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6-08-2015, 15:26

Might of the Legions

Warfare in ancient Rome was essentially an
instrument of expansion. The Roman army was
one of the most successful in the history of the world.
Rome’s military strength allowed the empire to spread
to three continents. Rome’s soldiers established Roman
rule with great precision.


During the days of the Roman monarchy and then the republic, men served
in the Roman army for only part of the year. They were not paid. Rather, the
government expected them to serve out of a sense of duty. The army was
called together for a season of campaigning, pushing into new lands. Men
then returned home in time to harvest their crops and, therefore, did not
generally lose money by serving in the army. Sometimes, wars would last
longer than one season, so soldiers were forced to remain with the army
through the winter. One of the first written accounts of soldiers receiving pay
for military service was during the siege of the Etruscan city of Veii, which
lasted ten years, from 406 to 396 BCE.
By the first century BCE, Rome’s army had shifted from a part-time
military comprised of volunteers to a professional standing army of men who
received regular pay for their service. Officers received much higher pay
than soldiers. The highest-ranking centurions made more than 133 times the
salary of a legionnaire.1
Many soldiers in the Roman army saw themselves as superior to
members of the civilian population. Records indicate that civilians often
feared running into soldiers, who were known to bully them or forcibly take
their pack animals. Extortion was also common. Soldiers would demand
sums of money from business owners and threaten to harm them if they did
not comply.
Upon retirement, if a soldier survived that long, every legionnaire was
given a plot of land to farm. During the reign of Tiberius, in 14 CE, Rome
had trouble honoring the promise of providing land to retiring legionnaires.
When younger soldiers heard about the plight of their older retiring
comrades, mutiny broke out.
Tiberius realized he needed the army to maintain his rule and sent his
nephew and adopted son, Germanicus, to quell the upheaval. Germanicus
was a popular and well-respected general. He effectively restored peace. In
the process, Tiberius learned an important lesson: the very existence of the
empire depended upon the loyalty of the Roman army.


Rome’s earliest armies, prior to approximately 550 BCE, consisted of men
from neighboring tribes banding together in groups when threatened by
a common enemy. Then, in approximately 550 BCE, King Servius Tullius
implemented the mandatory service of eligible men in the military when
war called for it. As time went on, the army became more structured, more
heavily armed, and a more powerful force.
Rome’s army consisted of three groups: legions, auxiliaries, and the
Praetorian Guard. Each legion had approximately 5,000 men and included
soldiers, doctors, surveyors, and engineers.2 These men were called
legionnaires. They carried out military campaigns and also built roads, walls,
aqueducts, and tunnels. All members of the Roman legion had to be Roman
citizens to be eligible for service. Under Augustus, the Roman army could
field 23 legions.3
Noncitizens of Rome comprised the auxiliaries, which fought with the
legionnaires. Auxiliaries were lightly armed and fought as specialized
troops—often with bows or slings—or as cavalrymen. Rome granted
auxiliaries citizenship when they retired from the army.
The Praetorian Guard consisted of an elite group of Roman soldiers who
served as the emperor’s bodyguards. Unlike other Roman soldiers who were
sent on military campaigns far and wide, the Praetorian Guard remained in
the city of Rome. The guard began with approximately 9,000 men and varied
in size over time.4
Most of Rome’s soldiers were professionals and served in the army for
25 years. They were highly trained and could employ different battle tactics
in response to trumpet signals. Soldiers had incredible stamina for marching
great distances, were skilled at fighting in precise
formation, and could kill expertly and efficiently.
Legions were divided into ten cohorts, or
divisions. These were further broken down into
units called centuries. An officer called a centurion
led each century.
Roman legionnaires were heavily armed and
protected. An iron helmet protected the head and
face. Legionnaires wore armor of overlapping metal
strips, held together with leather strips over a red
tunic. A legionnaire carried two pila. These were
javelins with long iron heads that could be thrown
at the enemy. A soldier also had a gladius, a short
sword for hand-to-hand combat. Additionally,
Roman legionnaires carried curved shields called
scuta. Groups of legionnaires could raise their scuta flat above their heads
in a formation called testudo, tortoise. With their shields interlocked in a
massive barrier above them like the shell of a turtle, they could advance
against well-defended enemies and forts, avoiding harm from arrows or
other items thrown down on them.


Trajan was one of many Roman generals who went on to become emperor,
reigning from 98 to 117 CE. He led his armies as far north as the Danube
River in present-day Germany and as far east as present-day Iraq. He was
so popular with his troops that Emperor Nerva decided to name him as
his successor.
Trajan’s conquests brought great wealth to Rome. Conquered areas
of Dacia (modern-day Romania), Arabia, and Parthia (modern-day Iran),
provided ore, grain, and livestock to the empire.
But the military accomplishments of Trajan’s men were not without
hardships. Soldiers had to march great distances, cross rivers, build camps,
forage for food, and fight bravely for these conquests. Rome erected a marble
column in honor of Trajan and his legions, complete with reliefs showing
Trajan’s military campaigns.


Completed in 113 CE, Trajan’s Column stands 125 feet (38 m) tall.5
The monument, which still stands today in Trajan’s Forum in Rome,
consists of white Italian Carrara marble drums, each weighing
approximately 32 short tons (29 metric tons).6 Carvings in the marble
pillar depict the events of the Dacian Wars in which Trajan and his army
were victorious. One long continuous carving, called a frieze, wraps
up and around the shaft of the column. Images include the Roman
army preparing for battle and fighting the enemy and Emperor Trajan
addressing his troops. Trajan appears 59 times.7 The column serves
as a record of Roman military arms and methods of warfare.
Inside the column, a spiral staircase winds up the interior. Outside,
a gilded statue of Trajan tops the monument. The beautifully
carved column still stands as a testament to both the military
success and the artistic ability of the ancient Romans.