Ancient History & Civilisation



The duty of a general is to ride by the ranks on horseback, show himself to those in danger, praise the brave, threaten the cowardly, encourage the lazy, fill up gaps, transpose a unit if necessary, bring aid to the wearied, anticipate the crisis, the hour and the outcome.1

ONASANDER’S SUMMARY OF A GENERAL’S BATTLEFIELD ROLE WAS WRITTEN in the middle of the first century AD, but reflected a command style which persisted for at least seven hundred years and was characteristically Roman. The general was there to direct the fighting and to inspire his soldiers by making them feel that they were being closely watched and that a conspicuous act of courage would be rewarded as promptly as conspicuous cowardice would be punished. It was not his job to plunge into the thick of the fray, sword or spear in hand, fighting at the head of his men and sharing their dangers. The Romans knew that Alexander the Great had led his Macedonians to victory in this way time after time, but there was never any real expectation that their own commanders should emulate such heroics. Onasander was himself a Greek, and a man without military experience writing in a genre whose style had been set in the Hellenistic era, but for all the literary stereotypes contained within his work the figure of the commander depicted in his The General was most decidedly Roman. The book was written in Rome and dedicated to Quintus Veranius, a Roman senator who would die while in command of the army in Britain in AD 58. The Romans proudly boasted that they had copied much of their tactics and military equipment from their foreign enemies, but their debt to others was far less when it came to the basic structure of their army and the functions performed by its leaders.

This is a book about generals, and specifically about fifteen of the most successful Roman commanders from the late third century BC to the middle of the sixth century AD. Some of these men are still relatively well known, at least amongst military historians – Scipio Africanus, Pompey and Caesar would all certainly be considered for inclusion amongst the ranks of the ablest commanders in history – while others have been largely forgotten. All, with the possible exception of Julian, were at the very least competent generals who won significant successes even if they ultimately suffered defeat, but most were very talented. Selection has been based on their importance, both in the wider history of Rome and in the development of Roman warfare, and also on the availability of sufficient sources to describe them in any detail. There is only a single subject from each of the second, fourth and sixth centuries AD, and none from the third or fifth centuries, simply because the evidence for these periods is so poor. For the same reason we cannot discuss in detail the campaigns of any Roman commander before the Second Punic War. Yet the spread remains wide, and the individual subjects illustrate well the changes both in the nature of the Roman army and in the relationship between a general in the field and the State.

Rather than survey a man’s entire career, each chapter focuses on one or two specific episodes during his campaigns, looking in some detail at how each man interacted with and controlled his army. The main emphasis is always on what the commander did at each stage of an operation and how far this contributed to its outcome. Such an approach, with elements of biography and a concentration on the general’s role – on strategy, tactics and their implementation, and on leadership – represents a very traditional style of military history. Inevitably it involves a strong element of narrative and descriptions of the more dramatic elements of wars, of battles and sieges, trumpets and swords. Though popular with a general reader, this sort of history has in recent decades lacked academic respectability. Instead scholars have preferred to look at the broader picture, hoping to perceive deeper economic, social or cultural factors which were held to have a more important influence on the outcome of conflicts than individual decisions or events during a war. To make the topic even less fashionable, this is also essentially a book about aristocrats, since the Romans felt that only the high-born and privileged deserved to be entrusted with high command. Even a ‘new man’ (novus homo) such as Marius, derided for his vulgar origins by the inner élite of the Senate even as he forced his way in to join them, still came only from the margins of the aristocracy and was not in any real sense more representative of the wider population.

By modern standards all Roman commanders were also essentially amateur soldiers. Most spent only part of their career – usually well under half of their adult lives – serving with the army. None received any formal training for command and they were appointed on the basis of political success, which in turn was reliant to a great extent on birth and wealth. Even a man like Belisarius, who did serve as an officer for most of his life, was promoted because of his perceived loyalty to the Emperor Justinian and did not pass through any organized system of training and selection. At no time in Rome’s history was there ever anything even vaguely resembling a staff college to educate commanders and their senior subordinates. Works of military theory were common in some periods, but many were little more than drill manuals (often describing the manoeuvres of Hellenistic phalanxes whose tactics had been obsolete for centuries) and all lacked detail. Some Roman generals are supposed to have prepared themselves for high command purely through reading such works, although this was never considered to be the best way to learn. Roman aristocrats were supposed to learn how to lead an army just as they learned how to behave in political life, by watching others and through personal experience in junior capacities.2

To modern eyes the selection of generals on the basis of their political influence, under the assumption that they would know enough to be able to pick up the job of a commander as they went along, seems absurdly random and inefficient. It has often been assumed that Roman generals were usually men of extremely limited talents. In the twentieth century Major General J.F.C. Fuller characterized Roman generals as little more than ‘drill-masters’, whilst W. Messer declared that they achieved a fairly consistent level of mediocrity. (Perhaps at this point we should remember Moltke’s comment that ‘in war with its enormous friction, even the mediocre is quite an achievement’.) The undeniable success of the Roman army for so many centuries is often held to have been achieved in spite of its generals, rather than because of them. To many commentators the tactical system of the legions seems designed to take responsibility away from the army commander and instead place much of it in the hands of more junior officers. The most important of these were the centurions, who are seen as highly professional and therefore good at their jobs. Occasionally there appeared men like Scipio or Caesar who were far more talented than the typical aristocratic general, but their skill was largely a reflection of instinctive genius and could not be emulated by others. The subjects of this book could be seen as such aberrations, the tiny minority of genuinely skilful commanders produced by the Roman system along with the vast majority of nonentities and downright incompetents. In much the same way the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century British Army’s system of purchase and patronage produced the occasional Wellington or Moore amongst such dismal leaders as Whitelocke, Elphinstone and Raglan.3

Yet a closer examination of the evidence suggests that most of these assumptions are at best greatly exaggerated and often simply wrong. Far from taking power away from the general, the Roman tactical system concentrated it in his hands. Junior officers such as centurions played a vitally important role, but they fitted into a hierarchy with the army commander at the top and allowed him to have more control of events rather than less. Some commanders were certainly better at their job than others, but the activities of a Scipio, Marius or Caesar on campaign do not appear to have been profoundly different from their contemporaries. The best Roman generals led and controlled their armies in essentially the same way as any other aristocrat, and the difference lay primarily in the skill with which they did so. In most periods the standard of the average Roman commander was actually quite good for all their lack of formal training. Over the centuries the Romans produced their share of incompetents who led the legions to needless disasters, but this has been true of all armies throughout history. It is extremely unlikely that even the most sophisticated modern methods of selecting and preparing officers for high rank will not occasionally throw up an individual who will prove to be utterly unsuited to high command. Others may appear to have every attribute necessary for a successful general, but will fail largely because of factors seemingly beyond their control. Many victorious Roman generals openly boasted that they were lucky, acknowledging that (as Caesar was to write) fortune played even more of a central role in warfare than in other human activities.

Studying the conduct of warfare and the role of the commander may not be fashionable, but that does not mean that it is unimportant or unprofitable. War played a major part in Rome’s history, for military success created and for a long time preserved the Empire. Wider factors – attitudes to warfare, and Rome’s capacity and willingness to devote enormous human and material resources to waging war – underlay the effectiveness of the Roman military, but did not make its success inevitable. In the Second Punic War such factors allowed the Republic to endure the series of staggering disasters inflicted on it by Hannibal, but the war could not be won until a way was found to defeat the enemy on the battlefield. The events of a campaign, and especially the battles and sieges, were obviously influenced by the wider context, but were still, as the Romans knew, intensely unpredictable. In any battle, and most of all a battle fought primarily with edged weapons, the outcome was never wholly certain and was determined by many factors, morale chief amongst them. Unless the Roman army could defeat its opponents in the field, wars could not be won. Understanding how they did, or did not, do this is never simply a matter of such apparent certainties as resources, ideology, and even equipment and tactics, for it requires a wider appreciation of the behaviour of human beings both as individuals and groups.

All history, including military history, is ultimately about people – their attitudes, emotions, actions and interactions with each other – and this is best achieved by establishing what actually happened before proceeding to explain why it did so. Too heavy a concentration on wider factors can obscure this as easily as the old-fashioned depiction of battles as being fought by symbols on a map where victory goes to the side most purely applying tactics based upon fixed ‘principles of war’. The most imaginative tactics were of little value if a commander was unable to get his army – consisting of thousands or maybe tens of thousands of individual soldiers – into the right places at the right time to implement them. The practical business of controlling, manoeuvring and supplying an army occupied far more of a commander’s time than the devising of clever strategy or tactics. More than any other single individual, the actions of the general influenced the course of a campaign or battle. For good or ill, what the commander did, or did not do, mattered.


By far the greatest part of our evidence for the careers of Roman generals is derived from the Greek and Latin literary accounts of their actions. At times we are able to supplement this with sculptural or other artistic depictions of commanders, with inscriptions recording achievements, and on rare occasions with excavated traces of the operations of their armies such as the remains of siegeworks. Valuable though such things are, it is only in the written accounts that we are told about what generals actually did and how their armies operated. As we have already noted, the selection of the subjects for the following chapters has owed much to the survival of adequate descriptions of their campaigns. Only a tiny fraction of the works written in antiquity have survived. Many other books are known only by name or from fragments so minute as to be of little value. We are extremely fortunate to have Julius Caesar’s own Commentaries describing his campaigns in Gaul and the Civil War. Obviously such an account is highly favourable to its author, but the wealth of detail it supplies concerning his activities provides an invaluable picture of a general in the field. Significantly it also highlights those attributes and achievements believed by an audience of contemporary Romans to be most admirable in an army commander. Many, perhaps most, other Roman generals also wrote their Commentaries but none of these accounts have survived in any useful form. At best we may find traces of these lost works in the narratives of later historians who drew upon them as a source.

Caesar’s operations are understood primarily from his own description of them, which only occasionally is supplemented by information from other authors. The great victories of his contemporary and rival Pompey the Great are only described in any detail by authors who wrote more than a century after his death. Such a gap between the events themselves and our earliest surviving account of them is typical for a good deal of Greek and Roman history. It is all too easy to forget that our most detailed sources for Alexander the Great were written more than 400 years after his reign. Occasionally we are more fortunate and have a work written by an eyewitness of many of the events recounted. Polybius was with Scipio Aemilianus at Carthage in 147–146 BC and may possibly also have been at Numantia, although in fact his description of these operations is in the main only preserved in passages written by others. More directly Josephus was with Titus during the siege of Jerusalem, Ammianus served under Julian the Apostate briefly in Gaul and during the Persian expedition, while Procopius accompanied Belisarius throughout his campaigns. Sometimes other authors refer to similar eyewitness accounts which have been lost, but it was not customary for ancient historians to give the sources for the information they present. In most cases we simply have a narrative written many years after an event whose reliability is usually impossible to prove or disprove.

Many ancient historians open their works with protestations of their intention to be truthful. Yet it was even more important for them to produce a text that was dramatic and highly readable, for history was supposed to entertain as much as, if not more than, it informed. Sometimes personal or political bias led to conscious distortion of the truth, while on other occasions inadequate or non-existent sources were supplemented by invention, often employing traditional rhetorical themes. On other occasions the military ignorance of the author led him to misunderstand his source, as when Livy mistranslated Polybius’ description of the Macedonian phalanx lowering its pikes into the fighting position to say that they dropped their pikes and fought with their swords. This is a rare case where the texts of both the original source and a later version have survived, but only seldom do we have this luxury. For some campaigns we have more than one source describing the same events and so may compare their details, but more often we are reliant on a single account. If we reject its testimony then we usually have nothing with which to replace it. Ultimately we can do little more than assess the plausibility of each account and perhaps register varying degrees of scepticism.


The Romans did not begin to write history until the end of the third century BC, and were virtually ignored by Greek writers until around the same time. It was only following the defeat of Carthage in 201 BC that histories of Rome began to be set down. For times before living memory there were a few formal records of laws, magistrates elected in each year and the celebration of religious festivals, but virtually nothing to set flesh on these bare bones apart from folk memories, poems and songs, most of which celebrated the deeds of the great aristocratic houses. Later this rich oral culture would help inspire the stories Livy and other writers would tell of Rome’s earliest days, of Romulus’ foundation of the city and the six kings who succeeded him, till the last was expelled and Rome became a Republic. There may well be many faint strands of truth interwoven with romantic invention in such tales, but it is now impossible to separate the two. Instead we shall merely survey the traditions concerning military leadership at Rome.4

Traditionally founded in 753 BC, Rome was for centuries only a small community (or probably several small communities which over time coalesced into one). The warfare waged by the Romans in these years was on a correspondingly small scale, consisting mainly of raiding and cattle rustling with the occasional skirmish-like battle. Most of the Romans’ leaders were warrior chieftains in the heroic mould (although the stories about the wisdom and piety of King Numa suggest that other attributes were also felt to be worthy of respect). Such kings and chiefs were leaders because in time of war they fought with conspicuous courage. In many respects they resembled the heroes of Homer’s Iliad, who fought so that people would say ‘Indeed, these are no ignoble men who are lords of Lykia, these kings of ours who feed upon the fat sheep appointed and drink the exquisite sweet wine, since indeed there is strength of valour in them, since they fight in the forefront of the Lykians.’5

The revolution which converted Rome from a monarchy into a republic appears to have done little to change the nature of military leadership, for the most prominent figures in the new state were still expected to fight in a conspicuous manner. The heroic ideal was to rush out in front of the other warriors and clash with enemy chieftains, fighting and winning within sight of all. On some occasions such duels could be formally arranged with the enemy, as when the three Horatii brothers fought as champions against the three Curiatii brothers of neighbouring Alba Longa. According to the legend two of the Romans were quickly cut down, but not before they had wounded their opponents. The last Horatius then pretended to flee, drawing the Curiatii into pursuit until they had separated, at which point he turned round and killed each one separately. Returning to Rome amid the acclamations of the army and the rest of his fellow citizens, the victor then killed his own sister for failing to welcome him enthusiastically enough – she had been betrothed to one of the Curiatii. This was just one story of individual heroics – even if its sequel was brutal and used to illustrate the gradual regulation of the behaviour of the men of violence by the wider community. Another involved Horatius Cocles, the man who held off the entire Etruscan army while the bridge across the Tiber was broken down behind him and then swam to safety. Whether or not there is any truth in such tales, they testify to a type of warfare prevalent in many primitive cultures.6

A feature of the stories about early Rome was the willingness to accept outsiders into the community, something that was rare elsewhere in the ancient world. Rome steadily grew in size and population, and as it expanded so too did the scale of its wars. The bands of warriors following individual heroic leaders were replaced by a wider levy of all those who could provide themselves with the necessary equipment to fight. In time – we do not understand this process well in the case of Rome or indeed any other Greek or Italian city – the Romans started to fight as hoplites in a tightly formed block or phalanx. Hoplites carried a round, bronze-faced shield some three feet in diameter, wore a helmet, cuirass and greaves and fought primarily with a long thrusting spear. The hoplite phalanx gave far fewer opportunities for acts of conspicuous heroism, for the densely packed warriors could see little of what was going on beyond a range of a few feet. As a small number of heroes ceased to dominate battles and the issue was instead decided by many hundreds, sometimes thousands, of hoplites fighting shoulder to shoulder, so the political balance of the community changed. Just as kings and chieftains had justified their authority by their prominence in war, so now the hoplite class demanded influence in the state commensurate with their battlefield role. In time they began annually to elect their own leaders to preside over the state in both peace and war. Most of these men were still drawn from a fairly narrow group of families, descended mainly from the old warrior aristocracy, who did not readily concede power. After a number of experiments with different systems of magistracies, it became established practice to choose by election two consuls to act as the Republic’s senior executive officers. The voting took place in an assembly known as the Comitia Centuriata, in which citizens voted in groups determined by their function in the army.7

The consuls had equal power or imperium, for the Romans were afraid to allow supreme authority to any individual, but usually each was given an independent field command. By the fourth century BC few enemies required the attention of Rome’s entire military resources under both consuls. It was also an indication of the growing size of the Republic and the increased scale of its wars that in most years war was being fought simultaneously against two enemies. The word legio (legion) had originally meant simply ‘levy’ and referred to the entire force raised by the Republic in time of war. Probably from the early days of the consulship it became normal practice to divide the levy into two and so provide each magistrate with a force to command, and over time ‘legion’ became the name for the subdivision. Later the number would increase again and the internal organization of each legion become more sophisticated. The Roman Republic continued to grow, defeating the Etruscans, Samnites and most other Italian peoples, before subduing the Greek colonies in Italy by the early third century BC.

Yet in many ways Italy was a military backwater and the Romans along with other Italian peoples somewhat primitive in their methods of war-making. In the later fifth century BC the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta and their allies had swept aside many of the conventions of hoplite warfare. By the fourth century BC most Greek states were increasingly reliant on small groups of professional soldiers or mercenaries, in place of the traditional phalanx raised when needed from all those citizens able to afford hoplite arms. Armies had become more complex, containing different types of infantry and sometimes cavalry as well, while campaigns lasted longer than in the past and more often involved sieges. Such warfare placed more demands on generals than the simple days of two phalanxes ploughing into each other on an open plain, when the commander had simply taken his place in the front rank to inspire his men.

Though most of these innovations had appeared first in the Greek states, it was to be the barbarian Macedonian kings to the north who created a far more effective army where cavalry and infantry fought in support of each other, which marched quickly to surprise its opponents and was capable of taking walled cities when necessary. Philip II and Alexander overran all of Greece, before the latter crossed to Asia and swept eastwards through Persia and into India. Alexander is supposed to have slept with a copy of theIliad under his pillow and consciously wanted to associate himself with Homer’s greatest hero, Achilles. Before a battle Alexander took great care to manoeuvre and deploy his army so that it could advance and apply co-ordinated pressure all along the enemy’s front. Then, at the critical moment he would lead his Companion cavalry in a charge against the most vulnerable part of the opposition’s line. In this way he inspired his soldiers to heights of valour, but once the fighting began he could exercise little direct influence on the course of the battle. Instead he trusted his subordinate officers to control the troops in other sectors of the field, although it is notable that he made very little use of reserves, largely because he would have been unable to send the order to commit these troops once the fighting had begun. Alexander was an exceptionally bold leader, paying the price for his command style in a long catalogue of wounds, many received in hand-to-hand combat.8

Few of the Successor generals who tore Alexander’s empire apart in the decades after his death were quite as reckless, but even so most felt obliged at some stage to lead a charge in person. King Pyrrhus of Epirus, who claimed direct descent from Achilles, was one of the keenest to fight hand to hand and was eventually killed leading his men to storm a city. He was also a thinking soldier who had produced a manual on generalship, which has unfortunately not survived. In battle Plutarch claims that although he ‘…exposed himself in personal combat and drove back all who encountered him, he kept throughout a complete grasp of the progress of the battle and never lost his presence of mind. He directed the action as though he was watching it from a distance, yet he was everywhere himself, and always managed to be at hand to support his troops wherever the pressure was greatest.’9 Personal heroism was still considered both appropriate and admirable in an army commander, especially when he was a monarch, but he was also expected to direct his army closely. Alexander’s greatest victories had been won over enemies far less effective in close combat than his Macedonians, but his Successors spent much of their time fighting each other and so were usually confronted by armies almost identical in equipment, tactics and doctrine to their own men. With no in-built superiority over the enemy, commanders had to seek some special advantage to ensure victory. The military theory which flourished at this period was greatly concerned with the right conditions in which a commander should fight a battle.

The Romans first came face to face with a modern Hellenistic army in 280 BC when Pyrrhus came to the aid of the Greek city of Tarentum in Southern Italy in its conflict with Rome. After two major defeats, the Romans were finally able to defeat the King of Epirus in 275 at Malventum, but the stubborn resilience of Roman legionaries had more to do with this success than any inspired generalship. In many respects the Roman style of command belonged to an older, simpler era, with far less expectation of prolonged manoeuvring prior to a pitched battle as each side searched for as many little advantages as possible. Yet once the fighting started, the behaviour of the Roman general differed markedly from his Hellenistic counterpart. A magistrate rather than a king, the Roman had no fixed place on the battlefield, no royal bodyguard at whose head he was expected to charge. The consul stationed himself wherever he thought the most important fighting would occur and during the battle moved along behind the fighting line, encouraging and directing the troops. Hellenistic armies rarely made much use of reserves, but the basic formation of the Roman legion kept half to two-thirds of its men back from the front line at the start of the battle. It was the general’s task to feed in these fresh troops as the situation required.

Rome had certainly not abandoned all heroic traditions and at times generals did engage in combat. Many aristocrats boasted of the number of times they had fought and won single combats, although by the third century BC at the latest they had most likely done this while serving in a junior capacity. At Sentinum in 295 BC one of the two consuls with the army – an exceptionally large force to face a confederation of Samnite, Etruscan and Gallic enemies – performed an archaic ritual when he ‘devoted’ himself as a sacrifice to the Earth and the gods of the Underworld to save the army of the Roman People. Once he had completed the rites this man, Publius Decius Mus, spurred his horse forward into a lone charge against the Gauls and was swiftly killed. Livy claims that he had formally handed over his command to a subordinate before this ritual suicide (a gesture which was something of a family tradition, for his father had acted in the same way in 340 BC). Sentinum ended in a hard fought and costly Roman victory.10

One of the most important attributes of a Roman aristocrat was virtus, for which the modern derivative ‘virtue’ is a poor translation. Virtus embraced all the important martial qualities, including not just physical courage and skill at arms, but also the moral courage and other gifts of a commander. A Roman nobleman was expected to be capable of deploying an army in battle order and controlling it during the fighting, paying attention to the small detail of individual units and their commitment to the combat. He was to have the confidence and sense to make appropriate decisions, firmly adhering to them or having the courage to confess an error as appropriate. Most of all he was never to doubt Rome’s ultimate victory. Such an ideal permitted a broad range of interpretations. Some men obviously continued to place far greater stress on the aspect of individual heroics, but they were a clear minority by the time of the First Punic War when we can first begin to glimpse something of the behaviour of Rome’s commanders in the field. Even those who still aspired to personal deeds of valour did not feel that this absolved them from the direction of their army, for such acts were simply an additional source of glory and did not alter the commander’s most important role.11


War and politics were inseparably linked at Rome, and her leaders were expected to guide public life in the Forum or lead an army on campaign as required. Since foreign enemies posed a great and obvious threat to the State’s prosperity, and at times even its existence, the defeat of an enemy in war was held to be the greatest achievement for any leader and brought the most glory. Since for many centuries senators provided all of the state’s senior magistrates and commanders, the capacity to provide successful military leadership became a central part of the senatorial class’ self-image. Later even the most unmilitary of emperors – and we should remember that our word ‘emperor’ is derived from the Latin imperator or general – paraded the successes achieved by their armies and suffered a serious drop in prestige if wars went badly. Until late antiquity the men who commanded Rome’s armies followed a career, the cursus honorum, which brought them a range of civil and military posts. Governors of a province were expected to administrate and dispense justice or wage war depending upon the situation. However, it is a grave mistake to view the Roman system through modern eyes and to claim that Roman commanders were not really soldiers at all, but politicians, for these men were always both. Military glory helped a man’s political career and might in turn lead to further opportunities for command in war. Even men whose talents were more suited either to fighting or politicking had to have at least some minimum proficiency in both if they were to have the chance to show their talents.

Successful generals usually profited financially from their campaigns, but the gains in prestige were in some respects even greater. After a victory in the field, a commander’s army would formally hail him as imperator. On his return to Rome he could then expect to be granted the right to celebrate a triumph, when he and his troops would process along the Sacra Via, the ‘Sacred Way’ which led through the heart of the city. The general rode in a four-horse chariot, his face painted red and dressed so that he resembled the old terracotta statues of Jupiter Optimus Maximus. For that day he was treated almost as if he were divine, although a slave stood behind him in the chariot continually whispering to him to remember that he was mortal. A triumph was a great honour, something which the family would continue to commemorate for generations. Many of Rome’s greatest buildings were erected or restored by successful generals using the spoils they had won in war, while the family house would be permanently decorated with the wreathed symbols of a triumph. Only a minority of senators won a triumph, but even this group struggled to prove that their triumph was greater than that of anyone else. Inscriptions recording the achievements of commanders tended to go into great detail and most of all sought to quantify success, listing the numbers of enemies killed or enslaved, of cities stormed or warships captured. For a Roman aristocrat it was always important to win victories bigger and better than other senators.

The cursus honorum varied in its form and flexibility over the centuries, but always followed an annual political cycle. By the time of the Second Punic War it was supposed to begin with either ten full years or ten campaigns of military service in the cavalry, on the staff of a family member or friend, or as an officer such as a military tribune. After this a man might stand for election for the office of quaestor, who had essentially financial responsibilities but might also act as a consul’s second in command. Other posts following a year as quaestor, such as tribune of the plebs and aedile, did not have military responsibilities, but by 218 BC the praetorship sometimes involved a field command. However, the most important campaigns were always allocated to the year’s consuls. All of these magistracies were held only for twelve months, and an individual was not supposed to be re-elected to the same office before a ten-year interval had elapsed. Magistrates given a military command possessed imperium, the power to issue orders to soldiers and dispense justice. The more senior the magistracy, the greater the imperium of the individual. Occasionally the Senate chose to extend the command of a consul or praetor for a year at a time, and their rank was then proconsul or propraetor respectively. Elections at Rome were fiercely competitive and many of the three hundred or so members of the Senate at any one time had never held any magistracy. The voting system gave disproportionate weight to the wealthier classes in society and tended to favour the members of the oldest and richest of the noble families. A small number of established senatorial families tended to dominate the consulship, with only a small number of other men reaching this post. Yet the Roman political system was not entirely rigid. Though there was always an inner élite of families, the membership of this group altered over the decades as family lines died out or were supplanted by others. It was also always possible for a man whose family had never yet reached high office to gain the consulship.

In a book of this nature it is not possible to describe in detail the development of the Roman army, but equally it is obviously important to provide some indication of the force at the disposal of each general. At the start of our survey the Roman army was recruited from all male citizens who possessed the property to equip themselves for war. The wealthiest served as cavalrymen, since they were able to provide themselves with horse, armour and weapons. The core of the army was formed by the heavy infantry, most of whom were drawn from the owners of small holdings of land. The poor provided light infantrymen who needed no armour and might also serve as rowers in the fleet. Each legion consisted of these three elements – 300 cavalrymen, 3,000 heavy infantrymen, and 1,200 light infantry (velites). The heavy infantry were further divided on the basis of age and military experience into three lines. The youngest 1,200 were known as the hastati and fought in the first line. Those in the prime of life were known as the principes and were stationed as a second line, while 600 veterans or triarii were in the rear.


Each line was composed of ten tactical units or maniples, consisting of two administrative units or centuries each led by a centurion. The centurion of the right-hand century was senior and commanded the entire maniple if both men were present. The maniples of each line were arranged with intervals equal to their frontage between each unit and the next. The gaps were covered by the maniples of the next line so that the legion’s formation resembled a chequerboard (quincunx). On campaign each Roman legion was supported by a wing or ala of Latin or Italian allies, composed of roughly the same number of infantry but up to three times as many cavalry. A consul was normally given two legions and two alae. The standard formation placed the legions in the centre with oneala on either flank, hence these were usually named the Right and Left Ala accordingly. Some of the allied troops – usually one fifth of the infantry and a third of the cavalry – were detached from the alae to form the extraordinarii, who were placed at the immediate disposal of the army commander. The extraordinarii were often used to lead the column during an advance or act as rearguard during a retreat.12

Roman soldiers were not professionals, but men who served in the army as a duty to the Republic. The army is often referred to as a militia force, but it is probably better to think of it as a conscript army, for men would often spend several years consecutively with the legions although no one was supposed to be called upon to serve for more than sixteen years. Military service was an interlude to normal life, although one that does not appear to have been generally resented. Once in the army citizens willingly subjected themselves to a system of discipline that was extremely harsh, losing most of their legal rights until they were discharged. Even minor infractions could be punished very harshly, while serious breaches of discipline were punishable by death. The Roman army remained essentially an impermanent force, the legions being demobilized when the Senate decided that they were no longer needed. Although the soldiers might well be called upon to serve the Republic again, they would not do so in the same units and under the same commanders. Each army and legion raised was unique and would gradually increase in efficiency as it underwent training. Legions which saw active service were often very well drilled and disciplined, but as soon as these were disbanded the process would have to begin afresh with new armies. There was therefore an odd mixture of discipline and organization as strict as many professional armies with the impermanence of a continuing cycle of recruitment, training and demobilization before starting again.

Finally it is worth mentioning some of the factors which restricted a general’s activity throughout our period. One of the most important was the limit on the speed with which information could be communicated. In all practical respects this was never faster than the pace of a dispatch rider. Instances are recorded of individuals making very long journeys in a short time, and under the Principate the Imperial post was created to provide messengers with fresh horses at regular intervals. It was always easier to convey such messages within the Empire, through settled provinces along well maintained roads. The network of roads constructed by the Romans assisted such communication and the movement of men and supplies in general, but was only really of value within the provinces. Offensive operations beyond the frontiers were usually conducted over a much simpler network of roads and paths. At times the Roman army also devised systems of signalling using flags or more often beacons, but such devices could only convey the simplest of messages and were anyway most suited to an army in fixed positions either along a frontier line or occasionally at a siege.

The most important consequence of this was that a general in the field had at most periods considerable freedom of action, since it was impractical to direct operations in detail from the centre of power at Rome. It was also extremely difficult to control divisions of an army spread over even fairly modest distances, which encouraged commanders to keep their forces concentrated under most circumstances. The ancient world was a world almost without maps, certainly with few if any of sufficient detail and accuracy to assist in the planning of military operations. Commanders could gather information about the landscape from a range of sources – if fighting within a province the quantity and quality of such information was obviously greatly enhanced – but for most practical purposes it was a question of sending someone ahead to look. Generals would often carry out reconnaissance in person, in the same way that they would often personally interrogate prisoners or interview merchants or members of the local population to gather news. The comparatively short range of weaponry, which was still essentially a reflection of human muscle power, was extremely limited and this, combined with the size of armies, ensured that a general could be in a position to see all of his own and the enemy army during a battle. Visibility was only limited by terrain, weather and the capacity of the human eye without the benefit of even such simple optical enhancements as the telescope.

Roman commanders were therefore able to direct operations at a much more immediate and personal level than has been the case in more recent warfare. On campaign and during battle and siege Roman generals were highly active, spending a lot of their time close to the enemy at risk of injury or death from missiles or sudden attackers. Although no longer leaders in the heroic mould of Alexander they were in some ways closer to their men, sharing the hardships of campaign in a way that would be praised as characteristically Roman. Whatever the political and social reality, the ideal persisted of the general as a fellow citizen and fellow soldier (commiles), who shared in a common enterprise with the rest of the army.13

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