The Roman Soldiers were the armed forces of the Roman Empire throughout its history spanning approximately 2205 years.
Roman soldiers played a critical role in the military operations of the Roman Empire from the period of Ancient Rome. This period began around the 8th century BC with the founding of the Italian city of Rome.
The settlements in the city of Rome grew into a civilization that spread to various regions in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. It became one of the largest empires in the ancient world and was ruled by the Romans who were considered ethnic people.
At its peak, around AD 117, the civilization was distributed over 5 million square kilometers and had about 50 to 90 million inhabitants which made up about 20% of the world population at the time.
Throughout the history of the Roman Empire, the Roman soldiers went through a number of changes in their organization, composition, strategies, and tactics, however, the Roman traditions remained at the heart of the armed forces.
The Roman soldiers were extremely disciplined and rigorously trained. They could march for about 40 km a day. They were the chief reason for the success of the Roman Empire.
The Roman soldiers were also involved in the building and engineering activities of the empire. Much of the heritage architecture in the city of Rome like the Colosseum was built by the Roman soldiers.
Many soldiers of the Roman army came from poor backgrounds with little to no prospects. They chose to join the army because it provided a better income than farming and also an opportunity to elevate their social status.
The Roman Soldiers wore simple tunics which were two pieces of woolen cloth stitched together on the sides with openings for hands and neck. Some of the wealthy Romans wore Togas which was a kind of woolen shawl.
History of the Roman Soldiers
From 500 BC to 300 BC the Roman soldiers served the Roman Kingdom and the early Roman Republic. During this time, conscription was mandatory and the army was based on an annual levy.
The military operations generally included small scale plundering raids and therefore, there was no national army. These units mainly responded to external threats and came together on a temporary basis.
It is said that the Roman army was organized and equipped according to the Greek or Etruscan models and had no long-standing army at this time.
The king served the role of commander in chief until the office of consul was established by the Roman Republic in 508 BC.
King Servius had instituted the Servian reforms which disqualified common citizens of poor standing from voting rights based on ethnicity, ancestry, or status.
This formed the base to levy economic and military obligations on every male citizen of the Roman Empire and divided the population into five classes. Each would serve a different role in military operations.
Those who could afford breastplates called cuirass and armor for legs called greaves along with a shield, sword and spear became the first class. The second class were those who had a pair of greaves, a shield, a spear, and a sword.
The status of the soldier declined if he had lesser equipment. The third class possessed a shield, a sword, and a spear while the fourth had only the shield and the spear.
The fifth class of soldiers were those that possessed nothing and hence assumed the position of slingers. They were called the Velites and were armed with many darts and a 30-inch wooden shaft with a metal point.
Any poorer citizen was called a Capite Censi and was not enlisted in the army unless in the case of an emergency.
No women were allowed to join the army under any conditions. The men were needed to be in their late teens or early twenties to be eligible to join the army.
Roman Soldiers during the Roman Republic
The armed forces deployed between 300 BC and 88 BC were called the ‘manipular army’ or the ‘Polybian army’. It was named after the Greek historian Polybius.
This military composition was different because it incorporated three lines of 120 men called maniples as opposed to one large mass called the phalanx.
The maniples would be spread over in a tactical way resembling a chessboard. This allowed for much greater flexibility and better tactical strength.
The Roman army had the strength of about 150,000 soldiers full-time and three-quarters of the remaining army was conscripted.
Rome’s Italian allies had bound other military states into alliances and they supplied almost the same number of troops as the Romans.
There were about 150 autonomous states which were obliged by treaties to supply fully equipped troops every year. The Romans followed the Samnite manipular organization for their legions.
They heavily recruited from the poorest classes who were willing to commit more than 6 years of service in exchange for the military pay and possibly a share of the war loot.
This strategy worked during the Second Punic War between 218 BC to 201 BC when the Romans had expanded their territory overseas.
With the acquisition of a larger army due to conscriptions from Africa, Germany, Spain, Britain, Balkans, and the Middle East the maniple structure of the military organization was removed and a much larger cohort structure came into use.
By this time the soldiers had to acquire citizenship even if they did not live in Rome.
Key Figures and Facts
The late Roman Republic Period between 88 BC to 30 BC is described in the works of Julius Caesar who was one of the most prominent leaders of this time. The annual conscription was still in force and native horses were included in the military operations.
The annual conscription model of recruitment, however, was abandoned during the period of Emperor Augustus who was the only ruler of the Imperial Roman Army. The levy was replaced by a standing professional army of volunteers who served over 20-year terms.
Emperor Augustus had 28 legions of heavy infantry consisting of 5000 men each. At its best, the legions had grown to 33 consisting of 5500 men each which totaled about 180,000 men.
The soldiers in the legions were Roman citizens or those who lived in the Roman colonies. To provide extra protection to the legions a unit called Auxilia was created which mainly recruited volunteers and served 25 years.
Emperor Augustus had 250 regiments of auxilia. Each regiment had 500 men which came to about 50% of the total army at roughly 125,000 men.
The legionaries and the auxilia contained similar infantry and cavalry with archers and slingers, though the auxilia was not as heavily armored.
The men in the auxilia were not Roman citizens and only received one-third of the legionary’s income. They were often used to guard forts and frontiers.
After the end of their service which was 25 years, the auxilia was granted Roman citizenship.
The legionaries also served for the same term in the army but their reward was a pension in the form of farming land.
This secured their old age and many soldiers chose to settle together in military colonies and towns.
Recruitment and Training
The early soldiers were ordinary people who only came together in case there was an external threat. They did ordinary jobs and were not trained professionally.
The men were supposed to have their own weapons and equipment and were only paid expenses. They were chosen with respect to their physical fitness and stature.
Slowly the recruitment process became more professional under the guidance of the Roman commander called Marius. He enlisted the poor people of the empire in exchange for a wage. This unit was a light infantry unit and was generally used for skirmishing.
Those who had their own weapons and armor served in the heavy infantry and cavalry. They were people from the upper classes and owned wealth in the form of asses to transport and weapons like breastplates, shields, helmets, javelins, etc.
Later on, this changed as Marius ensured that all soldiers received weapons and armor from the state. The training was standardized and the compensation became more lucrative in the form of citizenship, farming land, or a portion of the war loot.
This development in the approach to military recruitment led to an increased number of people joining the armed forces. It created a more stable force that was ready to fight under any circumstances and responded to threats far more efficiently.
The criteria for the recruitment was the age of the soldier. The men were typically in their late teens or early twenties. They were required to be at least 5.8 feet tall and they were mostly butchers or blacksmiths.
The recruitment was followed by a period of probation where the physical and mental skills were assessed of the soldier.
If he showed skill in archery he would be sent for further training in that particular direction, similarly, if he showed talent as an accountant, he was trained for a bookkeeping role.
After the probation, the recruit was then sent for training for four months to prepare as a Roman soldier.
The training period of a Roman soldier involved long marches with the weight of their equipment which was about 90 pounds. This was necessary to keep the soldiers in good physical fitness.
Other physically intensive activities such as riding and swimming were practiced to increase stamina.
Weapons and Hierarchy of the Roman Soldiers
Wooden dummies were made so the soldiers could become familiar with the use of weapons. They practiced throwing javelins, fighting with swords, bows, and artillery equipment.
The weapons used for training were intentionally heavier than the actual war equipment. They were also taught how to use their shields as weapons.
There were several weapons that were skillfully used by the Roman soldiers. Most preferred the gladius which was a sword about half a meter in length. The sword was double-edged which made it perfect for thrusting into the enemy.
A javelin called pilum was used by many frontline military units. It was launched by the soldiers before they could engage in hand to hand combat.
Along with the gladius, a dagger called the pugio was carried by all legionary infantry. It was about 20 centimeters long and was used in close range fighting.
The catapults that the Roman soldiers were trained to use could knock down walls. They also had massive crossbows called Ballistas that could shoot arrows two times the size of spears.
The Roman army was a very organized force with a very clear hierarchy. The officers were in complete control of the soldiers and the soldiers were trained to do exactly what was expected of them.
The army was divided into groups of 5400 soldiers called legions, which was commanded by a legate who was usually the consul or a senator. The legions were further divided into cohorts and the cohorts were divided into centuries. The leader of each century was called the Centurion.
Centurions wore helmets with large crests, which made them visible on the battlefield to soldiers.
The Traditions of the Roman Soldiers
The key feature that gave Rome an edge over other militaries was their strategy and formation training. The cooperation that soldiers were trained to show on the battlefield maximized the effectiveness of the legions.
Discipline was reinforced in the soldiers through various activities and they were trained to live a strict military life.
An oath was mandatory for all soldiers which was the main tradition that bound the Roman army. The oath was called Sacramentum Militare.
The oath-taking also meant that the soldier has denounced his civil rights. If he broke the oath in any way, he would be punished by the commander in the way he saw fit.
When a soldier took the oath he promised that he would stay at his post till the time he is not released by a senior.
He promised that he would never steal from the army nor lose his weapons. He would show courage on the battlefield and be ready to die for Rome.
Apart from preparing soldiers, the Roman army also invested heavily in training their horses. They were used to transport supplies and messages during combat.
It was important that the horses remained calm in the atmosphere of battle and could bear the weight of the armor and cavalrymen. They were also trained to swim in shallow waters and overcome obstacles and hurdles.
The Roman soldiers could not marry during their time in service of the Empire but this changed slowly and some soldiers in higher ranks could marry.