Ancient History & Civilisation

'For who is so worthless or indolent as not to wish to know by what means ... the Romans ... have succeeded in subjecting nearly the whole of the inhabited world to their sole government.'

Polybius 1.1.5 (Loeb translation)

Polybius was writing in the late 2nd century вс, and had in his own lifetime witnessed Rome’s rise to a position of unchallenged dominance in the Mediterranean world. In a little over 100 years the Romans had defeated and utterly destroyed the powerful trading empire of Carthage. This was followed by victories won with almost disdainful ease over the famous Hellenistic kingdoms of Macedonia and Seleucia. Polybius believed that one of the most important factors in Rome’s success was the peculiar institutions of the Roman army, a subject which he described in detail. The legions of this period differed markedly from the popular stereotype of the Roman army as a professional and rigidly disciplined fighting force. They were not professional soldiers at all, but ordinary citizens for whom military service was an interruption to their normal life.

The Roman army described by Polybius had gradually evolved over several centuries, changes often reflecting trends in society and politics. Rome had begun sometime in the 8th or 7th centuries I5C as one of many tiny Latin-speaking communities in central Italy. In those days its frequent wars with neighbouring peoples were waged by warrior aristocrats and their bands of followers. Over time Rome grew in size and population, and the obligation to serve as a soldier was extended to every adult male citizen able to provide himself with the necessary equipment. Such men fought when the Republic required them to do so and then at the end of a campaign returned home to their ordinary lives. Military service was a duty owed to the community of which they were a part, rather than a career. Many contemporary states had once recruited their armies in this way, but all those which expanded to any size abandoned the system, and came to rely instead on professional soldiers. Uniquely the Roman Republic persisted with this militia system, and, just as uniquely, its citizens willingly subjected themselves to the extremely harsh system of discipline enforced within the legions. When properly trained and competently led, the legions demonstrated a tactical flexibility which made them superior to all other contemporary military systems.

A tomb painting from Paestum in Italy dating to the 4th century BC showing several Samnite warriors The Romans were engaged in a tough scries of wars against the Samnites, but eventually absorbed them and converted them into allies, who supplied soldiers to fight in Rome’s wars.

The Republican Army

The Origins of the Roman Army

The earliest armies

Rome grew in size slowly, and was for centuries a very small community whose wars were fought on a similarly small scale. Later memories of this period suggest frequent hostility with their close neighbours, as rival aristocrats led their warrior bands on plundering raids. There is little reliable literary evidence for the early periods of Rome’s history, since it was not until the very end of the 3rd century BC that the Romans themselves began to write history and even they had comparatively few sources available. The stories of the kings and the creation of the Republic may contain elements of true events and real people, but it is impossible now to separate fact from myth. There is no way of knowing whether Romulus actually existed, and if he did, whether he really had a bodyguard of 300 warriors known as celeres. Even apparently plausible incidents in the early narratives of Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus, both of whom wrote in the late 1st century вс, cannot simply be accepted as fact, or rationalized to produce a more ‘plausible’ version of events. We simply cannot know.

Archaeology at least helps to give us some idea of the weapons and equipment available at this time. Iron was at first comparatively rare, and only gradually were bronze spearheads, daggers and swords replaced. Helmets varied in pattern, but tended to provide most protection for the top of the head and did not yet possess significant neckguards or cheek-pieces. The Villanovan pattern is probably the most visually impressive, consisting of a bowl made from two halves, the join being decorated with a tall, arrow-shaped plate standing up from it. Of little or no practical value, this pattern did make the wearer look considerably taller and thus more frightening to an enemy. Other types of helmet, such as the ‘bell’ type, lacked the high metal crest but were otherwise similar in shape. Body armour remained fairly simple, usually consisting of metal pectoral plates. A good deal of our evidence is supplied by objects deposited as part of funerary rituals - both cremation and inhumation being known - although this is supplemented by some artistic representations of warriors. It is important to remember that the goods deposited in a grave may not necessarily represent those normally in use. At the very least they will tend to show the equipment of the wealthy, but it is also possible that certain objects were chosen or even specially made for these rites. For instance, the solid bronze shields discovered in Italy and elsewhere clearly cannot have been intended for actual use in war, since the thin metal of these would split so easily, and may have been used for ceremonies or as spectacular grave goods. It is logical to assume that they reflected the design of more practical wooden shields, but since these have not survived we cannot be sure precisely what they looked like. It is as problematic to estimate just how many warriors in a band may have carried swords or worn armour as it is to suggest how numerous such bands were.

(Above) This Etruscan helmet of the Villanovan pattern was found at Tarquinia. Such helmets tend to occur in funerary contexts from the 9th to 7th centuries вс in northern and central Italy. The tall central plate does not appear to have served any practical purpose.

(Below) A warrior depicted on a 4th-century BC ivory plaque found at Palestrina, shown wearing a typical hoplite panoply. He wears a metal-probably bronze - cuirass, bronze crested helmet and greaves, and has a round shield at his side. His main armament consists of a heavy thrusting spear.

Farmer and soldier: The 'hoplite revolution'

At some point the Romans adopted the hoplite phalanx, which had probably first been introduced to Italy by Greek colonists. Hoplites were heavily armed spearmen, whose name derived from the circular hoplon shield, some 90 cm (3 ft) in diameter and made of wood covered with a sheet of bronze. Such shields offered excellent protection at the cost of being very heavy, and had to be held not simply by a handgrip but also by a strap fastening to the elbow of the left arm. Additional protection came from a bronze helmet, some versions of which covered the face as well as the top of the head, greaves fitted to the lower legs and a cuirass either of bronze or stiffened linen. A few men were also able to afford arm and shin guards. The main offensive weapon was a spear, 2.45 m (8 ft) or so in length, used for thrusting and not throwing, and provided with a butt spike both as a counterweight and as a weapon should the head break off. A sword, usually one of the short slashing or thrusting types, was carried as a secondary weapon.

(Above) A bronze muscle cuirass found in Italy, but now in the British Museum, that could easily have been worn by a hoplite similar to the one shown in the previous photograph. Armour of this type offered good protection, but was heavy, uncomfortable and expensive Ax the army expanded in size to include many less wealthy soldiers, solid armour of this sort became rare.

Hoplites fought in close formation, the men standing close together so that their unguarded right side was offered at least a little protection by their neighbour's shield. Their aim was to close with the enemy and force the battle to a swiftly decisive conclusion, jabbing with their spears at opponents no more than a pace or so away to fight their way into the enemy formation. Although his shield, helmet and armour offered a hoplite very good protection, such determined, close-quarter fighting was inevitably very dangerous, especially when fighting another similarly equipped and aggressive enemy. The hoplite phalanx first appeared in

(Above) A detail from a 4th- century BC wall-painting found near Naples showing a man wearing an Italian version of the Attic helmet. In many respects - the face protected only by cheek-pieces and the ears left exposed - this design has much in common with later helmets The use of feathers as a plume was common in the Roman army of Polybius’ day.

Greece, perhaps in the 8th century BC though debate still rages about this, and it seems that even a victorious phalanx suffered on average five per cent casualties. Most of these losses came in the front ranks of the formation. So stressful was hoplite fighting that it was considered necessary to make phalanxes very deep, so that it was rare to deploy in fewer than eight ranks and there are cases of formations as many as 40 deep. Men in the second rank had some opportunity to stab their spears over the shoulders of the men in front, and also replaced any casualties, but the men in the ranks behind this could not join the fighting. Their role was primarily to provide moral support for the fighters. The mass of men packed behind an attacking line helped to intimidate the enemy, ideally persuading them to flee before the appalling clash of two phalanxes occurred. Even more importantly the physical presence of the rear ranks prevented the men in the front line from running away. Dense formations such as a phalanx inevitably collapsed from the back when the men in the rear, and thus furthest from actual danger, panicked and fled. Deeper phalanxes had more staying power in combat.

A phalanx was intended for massed fighting between large groups of densely packed men. There was far less scope in battles of this sort for displays of conspicuous bravery by individual aristocratic heroes. The adoption of this style of fighting at Rome, as in other cities, was not simply a matter of military evolution, but was part of major social and political change. Hoplites needed to provide themselves with expensive equipment and therefore were men of some property. In nearly every state the hoplite was a landowner, a farmer who fought well because he had a vested interest in the state. The development of the phalanx marked the growth of Rome’s population and was also a sign that a significant part of that population owned land. In the past the leaders of warbands owed their power within the community to their prowess in war. The military role of farmers as hoplites was accompanied by greater political influence.

(Above) This painting is based upon the 7th-century BC Chigi vase, which provides one of the few depictions of hoplite phalanxes in battle. In a similar way to the Bayeux Tapestry, dense blocks of men are shown as soldiers overlapping each other. The spearheads appearing above the hoplites actually fighting may be an attempt to represent the ranks behind.

(Above) A man representing a Greek hoplite, heavily protected by a helmet which covers most of his face, a bronze cuirass and bronze greaves which clip onto his calves Beside him is the 0.9-m (3-ft) wide bronze faced shield or hoplon.

The phalanx was a formation for fighting pitched battles in open country. To a great extent hoplite equipment was tailored to this particular type of fighting, although it is clearly an exaggeration to state that helmets, armour and even the heavy shield were useless in more open fighting. Even after it is clear that the Romans possessed a hoplite phalanx, our sources continue to speak of raids and skirmishes as well as battles. Frequently this smaller scale of fighting seems to have involved aristocrats and their bands of warriors and kinsmen. The adoption of the phalanx did not mean a complete break with earlier patterns of warfare. Rome remained a comparatively small community engaged in local squabbles with other similarly small neighbours.

The Comitia Centuriata and the Servian reform

One tradition claims that the Romans adopted the phalanx after they had encountered Etruscan hoplites, and in this way were eventually able to defeat them. This is plausible enough, as is the common assumption that the Etruscans had in turn learnt these tactics through contact with the Greek colonies in Italy. When a hoplite army appeared at Rome is much harder to estimate, especially since it now seems likely that there was not an immediate switch from noble warbands to a citizen phalanx.

The Romans credited Servius Tullius, the sixth of their seven kings (578-534 BC) with a major reform of the Roman army. Whether or not Servius actually existed, traces of an early military organization were preserved down to the end of the Republic in the structure of the Comitia Centuriata, one of the most important voting assemblies of the Roman people.

Livy and Dionysius describe the Servian system in great detail, differing only on minor points. A census of all adult male citizens recorded the value of their property and divided them accordingly into classes. These classes were in turn divided into centuries, which may or may not have ever been intended to number 100 men. Each class was obliged to provide itself with a minimum panoply of equipment, so that the wealthiest (equites or equestrian order) served in the 18 centuries of cavalry. Class I appears to represent fully equipped hoplites, and some have speculated that these men formed the original phalanx, the other classes being added as population and prosperity continued to grow over the years.

(Above) A scene from the 441- century вс tomb frescoes from Paestum showing a mounted warrior. He is unarmoured and unarmed, and seems to be riding bareback.

The Infantry in the Servian System


Property (asses)







Helmet, round shield, greaves, cuirass, spear, sword






Helmet, oblong shield, greaves, spear, sword






Helmet, oblong shield, spear, sword






(Oblong shield in Livy), spear, javelin






Sling, stones, (javelin)




Infantry Total: 170

This chart shows the structure of the Servian system. All male Roman citizens were divided into groups according to their property rating, and the totals given here indicate numbers of centuries. The size of individual centuries varied considerably, and each class was divided into senior and junior centuries on the basis of age.


18 centuries of cavalry 2 of engineers 2 of musicians

1 proletarii (capite censi or head count. Citizens who lacked property sufficient to provide them with even the most rudimentary equipment. They were not obliged to serve and were listed only as a total number).

(Above) These three figures form the handle of the lid from a cist found in Praeneste and probably dating to the late 4th century вс. All three men wear cuirasses made from many sections rather than the solid muscle cuirasses shown elsewhere. Their greaves seem to be of the Greek style, which dipped onto the calves and did not require to be tied in place.

The version of this system provided by our sources appears decidedly odd. The differences in equipment between Classes I—III (and possibly IV) are too minor to have had real significance, although the use of differently shaped shields in the same army appears to be confirmed by the figures on the Certosa situla. More importantly, it makes little sense for any society to have had the majority of its population in the highest property grouping, since Class I almost equals the total number of the rest of the infantry. It is more than probable that Livy and Dionysius, or perhaps their sources, were working from the known structure of the Comitia Centuriata and creating a military system from that. The Romans felt it to be proper for the wealthy to have a disproportionately strong say in state affairs, and therefore each century in Class I contained fewer members than the lower classes, so that the vote of each man counted for more.

The Servian reform certainly suggests the existence of a hoplite army, for the link between citizenship, property and military role are fundamental elements in such a system, but it would be rash to put too much weight on any of the details. It is not until the Mid Republic that we can finally describe the Roman army with confidence.

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