Training and tactics

‘Their battle-drills are no different from the real thing ... It would not be far from the truth to call their drills bloodless battles, their battles bloody drills.’ Josephus presented an idealized view of the army’s efficiency, but while the warriors of many different peoples were well practised in the use of their personal weapons, only the Romans trained both as individuals and units. According to the later military theorist Vegetius, the first thing a new recruit was taught was the military pace: learning how to march in step and keep his place in formation. Personal fitness received a high priority and there were regular route marches of twenty Roman miles in five hours at the normal pace and twenty-four in the same time at the quick step. On some marches the recruits stopped to learn how to lay out and construct a marching camp. They were taught how to use their personal weapons by practising thrusts and cuts against a 1.8-metre post fixed into the ground. At first they used wooden swords and wicker shields of twice the weight of the normal issue to strengthen their arms. On at least one occasion these wooden practice swords were used as batons by troops quelling a riot.

This first-century cavalry parade helmet from Syria is one of the earliest examples of this type. Such lavishly decorated armour and fittings, combined with brightly coloured clothing and standards added to the spectacle of the cavalry games or Hipparka Gymnasia. Divided into two teams, the horsemen took turns to throw blunt-headed javelins at the other side, hence the need to protect the rider’s face with a metal mask.

After this they fenced with other recruits, the tips of their swords covered with leather pads to prevent serious injury, and finally whole units would fight mock battles. Cavalry practised a complex series of drills involving movement in formation and the throwing of missiles, culminating in the spectacular Hippaka Gymnasia, or cavalry games.

Training was not just an experience for recruits but a continual activity to maintain a unit’s efficiency. Often the many duties which required the dispersal of a unit hindered its training, but good officers made sure that their men were well drilled and their weapons well maintained. If time permitted at the beginning of a campaign, then most generals exercised their troops to bring them to the peak of efficiency. A monument from the base of Legio III Augusta at Lambaesis in North Africa records a speech made by Hadrian to the army of the province after it had performed several days of exercises. The emperor displayed a detailed knowledge of the units’ strength and current deployment as well as a technical understanding of the manoeuvres themselves. He noted that Legio III Augusta had detached one cohort for service with the proconsul of the neighbouring province, had sent a vexillation of another cohort plus four men from each of the other centuries to reinforce another legion, and provided many small detachments to man small outposts and guard stations, while the unit had recently moved its camp twice. These factors might have restricted the ability of the legion to train as a unit, but Hadrian used them to reinforce his praise for their actual performance. Similarly, when addressing the cavalry of a cohors equitata, he commented that it was difficult for such a unit to perform satisfactorily immediately after an ala, with its larger numbers, better equipment and mounts, had put on a display, before expressing his praise for their achievement. Occasionally Hadrian expressed disapproval of a drill, for instance criticizing a cavalry unit for mounting a charge that was too fast and uncontrolled, but his speech is overwhelmingly one of praise for the units and especially their officers.

Discipline and order were emphasized in all of the army’s manoeuvres, whether in training or on campaign. Gone were the days when Roman columns blundered along on the march, risking ambush from a skilful opponent. The army of the Principate moved behind a screen of cavalry outposts, supported by detachments of infantry including a high proportion of missile armed troops. Special units of cavalry known as exploratores were formed specifically to perform the role of reconnaissance. If the enemy were close, then the whole army might move in battle formation, each unit in place and ready to deploy from march column into a fighting line. It was common to move with the army formed into a large hollow square if it was uncertain from which direction the enemy might attack. All these techniques had developed gradually during the long experience of frontier warfare, but were perfected in the first century ad. The creation of the regular auxilia provided large numbers of well-trained cavalry, who were far better suited to tasks such as scouting than many of the allied contingents, which had served with Republican armies, had ever been.

The tombstone of the auxiliary cavalryman Vonatorix was found at Bonn and dates to the first half of the first century ad. He wears scale armour which appears to have been almost as common as mail and may have been popular because it could be polished to a high sheen. Although in the same basic posture as Flavius Bassus, on this earlier tombstone Vonatorix is not shown galloping over a defeated barbarian.

The greater discipline of the Imperial army was reflected in its battle tactics. In Polybius’ day legionaries advanced noisily, banging their weapons against their shields and shouting. From at least Caesar’s day, Roman infantry advanced slowly and in silence. Legionaries now carried only one pilum. At very short range, probably within 15 metres of the enemy, they threw these in a single volley and charged. Only at this moment did they break the silence and yell their battle cry. In this way they delivered a massive twin-shock to their enemy: the physical shock of a barrage of heavy pila and the moral shock of the sudden screaming charge. The noisy advance of the Polybian legion had not been that different to the wild, screaming advance of a Gallic war band. A silent advance was more intimidating and certainly harder to achieve. Only a very high standard of discipline restrained men from releasing their nervous tension by instinctively yelling and running forward to get the impending clash over with, a tendency which broke up their formation. A slower, steadier advance kept the ranks in order, allowed the officers to keep control over the formation and ensured that the unit remained a dense mass throughout the charge. Such an advance appeared unstoppable and there was a good chance that the enemy would be broken before the charge went home, or after a very brief burst of fighting. If this did not happen then the resulting combat was much the same as one fought by a manipular legion. Roman doctrine emphasized individual aggression, and soldiers were taught to get close to their opponent in order to use their short- bladed gladii. The standard drill was to punch the enemy in the face with the shield-boss and then stab him in the stomach. In an ideal situation his opponent had already lost his shield to a thrown pilum. The Roman scutum was very heavy: weights of reconstructions have ranged from 5.5 to 10 kilograms (12—22 lbs), and a blow delivered with the weight of the body behind the soldier’s left hand stood a good chance of overbalancing an opponent. This might not always be possible and Roman soldiers were trained to deliver a wide range of cuts and thrusts. Crouched behind a scutum, most of the soldier’s torso was well protected and the design of the helmet and all types of cuirass gave extra protection to the head and shoulders, vulnerable to downward cuts. However, Roman infantry helmets left the face and ears uncovered to allow men to hear orders and see clearly what was going on around them, so that wounds to the face were common. The junior leaders of the Roman army, especially the centurions, led aggressively, and individual boldness by all ranks was encouraged by the lavish reward, decoration and promotion granted to those who distinguished themselves. Discipline and unit pride gave the Romans great staying power in combat, keeping them in close contact with the enemy, but victories were won by the few men who were prepared to go first and cut a path into the enemy ranks. Roman generals kept close to the fighting so that they were able to reward such men. They were also in a good position to gauge how the combat was going and commit or lead in reserve cohorts accordingly.

The legionary cohort was very much a functional tactical unit and was rarely a focus of especially strong loyalty The cohort was almost certainly commanded by the pilus prior, its senior centurion, although no contemporary source explicitly states this. There were few tactical options available to the commander of a cohort, and his main job was to move the men under his command as a body to wherever they were required to be. He then needed to control the cohort’s advance, ensuring that the volley of pila and final running charge were delivered on order and did not come as a spontaneous outburst. Once in close contact with the enemy, then much responsibility devolved on to the other centurions and the principales in each century. Their job was to inspire the men, to organize and lead as many as possible in successive rushes forward until the enemy had been routed. After that the senior centurion once again needed to regain control over the whole cohort, to restore order and prepare his tired men to move and perhaps fight again as a unit. In a large battle there was relatively little scope for independent action at the cohort level, and the centurions commanding them formed part of a command structure which allowed the legionary legate to control the five thousand men under his command more easily, and indirectly enabled the commander-in-chief to direct his whole force. In a large battle most auxiliary cohorts acted to all intents and purposes like the identically sized legionary cohorts. However, their lack of a clear command structure above the level of the cohort made them harder to manoeuvre in large numbers, and less easy to employ as reserves. Auxiliaries were often deployed as the army’s first line, allowing the more easily controlled legionaries to act as supports; alternatively they might be spread out on the army’s flanks.

Above: The Roman army in Lower Moesia recorded its role in the Dacian Wars in several monuments at Adamklissi in modern-day Romania, including these reliefs or Metopes from the Troepaeum Traiani. More crudely carved than Trajan's Column, they give a far more accurate view of the equipment actually worn on campaign. This legionary soldier wears mail, instead of the segmented armour, has extra armour on his right arm and greaves strapped to his calves. He is punching his enemy in the face with his shield boss and then stabbing him in the stomach with his sword, a clear artistic representation of the classic Roman fighting technique described by our literary sources.

Above: The Metopes at Adamklissi clearly told a story, but the original sequence is unknown, as are the details of the campaign itself, and it is now impossible to reconstruct the narrative. In this scene a legionary is ambushed by an archer, apparently naked, hidden in a tree. In the foreground lies a rotting corpse, its stomach burst open and face little more than a skull, with a shield and gladius beside it. Possibly this represents the Romans fighting a battle on the site of an earlier defeat, and the dedication of the altar at Adamklissi to Mars Ultor (‘The Avenger’) may support this, but it is impossible to reach a definite conclusion.

Roman infantry doctrine stressed that it was always wise to advance to meet enemy infantry, since a charge encouraged aggression, whereas passively waiting to receive a charge was dispiriting. A sudden infantry charge could rout disordered or stationary cavalry, stampeding the horses, but it was normally wise for foot to meet cavalry at the halt. A cavalry charge was an immensely intimidating sight. Scattered or dispersed infantry were helpless against it, since most men would flee and allow the horsemen to cut down with ease even those who attempted to fight. Arrian describes a formation designed to resist a charge by the heavily armoured horsemen of the Alans. The legionaries were formed eight ranks deep, the first four armed with the pilum, the remainder with a lighter javelin, probably the lancea. The front rank held their pila at forty-five degrees, the butts braced against the ground so that they presented a dense row of points to the enemy. The men in the next three ranks, after throwing their pila, braced themselves against the men in front. The remaining legionaries threw their lanceae while a ninth rank of foot-archers, a tenth rank of horse-archers, and artillery added to the barrage of missiles. This heavy weight of missiles would have brought down a fair number of cavalrymen, but even those who survived would not have been able to get into contact with the infantry since their horses would instinctively refuse to gallop into such a seemingly solid object. Once the charge was stopped the continual deluge of javelins and arrows continued to weaken them as they stood impotently a few metres from the infantry line, until they were inevitably forced to withdraw. Such a solid formation deterred the cavalry from approaching by its very appearance, while the densely packed ranks prevented the Romans from running away. Such a formation was only possible with stationary troops, especially since Arrian advocated a solid infantry line with none of the usual intervals between the cohorts.

Above: A legionary stabs down to despatch his opponent, holding his gladius like a dagger. At least three distinct barbarian peoples are represented on the Troepeum Traiani and opinion is divided as to whether they are Dacians or allied peoples. One group, not shown fighting, wear long tunics and are probably Sarmatians. The barechested warriors fighting with the fakes wear trousers, are bearded and wear either tight skull-caps or have their hair tied into a side-knot, a style associated with Germanic tribes such as the Suebi. They are probably a related tribe known as the Bastarnae, who were allied to the Dacians.

Above: The literary sources stress that the Roman soldier was taught to thrust with his sword, and easily heat opponents who relied on slashing. In fact the gladius was a well-balanced weapon, ideally suited to both cutting and thrusting, and soldiers were trained to fence and deliver a range of blows. Here a legionary delivers a downward slash against his kneeling opponent. He wears scale armour, the segmented arm guard clearly visible. This extra protection was to defend against the twohanded sword or falx of an enemy. This long, scythelike weapon could inflict appalling wounds, severing limbs before a Roman was close enough to use his short sword.

Above: These legionaries parade without armour or helmets. They are carrying pila with spherical weights mounted above the handgrip, a measure which must have increased the penetrative powers of these heavy missiles. Beneath their tunics they wear tight fighting breeches, reaching down to below the knee. Modern imagination often pictures Roman soldiers invariably wearing clothes suitable for a Mediterranean climate, but it is clear that uniforms were adapted to cope with the local climate. The Vindolanda tablets make frequent reference to trousers, underwear, socks and cloaks, many of which were privately purchased.

Above: This Metope shows three Roman standard bearers, two vexilla or flags flanking a wreathed standard, probably originally topped by an eagle. Standards were plrysical expressions of a unit’s corporate identity and were treated with great reverence. In a permanent camp they were kept in a special shrine in the unit's headquarters or principia. All soldiers at Adamklissi are depicted as clean shaven unlike the legionaries on Trajan's Column, many of whom have thick beards. This scene, like many others at Adamklissi has a nearly identical companion, possibly to represent the two legions garrisoning Lower Moesia.

Cavalry were unable to hold ground and combats between horse were very fluid, fast-moving affairs, in which successful charges spent their momentum in pursuit, the horses becoming blown and vulnerable to fresh enemy reserves. The Romans were careful always to leave at least half of their available cavalry in separate supporting lines behind the main advance. Horses will refuse to charge straight into an oncoming line of cavalry, so when combats occurred it was because either the two lines had opened their files, allowing them to gallop through each other’s formation, or they had halted just before contact, at which point individuals would begin to walk their mounts forward to get within sword’s or spear’s reach of the enemy. In the latter case the melee was likely to be longer and more bloody than the former. More often than not one side or the other turned and fled before the chargers came into contact. Selected infantry were often deployed in close support of cavalry, sometimes travelling to battle by running alongside the horsemen and clinging to the horses’ manes. Such infantry rarely intermingled within the ranks of a cavalry formation. Instead, they formed dense knots of infantry behind the main cavalry line. When a friendly cavalry unit was forced to retreat it could shelter and re-form behind one of these infantry blocks, the infantry driving off any pursuers with missiles.

Above: A Roman legionary stands in a wagon and uses his pilum as a spear to thrust down at a barbarian. The presence of wagons and women and children with the barbarians on the Metopes has sometimes been taken as an indication that the story tells of an attempted migration, which the Roman army met and defeated. This is possible, but many tribal armies were accompanied by the warriors’ families, who carried food for them, attended to their wounds and watched the battle to witness and judge their behaviour. One of the scenes on Trajan’s Column shows a battle raging around barbarian wagons and it is possible that this refers to the same episode.

Above: Each century included a musician equipped with the curved military trumpet or cornu, which were used to convey simple orders. When a unit charged and the men broke their silence and yelled their battle cry, the trumpets blared out to add to the noise and intimidate the enemy. The Jewish general Josephus claimed that he ordered his men to cover their ears to blot out the terrifying noise when they were awaiting a Roman attack. The army also employed a straight trumpet known as the tuba, which apparently had a different pitch and was used to convey the orders of senior officers.

Opposite: The pride of the Roman cavalry were the horsemen of the alae, hut more numerous were the soldiers of the mixed infantry and cavalry cohortes equitatae. These men were not as highly paid, or as well mounted as the men of the alae, but they performed much of the army's day-to-day patrolling and escort duties. In battle, the cavalry contingents of several cohorts were taken from their parent units and massed to form one composite force, roughly equivalent in size to an ala.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!