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 infantry legions.

centuriō, -ōnis 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.

classis, -is fem. 3 most frequently means “fleet”, but the term originally referred to a division of the citizen-body or a levy of soldiers.

equitēs, equitum 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).

legiō, -ōnis 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 of troops.

peditēs, peditum 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”).

signa, -ōrum 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 disgrace.

triumphus, -ī 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 Column].

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.)