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The Roman Army

Roman Troops

The Romans were famous for their highly skilled and disciplined army, with which they were able to conquer vast areas of the ancient world and become one of the most powerful nations of the period. The Romans had various types of soldiers with different skills for different purposes.

If you wanted to join the Roman army you would have to be a male citizen, at least 1.7m tall and in good health. You would be interviewed and given a medical examination, and if successful you would be required to swear an oath of loyalty to Rome and the Emperor before being assigned to a legion and sent to your posting. New recruits were put through vigorous training to ensure that they became proficient fighters. This training included not only combat techniques but also skills such as carpentry, road building and swimming.

In the army recruits were well fed, and a soldier could comfortably retire after his 25 years of service. A legionary's basic pay was about 300 denarii (silver pieces) a year, but out of this he had to pay for part of his food, equipment, pension and funeral savings. The balance of what was left was paid to the soldiers every three months or so.

At the top of the military hierarchy was the Praetorian Guard. This was the imperial bodyguard for the Emperor and they only took to the battlefield when led by the Emperor in person. They were normally based in Rome.

The legions formed the backbone of the Roman army, and there were 27 of these formations. They were tough, well trained, disciplined infantry made up of Roman citizens. A legion was composed of 10 cohorts, each containing 480 men, except for the first cohort which was double that number, giving a total of 5,280 men in a legion. Each cohort was then subdivided into six centuries of 80 men.

Attached to the legions was a small body of horsemen whose main duties were those of dispatch riders and guards; they were not part of the fighting cavalry core. At the time of the Roman conquest of Britain the emphasis was very much on the foot soldier who was to lead the troops into battle and bear the brunt of the attack. The soldiers on horseback were used as back-up.

There were also many specialist men who travelled with the troops. These included clerks, armourers, blacksmiths, stone-masons, carpenters and medical staff. Each legion also had its own architect and water engineer, whose job it was to find suitable sites for the temporary and permanent forts of the army. These men were regarded as technicians, not fighters.

All the legionaries were uniformly equipped with body armour. In the early period this consisted of a hardened leather jerkin (vest) reinforced with metal plates; it was later replaced with the more complicated metal strip armour. This armour went to the hip, and from the hip to the knee the soldiers wore either a heavy woollen tunic or an apron made of leather and bronze strips hanging from a belt.

The Roman helmet was a well-designed piece of equipment. The early type was like a jockey's helmet with a bronze dome and a horizontal projection at the back to protect the top of the spine. At the front the only protection came from a brow ridge, and there were hinged cheekpieces to protect the face. This helmet was later replaced by a helmet with an iron skull cap and deeper protection at the back of the neck.

The legionary shield was of a large semi-cylindrical type, which when held close to the body gave protection from the chin to the thigh along the whole of one side. To compensate for its size it was probably designed to be quite light, perhaps made from a light wood bound at the edges with metal with a strong central bronze boss for the internal hand grip. The outer surface was covered in leather, on which were elaborate gilded bronze patterns depicting war and victory.

The attacking weapons of the Roman legionaries included the pilum (javelin) and the gladius (short sword). The wooden pilum was around 7ft long with an iron tip, and each legionary carried two of these. They were designed to thrown at the enemy up to 30m away. They were intended to pierce the enemy's shield, whereupon the iron tip would bend under the weight of the wooden shaft. This made it difficult to pull out, forcing the enemy to abandon the shield. The legionaries would then engage the enemy in close combat with their short swords. The well-designed body armour of the Romans gave them a distinct advantage over the "Barbarian Britons". 

The different fighting techniques of the Romans and the Britons also favoured the invaders. The Celts were equipped with large swords and were used to fighting in open combat where they could swing their swords at individual men. The Romans, however, had been taught to fight in close formation and to keep this position, where the short gladius was much more effective than the long sword. The Celts were brave men and could be heroic fighters under the right leadership, but unlike the legionaries they had no effective organisation and once battle had commenced they often found it difficult to direct and manoeuvre different sections of fighters, whereas the Romans could quickly deploy sections of men using pre-arranged hand signals.

The main "frontal" attacks were carried out by the legionaries whilst another branch of the Roman army, the auxilia, fought at the sides. The troops of the auxilia were regarded as back-up to the legionaries. The auxilia were originally recruited from barbarian tribes from every part of the Roman Empire and often retained their local names and methods of fighting. In pre-Claudian times they often appeared as an ill-organised rabble of locals, but they later became an integral part of the Roman army. By the end of the 1st century AD there may have been as many as 200,000 auxiliaries in the Roman army, with each man being expected to serve for 25 years.

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2004]