The use of violent force to subdue an enemy is the ultimate function of any army, and the most concentrated expression of this purpose was the clash in open battle of massed armies. The accounts of the Roman army’s campaigns provided by our literary sources are dominated by descriptions of pitched battle. Although comparatively rare events, battles were spectacular, intensely dramatic, and often decisive. When an opponent possessed a substantial field army, its defeat in battle would often prompt capitulation. The wealth of evidence, as well as their intrinsic importance, make a detailed examination of battles worthwhile.
Moving into contact
Roman field armies rarely numbered more than 40,000 men, and were more commonly half that size or smaller, as we have seen. Enemy armies may on occasions have been significantly larger, although the figures given by our ancient sources are inevitably unreliable on this point. Rarely would the Romans have had precise information concerning the size and composition of their opponents, and in many cases the enemy leaders themselves may have had only the roughest idea of the number of troops under their command. Apart from this, there is always the danger that enemy numbers were exaggerated to increase the glory of Rome’s eventual triumph.
Moving several tens of thousands of soldiers, along with their mounts, pack and draught animals, servants and camp followers, across the countryside was no simple task. The professional army placed great emphasis on preserving march discipline, and also on sending out scouts to reconnoitre the route which the column was going to take. When Vespasian led his army into Galilee in ad 67, Josephus tells us that they marched in the following order:
1 Auxiliary light infantry and archers sent ahead to trigger any ambushes and to examine any cover, notably woodland, in case it concealed the enemy.
2 A contingent of legionaries [or close order auxiliaries] and heavy cavalry.
3 Ten men from each century, carrying their own kit and equipment for marking out the camp.
4 A party of men carrying tools, tasked with straightening the road and clearing any obstructions. [In Hyginus’ Manual, this role was allocated to a detachment of sailors.]
5 The army commanders baggage and his staff, escorted by cavalry.
6 The commander himself, his personal bodyguard and a picked force of horse and foot.
7 The cavalry of the legions.
8 The siege train.
9 The legates of the legions, and the prefects and tribunes escorted by picked troops.
10 Each legion in turn, led by its eagle and other standards, the men marching six abreast.
11 The allies and auxiliaries.
12 A rearguard of both light and heavy infantry and cavalry.
Vespasian did not expect to encounter an enemy field army, but even so took precautions to meet any sudden attack. When there was a greater likelihood of encountering a numerous enemy force, the Roman column might march ready to deploy directly into battle order, or, if the direction of enemy attack was uncertain, in hollow square.
Great care was taken to gather as much information about the enemy location, strength and intentions as possible - a marked change from the old Mid Republican militia, which had tended to blunder into ambush or contact with remarkable frequency. Roman generals often went out in person to reconnoitre, and supervised the interrogation of captives.
The Battle of the Sambre, 57 вс
After addressing Legio X, Caesar hurried to the right wing, where he saw his men hard pressed, and the standards of Legio XII clustered in one place and the soldiers so crowded together that it impeded their fighting. All the centurions in the fourth cohort had fallen, the signifer was dead and his standard captured: in the remaining cohorts nearly every centurion was either dead or wounded, including the primus pilus Sextus Julius Baculus, an exceptionally brave man, who was exhausted by his many serious wounds and could no longer stand; the other soldiers were tired and some in the rear, giving up the fight, were withdrawing out of missile range; the enemy were edging closer up the slope in front and pressing hard on both flanks. He saw that the situation was critical and that there was no other reserve available, took a shield from a man in the rear ranks - he had come without his own - advanced into the front line and called on the centurions by name, encouraged the soldiers, and ordered the line to advance and the units to extend, so that they could employ their swords more easily. His arrival brought hope to the soldiers and refreshed their spirits, every man wanting to do his best in the sight of his general even in such a desperate situation. The enemy’s advance was delayed for a while’.
Caesar, Bellum Gallicum 2.25.
Caesar’s account of the battle of the Sambre, 57 вс.
When and where to fight
When a Roman army came into contact with an enemy force, it usually pitched camp, part of the army forming up to cover the men digging entrenchments. From the 3rd to 1st centuries вс, it was then very common to remain within a few miles of the enemy for days or even weeks before actually joining battle. On many of these days one or both sides would march out of camp and form up ready to fight, so that sometimes they were as little as a quarter of a mile apart, only to stare at each other for a few hours, and then return to camp. How far forward from its own camp and towards the enemy line an army was willing to go demonstrated its confidence. Morale has always played a critical role in deciding the outcome of combat, but this was especially true in the ancient world where much of the fighting was hand-to-hand. Generals attempted to build up their men’s morale before risking an actual clash with the enemy. Skirmishes and single combats might be fought, especially by the cavalry and light infantry, and the outcome of these was felt to demonstrate the relative courage and prowess of the rival sides. The battles in this period were very formal affairs, the subtle manoeuvrings of the rival armies having an almost ritualized feel to them. The good commander chose the ground on which he would fight a battle, seeking terrain which favoured his own forces more than the enemy. Then he also took great care in deciding when to push his men forward that little bit further so that the enemy would either have to fight, or retreat and demonstrate their lack of confidence.
There were long delays before many of Julius Caesar’s battles, against both foreign and Roman opponents. After suffering a reverse, Caesar also frequently formed his men up in an exceptionally strong position and offered battle, knowing that the enemy would not risk fighting at such a disadvantage. Thus he was able to assure his men that the enemy were still frightened of them.
None of our sources for the Principate mention such long delays before a battle. Instead many of the army’s battles occurred when the enemy were encountered on the march or, at the most, after halting and building a camp for the night. This may well be a reflection of a changing military situation when most campaigns were fought against less politically united opponents. Much of the fighting on Rome’s frontiers was on a smaller scale than the wars of earlier periods. Few enemies could muster armies which required large concentrations of Roman troops to be sent against them. However, much of the fighting occurred in areas where the terrain was difficult, and good roads rare. Supplying an army operating in such conditions and simply finding the enemy were major problems. The Roman army was so confident of its superiority over its opponents that it could afford to risk battle under circumstances that were less than ideal.
One of the sculpted reliefs from the principia in the fortress at Maim shows two legionaries in fighting positions. The man in front crouches down to gain the maximum protection from his rectangular scutum. His gladius is held ready to deliver an under-arm thrust to his opponent. Behind him another legionary has his pilum still resting against his shoulder, and holds his scutum high to protect the other man. It is unclear whether this figure accurately represents the role of the second rank of a line during a combat, or whether he represents in a less literal sense the support given to the fighting-line by the men and cohorts behind.
The battle line
The manipular legion of the Mid Republic had essentially one battle formation, and variations on this were extremely rare. Only a few, highly imaginative and gifted commanders, such as Scipio Africanus, at the head of very experienced armies were able to use anything other than the standard three lines (triplex acies), with the legions in the centre, alae on either side and cavalry on the wings. The Marian reform changed this, and the greater flexibility of the legion based upon the cohort rather than the maniple resulted in far more variation.
In most large-scale actions the terrain was fairly open. There were some exceptions to this rule, and at times Roman armies fought effectively through forests and marsh if that was the only place where they could bring the enemy to battle. Forming up on a ridge or hill gave an army an advantage, though carried with it the danger that the enemy would decline to attack at all. Terrain features were often used to protect an army’s rear or flanks, especially if the enemy was significantly more mobile or numerous. In Britain in AD 60 Suetonius Paulinus fought against Boudicca’s huge rebel army in a narrowing ravine, with his flanks and rear protected by the high ground and thick woodland. In Cappadocia in the early 2nd century AD, Arrian planned to anchor his flanks on high ground to prevent the mobile Alan horsemen from threatening them. Where nature failed to offer such features, the army could make its own, as for instance at Chaeronea in 86 BC when Sulla dug a series of ramparts and ditches to guard the flanks of his heavily outnumbered legions against Mithridates of Pontus.
It is extremely difficult for us to imagine what a battle in the Roman period was like. This picture attempts to reconstruct a section of a battle in an encounter between the Romans and a 'barbarian army.
The details of the army’s formation depended on its composition and the local tactical situation. Usually, as in earlier periods, the cavalry was divided between the flanks of the line, sometimes with an additional force kept in reserve. However, if the enemy was overwhelmingly superior in horsemen then the Roman cavalry was either closely supported by strong detachments of infantry or placed behind a dense infantry line. The entire army could form a huge square if faced with a very mobile opponent. Sometimes the auxiliary infantry was stationed on either side of a centre formed by the legions, but it could also form the first line and be supported by the citizen troops. The cohort legion most often deployed in three lines, but there were many variations, and sometimes entire legions were stationed in reserve.
The royal commander in battle
Before a battle a Roman general summoned a council (consilium). Although often translated as council of war, this was not a forum for debate, but a gathering in which orders were issued and explained to the senior officers of the army. Legionary legates and tribunes certainly attended the consilium, and it is probable that auxiliary prefects and senior legionary centurions were also present. Issues covered included the army’s formation and tactics, and the orders necessary to put these into effect. The officers present would then in turn go to brief their own subordinates in similar sessions. Moving an army into position, and making sure that each unit reached the right place at the right time and knew what it was supposed to do, was a major task, requiring close supervision from all the officers of the army, including the general.
Another important function of the consilium was to allocate commanders to each section of the battle line. Normally, each legion had its legate who automatically controlled the 10 cohorts. Legionary vexillations also usually had an acting commander, often one of the tribunes. Auxiliary alae and cohorts were independent units and had no higher command structure. Sometimes individual units were attached to a legion, but usually they were temporarily brigaded together and placed under the command of an officer, who was most often one of their prefects. In the largest armies, it was sometimes felt necessary to impose a higher level of command over the c. 5,000-man blocks formed by the legions. Caesar routinely divided his army up into a right wing, centre and left wing, each under the control of one of his senior legati, and this appears to have been standard practice.
The commander of a Roman army was expected to be very active before, during and after a battle, but was not normally expected to tight. A general was there to direct and inspire his men. Other senior officers performed a similar function in the sector of the line placed under their charge. In most cases generals would control a battle on horseback, making it easier for them to see what was going on and move from one crisis point to the next.
All of these subordinate commanders were directly or indirectly responsible to the general. There was no fixed position which a Roman general was expected to occupy during a battle. In a few exceptional cases Roman commanders chose to lead one of the front-line units, fighting hand-to-hand with it after the manner of Hellenistic leaders such as Alexander the Great. Such heroic leadership could inspire the army, but a general wielding his sword in close combat had little sense of what was going on throughout the rest of the battlefield and was in no position to issue orders. This was a major disadvantage, because the Roman system of deploying in more than one line meant that a high proportion of the army began the battle in reserve. Slightly more Roman generals adopted the opposite style of command, establishing themselves well behind the army, preferably on higher ground which offered good visibility. From there they were able to observe the battle as a whole and react to the changing situation, issuing fresh orders by messengers. Remaining in one place also meant that reports sent by his subordinates could reach him easily. Yet such a distant commander was unlikely to inspire his soldiers, and may not always have been able to judge how the fighting was going until it was too late to do anything about it.
A Roman general was supposed to act as a judge of his men's behaviour, praising and rewarding the brave and punishing the cowardly. In this scene from Trajan's Column auxiliary soldiers present the Emperor with the severed heads of Dacian warriors. Rome had suppressed headhunting within the provinces, but it seems to have continued to flourish amongst certain auxiliary units.
The vast majority of Roman generals adopted a style of command which was a compromise between these two extremes, keeping close behind the fighting line, whilst not actually getting involved in the melee. From there, the general was far more able to judge how the fighting was going for the nearest units, since he was able to see if unwounded men were beginning to slip away from the rear of the line, and listen to the noise and observe how confident each side appeared to be. This allowed him to judge whether or not to commit troops from the reserve line, either to reinforce success or prevent an impending breakthrough. Reinforcements from the reserve lines were either summoned by messenger or the commander himself could ride over to them and lead them up into position. If he felt it necessary he could choose to lead such a unit or one already in the fighting line in a charge, actually fighting for a short time before resuming his role directing the battle. A general who kept close to the fighting was also able to encourage his men by cheering them on. He also acted as a witness to their behaviour, a witness who had the power to reward courage and punish cowardice. The Roman army was lavish in issuing decorations to courageous individuals, but acts of bravery needed to be noticed if they were to be commended. Roman soldiers were thought to fight much better when they believed that their commander was watching.
A painting showing the formation which Arrian, legate of Cappadocia, in modem Turkey, during Hadrian's reign, ordered his legionaries to adopt before an anticipated encounter with the Alans. The latter were a Sarmatian people, whose main strength consisted of heavily armoured cataphract cavalry. In order to resist their attack, Arrian’s legionaries - elements of XII Fulminata and XV Apollinaris - deployed in eight ranks, backed by a ninth rank of archers and a tenth of horse archers Ranks five to eight in the legions were armed with the lighter lancea javelin, rather than the pilum. While the front ranks packed tightly together, those behind deluged the Alans with missiles
The general was not tied to one particular part of the battlefield, but able to move around. He needed to anticipate where each crisis or critical point would occur and move to that spot in time to meet it. All along the line, the officers in charge of each sector were doing much the same things as the commander-in-chief. The Roman style of command was highly effective, but also dangerous. Generals were conspicuous figures, marked out by their red cloaks, and often even more spectacular costume. Moving around only just behind the fighting line they risked being hit by missiles. There was also the danger that individual enemies would single them out in an effort to win glory by killing the enemy commander.
Unit formations and tactics
We do not have a manual describing the drills and tactics of the professional Roman army in detail, although to some extent Arrian’s Tactica covers some aspects of cavalry tactics. Polybius appears to say that a Roman legionary occupied 1.8 m (6 ft) of frontage and 1.8 m of depth in formation. In contrast Vegetius, writing much later but employing earlier sources, says that the frontage per man was 0.9 m (3 ft) and the depth 2.1 m (7 ft). A depth of 1.8-2.1 m (6-7 ft) was probably essential to allow a soldier to throw his pilum without striking the man behind him. A frontage of 1.8 m seems exceedingly wide, and it is more probable that 0.9 m (3 ft) was the standard frontage, which was certainly the case for other close-order infantrymen in the ancient world.
Our sources occasionally provide some detail concerning the formations adopted by Roman troops. At Pharsalus in 48 BC Pompey deployed his infantry 10 ranks deep, because they were both more numerous and of poorer quality than Caesar’s men. Josephus says that the Romans marched six abreast and mentions both infantry and cavalry deployed in lines three deep. This would appear to suggest a drill system based on multiples of three. Arrian’s infantry marched four abreast, and deployed in battle eight deep, which would then suggest a system based on multiples of four, the number usually found in Hellenistic manuals. Perhaps the Roman army as a whole had adopted a new system of drill, but it may also be that such things varied in detail from legion to legion and period to period.
Formation was in part dictated by practical factors. The wider a line was, the more likely it was to encounter obstacles as it moved. Unless it proceeded slowly, constantly halting to reform, it would rapidly break up and fall into disorder.
(Above) Morinus was an archer in Cohors l Ituraeorum who died at the age of 50 after 16 years’ service - and hence had not enlisted until the age of 34. Many of the units armed with bows were originally formed in the eastern provinces such as Ituraea in Syria. Morinus is shown holding his composite bow and a bundle of arrows.
Therefore a narrower, deeper formation could move and manoeuvre more quickly. However, only troops in the front, and to some extent second, rank of a formation could use their weapons in combat. The role of men in the ranks behind this was primarily psychological. To the enemy they made the formation look more impressive and frightening. Their physical presence also made it very difficult for the men in front of them to run away. Higher-quality troops tended to form up in shallow formations, perhaps three or four deep, whilst less experienced or confident units deployed six, eight, or 10 deep.
Most Roman soldiers carried some form of missile weapon, whether it was a pilum or lighter throwing- spear. A smaller number carried longer-range weapons such as the bow or sling. Archers could be employed in close formation, although it does not seem to have been possible for them to defend their own frontage simply by firepower, and we read on several occasions of archers being swept away by an enemy charge. A more effective tactic was to deploy a line of archers behind a legionary or auxiliary cohort, so that the bowmen could shoot over their heads. This was done during the Jewish Rebellion in ad 66-73 when a three-rank formation of heavy infantry was backed by a single rank of archers. In Cappadocia in AD 135 Arrians eight ranks of legionaries had a ninth rank of foot archers and tenth rank of horse archers shooting over their heads, as well as artillery positioned on high ground. Clearly, archers standing behind formed infantry cannot have seen and thus aimed at their targets. They were shooting blind, hoping to drop large numbers of arrows into a beaten zone enclosing the attacking enemy.
Slingers, some javelinmen, and sometimes archers, operated in open order, skirmishing with the enemy. This allowed them to single out a target and aim, whilst the space also made it easier to dodge and avoid incoming missiles. According to Vegetius, archers trained by shooting at a post 180 m (590 ft) away. The effective range of a bow or sling in battle is rather harder to estimate, since a great deal depended on the skill of the man employing the weapon. Skirmishers rarely proved decisive in the battles of the period covered by this book. At best they could defeat their counterparts and begin to harass the main line, but many skirmish combats appear to have gone on for a considerable time without achieving much. Ancient missiles all moved at a comparatively low velocity. Arrows and javelins, though not sling bullets, were readily visible in the air and so could be dodged. Casualties in skirmish combats appear generally to have been few as a result.
(Above) Although no auxiliary cohort appears to have been officially designated as stingers (funditores), it is clear that some soldiers were equipped with this weapon. This scene from Trajan's Column shows two slingers who have a specially adapted fold to their tunics allowing them to hold a supply of ammunition. Sling bullets - whether simple pebbles or moulded lead ammunition - were difficult to see in fight and could cause concussion even if they failed to penetrate the target’s helmet or armour.
Although artillery was mainly used in sieges, the Romans sometimes employed light ballistae or scorpions in battle. Some of these engines, known as carroballistae, were mounted on carts drawn by mules. These engines fired bolts with massive force capable of penetrating shield or armour with great ease.
When missiles were directed at a body of troops in close order, there was far less opportunity for them to avoid the projectiles and greater reliance was placed on shield and armour to stop these. Arrows would normally be stopped by a shield, except at very close range, but modern tests suggest that they would readily penetrate mail, though not segmented, armour at battlefield ranges. Fatal injuries would be rare, but wounds to the exposed limbs fairly common.
Artillery (see p. 188) was comparatively rare on the battlefield, because of its poor mobility. Its advantages were far longer range, greater accuracy and far more penetrative power than other missile weapons. When a Roman field army deployed artillery, especially against barbarian opponents, they were able to single out and pick off conspicuous enemies at ranges far beyond the opposition’s ability to respond. Artillery probably would kill relatively few enemies, but its power was such that it would do so in a spectacular way, which could have a deep effect on enemy morale.
Armies might begin a battle deployed as close as a quarter of a mile apart. After a period of skirmishing which could last some time but rarely achieved a decisive result, one or both of the opposing armies would advance and the major clash begin. It was very rare for Roman infantry to remain stationary and await an attack, although this was sometimes necessary when facing large numbers of enemy cavalry. Caesar believed that it was a mistake for infantry to meet a charge at the halt, since advancing troops were more confident.
The Bottle of Pharsalus
9 August 48 BC
During 49 вс civil war had broken out between Caius Julius Caesar and his rivals in the Senate, led by Pompey the Great. Caesar had rapidly overrun Italy and then defeated the Pompeian armies in Spain whilst his opponents massed their main strength in Macedonia. After an initial check at Dyrrachium, Caesar confronted Pompey near the small town of Pharsalus.
1 The Caesareans: about eight understrength legions totalling 22,000 men supported by 1,000 cavalry.
2 The Pompeians: 11 strong legions totalling 45,000 men and 7,000 cavalry.
Caesar had rested his left flank on the River Enipeus, so Pompey resolved to use his vastly superior cavalry to turn his opponents right flank. Taking one cohort from the third line of each of his legions, Caesar formed a fourth line, angled back behind his own cavalry on the right. The Pompeian cavalry led by Labienus attacked and drove back the Caesarean horse, but in the process lost much of their order. Unexpectedly counter-attacked by the fourth line, the milling mass of cavalry was stampeded to the rear. In the meantime Caesar’s infantry had advanced to engage the main enemy line. The Pompeians did not move forward to meet them, so Caesar’s men checked their charge and reformed before advancing into contact. A hard fight developed. Eventually Caesar ordered his third line to reinforce the fighting line and sent the fourth line against the exposed left flank of the enemy foot. Pompey’s army collapsed into rout.
1 Caesarean: 30 centurions and about 200 legionaries.
2 Pompeian: allegedly 15,000 killed and 24,000 taken prisoner. Nine eagles and 180 signa standards were captured.
Pompey’s main hope was destroyed. He fled to Egypt and was murdered there. The war might have ended at this point had not Caesar then spent half a year involving himself with Egypt’s dynastic struggles and carrying on an affair with Queen Cleopatra.
Julius Caesar was widely acknowledged by the Romans themselves as probably the greatest, and certainly the most successful, commander they ever produced. He also wrote commentaries on his campaigns (Gallic Wars) which provide the most detailed account of the legions on campaign.
JULIUS CAESAR (c. 100-44 вс)
Caesar was widely held to be the greatest of all Roman commanders. He was a member of a noble family which had enjoyed only minor political success in recent generations and, in spite of involvement in several public controversies, his early career was largely conventional. He then formed a secret political alliance with Pompey and Crassus, which allowed him to gain the consulship in 59 and brought him a five - later extended to 10 - year command in Gaul during which his successes brought him fabulous wealth and massive prestige.
However, Crassus had been killed by the Parthians in 53 and a breakdown of relations between Caesar and Pompey culminated in the Civil War which began in 49. Caesar overran Italy in a matter of weeks, and then out- manoeuvered Pompey’s commanders in Spain and forced their surrender just a few months later following the main confrontation at Pharsalus. The pursuit led Caesar to Egypt where he found Pompey murdered. He spent several months in Alexandria, conducting a highly public affair with Queen Cleopatra and defeating her rivals in an internal dynastic struggle. This delay in returning to Rome allowed the Civil War to fester on, and required Caesar to fight further campaigns in Africa in 46 and Spain in 45. Although victorious in war, Caesar was unable to win the peace, and he was murdered on 15 March 44 by a senatorial conspiracy.
Six years older Hum Caesar, Pompey the Great had won wars in Africa, Sicily, Italy, Spain and throughout the east, but had not seen active service for over a decade before the Civil War. In spite of some initial successes, he was decisively defeated at Pharsalus.
POMPEY THE GREAT (106-48 вс)
One of the most successful Roman generals, Pompey's career was highly unorthodox. He did not enter the Senate until 70 вс, despite having already held a long succession of military commands as a private citizen. He served in the Social War (90-88) under his father Pompeius Strabo, and supported Sulla in the Civil War. Following Sulla's victory in Italy Pompey was sent to re-take Sicily and Africa and was given the title ‘the Great’ (Magnus). In 76 he was sent to Spain to fight against Sertorius, but victory proved elusive until Sertorius was murdered by one of his own subordinates. In 71 Pompey returned to Rome and won the consulship for the following year.
In 67 Pompey was given massive power and resources to co-ordinate a campaign against the fleets of pirates marauding through the Mediterranean. A highly talented organizer, Pompey completed the war within a single year and then went on to finish a major conflict against King Mithridates VI of Pontus. During the course of his operations in the eastern Mediterranean, he was the first Roman to besiege and capture Jerusalem. Pompey did not serve in the field again until the civil war with Caesar in 49, when divided councils in the Pompeian camp eased Caesar’s victory. After his main army was smashed at Pharsalus, Pompey fled to Egypt, where he was murdered on the orders of the young Egyptian king who hoped in this way to win favour with Caesar.
The Battle of Thapsus, 46 вс
‘Caesar was doubtful, resisting their eagerness and enthusiasm, yelling out that he did not approve of fighting by a reckless onslaught, and holding back the line again and again, when suddenly on the right wing a tubicen, without orders from Caesar, but encouraged by the soldiers, began to sound his instrument. This was repeated by all the cohorts, the line began to advance against the enemy, although the centurions placed themselves in front and vainly tried to restrain the soldiers by force and stop them attacking without orders from the general.
When Caesar perceived that it was impossible to restrain the soldiers’ roused spirits, he gave the watchword ‘Good Luck’ (Felicitas), spurred his horse at the enemy front ranks.’
The African War, 82-83.
Account by one of Caesar’s officers of the start of the battle of Thapsus, 46 BC
During the advance, each side hoped to intimidate the enemy before they came into contact. Individual appearance - plumes which added to a man’s height, highly polished armour and bright painted shields - hinted at the prowess of each soldier. The impression created by the group was also vital. Large, deep formations were frightening, but even more important was the confidence with which they came on, the degree to which their ranks kept in good order, and the noise they made. A unit’s battle cry expressed its confidence, to the extent that German tribesmen believed that they could predict the outcome of a fight simply by listening to the baritus shout raised by the rival warbands. Many of Rome’s opponents added to the shout raised by the warriors with drums or trumpets or, in some cases, crowds of women screaming encouragement from behind the lines. This great barrage of noise was terrifying, but it also spread confusion, and tended to hasten the loss of order and control that was inevitable under the pressure of combat.
The old militia army had similarly been very noisy as it advanced, the legionaries yelling and banging weapons against shields. The professional army adopted a different approach, advancing slowly to maintain as good a formation as possible and maintaining absolute silence. Optiones paced behind the line to prevent anyone from straggling or speaking. When the enemy were close, perhaps as close as 10-15 m (30-50 ft), a legionary cohort threw its pila and only then raised a shout, sounded their cornu trumpets, and charged at a run. These tactics were only made possible by the army’s exceptionally high standards of discipline. It took massive self control to keep advancing at a steady walk whilst a mass of screaming enemies came running towards you. Human instinct urged each man to do something to cope with his fear, whether by running forward to get the inevitable clash over with or by throwing a weapon, even if the enemy was still out of effective range. Simply because such tactics were difficult to emulate, probably impossible for most of Rome’s enemies, the eerie silence of a Roman attack was far more intimidating than a noisy advance.
Just before contact a Roman unit delivered two massive shocks to the enemy - the physical shock of a volley of pila, and the shock to their morale of a hitherto silent and slow-moving enemy suddenly launching into a screaming charge. Sometimes this was enough to shatter the enemy’s confidence and rout them before contact or after only the briefest of combats. Less often it was the Romans who panicked and fled, overawed by the opposition’s frightening appearance. If neither happened then the two sides met and fought hand-to-hand.
This type of fighting has been rare in recent centuries and is especially hard for a modern audience to imagine accurately. Hollywood images suggest a frenzied mass of individual combats, each one ending in death for one of the participants, with the two armies inter-penetrating each other and no trace of units remaining. Such fighting does not fit with the descriptions in the ancient sources and could not possibly have lasted for the two to three hours which were considered the typical length of a battle in this period without far higher casualties than are recorded. Real combat appears to have been much more tentative, and occurred in short bursts, after which the two lines separated and, standing a short distance apart, hurled abuse or missiles at each other until one side had built up enough enthusiasm to close once more. In the actual fighting the objective was to cut an enemy down and then step into his place, breaking into their formation. Once the opposing side felt that there were enemies amongst them they would become nervous and very soon degenerate into flight. This was obviously extremely dangerous, and a man forcing his way into the enemy formation stood a good chance of being killed by the enemies in the second rank. Few men would be killed in the actual fighting, but once a unit collapsed, the men turning their backs to the enemy and running, then casualties amongst the losing side would be huge as the pursuing victors were able to strike freely.
Close combat was highly stressful and at any time a unit could collapse. Men knew that this was the point when they were most likely to be killed and that this fate would surely befall anyone who did not realize what was happening and did not run quickly enough. Soldiers in the rear ranks of a formation, especially a deep formation, could see little of what was going on, but had to judge the progress of the combat largely from what they could hear and the sense of whether or not the unit was going forward. As a combat went on, nervousness amongst these men in the rear caused a unit to waver. Soldiers would begin to edge backwards, and if many started to do this then the optiones might not be able to restrain all of them. Routs usually began at the rear of a unit. Winning a close combat was a question of both endurance and aggression. A unit needed the endurance to stay in the fighting line for as long as was necessary, but simply outlasting the enemy was an uncertain path to victory. Aggression was necessary to make the men in the front rank go forward to renew the combat time after time as they became more physically and emotionally exhausted. The Roman army’s discipline and harsh system of punishment, combined with emphasis on unit spirit, was intended to give the men the stamina to stay in combat. The high quality of its leaders, and the encouragement and reward given to bold individuals, provided the men who could urge the line forward time after time. At a higher level, the emphasis on reserves was critical. The Romans’ multiple line formation provided fresh troops to feed into the fighting line, renewing its forward impetus.
(Far above) A metope from Adamklissi showing a legionary using his pilum as a spear, stabbing downwards to kill a barbarian warrior. It was quite common for tribal armies to be accompanied by the warriors ’ wives and children riding in wagons.
(Above) In another scene from Adamklissi a legionary wearing scale armour wields his gladius under-arm. His opponents, one of whom has his hair drawn into the Suebian knot style, are armed with curved two-handed swords or falces. To counter the long reach of these weapons the legionaries at Adamklissi wear greaves and articulated armguards on their sword arms.
(Above) Several of the Adamklissi metopes, including this one, show Roman cavalrymen charging into battle. Each of the horsemen wears mail armour and carries a hexagonal shield. Curiously none appear to have helmets
The Romans had significant advantages in battle and were likely to win far more often than they lost. Yet, by its very nature, hand-to-hand combat was especially uncertain and there was always an element of doubt. Roman commanders riding behind the line had to judge very carefully when to commit reserves. Too early and these fresh troops might achieve nothing whilst quickly becoming as tired as the men already in the fighting line. Too late and the first line might collapse altogether, and perhaps the panic would spread to the rest of the army. Victorious armies usually suffered comparatively light casualties, which might be as much as 5 per cent, but were usually far less. Defeated armies suffered many times these losses. Roman doctrine emphasized the value of an aggressive pursuit, led by the cavalry, with the simple objective of slaughtering as many of the fleeing enemy as possible. In this way the defeat was to be made so appalling that the enemy would be forced to capitulate or, at the very least, dread future confrontation with Roman forces.