The Wars with Carthage and the Hellenistic Kingdoms

This plate from Campania is decorated with a picture of a war elephant followed by a calf and may show one of the animals brought by King Pyrrhus of Epirus when he fought against Rome on behalf of the city for Tarentum. This was the first time that the Romans had faced war elephants, and the animals played a major part in Pyrrhus' victories. However, they were liable to panic, stampeding in all directions, and often caused as much damage to their own side as the enemy. This animal is clearly an Indian elephant and is crewed by a mahout or driver and two javelinmen in the tower carried on the animal’s back. Notice the goad carried by the mahout, who in some cases was equipped with a hammer and a chisel-like blade, which he was supposed to drive into the animal’s spine if it began to panic. Hasdrubal, the brother of Hannibal was credited with the invention of this device.

In 281 вс the Greek city of Tarentum in southern Italy called on King Pyrrhus of Epirus for assistance in its war with Rome. Pyrrhus was the greatest soldier of his day, raised in the hard school of the decades of warfare which followed the death of Alexander the Great and the break-up of his short-lived empire. He was something of a scientific soldier, producing several works of military theory, but in battle he led as Alexander had done, charging spear in hand at the head of his elite cavalry. When he landed in Italy Pyrrhus brought with him an army of well-trained professional soldiers, pikemen and heavy cavalry supported by war elephants. At first things seemed to go well, but the battles Pyrrhus won were at the price of heavy casualties among his soldiers, coining the term ‘pyrrhic victory’ for any success bought at too high a price. Despite these disasters the Romans formed another army to continue the struggle and finally won a great victory in 275 вс.

The Romans had faced a professional army under the greatest general alive and emerged victorious. Within the space of a century Rome came to dominate the Mediterranean world, winning two massive struggles with the Carthaginian Empire and then shattering the armies of the great kingdoms of the Hellenistic East. The Greek historian Polybius wrote a detailed history trying to explain how this previously little-regarded Italian city had so suddenly and dramatically burst on to the world stage. For Polybius two factors above all else were fundamental to Rome’s success. The first was her well-balanced political constitution which gave her the internal stability that all Greek city states had tended to lack. The second was her fine military system, an institution that we can at last describe with some confidence.


The largest elephants used by ancient armies were of the Indian breed, since of the African type, only the smaller, forest elephants responded to training. There is some uncertainty whether the African breed, used by the Carthaginians and Ptolemies, were equipped with a tower, although Polybius’ account of Raphia implies that they were.

The Roman army in the mid Republic

The basic unit of the Roman army was the legion, which was composed of five elements: cavalry, light infantry and three types of heavy infantry. The most prestigious were the cavalry or equites, recruited from the wealthiest citizens able to afford a horse and its trappings. Many young aristocrats began their political career by making a name for themselves in the cavalry. They were equipped with a round shield, helmet and body armour, and armed with a sword and one or several javelins. Roman cavalry were enthusiastic and brave, but better at making a charge on the battlefield than patrolling or scouting. The most serious weakness of the Roman cavalry was that there were not very many of them. Each legion had only three hundred horsemen, divided into ten troops (turmae) of thirty each, commanded by three decurions.

These Roman soldiers on the first-century altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus probably give a good indication of legionaries’ uniform in the late third and second centuries вс, for the frieze seems to depict a historical scene. Both wear mail armour, slightly different bronze helmets and carry long, oval shields. The man on the right clearly has a pugio dagger on his left hip.

The heavy infantry, like the hoplite phalanx, was composed of all those citizens able to afford the panoply. Unlike the phalanx they fought in three separate lines, membership of which was determined not by wealth but by age and experience. The youngest soldiers or bastati formed the front line. Behind them came the principes, men in their late twenties or early thirties, the age considered by the Romans to be the prime of life, and in the rear were the older veterans, the triarii. All wore a bronze helmet and carried a long, semi-cylindrical body shield, constructed of plywood and covered with calfskin to give it an effective mixture of flexibility and resilience. The wealthier men wore a mail or scale cuirass, but some made do with a simple bronze plate strapped in place over the chest.

All Roman infantrymen were first and foremost swordsmen, and by the last quarter of the third century at the latest, this sword was the famous gladius hispaniensis or Spanish sword. With a blade less than 60 centimetres (2 feet) long, the gladius was well balanced for both cutting and thrusting, and its manufacture from high-quality steel allowed it to preserve a wickedly sharp edge. The triarii carried a long hoplite spear, but the other lines already used the pilum, the weapon which, with the gladius, was to be the trademark of the Roman legionary. The pilum had a wooden shaft about 120 centimetres (4 feet) in length, topped by a 60—90-centimetre (2—3-foot) narrow iron shank leading to a short pyramidal point, which with all the weight of the weapon behind it was designed for maximum armour penetration. The long narrow shank gave it the reach to cause a wound after punching through a shield. The barbed point made it difficult to withdraw from a shield, so that the enemy was forced to drop it. Modern experiments with reconstructed pila have suggested a maximum range of about 30 metres (100 feet), but an effective range of about half that. Polybius tells us that each man carried two pila, one significantly heavier than the other, but it has proved difficult to categorize the archaeological remains so precisely.

Each of the three lines was divided into ten maniples, those of the hastati and principes consisting of 120 to 160 men apiece, whereas the less numerous triarii formed maniples of sixty men. In battle formation, the triplex acies, or maniples, were deployed in a chequerboard or quincunx, the units of principes covering the gaps between the maniples of hastati, while the intervals in their own line were covered by the maniples of the triarii. The triarii provided the legion’s ultimate reserve and spent most of a battle waiting at the rear, kneeling behind their shields, with their spears braced against the ground. They only became involved if the battle was particularly hard fought, and the Roman proverb ‘It’s down to the triarii' was used to describe any desperate situation. The maniple of two centuries was the lowest independent sub-unit of the legion, but each century still carried its own standard, or signum, and was led by a centurion. Each centurion was backed up by two subordinates, the signifer, or standard-bearer, and the second-in-command, or optio, who stood behind the rear rank and kept the men in formation. At least at the beginning of this period centurions were elected by the legions, but appointed their subordinates. The senior centurion stood on the right of the maniple.

The Pilum

The heavy javelin or pilum was the classic weapon of the Roman legionary for over five centuries. All the weight of the weapon was concentrated behind the small, pyramid-shaped point, giving it tremendous penetrative power, although this was augmented (above right) in a later first-century ad variation by the addition of a round lead weight. The iron head was designed variously to bend or break on impact, making it impossible for the pilum to be thrown back by the enemy. Another scene from the Ahenobarbus altar shows a senior officer, most probably a military tribune. He has a muscled cuirass and two rows of fringed pteruges as decoration over his tunic.


The Roman dagger or pugio was issued to legionaries during the Republic and early empire, but seems to have fallen out of common use during the second century ad. It was worn on the left hip, its scabbard either suspended from the sword belt or, when two crossing belts were worn, on a separate one. A few of these blades are as long as 35 cm, although most are nearer 20 cm. Their scabbards were often highly decorated and were perhaps private purchases.

The last element of the legion was the light infantry, or velites. There were normally 1,200 of these armed with a small round shield, a bundle of light javelins and, at least by the early second century, a gladius. They were recruited from the poorer citizens in the state and also those of the higher property qualification who were not yet considered old enough to join the hastati. The velites do not seem to have been divided into any formal units and fought in support of either the heavy infantry or the cavalry depending on the situation.

‘Mainz’ type gladius

This is the earlier form of the gladius hispaniensis, the sidearm of the Roman legionary from the time of the Punic Wars. The blades of surviving examples vary from 40-50.5 cm in length and have a width of 4.8-6 cm. The long, tapering point varies in size from 9.6—20 cm and was designed to puncture armour. A few longer Roman swords have been found dating to the second and first centuries вс, but it is likely that these were used by cavalrymen or mounted officers.

‘Pompeii’ type gladius

The parallel-edged gladius gradually replaced the earlier type during the course of the later first century ad. Blades vary in length from 42-50 cm and in width from 4.2—5.5 cm. This was a well-balanced weapon, as capable of delivering a cut as a thrust. But it was less the quality of their swords than their quantity that gave the main advantage to the Romans. In Spanish or Gallic armies only the chieftains could afford blades of the quality issued to every legionary.


The Roman cavalry of the Principate were issued with the longer spatha. Its design was similar to the Pompeii type gladius, but the blades typically measured about 60-90 cm in length and 3—4.5 cm in width. During the third and fourth centuries the spatha appears to have been adopted by most, if not all, Roman infantrymen.

Legionaries on the march from a first-century ad relief found in the legionary fortress at Mainz. On the right is a standard bearer, or possibly the centurion's second in command, the optio, who carried as a badge of rank a staff (hastile,) topped by an ornamental knob. The shaft of this hastile was used to dress the ranks of a formation and, in battle when the optio stood behind the rear rank of the century, to force men back into place if they tried to run.

This gave the Polybian legion a total of 4,200 infantry and 300 cavalry. In times of particular crisis the number of infantry might be increased to 6,000, but this was done without ever varying the number of triarii. The sixty centurions and thirty decurions were overseen by six military tribunes, two of whom held overall command of the legion at any one time. The tribunes were elected, usually from young aristocrats in the earliest stages of a political career. A consul was normally given an army of two legions, but in times of crisis this was increased to four. In addition to the Roman legions, each army included a similarly sized contingent of allies. About 4—5,000 infantry and 900 cavalry formed an ala, which was commanded by officers known as prefects who were invariably Romans. In battle, a consular army formed with the two alae on either side of a centre composed of the Roman legions, so that they were usually referred to as the ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ alae. A special body of troops, the extraordinarii, was detached from these and placed at the immediate disposal of the consul. Often used as shock troops, in an advance these formed the vanguard, while in a retreat they brought up the rear.

The Roman army in this period was a curious mixture of a citizen militia and a professional force. In many ways it had much in common with the conscript armies raised in Europe after the French Revolution. All citizens possessing property above a set level were eligible for service. They served for the duration of a conflict and then returned to civilian life; they were obliged to serve the state in this way for up to sixteen campaigns. While enrolled in the army, citizens were paid and fed by the state and agreed to subject themselves to a very harsh system of discipline, binding themselves at a formal parade by taking the solemn military oath (the sacramentum) to obey the consuls. This discipline not only dealt with their behaviour in battle, but regulated every aspect of their service life. Serious crimes, such as neglect of guard duty, theft from comrades or homosexual acts, were punishable by death, with lesser misdemeanours resulting in a flogging. If a whole unit disgraced itself in battle it was liable to decimation, the execution of one man in ten. The survivors lived on in public disgrace, forced to camp outside the defences of the main camp and fed on barley, not wheat. All the many legal defences a Roman citizen possessed against the arbitrary exercise of power by a magistrate in peacetime he lost on entering the army. Many of the institutions of the later professional army already existed by the second century вс at the very latest. The army’s discipline was reflected in one of its most famous practices, the construction of a marching camp at the end of each day’s march. Polybius describes at great length the procedure for marking out the camp, always built to set dimensions with a uniform plan of roads and tent lines so that it resembled an ordered city. One story claimed that Pyrrhus first realized that he was not facing mere barbarians when he saw a Roman army camped for the night.

The draconian discipline formed only part of the picture. The soldiers were drawn from the same citizen body that elected the army’s commanders. There seems to have been a strong sense of shared duty to the state among both the soldiers and their commanders. The ordinary soldiers possessed a freedom to address their commanders which belied the rigid hierarchy but reflected the political life of Rome. Throughout the third century вс there is no evidence for any widespread attempts to avoid military service. Military and civilian life overlapped for all classes. Polybius was full of praise for the encouragement the Romans gave to their brave soldiers. At the end of a campaign, or after a great battle, a parade was held by the army at which the individuals who had displayed conspicuous gallantry were decorated and acclaimed by their comrades. Decorations included ornamental spears or horse trappings, while the first man over the wall of an enemy fortress received a gold wreath, the corona muralis. Highest of all was the corona civica, the simple laurel crown awarded for saving the life of another citizen. For the rest of their lives these men were allowed to wear their decorations during state festivals, to the admiration of the whole community. For the aristocracy such acclaim was a major asset in a political career.

This scene from the altar of Ahenobarbus is thought to show a clerk preparing a list of names, either as a census of Roman citizens or as part of the process of raising an army. Polybius describes the levying of the Roman legions occurring centrally, a tribune from each of the four legions formed to provide the consular armies, picking one man in turn from the crowd of citizens who had been ordered to assemble. However, it is uncertain which period this passage describes.

The strict Roman discipline and the institutions of apparent professionalism should not conceal the fact that Roman armies were impermanent and of very varied quality. The longer an army served, the more efficient it became. Some of the legions enrolled during the Punic wars served for decades and reached the highest state of efficiency. An extreme case was the two legions formed from the survivors of the disaster at Cannae in 216 вс, who served throughout the rest of the conflict and fought with great distinction at Zama in 202. Some of these men were still on active service in Macedonia and awaiting discharge more than twenty years after their original enlisting. Yet once an army was discharged, its accumulated experience disappeared. Individual soldiers were likely to serve in the army again, but they would not do so in the same units. Therefore each time a Roman army was raised, the process of training and disciplining it began afresh. Although each levy included men with prior experience, this facilitated the training process but did not make it unnecessary. A wise commander took great care to prepare his army for battle, training them and gradually giving them confidence by providing minor victories. Hannibal won his greatest victories over Roman armies that were under-prepared for battle. The temporary nature of each Roman army meant that they lacked a cadre of technical experts, the trained professionals who provided the siege engineers in Hellenistic armies. If the Romans failed to take a fortified city by surprise assault or treachery, they were not skilled at prosecuting a formal siege and usually had to rely on starving the enemy into submission.

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