The Roman Army
From its humble origins as
just one of many city-states in Italy, Rome gradually but inexorably
extended its power over the whole Mediterranean basin and far beyond.
It owed this success primarily to the disciplined organisation of its
masc. 3. The term implies that a centurion was originally in charge
of 100 men, but later the number might be 80 or even lower.
fem. 3 most frequently means “fleet”, but the term originally referred
to a division of the citizen-body or a levy of soldiers.
masc. 3. Although the equitēs comprised the second rank in Roman
society, and had originally formed the cavalry units of the army, by
the 1st century BC the cavalry was generally auxiliary troops (auxilia,
auxiliōrum neut. 2), provided by the allies (sociī,
sociōrum masc. 2).
fem. 3. A legion comprised 10 cohorts (cohors, cohortis
fem. 3), each made up of 6 centuries, usually of 80 men, i.e. a total
of 4,800. At Augustus’ death in AD 14, there were 25 legions. Therefore,
the whole vast empire was being maintained with a basic force of 120,000
men. legiō is derived from legō, legere, lēgī,
lectum 3, the primary meaning of which is “select”, i.e. a levy
masc. 3. The infantry, the core of the Roman army. Despite their importance,
the legionaries were often held in low regard: the rank-and-file soldiery
were referred to matter-of-factly as mīlitēs gregāriī (“soldiers
in a herd” [grex, gregis masc. “herd”]; cf. “cannon-fodder”).
(Similarly, the term “infantry” implies childishness, unfitness
to undertake responsibilities.) In 107 BC, as part of his radical army-reforms,
motivated by the protraction of the war with Jugurtha, Marius increased
the amount of equipment which soldiers had to carry (thus reducing dependence
on slow and unwieldy supply columns); hence the proverbial description
of the legionaries as mūlī Marīanī (“Marius’ mules”).
neut. 2. The standards, carried by the standard-bearers (signifer,
-ferī masc. 2) provided a rallying-point for units in battle.
Loss of the standards, most notably to the Parthians at Carrhae in 53
BC and to the Germans in the Teutoburg Forest in AD 9, was an extreme
masc. 2. Outstanding military successes were celebrated by a triumph,
in which the victorious general, accompanied by his army, his captives
and his booty (spolia, -ōrum neut. 2), paraded along
the Via Sacra to the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitol.
The triumph was a jealously guarded honor; nevertheless, it has been
calculated that over 300 had been awarded by the end of the Republic,
an indication of the almost constant warfare in which the Romans were
engaged. An ovation (ovātiō, -iōnis fem. 3) was a minor
form of triumph, much more rarely celebrated, awarded when the victory
was over a less significant enemy, or was less decisive, or the general
was not of high enough rank to merit a triumph.
Rōma may actually be
an Etruscan tribal name, but it was a useful coincidence for Roman military
propaganda that the Greek form of “Rome” was identical to a word
meaning “physical power”. This point, noticed by the Greeks themselves
already in the second century BC, is made several times in Roman literature;
for example, Tibullus says Rōma, tuum nōmen terrīs fātāle regendīs
“Rome, your name is ordained by destiny for world-rule”. The Romans
ignored almost entirely the Greeks’ own name for themselves, Hellēnes,
calling them instead Graecī, after an obscure tribe in central
Greece [rather as scholarship from any part of the English-speaking
world is sometimes referred to in Germany nowadays as “angelsächsisch”].
The Romans spoke Latin because Rome is in Latium, a name which
was thought by some to be derived from the verb lateō, latēre,
latuī 2 “hide” [intrans.], either because it lies hidden between
the Alps and the Apennines, or because Saturn hid there when ousted
from Heaven by Jupiter. Italy as a whole is called Sāturnia terra
by the poets; the name Italia was associated with vitulus,
-ī masc. 2 “calf”, suggesting that it was a good country
for cattle-rearing. The name Romania [now the preferred spelling, not
Rumania] reflects the Romanisation of the lower Danube after the conquest
of the Dacians in the early 2nd century AD [as commemorated on Trajan’s
Paradoxically, the Romans’
military defeats are generally more memorable than their victories:
the Allia and the sack of Rome (c. 387 BC), the Caudine Forks (321),
Lake Trasimene (217), Cannae (216), Arausio (105), Carrhae (53) and
the Teutoburg Forest (AD 9) seem more evocative than Sentinum (295),
Zama (202), Pydna (168), Aquae Sextiae (102), the Raudine Plain (101),
Chaeronea (86; not to be confused with Philip II of Macedon’s great
defeat of the Greek confederacy there 250 years before). Similarly,
it may be easier nowadays (outside France, at least) to recall Napoleon’s
defeats (Trafalgar, Moscow, Waterloo) than his victories, but his
Grande Armée was undoubtedly a superb military force.
Plato’s Socrates had said
that those who live round the Mediterranean and Black Sea were like
ants or frogs round a pond, and that there were many other peoples living
in other such places. The Romans called the Mediterranean mare nostrum
(“our sea”; the name “Mediterranean” is post-classical, the
original sense of the word implying “far inland” rather than “at
the centre of the world”). The navy played an important role in the
wresting of Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica from Carthaginian control in
the 3rd century, but did not otherwise contribute very prominently to
the acquisition and defence of the empire. Certainly, the Romans never
subdued any significant foreign enemy by means of their fleet. (The
Battle of Actium in 31 BC, though represented in Augustan propaganda
as a victory over Cleopatra, marked the end of the civil wars.) Piracy
was a serious scourge till the end of the Republican period.
Significantly, the Romans had no word for “admiral” (which is Arabic in origin, cognate with emir). One of ancient Rome’s most prominent landmarks did, however, commemorate a naval victory. In 338 BC, the Romans captured the fleet of Antium (modern Anzio, some 35 miles from Rome, scene of the Allied landings in January 1944). The prows of some of the Antiate ships were set up to decorate a platform for political rallies in the forum. The area became known as the Rostra, the Latin for “prow” being rostrum, -ī neut. 2, an extension of the original sense, “beak”, the prow of a war-ship, designed for ramming, being considered to resemble the beak of a bird. (The modern use of the singular rostrum to mean a platform for speaking is a [strictly incorrect] back-formation, developed ultimately from that naval victory over Antium.)