Despite the prominence of the subject in the public imagination, the general reader has limited access to substantive information on the Roman army. The volumes available in bookstores are usually illustrated uniform and equipment guides, which are full of neat pictures and look great on a coffee table, but are otherwise worthless. Those seeking real information are forced to shell out the money for academic monographs.
Adrian Goldsworthy might be familiar to most people as a serial commentator on those ubiquitous cable “documentaries” about ancient Rome, but his credentials are solid as today’s foremost scholar of Roman military history. I recently finished what is probably his most important work, The Roman Army at War: 100 BC – 200 AD. Goldsworthy’s objective was to write a study of the Roman army as an actual fighting force in the context of its own time; not an anachronistic search for timeless “principles” of strategy and tactics or a social history focused on the daily routine of the soldiers. Thus, he consciously imitates the technique in John Keegan’s The Face of Battle.
The general fascination with the Roman army and the wealth of literature devoted to it makes it all the more surprising that no comprehensive study of its military performance has been attempted this century. Many books have devoted sections to the army’s tactics, organization, and weaponry, but have failed to discuss how the army actually fought. There has been a tendency to shy away from the waging of war. This is the ultimate function of all armies, including the Roman, a statement that is true even for a force only rarely engaged in actual fighting. (2)
Summarizing all the contents of the book would be futile, but here are some of the general points:
(1) The Roman army was much more flexible than it is given credit for. The formal organization of the legions allowed them to adapt to local circumstances, which was all the more important when conquering became garrisoning. For example, the cohort-based structure of the imperial legions permitted them to divide into smaller detachments (vexillations) which was often required to perform the missions of imperial policing and counterinsurgency, tasks that the legions were surprisingly adept at.
(2) Despite their marked disadvantage in military resources, most of Rome’s barbarian enemies opted for decisive battle instead of guerrilla warfare. One possible reason for this was that they recognized that defeating the legions in battle was the only way to slow the Roman juggernaut. However, a more important reason was that their unsophisticated societies could not long sustain an army in the field. Barbarian armies were clumsy, unwieldy things that could only gather for a single, stand-up fight in open terrain. Of course, there were some notable exceptions to this general trend.
And for all the Eastern mystique that surrounded the Parthians, they were almost completely incapable of defeating a well-balanced Roman army. Crassus’ expedition was annihilated only because he neglected to bring sufficient cavalry auxiliaries and foot archers, and his army finally panicked after hours of incessant arrow bombardment.
(3) Roman campaign strategy emphasized the offensive above all else. Even when rebellions broke out unexpectedly, the Romans would aggressively respond with whatever forces were available in the region, even if they were understrength. Sometimes this resulted in disaster, but more often than not, it allowed the Romans to quell uprisings before they burned out of control.
In all types of warfare Roman tactical doctrine was based upon the offensive. The Roman army sought always to bring the conflict to a decisive conclusion as soon as possible by seizing the initiative and dictating the course of the fighting. A decision was reached when the enemy’s will to fight was broken … The Roman emphasis on the offensive in all forms of warfare was another aspect of this attempt to dominate the enemy’s collective willpower and suggested the inevitability of Roman victory. As on the battlefield, the appearance of force was more important than its reality. The appearance of confidence in an army, shown for instance in its willingness to confront overwhelming odds, lowered the enemy’s morale and contributed to to final victory. (114)
(4) Our understanding of the nature of battle in Roman times is distorted by the anachronistic efforts to divine strategic and tactical “principles” from the literary and archaeological record of ancient battles, and by [of course] Hollywood. Many modern scholars are quick to dismiss the skill of most Roman generals on account of the absence of tactical subtlety in their engagements. These criticisms are misplaced, because very few of Rome’s many victories can be attributed to maneuver or stratagem. In fact, the entire Roman military system seemed designed to minimize the role of risky battlefield maneuvers in the pursuit of victory, instead using disciplined heavy infantry to leverage the attritional process. But this does not mean that Roman generals lacked for talent; rather, Roman generalship manifested itself in ways unique to the times:
The universally harsh judgment of scholars regarding the ability of Roman commanders rests on the fundamentally anachronistic assumption that grand tactics were the general’s most important skill. Few battles involving the Roman army were decided by subtle tactical moves … The technical skill of the Roman general lay not in the sweeping moves of grand tactics, but in paying close attention to the detail of small unit tactics, directing his units, especially the reserves, in response to the changing situation on the battlefield. This role could best be performed by a commander who kept close to the fighting, without becoming personally involved in it. (168-9)
The actual clash of arms bore little resemblance to the extrapolations that Hollywood has produced. At one extreme, the 1960 film Spartacus depicts Roman soldiers as dehumanized automatons, advancing slowly in methodical precision in an inexorable advance that crushes all before it. At the other extreme, the opening battle sequence in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator begins with the cohorts advancing in good order, but then devolves into a chaotic free-for-all with the Romans and Germans intermixed with one another. The reality that Goldsworthy describes resembles neither. Many encounters between infantry were not decisive at all, with the opposing lines frequently separating a short distance from one another to recover from exhaustion before resuming the fight. Victory often came only when a breakthrough was exploited by reserves. The most one-sided battles occurred when the enemy fled as the cohorts approached, resulting in their massacre as the Romans pursued and cut them down.
The book is a dense academic work that presumes the reader already has a basic understanding of Roman society and the Roman army. But its substance is welcome, especially considering the poor quality of the more readily available material. Highly recommended for those interested in the subject.