Ancient History & Civilisation

The Militia Army: Triumphs and Decline

The militia system worked well until the middle of the 2nd century вс. It had two great advantages over rival military systems. The first was manpower. As the Romans had expanded throughout Italy their citizen population had grown. Some communities were eventually granted citizenship, whilst others received Latin or lesser status but still had an obligation to provide troops. Polybius claims that just before the war with Hannibal, the Roman Republic and its allies had over 700,000 men registered as of the age and with sufficient property to serve in the army. Only a proportion of these men was recruited at any one time, but these huge reserves of manpower allowed the Republic to absorb the appalling losses of the Second Punic War and still emerge victorious. No other contemporary state could have done this and time after time the Romans forced enemies to capitulate after inflicting far lower losses upon them. The second great advantage of the militia system was the willingness of Roman citizens and allies to submit to the army’s discipline and formal command structure. When first recruited the legions and alae required extensive training. The longer that a Roman army remained in service, the more efficient it became. The armies of the last years of the Second Punic War and the next few decades were composed of very experienced and well-trained men, the match in battle for any professional soldiers.

Yet the militia system also had its weaknesses, chief amongst these being its essential impermanence. Veteran armies were discharged at the end of a conflict and each time a new army was raised it had to be trained and gain years of experience before it reached the peak of efficiency. There was no real way of preserving experience, since even if men were enrolled again they would not be serving with the same comrades, under the same officers and in the same units as before. Many of Rome’s defeats were due to consuls giving battle with recently raised and insufficiently trained armies. At the same time the system had no real place for specialist troops or officers, such as those required for engineering or siege works. The army showed little aptitude for besieging cities in this period.

Expansion outside Italy brought problems of its own. Wars were now being fought further and further afield and might last for many years, whilst several overseas provinces required permanent garrisons. The farmers who formed the bulk of recruits for the main battle lines of the legions were taken from their land for years on end, causing great hardship and sometimes even ruin. Military service might now mean a decade of garrison duty and savage skirmishing in Spain with little glory or personal gain attached, instead of a swift and profitable campaign in Italy. Service was becoming less attractive and at the same time the Romans believed that the number of men eligible for service was declining. On several occasions the minimum property qualification was reduced without significantly stopping this trend. A period of comparative peace between 180 and 155 BC reduced the collective experience of the pool of men available to lead and serve in the legions. The Romans remained confident, convinced that their victory was inevitable in any war and forgetting the hard preparation and careful training which had underlain earlier triumphs. From the middle of the 2nd century nearly every conflict began with Roman disasters, many of them humiliating. The Romans still won all of these conflicts, despatching more troops and more resources to the area until the enemy was overwhelmed, but the militia system was clearly coping badly with the new situation. Ultimately this was to lead to the abandonment of the militia system and the creation of the professional army.


Although carved sarcophagi frequently include scenes of a martial nature, artistic convention ensured that these were rarely accurate. This view of a cavalryman shows him wearing a muscled cuirass and ornate Attic helmet. It is extremely unlikely that such equipment was worn by more than a handful of senior officers.

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