Saturday 27 August 2016

The Roman Army

Perhaps nowhere can the formidable organization and ruthlessness of the Roman world be better seen than in its army. The professional standing army of several hundred thousand men at the height of the empire, was a disciplined and well trained fighting machine.

The ancient Greek hoplites(infantry) fought in organized formations. The hoplite "phalanx" in which they stood closely together with their shields locked together, allowed them to form a united front against the enemy - something that the roman army used during the republic.

Greek Hoplite Soldiers

From birth to death, life in Sparta was tied to the army. Young boys were trained as soldiers and the aim of the state was to produce a perfect and invincible army. Some of these values are echoed in the self-sacrifice demanded of roman soldiers.

The Roman army was not a static organization but evolved over the centuries to meet diverse challenges and overcome new enemies. In the days of the early republic the army was staffed by volunteers from the aristocratic families. They provided their own weapons and uniform and trained for 5 or 6 years. By 1st century the army had become a well organized, mobile fighting force.

Every Roman legion had an eagle standard(aquila) and the person who carried it was called aquilifer and it was a coveted position. From this time, soldiers sworn their allegiance to the emperor and not the republic, which was key in ensuring their loyalty and in defending and protecting the empire's borders over the next two centuries.

Roman Army Standards

Roman army for many people was a way to escape from a life of poverty or to gain political power or influence. Young men were expected to do military service as a part of their education. Those from wealthier background saw the army as a step on the ladder to public office. 

New recruits to the Roman army had to be physically fit. They would be expected to march up to 30 km(20 miles) a day, carrying all their equipment, which may have weighed 30 kg or more wearing leather footwear with steel studs. at the end of the day spent on march they often had to set up a fortified military camp for the night, digging boundary ditches and setting up tents. 

Roman Sandals 

In battle, every soldier was expected to obey command and fight in formation. One of the most famous of these formations was the  "tortoise"(testudo) in which rectangular blocks of soldiers stood together with their shields facing outwards and upwards towards the enemy.    

Tortoise Formation

Housesteads Fort is the most complete auxiliary Roman fort in Britain and was built c.122 CE on Hadrian's wall on the northern border of the empire. Its name has been variously given as Vercovicium, Borcovicus, Borcovicium, and Velurtion. The name of the 18th century farmhouse Housesteads is the modern name.

Ruins of Housesteads Fort

Vindolanda tablets were scrapes of wood, found in a waterlogged rubbish heap near a Roman fort in northern England. They provide a detail snapshot of life on the frontier of the empire from 97-103 CE. Work rotas, accounts and reports give us an idea of everyday life as a Roman soldier. 

Vindolanda Tablets

Roman auxiliary infantry crossing a river, probably the Danube, on a pontoon bridge during the emperor Trajan's Dacian Wars (101–106 AD).

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