A brief look at combat

Hello again! And apologies for a slight silence from the frontier; a busy time for all, following our expedition to The Netherlands, and Archeon. Archeon was amazing, and incredibly good fun – as always. I’d like to take this opportunity to blast the cornu to our Roman brothers and sisters in the Netherlands, from the Dutch Group Legio Secvnda Augusta. We always have an amazing time with all of those members over there, and the experience would be so diminished in fun, laughter, and memories, if we were not in each other’s company.

I hope you have enjoyed the previous discussions I have brought to you; writing these is a rewardable activity – not simply through writing about what I am passionate about, but putting thoughts onto paper helps me to question my own ideas and interpretations. Questions you yourself may be asking while reading – in which case good! There was a discussion that I remember from Archeon, between myself and a couple of our members. An advantage to the re-enactment world is its appeal to military veterans and ex-servicemen; individuals who bring a different way of seeing armies of the past, and whose personal experiences within the military sphere bring insights and interpretations that it would be unjust to ignore. This particular discussion was on the mechanics of combat; how Roman soldiers fought, and, as a natural progression of the topic, how battles played out. Yes we have the native accounts from the ancient sources ; Polybius, for instance, providing depth and insight into battles, wars and military composition as to rightly place him as one of the ‘must have’ works (even with acknowledging his shortcomings and interpretative issues). However, these accounts are written by those that were, very often, no present, either during the battle or the entire war, and may be writing about events that could be decades, or even centuries ago. Moreover, while such accounts can delve into the grand manoeuvres and strategic play carried out but renowned leaders (for example, Caesar or Hannibal), they provide little or no insight into how those battles were fought; while generals and kings were moving the pieces and claiming the literary spotlight, how was the process of battle carried by those who did the actual fighting? This led to different views of what how fighting was practised in battle, and featured an idea circulating Roman re-enactment, but shunned by the academic community. The idea: individual lines of a unit swapping, taking away emphasise on complete unit replenishment – a revolutionary concept introduced by the Romans.

If asked to imagine the Roman army, many would envisage row upon of row of heavily armoured infantry, kitted out in the typical segmented armour and within the limited colour spectrum of red, red and red. If one was to imagine such troops fighting, a visual thought sees these soldiers working together- an impenetrable wall of large square scuta and deadly short swords, slaughtering all before them. This degree of teamwork, as a result, has become such a well-known and vital component of a unit’s actions and is an element of the Roman army’s effectiveness that is vital within a re-enactment or military display of such troops (both to the portrayer and the public). It has become essential (and rightly so) that as much knowledge as possible is gained about it. This can, however, be a double-edged sword. Yes, the need for a well-informed and comprehensive analysis and description is needed, especially for providing those ‘expert’ answers, but with that also comes the risk of being compliant and accepting an interpretation that is considered the norm, especially to the public or to other reenactors, when the most accurate answer is often a shrug of the shoulders and the age old reverse question of “Well, what do you think?”. Re-enactment, like scholarship, thrives on the unknown and informed argument with colleagues to progressively gain a clearer picture; not necessarily agreeing on the overall view but providing a range of different ideas and opinions all relating to the same thing. This is what I aim to do with a short of a recently agreed fighting tactic occurring in re-enactment- the switching of lines- and confronting this double-edged sword through identifying what evidence is available but also referring to realities often overlooked by those that portray Roman soldiers with such enthusiasm - the ‘Romans’ were not invincible, even on open ground.

I wish to briefly challenge the idea that soldiers could swap lines in a direct fight with the enemy. I will stress again, the limitations of this study; maybe in the future some free time will allow me to delve deeper and either reaffirm my current viewpoint or refute it. This is commonly portrayed as individuals in the front rank being relieved by those of the second and moving to the back where supposedly they can recover and rest before their turn comes again to relieve the front row. In this idyllic way the front row is always replenished with ‘fresh’ troops while the enemy, through their lack of apparent discipline cannot achieve the same and become exhausted. This may appear visually impressive and work for when Romans come alive on the TV, but is at odds with what the sources most likely mean and does not allow for the true chaos of front line combat, which simply cannot be reconstructed in an accurate and safe way.

The Roman military has always had a history of organisation. As a result of the Servian reforms, the genesis of the Republican and early Imperial army most likely came in the form similar to the hoplite infantry of the Greeks. This style may have continued up until after the invasion by Gallic forces and the resulting and infamous sacking of Rome- a fighting style of open orders that highlighted weaknesses in the “Roman phalanx”. The Gallic invasions appears to be the catalyst that forces Rome to adapt- a trait that becomes arguably their most famous in conflicts to come- and evolve from a rigid and singular body of men, into one that was more open and offered more autonomy to specific parts through handfuls of men or, as they would become to be known, manipuli.

This manipula style was what would make the Roman army stand apart from other armies, and is a highlight for Polybius in his accounts. Polybius takes time out from his narrative analysis of how and why Rome came to become a single hyper-power in the Mediterranean, to describe both the political structure of the Roman state and that of her military. A main feature of Book 6 is Polybius’ dissection of how a legion is formed through the Dilectus, the levels of command, and how the main bodies of soldiers were organised, and general procedures and actions carried out during campaigns. While it is of worth remembering this examination is not the primary role of Polybius, but rather to provide reasons and rationale behind how Rome came to conquer almost all of the Mediterranean, his accounts are of general agreeance and considered a most reliable source for this period.

However, while Polybius provides the preparation and aftermath of battle in great detail, his accounts of the fighting itself is limited in scope- normally favouring moments of bravery or a sudden impactful move that turns the tide, and a shift in fortune being one major theme throughout his works. While tactical reconstruction can be gained from Polybius, such as the infamous defeat of Rome by Hannibal at Cannae, accounts of the actual fighting are provided by other, later authors, such as Livy and Caesar.

Livy, although recounting events of Republican history leading up to Augustus and thus covering the same events at Polybius during certain parts of his work, provides insights in the working of a manipula legion. Polybius does describe the typical battle ready layout of maniples and the supporting alae units, though explains little as to the advantage of this outside the flexible benefit afforded, over the single line formation of phalanx soldiers. Concurring with Sabin, the triple line formation is what enabled legions to employ a range of impressive manoeuvres. It is Livy, however, who stresses a much more soldier-focused explanation and emphasis; the multiple lines enable reserves to replace and the front row of maniples and engage with what should be an ever tiring and depleting enemy. Indeed it appears this reserve force that can be called upon is a benefit of military planning and stressed by numerous ancient sources.

It is this tactic of accounting for limits of human endurance while exploiting the same of the enemy, and the introduction of such a tactic to conflicts in the ancient world that has exponentially aided in the Roman military being a topic of awe and inspiration throughout history and still is today. However, with this romanticism can also come idealism and the replenishment of front line combatants seems to have shifted, from what the sources described, to an interpretation that individuals could switch with those behind him and recover at the back while waiting for the signal for his next shift. It is an interpretation that appears to have been conceived in light of Hollywood adaptations and enthusiastic reconstructions that focus solely on displaying Roman soldiers as almost invincible- ignoring the reality these were only men who could still be pushed and shoved, and any supposed alleyway for movement could easily disappear. The physical demonstration often ignores the chaos that would have been spreading throughout the battle and instead is often static and very attractive to see, but not only does it ignore the dangers of attempting such a manoeuvre, there is no evidence (I repeat the short time frame and admit the limitations that I have been forced to adhere to).

In each battle that includes the specific movements of either maniples or cohorts, any changing of soldiers on the combat line is done by entire units and not separate ranks inter-changing amongst themselves. This is the case for Polybius, Livy, Caesar and Tacitus, as some examples. One may argue that I cam relying on Republican sources, and not focusing on the imperial period for which it is usually assumed to be of more professional soldiers. Granted, the organisation and administration of the army becomes more formal, particularly under the early Principate, but the majority of Rome’s expansion happens during the periods Livy and Polybius describe. Rome relied heavily on tradition and even during the imperial period, referred back to it roots when it came to military matters (the common notion that conscription rarely happened and segregation between citizen and non-citizen now of substantial dispute, for example). Moreover, the Polybian form of the army would have been the origin of the famous triplex ac