The Roman army changed the world, creating an Empire the legacy of which is still felt today. Much of Europe employs a legal system based on Roman law and speaks languages derived from, or heavily influenced by,
Latin. The dominance of the West in the last few centuries extended both languages and legal systems throughout most of the globe. Until the last few generations Greek and Latin languages and literature lay at the heart of western education and cultural life.
The idea of the Roman army and the power of the Roman Empire long epitomised splendour and majesty. Napoleon gave his regiments eagles as their standards, included velites in his Guard and dressed his heavy cavalry in classically inspired helmets. The armies of Russia and Prussia both bore eagles on their flags, and the names of their rulers, Tsar and Kaiser, were derived from Caesar. Even the nascent United States chose the eagle for its standard and drew on Roman models for its political institutions.
Physical remains of the Roman army are dotted throughout Europe, North Africa and the Near East. It is impossible to stand on the siege ramp at Masada and not marvel at the skill and determination of the men who built such a thing in that appalling landscape, simply to prove that no fortress was impregnable to them. At the other end of the Empire, the remains of Hadrian’s Wall impress in a different way, from their sense of scale, solidity and permanence. Many of the finds from these sites are very human - gaming dice, remains of meals such as oyster shells, the superbly preserved shoes from Vindolanda, and, famously, the communal latrine at Houseteads. The inscriptions found in the forts and settlements of the area reveal a very cosmopolitan community, soldier and civilian mixed, worshipping gods from all over the known world. Yet however many races were recruited into the ranks of the army they were at least partially absorbed into its uniform culture. In the garrisons at Masada and Vindolanda two unknown Roman soldiers idly scrawled a line from Virgil’s Epic the Aenied on a piece of papyrus and a wooden writing tablet respectively.
Hadrian's Wall remains one of the most visually impressive monuments left by the Roman army, although only in places is it visible on the ground. This is Milecastle 39, west of Houseteads fort in the central section running along some of the most spectacular scenery. Like many of the fortlets and turrets on Hadrian's Wall it is not built on the best site for observation, hut at its regular interval. The slope to the north was probably too steep ever to have been used by wheeled vehicles, hut even so a gate was built opening out onto it according to the standard design. Many of these superfluous gateways were blocked or made narrower in later rebuildings.
Several factors explain the Roman army’s long success: discipline, training, good equipment and well-organized logistic support were all important factors, but other armies had these without achieving as much. The Roman military system was characterized by its flexibility. The same basic structure could adapt to local conditions and defeat very different opponents. In time the Romans became as adept at raids and ambushes as any irregular tribesmen, yet preserved their superiority in massed battle. The Romans always fought aggressively, whether in open battle or on a smaller scale, ever assuming the offensive and trying to dominate the enemy. This, combined with their refusal to admit defeat and their willingness to accept heavy losses, made the Roman army extremely difficult to beat. Yet, ultimately, much depended on the Romans’ ability to absorb others, to turn the enemies of today into the Roman soldiers of tomorrow.