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Military history of the Roman Empire
Rome was a militarized state whose history was often closely entwined with its military history over the 1228 years that the Roman state is traditionally said to have existed. The core of Roman military history is the account of its great land battles, from the conquest of Italy to its final battles against the Huns. This account may be divided into the Republic period, when Rome was primarily expansionist, and the Imperial period, when Rome focused on maintaining its borders.
See also Roman military structure.
History and evolution
'The Roman Army' is the name given to the sophisticated collection of soldiers and other military forces which served the Roman Republic and later the Roman Empire. The Army dominated much of the land surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, including the province of Britain and Asia Minor at the Empire's height. Beginning as a citizen army, the Roman Army evolved into a professional army following the reforms of Gaius Marius around 100 BC.
Pre-Republican military evolution
Rome's first army was naught but a primitive and unorganized band of militia. They fought with whatever weapons they found most comfortable, and only the wealthiest would have worn armor or used weapons that didn't double as civilian implements (swords, spears, have no purpose when not fighting). This force was unable to resist the Etruscan invasion of the late 7th century BC.
The Etruscans, having conquered Rome, expected her to contribute soldiers to their armies, and therefore imposed their method of military organization on the fledgling city. Under the Etruscan system, Rome's army was organized on the basis of social and economic standing. The upper half of men would form as hoplites in a phalanx, the combat formation traditionally used by Greek infantry. The class section directly below them would organize into a contingent of medium spearmen approximately 1/4 the size of the phalanx. The level below them served as light spearmen of similar size; below them, men fought as javelin-throwing skirmishers or slingers.
Rome continued to use this organizational system even after she overthrew Etruscan rule in 510 BC, though by 340 BC, Livy describes the army as drastically different.
The Republican Army
At any rate, Polybius describes the republican army at what is arguably its height in 160 BC. Serving in the army was part of civic duty in Rome. To be a legionaire (infantry) one had to meet a property requirement. They were divided into three groups, the Hastati, Principes, and Triarii, organized by age. The younger Hastati served in the front line, and were generally the least well armored, as they had little money to purchase such things.The Hastati and princepes were by this time armed with a gladius, the spanish sword and ussually one or two javelins (pilum). The trairii were armed with spears, and traditionally formed the third line of the legion, ussually crouching with their spears outward as a last ditch defense. As men gained experience and acumulated equipment they were moved into the other ranks. Each infantry man was part of a century of 80 men, two of which formed a maniple, the common unit of maneuver. Those of the lowest classes, or too young to serve were in lightly armed skirmisher units and known as velites. The Roman upper-middle class, or Equites, were obligated to own horses, and hence served in the cavalry. The upper class of Rome, the Senators, served as the army's leaders, serving as legates and tribunes. All of these groups together formed a legion.
The overall command of legions in the early Republic was given to the two annually-elected consuls, which often led to mismanagement. Sometimes this even lead to them commanding the Roman forces on alternate days so neither would gain power over the other, resulting in more than one defeat. In the later republic, the relatively small number of legions commanded by the consuls (2-4) resulted in their power being overshadowed by the proconsuls, the provincial governors. They would often have more loyalty (eee Marian Reforms) from their troops than their consular counterparts, and the same time have the ability to raise vast numbers of troops. While the provincial armies were technically supposed to stay within the province their governor controlled, this was ignored by the middle of the 1st Century BC. By the end Republic, the various men involved in the civil wars had raised the number of legions throughout the Republic's provinces to more than fifty, many at the command of a single man.
By the end of the 2nd Century BC the Repbulican army was experiencing a severe manpower shortage. The extremely popular Gaius Marius at the end of that century used his power to reorganize the Republican army. Firstly, while still technically illegal, he recruited men from the lower classes who did not meet the official property requirement, a process originally started in the middle of the 2nd Century BC by the Grachhi . He also reorganized the legions into the now familar cohort system, doing away with the clumsy manipular system. Now legions were made up of 10 cohorts of 6 centuries of 80 apiece. The first cohort carried the new universal standard, a silver (later gold) eagle called the aquilia . This cohort had one less century, but each century had double the men of normal centuries, giving a total of approximately 4,800 men in each legion. These reforms are important for two reasons. One is from this point, legions began to become less and less a civic duty of the property owning classes, becoming almost entirely manned by the lower classes. Also, by eliminating the rather unwieldy three-line manipular system, a legion could now react more effectively to changes on the battlefield. Every infantry member of the legion now had the same arms (gladius) and were given supply packs, and as time went on the need to supply their own armour was eliminated in favour of the state supplying it. This is the real starting point of the Roman army's transition to a professional force.
Unfotunately, because it was the lower classes making up the legions, they now had to rely on the loot provide retirement capital. Initially the Senate was asked to supply public land to retired soldiers who had completed their terms of service, but it refused, and so these soldiers had to rely upon their generals to provide them for retirement. This was the driving force behind the civil wars that destroyed the Republic, as charismatic and successful generals such as Julius Caesar and Lucius Cornelius Sulla created personal loyalities over whatever loyalties those troops might have had to Rome.
The Imperial Army
During the reign of Augustus the army became a professional one. Its core of legionaires was composed of Roman citizens who served for a minimum of twenty five years. Augustus in his reign tried to eliminate the loyalty of the legions to the generals who commanded them, forcing them to take an oath of allegiance directly to him. While the legions remained relatively loyal to Augustus during his reign, under others, esspecially the more corrupt emperors or those who unwisely treated the military poorly, the legions often took power into their own hands. Legions continued to move farther and farther to the outskirts of society, esspecially in the later periods of the empire as the majority of legionaires no longer came from Italy, and were instead born in the provinces. The loyalty the legions felt to their emperor only degraded more with time, and lead in the 2nd Centry and 3rd Century to a large number of military usurpers and civil wars. By the time of the military officer emperors that characterized the period following the Crisis of the Third Century the Roman army was just as likely to be attacking itself as an outside invader.
Both the pre- and post-Marian armies were greatly assisted by auxilary troops. A typical Roman legion was accompanied by a matching auxilary legion. In the pre-Marian army these auxilary troops were Italians, and often Latins, from cities near Rome. The post-Marian army incorporated these Italian soldiers into its standard legions (as all Italians were Roman citizens after the Social War). Its auxilary troops were made up of foriegners from provinces distant to Rome, who gained Roman citizenship after completing their twenty five years of service. This system of foreign auxilaries allowed the post-Marian army to strengthen traditional weak points of the Roman system, such as light missile troops and cavalry, with foreign specialists, esspecially as the richer classes took less and less part of military affairs and the Roman army lost much of its domestic calvary.
At the beginning of the Imperial period the number of legions was 60, which Augustus more than halved to 28, numbering at approximately 160,000 men. As more territory was conquered throughout the Imperial perid, this fluxiated into the mid-thirties. At the same time, at the beginning of the Imperial period the foreign auxiliaries made up a rather small portion of the military, but continued to rise, so that by the end of the period of the Five Good Emperors they probably equalled the legionaires in number, giving a combined total of between 300,000 and 400,000 men in the Army.
Weapons and equipment
History and evolution
The Roman navy was very much inferior, both in prestige and capability, to the Roman army. Before the First Punic War in 264 BC there was no Roman navy to speak of as all previous Roman war had been fought in Italy. But the war in Sicily against Carthage, a great naval power, forced Rome to quickly build a fleet and train sailors. The first few naval battles of the First Punic War were disasters for Rome, and it was not until the invention of the Corvus, a grappling engine which made it easier for Romans to board the Carthagenian vessels, that Rome was able to win the war.
The Punic wars were both the beginning and the height of the Roman navy. Rome was able to use her superior army in preference to her navy in most of the wars she fought afterwards. By the late Empire Roman control over the Mediterranean coast meant that there were no non-Roman navies to fight. Indeed, Rome's last major naval battle was fought between Romans, Octavian and Marc Antony, at Actium.
Weapons and equipment
Patterns of Roman wars
The first Roman wars were wars of conquest, aimed at protecting Rome itself from neighboring cities and nations by defeating them in battle. This sort of warfare characterized the early Republican Period when Rome was focused on consolidating its position in Italy, and eventually conquering the peninsula. Rome first began to make war outside the Italian peninsula in the Punic wars against Carthage. These wars, starting in 264 BC saw Rome become a Mediterranean power, with territory in Sicily, North Africa, Spain, and, after the Macedonian wars, Greece.
While expansion continued in the late Republic, civil war became an increasingly common feature. In the last century before the common era at least 12 civil wars and rebellions occurred. These were generally started by one charismatic general who refused to surrender power to the Roman Senate, which appointed generals, and so had to be opposed by an army loyal to the Senate. This pattern did not break until Octavian, later Augustus ended it by becoming a successful challenger to the Senate's authority, and was crowned emperor.
As the emperor was a centralized authority with power focused in Rome, he was generally not able to leave the city for long periods of time to fight wars. Because he feared rebellion by powerful generals, he was not willing to appoint powerful generals. These factors lead to a dramatic slowing of acquisition of territory under the Roman Empire. Trajan was one of the few emperors of the early imperial period who was secure enough in his reign to leave Rome for long periods of time, and his rule saw the largest Roman gains of the imperial period, as he added Armenia, Parthia and Dacia as provinces to the empire.
The third century saw a crisis in roman rule when a series of weak emperors and powerful invasions by outside forces saw the empire splinter into three parts, the core loyal to Rome, the west as the Gallic Empire, and the city of Palmyra ruling over much of the east. After this crisis was resolved and the empire reunited the emperor's focus of power became the legions rather than the city of Rome. New emperors were chosen by the army, rather than by heredity or adoption. A system of four co-emperors, the Tetrarchy, was adopted, allowing one emperor to stay with the eastern legions while another stayed with the western legions. This system lasted, with a brief unification under Constantine until the end of the Western Empire, after which Roman military history becomes Byzantine military history .
List of Roman wars
See also List of Roman battles.
The list below is not exhaustive, but it does list the major wars that Rome fought, against both external and internal enemies. Famous Roman generals are listed along with the war that they are most closely associated with. Because many of these wars occurred within the life time of one man, and often simultaneously, several generals served in more than one of the wars listed. As well, famous enemies of Rome are listed in association with the war they fought in.
The wars themselves are organized into Wars of Conquest where Rome was seeking to exterminate an external enemy and/or guarantee its security against an external enemy, Revolts & Rebellions where Rome was being threatened by its own generals or by conquered peoples, and External Invasions where Rome fought an invasion by an external enemy without turning the war into one of conquest.
Wars of conquest
- Samnite wars
- Punic wars
- Macedonian wars
- Jugurthine War - 122 BC to 105 BC
- Mithridatic wars
- Gallic Wars - 58 BC to 51 BC
- Cantabrian Wars - 36 BC to 19 BC
- Augustus' German Wars - to 9
- Roman invasion of Britain and Scotland - 43 to 80
- Trajan's Dacian Campaigns - 101 to 102 and 105 to 106
- Trajan's Parthian Campaign - 113 to 117
Revolts and rebelions
- Lusitanian War - 147 BC to 139 BC
- Roman Republican civil wars
- First Servile War - 135 BC to 132 BC
- Second Servile War - 104 BC to 103 BC
- Social War - 91 BC to 88 BC
- Sulla's first civil war - 88 BC to 87 BC
- Sertorius' Spanish revolt - 83 BC to 72 BC
- Sulla's second civil war - 82 BC to 81 BC
- Spartacus slave rebellion - 79 BC
- Third Servile War - 73 BC to 71 BC
- Catiline Conspiracy - 63 BC to 62 BC
- Caesar's civil war - 49 BC to 45 BC
- Post-Caesarian civil war - 44 BC
- The Liberators' civil war - 44 BC to 42 BC
- Sicilian revolt - 44 BC to 36 BC
- Fulvia's civil war - 41 BC to 40 BC
- Antony's civil war - 32 BC to 30 BC
- Icenii Rebellion - 61
- Jewish Revolts
- Year of the four emperors - 69
- Batavian rebellion - 69 to 70
- Crisis of the Third Century
- Invasion by the Cimbri and Teutoni - 113 BC to 102 BC
- Invasion by the Marcomanni - 166 to 180
- Persian Invasion - ca. 251 to 272
- Gothic Invasions - chronic after 267
- Hun Invasion 440 to 453
- List of Roman military terms
- Roman military diploma
- Principal passes of the Alps
- Ancient History
- Ancient Rome
- Military history
- History of warfare
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