Anatolikon province could possibly furnish around 10,000 soldiers, while the Armeniakon province could account for 9,000 troops. The smaller provinces, like Thrace, could approximately provide 5,000 provincial soldiers. And the overall strength of the Byzantine Themata army possibly numbered between 70,000 to 90,000 men, in circa early 10th century AD.

Now as historian Ian Heath noted that some of the themes were further divided or even expanded, based on the political and military scenario of the period – which, in turn, had an effect on the manpower of the province. Moreover, the Byzantine realm also had the strategic frontier themes, known as kleisourai (or ‘mountain passes’) that were mostly created from the border districts. These particular provinces tended to maintain a more autonomous army linked by forts and castles, and the battle-hardened soldiers were commanded by the border nobles known as the akritai. On occasions, even the younger sons of the ‘interior’ Thema landowners joined the ranks of border armies, thus militarily reinforcing many strategic locations of the Eastern Roman Empire.

Payment and Rations of Ordinary Byzantine Soldiers –

Themata infantrymen. Illustration by Angus McBride.

As we fleetingly mentioned before in the article, the Byzantine army was relatively well paid, especially when compared to the European realms of the contemporary time period. In terms of actual figures, a regular Thema soldier was possibly paid one (or one-and-a-half) gold coin, known as the nomismata, per month. Each nomismata weighed around 1/72th of a pound, which equates to 1/6 to 1/4th of a pound of gold for the individual soldier per year. This increased to 3 pounds of gold per year for a ‘fifth-class’ strategos and 40 pounds of gold per year for a ‘first-class’ strategos. It should also be noted that additionally, these farmer-soldiers held their grants of land, which theoretically were valued over 4 pounds of gold.

Now of course, much like their ancient Roman predecessors, that payment system must have had its limitation. For example, Emperor Constantine VII (or Porphyrogenitus – ‘the Purple-born’), the son of Leo VI the Wise, talked about how the Byzantine army at the provincial level was paid once in four years in the ‘old times’. This could have meant that the provincial troops served in a cyclic manner, thus alluding to the rota system that possibly came into force every three years, which in turn might have provided a fresh batch of permanent soldiers for each year.

However, on the other hand, Arabic sources mention how most of the Byzantine forces (circa 9th century AD) were only paid once in four or five years, thus suggesting how the comprehensive payment scale occasionally put a strain on the treasury of the Empire. In any case, the payment was also complemented by a rationing system, with dedicated rations being provided to the Thema soldier during his active duty. And like in many contemporary military cultures, the provisions were often bolstered by spoils and plunders gathered during both quick raids and extensive campaigns.

And interestingly enough, once again in stark comparison to early medieval European armies, disabled soldiers were expected to be endowed with pensions, while the widows of those who were killed in action were given a considerable sum of 5 pounds of gold (at least during the peak of the Byzantine army in circa 9th century AD).

The Tagmata or the Elite Guard Regiments of the Byzantine Empire –

Byzantine Imperial cavalry guardsmen (circa 10th century AD) running down Fatimid soldiers. Illustration by Guiseppe Rava.

Till now we have talked about the Themata army of the Byzantine Empire (circa 8th – 10th century AD). But the provincial troops were supported by the better-equipped and highly-trained Tagmata, the permanent guard regiments based in and around the capital of Constantinople. In essence, these elite units took the role of the nucleus of the early medieval Byzantine army and were possibly formed by Emperor Constantine V.

Pertaining to the latter part, the Tagmata were thus perceived as the Eastern Roman Emperor’s own regiments who took the field only when their ruler set out to a campaign. But reverting to practical circumstances, during such military scenarios, some of the elite Tagma units must have also stayed back at Constantinople to guard the capital, while a few others were probably even committed to garrison duties in the proximate provinces like Macedonia and Thrace.

Scholai, Exkoubitoi, and Other Elite Regiments –

Scholai (standing one and the cavalryman) and Noumeroi (leaning one) guardsmen, along with the seated Emperor. Illustration by Guiseppe Rava.

The Scholai (Σχολαί, ‘the Schools’), probably the senior-most unit in the Tagmata, were the direct successors of the Imperial Guards established by none other than Constantine the Great. The other three principal regiments that were considered among the Tagmata ‘proper’ are as follows – the Exkoubitoi or Exkoubitores (‘Sentinels’), the Arithmos (‘Number’) or Vigla (‘Watch’), and the Hikanatoi (‘the Able Ones’) who were established by Emperor Nikephoros I in early 9th century AD.

There were also some other regiments that were occasionally counted in the imperial Tagmata roster, including the Noumeroi, who were possibly tasked with manning the walls of Constantinople the Optimatoi (‘the best’), who, in spite of their name, were relegated to a support unit that maintained the baggage train and garrisoned the nearby areas outside the capital and the Hetaereia Basilike (“the Emperor’s companions”), who probably comprised a mercenary regiment composed of foreigners. During certain scenarios, men of the Imperial Fleet were also inducted into the Tagmata units.

Now when it comes to the number of soldiers of the Byzantine Tagmata, there is a lot of debate in the academic world. Early medieval sources rather mirror this state of confusion, with Procopius writing in the 5th century on how the Scholai was made up of 3,500 men. 10th-century Arab author Qudamah talked about how this number possibly rose to 4,000 per Tagma regiment in the 9th century.

However, yet another Arab author, Ibn Khordadbah mentioned how the total strength of the Tagmata army was 6,000 (which makes it 1,500 men per regiment), and they were supported by 6,000 servants. And finally, another historical source of the 10th century described how the Emperor in the campaign should be supported by at least 8,200 horsemen (all of these figures are mentioned in ‘Byzantine Armies 886–1118′ by Ian Heath). Presuming these horsemen to be from the Tagmata, we can surmise that in normal scenarios, the Emperor possibly boasted over 12,000 elite troops – and the number possibly even crossed 25,000 in the latter decades of the 10th century.

The Renowned Military Units of the Byzantine Army –

The Cataphracts –

Illustration by Christos Giannopoulos. Source: Pinterest

The very term ‘Cataphract’ (derived from Greek Kataphraktos – meaning ‘completely enclosed’ or ‘armored’) is historically used to denote a type of armored heavy cavalry that was originally used by ancient Iranian tribes, along with their nomadic and Eurasian brethren. To that end, the Eastern Romans adopted the cataphract-based mounted warfare from their eastern neighbors – the Parthians (and later Sassanid Persians), with the first units of the heavy cavalry being inducted into the Roman Empire army as mercenaries (probably raised from mounted Sarmatian auxiliaries). And interestingly enough, the subsequent Byzantine army maintained its elite units of cataphracts from antiquity till the early middle ages, thus ironically carrying on the tradition of eastern equestrianism.

In any case, the Eastern Roman Cataphract of the Byzantine army fielded till the 10th century, was known for its super-heavy armor and weapons (that included maces, bows, and rarely even javelins). Typical contemporary descriptions of the cavalrymen mention the use of klibanion, a type of Byzantine lamellar cuirass that was crafted of metal bits sewn on leather or cloth pieces. This klibanion was often worn over a mail corselet, thus resulting in a heavy ‘composite’ armor, which was further reinforced by a padded armor worn under (or over) the corselet. This tremendously well-protected scope was complemented by other armor pieces, like vambraces, greaves, leather gauntlets and even mail hoods that were attached to the helmet.

Now in terms of military history, the Kataphraktoi or their brethren Klibanophoroi (a super-heavy cavalry unit revived by Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas) certainly required costly equipment and armaments, which could have possibly limited these units only to the Tagmata army. It is also interesting to note that Emperor John I Tzimiskes raised another unit of heavily armored shock cavalry – known as the Athanatoi (or ‘Immortals’). According to contemporary sources, these cavalrymen were draped in exquisite armor, described as “armed horsemen adorned with gold”.

The Mercenaries – From Pechenegs, Normans, to Norsemen

Various Byzantine mercenaries. Illustration by Angus McBride.

By the end of the 10th century, the manpower derived from most Themes in Anatolia began to dwindle while by the end of the 11th century the quality of native Byzantine troops declined – so much so that their land-owning positions were gradually taken over by Armenians (and related Cappadocians), Varangians, Slavs, and even Franks. Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas, who was also a brilliant military leader, perceived this ‘slackening’ trend, and already took steps that would allow the employment (and even recruitment) of mercenaries in the Themata army. In fact, according to credible estimates made by historians, by the end of the 10th century (and early 11th century), possibly more than half of the fighting men in the Byzantine army were mercenaries who came from different ethnic backgrounds.

Now if we proceed to a century later, Frankish sources talked about the variant mercenary elements found in Emperor Alexios I Komnenos’ army, including the Patzinaks, Alans, Kipchaks (Cumans), Bulgars – and these groups possibly formed the core of the missile cavalry. To that end, Nikephoros II’s light cavalry divisions were mostly composed of the Patzinaks (or Pechenegs), semi-nomadic Turkic people who originally hailed from Central Asia.

These light cavalrymen were complemented by their ‘heavier’ brethren, along with the infantrymen and marines – derived from the Anglo-Saxons, Rus (early Varangians), Franks, Italians, Dacians, and even Normans. And quite intriguingly, this system of employing mercenaries even took an administrative route (possibly as an alternative to the depreciating Themata army) that streamlined the foreign troops into self-contained contingents known as the symmachoi (‘allies’) that were commanded by their own officers and leaders.

The Varangian Guard –

Illustration by Christos Giannopoulos. Source: Pinterest

We discussed at length about the Varangian Guards, probably the most renowned of all Byzantine army units, in one of our articles dedicated to the mercenary regiment. Pertaining to the latter part, the Varangians Guards were indeed employed as mercenaries as opposed to guard units like the Scholai and Exkoubitores. Now employing mercenaries was a trademark of Byzantine military stratagem even in the earlier centuries (as we discussed in the last entry). But the recruitment of the Varangians (by Emperor Basil II in 988 AD) was certainly different in scope, simply because of the loyalty factor. In essence, the Varangians were specifically employed to be directly loyal to their paymaster – the Emperor.

In that regard, unlike most other mercenaries, they were dedicated, incredibly well trained, furnished with the best of armors, and most importantly devoted to their lord. And unlike other imperial guard regiments, the Varangian Guard was (mostly) not subject to political and courtly intrigues nor were they influenced by the provincial elites and the common citizens. Furthermore, given their direct command under the Emperor, the ‘mercenary’ Varangians actively took part in various encounters around the empire – thus making them an effective crack military unit, in contrast to just serving ceremonial offices of the royal guards.

In any case, the popular imagery of a Varangian guardsman generally reverts to a tall, heavily armored man bearing a huge ax rested on his shoulder. This imposing ax in question entailed the so-called Pelekys, a deadly two-handed weapon with a long shaft that was akin to the famed Danish ax. To that end, the Varangians were often referred to as the pelekyphoroi in medieval Greek.

Now interestingly enough, while the earlier Pelekys tended to have crescent-shaped heads, the shape varied in later designs, thus alluding to the more ‘personalized’ styles preferred by the guard members. As for its size, the sturdy battle-ax often reached to an impressive length of 140 cm (55-inch) – with a heavy head of 18 cm (7-inch) length and blade-width of 17 cm (6.7-inch). And lastly, it should also be noted that the Varangians mostly played their crucial roles after the military peak of the Byzantine army (post 11th century) – an epoch that is not the focus of our article.

The Evolution of the Byzantine Army – Visual Presentation

YouTuber foojer has aptly furnished a flourishing visual scope to this millennium-long military tradition of the Eastern Roman Empire accompanied by short information snippets that mention the evolution of armor and soldier panoply for the Byzantine infantrymen. As the creator of the time-lapse video makes it clear –

I’ve chosen to call them Byzantines instead of Eastern Romans for the sake of convention, and I’ve chosen to focus on native heavy infantry, excluding mercenary and guards units (sorry, Varangian fans).

By order of appearance: three infantrymen from the Byzantine ‘Dark Ages’ (

7th to 9th centuries) five infantrymen from the Macedonian dynasty (10th to 11th centuries) two infantrymen from Komnenid dynasty (11th to 12th centuries) three infantrymen from the Laskarid dynasty (13th century) four infantrymen from the Palaiologian dynasty (13th to 15th centuries) one warrior from the Trapezuntine Empire (which survived until 1461)

The armor and weapons are mostly stylised though I’ve tried to include as much detail as possible. One point to note: my portrayal of the 1453 household trooper as heavily orientalised is controversial, but given the direction Byzantine costume was headed (check out the medallion of Emperor John VIII, and note how Trapezuntine warriors in 1461 were almost indistinguishable from their Turkish opponents), I think it makes a lot of sense.

*The article was updated on March 18, 2020.

Book References: Byzantine Armies 886–1118 (By Ian Heath) / Byzantium and Its Army, 284-1081 (By Warren Treadgold)

And in case we have not attributed or misattributed any image, artwork or photograph, we apologize in advance. Please let us know via the ‘Contact Us’ link, provided both above the top bar and at the bottom bar of the page.


The Roman Army: Organization and Battle Tactics

The Roman army was the backbone of the empire’s power, and the Romans managed to conquer so many tribes, clans, confederations, and empires because of their military superiority. It was also the source of the empire’s economic and political strength, ensuring domestic peace so that trade could flourish. However, this peace was often coterminous with subjugation. The Emperor used the army to protect Rome and to control the people it had conquered.

The Roman army was also a tool of cultural assimilation. Some soldiers were away from their families for long periods of time, loosening their clan loyalties and replacing them with loyalty to Rome. The Roman army was a means by which a barbarian could become a citizen, but the process was not fast. Only when a soldier had served in the army for 25 years he could become a citizen of Rome.

Organization of the Roman Army

The army was organised in a very simple way:

5000 Legionaries (Roman Citizens who were in the army) would form a Legion.

The Legion would be split into centuries (80 men) controlled by a Centurion.

The centuries would then be divided into smaller groups with different jobs to perform.

A Roman Soldier

Roman soldiers had to be physically vigorous. They were expected to march up to 20 miles per day in line, wearing all their armor and carrying their food and tents.

Roman soldiers were trained to fight well and to defend themselves. If the enemy shot arrows at them they would use their shields to surround their bodies and protect themselves. This formation was know as ‘the turtle’.

They fought with short swords, daggers for stabbing and a long spear for throwing. They also carried a shield for protection as well as wearing armor.

The tactics were simple but versatile enough to face different enemies in multiple terrains: From the forests of Germania to the rocky planes of the Greek peninsula. For these and many other reasons the Roman army was the reason for the Empire’s existence for several centuries.

This article is part of our larger resource on the Romans culture, society, economics, and warfare. Click here for our comprehensive article on the Romans.


The Roman Army

The Roman Army was extremely important in explaining the success of the Romans and the expansion of the Roman Empire. The Roman Army, at the peak of its power, conquered what we now call England/Wales, Spain, France, most of Germany, the northern coast of Africa, the Middle East and Greece. The Ancient Roman equivalent would be:

Britannia England/Wales
Gallia or Gaul France
Germania Germany
Hispania Spain
Aegyptus Egypt
Achaea Greece
Italia Italy

The Roman Army is recognised by historians as an extremely effective fighting machine. Ironically, its success also led to its downfall. The lowest level of soldier in the Roman Army was the legionnaire. Between 5000 and 6000 legionaries made up a legion that was commanded by a legatus. Legionnaires were trained to fight in a disciplined and co-ordinated manner. A whole legion could be punished for failing to fight well in battle – even if the Romans did win the battle itself! Training was brutal and tough but it paid huge dividends for the Romans.

A legionnaire went into battle equipped with three main weapons.

The Pilum This was similar to a javelin today. The legionaries would throw it at the enemy as they ran at them. It was not for hand-to-hand fighting. The main purpose of the pilum was to disrupt the defence of the enemy. They would be too concerned worrying about avoiding the incoming weapons to focus on what the legionnaires themselves were doing. By the time the enemy had re-organised itself, the Romans were upon them. If a pilum did hit you, it could do serious damage as the thinner top section would crumple into you on impact and removing it would be very painful. The wooden stock of the pilum was also re-useable as the Romans only had to add another spear head to it.
The Gladius The gladius was the main weapon for the Roman soldier when he got into close quarter fighting. This was a sword which was kept razor sharp. Anyone on the receiving end of a blow from a gladius would suffer severe injuries.
The Pugio The pugio was a small dagger used in combat if all else had been lost.

Along with these weapons, the legionnaire carried a curved shield called a scutum. This gave the Roman soldier a great deal of protection as it curved around his body. It was also used by the Romans when they used what was known as a tortoise formation to move forward to a target that was well defended. A ‘tortoise’ was when the soldiers lifted the scutums flat above their heads so that they effectively interlocked and protected them from any missiles thrown at them from on high.


Need to put some warheads on foreheads? There’s an app for that

Posted On November 01, 2018 20:45:46

I’m sure you are sick of hearing the phrase, “There’s an app for that!” Well, the Marines how have an app for calling in fire support – part of the new suite of gear for forward observers.

According to a Marine Corps release, the service soon will be issuing the Target Handoff System Version 2, or “THS V.2.”

Now weighing in at about 20 pounds, the THS V.2 will cut that burden in half. When the combat load of troops can reach close to 100 pounds, this is a significant relief to Marines on the move.

The THS V.2 gets this light weight by using commercial smart phones to replace the more conventional radio systems in the original THS. An app on the smart phone then allows Marines to call in fire support much more easily, and that will help minimize collateral damage.

The system even comes with a pre-installed “Start Guide” with a variety of tutorials for users.

This fiscal year Marines will receive smart phones that make calling for fire support easier, quicker and more accurate. The Target Handoff System Version 2, or THS V.2, is a portable system designed for use by dismounted Marines to locate targets, pinpoint global positioning coordinates and call for close air, artillery and naval fire support using secure digital communications. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Staff Sgt. Joe Laws/Released)

“With the new version, Marines will obtain a lightweight device equipped to provide immediate situational awareness on where friendly and enemy locations are, and the ability to hand off target data to fire support to get quick effects on the battlefield,” Capt. Jesse Hume of Marine Corps Systems Command said. Hume serves as the THS V.2 project officer.

“THS V.2 provides embedded, real-time tactical information with ground combat element units down to the squad or platoon level,” Gunnery Sgt. Nicholas Tock added. “If we are on patrol and we take contact from machine guns in a tree line, a satellite that passes over once every few hours is not going to help an infantry unit kill that target. THS V.2 is for that close combat.”

U.S. Soldiers with Battery C, 4th Battalion, 1st Field Artillery Regiment, 1st Armored Division, Task Force Al Taqaddum, fire an M109A6 Paladin howitzer during a fire mission at Al Taqaddum Air Base, Iraq, June 27, 2016. The strikes were conducted in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, the operation aimed at eliminating the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and the threat they pose to Iraq, Syria, and the wider international community. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Donald Holbert)

The system also includes a laser-rangefinder, combat net radio, and video downlink — but there’s another benefit. In addition to cutting the weight in half, the use of off-the-shelf technology cuts the price of the system in half.

Even the bean-counters seem to win with this.

Anyone picking a firefight with Marines, though, looks to be a sure loser. And that’s a good thing.


Watch the video: Νικηφόρος Φωκάς ο ήρωας της Ανατολής Μέρος Α (December 2021).